**Editor’s note: this column was written before the AL Wildcard game Wednesday night.
What a game in Pittsburgh Tuesday! I was there, and I’ll always cherish that night. The Indians and Rays will have a tough act to follow tonight in Cleveland, but it’s also a very intriguing matchup and should be a great game.
As we did in the NL, I will rank the teams based on offense, starting pitching/defense, and bullpen, and then rank each team’s World Series chances.
NOTES: The Rays are clearly the worst offense of the bunch – they scored the least runs, they have no team speed, and most of their offensive value centers on Longoria, Zobrist, Myers, and Loney. The bottom of their lineup is not very good.
The Indians are a middling offensive club – they are the only AL team lacking a truly GREAT hitter (although Kipnis and Santana are extremely underrated for their positions), but they make up for that with impressive depth. Ten players hit 10 or more homers for the Tribe this season.
Oakland is actually almost on par with Detroit offensively when you account for their pitcher-friendly ballpark – the A’s stats do not appear impressive at first glance, but they hit somewhat better on the road while the Tigers hit SIGNIFICANTLY worse away from Comerica park. The teams had nearly identical road hitting stats, but I give the edge to the Tigers…they have a weapon no other playoff team can match in Miguel Cabrera. In addition, the Tigers had FIVE regulars hit over .300 for the season, and that does not include Price Fielder, who can still mash. The A’s have a lot of power – four players with 20+ homers – but as long as Cabrera is healthy, the Tigers have the better offense.
Boston, however, is in a class by themselves. The Sox scored 853 runs – No other team in the majors scored even 800! Yes, the Sox also play in a hitter-friendly park, but their home/road splits are not that large – this team can flat-out hit anywhere. They didn’t overwhelm with the longball, but they hit 362 doubles – 61 more than second-place Oakland. Eight of their regulars hit over .253 and seven hit 29+ doubles. They have speed in Ellsbury (52 steals), and virtually every hitter has a sharp batting eye (only the Rays drew more walks).
2 Tampa Bay
NOTES: I will admit I haven’t followed the AL as closely this season…but when researching the numbers, I was SHOCKED at how ordinary Oakland’s pitching looks when you adjust for their home park. Making matters worse, the only pitcher on their staff to throw 200 innings (AJ Griffin) is out for the ALDS with elbow soreness. They have to face Boston, in Fenway, relying on a 40-year-old (Colon) and a 23-year-old rookie (Sonny Gray). Strange things can and often do happen in the playoffs, but this strikes me as a serious hill for Oakland to climb.
Lost in Boston’s offensive onslaught this season was the dramatic turnaround by the pitching staff – they allowed 150 less runs in 2013 than in 2012. Ranking them fourth is more of a nod to how good the top three are than any negative comment about the Sox – these teams are so close, the advantages are really at the margins and I am not a huge fan of Boston’s defense. Their rotation of Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, and Peavy is laden with talent but every one of those hurlers has question marks.
Cleveland would have ranked lower, but the emergence of phenom Danny Salazar bumps them up on this list. The team thinks so highly of Salazar that they are starting him in the winner-take-all wildcard game. Cleveland also has revived the careers of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, and Justin Masterson had a fine 2013 as well.
Tampa Bay lives and dies by their defense and pitching, and both served them well in 2013. They boast three ace-level starters in Cobb, Price, and Moore, and Chris Archer is a fine fourth starter. The Rays get the nod over the Sox and Indians in part because their defense is excellent season after season as well.
Detroit has the deepest starting staff in the game, bar none. Max Scherzer is going to win the Cy Young, Anibal Sanchez led the league in ERA, and Doug Fister is a proven commodity who would be many teams’ ace or #2 starter. Anytime Justin Verlander is your #3 starter (and I’ll allow that he had an off year by his lofty standards), your rotation is impressive. Detroit is not a great defensive club, but the acquisition for defensive wizard Julio Iglesias at SS REALLY made a difference in the field, and Cabrera has been better than expected (i.e. mediocre rather than terrible) since moving back to third base.
2 Tampa Bay
NOTES: If the Tigers falter this month, it’s a good bet that their bullpen will be a primary culprit – it’s been their Achilles heel all season. Jim Leyland can count on closer Joaquin Benoit and set-up man Drew Smyly – after that it gets dicey at best. Al Albuquerque throws gas – he struck out 70 in only 49 innings – but he’s unacceptably wild (34 walks) and there’s no one else in the ‘pen who has demonstrated consistent success. As a result, look for Leyland to give his starters plenty of slack to work out of jams until the 8th inning.
The Red Sox are not in much better shape than the Tigers – two of their best relievers are gone for the season, leaving them with only three that have been consistently effective. Of those three, one has allowed more hits than innings pitched and one has only 33 strikeouts in 59 innings – not exactly indications of dominance. If the starters get in trouble, opponents could feast on the Sox’ middle relief.
Cleveland also has bullpen issues (interesting how much better the NL bullpens are than most of these AL ‘pens) –their closer got TORCHED the last two months and was removed from the closer’s role in the midst of the Indians’ 10-game winning streak. What separates the Tribe from the Sox and Tigers is the number of viable alternatives they can choose from – their lone lefty reliever, Mark Rzepczynski, has been excellent since joining the team, and Joe Smith, Cody Allen, and Brian Shaw all have excellent numbers out of the bullpen. Look for manager Terry Francona to play the ‘hot hand’ for as long as Cleveland remains in the postseason.
The Rays and A’s have VERY similar bullpens. Both offer depth, consistency, and matchup options. If you prefer control, the A’s are your pick – if you prefer strikeouts, the Rays get the nod. I think strikeout pitching plays up in the postseason, but I’m going with the A’s by the slimmest of margins. Oakland has SEVEN effective relievers to call upon, including two very good southpaws, which allows them to play matchups as early as the sixth inning. The Rays have five dependable relievers, each with excellent strikeout rates, that Joe Maddon can summon. Close call, but I’ll take the A’s depth.
World Series Chances
5 Tampa Bay
NOTES: As in the NL, I am putting the two wild-card teams at the bottom because the outcome of that game is so unpredictable. In the Rays’ case, if they win their reward is a trip to Fenway, with their top two starters spent…that’s a tall task. I actually believe Cleveland is going to pull this game out, but we will all know the outcome by the time you’re reading this…
Oakland has a nice team – and I’m rooting for them to upset the Tigers – but Boston and Detroit were the best in the AL by far this year. Both outscored their opponents by over 170 runs – and while (again) anything is possible in a short series, I like these teams’ chances to face off in what could be an epic ALCS. I see no reason to believe that Boston will go quietly, but I can’t bet against Detroit’s rotation – I think the Tigers will prevail in the AL.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com or at https://www.facebook.com/david.s.glass.3