Despite the panic in Boston and a horrific stretch of recent play, the Red Sox still hold a 3-game lead over the red-hot Rays for the American League Wild Card. Boston’s recent struggles have re-opened the wild card race, and while the Red Sox should still be heavy favorites to make it to October, we can no longer count out the Rays as legitimate contenders to make the playoffs. The TYA staff has had some discussions about who we would rather play, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of those ideas here.
Reasons to prefer Boston
Boston’s weaknesses: Even with all their injuries and recent struggles, Boston is still a very talented team. However, they have significant question marks that might make them a vulnerable opponent. Josh Beckett returns today, but it is possible his ankle injury could prevent him from being the dominant force that the Yankees have struggled against this season. The rotation is thin without Clay Buchholz, and Erik Bedard would likely be starting meaningful playoff games.
Several other big contributors for Boston are banged up, including Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, while Yankee-killer Dustin Pedroia is in a terrible slump and relief ace Daniel Bard has been beatable of late. While a healthy Boston is clearly a more well-rounded team than Tampa, an injury-riddled Boston team that backs into the playoffs could be an easier matchup than they might appear to be on paper.
Tampa’s strengths: If the Yankees were to draw the Rays in the ALCS, they would be facing an opponent with significant momentum that made a stunning comeback to take the wild card, and then won their division series matchup. While I have a tough time putting a lot of weight into psychological factors such as confidence and momentum, there is something to be said for wanting to avoid the hot team (I have visions of the 2002 Angels rally-monkeying all over the Yankees, and having this aura of invincibility).
As for the on-field factors, the 1-2 punch of David Price and James Shields scares me as much if not more than Boston’s duo, as both guys have recently dominated the Yankees, and the Rays are also deeper at the back end of the rotation. Although they don’t have the lineup thunder of the Red Sox, the Tampa lineup is plenty dangerous, and has enough speed to distract the Yankee pitching staff.
Reasons to prefer Tampa
Boston’s strengths: On paper, Boston’s lineup is far superior to that of the Rays. There are few weaknesses in the lineup top-to-bottom, and even the guys who haven’t pulled their weight offensively this year have hit well against the Yankees (especially Scutaro and Crawford). This is a deep and talented lineup with a lot of left-handed power, and the Yankees will have a tough time neutralizing Ellsbury, Ortiz, and Gonzalez with only one lefty starter and one LOOGY. This lineup has too many guys who hit Yankee pitching consistently well for me to feel comfortable facing them.
Although I’d take Tampa’s rotation depth over Boston’s and slightly prefer Price/Shields to Beckett/Lester, Josh Beckett has terrorized the Yankees enough in big situations to be wary of facing him twice in a big series. Boston’s bullpen is also stronger at the back end, with the Bard-Papelbon tandem effectively reducing games to 7 innings when everything is going well.
Tampa’s weaknesses: While Tampa’s rotation is strong, their bullpen is somewhat shortened by the injury to closer Kyle Farnsworth (words I never thought I would utter). The offense has dangerous hitters like Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, but their overall lineup is not as deep or dangerous as Boston’s is. Sure recent callup Matt Moore has the potential to be a dominant force out of the bullpen in the postseason, but there is also the potential that he could struggle due to inexperience and pressure.
After examining the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, the Red Sox seem to be a tougher matchup on paper, while Tampa would have the intangibles/psychological factors in their favor. It’s hard to know how healthy Boston come October, which is a factor in the Rays’ favor, but I imagine that the furious race to the finish could potentially deplete both teams.
Since we at Yankee Analysts tend to focus on tangible, quantifiable factors, I’m still be more afraid of Boston’s lineup depth than Tampa’s momentum and magic (though I concede that these factors can have an effect on outcomes). However, I acknowledge that if one or more of the injured Red Sox are not able to return to health and effectiveness, then I may need to reevaluate my position. In conclusion, I’ll be rooting for the Rays down the stretch. Even if Boston presents a better matchup for the Yankees going into the playoffs, it is to the Yankees’ benefit if both teams have to go all-out in the battle for the wild card.
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