World Series Game 6 Preview: John Lackey gets the biggest start of his life

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BOSTON — It’s certainly the biggest start of Michael Wacha’s life too, but Wacha is 22 years-old and kids, God love ’em, tend to think that they’re going to have the sun shining on them forever.

John Lackey is 35 and has pretty much seen it and done it all. He’s been that kid winning a World Series game, back in 2002 with the Angels.  He’s also been, far more recently, a whipping boy for Boston Red Sox fans. The recipient of a big contract many thought was too big. One of the public faces of the “chicken and beer” collapse of 2011. A Tommy John surgery casualty who missed the entire 2012 season.  Yet here he is starting what could be a World Series clincher. If he wins it, it will be the first time the Red Sox and their fans will get to celebrate a World Series win at home since 1918. One gets the sense that an older and wiser John Lackey is much more aware of his surroundings and the gravity of the moment than the young John Lackey was in 2002.

And it won’t be an easy task for Lackey. Yes, the Cardinals have looked anemic on offense of late, but their anemia is a bit more pronounced against lefties than righties, and Lackey throws with his right hand. The Cardinals line against lefties is .211/.268/.295 and against righties it’s a not-too-much-better .214/.289/.331, but St. Louis is 2-4 in the postseason when facing a left-handed starter, 7-3 otherwise.

If Lackey gets in trouble early it could make for a tough choice for manager John Farrell. He has lefty Felix Doubront at his disposal. Doubront can go multiple innings and has been fantastic this postseason, but he may be more essential to the Red Sox in a possible Game 7 given that Jake Peavy is slated to start that game and given that Peavy has been shaky at best. But as the old saying goes, you don’t save a guy for tomorrow because tomorrow it may rain, so expect Doubront to come in if Lackey isn’t up to the task.

As for St. Louis, Wacha is the best guy they could hope to have going. He was the NLCS MVP and is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA and a .122 opponents batting average in the postseason. He out-pitched Clayton Kershaw twice and saved the Cardinals bacon when they trailed the Pirates in the Division Series. You never want to be down 3-2 in a World Series and playing on the road, but if you have to be, Wacha is who you want taking the start.

I would expect form to hold and the pitching, generally speaking, to be strong in Game 6. Offense has been hard to come by for everyone, and as such, whoever wins Game 6 is going to probably do so because of a hitter rising to the occasion.

To that end, John Farrell indicated yesterday that he is going with his hero-centric lineup, starting David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. Ross is the backup catcher, but he had a big RBI in Game 5 and, more importantly, is unlikely to commit the sort of mental error starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia had in throwing a ball away to third base in Game 3. Gomes is not normally the threat that Daniel Nava is, but he hit that big home run in Game 4. Victorino has been hurt, but it’s hard to forget that he hit the grand slam that put Boston in the World Series in the first place.

For the Cardinals, there are not so many options. Mike Matheny’s biggest threats — Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran — are hurt, but they’d play Game 6 even if they needed Rascal scooters to take them up to the plate. What they really need, however, is for Matt Carpenter to remember how to hit and to show that they can score runs on plays that don’t involve a silly Red Sox error or obstruction call. Indeed, given their lack of offense this series it’s a wonder that the thing is still going on.

But on it goes. Into a Game 6 which is the hottest ticket in baseball history and, in all likelihood, the rowdiest and loudest crowd we’ve seen in ages.

Play ball.

2017 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

Phillies fans, get ready for another losing season. As bad as that sounds, 2017 is simply the next step in the Phillies’ rebuilding process. As a result, the club stocked up on veterans who are not signed beyond this season. GM Matt Klentak acquired Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox and utilityman Howie Kendrick from the Dodgers. He also signed outfielder Michael Saunders, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek, and re-signed Jeremy Hellickson.

The biggest move of the offseason, however, was signing All-Star outfielder Odubel Herrera to a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension which will keep him in town through at least 2021. The deal also includes options for the 2022-23 seasons. Herrera, 25, transitioned from second base to center field in 2015 when the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Rangers. He broke out last season, batting .286/.361/.420 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 656 plate appearances while playing great defense. Herrera is not necessarily the cornerstone of the Phillies’ future, but he’s the best player on the team at the moment.

Kendrick will handle left field. The former second baseman became a utilityman for the Dodgers last year, finishing with a .255/.326/.366 batting line along with eight home runs and 40 RBI in 543 PA. The 33-year-old veteran has lost a few steps, but the Phillies don’t particularly care. As long as Kendrick stays healthy, the Phillies will have felt like they got their money’s worth.

Saunders takes over in right field. The oft-injured outfielder was able to log a career-high 140 games last year with the Blue Jays, hitting .253/.338/.478 with 24 home runs and 57 RBI in 558 PA. Again, the Phillies don’t particularly care if he’s able to match that production; the team is just looking for him to avoid injury. Citizens Bank Park does turn Saunders into a 30-homer threat, though.

Maikel Franco will reprise his role at third base. He’s been a frustrating player for the Phillies over parts of three seasons. He did hit 25 homers and knock in 88 runs last year, but his triple-slash line was a pedestrian .255/.306/.427 in 630 PA. New hitting coach Matt Stairs certainly will make Franco one of his top priorities this season as Franco can sometimes be chaotic at the plate, swinging so hard his helmet flies off. Franco’s defense at third base also leaves a lot to be desired. Some talk of Franco eventually moving across the diamond to first base, but he could also play his way out of the Phillies’ future plans if he doesn’t show any improvement in 2017.

Freddy Galvis returns to shortstop. Though baseball is currently in a state where only a few players reaching the 40-homer club, it seems like more players than ever are at least getting to 20 homers. Galvis was among them, nearly tripling his previous career-high with 20 long balls last year. He also knocked in 67 runs but hit an otherwise poor .241/.274/.399. He still managed to turn in a solid year despite the lackluster offense by playing some of the best defense at shortstop this side of Andrelton Simmons. Galvis, now 27, will soon be unseated by prospect J.P. Crawford. The Phillies may choose to simply move Galvis to the bench or, if he has a good first half, the club may try to trade him.

Second base is Cesar Hernandez’s. He struggled in the first half, putting up a meager .706 OPS, but broke out in the second half with an .824 OPS. It was like he had become a completely new player. Overall, he hit .294/.371/.393 with an MLB-best 11 triples while also scoring 67 runs. He stole 17 bases but also got caught 13 times, illustrating his most frustrating feature. He’s quick, but he’s not a smart baserunner. Hernandez, like Galvis, likely is not a part of the team’s future plans and he may end up in a new uniform by the summer of 2018.

First base is now Tommy Joseph’s to start the year now that the Phillies have finally closed the book on the Ryan Howard era. Joseph showed tremendous power, hitting .257/.308/.505 with 21 home runs and 47 RBI in 347 PA after taking over at first base in mid-May. Joseph is the prototypical first baseman: a player with great power potential but doesn’t get on base much otherwise, has a weak glove, and struggles against same-handed pitching. As mentioned, Franco is a potential threat to Joseph’s playing time at first base, and Rhys Hoskins – who hit 38 home runs at Double-A Reading last year — may be as well.

Cameron Rupp will serve as the starting catcher for the second year. Like Joseph, Rupp has lots of power, but is otherwise pedestrian offensively. Last season, he hit .252./.303/.447 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI in 419 plate appearances. Veterans Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday are hoping to be Rupp’s back-up, but 25-year-old Andrew Knapp is competing for that right as well after a solid year with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Hellickson will anchor the rotation in his second year with the Phillies. He was believed to be headed to free agency, but he shockingly accepted the Phillies’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. The veteran scuffled over the previous three seasons, but had a bounce-back effort in 2016, finishing 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA and a 154/45 K/BB ratio in 189 innings. For a rebuilding team, of course, the innings are all that really matter. Hellickson may find himself traded by the end of July if he performs well in the first half.

Buchholz is hoping for a career rebirth after some inconsistent years in the latter half of his 10 years with the Red Sox. The oft-injured right-hander compiled a mediocre 4.16 ERA and averaged only 22 starts per season since 2012. The Red Sox even used him out of the bullpen quite a bit last season, during which he compiled a 4.78 ERA. Buchholz, however, cost the Phillies virtually nothing and he’ll provide valuable rotation depth in an attempt to reestablish his value.

Jerad Eickhoff slots into the middle of the rotation after a sterling effort in 2016. Acquired from the Rangers in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, the right-hander finished with a 3.65 ERA and a 167/42 K/BB ratio in 197 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old is very polished and is the type of pitcher that will help fill out the team’s future rotations quite nicely.

Aaron Nola is hoping for better luck in 2017. The 23-year-old right-hander got off to a slow start last season before missing the final two months with a sprained UCL and flexor. Nola, the Phillies’ first-round selection in the 2014 draft, is more polished than Eickhoff and will hope to replicate what he did in his rookie year in 2015, when he posted a 3.59 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks in 77 2/3 innings.

Vince Velasquez, 24, rounds out the rotation. He made one of the best starts of 2016 when he struck out 16 Padres in a shutout on April 14. Unfortunately, the rest of his season was marred by inconsistency and inefficiency. He failed to reach the sixth inning in 11 of his 24 starts and was ultimately shut down in September. Velasquez has the potential to become an ace, but some think the more likely scenario for the Phillies is that he eventually transitions into the bullpen.

Jeanmar Gomez will have the privilege of closing out ballgames for the Phillies once again, despite an ugly second half during which he blew four saves and compiled an 8.33 ERA in 31 appearances. He simply appeared to have run out of gas. Gomez does not miss bats nearly as often as typical closers do, which can be a problem in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

Joaquin Benoit is solid insurance for Gomez in the event he falters again. Benoit, 39, struggled with the Mariners but flourished with the Blue Jays after a trade, finishing out the season with a 0.38 ERA and a 24/9 K/BB ratio in 23 2/3 innings. He does have some closing experience, but he’ll be the setup man ahead of Gomez to start the season.

Hector Neris has the most potential of anyone in the Phillies’ bullpen. The 27-year-old posted an impressive 2.58 ERA with a 102/30 K/BB ratio in 80 1/3 innings. Everything about those stats looks good: he misses bats, doesn’t walk too many hitters, and is reliable on a day-in, day-out basis. He could be the Phillies’ closer of the future.

Veteran Pat Neshek will pitch in the middle innings. Youngsters Edubray Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, and others will join him in what will likely be a revolving door between the majors and Triple-A.

The bench will, for now, include Andres Blanco, Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr, and others. Daniel Nava and Chris Coghlan, non-roster invitees, could merit inclusion. Joseph, Kendrick and Saunders may become bench players to some degree in the summer if Klentak deems any combination of Nick Williams, Brock Stassi, Dylan Cozens, and Rhys Hoskins worthy of some big league experience. Knapp, as mentioned, is competing with Hanigan and Holaday to back up Rupp.

The Phillies were the only team in the majors last year to average fewer than four runs per game, finishing at 3.77. Kendrick and Saunders are upgrades over the aggregate .615 and .634 OPS the Phillies got out of left and right field, respectively, last year. Benoit and Neshek add stability to what was a leaky bullpen. Those upgrades alone are likely to help manager Pete Mackanin’s squad make up some ground on their 62-100 record from the 2016 season.

Prediction: 71-91 record, 4th place in NL East

2017 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The good news: it can’t get any worse. And I don’t mean that flippantly or as a means of laughing at their 2016 performance. Really, most of the things that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays last year did, from injuries to down years from guys they needed to perform to simple bad luck. Meaning that last year was probably near the bottom of their expectations and that, with merely some better luck and better health, the Rays will be a better team.

Chris Archer had a fantastic, All-Star year in 2015. Last year he was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The good news here is that a lot of that was a combination of bad luck and command issues, not a serious overall regression or any foreshadowing of injuries. He still struck out a ton of guys last season, but when he didn’t miss bats he missed the zone. There’s no reason to expect that Archer will repeat his 2016 performance. He’s too darn talented for that, and I would expect him to reassert his acelike status.

But it’s not all Archer. Indeed, beyond him the rotation is really solid with the potential to do some special things. It seems eons ago, but Alex Cobb posted two amazing seasons back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 before elbow injuries hit. He’s now back at full strength. Jake Odorizzi has been a solid presence in the rotation the past two seasons. Blake Snell is raw and wild, but has great stuff. It’s spring and we’re being optimistic, but if he makes at least a passing acquaintance with the zone in 2017 he could be a special pitcher.  Between injury stuff and the need for bouncebacks, a good story about the Rays rotation is all wishcasting to some degree, but there is a lot of talent in this group, and that’s a lot more than a lot of teams have to wish on.

The Rays lost a lot of close games and lost a lot of games late last year. See above about bad luck. That’s often a sign of bullpen trouble. And yes, the Rays’ 2016 pen had trouble. Closer Alex Colome was excellent, but everyone was else was pretty homer happy. Last year the former closer, Brad Boxberger suffered a bad abdominal injury in spring training and it basically derailed everything. He’s working his way back from a lat injury now, but the prognosis is a lot better for him to be at full power and effectiveness at least some point early in the season. Erasmo Ramirez has a hamstring issue, but he’ll likely be the long man. Danny Farquhar is solid. Xavier Cedeno falls into the “he’s better than he showed last year” pile. There’s hope here for better things and, of course, better luck, even if this is not a stellar group. Again, manager Kevin Cash has something to work with here, even if it’s not a lot.

On offense, Evan Longoria continued to be Evan Longoria last season and Brad Miller broke out with a big power year. That’s something else to build on. The issue for the Rays is getting on base. They were among the worst teams in baseball in this department last season and, looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to see where a bunch more walks and hits may come from. Having Kevin Kiermaier back for a full year will be key, and not just for his stellar defense, as he showed some offensive improvement when he did play last year.  If he builds on that he’s a borderline MVP candidate. Ultimately, though, there just aren’t enough weapons here.

I think the Rays are a lot more talented than last year’s 68-win team suggested. I don’t think, however, they underperformed that talent by, like, 20 games or anything, nor did they improve themselves in the offseason enough to make up that kind of gap. Heck, they hardly did much at all. As such, I think they’ll be better than they were in 2016, but I feel like they’re, at the very most, an 80-win team. And most teams don’t hit their best case projections like that.

Prediction: Fifth Place, American League East.