Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Tuesdays With Ozzie

Well, they made it. Too bad Cleveland let the air out of the balloon and robbed us of a shot at the division. Hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But do the Red Sox really have a chance to repeat? Well, let’s talk about it. Ok, fine, I’ll begin.

You’ll remember that about this time last year (who am I kidding, you don’t remember) The Ninth insisted that Boston was as good as any team in the playoffs. Because I lack bravery I didn’t say they would win, but I said they could. This season, I’m not so sure. Let’s compare the two clubs. Are the Red Sox better in any way than they were in ’04? Maybe, MAYBE, you can say their rotation is deeper. Derek Lowe going into the playoffs was a disaster. So much so that he didn’t throw a pitch in the ALDS. This year, Boston may lack an ace, but they do have 5 “pitchable” men in their rotation. It’s a stretch to call that an improvement, but we’ll go with it. On top of that, they have a more useful bench. Dave Roberts’ heroics notwithstanding, Boston’s backups last season were solely defensive replacements. Pokey Reese and Doug Mientkiewicz had no use before the 8th inning, while John Olerud and Alex Cora can actually play. Hyzdu and Kapler are a wash and Machado is in the neighborhood of Dave Roberts (ok, it ‘s a pretty big neighborhood). But other than this, Boston is a worse club. The front of their rotation, the back of their bullpen, the quality of their defense, the bottom of their lineup: all worse. Theo Epstein took a real gamble this trading deadline by not going for it. Last year, he told us of the inability of the team “as built” to contend for a championship. He said that, of course, as if someone else built it. So Epstein sent Nomar away, sacrificed a bit of hitting for a lot of defense, and we won it all. But no one asked Theo about this year’s team. Are we ready to contend “as built”? Was this club really just a Tony Graffanino and Chad Bradford away from the big hot dog? Of course not, but Epstein gambled that we wouldn’t mind. Imagine this club with AJ Burnett or Adam Dunn, or, for that matter, Pedro Martinez. A lot better, right? Perhaps even a favorite. But Theo looked at our competition, took a glance at what we did in ‘04 and the studs we have coming in ‘06, and figured he could get away with what we had. Why overpay when you don’t have to? And The Ninth is not saying he should have, but understand this: in a year with no dominant teams Boston could be a lock for the Series. They could have a real ace and a true closer and a shot at back-to-back, but Epstein wouldn’t bite. So now Boston has to hope they have just enough. Enough to edge other flawed teams and get hot for a couple weeks. It’s not impossible, but it could’ve been a lot easier.

So let’s get to that possible. Quit being such a negative, Nelly. The White Sox are a great match-up for Boston because of their lineup. Chicago is almost entirely right-handed, with AJ Pierzynski being the only impact lefty on the club. This gives the Red Sox a second dominant bullpen option in Bronson Arroyo. The way to beat Boston is to make their starters work and force a reliever in before the 8th. Papelbon and Timlin are a solid end of game tandem, but before that the Sox are a mess. But Bronson is so strong against righties (.659 OPS against) that he can neutralize that approach. Chicago has some decent hitters, but they’re inflated by their ballpark and hindered by Guillen’s obsession with small ball. Against a staff with righty killers like Arroyo, Clement (.653 OPS against), Bradford (.626), and Timlin (.676), they should have trouble. So if Boston can hit, The Ninth gives them edge. Ortiz and Manny have perhaps never been this hot at the same time before. As Gordon Edes tells us, they’ve combined for 21 home runs in the last two weeks. They hit each of Chicago’s starters well, with the exception of Ortiz vs. Garcia, and could carry Boston into the next round. The biggest game in a 5 game series is the third one, as it either ends the thing or puts one club in pole position, and the White Sox are going with Garland. Manny and Ortiz average an OPS over 1.300 against Garland. This series could be the tale of two sluggers.

These playoffs should be a great test of the baseball axiom: pitching wins playoffs. The Houston Astros have as good a starting rotation as any playoff team has in a long time. Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt - youch. And Brad Lidge closes it up. If they don’t win, I don’t want to hear about playoff pitching ever again.

The question for today’s game is pretty straightforward: which Contreras comes to play? He has been as owned by Boston as one man can, but was also the pitcher of the month in September. Can the Sox spook him and lay off the splitter, or do the playoffs brush off Jose’s back and let him dominate? The Ninth thinks he pitches well, but Bobby Jenks gives it up late. Don’t forget, Chicago is the only team with a worse closer than Boston. Look for Boston to take this one late.