The Great Division Series Roster Debate

Columns, Featured — By on September 29, 2009 9:17 pm

Yesterday, the soon-to-be-deposed Peter Abraham was riffing on the Yankees’ playoff roster possibilities.

His look at the pitching staff possibilities shapes up like this:

PITCHERS (10)
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP A.J. Burnett
LHP Andy Pettitte
RHP Mariano Rivera
RHP Phil Hughes
LHP Phil Coke
RHP Alfredo Aceves
RHP Joba Chamberlain

In assuming he’s healthy
RHP David Robertson

Three choices for one spot
RHP Brian Bruney
RHP Chad Gaudin
LHP Damaso Marte

Those 10 “locks” look pretty solid, particularly if the Yankees, as anticipated, choose the series format with the extra day off on October 8th.  This enables them to carry only 3 starters and avoid the crapshoot of handing the ball to Joba with the series potentially in the balance.

A lot of Girardi’s decision making should come down to the offenses of the Yankees two possible ALDS opponents – Minnesota, as of “press time”, had taken game 1 of a crucial doubleheader in Detroit to leave them just 1 game behind.  At this point, the smart money is still on Detroit if we look at playoff odds (63.3% for the Tigers vs. 36.7% for Minnesota) but those pesky Twins have to be considered as well, at least pending the outcome of tonight’s second game.

The Tigers are 10th out of 14 teams in the American League in OPS vs. left-handers (.761).  The Twins are a fair sight better, posting a .775 OPS against southpaws, good for 7th in the AL.  Taking a look at the Tigers lineup, they have just two left-handed hitters that play with any regularity: Curtis Granderson and Aubrey Huff.  Clete Thomas is their token left-handed bench bat but he’s at .243/.327/.390 overall, so we’re not worried about him.  I suppose Jim Leyland could bring Jeff Larish along if he finds room on his roster, and the left-handed hitter has shown some thunder against righties – .255/.354/.485 with 4 HR and 13 BBs in 68 ABs.

Granderson is an absolute disaster against left-handed pitchers; an automatic out if there ever was one (.178/.243/.237).  If Leyland had anyone else on the roster capable of playing a passable center field, he’d likely sit Granderson against Sabathia and Pettitte.  As it stands, however, Leyland has no such option, and the Tigers are stuck with a sinkhole at the top of their order with a lefty on the mound.  The fact that the Yankees have two lefty starters out of 3 probables bodes well for their ability to neutralize Grandy’s threat.  As for Aubrey Huff, he’s hit just .239/.294/.356 against lefties.

I’d be remiss not to mention Carlos Guillen, a switch-hitter who has come on for the Tigers lately after struggling with injury early on.  Guillen is a guy you want to make hit from the right side.  He’s hit .261/.347/.454 vs. righties and .255/.340/.444 vs. lefties.  Not a huge split, but over the last three years he has an .872 OPS vs righties, an .855 OPS against lefties.  Particularly in Yankee Stadium, with that ever-enticing short porch, you’d want to take advantage of that split and turn him around with a lefty.

Were the Yankees liable to use 4 starters – 2 lefty, 2 righty – I’d probably recommend carrying Damaso Marte in addition to Phil Coke.  As it stands, though, the longer schedule means that of a possible 5 games, the Yankees could potentially get 4 lefty starts – 2 from CC, 2 from Pettitte.  If we’re facing the Tigers, I’m taking Brian Bruney over Chad Gaudin, because Joba is stretched out enough at this point to act as a long man should the need arise.  Add in the fact that Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves are both capable of going multiple innings, and Gaudin’s role in the ALDS seems to disappear.

Turning our eyes to the Twins, it’s all about Joe Mauer.  Mauer will kill you.  It doesn’t matter which hand you throw with.  But for the record, he has a .909 OPS against lefties.  The Twins’ loss is the Yankees’ gain however, as Justin Morneau is out for the remainder of the season, so that’s one less lefty bat to worry about matching up against.

The Twins do have a number of hitters who seem to do just fine against lefties, however.  Denard Span, the Twins’ speedy leadoff hitter, has a reverse platoon split.  Despite hitting left-handed, he hits for an .867 OPS against lefties, more than 80 points higher than against righties.  Righties Brendan Harris, Michael Cuddyer, and Orlando Cabrera hit over .300 vs. lefties in 2009.  Cuddyer especially made his living off them – .302/.356/.636 for a .992 OPS.  Jason Kubel is the only lefty in the lineup with a significant platoon split – his .642 OPS against lefties is more than .300 points lower than the .982 mark he posted against righties.

If the Yankees end up battling the Twins for a trip to the ALCS, I’m again taking Bruney over Marte.  Overall, the Tigers appear to be the more favorable match up for the Yankees because of how left-handed dominant the Yanks’ three-man rotation would be.  Yes, the Yankees have a storied recent history of success against the Twins…but be careful what you wish for.

On to the hitters:

POSITION PLAYERS (15)
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Robinson Cano
SS Derek Jeter
3B Alex Rodriguez
C Jorge Posada
LF Johnny Damon
CF Melky Cabrera
RF Nick Swisher
DH Hideki Matsui
OF Brett Gardner
C Jose Molina

In assuming he’s healthy
INF-OF Jerry Hairston

Four choices for three spots
C Francisco Cervelli
OF-3B Eric Hinske
INF Ramiro Pena
OF Freddy Guzman

Abraham seems to think the Yanks plan to carry 3 catchers in the ALDS, a thought I hadn’t much considered.  He states that this might be preferable so that the Yankees can squeeze Posada in at DH against a lefty and sit Matsui.  Sorry, but I’m not benching a guy who hit .285/.361/.623 against lefties, conventional wisdom be damned.  Especially with the extra day off, Posada ought to be relied upon to catch every game in that series.  The lineup, though still potent, just isn’t the same when you substitute Molina for Posada.  In the playoffs, especially in a short series, you need to stack your offense to have the best chance to score the most runs every night.  A lineup with Posada/Matsui is geared to do just that.

That’s not to say Girardi won’t choose to carry three catchers – he’s likely choosing to carry two pinch-runners – but I think it would be more in the event that he’d like to pinch-hit for Molina late in a game and be able to replace him with Posada.  This also assumes he plans to start Molina at all, which would be a mistake.

Pena appears to be the odd man out, but should he be?  Hairston is being carried as much because he was acquired in a midseason trade as because he’s a valuable contributor.  His positional flexibility I would imagine is also very appealing, as he can passably play 6 positions.  When Pena was demoted this summer after beginning the season with the team, he was asked to play some center field as well as the infield in an effort to improve his versatility.  The Yanks never tried him there upon his return, so I doubt they’d go into the postseason feeling comfortable with him as an emergency option.  Hinske we know can contribute – he’s got some power, has pinch-hitting experience, and can play all 4 corners (he did start at third on Monday).

But Freddy Guzman?  We don’t know much about him.  He’s obviously a burner, as anyone who has seen him steal two bases can attest.  He’s stolen as many as 90 bases (across three levels in 2003).  But his career line in the minors is an underwhelming .270/.344/.360.  In 97 career ML plate appearances, he’s at .211/.258/.278.  Obviously there’s no one in the Yankees regular lineup that really needs to be pinch-hit for (Molina excepted) so Guzman’s hitting is largely irrelevant; he’ll never be asked to do it anyway.  But I guess the question just begs to be asked: does this squad really need two pinch-runners?  Theoretically I see just one way – that’s if Gardner starts over Melky in center.  Girardi hasn’t tipped his hand either way on this subject.  Just know that if Guzman is indeed the Last Man Selected, it’s likely because Brett Gardner will see a start or two in the ALDS.

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