Archive for October, 2012

Five AL Moves That Should Happen

With the World Series trophy now residing in San Francisco, every American League team saw their 2012 season end in disappointment. Here are five moves that could help change that for 2013.

1. The Rays trade LHP David Price and SS Tim Beckham to Arizona for OF Justin Upton and RHP Trevor Bauer.

It would be the blockbuster of blockbusters, with two franchise talents switching coasts in the prime of their careers, but it is also a move that could potentially help both teams solve some issues. As long as the Rays hold their payroll at a similar level, trading Price is an inevitability, as his increasing arbitration awards are going to price him out of their budget within the two years. By swapping him for Upton — whose salaries for the next three years are already locked in — now, they can ensure that they have cost certainty over a premium young talent who can fill a void in their line-up, rather than having to move him for prospects in 12-18 months.

The Rays would essentially be replacing one Upton with the other, but they’d also be bringing in the power bat that they’ve needed to complement Evan Longoria for years. Upton’s not as good of a player right now as Price is, but given the respective replacements, the improvement in the outfielder might be equivalent to the drop-off in the rotation, especially with a piece like Bauer coming along with Upton. The Rays have the pitching depth to move Price for an offensive upgrade, and acquiring Upton while his value is at its lowest might be their best chance to add a big time bat while their window to contend is open.

For Arizona, the price is stiff, but they turn two players that have frustrated the organization into one of the elite pitchers in the game, and a true staff ace that can carry them if they get into October. It wouldn’t be easy to pull the trigger on surrendering two guys who have carried as much hype as Upton and Bauer, but if Kevin Towers was offered the chance to turn potential into performance, I’m not sure he could walk away from the opportunity.

2. The Yankees sign B.J. Upton for five years, $75 million

With Nick Swisher seemingly on his way out of New York, the Yankees have an opening for an outfielder, and they should take advantage of the chance to move Curtis Granderson to right field by bringing in a new center fielder. Upton would give the team a 28-year-old premium defender who has the same flaws that Granderson had when he came over from Detroit, so Kevin Long gets a new project to try and pull offensive potential out of. And, by bringing in Upton to play center, the team can move Granderson to right field, where his diminishing abilities to go back on balls won’t be as noticeable. The short porch in right field is a perfect fit for Granderson’s defensive skillset, and Upton has the speed to run down balls in the gaps that Granderson won’t get to.

Upton also gives the team some youth, which this aging roster could use, and his familiarity with the AL East should make the transition smoother. While $75 million might seem like a lot for a player who has never turned into what he was projected to become, his combination of above average offense and range in center field make it an investment worth making.

3. The Tigers sign Melky Cabrera for one year, $7 million.

The Tigers struggles against left-handed pitching were exposed in the first two games of the World Series, when Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner carved up their line-up in San Francisco. Especially problematic was the team’s reliance on journeyman rookie — words that don’t often go together, and for good reason — Quintin Berry in left field, and his placement in front of Miguel Cabrera because of the team’s lack of on base threats. Cabrera can solve both problems at once, giving the team a drastic upgrade in left field who can also serve as the switch-hitting #2 hitter that Jim Leyland craves. Oh, and there’s the fact that Cabrera destroyed left-handed pitching this year, putting up a 202 wRC+ against southpaws that was fourth best in baseball, behind only Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, and Andrew McCutchen.

Yes, there’s the whole PED suspension issue, and Cabrera is unlikely to ever repeat his 2012 performance, but he was pretty good for the Royals in 2011 and didn’t fail any drug tests then. And, on a one year “make good” contract, there wouldn’t be much risk for the Tigers, who know a thing or two about giving second chances to guys who can hit. Offering Melky the chance to hit in front the Triple Crown winner is a perfect sales pitch to get him to Detroit and show that he can perform even while clean. Given his contact rate, gap power, and switch-hitting skills, he’d be the perfect complement to Miguel Cabrera, and the Cabrera Squared shirts would sell themselves.

4. The Rangers trade RHP Tanner Scheppers and 1B Mitch Moreland to Cleveland for OF Shin-Soo Choo.

With Josh Hamilton unlikely to return, the Rangers need a legitimate left-handed bat. While plugging in Jurickson Profar and shifting Ian Kinsler to the outfield would create room for the team’s best prospect and fill Hamilton’s void, it would also make the team too right-handed, as they’d down to just David Murphy and Moreland as left-handed regulars. Choo would give them a patient left-handed stick whose gap power would play up in the heat, and could slide between RF and DH depending on Nelson Cruz’s health. His weakness against lefties means that they could use his spot to slide Profar in, getting him some playing time even if he’s not slotted for an everyday job out of spring training. And, because he’s entering the final year of his contract, they wouldn’t have to part with any of their best prospects to get him. The Indians would save roughly $8 million (depending on what Choo gets in his final trip through arbitration) and would add two interesting young players to their Major League roster, so it’s a move that could be a win-win for both sides.

5. The A’s sign Eric Chavez for one year, $4 million.

Back when “Moneyball” — the book, not the movie — was published, Eric Chavez was Billy Beane’s golden child. He had turned into an elite third baseman at a young age, and looked poised to help carry the franchise after the departure of The Big Three and Miguel Tejada. However, chronic back problems derailed his career and stole his power, and Chavez had to spend his final four years in Oakland watching from the bench as the A’s Cinderella run crashed around him. Now almost 35-years-old, Chavez somehow found the fountain of youth in New York, but it’s time for him to come home.

Josh Donaldson did an admirable job filling in at third base after Brandon Inge got hurt, but he’s probably best suited to a part-time job, and as a right-handed hitter, he could use a lefty to share the job with. Chavez is a lefty who should be strictly platooned and can’t be counted on to play everyday, so the match is perfect, and Chavez could be reunited with the franchise that developed him in time to celebrate its rebirth. The A’s are extremely young and could use a veteran leader like Chavez — especially if he can hit like he did in 2012 again — and it seems only fitting that he finishes his career where it started.

World Series Preview

Matchup to Watch: Doug Fister vs Pablo Sandoval

Sandoval is an excellent bad-ball hitter, but he’s also the most aggressive hitter in baseball at chasing out of the zone, and he does most of his damage against fastballs. Fister has excellent command of both his curve and change-up, and should attack Sandoval with a steady diet of off-speed stuff out of the zone. With Posey and Pence set to see nothing but right-handers, the Giants will need Sandoval to produce, and Fister can show the human starters on the Tigers staff how to pitch the Giants best left-handed bat.

Giants X-Factor: Angel Pagan

Marco Scutaro is just too famous to be an an X-Factor after his dynamite NLCS performance, but he’s not the only under-the-radar acquisition by Brian Sabean who is a big part of why the Giants are in the World Series. Pagan was essentially discarded by the Mets over the winter, but has provided value in every area of the game for San Francisco. A switch-hitter who is better from the left side, Pagan has a chance to thrive against the sea of right-handers Detroit will throw, and his ability to get on base in front of Scutaro can allow Bochy to use the hit-and-run that proved so effective against St. Louis.

Tigers X-Factor: Jose Valverde

The Tigers former closer lost his job because he was poorly suited to retiring the waves of left-handed sluggers on the Yankees, but he’s got a long track record of excellence against right-handed batters, and the middle of the Giants line-up is very right-handed. If Leyland uses him as a situation match-up guy, he can bring him in to face Scutaro, Posey, and Pence while only forcing him to face one left-handed batter (Sandoval), and can likely be quite effective in that role. Valverde’s problems against left-handers make him an ineffective closer, but if used selectively against right-handers, he can be a weapon for Detroit.

Giants Key Reliever: Jeremy Affeldt

The Giants bullpen is low on quality right-handers in front of Sergio Romo, which will force Bruce Bochy to trust Affeldt to get some big outs against right-handed hitters. Leyland will undoubtedly intersperse Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta between Prince Fielder, Andy Dirks, and Alex Avila, forcing any left-handed reliever to face two right-handed bats in order to get to the three lefties. Of the Giants left-handed relievers, Affeldt is the one most capable of getting Young and Peralta out, so don’t be surprised if he’s the San Francisco reliever that Bochy uses most often.

Tigers Key Reliever: Phil Coke

Coke was a revelation for the Tigers in the ninth inning against New York, but the Yankees lefty heavy line-up meant that he was often facing hitters who had no chance against his breaking ball. San Francisco doesn’t have those same kind of lefties running through their line-up, as their two best hitters from that side are both switch-hitters, meaning that Brandon Belt might be the only left-hander Coke faces the entire series. And Coke was a walking disaster against right-handed hitters this year. Of the 492 pitchers who threw at least 10 innings versus RHBs, Coke ranked 491st in batting average allowed (.381), 489th in on base percentage allowed (.446), and 482nd in slugging percentage allowed. While Coke played a vital role in their win against New York, the Giants are a wildly different match-up, and Leyland needs to rely much more heavily on his right-handers in this series. If Coke is anointed as the closer based on his ALCS performance, it could be a World Series disaster.

Giants Key Bench Player: Joaquin Arias

When the series travels to Detroit, the Giants will have to pick someone to serve as their designated hitter. The options are grim – Aubrey Huff looks finished, Ryan Theriot is on the roster for his defensive flexibility, and Hector Sanchez is the team’s backup catcher. Based on his late game defensive substitutions, it appears that the likely plan will be to have Arias take over as the starting third baseman, with Pablo Sandoval moving to Designated Hitter where his body type makes more sense. However, defensive metrics actually rate Sandoval as a pretty good defender, and it’s not clear that Arias is a significant improvement with the glove, so he’ll need to hit for the move to have positive ramifications for the Giants. Unfortunately for the Giants, Arias hit just .240/.278/.347 against right-handers this year, so this is a particularly bad match-up for him. Still, he may be the best of a bad lot, and for three games in Detroit, he’ll likely find himself in the starting line-up.

Tigers Key Bench Player: Quintin Berry

Berry’s not regularly a bench player, but with the lack of a DH in NL parks, Leyland has already committed to giving his left field spot to Delmon Young, so Berry will come off the bench for the first two (and potentially last two) games of the series. Young’s defensive issues in the outfield are well known, and Berry will almost certainly be called on to replace him late in games to provide better glovework, which could also lead to him hitting behind Prince Fielder in high leverage situations. While Berry likely won’t get too many at-bats in San Francisco, the ones he could be in line for could have huge ramifications, and the Tigers could end up needing to see their light hitting rookie to come through in a clutch situation.

Most Important Stat: Justin Verlander’s 3.80 career postseason ERA

The Tigers are going to be huge favorites in both Game 1 and 5 due to Verlander’s dominance, especially with the way he’s breezed through his last seven starts. However, baseball’s a funny game, and guys you expect do dominate in October don’t always perform as expected, even when they’re the game’s best pitcher. Verlander has been excellent this postseason, but he got hit pretty hard last year, and was lousy back in 2006 as well. Detroit should win both games he starts, but it’s not the mortal lock that you might think. Even with the Ace of all Aces on the mound, the Tigers odds in the two games he starts are probably no better than 60-65%. The Giants are a good baseball team, and shouldn’t simply be counted out of two games simply because Verlander is on the hill.

Modest Proposal: The Giants should bring back Melky Cabrera to DH.

In the first two rounds of the series, you could make a legitimate case that the Giants didn’t really need Cabrera. After all, Gregor Blanco has performed admirably in left field, and benching him for Cabrera isn’t a dramatic upgrade. However, with the sparse field of DH candidates, the gap between Cabrera and his replacement for those three games in Detroit could be massive, and the Giants are going to need all the offense they can get against the Tigers pitching staff. Even with a few months of rust after serving his suspension, Cabrera would be a vast offensive improvement over the inferior DH alternatives, and would provide a better pinch-hitting option in the games in San Francisco. The Giants may still be bitter at Cabrera for getting suspended in the first place, but nothing soothes an angry spirit like a World Series trophy, and they’re more likely to win one with him on the roster.

Prediction: Tigers in 7.

Yankees-Tigers ALCS Preview

Matchup to Watch: Prince Fielder vs Andy Pettitte

The Yankees getting extended to the limit by the Orioles pushes CC Sabathia back to either Game Three (on three days rest) or Game Four (on normal rest), but the Yankees still have an excellent left-handed starter lined up for Game One – Andy Pettitte. In fact, Pettitte was the toughest left-handed AL starting pitcher for left-handers to hit against this year, and Prince Fielder’s problems with lefties aren’t talked about enough. For his career, his .262/.344/.456 line against southpaws makes him just a decent hitter when a lefty is on the mound, and with Pettitte making two starts and potentially being available out of the bullpen in a potential Game 7, he’s going to see a lot the Yankees toughest LHP.

Yankees X-Factor: Eric Chavez

It seems likely that Alex Rodriguez’s benching was not a one game thing, and so Chavez is going to take over as the Yankees primary third baseman against right-handers. That makes the match-up against Detroit even more interesting, as their entire rotation is right-handed, so Chavez is going to play a large role in this series. If he produces anywhere near the level he did in the regular season — when he was worth +1.8 WAR in just 313 plate appearances — he can be a major factor, but his years of struggles prior to 2012 suggest that he might not be suited to an everyday role at age 34. Will Girardi be comfortable using Chavez every night? Can he perform without regular rest? These are not questions that we know the answer to, but might go a long way to determining the Yankees playoff future.

Tigers X-Factor: Doug Fister

With Justin Verlander slotted in for Game Three, Fister is going to take the ball to open the series and has a chance to establish himself as a true frontline pitcher. His breakout since coming to Detroit has gone a bit under the radar, but Fister was excellent for Detroit this season, posting an ERA that was 17 percent better than league average despite pitching in front of one of the league’s worst defenses. His transformation has come with the change from being a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower into a guy who can get strikeouts with both his change-up and his curve, and now Fister is one of the more underrated starters in baseball. The Yankees scored seven runs off of him in 9 2/3 innings in last year’s ALDS, but Fister’s a better pitcher now than he was then, and he’s going to have a big stage on which to show it.

Yankees Key Reliever: Boone Logan

As a team, the Tigers posted a 109 wRC+ (#3 in AL) against right-handed pitching but just a 96 wRC+ (#9 in AL) against left-handers, the largest platoon split of any team AL team. Logan didn’t get a ton of work in the ALDS, but he’s going to be called on quite often to neutralize Detroit’s left-handed thump. Logan is a good left-on-left reliever, but his command problems against right-handers makes him tough to use for more than one batter at a time.

Tigers Key Reliever: Jose Valverde

Valverde’s meltdown in Game Four of the ALDS didn’t help put to rest any concerns that Detroit had about their relief corps, and the Yankees are a nightmare of a match-up for Valverde. We chronicled his struggles against lefties in the ALDS preview, and the Yankees have a line-up that is heavy on left-handed power. Jim Leyland is unlikely to make a switch in his closer role at this point, but I wouldn’t trust Valverde to get Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher out. His ability to hold close leads against left-handers is almost certainly going to be tested, and could easily determine who advances to the World Series.

Yankees Key Bench Player: Alex Rodriguez

Even if Girardi gives him a start or two to keep him engaged, A-Rod’s biggest impact on the ALCS is likely to come as a pinch-hitter. He’s 0-14 in his career in that role, but Chavez and Ibanez both struggle mightily against left-handed pitching, and he’ll likely be called on to hit for either or both to counter a Phil Coke appearance. He might be the world’s most expensive pinch-hitter, but he’s also going to be Girardi’s best option off the bench, and could make a real difference in that role.

Tigers Key Bench Player: Does Not Exist

Jim Leyland has a starting nine, and barring a natural disaster or a return of the bubonic plague, those guys are going to win or lose the series for Detroit. Only two of the Tigers reserves — Avisail Garcia and Gerald Laird — even managed an official plate appearance in the first round, and both started because they’re part of the Tigers regular line-up against right-handers. Don Kelly ended up hitting a game-winning sac fly after being inserted as a pinch-runner earlier in Game Three, but that’s about the extent of bench usage that you’re likely to see from Detroit.

Most Important Stat: Tigers winning percentage when anyone but Justin Verlander starts – .511

The Tigers are a great team when Verlander starts and an average team when he doesn’t, but because he pitched in Game Five of the ALDS, the Tigers are going to have to rely on the rest of their roster to get them to the World Series. Verlander will only get two starts on normal rest if the series goes to seven games, so if they trail 3-2 headed into Game Six, they’ll have to choose between a short-rest Verlander or playing an elimination game without their ace on the mound. If the series goes seven, they’ve got a great chance to advance, but getting it that far while only getting one start from the game’s best pitcher is going to be a challenge.

Modest Proposal: Make Max Scherzer the closer.

Scherzer is an excellent starting pitcher, so this shouldn’t be seen as a demotion due to any issues with his performance. Instead, this would be an attempt to maximize his impact on the series. Scherzer’s slotted in to start game four, where he’ll likely be opposed by CC Sabathia, so there’s a decent chance the Tigers will lose that game no matter who pitches. By repurposing him as a dominating relief ace, the Tigers can likely get just as many innings out of Scherzer in relief as they could by giving him one start, and realign those innings to come in games that they have better chances of winning. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyley could each throw 2-3 innings in Game Four, gaining the platoon advantage early, so they wouldn’t be punting the game entirely, but would be doubling down on their opportunity to win the games when New York doesn’t have their ace on the hill.

Prediction: Yankees in six.

Yankees-Orioles ALDS Preview

Matchup to Watch: Manny Machado vs CC Sabathia/Andy Pettitte

The Orioles pulled their 20-year-old third baseman up from Double-A in August, and the talented youngster managed to hold his own down the stretch, even while making the adjustment from shortstop at the same time. While he’s still rough around the edges, Machado has already shown that he’s capable of driving the baseball, especially against left-handers. If the series goes five games, the Yankees will throw a left-handed starter in three of them, and the Orioles will need production from Machado to offset those southpaws ability to neutralize power hitters Jim Thome and Chris Davis.

Yankees X-Factor: Curtis Granderson

It’s an overstatement to say that Granderson makes the Yankees offense work, but his performance swings have a huge impact on whether the team wins or loses. While he looked to have solved some of his contact problems during last year’s breakout, his strikeout rate has continued to escalate this year. He whiffed in 31% of his second half plate appearances, during which he simply wasn’t the offensive force he’s been previously. If Granderson can put his bat on the ball, it’s got a good chance of traveling a long distance, and the Orioles posted a below average strikeout rate as a team, so this should be a good match-up for him.

Orioles X-Factor: Matt Wieters

While Wieters overall offensive performance has always been more good than great, he’s had stretches of baseball where he’s been the dominating force that he was billed as coming out of college. September was one of those stretches, as Wieters hit .296/.389/.541 and began to draw some respect from opposing managers – three of his four intentional walks on the season came in the final month. That version of Wieters is one of the game’s best players, and gives the Orioles a switch-hitting slugger who can do a lot of damage in a hurry. He’ll get the benefit of seeing a lot of left-handed pitching in this series, so Wieters has a chance to keep his hot September going.

Yankees Key Reliever: David Robertson

Rafael Soriano might be the guy filling in for Mariano Rivera, but Robertson is the reason the Yankees are able to protect so many leads. His command improvement has allowed him to work as more than just a one inning setup guy, as he faced five or more batters in 19 of his 65 appearances this year. He will almost certainly be asked to pitch across multiple innings in the postseason, including getting tough left-handers out when they don’t want to pull him for match-up reasons. Robertson’s hammer curve gives him a weapon that works against hitters from both sides of the plate, and the Orioles are going to have to figure out how to keep Robertson from turning each game into a six inning affair.

Orioles Key Reliever: Tommy Hunter

While Hunter’s overall season performance doesn’t seem to merit a spot on the playoff roster, his late season velocity spike saw him averaging 96 with his fastball, compared to 91-92 in the first five months of the season. The huge jump in velocity showed up immediately in his September results – 12 2/3 IP, 2 BB, 12 K, 0.71 ERA. While it’s a sample size of just 51 batters, it is no coincidence that Hunter turned into a dominating reliever when his fastball started hitting the upper-90s, and he simply didn’t look anything like the pitch-to-contact strike-thrower he’d been as a starter. Don’t look at Hunter’s 5.45 season ERA and think he’s a scrub – the most recent version of Hunter has the ability to be a big weapon for the Orioles.

Yankees Key Bench Player: Eduardo Nunez

With Andruw Jones second half collapse, Nunez may very well take over his role as the platoon OF/DH who starts against lefties. He only got 100 plate appearances during the regular season, but his high contact rate against southpaws made him a productive hitter, and it’s the kind of skill that might translate well into a limited role. You don’t see a utility infielder serving as a DH in the playoffs very often, but Nunez may very well be the Yankees best option.

Orioles Key Bench Player: Ryan Flaherty

Second base has been a season long problem for the O’s, with Robert Andino failing to hit much and Brian Roberts return simply leading to another injury. The team finished the year with Flaherty starting eight of the final 12 games at the keystone, as he flashed some power for the first time all year. Five of his nine extra base hits on the season came in September, and with no real effective alternatives, the rule 5 pick could end up getting significant playing time for the Orioles in the post-season.

Most Important Stat: Orioles bullpen WPA: +13.86

The Orioles amazing 29-9 record in one run games is essentially the main reason why the team is in the playoffs, and that record can be explained simply through continued amazing performances by the Orioles bullpen. In fact, by Win Probability Added – a measure that looks at wins added based on the situation, score, and inning at the time of the performance – the Orioles bullpen was the most “clutch” group of relievers in baseball history. While their bullpen was just decent in medium or low leverage situations, only Tampa Bay’s relievers performed better in high leverage situations, and the Orioles played in so many tight games that they were used in more tight situations than any other bullpen in the AL. This combination of high quantity and high quality performances when it matters most was the key to the O’s magical season, and they’ll need their relievers to keep carrying the day if they’re going to advance in October.

Modest Proposal: The Orioles should carry 13 pitchers.

In general, teams shorten their pitching staff in October, as the lack of a need for a fifth starter and the day off for travel give them an opportunity to consolidate innings among their best few pitchers. The Orioles, however, don’t really have a best few pitchers – they have an abundance of arms who are all similarly useful in specific situations, and the fact that the five games are scheduled to take place over just six days means that pitching depth is more important than usual. Additionally, the Orioles bench is not very good, and they only really need a backup catcher, a utility infielder, and one outfielder to serve as depth behind their regular starters. Going with 13 pitchers will allow Buck Showalter to be extremely aggressive with his bullpen usage, playing the match-ups and relying heavily on his bullpen rather than letting the starting pitchers dig a big hole. Against the AL’s best offense, having the ability to make six or seven pitching changes each game is more important than having a pinch-runner for Jim Thome.

Prediction: Yankees in four.

A’s-Tigers ALDS Preview

Matchup to Watch: Brandon Moss vs Phil Coke

The A’s don’t have a ton of power from the left side, and the Tigers don’t have much left-handed pitching, so this series is going to be a battle of right-handers, but the two prominent lefties might end up deciding things. Moss slugged .643 versus right-handed pitching but just .431 against lefties this year, so you can bet that Jim Leyland is going to target his lefty specialist to face the A’s toughest slugging lefty as many times as possible in the series. Because of Coke’s problems against right-handers — they hit .381/.446/.604 against him this year — Moss is probably the only batter he’ll face all series. These two should get used to seeing each other.

A’s X-Factor: George Kottaras

Like Moss, Kottaras will also benefit from the right-handed heavy pitching staff that Detroit leans upon, and should end up spending most of the time behind the plate for the A’s. He has 21 home runs in 541 career plate appearances against right-handed pitching, so while he’s not going to hit for a high average, he’s capable of turning around a fastball and providing some production from the bottom of the order.

Tigers X-Factor: Austin Jackson

For the first four months of the season, Jackson may have the Tigers best position player, as he added power and posted a .400 OBP, providing the opportunity for the big boys to drive in a lot of runs. He faded a bit in August and September, however, looking more like the decent hitter with some OBP issues he’d been in previous years. Last year, opposing pitchers dominated Jackson in the postsesaon, exploiting his contact issues to limit him to just a .195/.327/.317 line. His improvement in the first half of the year suggests that he can do better this year, but he’ll need to get back to the things that made him successful earlier in the season.

A’s Key Reliever: Sean Doolittle

It’s amazing that a converted position player could become so good so quickly, but in Doolittle’s first year of pitching, he’s become a dominant left-handed reliever, and one of the key parts of the A’s bullpen. Interestingly enough, though, he posted a large reverse platoon split, and was much better against right-handed batters than lefties. This attribute should let him go multiple innings if need be, and Bob Melvin shouldn’t be afraid to let him go through the heart of the Tigers order – he’s got as good a chance of retiring Miguel Cabrera as he does of getting Prince Fielder out.

Tigers Key Reliever: Joaquin Benoit

Jim Leyland leaned on Benoit very heavily last October, but given his second half meltdown — he’s allowed 11 home runs since the start of July — it will be interesting to see if he’ll be given as much responsibility this year. Most of the rest of the Tigers bullpen is primarily made up of match-up guys, so Benoit’s ability to get both right-handers and left-handers out could prove to be pivotal, but his gopheritis this year suggests that asking him to protect a late lead for too long could go horribly wrong in a hurry. The Tigers need Benoit to be the guy he was last year, not the guy he’s been in the second half of this year.

A’s Key Bench Player: Chris Carter

With Seth Smith as the starting DH against right-handed pitchers, Carter will be limited to pinch-hitting duties in this series. If Cliff Pennington comes to bat in a key situation, look for Carter to pop out of the dugout and provide a little more pressure on the Tigers pitchers. While he strikes out a lot, Carter may very well be the best pinch-hitter on anyone’s bench in the playoffs, with his power giving him the chance to change a game or two.

Tigers Key Bench Player: Ramon Santiago

This is almost a selection by default, as the rest of the Tigers bench is not much look to at. In fact, the Tigers lack of depth beyond their starters was one of their key problems this year, and Leyland is likely to just ride his starters for as long as he can. Santiago can serve as a pinch-runner in a key situation, but beyond that, don’t expect to see many of Detroit’s reserves in this series. They’re just not good enough to be featured in games with this kind of meaning.

Most Important Stat: Tigers starters, 82 ERA-

Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez combined to prevent runs at a rate that was 18 percent better than the league average this year. To put that in context, that’s essentially the same rate put up by Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia this year. The Tigers starters are the best group that any team takes into October, and while they’re not quite up to the Phillies level from the past few years, they’re pretty close. The A’s offense has been surprisingly good in the second half of the year, but they’re in for a stiff challenge, as there just isn’t a weak spot in this Detroit rotation.

Modest Proposal: Jose Valverde should not be asked to begin the 9th if an LHB is due up.

While Valverde is the Tigers capital-C Closer, he’s really a right-handed specialist masquerading in that role. He only struck out 21 left-handed batters all season (against 19 walks), and his problems holding leads have mostly come when he’s been asked to retire a series of guys who bat from the opposite side. If a left-hander is due up to start the inning, the Tigers are better off sticking with Benoit for one additional batter, then handing the ball to Valverde to go after the righties. The A’s don’t have the same amount of scary left-handed bats that others do, but Leyland should still protect his closer as best he can, and that means not using him for the entire ninth inning if a right-hander isn’t due up first.

Prediction: Tigers in five.

Reds-Giants NLDS Preview

Matchup to Watch: Buster Posey vs Aroldis Chapman

Posey put together an amazing offensive season that is likely going to end with the NL MVP trophy on his mantle, but he did most of his damage against left-handed pitching, hitting .433/.470/.793 against southpaws on the year. Conversely, he only hit .292/.382/.440 against right-handed pitching, which is a nice line but not overly spectacular. The Reds pitching staff is heavily right-handed, so Posey’s chances to tee off on a left-hander is only likely to happen if he gets a chance to face the Reds flamethrowing closer. While Chapman was excellent for the Reds this season, 10 of the 12 extra base hits — and all four of the home runs — he allowed were against righties this year. Conventional wisdom will tell Dusty Baker to bring Chapman in to face whoever is coming up in the ninth inning, but if he has a chance to get Posey out with a right-hander before going to Chapman, he should take advantage of it. The Reds don’t have to let Posey face a lefty the entire series, and can mitigate the Giants main offensive weapon if they simply keep throwing right-handers at him, saving Chapman for everyone else in the line-up.

Giants X-Factor: Brandon Belt

Bruce Bochy has talked about having Hector Sanchez catch Tim Lincecum for his comfort level, but doing so would force Buster Posey to first base and Brandon Belt to the bench. With the Reds rotation featuring all right-handed pitching, the Giants can’t afford to sit one of their few quality left-handed bats in favor of their backup catcher. Belt needs to start each game, and if that means Lincecum has to throw to Posey, so be it.

Reds X-Factor: Bronson Arroyo

Arroyo is being given the chance to start in Game 2 of the series, meaning that he’s also going to be lined up to start game 5 if the Reds stay with just a three man rotation. Arroyo had a strong comeback season after a disastrous 2011, but is still prone to giving up home runs, and could put Baker in a tough situation if he gives up a few long balls early. With Mat Latos available, the Reds are taking a risk in lining up Arroyo to get the ball in a potential deciding fifth game, and Arroyo’s going to have to keep the ball in the yard for this decision to not look like a mistake.

Giants Key Reliever: Jose Mijares

The Giants acquired Mijares for the stretch run to help them deal with dangerous left-handers, and the Reds have the most dangerous left-handed hitter in the game in Joey Votto. Mijares held left-handed batters to a .205/.269/.317 line this season, but he’s going to be asked to get Votto out multiple times in this series, a tall task for even the toughest lefty reliever.

Reds Key Reliever: Jonathan Broxton

The Reds bullpen is a bit strange, in that the two best relievers down there are both left-handed and that all the important right-handers were better against left-handed batters than right-handers this season. However, with the Giants mashing lefties this year, the Reds are going to have to maximize their right-on-right match-ups, and that will mean using guys like Broxton to go after Marco Scutaro, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence. With a strong fastball and a decent slider, Broxton should be better against right-handers than he was this season. He’ll need to be for the Reds to get some big outs late in games in this series.

Giants Key Bench Player: Aubrey Huff

Huff had a lost season and his potential inclusion on the playoff roster is a source of controversy, but the Giants don’t have any other left-handed power on their bench. Perhaps Huff doesn’t possess the kind of thump he used to have either, but Bruce Bochy is going to need someone to pinch-hit against right-handers, and there aren’t any other obvious options behind San Francisco’s regular starters. The team’s lack of pinch-hitting depth is a problem, and they’ll likely look to Huff for a miracle comeback after a miserable 2012 campaign.

Reds Key Bench Player: Xavier Paul

Paul was very effective against right-handed pitching down the stretch, and even spent a little time in center field, where Drew Stubbs has been mostly ineffective this season. If Stubbs comes to bat in a critical situation early in the game, Dusty Baker should not hesitate to use Paul to pinch-hit for Stubbs. The defensive downgrade might hurt later, but Paul can hit right-handed pitching, something that cannot be said for Stubbs.

Most Important Stat: Giants 81.7% contact rate on swings

The Giants offense posted the fourth best contact rate in baseball this year, producing offense through consistently putting the bat on the ball. The Reds bullpen allowed the lowest rate of contact of any relief corps in baseball, limiting hitters to just 73.7% contact on the season. Late in games, it’s going to be strength versus strength, with the Reds relievers trying to throw the ball past Giants hitters who are very good at putting the ball in play. The best way to protect a late lead is to simply strike everyone out, but San Francisco is the toughest playoff team to accomplish that against.

Modest Proposal: Todd Frazier should start at third base for the Reds over Scott Rolen.

Baker favors the veteran for his experience and his defense, but Frazier clearly outperformed Rolen when he was given a chance to play during the regular season. Rolen’s glove still has value, but shouldn’t stand in the way of one of the Reds best hitters getting a chance to drive in runs. Rolen can be used as a late game defensive replacement, giving Baker the advantage of improved defense when protecting leads, but if Cincinnati wants to maximize their chances of advancing past the first round, Frazier should be in the starting line-up.