Monday, October 17, 2011

World Series Preview: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

After convincing Game 6 drubbings in their respective League Championship Series’ clinched a World Series berth for both the Rangers and Cardinals, we’re left with quite an interesting matchup to decide baseball’s champion. The Rangers, a team with big bats throughout the lineup but some suspect pitching, return to their second straight World Series after winning the AL West by a comfortable 10-game margin. The Cardinals, on the other hand, took advantage of a Red Sox-scale September collapse by the Braves to earn their playoff berth on the last day of the season. The Cardinals are one of few teams in baseball that may be able to mash with the Rangers, as the Pujols-Holliday-Berkman core of their lineup will be able to take advantage of the Rangers’ cozy ballpark as effectively as the Rangers can. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington leads ESPN’s Park Factors with a 1.4 Run Factor and 1.5 Home Run factor, meaning roughly 50% more fly balls become home runs in Arlington as opposed to a league-neutral park. On the other hand, pitching will likely have the advantage in St. Louis, where park factors of 0.9 for runs and 0.77 for home runs suggest that games are unlikely to turn into the slugfests that might favor the Rangers. In an odd twist, Prince Fielder’s All-Star Game home run, which won the game for the National League, secures home field advantage for his division rival, as the Cardinals will have the advantage of four games at home should the series go the full seven.

Both clubs have benefited from major bullpen acquisitions this season, and have been leaning heavily on their bullpens to prevent their back-of-the-rotation starters from piling up innings when more effective arms are available. For St. Louis, trading rising star Colby Rasmus seemed like something of a head-scratcher, but the continued emergence of Jon Jay and the success of the other arms acquired in the deal may prove to be their ticket to a World Series. Jay, a promising centerfielder in his own right, has replaced Rasmus as the team’s everyday centerfielder. Edwin Jackson has impressed in the rotation, beating Roy Oswalt in a strong divisional series outing and earning a start in Game 3 of the World Series. Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, the other pitchers acquired in the trade, pitched three innings of one-run ball as part of the team’s seven-reliever bridge from Jackson’s minor blow-up in the first inning to the World Series in Game 6 of the NLCS. Rzepczynski has accumulated a 2.33 SIERA in 5.2 innings this postseason, while Dotel has amassed a 1.45 in 6.2 innings. When the Cardinals can piece together runs of 4+ runs from their bullpen, much of the stress on their rotation is relieved. Since this rotation is largely mediocre without the presence of Adam Wainwright, Tony La Russa has leaned heavily on Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez, Jason Motte, and Arthur Rhodes, in addition to the pitchers acquired in the Rasmus trade.

I’ve talked at length about the Rangers’ offense, and it seems likely that a new player will be able to step up and carry the team each day. In the series against the Tigers, Nelson Cruz filled that role, while Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, or any of a number of other sluggers are certainly capable of picking up the slack should Cruz cool off. The Rangers’ starters other than CJ Wilson aren’t exactly the types you’d expect to shut down the Cardinals’ lineup, but Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels has built a similarly effective playoff bullpen to minimize the potential negative impact of the team’s starting options after Wilson. A day before the trading deadline, Daniels picked up Koji Uehara from the Orioles for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. The next day, Daniels traded two pitching prospects, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Mike Adams, who may be the best setup man in the league. Adams has fashioned a SIERA of under 3 for each of the past four seasons, including a 2.40 this year. Daniels finished his external bullpen tinkering by adding Mike Gonzalez on a waiver trade, giving the team a second lefty option in addition to Darren Oliver. Alexi Ogando, an effective member of the Rangers’ bullpen in 2010, was transitioned to the starting rotation this year extremely successfully. However, in the playoffs, Ogando isn’t needed in the rotation, and he’s been effective in short-innings duty for Ron Washington. Ogando has pitched 10.1 innings in 7 appearances for the Rangers in the postseason, with a ridiculous 1.87 SIERA to show for it. Along with Uehara, Adams, Gonzalez, and Ogando, the Rangers also have the strongest parts of their 2011 bullpen available for late-inning duty. With closer Neftali Feliz, go-to lefty Darren Oliver, and playoff revelation Scott Feldman, the Rangers are well positioned to utilize their bullpen extensively.

I’d expect this series to be very exciting, with the potential for explosive offense at almost any moment. I think the Rangers have a slight advantage in the rotation, While CJ Wilson will have a fairly even matchup with fellow ace Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia will have an advantage over Colby Lewis in Game 2, especially in St. Louis. However, I think Derek Holland will give the Rangers a chance to win against Edwin Jackson, and though he’s somewhat unheralded, Matt Harrison has been Texas’ second-best pitcher this season according to WAR. He benefits from some fairly positive HR/FB luck (WAR is based off of FIP, so this isn’t taken into account), but if Harrison can continue to avoid gopher balls in Game 4, he should have a good shot against Kyle Lohse.

Once the teams’ bottom of the rotation starters are exposed in Texas, we could see some slugfests in Arlington, making these teams’ bullpens a focal point of the series as they try to slow down the big lumber in both dugouts. I think the deciding advantage in the series will be in both the teams’ bullpen and lineup depth, and Texas has the edge in both categories. Texas’ bullpen acquisitions allow the Rangers to bring ace relievers as early as the fifth or sixth inning and be assured of quality innings for the rest of the game, which is a luxury the Cardinals’ bullpen doesn’t give them. In addition, while the cores of these teams lineups may be comparable, the Rangers have an advantage lower in the lineup. Mike Napoli, who led all MLB catchers with a 178 wRC+ this season, hits sixth. Nelson Cruz, who hit an MLB record six homers in the ALCS to win the series MVP award, hits seventh. Though David Freese showed some offensive ability in winning the NLCS MVP, the Cardinals will counter the Rangers’ stacked lineup with Nick Punto and Yadier Molina. Though these players certainly have value, they won’t be able to match the offensive output of the Rangers’ role players. In the end, my prediction is that this series will come down to the Rangers’ offensive firepower and the Cardinals’ inferior bullpen, and Texas will slug its way to the first World Championship in the history of the franchise in the franchise’s first year under the principal ownership of pitching legend Nolan Ryan.

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