Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Stankeye World Series Preview
If you will, let me go on one of my obnoxious digressions. The Rays remind me a lot of the 1969 Mets. The Mets, famously, came into existence as an expansion team in 1962 and set the modern record for futility by losing 120 games. For the next eight seasons, they were the laughingstock of baseball, never winning more than 73 games and losing over 100 five times. They fell down a lot, they couldn't hit or pitch, their gnomish manager fell asleep in the dugout a lot, and for the first eight years or so their most recognizable player was Marvelous Marv Throneberry. They weren't a team, but a punchline.
Amidst all the follies, no one noticed that slowly but surely the Mets were developing a fearsome collection of pitching, a group that included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, and Nolan Ryan. Finally, in 1969, this talented core broke out, and the Mets shocked the world by winning 100 games and upsetting the much-favored Orioles in the World Series (you can bet that in the media-saturated world of today, Al Weis would have been awarded a $3 million contract by some team for his "gamerishness" after that series).
Anyway, like the Mets of '69, the Rays went from league whipping boy to league powerhouse in the blink of an eye, and they did it with a bunch of young talent that suddenly came together all at once and broke out. Like those Mets also, their success was based mostly on pitching and defense. The '69 Mets had a below average offense with only a couple of truly good hitters, but any rotation headlined by Seaver and Koosman is going to win you games. The Rays, meanwhile, were ninth in scoring but their pitching was great and their defense was spectacular, and that is where most of the 97 wins came from, LCS home run barrage notwithstanding.
So who is this year's Weis, the crappy-hitting utility player who inexplicably takes down Goliath? I'm looking at you, Bartlett. Will anyone make a jaw-dropping, game-saving catch like Ron Swoboda? Will an unproven, flame-throwing prospect come to the rescue to save a game, a la Nolan Ryan's Game 3 performance in the '69 series (I guess David Price did already save two of the biggest games in Rays history)?
What about the Phils? Will Ryan Howard duplicate Mike Schmidt's (no, not Mike Shit) 1980 postseason heroics? Can Cole Hamels dominate like Steve Carlton? Can Brad Lidge erase the bad memories of Mitch Williams? Will Matt Stairs rival Greg Luzinski in terms of sheer girth? Will I ever stop obsessing about baseball events that occurred years before I was born? Who knows, let's just get on with the preview.
1B: Carlos Pena (.247/.377/.494) v. Ryan Howard (.251/.339./543)
I know it seems like sacrilege to call anybody but Howard the best here, but just look at the facts. Howard did hit 17 more homers than Pena, and that's a lot. However, Pena crushes him in OBP, doesn't strike out as much, is a much better defensive player, and played in the best division in the better league in a tougher park on hitters. Howard has reached Frank Thomas-levels of immobility at first base and he really should be the DH in the games in Tampa. Phils phans are probably going to kill me here but I'll go with a slight Advantage: Rays.
2B: Akinori Iwamura (.274/.349/.380) v. Chase Utley (.292/.380/.535)
Aki is one of those fun little players who always seem to come up big in the postseason, then get way more credit than they deserve for their team's success (see: Bartlett, Jason). He's small, scrappy, plays great D, and he wears his socks high, so who wouldn't love him? I'm not ashamed to say that I'm a big Aki fan. Then there's Utley. No amount of dirt doggedness or quirky footwear can overcome the fact that Utley is a freaking beast, probably the best hitting second baseman in the game and a great fielder to boot. Advantage: Phils.
SS: Jason Bartlett (.286/.329/.361) v. Jimmy Rollins (.277/.349/.437)
If Rollins's 2007 MVP was dubious, then Bartlett's 2008 Team MVP award was batshit insane. Listen, Bartlett is a very good fielder with a helluva lot of range and his bat isn't as bad as people think, but honest to goodness, he's not Ozzie Smith here, people. This MVP craziness comes from what NBA analyst John Hollinger often calls the "Cult of the New Guy". When a team sees a big turnaround from one season to the next, often the media will give most (if not all) of the credit for the team's miraculous 180 to one player acquired in the offseason, even though there are myriad reasons for the team's sudden success. It happened with Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns, it happened when Kirk Gibson won a ridiculously undeserved MVP for the 1988 Dodgers, and it's happened with Bartlett. Bartlett's defensive presence was a big factor in the Rays' turnaround, but not the only factor. The amazing improvement in their bullpen and the additions of Evan Longoria and Matt Garza had more to do with the Rays' success than Bartlett.
Anyway, Rollins wants me to stop ranting and talk about him a little. He got hurt early and didn't come close to matching his awesome 2007 numbers, but he's still a dangerous bat, even if I still think he'd be better suited hitting lower in the order. Has anyone else also noticed how much Rollins has cut down on his strikeouts over the course of his career? Amazing. Rollins is twice the player Bartlett is, even if Bartlett will be the recipient of the media love-in for the next week or so. Advantage: Phils.
3B: Evan Longoria (.272/.343/.531) v. The Scourge of Paulie's Life circa 2005-2007 (.249/.302/.402)
You know, I was watching an episode of Two and a Half Men the other day, and it taught me a valuable lesson in restraint. You see, Charlie's housekeeper brought her precocious 16-year-old granddaughter (played by Megan Fox, which is all you need to know) to stay with them for a while, causing all kinds of moral crises and hilarious hijinks for the two single dudes. While this girl was mincing around with barely any clothes on, Charlie and Alan were doing word puzzles an whatnot to keep their minds off of...you know. Of course, Charlie and Alan had to exercise serious restraint, and not even look at the ridiculous hot chick tanning herself on their patio, lest they be taken away for a long, long time.
That's kind of my dilemma here. I really, really want to make a joke about Pedro Feliz. After all the shit he's taken on this blog, though, I need to lay off, especially since I didn't even have to watch him this year and he's no longer the bane of my Giants fan existence. So I'll take a page from Charlie and Alan and just show a little self-control. Get my mind on something else. Yes, let's talk about Longoria. His glove is even better than Feliz's and his bat speaks for itself, and he's got perennial All-Star written all over him. And Pedro Feliz sucks ass...ah, dammit! Advantage: Rays.
LF: Carl Crawford (.273/.319/.400) v. Pat Burrell (.250/.367./507)
Here's a study in contrasts. Crawford is a greyhound who steals a ton of bases, gets most of his extra base hits with his legs, and covers a lot of ground in the outfield. Burrell is a hulking sloth who draws walks, hits homers, and has less range in the outfield than the Phillie Phanatic with Charlie Manuel strapped to his back. Crawford had a terrible year by his standards but seems to be getting back into form this postseason. Burrell's year was another off the factory line and even with the bad defense he's still more productive than Crawford at this point. Advantage: Phils.
CF: B.J. Upton (.273/.383/.401) v. Shane Victorino (.293/.352/.447)
Victorino is dangerously close to becoming one of those players who is perennially overrated because of one hot postseason, kind of like David Eckstein, which is too bad because Victorino is a good player and I don't want to hate him. It's just that I can't actively like players whom the media fawns over because of one or two good series performances. Upton, meanwhile, is a great player who saw his power completely disappear this season, only to resurface once October rolled around. If it stays for 2009 he's an MVP candidate, for sure. Advantage: Rays
RF: Rocco Baldelli (.263/.344/.475) v. Jayson Werth (.273/.363/.498)
Gabe Gross was so effing bad in the ALCS that I'm kind of thinking Joe Maddon will go with Baldelli even against the Phils' right-handed starters. They'd certainly be better served by it. Werth has always been underrated and he bears a strong facial resemblance to Stewart Copeland. Anybody who looks like a guy who can play drums like this gets extra points in my book. Advantage: Phils.
C: Dioner Navarro (.295/.349/.407) v. Carlos Ruiz (.219/.320/.300)
Navarro is a guy who will live and die by the batting average, kind of like A.J. Pierzynski. Once the bat speed goes one day, it'll all come crashing down and you've got, well, Carlos Ruiz. Yeah...Advantage: Rays.
DH/Bench: The Rays are the odd AL team that won't be hurt much by playing in the NL parks because their DHs just aren't that good. Cliff Floyd is okay, but he's past his prime and wouldn't play in four of the seven games, anyway and I doubt they'll miss his bat much. Meanwhile, the Phillies don't have any appetizing DH options at all. Greg Dobbs is probably going to spot Feliz at third base in a few games and you don't want Feliz DHing (like in this game...just kill me). Geoff Jenkins is terrible. Matt Stairs can still hit a fastball (as Jonathan Broxton can surely tell you), but he's not the masher he once was. Chris Coste might be the best option, and that tells you all you need to know about the Phillie bench. Usually the DH shenanigans present a huge advantage for NL teams in the World Series, but not this time.
I have to say, I love the Rays' bench. They have three or four players like Ben Zobrist and Willie Aybar who can hit in the right matchups and play several different positions. Take Zobrist. He's probably exposed as an everyday player, but he can play seven positions, he's got power (.505 slugging percentage), and he hits lefties. That gives a manager a lot of flexibility. Aybar is the same thing, only with less pop and a better glove*. If the Rays have their druthers about them, they'll get Eric Hinske's bat on the World Series roster, dump Fernando Perez, and use Gross as their defensive replacement. Advantage: Rays
*I'm shocked, shocked, that the media hasn't jumped on Aybar's recent rough past like a bunch of starving jackals. Aybar was once a pretty decent prospect with the Dodgers and Braves but who succumbed to alcohol addiction and pretty much lost all of 2007. He cleaned himself up, earned himself a key role on a World Series team, and now has a chance to be a big factor in getting a Series ring. This is a great story, and I can't believe that we haven't gotten one of those sappy feel-good inserts about it during at least one game. I guess there's still time.
Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49) v. Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09)
James Shields (14-8, 3.56) v. Brett Myers (10-13, 4.55)
Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70) v. Jamie Moyer (16-7, 3.71)
Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38) v. Joe Blanton (9-12, 4.69)
This isn't even close. Even I had questioned the Rays' staff a bit going into the series with the Sox, but, no, these guys are awesome. They throw strikes, they don't beat themselves, and they let the great defense behind them gobble up anything in play. Only Kazmir has command issues at times, but he tends to overcome that by throwing pure filth. Sonnanstine has fly ball tendencies, which could hurt in Philly, but overall this is the major strength for the Rays in this series.
The Phils have Hamels, who is the best pitcher in the series, but behind him there are some questions. No one is sure which Myers will show up at any given time. Will it be the awesome pitcher from the Dodger series or the erratic wife-beater? Moyer has also looked horrible this postseason and it remains to be seen whether or not his slow crap can fool good lineups in the playoffs. I have no confidence in Blanton at all. Hamels gives the Phils the edge in two games, but otherwise this is a big advantage for Tampa. Any chance Charlie Manuel bites the bullet and starts Hamels in Games 1, 4, and 7? Advantage: Rays.
Both teams have very strong pens, but Brad Lidge is the lights-out closer the Rays don't have. With Tampa, there's no clear candidate to turn to when the going gets tough (as we saw in Game 5 of the ALCS) and that could be an issue. I know that closers are overrated and all that, but in a close playoff series I think it's an asset to have an unhittable guy to turn to in crunch time. I love Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, and Dan Wheeler, but they don't fit that description for me. When shit starts to hit the fan for the Phillies, they can turn to Lidge and not have to worry. That alone means Advantage: Phils.
Well, that was certainly long-winded. Will you just tell us who is going to win?
Why not? The Rays, again, were the best team in the best division in the AL. Their pitching staff is one of the best and their team defense is superlative. Their offense isn't great but, as they showed in the Boston series, they can bust some heads if need be. The Phils have a super top of the lineup, but it has some serious holes near the bottom and I don't believe that their pitchers (behind Hamels) can get AL hitters out. I like the Phils and they're the best NL rep since the 2004 Cardinals, but I'm going to have to go Rays in six.