Here we stand, on the date of October 10, two days before the first pitch of the 2007 American League Championship Series.
Here we stood, on the date of March 31, two days before the first pitch of the 2007 baseball season.
On March 31, we had no way of knowing I’d be typing the first sentence of this article. The beauty of following a baseball team religiously and unabashedly is the unpredictability day in and day out. We have two teams, one that was outscored this season and one who has succeeded in 17 of 18 contests almost in a fairy tale, battling it out for a trip to the Promised Land in the National League. On the flip side of the coin, the two best teams in baseball are going after the American League prize.
Some may have predicted the Red Sox will reach this point. Some may have predicted the turnaround of Josh Beckett from dud to ace, the resurgence of Mike Lowell’s bat, the bullpen finding itself and emerging as a definite strength….but no single fan knows for sure. Anyone who said the Rockies and Diamondbacks would meet in the NLCS was either making a joke or picking out of a hat.
I remember where I was on Opening Day. Sitting on my couch watching our veteran ace Curt Schilling get pounded around the ballpark by the laughing stock KC Royals. Honestly, the painful day does not seem all that long ago.
While the other twelve teams in the American League eyeing similar goals on that first day, whether it be as a prayer (Tampa) or as a realistic expectation (New York) are making winter plans, our beloved baseball club, the Boston Red Sox, are gearing up for another ALCS. Remember how excruciatingly nerve-wracking each pitch of the 2003 and 2004 ALCS were against New York? Remember pacing, fainting, vomiting with each big moment, as each hour spent slaving over your favorite team had the chance to slip away until the spring arrives?
The New York-Boston flavor is missing this time around, but I’m not hesitant in suggesting this year’s merry-go-round could top them all. The Indians and Red Sox finished the season tied with the best record in a superior league. While most diehards around the nation are either focused on their football team, tracking free agents or mercifully counting down the days until opening day, our team is still playing baseball.
Cherish it, folks. We’re playing for the American League pennant.
The Indians travel to Boston Friday night for Game 1 of the ALCS. The contest, weather permitting, will feature the top two Cy Young contenders, C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett. Friday night. Primetime. Cy Young contenders. American League Championship Series. As I said before, cherish it.
For a position-to-position breakdown of the series, please continue…
Victor Martinez– .301/.374/.505, 25 HR, 114 RBI, 133 OPS+, 0.82 BB/K, 32% CS
Jason Varitek– 131 G, .255/.367/.421, 17 HR, 68 RBI, 106 OPS+, 0.58 BB/K, 24% CS
The first category is a blowout offensively for the wrong side. In the past, Jason Varitek would hold an advantage in the defensive category, but now you cannot definitively say that’s true. Martinez has improved mightily in throwing out runners while Varitek is reliable more in terms of blocking the plate and managing the game (for example, Martinez’ throw to third base early in Game 3 of the Yankees series). Still, any weakness is trumped by Martinez having a career season at the plate. He’s set a career high in HR and SLG, earning a second All-Star appearance. While Martinez’s bat has been hot all year, Varitek strikes out far too often and most of his power potential is zapped due to the 400 pound bat he carries around. The postseason experience and overall preparedness, especially in these key games, cannot go unnoticed, making the advantage not a completely one-sided deal.
Ryan Garko– .289/.359/.483, 21 HR, 61 RBI, 123 OPS+, 0.36 BB/K, 8 E, 9.66 RF, .823 ZR
Kevin Youkilis– .288/.390/.453, 16 HR, 83 RBI, 120 OPS+, 0.73 BB/K, 0 E, 8.89 RF, .858 ZR
This is a close call. Garko provides more of a power threat, but Youkilis is more prone to taking walks and has an astounding zero errors at first base all season. As you can see, their batting average and OPS+ are almost identical, with Garko holding a slight edge in the power department. Youkilis might be held back by a nagging wrist injury he claims is not bothering him. Also keep in mind that if Paul Byrd pitches Game 4, Kelly Shoppach will start behind the plate with Victor Martinez at first, relegating Garko to the bench. I would give the slight edge to Youkilis due to facial hair, but that’s deemed unfair. Almost like swing states on election night, this is too close to call.
Asdrubal Cabrera– .283/.354/.421, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 107 OPS+, 0.59 BB/K, 1 E, 5.30 RF, .847 ZR
Dustin Pedroia– .317/.380/.442, 8 HR, 50 RBI, 115 OPS+, 1.12 BB/K, 6 E, 4.88 RF, .833 ZR
The rookie Cabrera has replaced the incompetent Josh Barfield later in the 2007 campaign and held the fort down quite well. He’s a speedy player who can lay down the occasional bunt, provides speed, and plays reliable defense. I can’t say I have much experience seeing the kid play, admittedly. Dustin Pedroia I have seen play quite often. He’s trying to bust out of a small slump (hopefully the triple in Game 3 ends it) but Pedroia has been all we could asked for in his rookie year. Dustin broke the rookie hitting record for AL second basemen and provides decent pop for a short guy. He holds a keen eye at the plate and rarely strikes out. He’s a valuable commodity at the top of the Sox order.
EDGE: Red Sox
Jhonny Peralta– .270/.341/.430, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 105 OPS+, 0.42 BB/K, 19 E, 4.68 RF, .793 ZR
Julio Lugo– .237/.294/.349, 8 HR, 73 RBI, 68 OPS+, 0.59 BB/K, 19 E, 4.21 RF, .822 ZR
Luckily for Peralta, his one area of true disbelief is (attempting to) playing shortstop, the same area his counterpart Julio Lugo cannot seem to grasp. While both will cause heart attacks throwing the baseball, at least one holds some weight with the stick. Peralta had a Lugo-type season in 2006 but rebounded with another 20 HR campaign in 2007. Will his .886 OPS year in 2005 ever be topped? Possibly, the kid is only 25. It would be awfully hard to lose this match-up for Peralta. Lugo has been an enormous bust in the constant question mark settling at the shortstop position at Fenway Park. Could he be a dark horse candidate to play Hero in the playoffs?
Casey Blake– .270/.339/.437, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 106 OPS+, 0.44 BB/K, 14 E, 2.66 RF, .737 ZR
Mike Lowell– .324/.378/.501, 21 HR, 120 RBI, 128 OPS+, 0.75 BB/K, 15 E, 2.51 RF, .778 ZR
Casey Blake is well below average offensively and defensively. He’s a very unspectacular player other than providing a few heroics along the way. Meanwhile, Mike Lowell is having a career season in a walk year, trumping Blake in every category. He’s much more prone to take a walk in a big spot or sneak up on the Indians bullpen and provide a clutch base knock after getting through Ortiz and Ramirez.
BIG EDGE: Red Sox
Kenny Lofton– .296/.367/.414, 7 HR, 38 RBI, 105 OPS+, 1.07 BB/K, 3 E, 2.52 RF, .864 ZR
Manny Ramirez– .296/.388/.493, 20 HR, 88 RBI, 129 OPS+, 0.77 BB/K, 2 E, 1.72 RF, .713 ZR
Talk about a contrast of styles. Lofton has been the best deadline acquisition for any club this year (looking at you Gagne) and the move by Shapiro paid off in a big way in the Division Series. He probably enjoyed sticking it to the Yankees after their shaky breakup. Manny saw a power struggle of sorts after getting off to one of his lackluster starts and missing a good chunk of time with an oblique injury. The ageless wonder for Cleveland has had a resurgence year, but Manny is just getting going at the right time. He’s hit two mammoth shots in the division series and is distinguishing himself as a force in the cleanup spot. Both are awful on defense, but Manny’s atrociousness is on another level.
BIG EDGE: Red Sox
Grady Sizemore– .277/.390/.462, 24 HR, 78 RBI, 127 OPS+, 0.65 BB/K, 2 E, 2.58 RF, .916 ZR
Coco Crisp– .268/.330/.382, 6 HR, 60 RBI, 86 OPS+, 0.60 BB/K, 1 E, 3.07 RF, .911 ZR
Defense is where the argument begins. Offense is where the argument ends. Both players flash the leather with the best of all time, arguably the top two outfielders in the game today in terms of range. While most people will claim Sizemore’s breakout potential was a bit exaggerated coming into 2007 with the results now finalized, he still had a great year for a leadoff hitter. The fact he led the Tribe in strikeouts is concerning, but he also drew 101 walks. A .390 clip for your leadoff hitter with speed is irreplaceable. Theo and the boys were expecting more from Crisp when they dealt Marte and Shoppach in terms of the bat, but nobody ever expecting him to take over CF in this fashion. It’s not enough to make me reconsider the Tribe hold a clear advantage at this position.
BIG EDGE: Indians
Franklin Gutierrez– .266/.318/.472, 13 HR, 36 RBI, 108 OPS+, 0.27 BB/K, 1 E, 2.16 RF, .971 ZR
J.D. Drew– .270/.373/.423, 11 HR, 64 RBI, 108 OPS+, 0.79 BB/K, 5 E, 1.82 RF, .846 ZR
This one is tricky. Gutierrez is going to be a fine player in this league if he can take a walk once in a while. Who better to teach the young outfielder than J.D. Drew. Both finished with identical OPS+ but the OBP title goes to Drew while SLG is obviously Gutierrez, as he has two more HR in much less PA. The fact Drew had such a remarkable September and might turn the corner while the temperature drops gives me a glimmer of hope.
Travis Hafner– .266/.385/.451, 24 HR, 100 RBI, 123 OPS+, 0.89 BB/K, 22.7 AB/HR, 51 XBH
David Ortiz– .332/.445/.621, 35 HR, 117 RBI, 176 OPS+, 1.08 BB/K, 15.7 AB/HR, 88 XBH
This year has been a mysterious one for Travis Hafner. This time last year I was touting him as the true league MVP regardless of the Indians lackluster record. Twelve months later, his OPS has dropped from 1.098 to .836, his HR from 42 to 24, and my best guess is Pronk hiding a nagging injury. Without looking at the big picture, most would say David Ortiz declined (I’m talking HR and RBI). I’ll argue Ortiz put up his best numbers in 07: career high in OBP, OPS, BA, RC/27, BB/K and 2B. Plus, it’s October, folks, and this is when the cobra strikes. His name is David Ortiz.
BIG EDGE: Red Sox
Boston holds in their deck of cards the biggest ace of either bench in Jacoby Ellsbury. Not only does he eliminate the liability in left field named Manny, but he can fill the Dave Roberts Pinch Running Role and swipe a huge bag late in the game. In fact, I guarantee this will happen. The Sox backup catcher is Doug Mirabelli who will catch Tim Wakefield should be pitch Game 4 or 5 of the series. We can hope the Indians pitcher is dumb enough to walk Dougie just once. The Sox could opt to us Bobby Kielty in Game 1 over J.D. Drew, who struggles vs. lefties, while Kielty boasts outstanding career numbers vs. CC Sabathia. We’ll see if Tito is bold enough to make that switch. Alex Cora won’t likely see action in the series. If he does, I’m going to murder someone. Same goes for Hinske.
The Indians bench is unspectacular. Their backup infielders are light hitting Luis Rivas and Josh Barfield, who needs to get away from baseball for a few years. Jason Michaels is a below average fourth outfielder and won’t see any defensive replacement innings. Trot Nixon could get the nod in one of the games due to the lack of LHP on the Sox rotation. Too bad his bat is completely dead. Former Sox great Kelly Shoppach is their backup catcher and provides some pop out of that position if he sees action in a Paul Byrd start.
Both benches are pretty gruesome, quite frankly.
SLIGHT EDGE: Red Sox
Back tomorrow with rotation/bullpen/managers and more…