Onward and upward!American League West
Los Angeles Angels
First off, do you know how hard it was for me not to type up some ridiculous joke about the name of this team? Something about the Angels being from a variety of towns in California, and so on and so forth? However, I figure every other sportswriter has already made all those same jokes several hundred times before, so I refrained in an attempt to reduce my own hackiness.
Anyhow, the LA Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California Which is a Suburb of -- Goddamnit! I tried so hard!
The Angels have to be considered a bona fide Perennial Powerhouse at this point, considering they've won their division five of the last six years and have only missed the playoffs twice since 2002. They are far and away the best team in baseball's smallest division.
The media likes to portray the Angels' hitters as being all scrappy, throwback players; guys who bunt their way on, steal two bases, and then score on a sacrifice fly. The only problem with that portrayal is this: it's almost completely false. The Angels' offense is very, very good, but not because they have a bunch of high-average speedsters confounding the stat folks with their old-fashioned moxy. Much like the last team to have that reputation, Ozzie Guillen's White Sox club of 2005, the story just doesn't match the reality.
I will say this for the Angels: they do have one true throwback player, and that's Chone Figgins. Figgins really is that guy, the one who bunts his way on and steals bases and all that other stuff broadcasters find so heart-warming. But when it comes right down to it, Chone Figgins is more than a novelty act. He's an outstanding baseball player and a terrific leadoff man, with an OBP of .399. He's also more than capable of moving himself into scoring position, with 42 stolen bases on the season.
One of the best stories this season, and one of the more overlooked, has been the outstanding production of Bobby Abreu in Anaheim. Abreu received relatively little interest from clubs this past offseason in his services, and ended up taking a one-year deal for $5 million. He's been a bargain for the Angels at that salary, putting up an OBP near .400. His power numbers are down this season after moving from Yankee Stadium and its short right-field porch, but even at 35 years old, Abreu continues to be a major contributor at the plate.
The Angels' thunder comes primarily from a trio of big bats in the middle of the lineup, led by the incomparable Vlad Guerrero. Guerrero is no longer the MVP caliber player he was earlier this decade, but he's still a threat to go deep at any time, on any pitch, no matter how many times it bounces before reaching the plate. The real revelations for the Angels on offense this year, though, have been Kendry Morales, the first baseman who defected from Cuba several years ago, and Torii Hunter, who has actually managed to play up to his contract this season. Morales has been the team's best hitter, with an OPS of .909, and Hunter is only a shade below him at .892.
The Angels have only one player with an OPS over .900 (Morales), but they also have only one regular posting an OPS+ below 100. (100 is exactly league average.) It's an extremely deep lineup, probably second only to the Yankees in the American League.
The Angels have gotten a reputation the past few years for being defensive wizards, but I'm not sure that perception is entirely justified, especially in the outfield. Hunter in center field has lost not one, but several steps, and is actually a below-average center fielder at this point. (Though, to be honest, I've always felt Hunter was overrated defensively, even in Minnesota. He was a highlight catch waiting to happen, certainly, but he never impressed me as being nearly as good day-to-day as he was made out to be.) Juan Rivera isn't winning any Gold Gloves any time soon, and as good as Abreu has been on offense, he's been nearly that bad in the field. In short, if you get the ball into the outfield against the Angels, you may be running for a while.
The infield, on the other hand, is quite good with the glove. Howie Kendrick is underrated at second base, I think, and Figgins plays a nice third. Erick Aybar is a plus defender at shortstop, and Morales holds his own, giving the Angels a very good group of glovemen on the infield.
The Angels' rotation is very, very talented. Actually, screw talented; they're just plain good. John Lackey is one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, and gives the Angels an intimidating presence at the front of the rotation. Lackey's only real problem in his career has been staying healthy, and injuries have held him back from his full potential for years. Jared Weaver is a solid #2 sort of guy, though a bit miscast as an ace. And Scott Kazmir, acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays just before the deadline, may actually be the best of them all. Kazmir has had a somewhat inconsistent career to this point, but he is insanely talented and just now coming into his own at 25 years old.
It isn't all good news for the Angels' starters, though; Ervin Santana has been terrible in 2009, after looking like an emerging star just last season. His struggles were a big part of the reason the Angels pushed so hard for Kazmir in the first place. Still, Santana won't have any impact on the postseason.
If the Angels have a real Achilles' Heel, it may very well be their bullpen. Strange, I know, after seeing the relievers the Angels have been able to run out in the late innings the last few years. Francisco Rodriguez departed for New York, and was replaced by Brian Fuentes, the lefty closer the Cardinals coveted this past offseason. Despite having 44 saves on the year, Fuentes has been decidedly mediocre, with an ERA north of 4.00 and a WHIP of 1.4. Suffice it to say, for the cost difference, I'll take Ryan Franklin and his performance this season.
Scot Shields, long the heart and soul of the bullpen, succumbed to knee surgery earlier this year, leaving a void at setup. Darren Oliver -- yes, that Darren Oliver -- has probably been the Angels' best reliever this season, and Jason Bulger has pitched in to help take the burden as well. Kevin Jepsen has been impressive since coming to the big leagues, featuring a fastball that tops out in triple digits, but he's very young and still struggles with occasional lapses in command.
The Angels are a very, very good team, nearly the equal of the Yankees in terms of depth and completeness. A shaky bullpen is really the only chink in the armor, and there are times this season even that has been a strength. They lack a true ace at the top of the rotation, but have several excellent pitchers nonetheless. All in all, I think this Angel team is significantly better than the one that beat the Giants in 2002 to win the World Series.
Boston Red Sox
Is anyone else tired of having the two AL East teams in the playoffs just about every damned year? Well, I know I certainly am. Nonetheless, this is the hand we've been dealt, with the Red Sox just about having wrapped up the Wild Card race. The Texas Rangers are still technically in it, but their hopes are fading fast. It's going to be both Boston and the Yankees in the playoffs again this year.
It may not be the Manny Ramirez/ David Ortiz wrecking ball combo of a few years ago, but this is still a remarkably good offensive team. The heart of the offense now is Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox first baseman and, as Billy Beane once called him, "Greek God of Walks." That name still holds true, as Youkilis' .410 OBP can attest. In fact, Youkilis is one of the best offensive players in all of baseball, a .950 OPS monster each of the past two seasons. Dustin Pedroia, last year's AL MVP, is a remarkably productive player as well; never underestimate the worth of an .800+ OPS from your second baseman. Remember when David Ortiz hadn't hit a home run all season, and people were convinced he was done? Well, he's had one hell of a half season; he currently has 25 homers for the year.
Jason Bay, late of Pittsburgh, has found hitting in Fenway Park largely to his liking; he's second on the team in OPS, even with a brutal midseason slump thrown in. J.D. Drew has had pretty much the standard J.D. Drew season this year: 123 OPS+, lots of walks, lots of strikeouts, led the league in indifference and sore quadriceps. It's a shame Drew's personality has always been such a turn-off, because he really is one hell of a ballplayer.
What's most striking about the Boston offense is not, in fact, the talent. Rather, the Sawx are notable for having quite probably the best collective plate approach in all of baseball. Among Boston regulars, only Mike Lowell could really be classified as impatient; even Jason Varitek, with his .210 batting average, manages a .316 OPB. If the Red Sox can't beat your pitcher outright, they'll just wait him out and wear him down. Either way, they'll get you in the end. If only the Cardinals would take that same approach...
Honestly, I'm not as familiar with the Boston defense as I would like to be, so I'll have to study up a bit before the postseason gets underway. I know Jacoby Ellsbury in center field is extremely good, and Drew has long been a good fielder, but Jason Bay was known as a veritable butcher in Pittsburgh. Mike Lowell was once a perennial gold glover, but age has begun to sap him of his former skills. Pedoria looks extremely good by the numbers; have I ever mentioned how much it bothers me the Cardinals picked both Chris Lambert and Mike Ferris ahead of him in the 2004 draft? (There's a reason you've never heard of Mike Ferris.)
As scary as their offense can be, the Red Sox' rotation is where they really separate themselves from the competition. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester give the Red Sox a pair of legitimate aces (especially come postseason time, when Beckett just goes insane every year), and Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't far behind when he's healthy. Add in one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game in Clay Buccholz and Tim Wakefield ready to soak up some innings whenever needed, and the Red Sox just may have the best rotation in all of baseball. Only the Cardinals' twin towers of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro's Magical Grounder Machine stack up favorably with Boston's rotation, and given the choice, I would have to take the Red Sox' pitchers on balance, I think.
The bullpen is also a real strength for Boston, though not to the degree of the starting rotation. Jonathan Papelbon is a premiere closer, occasional douchebag behaviour and all, though he has proven himself human at times this season. Hideki Okajima, Boston's other Japanese import, can be unhittable at times. Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen give Boston a pair of strong arms, and both have been quite effective this season. Takashi Saito and Daniel Bard are the wild cards of this bunch; Saito is the former Dodgers' closer who signed a one-year deal with Boston this season after having injury issues in 2008, and he's been brilliant since putting on the Boston uni. Bard is a former 1st round draft pick in 2006; he's struggled to refine his command since turning pro, but he may also have the best stuff of anyone in the Red Sox' bullpen short of Papelbon.
I'll be honest with you: I think Boston may be the scariest team in all of baseball. The Yankees have to be considered top dog, with their enormous payroll and best record in the game, but if I had to choose one team or the other to play, I think Boston just might be the team I would be more afraid of. Their offense is only a short step down from New York's, and their rotation is absolutely terrifying. Dice-K being healthy changes the dynamic completely for them. If he's right when the playoffs start, watch out for the Red Sox.
If I had to handicap the teams in the American League right now, as far as their chances of going to the World Series, I would probably put it thusly:
Yankees -- 2:1
Red Sox -- 3:1
Angels -- 5:1
Tigers -- 10:1
Twins -- 12:1
I give the Tigers the advantage over the Twins thanks to the two guys at the top of their rotation; Minnesota doesn't have anyone with the ability to dominate the way Verlander and Jackson can.
The Yankees are the favorites, but I think it's a little closer than most people realize. The gaudy record is impressive, yes, but I would give the Angels a solid chance at upsetting the Bronx Bombers, and the Red Sox a better chance than that even.
So that's how the AL shakes out in the playoffs this year. What's that? You want a prediction, you say? Alright. Here's my prediction, guaranteed to be miles off the money, as to the way the playoffs go in 2009:
Cardinals beat Dodgers, 3-1
Phillies beat Rockies, 3-1
Cardinals beat Phillies, 4-2
Yankees beat Tigers, 3-0
Red Sox beat Angels, 3-2
Red Sox beat Yankees, 4-3
Red Sox beat Cardinals, 4-2
After the season, Hank Steinbrenner commits ritual suicide on the steps of new Yankee Stadium as penance for failing to bring a title home.