Let's talk about the bullpen. I thought Minnesota's relief staff may have caused the Rays problems with so many lefties available, but the Rangers aren't exactly chopped liver. Doesn't this seem like an area where Maddon can outmaneuver Ron Washington in high-leverage spots?
Maddon would have outfoxed Washington no matter what, simply because no manager has a better feel for tactical decisions, and more willingness to use data to inform his decisions, than Maddon does.
That aside, the Rays have more enticing bullpen options, period. Grant Balfour coming back to (near?) full strength is a boon to this team, as the Rays now have three reliable, high-K options who can pitch to either side. Add Choate/McGee vs. LH and Wheeler vs. RH and you've got a deep pen that will work that much better (and allow for more Maddon manipulation) in a playoff format where days off are obviously more frequent.
Given the Rangers relative strength in relief pitching, I wouldn't mind seeing our batters swing early and often. The sooner we reach the Rangers 'pen, the shorter the game may be. Neftali Feliz and Darren Oliver have been lights out. Also, Frank Francisco has an extra nifty xFIP. BUT! Ol' Ron Washington seems enamored with Darren O'Day -- a mostly average reliever (4.00 xFIP) with an extra large LOB%.
As a whole, the Rangers had the 4th best slew of AL relievers in 2010 (the Rays are #2), so our success against their 'pen will depend on how judiciously Washington uses the combo of Feliz, Oliver, and Francisco. If he leans on O-Day or Alexi Ogando (low xFIP, high LOB%), we should see more 8th-inning magic.
Expect Maddon to make infinitely fewer bullpen mistakes than Washington.
Great, way to jinx us now Bradley. Watch Maddon call to the bullpen and bring in Bobby Ramos's boxers by accident.
Thankfully Francisco will miss the ALDS with a rib injury, so he's one less guy to worry about.
Jon Daniels has built a near fool-proof bullpen for Ron Washington to manage. Their top five relievers have done a fine job of getting hitters out on both sides of the plate including lefty specialist Darren Oliver - who will turn 40 on Wednesday.
Both Darren O'Day (BABIP) and Alexi Ogando (strand rate) have been lucky this season, but other than them crashing down to earth in the next week, the Rays will need to have good at-bats and hope for the regression gods to smile down on them.
Washington may have the easier decisions to make, but let's hope Joe Maddon continues to be the master of the match-ups.
Final question beyond the jump.R.J. Anderson
With the exception of Josh Hamilton, which batter fits the bill as a potential nightmare for the Rays?
The Rangers have very little lefty hitting talent aside from Hamilton, which could help Shields, Garza and Davis a lot. Here's a supersleeper Rangers headache: Mitch Moreland. 14.5% walk rate this year, pretty solid minor league rates too, plus some pop. Shields is a strike-thrower, so maybe not as big a deal there. But I could see Davis issuing a key walk to Moreland or grooving a 3-1 pitch to him after a worked count, or Garza failing to be the crane against him in a big spot.
Huge upgrade over Chris Davis at 1B in the smallish sample size he's been in the lineup.
Nelson Cruz, if both games have to be played in Arlington. He is a complete beast in that ballpark hitting .371 with a 1.099 OPS and you have to figure he'll be hitting behind Hamilton so he has the potential to do double the damage. The Rays have not seen him one time this year as he was on the disabled list both times the two clubs met in 2010 but they did see him in 2009 and he had a .993 OPS. I can see working around Hamilton but they'll have to pitch to Cruz and he's a mere mortal on the road but he's the Hispanic Clark Kent in Arlington.
Vladimir Guerrero may not crush fastballs like he once did (2.1 w/FB this year). But, he still has the ability to hit change-ups and breaking balls with authority. He leads the major leagues in run values on curveballs and is in the top 10 against change-ups.
One thing that hasn't changed is his free swinging ways. Vladdy is swinging at nearly 50(!) % of pitches out size of the strikezone, yet he striking out less than 11% of the time.
For a pitcher like James Shields who relies on his off-speed pitches and getting hitters to chase out of the zone, this could present a huge problem.
I want to say Jorge Cantu because he used to be one of my all-time favorite Rays (what does that say about our organization's history?), but I can't believe he'll even see the light of day in this series. Still, I used to love watching him bat with his batting helmet pulled down all the way over his eyes, and I'll probably get a chuckle if he gets an at bat in this series. For our offense's sake, here's hoping the Rangers somehow decide to play him in the field late in a game..
Seriously, I've always been a fan of Ian Kinsler. The Rangers have plenty of threatening bats in their line-up, so it's easy for Kinsler to get overlooked, but he packs a lot of punch for a second baseman. His was injured early in the season and his power hasn't returned yet (only a .125 ISO after last season's .241), but he still walks a ton and hits for a decent average. As his .794 OPS and .357 wOBA show, he's not someone to overlook even if he's not hitting as well as he has in the past. He also has hit change-ups well this season, so James Shields better watch out.
Jeez guys, and I thought Taylor Teagarden was the one guy in this lineup you really had to circle. I'll go with Michael Young. I'm proof positive the Rays will shift him at least a few times and he'll pull the ball each and every time up. He seems like the annoying type.
Thanks again to everyone involved!