The Yankees go into Tampa Bay for a 3 game set with the Rays this week with the AL East lead on the line. With both teams comfortably ahead of the next best wild card contender, the results of this series and the AL East race are only relevant in terms of determining playoff matchups and homefield advantage. The winner of the division will almost certainly play the Texas Rangers and will have home field throughout the playoffs, while the wild card team will play the Twins and will have to go on the road to start each series. Let’s take a quick look at the rosters of both teams to see which club makes for a better matchup. This is not intended to be an in-depth statistical analysis of the two clubs, but a cursory look to try and get a feel for whether there is an obvious difference in quality between them.
Minnesota and Texas are neck and neck in terms of runs per game (4.84 to 4.85 respectively), but the excellent run environment in Texas inflates the Rangers’ totals. By OPS+, Minnesota is tied with Boston for 3rd in the AL at 108 (.336 wOBA), while Texas is in a tie for 5th at 102 (.333 wOBA). The Twins are average or better at every position but shortstop and center field, and even those two players (JJ Hardy and Denard Span) are far from automatic outs. It is a deep lineup that performs fairly well against both righties and lefties. However, there is one major question mark about their offense, and that is the health of Justin Morneau. He has been out since July with a concussion, and there are no guarantees that he returns for the postseason. If he does not, that lineup becomes much easier to navigate.
Texas is not as deep, with below average hitters at short, in center, and behind the dish. Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz are the big boppers in that lineup, and Vladimir Guerrero seems to be recovering after a poor couple of months derailed his strong start. Much like Minnesota, Texas has to deal with a major injury concern, with Hamilton being banged up and currently unavailable. However, his prognosis seems to be better than Morneau’s, and he is likely to be back for the postseason.
Advantage: If Morneau is healthy, Twins. If not, slight edge to Texas.
Pitching and Defense:
Advanced metrics prefer the Twins defensively, with +/- showing a 42 to 13 edge and UZR giving Minnesota a 26.5 to 15.3 advantage. In terms of pitching, I thought it would be instructive to look at the top 3 starters and the bullpens of each team, as those are the guys the Yankees are likely to see.
I had difficulty finding proper splits for relief pitching, but by a pure runs per game measure, the Twins bullpen has been second in the AL at 3.97 while Texas comes in at 4.27. However, because this does not correct for environment, that gap is likely to narrow considerably when the Ballpark in Arlington is factored in. Texas has the better closer in Pedro Feliz and a number of hard throwers, but the Minnesota bullpen is deeper and is more balanced in terms of pitcher handedness.
The top 2 in Minnesota has been fantastic, with both Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano (ugh) putting forth strong years. Liriano should be getting more Cy Young buzz than he has been getting, while Pavano has already pitched 205 innings (ugh) and has an ERA at 3.48. However, after the top two Minnesota has issues. Scott Baker is likely to get the third spot if healthy, but he has elbow issues and could very well lose his spot to Kevin Slowey. Slowey has struggled for a while but is having a decent season overall, while other options such as Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing have been fairly inconsistent.
The situation in Texas is rosier, assuming Cliff Lee is healthy again. Lee and CJ Wilson form a formidable top 2 that likely surpasses the one in Minnesota, and Colby Lewis provides a solid third starter who is superior to any of the options that the Twins have for that spot. Tommy Hunter has gotten very lucky thus far, but he is not an atrocious option for a fourth slot should Texas choose to go with 4 starters.
Advantage: I give the edge on defense and in the bullpen to Minnesota, while the rotation is a clear win for Texas.
Overall, I think these teams are close enough that the health of Justin Morneau is likely to be the deciding factor between the two clubs. Assuming that he is out, I would give the edge to Texas based on the strength of their rotation. As such, winning the division would give the Yankees home field but would force them to face the slightly superior opponent. I find that an evaluation of all of these factors makes the identity of the AL East title to be largely irrelevant. If Joe Girardi decided to prioritize keeping his players fresh for the postseason rather than focus all his resources on winning the division, I would not be greatly disappointed.