MLB Postseason Preview: Orioles vs. Yankees

Baltimore Orioles (93-69) at New York Yankees (95-67)

OVERVIEW

The two teams that battled for the AL East over 162 games now face each other for five to see who advances to the ALCS. Because that’s fair. The teams split the season series 9-9, with Baltimore outscoring New York by two in those games (the Orioles did end the season with a positive run differential, for those of you keeping track). The Orioles are this year’s Cinderella team, making the postseason for the first time since 1997, which was also the last time they had a winning record. The Yankees, meanwhile, are in their 28th postseason series since that year.

LINEUPS

Baltimore’s offense this year was all about the home run. The Orioles don’t walk much—11th in the league in OBP—or hit for a very high average—10th. They are last in stolen bases and 10th in hits. On top of that, their best contact hitter, Nick Markakis, broke his thumb in a totally innocent and not at all suspicious accident and is still out for a few more weeks. But the Orioles were second in the league in home runs, and there are power threats littered throughout the lineup. From Mark Reynolds to Matt Wieters to J.J. Hardy to Chris Davis to Adam Jones—who had a breakout season this year—nearly everyone is a threat to hit it out. Facing the Yankees, who play in a home run haven and trot out pitchers with a tendency to give up the long ball, that will obviously come up.

The Yankees, on the other hand, were the only team in baseball to hit more home runs than Baltimore. New York led the league in home runs, as well as on-base percentage and slugging percentage. While this may not have been unusual for the Yankees, the way they did it was: Rather than big years from the “superstars,” it was largely the production of players like Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Ichiro Suzuki that made up for injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner. Of course, Derek Jeter had another great year (leading some of the same people who declared him finished two years ago to renew talk of him possibly catching Pete Rose), Curtis Granderson turned in another 40+ home run season, and Robinson Cano will again find himself on MVP ballots—it’s not as if the Yankees lack star power.

ROTATIONS

Baltimore’s rotation has been in flux all season long—as evidenced by the fact that Joe Saunders started the biggest game of the season. Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta were all bumped from the rotation to the bullpen, and Jason Hammel—starting today—is still recovering from injury. Wei Yin-Chen, their most reliable starter all year long, will likely start Game 2, but his numbers are hardly impressive. Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, who each joined the rotation in July and have been great down the stretch, will probably go in Games 3 and 4, but Saunders may have earned the fourth starting spot with a great performance against the best lineup in baseball on Friday (and since the Yankee lineup is so lefty-heavy). No matter who starts, the strength of this staff is the bullpen, where Jim Johnson saved 51 games and the detritus of journeymen like Darren O’Day and failed starters like Troy Patton have somehow powered Baltimore to a 29-9 record in one-run games, and a 16-2 record in extra innings.

By contrast, the Yankee rotation looks somewhat formidable—at least for the first three games—but there are some questions around all its starters. CC Sabathia will obviously get the ball in Game 1, but even he looked hittable after coming off the DL in late August. His last three starts seemed to right the ship, but it’s worth noting his recent troubles, along with his struggles against Baltimore this year. Hiroki Kuroda was the Yankees best starter in 2012, but he too stumbled down the stretch, posting a 4.71 ERA in September. Andy Pettitte was great every time he took the mound, but he’s 40 and still recovering from an injury. Phil Hughes will go in Game 4, and he’s actually been quite good at home. The Yankee bullpen withstood the injury to Mariano Rivera pretty well—Rafael Soriano saved 42 games as his replacement. It’ll be interesting to see who Joe Girardi trusts more behind Soriano and David Robertson: Boone Logan and Cody Eppley were the most effective middle relievers all season, but Joba Chamberlain was more reliable down the stretch.

Lingering Questions (from TIM)

 You scared?

Scared is not the right word. I am nervous. I am always nervous for the Division Series.

 

Will Jeffrey Maier throw out the first pitch in all three games, or perform “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch?

Instead of throwing out the first pitch, Jeffrey Maier will receive the first “pitch”—Jeter will hit him the ball in the first row of the right field stands. Can you believe that happened 16 years ago?

 

Failed starters turned relievers is the new market inefficiency. Discuss.

I don’t know how “new” it is—wasn’t that kind of what Dennis Eckersley was? Isn’t it kind of how relief pitchers were invented? I do think the tricky thing is figuring out who the salvageable starting pitchers are, and whose stuff can translate to the bullpen. The Orioles obviously already had Patton, and he’s a lefty, so that always helps.

It’s actually been a staple of Tampa Bay’s bullpen success over the last few seasons: Wade Davis, J.P. Howell, Andy Sonnanstine, etc. It’s probably less about being able to find value on the open market as being able to salvage some value from prospects who haven’t panned out.

 

Putting aside biases, are you at all excited for playoff baseball at Camden Yards?

Well, I like Camden Yards—I haven’t been to that many ballparks, but it’s probably the nicest I’ve seen in person. It’s nice that the city of Baltimore gets to see a playoff game. But I wouldn’t say that I’m “excited.” It’s not like I’ll be at the games.

How quickly is the window closing on this Yankees team? Teixeira and Rodriguez are still signed long-term, Jeter’s season was—I’m sorry to say—a tad overrated (he’ll get ludicrous MVP votes he doesn’t deserve), and Granderson and Cano are about to hit free agency with the team looking to slim down its payroll. On top of that, Sabathia took a step back for the first time in his career and he’s not getting any younger, and the only other good starters you have are Kuroda and Pettitte, who are both old and impending free agents. No one knows what you’ve got in Michael Pineda, it was a horrendous year for the farm system with Manny Banuelos needing Tommy John. I’m not trying to rain on the parade—I’m TOTALLY trying to rain on the parade—but is this New York’s last best shot at a World Series for some time?

 You forgot to mention the impending free agency of Nick Swisher (and Ichiro!). The specter of the aging, expensive roster seems to haunt the Yankees every year. Every year someone predicts that this will be the year age finally “catches up” with the team. And while that hasn’t happened yet, I think it’s largely based on a misconception: Age doesn’t catch up with you all at once. It happens gradually, and this team has already seen obvious signs of it. Rodriguez and Teixeira’s production has been declining for the past few seasons, Curtis Granderson’s defense has become more of a liability, Sabathia, as you point out, seems to have hit his first real speed bump this year, and Derek Jeter’s age has been a topic of conversation (for good or bad) for at least three years.

Up until now, the Yankees have always had something good to balance out the bad: Cano’s emergence as a superstar, Granderson’s increased power, David Robertson’s brilliance in the bullpen, etc. Right now, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything like that on the horizon. As you say, the farm system had a horrendous year: With Jesus Montero gone and Austin Romine injured for most of the year, there are also no young position players to get excited about.

With all that said, I’m not panicking. At the risk of invoking everything people hate about Yankee fans, things tend to work out for the Yankees. I suspect Granderson and Rodriguez will bounce back next year. Brett Gardner’s return should give the offense a spark. The rotation looked erratic this year, but Nova and Hughes are still only 25 and 26, respectively. Of course the Yankees need to start developing some replacements for their aging stars, but the end is not nigh.

 

Over/under 81 wins for the O’s next season? I mean, they’re the ’07 Diamondbacks, aren’t they?

The fact that the best thing about this team was the bullpen doesn’t bode well: Bullpen success is the hardest thing to duplicate from year to year. There are some bright spots in the order: Adam Jones is becoming the star some predicted he’d be, Nick Markakis has become a solid top of the order guy, and Chris Davis is nice power threat. But it’s tricky trying to build a lineup around strikeout machines who don’t get on base that much like Mark Reynolds, Davis, and J.J. Hardy. If Tillman and Gonzalez emerge as solid starters for a full year in 2013 I can see Baltimore competing again. Otherwise, I’ll take the under.

 

How terrified are you of tie games into the seventh inning, where Showalter has the pieces to run circles around Girardi?

I’m not sure what you’re implying here. By “pieces,” are you saying that Baltimore has the better bench? Because I’ll take Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, and Brett Gardner over Robert Andino, Endy Chavez, and Lew Ford. If you’re just talking about the Orioles’ absurd record in close games this season, that doesn’t scare me. I am not scared of luck. And if you’re saying that Showalter is simply a better manager than Girardi, I think the job Showalter has done is pretty overrated, though I can’t really defend that.

Having Said That, while I’m usually a defender of Girardi, his managing in the playoffs has infuriated me in years passed. He seems to overthink things when he gets to the postseason, whether it’s intentionally walking Josh Hamilton five times in the 2010 ALCS or using CC Sabathia in relief in Game 5 of last year’s Division Series. So now I get nervous whenever the Yankees are in a close playoff game, but it has nothing to do with Buck Showalter.

 

How many wins do the Yankees get before bowing out for the second straight year in the Division Series?

Just because you had to watch the Braves face the Cardinals a few days ago doesn’t mean you should be so mean about the Yankees…

Every year I find the Yankees’ Division Series opponent unimpressive, and this only makes it worse when they get eliminated. Still, Baltimore doesn’t really scare me. I get that the teams split the season series, and that the Orioles actually outscored the Yankees in those games, but I still never accepted Baltimore as a serious contender. Down to almost the last week of the season I was still more nervous about the Rays than the Orioles. I’m confident in both Sabathia and Pettitte in Baltimore, but it seems like New York will probably blow at least one of those games. I expect the extra rest to help Kuroda out in Game 3, though, and Phil Hughes to put up a surprisingly solid performance in a clinching Game 4.

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