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Breaking down the AL playoffs

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 7, 2009 09:37 AM

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The Tigers are out. The Twins are in. And now, finally, the American League playoffs are set to begin.

While Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels will go through final preparations today on the West Coast, the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins will kick off the 2009 AL postseason tonight in New York. The Yankees seem the obvious favorite to go to the World Series. New York won 103 games during the regular season and went a preposterous 65-27 in its final 92 games, suggesting that the Yankees are absolutely, positively, indisputably the team to beat.

Or are they?

As was the case just before the start of the season, when we ranked the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays in four key areas, so it is now with the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, and Twins entering the playoffs. But in this case, unlike an AL East race that produced two playoffs team, only one club can advance to the World Series.

The breakdown:

OFFENSE
During the regular season, the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, and Twins finished -- in that order -- first, second, third, and fourth in the league in runs scored. Interesting, eh? And for as much concern as there was for the Red Sox offense in the middle of the season, the Sox actually ranked first in runs after Aug. 15.

Still, nobody should be under any illusion here. Top to bottom, the Yankees have the best lineup in the postseason. The Red Sox and Angels are quite comparable -- the Angels possessing a little more speed, the Red Sox possessing a little more power. The Twins have arguably the best hitter in the league in catcher Joe Mauer, but the absence of injured first baseman Justin Morneau leaves a sizable hole in the middle of the batting order.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: Though the Yankees are stacked with lefthanded hitters, the Red Sox actually were the highest-scoring team at home in the AL this year. New York ranked second. Still, the Yankees have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, meaning that postseason opponents would be well-served to throw left-handed pitching at the new Yankee Stadium. In Game 1, the Twins will throw young lefty Brian Duensing, who has not allowed a homer to a lefty this year, albeit in a mere 82 at-bats.

Rankings: Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Twins.

DEFENSE
Here’s one thing you can almost always take to the bank, with or without a salary cap, no matter what direction the game goes in: the Twins will be fundamentally sound. This season, Minnesota tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for the fewest errors in the league. Of course, the Red Sox (third fewest), Angels (fourth) and Yankees (fifth), rounded out the top five.

For what it’s worth, the Angels, Yankees, and Red Sox all have apparent strengths and weaknesses. The Angels are strongest on the left side of the infield, weaker on the right, weak at the outfield corners; they are also far better with Jeff Mathis behind the plate. The Red Sox allowed more base stealers than any team in baseball, but ranked first in the majors in fielding percentage after Aug. 15. (Thank you, Alex Gonzalez.) The Yankees are also weak at the outfield corners and can be vulnerable with Jorge Posada behind the plate, but their defense on the right side of the infield had improved tremendously with Mark Teixeira at first base.

As for the Twins, the absence of Morneau hurts them some here, too, but they have good range and speed all around -- and Mauer is the most complete catcher in baseball.

Rankings: Twins, Angels, Red Sox, Yankees.

STARTING PITCHING
Here are the regular season rankings: Angels (4.44 ERA, fourth), Yankees (4.48, fifth), Red Sox 4.63, eighth) and Twins (4.84, 12th). Now you can throw them out the window because they mean less than any other of the areas in which these clubs currently are being rated.

For example: Since Sept. 1, Angels starters have a 2.83 ERA that generally coincides with the resurgence of John Lackey and the addition of Scott Kazmir. In the first round, at least, the Yankees will be operating without Joba Chamberlain, who had a 7.80 ERA in his final 11 starts. Take away John Smoltz, Brady Penny and the early-season Daisuke Matsuzaka -- none of whom will be pitching in the playoffs -- and the ERA of Red Sox starters this season drops to 4.10.

Ultimately, only the Twins have real questions here because Minnesota does not have the front-end pitching to match up with any of the other three teams in the postseason. Against the Yankees lineup, in particular, the Twins will have their hands full in the first round.

Rankings: Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Twins.

RELIEF PITCHING
In the playoffs, especially, the bullpens make all the difference in the world. The more power arms the better. On paper, nobody seems to match up with the Red Sox in this area, but don’t take anything for granted. The margin may not be as great as many would like to believe.

During the regular season, the Red Sox, Twins, Yankees and Angels ranked a respective second, fourth, fifth and 11th in the league in relief ERA. New York relievers (and not those of the Red Sox) ranked first in strikeouts per nine innings. The Red Sox added Billy Wagner in the second half and look positively dominating on paper, but Wagner has a suspect postseason history and right-handed phenom Daniel Bard has allowed 13 runs (a 6.50 ERA), 12 walks and five home runs in 18 innings covering his last 22 outings.

At the very least, the Red Sox are better than the Angels, who have easily the worst closer (Brian Fuentes) in an elite postseason group that includes Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Joe Nathan (Twins) and Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox). The Twins have an unheralded set-up crew that includes lefthander Jose Mijares, and righthander Matt Guerrier. The emergence of Phil Hughes has given the Yankees and elite set-up man.

The bottom line? The Red Sox, Twins and Yankees can close out games, meaning that the team with the lead through six innings will have an advantage.

Rankings: Red Sox, Twins, Yankees, Angels (but the first three are close).

PREDICTION
The first-round pairings are obvious: Yankees vs. Twins, Red Sox vs. Angels. As inspiring a story as the Twins have been of late, they went 0-7 against New York this year and look badly overmatched. New York seemingly has too much power and balance for Minnesota, particularly in the first six innings of the game, when the Yankees should be able to do damage.

The Yankees should win that series in no more than four games. That will earn them the right to face … whom?

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the Red Sox’ playoff history against the Angels this decade. Last year, entering the ninth inning, the scores of the four games between the clubs were 2-1, 5-5, 4-4 and 2-2. The Red Sox won Games 1, 2 and 4 to advance. The Angels obviously play in an inferior division, but these are two very evenly-matched teams, save for the bullpens.

If the Red Sox forfeit that advantage through poor pitching from their relief corps, the Angels will win this series. Overall, the Red Sox are the slightly better club, which why we’re picking them in five games.

Should that script play out, we all know what that means: a Boston-New York matchup in the AL Championship Series for the third time in seven years, first since 2004.

And as for a prediction on that one, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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