MLB Coverage: Tampa Bay-Boston Division Series Preview

The American League Division Series matchups are ready to start on Friday, and this installment of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will break down the AL East rivalry battle between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

We’ll compare each team in the four key component parts of the game, from ability to get runners on base, to hitting for power, to starting pitching to the bullpen. Then we’ll conclude with some historical context and make a pick.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The Red Sox have long been renowned for their ability to drive up pitch counts and grind up starting pitchers. Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia have high OBPs in the top of the order, while Mike Napoli and David Ortiz have the same in the middle. Each half of the left field platoon, Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava, particularly Nava, are solid and consistent.

Based on season-long numbers the only liability is third baseman Will Middlebrooks, but that’s based on performance prior to Middlebrooks’ temporary demotion to Triple A. Since his return, the highly touted righthanded hitter has been productive.

Tampa Bay doesn’t have nearly the assets. Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers are both at .354, which is good. Evan Longoria’s .343 isn’t bad, but the best superstar power hitters today will usually get into the high .300s. The positive for the Rays is that only catcher Jose Molina is a liability. It’s mostly a series of so-so offensive players–Desmond Jennings, Yunel Escobar, David DeJesus and Matt Joyce, who don’t excite you, but do have the ability to play well in a short series.

HITTING FOR POWER: Ortiz leads the way for Boston, slugging .564 and solidifying his place as baseball’s best designated hitter since the position was created in 1973. Napoli has plenty of muscle, as does catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Middlebrooks has been showcasing his power since the return from Triple A, and even pure contact hitters like Ellsbury, Pedroia and shortstop Stephen Drew can go deep. The same can be said for Gomes and Nava. There’s no spot in this lineup a pitcher can overlook.

Tampa Bay is not nearly as deep. Longoria and Myers are very good power threats, but there is little around them. The good news for the Rays is that Longoria is a clutch postseason player and Matt Joyce has shown the ability to generate some muscle, even if that hasn’t necessarily been evident this season, with a pedestrian .419 slugging percentage.

STARTING PITCHING: Now we get to the real battle between two very good rotations. Jon Lester won 15 games with 3.75 ERA and pitched his best baseball after the All-Star break. The lefthander is set to go for Games 1 & 5, and he’s got a track record of postseason success–winning the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, winning twice to lead a series win the 2008 Division Series and pitching very well, albeit in defeat in Game 7 of 2008 ALCS.

Lester will be countered with Matt Moore, who will ascend to the role of #1 starter, since David Price had to be used in Monday’s wild-card game. Moore won 17 games with a 3.29 ERA and has electric stuff, so this is not exactly a huge dropoff. Then the Rays turn to Price for Game 2 and Alex Cobb, who won the wild-card game, in Game 3.

Joe Maddon has a decision to make regarding a Game 4. Chris Archer has easily been better than Jeremy Hellickson this season, so you’d have to think Archer would get the nod. But Hellickson does have a longer track record of success, even if his 5.17 ERA this year marked him one of 2013’s big disappointments.

Boston manager John Farrell has already thrown the first curveball of this series, is settling on John Lackey, over and above Clay Bucholz or Jake Peavy to pitch Game 2. Lackey has been steady all year, with a 3.52 ERA, even if poor run support left his record at 10-13. But Bucholz has been dominant, at 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA and a good month to get his rhythm back after a lengthy DL run. Peavy finished with a 4.04 ERA, but pitched well for the Red Sox since his acquisition at the trade deadline.

In reality though, both Maddon and Farrell are choosing from riches. These are both rotations that you can a World Series with. If there’s an X-factor it’s that the difference between winning the division and being the wild-card it’s that the Red Sox rotation is lined up, while the Rays are out of order, with Price able to only pitch once.

BULLPEN: Here we came to the sore spot with both teams. Boston is steady in the ninth inning. Koji Uehara closed 21/24 save chances with a 1.09 ERA and was spectacular after taking over the role midway through the season. The rest of the pen is hit and miss. Craig Breslow, with his buck-81 ERA has been the best, and the Sox will need Junichi Tazawa to pitch well. It remains to be seen if displaced starters Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster could add something to the bridge between the starters and Uehara.

A least Boston can be confident in the ninth inning. Tampa’s Fernando Rodney has given fans heart attacks all year long, blowing eight saves and ending with a 3.38 ERA that’s not all that special for a closer. Alex Torres has been the best setup man, though Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, both inconsistent, get more work.

The bottom line? Each team needs its starters to work deep into games.

CONTEXT: This is an under-the-radar rivalry in the AL East now, as there is some chippiness between the front offices and the staffs of each team. Boston obviously has the more storied history, even if we restrict that to recent years, since the Rays came into existence, with two recent World Series titles (2004 & 2007) while Tampa seeks its first crown.

But Tampa Bay has come out on top in both of the most fabled battles between the two teams–the 2008 American League championship race and their incredible September comeback in the wild-card race of 2011.

There’s even some rivalry among the fan bases that extends into other sports. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning played a dramatic seven-game Eastern Conference Final in the 2011 NHL playoffs, replete with further chippiness regarding a Bruins’ promotional campaign that questioned the existence of Tampa Bay sports fans. And the NBA option in Tampa Bay is the nearby Orlando Magic, who played two hotly contested playoff series with the Boston Celtics in 2009 and 2010, each team winning once.

PICK: I’m a Boston fan and hardly unbiased. In my case though, the bias tends to make me exceptionally nervous. I have extraordinary respect for the Rays’ starting pitching, which is entirely appropriate. And we have seen, repeatedly in the playoffs, that strength in this area covers a lot of weaknesses.

But objectively, the Red Sox are awfully good here, have a deeper lineup and if the series comes down to the bullpens, the Sox relievers have been a little less worrisome than those of the Rays. Since I don’t believe in the ability of writers to jinx games with predictions, I’m going to say Boston wins it in the full five games.