Monday, October 20, 2014

World Series 2014: These Wildcards Are No Jokers

Greg Holland and the KC bullpen should emerge victorious
A year ago when I made my prediction of the Boston Red Sox defeating the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, it wasn't a difficult prediction to make.

Despite the fact that the 2013 Series featured the best teams by record in both the NL and AL for the first time in 14 years, I felt that Boston was clearly the better team. This time around, I found it much more difficult.

In 2014, we don't have the best regular season teams involved in the World Series from either league. Not only that, but we also don't have a division winner. Both the Kansas City Royals, who finished a game behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, and San Francisco Giants, who finished 6 back of the LA Dodgers in the NL West, were Wildcard teams.

This marks just the 2nd time since the concept was introduced for the 1995 season that two Wildcard teams will faceoff in the World Series. In the only other such meeting, the then-Anaheim Angels defeated the San Francisco Giants in a dramatic 7-game series in 2002.

It's my call here that these current San Francisco Giants will again fall short in the Fall Classic to their AL Wildcard counterparts. I am going to call it Kansas City in 6 games.

The Giants have overcome more than the Royals to get this far. Back at the beginning of October, in the final 2014 MLB Power Ranking, San Fran was ranked just 17th of the 30 teams in baseball. Poor pitching and mediocre defense were the main reasons.

But that was the regular season, and frankly, that matters little right now. The Giants are a battle-tested group that has a number of key players still around who won the World Series in both 2010 and 2012. In the increased pressure of the postseason, winning experience can make a difference.

The case for the Giants begins with their bats. Buster Posey at catcher is one of the best and most valuable players in the game today. He is joined by 3rd baseman Pablo 'Kung Fu Panda' Sandoval and right fielder Hunter Pence in a dynamic, clutch middle-of-the-order.

Posey, Pence, and Panda pace the Giants offense

While those three are the engine that drives the Giants offense, the club must get production from supporting players if they want to win this series. In Mike Morse, they will have a true DH-type option when the series opens in KC. Guys like Gregor Blanco, Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Hicks, and NLCS walkoff hero Travis Ishikawa are going to have to step up.

On the mound, Madison Bumgarner will start Game 1, and he is a true legit shutdown ace. He has the ability to win at least two games all by himself. Behind him, the Giants must continue to receive fountain-of-youth performances from veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Ryan Vogelsong, likely in his last hurrah with the team, will start Game 4.

The Giants bullpen has been coming through in the postseason where it was a bit inconsistent in the regular season. Starters Yusmeiro Petit and Tim Lincecum lengthen that pen now, and the back end will feature the combination of Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jean Machi, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and J.C. Guiterrez.

Trout's July All-Star MVP performance gave Royals home field 

Meanwhile, the Royals will have home field advantage thanks to Mike Trout. Back in July, Trout was the MVP of the All-Star Game, leading the American League to a 5-3 victory and giving it's representative the home field. So baseball's best player has had an effect on the World Series without even playing in it.

They Royals have hitting, but let's face it, talk about their dominance begins with their pitching, defense, and speed. Kansas City finished at the very top of the final MLB Power Ranking thanks to the game's #5 pitching staff, and with the top defense in all of baseball by a wide margin. That defense has been electric so far in the postseason.

On the pitching front, the bullpen back-end of closer Greg Holland setup by Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera has been as impenetrable as the "Massey pre-nup", and been just as intolerably cruel to opposing hitters in the postseason as they were in the regular season. These guys just don't allow anything, meaning you had best do something with the Royals starting pitchers if you want to beat them.

Those starters are no slouches themselves. It all starts with lead man "Big Game" James Shields. While he has been a bit up and down this postseason, he has the experience and repertoire to match Bumgarner pitch-for-pitch, at least for the 6 innings that he needs to last. Yordano Ventura is a power option in the #2 spot, while both Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are reliable workmanlike 3-4 starters.

On offense, the Royals have emerging star Lorenzo Cain in the outfield, an All-Star catcher of their own in Salvador Perez, and a quartet of organizational veterans in leftfielder Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler, 1B Eric Hosmer, and 3B Mike Moustakas. They also have solid contributors in Omar Infante, Nori Aoki and Alcides Escobar. Perez is a star in-the-making, and my choice to emerge as the World Series MVP.

Catcher Salvador Perez: my choice to emerge as MVP

Perhaps the most interesting decision for manager Ned Yost will come right up front. Does he continue to carry the blazing speed of Terrance Gore, perfect for an AL series but limited for 3 possible NL-city games, or does he turn to veteran Raul Ibanez off his bench?

That managerial matchup again appears on paper to be a significant advantage for the Giants, who have the highly respected, 2-time World Series-winning skipper Bruce Bochy calling the shots. Some of Yost's calls this postseason have been so unorthodox that he has received extreme criticism. Unfortunately for all his critics, his way has resulted in a World Series appearance.

Ned Yost continues to confound his critics, every single one of whom I trust will talk about how Kansas City won despite, not because of, the decisions made by their manager. Their defense remains air-tight, their bullpen remains impenetrable, and their offense and starting pitching remain competitive. The Kansas City Royals give their fans a treat, winning at home in the 6th game.


No comments: