Tampa Bay Rays (97-65) vs. Chicago White Sox (90-72)
I'm going to come out and say it now, who really thought the Rays would hang on to the AL East until the end of the season? I was in the boat of people that figured they would tire down the stretch and the Red Sox would over take them. It almost happened, but they hung on and won some huge games against the Sox at Fenway and at the Trop in September, and frankly they deserve to be where they are. That being said, here is my analysis.
I've been saying it for a few years, that with the offense the Rays have, if they ever got any pitching help whatsoever (mainly bullpen), that they'd be a very good team that could finally start to make some noise. Did I see them winning the division this year? Not even close, but that's why baseball is so great. Anyways onto my point. This season the Rays offense wasn't where it used to be with their speed on the bases and style of play that manufactured runs (not neccessarily small ball). This year they dealt with an injury to who I've always felt is their best player, Carl Crawford. Crawford always seems to improve every year of his career and frankly he would be a guy I would have loved to have on the Sox. He still put up respectable numbers but the offense as a whole really contributed to the Rays winning this year. Guys like Gabe Gross, Eric Hinske, and Rocco Baldelli really stepped up for the Rays when Crawford went down.
Their big hitter obviously is Carlos Pena (.247, 31 HR, 101 RBI), but rookie of the year candidate (and most likely winner) Evan Longoria was truely the reason the Rays were great. You might be high on a player as an organization, but do you really expect someone to start everyday in their rookie year and manage to hit .272 with 27 HR and 85 RBI? Did I mention he missed about a month with an injury? Evan Longoria is the best player on that team and it really shows, they are a much better team with him playing than without.
This year the Rays really slacked on offense as a whole ranking near the bottom in most offensive categories except stolen bases, which they were first in as usual. BJ Upton stole 44 bases while being caught 16 times. While Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett stole 25 and 20 respectively. The Rays have been a running team for a while now and it really shows.
In their series against the White Sox expect Manager Joe Maddon to be agressive on the basepaths and not just sit around and wait for Longoria and Pena to hit a home run. Expect Crawford and Upton to be agresive, and maybe even play a little hit and run if the bottom of the order gets on for Iwamura. The Rays biggest x-factor however is catcher Dioneer Navarro. I was never high on Navarro when he was a Yankee prospect and even up to last year when he batted a dismal .227. He's really put it together this year however, batting .295 in 427 at bats with good gap power. If Navarro can continue what he's done all season long, then the Rays will have a very solid, multi-dimensional lineup.
Look for Longoria and Crawford to be the difference on offense for the Rays.
The real strength of this team is it's pitching. Their starter's have been mediocre for the most part, but their bullpen has been very good. Scott Kazmir and James Shields have been their aces, although Kazmir hasn't been nearly as good this year as he usually is. Shields however has been their ace all season long. Matt Garza who was aquired from the Twins for Delmon Young in the offseason (man I bet the Twins wish they didn't make that deal) has been pretty good as well. Andy Sonnanstine has been mediocre, and really given more credit than he should get.
The bullpen however features Grant Balfour (1.54 ERA, 82 K's in 58.1 IP), JP Howell (2.22 ERA, 14 Hlds), and Chad Bradford (1.42 ERA in 21 games with TB) who all bridge the gap nicely to closer Dan Wheeler (3.12 ERA, 13 Svs, 5 BS) who has filled in for the injured and somewhat ineffective Troy Percival.
I feel like the Rays biggest strength is their bullpen, and it will make the difference in this series. When have you ever been able to say that before?
The White Sox live and die by the homerun. They hit the most homeruns in league this year, but because of that, have trouble manufacturing runs when they need to. Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye can still hit, and newcomer Alexi Ramirez has had a fine rookie season. The White Sox lineup took a huge hit when Carlos Quienten stupidly injured his wrist punching a bat. Paul Konerko could make a huge impact on this series if he starts to hit again. The White Sox also have Nick Swisher on the bench to provide some nice pop. The big x-factor for the White Sox this series is Orlando Cabrera from the leadoff spot. If he can get on base consistently, that'll allow the Sox big bats to see better pitches. Also if Ken Griffey Jr can somehow get hot, then that is a pretty dangerous and powerful lineup. Don't expect that though.
In 2005 when th White Sox won the World Series, they did it with good hitting and good pitching. This year however, their pitching is mediocre at best. John Danks, and Gavin Floyd have had nice seasons, but Mark Buehrle hasn't been his usual self, and Javier Vazquez (your game one starter folks!) has been less than stellar. Ozzie Guillen has decided to go with a 4-man rotation in the ALDS.
However, the White Sox bullpen has been mediocre this year. Bobby Jenks has been pretty good in the closer role as usual, and Matt Thornton has been very good, but the rest of the bullpen has been underperforming. Scot Linebrink has been okay but nothing special and Octavio Dotel has been incrdibly inconsistent although has been striking out batters (92 K's in 67.0 IP).
If Chicago has to go to it's bullpen early, expect Tampa to take control of this series
Rays in 4. I just don't see how the White Sox matchup well against the Rays. The White Sox are a big, slow team playing on the fast turf at the Trop, and really just don't have the pitching to slow the Rays down enough. Not to mention their best pitcher (Danks) is slated to pitch game 2 or 3 (most likely 3) after pitching in the division tiebreaker on Tuesday night.