Friday, September 30, 2011

AL Playoff Preview: NY Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers

Yankees: Booming Bats

The Yankees lived up to their nickname as the Bombers by leading the majors in home runs, with 222, while finishing second in the AL in RBI (836). Their .444 slugging percentage was third in the majors, behind Boston and Texas. The Yanks were the second team to clinch a division in the league, after Detroit, winning the AL East by a comfortable six games over wild card entrant, Tampa Bay.

The Yanks are led on offense by the top of their often-changing order. Center fielder Curtis Granderson, who normally bats second behind either SS Derek Jeter (.297, 6 HR, 61 RBI) or left fielder Brett Gardner (.259, 7, 87 runs) - who tied Oakland's Coco Crisp for the AL stolen base lead with 39 - had an extraordinary season worthy of MVP status, leading the league with 119 RBI and finishing second in homers with 41. Granderson only generated a .262 batting average, but got the key hits in the clutch, also stealing 25 bases and leading the league with 136 runs.

Right behind him in the order, Robinson Cano quietly put together an awesome season, batting .302, with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. Going down the order, third baseman Alex Rodriguez was hampered by injuries through much of the season, but still managed to hit .276, with 16 HR and 60 RBI. First baseman Mark Teixeira (.248, 39, 111) is probably the most dangerous power hitter in the Yankee arsenal, with power from both sides of the plate.

Curtis Granderson
Nick Swisher had a fine season in right field, batting .260 with 23 home runs, driving in 85 runs. The catching duites will be handled either by Russell Martin or Fancisco Cervelli. Jorge Posada and Andruw Jones will alternate at DH, along with Eric Chavez, who put in yeoman's work at third base, filling in for the oft-injured Rodriguez. Manager Joe Girardi tinkered with the lineup all season and will likely fine-tune it for the playoffs depending on opposing pitching.

C.C. Sabathia
The Yankees' weakness is in their starting pitching. After C.C. Sabathia and rookie Ivan Nova, there isn't much there. Sabathia led the team in wins (19-8), strikeouts (230) and had the best ERA of all starters at an even 3.00. Nova had a record run of 11 straight wins, finishing 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.

Girardi has chosen to go with a three-man rotation, giving Sabathia the nod in game 1 against Detroit's Justin Verlander. Nova goes in game two and veteran Freddie Garcia (12-8, 3.62) will start game three. Middle relief was a Yankee strength, especially David Robertson, who appeared in 70 games, compiling a 4-0 record and a 1.08 ERA, striking out 100 batters in 66.2 innings. Set-up man Rafael Soriano normally works the ninth, leading to save opportunities for the best in the business, Mariano Rivera, who finished second in the league in saves, converting 44 of 49 chances with a 1.91 ERA.

The Yankees will try to bludgeon the opposition to death with their big bats and shorten games to seven innings, with their excellent back end relief.

Tigers: Verlander, and then What?

The Detroit Tigers won their first division title since 1987, prior to expansion, when they won the AL East. Their 15-game margin over Cleveland was their first Central division title in franchise history. Having clinched the division so early, the Tigers were more concerned with keeping players fresh rather than rested. and they enter the first round of the playoffs in good health and with their starting rotation intact.

Miguel Cabrera
Offensively, the Tigers are led by first baseman Miguel Carbrera, who led the league with a .344 batting average. Cabrera was the team leader in home runs, swatting 30, to go with 105 RBI. The big surprise at the plate for the Tigers was catcher Alex Avila, who hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI. Third baseman/shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.299, 21, 86) also adds pop. The middle infield positions of shortstop and second base are handled by Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn, respectively, who field well but don't offer much at the plate.

Center fielder Austin Jackson leads off, but struck out 181 times, second most in the league and far too many for a batter at the top of the order. Jackson hit just .249, stole 22 bases and scored 90 runs, though his defense kept him in the lineup. Magglio Ordonez is the regular right fielder, while left is still up for grabs. Brennan Boesch gets most of the starts, but shares time with Rayburn and Delmon Young. Victor Martinez is the regular DH. He quietly put together another fine year, hitting .330, with 12 homers and 103 RBI. Brandon Inge can play third base as can Wilson Betemit, who will probably be the regular in the series, with Peralta moving to short and Santiago to second, putting Rayburn either on the bench or in left field.

The Tigers' lineup and positioning is a real carousel with talent at multiple positions.

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander will get the start in game one and is the likely choice for the Cy Young award, if not MVP. Verlander completed the pitching triple crown, going 24-5, with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, all tops in the league. Doug Fister (8-1, 1.79) will start game two, followed by Max Scherzer (15-9, 4,43) and Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75), if there's a game four.

Jose Valverde led the league with 49 saves, converting every opportunity.

Conclusion: Both teams have great game one starters in Verlander and Sabathia, and the Tigers could use Verlander in game four if the're facing elimination in the five-game series. The Tigers are a bit deeper in their rotation, but not by much. New York has the bats, which, if somebody gets hot, could make this a three, or four game set and because of that, deserve a slight edge. Games one and two are in New York, followed by one or two in Detroit. If a fifth game is needed, it will be at Yankee Stadium.

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