MLB Postseason Preview: Twins vs. Yankees

New York Yankees (95-67) at Minnesota Twins (94-68)

OVERVIEW

In many ways, this is a rematch of last year’s Division Series—the main way being that these same two teams played each other in last year’s Division Series. But things are much different now. The Twins are no longer the underdogs that snuck into the playoffs at the last minute, and the Yankees are no longer the dominant force in the AL. The Twins went 48-26 after the All-Star Break, essentially wrapping up the AL Central with a month to go. The Yankees, on the other hand, stumbled down the stretch, losing the AL East to Tampa Bay and settling for the Wild Card thanks to a 13-17 record in September/October. In other words, do not expect a repeat of last year’s one-sided Yankees sweep.

THE LINEUPS

Justin Morneau, who was an MVP candidate in the first half of the season, missed the second half with a concussion and will once again not be around for the postseason. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer and Jim Thome, two lefties who have had absolutely monstrous second halves for the Twins, each missed time down the stretch with injuries. The Twins will need both of them to be healthy and at 100% for the playoffs, though, as the lineup behind them is a little suspect. Jason Kubel came back to Earth (.249/.323./.427) after a great 2009 (.300/.369/.539), as did Michael Cuddyer. On the other hand, Delmon Young had the best offensive season of his career, with 21 home runs and 112 RBI, and Danny Valencia, a rookie, has hit .311 since becoming a regular midseason.

Once again, the Yankees boast the best offense in baseball, scoring 41 more runs than any other team in the majors. The Yankees’ lineup is powered by its own MVP candidate, Robinson Cano, who had a breakout year in 2010, hitting .319 with 29 home runs and 109 RBI. Of course, the team also has veterans Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who have rebounded from slow starts to each end up with over 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Similarly, Curtis Granderson, who struggled through his first few months as a Yankee, hit 17 home runs after the All-Star break. In fact, the Yankees’ biggest offensive weakness this season has been Derek Jeter, whose 2010 struggles have been well-documented. On the bright side for Jeter, though, he ended the season with a .287 average in September—his highest of any month since April.

THE ROTATIONS

The Twins have the weakest ace of any AL playoff team—Francisco Liriano finished 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. What they lack in dominance at the top of the rotation, though, they make up for in depth. Carl Pavano, who couldn’t put together one decent season in four tries in New York, had his best year since 2004, finishing with 17 wins, 221 IP, and an ERA of 3.75. That leaves Brian Duensing, who in 13 starts this season went 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA, and Nick Blackburn, who followed an atrocious first half (6.40 ERA) with a decent second. Over Blackburn’s last eight starts, he sported an ERA of 3.16, giving Minnesota fans no reason to fear using him as their fourth starter. While none of those four pitchers strike fear into anyone’s hearts, they all inspire confidence.

The Yankees staff, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. CC Sabathia led the league in wins and may be the frontrunner for the Cy Young Award (though he doesn’t deserve it), but after that the Yankees rotation is all question marks. Andy Pettitte was having the best season of his career until he injured his groin on July 18. Since then he’s made three starts, in which his ERA is 11.67 and he has twice been knocked out before finishing the fifth inning. Phil Hughes ended the year with 18 wins, but 11 of those came before the All-Star break; since then his ERA is near 5 and he’s been used somewhat erratically due to an innings limit. The worst of the bunch, though, is A.J. Burnett, who finished 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA and gave up six earned runs or more in 10 of his 33 starts. The Yankees are prudently skipping him in Game 4 in favor of CC on short rest. Even if they need a fourth starter, Dustin Moseley, a career long-man and spot starter, may be the team’s best option if the Yankees opt against the three-man rotation.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

TIM: Let me warn you now: I’m taking a sort of Charlie Rose approach to this section. So, John, Joe Girardi.

JOHN: What about him? I mean, he’s the Yankees manager, and he’s pretty good. He won the World Series last year, though managers don’t seem to make much of a difference. You’re going to have to be more specific or this Rose-style of questioning is going to get awfully confusing.

TIM: September.

JOHN: Ah, well that’s more obvious. September was disastrous, obviously, with the Yankees going 13-17 and finishing in second in the AL East, but I don’t expect there to be much carry-over. The 2000 team lost 15 of 18 heading into the postseason and still won the World Series. Guys like Nick Swisher, Teixeira, and Pettitte were injured or coming back from injury, and I’m actually encouraged by the positive signs A-Rod, Jeter, and Granderson showed down the stretch.

TIM: The seemingly imminent winter of Derek Jeter’s career.

JOHN: This has been discussed so much (including by me, twice), but I really don’t think there’s much to do but wait and see. The Yankees are certainly going to resign him, and they are certainly going to pay him more than the $10 million he’s supposedly worth. Yes, that means they will be overpaying him, and yes this season’s numbers were atrocious, and they indicate that his career is winding down, but there’s no way the Yankees are going to let him go. All that’s left to do is be optimistic that Jeter can rebound from this year and doesn’t become a liability for the next 5+ years.

Here’s one thing, though, that hasn’t been discussed much: Jeter’s awful 2010 may actually have helped the Yankees in terms of contract negotiation this off-season. If Jeter had repeated his ’09 numbers, or even just put up another average year, then the Yankees would have to worry about a team that was desperate for star-power and marketability driving up Jeter’s price or, worse, forcing them to add more years to his deal. As it is now, it’s hard to imagine another team offering Jeter anything close to even the lowest offer the Yankees would make. The only variable will be Jeter’s own perception of his worth—which hasn’t really said anything about this season.

TIM: Robinson Cano and the MVP.

JOHN: It’s easy to underestimate Cano’s value to a lineup that includes at least two first-ballot Hall of Famers, along with Teixeira, Swisher, Granderson, and now Lance Berkman, but that would be a mistake. Cano carried the lineup in the beginning of the season, while A-Rod and Tex struggled, and more than made up for the departure of Hideki Matsui in the five-spot in the order. Considering the circumstances around the other MVP candidates (Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista didn’t play for contenders, Josh Hamilton missed most of September) and Cano’s stellar defense at an important position, I think Cano probably wins it.

TIM: The Core Four.

JOHN: It’s interesting that this year, which featured so much attention on for the Core Four, was the year when they all seemed to show signs of aging. Jeter’s struggles were just discussed, but Posada also had a below-average season offensively and became something of a liability behind the plate. Pettitte struggled with an injury for the whole second half, and even the almighty Mariano Rivera blew three saves in the final month, bringing his season total to the highest it’s been since 2003.

TIM: Ron Gardenhire.

JOHN: The great Joe Posnanski just wrote another piece in which he called Gardenhire the best manager in baseball. This seems like a popular opinion, and it’s true that the team has succeeded despite a small payroll with Gardy at the helm, but I just don’t think the manager matters that much. After all, Gardenhire has been blessed with some of the best prospects in the game over the last decade (Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Francisco Liriano, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan) and the Twins play in a perpetually mediocre division—only once in Gardenhire’s nine seasons has the team won more than 95 games, and four times it has won fewer than 90.

TIM: Target Field as compared to the HHH Metrodome.

JOHN: Target Field has gotten glowing reviews this season, but the old Metrodome was quite the home-field advantage in the playoffs. Of course, it will be interesting, and perhaps awful, if the Twins have to play there in late October/early November. I just imagine a lot of scenes like this one.

TIM: Home-field advantage and what it means to the sport of baseball and, more specifically, for the Yankees in this postseason.

JOHN: I mean, pretty much every team plays better at home (and, as Curtis Granderson astutely pointed out on ESPN the other day, “you get to bat last”), so home-field advantage is important, but losing it for the postseason isn’t that big a deal for the Yankees. The NL has it in the World Series this year anyway, and the 2-3-2 format of the LCS means it’s only an advantage if the series goes seven games. As for this series, the Yankees took two of three in their only trip to Target Field this season, so that bodes well.

TIM: And the victor is?

JOHN: Well, the Twins aren’t the pushover they were last year, but I still don’t see them winning. I can, though, see them taking it to four games and screwing up the Yankees rotation in the process. Yanks in four.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] into the postseason, the Yankees’ rotation was perceived by some idiots to be CC Sabathia and a bunch of question marks. In fact, Sabathia was the worst of the three starters against the Twins. Andy Pettitte and Phil […]

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