With three games left in baseball’s 2010 regular season there is very little left to be decided. In the National League, the Phillies and Reds have claimed their respective division crowns and the Giants are on the brink of clinching the NL West. This leaves one spot left for the Padres and the Braves. In the American League the four playoff teams have been decided for quite some time, and the only question is which AL East team will win the division and which one will take the Wild Card. Given that and the relative dearth of drama in late regular season games, the main concern for most fans is how a team stacks up in relation to potential postseason competitors. Yankee fans have had a lot of time on their hands to worry about different parts of the team: Nick Swisher’s leg, David Robertson’s back, Mariano Rivera’s struggles, the bullpen’s workload, Phil Hughes’ innings cap, Sabathia’s rest pattern, Andy Pettitte’s upper back, Mark Teixeira’s toe and the way that Girardi manages his bench and his bullpen. Like a couple cooped up in the house because of bad weather for days on end, Yankee fans have gotten ornery and critical, both of each other and the organization. Since familiarity often breeds contempt, and since it’s natural to assume that other teams don’t have issues like your team has issues, it’s helpful to check on the Yankees’ American League competitors and see how things are looking on the other side of the fence.
The Minnesota Twins have been one of the best teams in baseball this season. In fact, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs penned a rather loving piece about the Twins, saying that the Twins are the best team in baseball. While I do think that he overstates the importance of guys like Hudson, Hardy, Span, Casilla and Punto (seriously, Punto?), he does make a good argument that the rotation has a lot of depth and is backed by a solid bullpen. And yet, Minnesota’s rotation has struggled mightily in the past few weeks, creating a downward spiral the likes of which would cause widespread hysteria amongst Yankee fans. As Nick’s Twins Blog puts it in his piece entitled “What, Me Worry? Maybe a Little“, there are more than a few troubling signs:
After being blown out by the homer-happy Blue Jays last night 13-2, the Twins have now dropped six of their last seven games, being outscored 61-27 in the process. They were rather thoroughly pummeled throughout a road trip that brought them through Detroit and Kansas City, and then returned home to open their final series of the season by surrendering six home runs in a stadium where they — as a team — have gone deep only 50 times in 78 games this year…
Francisco Liriano, looking to rebound from an outing shortened by illness and sharpen up in his final tune-up start, surrendered three home runs — half of his previous season total — in 5 1/3 innings. Since seeing his ERA dip to 3.24 after hurling seven two-run frames against the Royals, he’s gone 1-3 with a 6.98 ERA. Five of the nine home runs he’s allowed this season have come during that span. After last night’s start, he’s thrown more than 190 innings this season, and that’s not counting the 50 or so innings he tossed in winter ball prior to spring training…
The same Pavano who was knocked around for seven runs on 11 hits over four innings in Detroit last weekend. Another guy with a history of arm problems, Pavano is at 214 innings this year entering tonight’s start. He’s given up 19 hits over nine innings in his last two turns…
But this isn’t just a slump. This team is getting throttled, with several of their worst losses of the season bunched up closely. And while that’s partially attributable to the inferior players they’re trotting out, one can’t exactly take solace in the way the regulars have been performing when given a chance. The Twins have a grand total of three regular-season games remaining. I’m going to be grasping desperately for positive signs, because — regardless of what the historical data says — there’s just no way I’m going to feel very confident heading into the playoffs with almost the entire team playing like absolute trash.
Add to this the fact that Justin Morneau has been ruled out for the American League Division Series and is questionable for the American League Championship Series and you have a team with questions. Were the Twins constructed well going into 2010? Absolutely. Will all their cylinders fire at the right time and in harmony to enable them to knock off teams with more potent offenses? Obviously we don’t know that yet. It’s possible that Liriano and Pavano could right themselves in time for the ALDS, but the two of them have as many big question marks around them as any 1-2 punch in baseball, and I say this as someone who predicted the Twins to win the AL Central.
Meanwhile in Texas there are serious question marks as well. Most fans are familiar with the saga of Josh Hamilton’s rib injury this year, and he looks to finally return to the field this evening. What is not known, though, is how he will hold up playing the field, running the bases, and swinging at 100%. Boston fans are well aware of the risk of recurrence or reinjury with rib issues, and it appears that the Rangers will still be very cautious with him, having him play the field for 6 innings tonight and then get pulled from the game, DH on Saturday and then play the field on Sunday. On the pitching side, Aaron Gleeman noted this morning that the Rangers are going with a four-man rotation in the ALDS, choosing not to push Cliff Lee out there in Game 4 on short rest. For the Rangers’ ALDS opponent, this is very good news. Instead of Lee, the Rangers will start Tommy Hunter in Game 4. By way of reference, Hunter has a FIP of 4.99 and an xFIP of 4.72, comparable to AJ Burnett’s marks of 4.81 and 4.65.
Finally, we have the Tampa Bay Rays, who have dropped four of five to Baltimore and Kansas City, getting shut out by Kevin Millwood and Brian Matusz. Leaving aside the team’s recent slump, there are questions about the rotation after David Price, which you can see outlined here on DRaysBay. One example is the ostensible Game 2 starter James Shields, who has a September ERA of 7.00 and an OPS-against of 0.895. On the offensive side, Evan Longoria hasn’t played since the series in New York on September 23 due to an injury to his left quadriceps. While there had been some speculation that his return was imminent, this report from Tampa Bay Online suggests that he may be out for this weekend’s series against Kansas City.
The Twins, Rangers and Rays are all very good teams. Each one of them is capable of getting hot and riding the wave to the World Series. But each one of them has unique questions heading into the the playoffs this season. Fortunately, the team with the least amount of questions – the Rays – wouldn’t face the Yankees until the ALCS. No matter what happens this weekend, whether the team sweeps Boston and wins the division or looks flat and drops the series, the Yankees will face an ALDS opponent with just as many question marks, if not more.