Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

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The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




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MLB Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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Keys to 2013: Texas Rangers

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Starting Pitching Key: Yu Darvish

The Rangers’ starting rotation isn’t as deep as it once was. They know what they can expect from Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. The back of the rotation is a giant question mark and they don’t even have Scott Feldman to step in as a swingman while they wait for Martin Perez and Colby Lewis to return from injury. Alexi Ogando has proven he can be effective as a starter, but the key for the Rangers rotation is Darvish.

Darvish was everything the Rangers could have wanted when they paid the big posting fee (almost $52 million) and signed him to a $50.5 million contract. If he evolves into a season-long Cy Young contender, the Rangers are a title contender. If he falters, their search for starting pitching will get serious.

Relief Pitching Key: Joakim Soria

Soria is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the Rangers have a hole in the eighth inning with the departure of Mike Adams and the shifting of Ogando to the rotation. They’re also waiting for the return (probably late in the season if they’re still contending) of Neftali Feliz.

A major question regarding the Rangers’ bullpen is whether the new delineation of duties with Nolan Ryan’s possible departure and GM Jon Daniels’s promotion leads to a more conventional pitch count/innings limit for the starters that was decidedly abandoned when Ryan was truly in charge. If the Rangers switch strategies, the bullpen will be pushed harder and be increasingly important.

Offensive Key: Lance Berkman

If Berkman is healthy, he’s going to hit. A knee injury limited him to 32 games for the Cardinals in 2012 and he considered retirement. Now, with the Rangers, he can be a designated hitter and not worry about playing the field. Less stress will be placed on his knees. He still hits and walks and with the Rangers friendly home ballpark, it’s reasonable to expect Berkman to hit 25+ homers and post a .380 OBP.

Defensive Key: Craig Gentry

The Rangers’ offense is not the machine it once was with Josh Hamilton gone. Gentry can run, but that’s secondary to catching the ball in center field. The Rangers are not as deep as they’ve been in the last several years and their margin for error is diminished. Fundamentals are imperative to overcoming these changes and not missing the offense from Hamilton too greatly.

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2012 Preview/Guide—Texas Rangers

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My book is now available on Kindle, Smashwords and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

Click on the above links to purchase a copy.

Here’s a full sample with more upcoming:

Texas Rangers

2011 Record: 96-66; 1st place, American League West.

Defeated Tampa Bay Rays in ALDS 3 games to 1.

Defeated Detroit Tigers in ALCS 4 games to 2.

Lost to St. Louis Cardinals in World Series 4 games to 3.

2011 Recap:

Despite losing Cliff Lee from the 2010 American League pennant winners, the Rangers again rolled to the division title in the AL West, knocked out the Rays in the ALDS and the Tigers in the ALCS.

They came within one strike of winning the World Series in the ninth inning of game 6 before the Cardinals tied the game against closer Neftali Feliz.

The Rangers scored 2 runs in the top of the tenth on a home run by Josh Hamilton and again were within one strike of winning the World Series and the Cardinals tied the game again.

In the bottom of the eleventh, David Freese homered to win the game for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals won game 7 and the World Series.

2012 ADDITIONS:

RHP Joe Nathan signed a 2-year, $14.75 million contract with club option for 2013. (Twins)

RHP Yu Darvish’s rights were purchased from Japan for $51.7 million and he signed a 6-year, $56 million contract.

1B Brandon Snyder was purchased from the Baltimore Orioles.

OF/1B Brad Hawpe signed a minor league contract. (Padres)

RHP Sean Green signed a minor league contract. (Brewers)

LHP Mitch Stetter signed a minor league contract. (Brewers)

OF Kyle Hudson signed a minor league contract. (Orioles)

OF/1B Conor Jackson signed a minor league contract. (Red Sox)

LHP Joe Beimel signed a minor league contract. (Pirates)

C Luis Martinez was acquired from the San Diego Padres.

RHP Greg Reynolds was acquired from the Colorado Rockies.

INF Luis Hernandez signed a minor league contract. (Mets)

LHP Neal Cotts signed a minor league contract.

2012 SUBTRACTIONS:

LHP C.J. Wilson was not re-signed. (Angels)

OF Endy Chavez was not re-signed. (Orioles)

LHP Darren Oliver was not re-signed. (Blue Jays)

C Matt Treanor was not re-signed. (Dodgers)

RHP Darren O’Day was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles.

C Taylor Teagarden was traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

RHP Brandon Webb was not re-signed.

RHP Tim Wood was not re-signed. (Pirates)

INF Andres Blanco was not re-signed. (Nationals)

1B/OF Chad Tracy was traded to the Colorado Rockies.

2012 PROJECTED STARTING ROTATION: Colby Lewis; Derek Holland; Neftali Feliz; Yu Darvish; Matt Harrison; Alexi Ogando.

2012 PROJECTED BULLPEN: Joe Nathan; Mike Adams; Koji Uehara; Scott Feldman; Mark Lowe; Michael Kirkman; Yoshinori Tateyama; Joe Beimel; Sean Green.

2012 PROJECTED LINEUP: C-Mike Napoli; 1B-Mitch Moreland; 2B-Ian Kinsler; 3B-Adrian Beltre; SS-Elvis Andrus; LF-David Murphy; CF-Josh Hamilton; RF-Nelson Cruz; DH-Michael Young.

2012 PROJECTED BENCH: C-Yorvit Torrealba; OF-Julio Borbon; OF-Craig Gentry; 1B-Brandon Snyder; C-Luis Martinez; OF/1B-Conor Jackson

2012 POSSIBLE CONTRIBUTORS: RHP-Greg Reynolds; RHP-Jacob Brigham; INF-Luis Hernandez; RHP-Cody Eppley; LHP-Miguel De Los Santos; RHP-Justin Miller; LHP-Martin Perez; RHP-Neil Ramirez; RHP-Matthew West; OF-Engel Beltre; OF/1B-Brad Hawpe; LHP-Mitch Stetter; OF-Kyle Hudson; OF/1B-Brad Nelson; LHP-Neal Cotts.

FANTASY PICKS: RHP-Joe Nathan; RHP-Yu Darvish; RHP-Neftali Feliz; RF-Nelson Cruz; RHP-Alexi Ogando.

MANAGEMENT:

The new ownership group led by team president Nolan Ryan along with GM Jon Daniels has authored a case study in how to rebuild a financially strapped and moribund franchise from nothing to the dominant team in the American League within a reasonable budget.

Ryan, having been one of the best and most durable pitchers in the history of baseball and definitely not babied as pitchers are today, has implemented a new strategy of letting the pitchers pitch rather than utilize a random number of pitches and innings to limit their development.

There’s still something to be said for proper mechanics and common sense in conjunction with the application of new science.

Because Ryan is a Hall of Famer and running the team, he’s in a unique position to try something different and be responsible for the aftermath¾good or bad.

Daniels overcame a rocky start as GM when he made perhaps one of the worst trades in the history of the game sending Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka.

He has since become intelligent and flexible in finding players through the draft; made brilliant trades of his own star players like Mark Teixeira and brought in multiple pieces like Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz that expedited the rebuilding process.

The Rangers put together a deep farm system that has allowed them to make in-season acquisitions of terrific set-up man Mike Adams and to be involved in pursuing Carlos Beltran.

This front office is willing to spend money and take risks regardless of what outsiders say as they showed when they won the bidding for Yu Darvish and signed Joe Nathan to move Feliz into the starting rotation.

The Rangers are one of the best run clubs in baseball because of the diversity in the front office and willingness to do things using the old and new schools of thought.

Oh, and they added Greg Maddux to the front office as a special assistant this past winter.

It’s funny how Ron Washington was laughed at and ridiculed until those who know absolutely nothing about the inner workings of a baseball clubhouse and the type of methods and messages that get through to players heard the recorded pep talk Washington gave to his club before game 7 of the World Series.

More than once self-proclaimed baseball “experts” who know how to calculate a player’s OPS while he’s running to first base after a single to left field said they found a new “respect” for Washington for that profane and hilarious tirade about what his team was going to do to Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter.

Of course they lost. Of course one could point to several strange decisions Washington made in the course of the series that might’ve cost the team the World Series. But that’s irrelevant. Even before he failed the drug test in 2010 and came up with the preposterous excuse that it was the first time he’d tried cocaine (that’s backward lottery-level unlucky), the players always loved Washington and played hard for him because they know he has their backs.

Sometimes it’s more important for the players to do whatever they can to win for their manager than it is to have a strategic genius they don’t want to play for.

The Rangers front office gives Washington the players to win, they let him have the statistics he needs to know and they let him do his job. The end result has been two consecutive AL pennants and you can’t argue with those results.

In January of 2012, Washington was rewarded with a 2-year contract extension through 2014.

STARTING PITCHING:

With the departure of C.J. Wilson to the Angels, the Rangers are dealing with an All-Star pitcher’s departure. They don’t have a specific “ace” of their staff…yet. But Neftali Feliz and Yu Darvish both have the potential.

For right now, the veteran Colby Lewis should be considered their number one and the anchor.

Lewis returned from Japan in 2010 and was their most consistent pitcher in that year’s playoffs.

Last season, he went 14-10 and his overall numbers look far worse than they did in 2010, but it’s misleading. He did allow a league-leading 35 homers, but his ERA was bloated to 4.40 by games in which he got punished for 9, 6, 7 and 6 earned runs. Apart from that, he was consistently good. In 200 innings, he allowed 187 hits with 56 walks and struck out 169. Lewis doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he knows how to pitch and work his way out of trouble.

He’s a free agent at the end of the 2012 season.

25-year-old lefty Derek Holland was brilliant in the ALDS and the World Series. During the regular season, he led the American League with 4 shutouts and went 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 198 innings. Holland has a mid-90s fastball, a changeup, a slider and a curve. Holland has All-Star and Cy Young Award-contending potential.

The Rangers flirted with the idea of shifting Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation last year by letting him start in spring training, he moved back into the bullpen and endured some shoulder trouble that might have been as a result of the abrupt changes back and forth.

The Rangers knew that the decision had to be made once and for all. The ambiguity of not having a big league closer to replace Feliz and to leave the job open to made it a possibility that Feliz would have to move back out of necessity. That was solved when they signed veteran Joe Nathan and officially moved Feliz into the rotation to stay.

The Rangers have experience with transitioning relievers to the starting rotation successfully after doing so with Wilson and Alexi Ogando.

Feliz also might have had shellshock from blowing game 6 of the World Series after two were out, so it’s best to take him from that pressure-packed role and let him start. He’s only about to turn 24 in May and with his arsenal of pitches¾a fastball that’s reached 100-mph, a cutter, a slider and a changeup¾he’ll be able to mix and match and change speeds more effectively than he could as a reliever.

He’s probably going to be limited in his innings, but he racks up the strikeouts and will make the shift well.

When I first heard the stories about Yu Darvish, all I could think about was the misplaced and retrospectively inaccurate hype about the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu. Because of that, I was dubious as to whether teams should spend the vast amount of cash up front simply to win his rights and then pay him what amounted to a free agent contract.

The total amount for Matsuzaka wound up at over $100 million and it promised to be that much or more for Darvish.

I would’ve refrained from pursuit.

Then I watched video clips of Darvish pitching and saw that he’s going to be a star.

He has a deceptive, power motion and a wide variety of pitches with a fastball, a cutter, a slider, a forkball and a wicked off-speed curve.

Darvish’s motion combines the quirkiness of Rick Sutcliffe’s wrist hook; the hip turn and leg drive of Tim Lincecum; and the inventiveness and array of stuff of David Cone.

His ethnicity is unique with an Iranian father and Japanese mother, he’s a big personality and extremely handsome.

Darvish is going to be a megastar.

Lefty Matt Harrison went 14-9 in 30 starts, pitching 185 innings and allowing 180 hits and only 13 homers. He walked 57 and struck out 126.

He’s effective against lefties and righties and for a pitcher to pitch his home games in the hitters’ heaven of Arlington to only allow 13 homers is amazing.

Harrison has a fastball that reaches the upper-90s, a changeup, a curve and a cutter and, like Holland, has All-Star potential.

Alexi Ogando was a dominating set-up man in 2010, moved into the rotation in 2011 and made the All-Star team. Ogando was so dominant in the first half (opposing hitters had an OPS of .591) that a good second half looks worse than it is. But a .743 OPS is still good. Ogando has a mid-90s fastball, a changeup and a slider and is murder on right-handed hitters.

The Rangers have six capable starters so they can be cautious with both Feliz and Darvish by occasionally using a six-man rotation to get both accustomed to their new role and surroundings. Doing this would let them refrain from using an innings/pitch limit based on specious numbers and let the workload stay under control more naturally.

BULLPEN:

Veteran closer Joe Nathan was signed 2-year, $14.75 million contract with an option for 2014 to replace Feliz.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, Nathan returned as the Twins’ closer to start the season, was used cautiously and got off to a bad start in April and May. He went back on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his elbow. He was demoted to set-up man, reinstalled as the main man in July and regained the form that made him one of the best short relievers in baseball over the past decade.

His velocity was back in the 92-93 range after hovering around 90-mph in April and his strikeout numbers were at one-per-inning.

For some pitchers it takes more than the usual one calendar year for them to regain their form following Tommy John and that appears to have been the case with Nathan.

For the Rangers, his signing allows them to get an inexpensive former All-Star with extensive experience (albeit struggles in the post-season, especially against the Yankees) and a potential big time starter in Feliz.

Mike Adams was acquired from the Padres at the trading deadline and was the same dominant set-up man he’s been for years with the Padres.

Adams throws one slider after another with a quirky, stressful overhand motion. He’s more effective against righties (.439 OPS), but is solid against lefties as well (.538 OPS).

He’s had multiple arm problems in the past because of that stressful motion and the reluctance of Washington to use him in the World Series was either strategic ineptitude (possible), or something was bothering Adams which the Rangers did not disclose.

He’s a free agent at the end of the season and someone is going to pay him big money as a closer or set-up man if he has a good year with the Rangers and is healthy.

Koji Uehara has been the subject of trade rumors at the time of this writing and the Rangers are listening to offers.

Uehara racks up the strikeouts and throws strikes (85 k’s and 9 walks in 65 innings in 2011 with the Rangers and Orioles) and his numbers are almost identical against righties and lefties. He doesn’t throw particularly hard (around 89-90 mph), but he has a great split-finger fastball. His one issue¾and it’s a big one¾is the home run ball. He allowed only 38 hits in those 65 innings and an absurd 11 home runs. Then he allowed 3 in 1 ⅓ innings in the playoffs.

I think I could hit a homer against him.

Scott Feldman pitched brilliantly in the post-season until the World Series.

Having won 17 games in 2009 by imitating Roy Halladay’s motion, Feldman looked like he was going to be a rotation stalwart. Injuries, particularly to his knee, ruined his 2010 and a large chunk of 2011. There was debate as to whether he’d even be on the post-season roster in 2011, but he was and played a key part in the Rangers winning the pennant. He was knocked around in the World Series by the Cardinals.

Having been a starter, the righty Feldman has a starter’s arsenal with a sinking fastball, a cutter, a changeup, a slider and a curve.

Mark Lowe allowed the game-winning homer to David Freese in game 6 of the World Series.

Lowe has a high-90s fastball, a changeup and a slider. As a second-tier reliever for the Rangers, in 45 innings, he walked 19 and struck out 42. Lowe allowed 6 homers.

Michael Kirkman is a lefty with a 95 mph fastball, a changeup and a slider. He’s put up big strikeout numbers in the minors and held lefties to a .622 OPS and 0 homers in 49 plate appearances last season.

36-year-old Japanese righty Yoshinori Tateyama is a crafty junkballer with a sinking fastball, a change and a curve. In 44 innings, he struck out 43 batters and allowed 8 homers. Lefties beat him up with a .909 OPS, but he held righties to a .189/.230/.274 slash line.

Veteran lefty specialist Joe Beimel signed a minor league contract. The 35-year-old had a bad year for the Pirates in 2011.

He throws across his body and relies on a sinker and slider and, as relievers numbers tend to fluctuate, it’s reasonable to think the Beimel could have a comeback season with the Rangers.

Sean Green signed a minor league contract after spending 2011 with the Brewers organization. He was in Triple-A for the majority of the season, but there’s no point in judging Green on his past stats and what he’s done as he makes the transition from an over-the-top sinkerballer to a sidearmer. As a sidearmer, he can be an effective righty specialist for the Rangers.

LINEUP:

I found it laughable that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was considered a “genius” not just for finding a taker for almost all of Vernon Wells’s contract, but also got a productive hitter in Mike Napoli…then none of those who were calling him a genius acknowledged that the Blue Jays didn’t think any more of Napoli than the Angels did by spinning him off to the Rangers for Frank Francisco.

Natually, after the year he had, both the Angels and the Blue Jays would’ve been far better off with the Napoli than Wells or Francisco.

Napoli has a massive year at the plate with a 30 homers in 432 plate appearances with a slash line of .320/.414/.631. That’s a ridiculous 1.046 OPS.

To put that in perspective, NL MVP Ryan Braun’s OPS was .994; Jose Bautista had a 1.056 OPS.

And before you start thinking that Napoli was a Josh Hamilton-style product of hitting in Rangers Ballpark, he hit better on the road than he did at home.

His numbers were also nearly identical hitting against lefties or righties.

Napoli’s BAbip was .344, so he’s not going to repeat those numbers, but he’s a far better hitter than anyone ever gave him credit for and as a pending free agent, he’s going to want to have another big season at age 30.

He’s also had a good year defensively and threw out 36% of basestealers.

Napoli isn’t fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain suffered in the World Series, but should be good to go at the start of the season.

The Rangers were courting Prince Fielder, but weren’t going to match the Tigers’ offer. If Victor Martinez’s injury hadn’t spurred the Tigers to spend big on Fielder, there was a chance that Fielder would’ve signed a shorter term contract with the Rangers to try and win a championship and be a free agent again in 3-5 years.

With Fielder off the board, the Rangers will again have Mitch Moreland and Napoli playing first base.

Moreland is a player for whom WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a valuable stat because the Rangers would be able to find a first baseman somewhere or play Michael Young at first regularly and get themselves a DH who’d be more productive than Moreland. Moreland was a -0.2 WAR player last season in spite of hitting 16 homers and 22 doubles. In comparison to other first basemen in baseball, that’s not very good. First base is generally a power position.

If Moreland doesn’t hit, the Rangers will probably play Young and Napoli at first base and look to upgrade their offense as the season moves along with a power bat.

Don’t be surprised to see them pursuing David Wright of the Mets.

Ian Kinsler had his usual extreme home/road splits as he mashed the ball at home with a .933 OPS and posted a .730 on the road. Unlike recent years, though, he had 16 homers at home and 16 on the road.

Kinsler is a very good defensive second baseman, hits plenty of extra base hits and steals 30 bases a year. His average dropped to .255, but his BAbip was .243, so that was bad luck and his average should rebound back to his career numbers of around .275-.285.

It took me awhile to come around as to how good a player Adrian Beltre is. Because Beltre had such a tough time putting up offensive numbers during his time with the Mariners, his numbers were mediocre and his defense wasn’t as appreciated as it is today.

Now Beltre is considered one of the best players in baseball and is building a reasonable Hall of Fame case with at least 4-5 productive years in his future.

Beltre won his third Gold Glove and his second Silver Slugger award. He had an .892 OPS with 32 homers and 33 doubles. He took advantage of the friendly confines in Arlington by hitting 23 of his homers and having an OPS of 1.078 at home.

Beltre hit 5 homers in the post-season, including 3 in one game against the Rays. He’s a leader on and off the field and was a prescient and brilliant signing for the Rangers.

Elvis Andrus is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop and stole 37 bases in 2011. The 23-year-old is improving at the plate as he matures and hitting the ball with more authority. Last season, he raised his average .14 points to .279 and his OPS from .643 to .708. Eventually, he’s going to hit 8-12 homers to go along with his speed and defense.

David Murphy plays regularly against right-handed pitching. He struggles against lefties.

Against righties in 348 plate appearances, Murphy had a slash line of .296/.348/.461 and hit all of his 11 homers against righties.

Josh Hamilton missed a chunk of the season with a broken arm and it hindered his power and contributed to the decline in his numbers from his MVP season in 2010.

Hamilton still hit 25 homers and drove in 94 runs with an .882 OPS and hit the homer that gave the Rangers the lead in game 6 of the World Series and came within one strike of winning the championship.

He’s a great talent.

But none of that is relevant for his 2012 season.

In early February, Hamilton publicly fell off the wagon and had several drinks in a Texas bar/restaurant. This was the first public misstep for Hamilton since 2009 when he was also caught drinking and partying with fans in an Arizona bar.

Hamilton is a free agent at the end of the season and he and the Rangers have tabled talks for an extension. Prior to this, his representatives were implying that they wanted a Prince Fielder-level contract of $200 million. Even before he got caught drinking publicly¾and I don’t believe those are the only times he’s had a drink ¾I would’ve hesitated before signing him to a long-term deal and handing him a guarantee of $100+ million regardless of what he does on or off the field.

Now? Forget it.

He can’t be trusted.

Much was made of the departure of Hamilton’s “accountability partner” (basically his babysitter and sounding board) Johnny Narron, who left to take a job with the Brewers.

Hamilton was functioning without a designated “accountability partner” and had a couple of drinks.

Does that justify it? Is it a viable excuse that because he didn’t have someone to say, “NO JOSH!!!” that it’s okay that he drank?

Hamilton is a family man with three daughters with his wife (she has another daughter as well). He’s an adult. He needs to control himself and understand that he has hundreds of millions of dollars and people depending on him to stay sober and clean. The “accountability partner” or personal problems are not an excuse to go right back into the behaviors that almost destroyed the life of the former number 1 pick in the draft.

I would not sign Hamilton to a massive long-term contract unless he agreed to the unprecedented caveat that if he falls off the wagon and it affects his play, that the contract can be nullified by the team that signs him.

His representatives would never agree to that, but Hamilton might.

Even with that, I’d go as high as 3-years and $60 million, but that’s it.

He’s a great player. He has to stay straight.

Nelson Cruz missed 28 games last season with multiple leg injuries and his production at the plate dropped from a .950 OPS to .821. He still hit 29 homers during the regular season.

Cruz made up for it in the playoffs as he hit an absurd 6 home runs in the ALCS against the Tigers and was the ALCS MVP. He then hit 2 more in the World Series.

Cruz was held responsible in certain circles for not securing the catchable game-tying triple off the bat of Freese in the bottom of the ninth inning in game 6.

It was a catchable ball, but it was a tough catch. Blaming Cruz is a bit extreme for what would’ve been a really good play to end the game and the series.

Michael Young suddenly found himself appreciated for what he does rather than ripped for what he doesn’t.

Young requested to be traded when he was again asked to move to a new position when they signed Beltre.

Young batted .338 (.367 BAbip), with 213 hits to lead the league. He only had 11 homers, but drove in 106 runs, but had a .380 OBP and .474 slugging.

Young is and always has been a very good hitter who doesn’t walk enough to suit the tastes of the new age experts who are permeating baseball and baseball analysis. He’s not a great defensive player, but he can play anywhere on the infield and is a well-liked leader in the clubhouse.

BENCH:

Backup catcher Yorvit Torrealba had his usual passable season at the plate and was very good defensively, but that’s not the first thing people think of now when hearing his name.

While playing in the Venezuelan League this past winter, Torrealba was arguing a call at home plate and shoved/hit the umpire in his mask. He was immediately suspended from the league for 66 games and the video of the incident went viral.

Torrealba is not Milton Bradley and has never shown this kind of temper. He’s a respected and well-liked player and it was a mistake.

There were questions as to what the Rangers were going to do about it, if anything. There’s really nothing they can do about it since it was an incident in an entirely separate league and out of the jurisdiction of MLB. If they or the Rangers tried to punish Torrealba the MLBPA would fight it to the last and they’d win.

What will probably happen is that Torrealba will apologize (and I’m sure he’s legitimately sorry) and, at the behest of Nolan Ryan, will speak to children at schools about why what he did was wrong.

It was an unfortunate and isolated incident in an otherwise respectable career.

Julio Borbon played regularly in 2010, but missed time in 2011 with hamstring woes.

The lefty batter can play center field and has speed to steal 20 bases. He has no power.

Craig Gentry is a good defensive center fielder with speed. He might see substantial time in 2011 with Hamilton playing left field. Gentry stole 18 bases in 18 tries and he’s hit for some pop in the minors and takes his walks. He’s 28 and bats right-handed.

Former Orioles’ first round pick Brandon Snyder was purchased by the Rangers. The right-handed hitting first baseman has only had 37 big league at bats, but he hit 14 homers and had 21 doubles in Triple-A Norfolk last season.

Catcher Luis Martinez was acquired from the Padres in December. He’s 27 and bats righty. He has a career .725 OPS in the minors and has a 33% caught stealing rate.

Conor Jackson signed a minor league contract after spending 2011 with the A’s and Red Sox.

Jackson was a first round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2003 and was on his way to becoming an All-Star before injuries and illness derailed him.

In 2008, Jackson hit 12 homers, drove in 75, batted .300 and had a .376 OBP. He was also a good defensive left fielder.

Since then, he’s done nothing.

With the A’s in 2011, Jackson had a .658 OPS and 4 homers in 368 plate appearances. Perhaps joining the Rangers and hitting in the Ballpark will help him return to form. He’ll be 30 in May, so there’s time for him to rejuvenate his career.

PREDICTION:

The Rangers are one of the best run, smartest and most aggressive teams in baseball. They use new age stats and old school trust in common sense by letting their pitchers go deeper into games and throw more pitches than the generally accepted limits that have hindered the development of countless youngsters in other organizations.

On offense, they hit for power, have speed and get on base.

They have a deep starting rotation, a diverse bullpen and are ready and willing to make improvements during the season.

Defensively, they’re excellent.

The loss of C.J. Wilson was addressed by the signings of Nathan and Darvish and by moving Feliz into the rotation.

The argument could be made that the team that has won the last two American League pennants is now better than it was in 2010-2011.

In fact, they are.

In spite of the high-profile acquisitions by the Angels, the Rangers are still the best team in the American League and are going to win the AL West and advance to their third straight World Series.

PREDICTED RECORD: 93-69

All 30 teams are detailed identically to the above sample with relevant statistics, evenhanded analysis and brutal truths.

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Closers In The Now

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You can read game recaps anywhere.

There will be those who question the strategic decisions such as why Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa let Edwin Jackson be announced as the pinch hitter in a bunting situation, then pinch hit for him with Kyle Lohse.

What if Jackson needed to pitch?

Or why Rangers manager Ron Washington pulled Scott Feldman for a pinch hitter with a runner on first base and two outs in the top of the 11th. Even had pinch hitter Esteban German hit a ball into the gap, the runner was the already slowish Mike Napoli who was slowed down further by an ankle injury.

I understood why Washington did what he did; not so with LaRussa.

But my focus is on why the game wound up in the 11th inning in the first place.

And it has to do with Rangers closer Neftali Feliz being unable to nail down the last out in the bottom of the 9th.

What is it about closing that makes it so difficult to get a last out, especially in a championship situation?

Is it the increased determination of the hitter?

Is it the pressure?

Is it a lack of focus?

Is the pitcher gripping the ball too tightly and forgetting any and all strategy?

Much of it comes down to luck. If the pitcher throws the ball underhanded, there’s still a chance that the hitter is going to line it at someone, pop it up or miss it entirely.

But Feliz failed with two outs and two strikes on David Freese.

Where did it go wrong?

Was it the Albert Pujols double followed by the Lance Berkman walk?

Pujols has the ability to shorten his swing in situations where a home run doesn’t do any good—he would hit .400 if he wanted to—so it’s not a shock when Pujols hits a line drive somewhere in that type of circumstance. Berkman has a great eye.

The Freese hit to tie the game was nearly caught by Nelson Cruz in right field—some say it should’ve been caught. The ball was hit hard, but it might as easily have found someone, somewhere to end the game and the series.

I can’t help but wonder if Feliz was thinking about things other than the next pitch. If he was contemplating the excitement of ending the World Series and being the man on the mound when his teammates engulfed him to celebrate; what the post-game festivities would be like; how he’d feel when he went home to the Dominican Republic as a champion and the man who was on the mound for the Rangers first championship.

It’s this type of focus, or lack thereof, that separates the pitchers who got the big outs in the playoffs and those that didn’t. Mariano Rivera‘s laser-like intensity and calm in any situation permeates through the entire Yankees organization and imparts a sense of finality that no matter what happens—good or bad—it won’t be due to the pitcher gacking.

Rivera’s “ice water in his veins” persona is simply confidence and that he’s concentrating on where he is and what he’s doing.

Feliz is 23-years-old so it’s human nature if he was overexcited; it still could have ended positively for the Rangers in game 6 in spite of all the distractions. But now they find themselves in a one-game playoff for the championship.

The Rangers still have a great chance to win tonight, but they could’ve wrapped the series up last night.

And they didn’t.

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World Series Preview—Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

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Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

Keys for the Rangers: Knock the Cardinals starters out early, hit the bullpen; maintain their hot hitting; continue the quick hook with the starting pitching; don’t put their manager in a position to make a gaffe.

The Cardinals overcame woeful starting pitching in the NLCS because the Brewers starting pitching wasn’t much better; a Cardinals bullpen that had been a relatively weak point earlier in the season was dominant against the Brewers. The Rangers are deep offensively with nary a break from 1-9 in the batting order; the Brewers were top-heavy with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and once those two bats were quieted after the first game, the Brewers had to rely on the background players who, in some respects, played over their heads (i.e. Yuniesky Betancourt), but weren’t enough.

With the blazing hot Nelson Cruz accompanying the professional hitters Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre—plus their team speed and aggressiveness—the Rangers have more weapons and are smarter than the Brewers were.

You can make the case that the Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that important with the depth of the bullpen and that they have two starters—Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando—who pitched tremendously in the ALCS; manager Ron Washington has yanked his starters at the first sign of trouble because of that depth; of course it would be preferable to count on C.J. Wilson rather than Feldman since Feldman wasn’t even a guarantee to be on the post-season roster, but they’re loaded up with arms who can get the outs, so why not use that advantage?

Washington’s main attribute as a manager is that the players play hard for him; if he gets into a mind-war with Tony LaRussa, he’s going to lose. Badly.

The Tigers were beaten up physically and exhausted by the time they got to the Rangers; the Cardinals aren’t; the Cardinals are far more patient and dangerous surrounding Albert Pujols than the Tigers were with Miguel Cabrera. The Rangers can’t give extra outs to the Cardinals and not expect to be made to pay by Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.

Keys for the Cardinals: Get better starting pitching; continue their hot hitting; continue their bullpen dominance; keep the Rangers off the bases via the walk.

Much is being made of the Cardinals getting past the Brewers with the starting pitching having not made it past the fifth inning in any of the 6 games, but that wasn’t really relevant against a Brewers team that was terribly flawed; in fact, the Cardinals were probably better off having the ability to mix-and-match with their bullpen against the two main threats in the Brewers lineup, Braun and Fielder, than staying with their starting pitcher in the middle innings simply because he was their starter and was pitching serviceably.

They can’t count on their bullpen to continue that trend against a deeper and more well-rounded Rangers lineup, so they have to get big-time performances from Chris Carpenter as they did when he took down the Phillies.

Mike Napoli is 3 for 3 with a home run in his career vs Carpenter.

The Rangers won’t be able to run wild on the Cardinals because of Yadier Molina, but stealing bases is only a small part of the Rangers offense; in fact, they really don’t need to steal bases at all with their power. If the Cardinals walk the Rangers, the Rangers will score a lot.

What will happen.

An advantage the Rangers have had with their organizational decision to push their starting pitchers deeper into games by reducing the reliance on pitch counts is that there’s no point in opposing offenses making the attempt at patience and to push their pitch counts up because they’re not going to get tired as other staffs do; with the Rangers depth in the bullpen, there’s not the prototypical “soft underbelly” and they have little to worry about if their starters don’t pitch well.

Wilson has been terrible in the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter much since the Rangers bullpen has the ability to quiet down any rally and give their high-powered offense a chance to catch up.

A problem the Brewers had with their construct became evident when their starting pitching struggled; their long relievers weren’t particularly good and unless they were able to hand the ball off to the late-inning relievers Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, it didn’t help to have a deep starting rotation and shutdown bullpen. With an atrocious defense and lackluster offense behind Braun and Fielder, the Cardinals had advantages against the Brewers they will not have against the Rangers.

Because the Rangers can continually shuttle arms from the bullpen; hit the ball out of the park; and have an airtight defense, the Cardinals will find themselves getting into shootouts that they can’t win.

The Cardinals biggest advantage with pitching is that their ace, Carpenter, has come through in the post-season and the Rangers ace, Wilson, hasn’t. But that’s not going to make a difference if Wilson is pulled before any big innings occur. And Carpenter has had his share of gacks in post-seasons past.

Regardless of the tactical advantage the Cardinals will have if the mistake-prone Washington starts going move-for-move with LaRussa, the Rangers are too deep in the bullpen and on offense and too good defensively for it to cost them the series.

I thought they’d lose the ALDS and they didn’t.

I thought they’d lose the ALCS and they didn’t.

I think they’re going to win the World Series.

And they will.

This is the Rangers year.

PREDICTION: RANGERS IN SIX.

WORLD SERIES MVP: MIKE NAPOLI.

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ALCS Preview: Detroit Tigers vs Texas Rangers

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Detroit Tigers (95-67; 1st place, AL Central; defeated New York Yankees in ALDS 3 games to 2) vs Texas Rangers (96-66; 1st place, AL West; defeated Tampa Bay Rays in ALDS 3 games to 1).

Keys for the Tigers: Win Justin Verlander‘s starts; score against the Rangers mediocre starters; don’t tempt fate; stick to the script.

Justin Verlander is rested and ready for game 1 of the ALCS after manager Jim Leyland steadfastly refused to even consider using him in game 5 against the Yankees. They won, so they have their pitching set up the way they want it.

Verlander is in the midst of one of those magical seasons and his chance of being the key to dispatching the Yankees was interrupted by the weather. He’ll have another chance against the heavy hitting Rangers. Historically, he hasn’t had much trouble in the hitter-friendly confines of The Ballpark in Arlington, but the Rangers have some hitters who can crush a fastball, notably Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton. Michael Young is 6 for 26 in his career vs Verlander with 3 doubles.

The Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that impressive. C.J. Wilson got knocked around in his game 1 start against the Rays, but none of the Tigers hitters have done much with him in their careers. The Tigers don’t want to enter the late innings with Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz coming at them—they didn’t do much with the Yankees bullpen and won’t do much with the Rangers bullpen either.

The Tigers aren’t particularly patient at the plate on the whole and when they get runners on base, they have to cash them in. They didn’t do that against the Yankees and won anyway; they don’t want to push their luck.

With a lead, the Tigers handed the ball to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde and it worked; if they’re able to get from solid performances from their starters and enter the late innings with a lead, they’ll win the series.

Keys for the Rangers: Get their starters out of the game if they’re struggling; cash in on baserunners; get the game to their bullpen with a lead.

The Rangers penchant for pushing their starting pitchers deeply into games to get the number of innings they want extended inexplicably to game 1 of the ALDS against the Rays.

Why manager Ron Washington left Wilson in to absorb a beating and essentially put the game out of reach is mind-boggling. That can’t happen in the post-season.

Colby Lewis has proven himself to be a big game pitcher who thrives in the playoffs; I’m not sold on either Matt Harrison or Derek Holland.

Ryan Raburn is—get this—8 for 12 vs Harrison with 2 homers and 2 doubles. Brandon Inge is 3 for 7 with 2 homers; and Alex Avila is 4 for 4 with a homer.

Against Holland, Delmon Young is 6 for 12 with 2 homers; the other Tigers experience against him is limited and not noteworthy.

Has Ogando usurped Adams as the eighth inning man? Or was that just for the last series and because Adams was struggling? Does Adams get a reboot as the set-up man?

Miguel Cabrera is 4 for 4 in his career vs Adams.

Cabrera murders Ogando as well with 5 hits in 9 at bats and a walk.

Inge is 2 for 2 with a homer in his career vs Feliz.

One of the reasons the Tigers beat the Yankees is because the Yankees left so many runners on base; the Rangers can’t repeat that mistake.

I doubt we’re going to see Koji Uehara and his gopher ball with anything important on the line in this series, but it is Ron Washington managing the Rangers and he wears a path out to the mound late in games and he does…strange…things.

What will happen.

The Tigers starting pitching is clearly better than the Rangers and they have an advantage in that their manager isn’t going to do something deranged to blow a game up. The bullpens are evenly matched when it gets down to crunch time; if the middle-relievers Phil Coke, Darren Oliver, Daniel Schlereth, and Scott Feldman have to be counted on at any point, that means strategies are flying out the window and both sides are trying to survive.

The Tigers will get to the Rangers starters; Verlander may get touched up in one of his games, but the Tigers will mitigate it by scoring enough runs to win.

Adams has been having control problems, but the Tigers are over-aggressive; if they’re patient, they can get to the Rangers bullpen.

Cabrera was relatively quiet in the ALDS and that’s not going to continue.

Avila was also held down in the ALDS, but he hits Lewis and Harrison well and is going to go on a hot streak in this series.

Getting past the Yankees was the hard part; getting past the Rangers will be easier and that’s what the Tigers are going to do.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX.

ALCS MVP: ALEX AVILA.

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