As this post-season begins, let’s take a look at the prices assigned to various contenders in the American League as they currently appear at Bovada:
To Win American League Pennant
Boston Red Sox +170
Detroit Tigers +200
Oakland Athletics +350
Tampa Bay Rays +300
The BOSTON RED SOX (+170) made what could fairly be considered a quantum leap in 2013, improving 28 wins to 97 on the season. What makes this even more unlikely and amazing is the fact that this team almost looked like it was conducting a salary dump last year when it traded Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers.
And it is also an opportunity for the Red Sox to redeem themselves for the 2011 collapse where they lost a nine-game lead in the wild card race, finally fumbling it away on the last day of the season. With the ill-advised tenure of Bobby Valentine, which produced a last-place finish, along with the strength of the AL East, especially with the roster moves made by Toronto, the Red Sox were thought of as a very real possibility for last place again.
Needless to say, that hasn’t happened. And the Sox led the major leagues in runs scored, putting a very deep lineup on the field. David Ortiz, who has a great post-season history, is a rock, and batted .309 this year with thirty homers. Jacoby Ellsbury is an ideal leadoff man with his 52 stolen bases, and players like Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli (23 HR, 92 RBI) were welcome additions. Daniel Nava gave Boston a .303 average coming from an unexpected place. All told, there are six members of the starting lineup who hit .290 or better. And though the Red Sox have traditionally not been known for their speed, they had an 87% success rate stealing bases.
Pitching was going to be a question, but the Red Sox have probably had fortuitous timing in the respect that it is now looking like a very solid rotation for the post-season. Clay Buchholz got off to a tremendous start, then was shelved with shoulder and neck injuries, but he has been effective upon his September comeback. Buchholz, who was undefeated at the time of his All-Star selection, finished with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA. Jon Lester came on strong after a subpar start and posted a 15-8 mark. Jake Peavy was a key acquisition, and the former Cy Young winner has won four of his five decisions in a Red Sox uniform. And John Lackey has been a consistent member of the starting staff all year long.
The bullpen, particularly the closer situation, looked like it might be in peril after Andrew Bailey went down early, but Koji Uehara has been sizzling, with a 1.09 ERA, 21 saves, and an unreal 101 strikeouts in 74-1/.3 innings. At one point he had retired 37 consecutive batters. They just have to get to him at the end.
The DETROIT TIGERS (+200) were swept in the World Series last year, so this is obviously about getting to that next step. This is a team that does not possess speed, or certainly doesn’t use it much (just 35 steals, or 17 less than Jacoby Ellsbury), so they rely on pitching and power.
Regarding the power part, there has to be some concern about Miguel Cabrera, who became the first right-handed hitter in more than a century to win the American League batting title three straight times, but was held to just two extra base hits in the month of September. If he gets hot in the playoffs, that is obviously huge, but will he? The supporting cast, or at least much of it, is first-rate. Prince Fielder (25 HR, 106 RBI) can hit it out of any ballpark; the comebacking Victor Martinez hit .368 after July 1; second sacker Omar Infante hit .318; Jhonny Peralta is back from suspension and is in left field, and Jose Iglesias, who came over to take over shortstop in place of Peralta, wound up at .303. He is also the defensive key with his glove.
The Tigers’ 1-2-3 combination at the top of the rotation could be the best in the playoffs. Anibal Sanchez (14-8) had 202 strikeouts and led the AL in ERA (2.57). Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90) was undefeated for quite some time, and he chalked up 240 strikeouts. Justin Verlander had an off-year (13-12, 3.46 ERA), but the former MVP and Cy Young winner can still dominate an opponent on any given day.
Detroit could win or lose the World Series on its closer. There was quite a concern about that as the season began. The guy who has assumed the role is Joaquin Benoit, who posted a 2.01 ERA and 24 saves. Can he excel in the post-season, or do Detroit’s starters have to go the distance?
The TAMPA BAY RAYS (+300) pulled off a heck of a feat by winning three road games in a row, at three different locations, to reach the stage where they then had to set off for Boston and a long series. The Rays bring a pretty good trio of starters, which is crucial in situations like this. Matt Moore (17-4) has shown that he can excel under playoff pressure; Alex Cobb (11-3) just threw a masterful game against Cleveland, and David Price (10-9) is the reigning Cy Young winner in the AL and is coming off a complete game against Texas. Then you’ve got rookie Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22 ERA). This team always seems to have some pitching.
You can’t necessarily call the offense robust; indeed, there are no .300 hitters in the lineup, but there are some stars nonetheless. Evan Longoria (32 homers) is a clutch player at third base. Rookie will Myers (.293) has turned out to be a wise acquisition from Kansas City, and James Loney (.299) was a great pickup from Los Angeles. Ben Zobrist (72 walks) is outstanding, wherever they put him.
Manager Joe Maddon is as good as there is, and maybe even THE best in the business. Despite having a very limited budget, he’s brought this team home with 90 or more wins four straight seasons. And he was gutsy enough to leave Price in the game at Texas in order to help his overworked bullpen (featuring star closer Fernando Rodney) get some rest. As long as Maddon is in the dugout, this team can be a threat.
The OAKLAND ATHLETICS (+350) had a big September, and they once again enter the playoffs with a payroll that can be put into the “bargain basement” category. And they have been explosive on offense; in the last 49 games of the season they scored 273 runs.
This team uses platoons a lot, but they have some great leaders to jump start this offense, such as Josh Donaldson (24 HR, 93 RBI, .301), who has been mentioned as a possible MVP candidate by those who like to look at Sabermetrics; Coco Crisp, the speedy outfielder who hit 22 homers and stole 21 bases; Jed Lowrie, who led the team with 175 hits, and Yoenis Cespedes, who hit just .240 but had 26 homers.
Brandon Moss is a guy who excels mainly against right-handed pitching; he hit 26 of his 30 homers against right-handed hurlers. He also struck out 140 times, which is a lot for a guy who isn’t in the lineup every day, as you can imagine. He will definitely see action against the Tigers, though.
Despite Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 ERA) being at the top of the rotation, Oakland’s starting pitching might be the most “iffy” among the four American league teams. Jarrod Parker didn’t close the season too well, and rookie Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67 ERA) has not been exposed to playoff pressure before. This is not really a deep staff, but Grant Belfour certainly closed out a lot of games (38 saves, 2.65 ERA).
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