Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Last-minute, Very Rushed World Series Preview/Prediction.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of writing a thorough, well-reasoned World Series preview. You want to dissect everything, spend some quality time with Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, think about all the angles and narratives, and come out with an answer you can hang your hat on. The fact that this thing is a crapshoot and your finely-tuned analysis is likely going to be utterly worthless is beside the point. It's the mulling over of the various aspects that's gratifying. Sadly, I didn't have the time to go through all of it at length, so with the first pitch scheduled for one hour hence, you're getting the compressed and wildly speculative version.

As you may have heard, the axioms that usually apply to postseason baseball appear to have gone temporarily AWOL. Outsized payroll buys enough talent to win? False! Just ask the Yankees. A dominant starting rotation can mask a lot of other deficiencies? False! Give Charlie Manuel a call and see how that's going for him. No, we're here under the unlikely auspices of manic bullpen work and smokin' hot bats. I'm not just talking normal, playoff-caliber offense. I mean hot like a molten heap that used to be a car being removed from a nuclear bomb testing site. It's been a strange postseason, and it's left everyone from media to fans to the producers at FOX somewhere between baffled and lukewarm. Unless you love baseball. Then you're salivating over this baby.

Rangers. Cardinals. Let's break this thang down!

Starting Rotations: C.J. Wilson/Colby Lewis/Derek Holland/Matt Harrison vs. Chris Carpenter/Jaime Garcia/Kyle Loshe/Edwin Jackson. This is quite an interesting battle. Wilson and Lewis are fine pitchers and capable of putting up big outings for Texas, but they're not exactly models of excellence through consistency. Holland and Harrison are quality back-of-the-rotation guys; no more and no less. The Cards will have Chris Carpenter for games 1, 5, & 7 (if it comes to that), and you can't emphasize enough how much a Cy Young-quality pitcher with a great October pedigree means here. Garcia has been shaky of late, but he's a solid arm, and Loshe and Jackson are better than their likely counterpart match-ups. Edge: Cards.

Bullpen: Given the way these teams are being managed, does that rotation analysis I just went through even matter? Both teams are yanking their starters before fans at the ballpark have even finished their first overpriced beers. If this strategic anomaly continues, the fate of this World Series might well rest on the bullpens ... and they're nearly a wash. Texas relies mainly on an excellent Scott Feldman/Alexi Ogando combination to eat innings (or specific situations) en route to set-up man Mike Adams and closer Neftali Feliz, with lefty-killer Darren Oliver on hand for key match-ups. It's a formidable 'pen, and Ron Washington seems to have (slowly) figured out how exactly to utilize it. If they were playing literally any other team, the Rangers would have an edge. But they're playing the team managed by the guy who invented and perfected specialized relief, and thanks to the mid-season Colby Rasums trade, Tony La Russa has plenty of shiny toys to play with and manipulate. Either Marc Rzepczynski or Arthur Rhodes can be called upon if La Russa feels the need to put the Rangers' holy terror lefty Josh Hamilton down at the plate. Jason Motte has grown into his role as a closer, and Fernando Salas, Jake Westbrook, and co. can be used as needed. The key guy here might be Octavio Dotel, who absolutely mows down right-handed hitters. He might work exactly 1&1/3 innings a game, every game, trying to neutralize Texas' 4-7 righty lineup slots (Young, Beltre, Napoli, Cruz). If anyone can do it, it's Dotel, but no one should envy him the task. Edge: Flip a damn coin.

Hitting: This series is a treat as regards the middle of the order for both clubs. Pujols/Berkman/Holliday. Hamilton/Young/Beltre. I'm throwing out the LCS MVPs for both teams. They're unpredictable X-factor guys who are playing out of their minds right now, but show no evidence of doing it consistently. (Nelson Cruz shattered records [9HR, 15 RBI] in the ALCS but hit 1-for-15 in the ALDS. David Freese is the only person not named Lou Gerhrig to hit .545 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs in a postseason series, but that's obviously not a clip any hitter maintains for very long. Either one of these guys could cool off at any moment.) Saint Louis has the more terrifying 3-4-5 hitters, and a more versatile bench should they need extra bats. (And what La Russa deems "need" is, of course, eccentric and excessive in many cases.) Texas has a better 1-9. The big factor is that all those extra Cards bats means they won't be at the disadvantage most NL teams are during the AL-park games in a World Series. Look for Allan Craig or Ryan Theriot to admirably step into the DH spot. Slight edge: Cards.

Defense: No contest. Texas is an elite defensive team. Better fielding on the dirt, speedier legs and stronger arms in the outfield. The Cards got a very nice upgrade when Furcal came in at short, but they're still middling to a-bit-above-average at best. Edge: Rangers.

Baserunning: Again, not much to talk about. Texas was tops in the league on the basepaths this year. The Cardinals, not exactly slouches at 8th in the bigs, still can't match the raw speed and aggression of the Rangers. They can neutralize it, though. Texas, meet Yadier Molina. He has a cannon for an arm, sniper-like accuracy, and is hyper-smart and hyper-fasat behind the plate. He's going to make your lives a lot harder for the next 7-10 days. Still, edge: Rangers.

Managers: Tony La Russa's proclivity for over-managing, micromanaging, and generally trying to be too clever for his own good is well-documented. Nonetheless, he's decidedly the guy you'd want in the dugout if your other option was Ron Washington. (Who, to be fair, has grown much more savvy since he took the job.) Both men have tinkered to excess this postseason, resulting in marathon games and often-grating delays. If that trend continues, well, La Russa owns that style. Washington will simply be out of his depth if significant adjustments need to be made. Edge: Cards.

No matter what, we're in for a series of moonshot homers, zany tactics, and 4,287 pitching changes, played between two near-evenly matched ball clubs. This thing ought to be a riot. Slow and meandering, but burning that ol' proverbial barn just the same. On paper, the Rangers are the better team. I know. But I think Washington will shoot himself in the foot at some point, and Carpenter will turn in long, quality outings, allowing the Cards to keep their bullpen arms fresher. Oh yes, and Albert Pujols will have something to do with it, too.

Prediction: Cardinals in Seven.

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