ALDS Preview: Rangers vs. Rays

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Here at HardballTalk we pride ourselves on writing dozens of posts a
day obsessing on every single little thing possible. We’re told,
however, that some of you have lives and thus not all of you are able to
read dozens of posts a day obsessing on every single little thing
possible.  That’s a shame, but for that reason, we’ve put together a few
previews covering the broad strokes of each of the four Division Series
matchups, which will pop up between now and first pitch on Wednesday
afternoon. Let’s begin, shall we?

The Matchup: Texas Rangers (90-72) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)

How’ve they been doing?
The Rangers were 16-14 over the last month or so. The Rays: 15-15. The Rangers did it without their best player in their lineup. The Rays: no such excuse, though they did play tougher competition.

Haven’t I seen you before?
The Rays won the season series 4-2. I wish I could reference some fun playoff history going back to the mid-70s with these two teams because that’s where my mind is these days, but alas, such is not the case.

Who’s pitching?
The Rangers will run out Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. The Rays counter with David Price, James “Shomer Shabbos” Sheids, Matt Garza and Wade Davis.  The Rangers almost certainly won’t go with a three-man rotation if things go sideways, because Cliff Lee has never ever done that, not even in the World Series last year when the Phillies had their backs up against the wall.

The storyline which doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things
but which TBS will nonetheless beat to death

The Rangers’ road record against the AL playoff teams. I thought this was clever a couple of days ago and I tweeted it around, but the more I think about it, the less I think it matters. The Rangers played all of three games in Tropicana Field. That series happened right after the Rangers played five games against the Red Sox and Yankees, two of which were extra innings affairs. It’s a talking point, and one I bet for which the TBS guys have already created a graphic for Game One, but I don’t know that it matters.

Honorable mention: we’re going to hear a lot about how Josh Hamilton was originally a Tampa Bay prospect before he went nuts with drugs and drink and wicked women and all of that. One little lapse a year ago aside, he’s been on the straight and narrow for more than three years now. It’s still a relevant part of his life, but I don’t think it’s that relevant a part of our consideration of him as a baseball player.

The storyline which actually does matter but about which TBS won’t spend a lot of time
talking

I don’t want to feed what I sense to be fairly strong “no one respects us” sentiments from both the Rays and Rangers camps, but I really do think that these two teams have gotten less ink out of anyone in the postseason. This also means that the TV producers and announcers have read less about them, which means that we’re going to get a lot of cliche analysis. The Rays are the AL East team with so much pitching depth! The Ballpark at Arlington-Rangers will bash your brains out!  Never mind that the Rangers have demonstrably better pitching than the Rays and that, despite the low batting averages, the Rays are a better offensive team than the Rangers.

What’s gonna go down?
I know the Rays have the best record in the AL and the Rangers have the worst record of all of the playoff teams, but I see this series as even. Partially because, if they play at their best, the Rangers are better than a 90-win team, and they are healthier now than they’ve been for a while.  Partly because the Rays were a much better first half team than they were a second half team. Let’s be clear here: the AL East played a lot of “meh” baseball down the stretch, and the Rays were part of that.

Call it a hunch, but I think the Rangers are going to take this bad boy in five. Cliff Lee will eliminate the home field advantage in Game 1, and after that the Rangers’ deeper back of the rotation will take care of business.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.