2008 ALCS Preview

Say what you want, Tampa Bay is a good team that has had an extraordinary season. They are young, athletic and have a ton of potential. They deserve a lot of credit for keeping the intensity up until the end of the season and finishing with 97 wins, and this will be a great series to watch. And now for the comparison:


Boston is just better here, without question. They scored a ton more runs, even without Manny Ramirez in the lineup. The Rays will have to rely on the long ball in addition to pitching and defense if they want to outscore Boston in this series. Both teams run the bases well, and have stolen a lot of bases off each other this year, so good baserunning and avoiding big mistakes is a must. Even with the injuries, the Sox have slightly better positional depth on the bench too.


If Josh Beckett is healthy, the advantage goes to the Red Sox here. With Jon Lester pitching the way he has, who can compete with two playoff-tested aces? But if Beckett is not right, I have to say that the Rays have ever so slight an advantage here. Playoff experience be damned, James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine is a good short series rotation. Garza will have to throw strikes under pressure, and Sonnanstine will have to keep the ball down, but this bunch can prevent a lot of runs.


Both bullpens are well above average, but for different reasons. The Sox employ Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Justin Masterson primarily as 8th and 9th inning guys, with Manny Delcarmen and Masterson sharing 7th inning duties. The Rays have a lot of live arms, most notably Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and David Price in middle relief. Dan Wheeler is a solid, if unspectacular closer. The way the bullpens perform will depend a lot on how deep the Sox starters can go. If Beckett is not himself, they could be in trouble in this series. If Boston gets six innings out of Daisuke Matsuzaka and seven from Lester and Beckett, Tampa Bay will be the one in trouble. Patrick Sullivan raises an interesting point about skill distribution on these two teams.


Lots of writers are giving the Rays the advantage here, but I just don’t buy it. The Red Sox defense is every bit as good, and better by some measures (such as BP’s park-adjusted defensive efficiency). The reason you don’t hear about the Sox defense is because the Rays’ good defense is new, and been a big key to their success this season. Boston’s excellent defense is in a post-hype period, but all you have to do is look at this year’s ALDS to be impressed. Given the absence of Mike Lowell, I’m willing to call this one even.


I am really looking forward to this series, because it truly does pit the two best teams from the AL this season against each other. They pitch well, play good defense and overall play the game right. Get ready for some nail-biting, electric baseball. I expect this series to go out to 6 or 7 games, and I do think the Red Sox are in the driver’s seat (barely), though it could fall either way based on a few key plays.

I should mention that I think the Rays overachieved some this year, and I don’t see them being quite as good in 2009. They can’t count on Dioner Navarro hitting .295 every year or 20 HR from Eric Hinske or their 4th and 5th starters to be league average. They’ll still be good, but just not 97 wins good.


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