Though the games are meaningless, it seems appropriate that the Yankees are finishing the 2009 season against the Rays. Tampa Bay was supposed to be in the thick of the AL East race and are the defending American League Champions. The Yankees, having replaced the Rays atop the division, hope to succeed them as pennant winners as well.
The Rays mediocre finish, nearly 20 games behind the Yankees in third place, feels like a disappointment, but it’s important to remember that this is a franchise that had won as many as 70 games just once prior to 2008. This has been the second-best season in Rays history by a dozen games. Entering the final series of the season, they Rays are just one game behind the Twins, who remain alive in the AL Central race.
The 2009 Rays suffered through brutal seasons from Dioner Navarro (.219/.259/.317), B.J. Upton (.238/.308/.362), and Pat Burrell (.226/.321/.376), and got just 67 games from second baseman Akinori Iwamura due to a knee injury, but benefited from what were likely flukey late-20s spikes from Ben Zobrist (.290/.399/.531) and Jason Bartlett (.319/.385/.492).
Carl Crawford bounced back from his disappointing 2008 campaign, but remains a good player rather than a great one. Nonetheless, the trade that sent Scott Kazmir and the $20 million left on his contract over the next two years to Anaheim suggests that the Rays will pick up Crawford’s $10-million option for 2010.
Kazmir was made expendable by the strong performance of 26-year-old rookie Jeff Niemann, a thick, 6-foot-9 righty, as well as the late-season arrival of 23-year-old righty Wade Davis, who has been dominant in three of his five September starts (though two of those came against the lowly Orioles) and good in the fourth. Niemann and Davis will start the final two games of the season against Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett.
Fellow rookie David Price will start tonight against fellow lefty CC Sabathia. Price was supposed to be the rookie sensation in the Rays’ rotation, but after spending April and most of May in the minors to suppress his innings total, he struggled with his control and the longball upon returning the majors. In his first 11 starts, he gave up 11 homers and walked 33 in 53 innings, which translates to 1.87 HR/9 and 5.6 BB/9. As a result, he was averaging less than five innings per start and sported a 5.60 ERA.
In his 11 starts since then, however, Price has allowed just six more homers and walked just 19 in 68 1/3 innings (0.8 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, almost 6 1/3 innings per start). The result has been a solid 3.82 ERA and a 6-3 record over that span. That’s the kind of progress the Yankees had hoped to see from Joba Chamberlain this year.
The rotation of Matt Garza, James Shields, Price, Niemann, and Davis is the primary reason the Rays will remain contenders in 2010, and the Yankees will get a preview of that in this final series. That seems like a good thing to me. Though Joe Girardi will continue to rotate days off through his lineup, facing good young pitchers will keep the Yankee hitters from falling into any bad habits in the process of playing out the string. Similarly, playoff starters Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett will be facing a solid lineup (fourth best in the AL on the year), rather than the glorified Triple-A squad run out by the Royals.
Meanwhile, the pesky Twins are forcing the Tigers to sweat out their Central Division title, and could force them to start Justin Verlander on Sunday, thus bumping him from what would otherwise be his Game 1 start in the ALDS. I’ll, of course, have an in-depth preview of that series next week. In the meantime here are some individual stats that are within reach for the Yankees this weekend:
CC Sabathia: a win tonight would be his 20th, a new career high. Six strikeouts would get him to 200.
A.J. Burnett: needs 8 Ks for 200.
Mark Teixeira: needs 1 homer for 40
Nick Swisher: needs 1 homer for 30
Derek Jeter: needs 2 homers for 20
Robinson Cano: needs 2 doubles for 50
Alex Rodriguez: needs 7 RBIs for 100 and two homers to tie Mark McGwire for 8th place all-time.
Derek Jeter: needs 4 RBIs for 70 (Jeter has reached 70 RBIs in all but two of his full seasons and missed by one last year. Leading off has cost him RBI opportunities this year in what has been one the best seasons of his career.) The Captain also needs four hits to tie Hall-0f-Fame shortstop Luke Appling for 48th all-time.
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui rest today as Jerry Hairston plays left (and tests his wrist) and Jose Molina DHs. That gives Molina some at-bats before the postseason and allows Sabathia to work with Posada. Swisher bats fifth. Melky starts in center against the lefty Price.