Sizing up the Yankees' potential ALDS opponents

As we enter the last week of the 2009 season, there are only two undecided playoff spots: the winner of the AL Central, and the National League wild card. Despite being only 2 games behind the Rockies, a lot would have to go right for Atlanta this week, who have a 22% chance of making the playoffs as of Tuesday morning.

Far more pertinent to the Yankees is the race in the AL Central between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins, separated by a mere two games with a four-game set between the teams starting this afternoon in Detroit. The Tigers have had sole possession of first place since May 16, despite not reaching 10 games over .500 until September 2. If you told me that a team could stay in first place for nearly four months while barely hovering over .500, I’d assume without a doubt that it was a National League squad. Such is life in the mediocre AL Central.

Given the Tigers’ uninspired play and the division’s seeming lack competitive drive, Yankee fans should be salivating at the thought of playing either Detroit or Minnesota. Of course, memories are still strong of the Yankees’ early 2006 exit at the hands of Detroit, although many are also quick to point out that these are two vastly different teams. While potentially facing Justin Verlander twice within a 5-game set sounds daunting (although I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yankees sweep the ALDS), the rest of the Tiger team, both on the pitching and offensive side, appear nonthreatening.

Which means that if the Twins — not only a Yankee postseason punching bag (see ALDS 2003, 2004) but a team the Yankees went 7-0 against this year (not that regular season success is any sort of predictor of postseason outcomes, but it’s still worth noting) including three walk-off victories in a row back in May — manage to overtake the Tigers this week, there will be even more rejoicing in Yankeeland, because the Twins are terrible.

Let’s take a quick look at each team’s projected lineups and starting pitchers using two of my favorite metrics, OPS+ and ERA+:

Detroit Tigers OPS+
C Gerald Laird 67
1B Miguel Cabrera 145
2B Placido Polanco 92
SS Adam Everett 68
3B Brandon Inge 88
LF Ryan Raburn 122
CF Curtis Granderson 102
RF Magglio Ordonez 101
DH Marcus Thames 98
ERA+
SP Justin Verlander 134
SP Edwin Jackson 136
SP Rick Porcello 110
SP Armando Galarraga 81

Outside of Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Raburn of all people, there really isn’t much firepower in this lineup. The pitching, on the other hand, looks pretty formidable.

Minnesota Twins OPS+
C Joe Mauer 181
1B Justin Morneau* 135
2B Alexi Casilla 44
SS Nick Punto 72
3B Joe Crede 88
LF Delmon Young 86
CF Carlos Gomez 71
RF Michael Cuddyer 128
DH Jason Kubel 137
ERA+
SP Nick Blackburn 99
SP Scott Baker 93
SP Francisco Liriano 71
SP Carl Pavano 108

Prior to penning this post I had no idea that Michael Cuddyer and Jsaon Kubel were having such great seasons. Apparently Mauer or Morneau have had some help. Of course, the great Justin Morneau won’t be an option for the Twins should they make the postseason. Pesky Denard Span and his surprising 120 OPS+ will be leading off, although I’m still not particularly worried about the Twins, especially since their only above-average starter is somehow Carl Pavano.

And for kicks, let’s take a gander at the home nine:

New York Yankees OPS+
C Jorge Posada 131
1B Mark Teixeira 146
2B Robinson Cano 125
SS Derek Jeter 127
3B Alex Rodriguez 142
LF Johnny Damon 124
CF Melky Cabrera 97
RF Nick Swisher 125
DH Hideki Matsui 132
ERA+
SP CC Sabathia 139
SP AJ Burnett 107
SP Andy Pettitte 109
SP Joba Chamberlain 95

Damn Melky, you had to go and ruin it for everyone again, huh? Kidding aside, the 2009 Yankees are a steamroller on paper (even Brett Gardner boasts a 95 OPS+). With a team OPS of .842 and OPS+ of 119, this is the strongest Yankee offensive attack in years.

Now before people get all up in arms over how the Yankees had great offenses from 2005 through 2007 while getting bounced in the first round (for the record, the 2006 squad had a team OPS of .824 and an OPS+ of 111, while the 2007 squad was even better offensively, scoring 968 runs with a team OPS of .829 and an OPS+ of 117), it’s important to remember that (a) no matter how great our offense might be, there’s really no discernible way to prevent a lineup from falling into a teamwide slump at the worst possible time — although I believe the lineup is too deep and the number of attacks it possesses too diverse for that to happen this year — and (b) those early-exit Yankee teams, while sporting pretty good rotations, did not have the kind of pitching the team has this year — both in the rotation and in the bullpen — with regards to missing bats and getting strikeouts, not to mention a vastly improved defense.

Add it all up, and the 2009 Yankees should be a pretty ferocious opponent in the postseason. For as much as Yankee fans have let themselves get overly concerned about potential playoff opponents these past few years, other teams’ fans should be even more concerned to draw the Yankees, especially given that the team with the best home record in baseball also has home field advantage throughout October.