ALDS Preview: Yankees vs. Twins

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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: New York Yankees (95-67) vs. Minnesota Twins (94-68)

How’ve they been doing?
Both teams enter the playoffs stumbling, with the teams losing six of ten and seven of ten, respectively. The Yankees are 13-17 in September and October. The Twins, 18-12.  It’s worth noting, of course, that neither team had a ton to play for down the stretch. The Twins more or less had the division sealed up in early September. The Yankees were theoretically challenging for the AL East title, but a playoff spot had been assured for several weeks, if not longer. Both teams are better — and will play better — than they did down the stretch.

Haven’t I seen you before?
The Yankees won the season series 4-2. Since Ron Gardenhire took over the Twins in 2002, the Yankees have owned him, going 54-18 against the Twins, including wins in the 2009, 2004 and 2003 Division Series.

Who’s pitching?
For the Yankees it will be CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte out of the gate. Minnesota counters with Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. Each team likely fears having to go with their fourth starter — AJ Burnett for New York and Nick Blackburn for Minnesota. The Yankees have ruled Burnett out. Like New York, if the straits are dire, look for Minnesota to think about heading back to their top guys on short rest for games 4 or 5.

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

Probably that stuff from above about the Yankees recent dominance of the Twins. Yes, I understand why it’s something worth mentioning and I even mentioned it myself in HBT’s Playoff Power Rankings. But baseball should come with the same disclaimer that comes on the mutual funds in your 401k: past performance is no guarantee of future results. While interesting, recent history is not exactly illuminating. As they say, momentum is only as good as your next day’s starter. And given that Andy Pettitte’s back and Phil Hughes’ stamina at this point of the season is in question, the next day’s starter for the Yankees is not as strong as it used to be.

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

Less of a storyline than a dynamic: unlike the previous three playoff meetings between these clubs, the Twins should be considered the favorites. I don’t care about seeding: bet your bippy that we’ll hear a lot about the allegedly plucky Twins and the Big Bad Bronx Bombers. The betting lines and even smart guys like Aaron Gleeman disagree with me, but I think the Twins are a better team. At least on paper. Their starters are better right now. Their bullpen is stronger than most people think. The differences between the team’s offense are not that great. If you tell mystique and aura to go down the street and get you a box of chicken or something, you’ll be able to see clearly enough to realize that the Twins should be favored here. That said . . .

What’s gonna go down?
Favored is one thing. That’s an objective, intellectual concept. We’ve lived with the Jeter-era Yankees so long by now, however, that it’s impossible to ignore gut feeling.  As I sit and think about the components of each team, I can make a case for the Twins taking the series. To actually pick them, though, would force me to ignore all of the times that the Yankees seem to have simply willed themselves to victory over the past 15 years.

When I told Gleeman that I was thinking about picking the Twins, he told me that the betting line had them as +170 underdogs, and that if I felt so strongly about it, I should put some money on them. I don’t bet on baseball, but even if I did, I don’t think I could bring myself to do so. My head says Twins but my gut says Yankees.

If Francisco Liriano can pitch a deadly efficient Game 1 and set himself up nicely to come back on short rest later, I think the Twins can do it. If Delmon Young can draw on some of that early-season magic and not muff a bunch of fly balls, I think the Twins can do it.  Every time I try to imagine the ultimate outcome of this thing, however, I see Jeter getting clutch hits, Pettitte coming up bigger than he should and Brett Gardner making some crazy diving catch to rob Joe Mauer of a bases loaded double. In short, I see the Yankees taking it.

Yell at me all you want, objective thinkers, but I’m going with my gut: the Yankees in 5.

Kevin Kiermaier on Rays’ recent moves: “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset.”

Brian Blanco/Getty Images
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On Sunday, we heard from former Ray and current Giants third baseman Evan Longoria. The Rays recently traded pitcher Jake Odorizzi to the Twins for a prospect and designated All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of a cost-cutting perspective. Longoria said, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

Today, we’re hearing from a current Ray: center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who is set to enter his fifth full season with the club. Via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Kiermaier said, “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset with the moves. No beating around the bush. It’s one of those things that makes you scratch your head, you don’t know the reasoning why. And then you see the team’s explanation and still it’s just like, okay, well, so be it.”

Longoria — formerly the face of the franchise — was traded to the Giants in December and the Rays continued to subtract with their recent moves involving Odorizzi and Dickerson. Odorizzi has a career 3.83 ERA in what has been a solid, if unspectacular, career. Dickerson put up an All-Star season, posting an .815 OPS with 27 home runs in 150 games. Moving either player was not done to fix a positional log jam. In fact, with Odorizzi out of the picture, the Rays are planning to use a four-man starting rotation for the first six-plus weeks of the season, Topkin reported on Sunday. Dickerson’s ouster simply opens the door for Mallex Smith, who posted a .684 OPS last year, to start every day in the outfield.

The Rays got markedly worse after going 80-82 last season. They saved a few million bucks jettisoning Odorizzi and Dickerson. And Rays ownership still wants the public to foot most of the bill for their new stadium.

When it was just one small market team pinching pennies, it was fine. But now that more than half of the league has adopted penny-pinching principles popularized by Moneyball and Sabermetrics (with the Rays among the chief offenders), the game of baseball has become markedly less fan- and player-friendly. This offseason has been less about players signing contracts and changing teams in trades — which helps build excitement and intrigue for the coming year — and more about front offices doing math problems concerning the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold and other self-imposed monetary restraints. Fun. Kiermaier is right to be upset and he’s very likely not alone in feeling that way.