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Yankees, Twins

ALDS preview: Yankees vs. Twins

The American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins is sure to feature plenty of slugging.

Both teams finished 1-2 in both home runs and total runs scored. The Twins and Yankees also finished second and third, respectively, in terms of OPS.

New York has traditionally dominated the Twins in October. The Yankees have defeated the Twins in their last five playoff matchups dating all the way back to 2003, including a victory over Minnesota in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game.

However, the Twins are also coming off a stunning rise to the top of the American League Central division and have been been emboldened by a combination of excellent veteran players and breakout stars.

Can they finally end their playoff curse against the Yankees? Let’s break it down:

How did they get here?

The Yankees were one of the preseason favorites to capture their first World Series title since 2009, but their miraculous season was one that defied conventional wisdom.

New York was one of the most banged-up clubs in all of baseball from start to finish. Second-year third baseman Miguel Andujar was essentially lost for the season in the first week. Starting pitcher and ace Luis Severino missed nearly the entire regular season. So did setup man Dellin Betances, who suffered a partial Achilles tear in his return on Sept. 15. Giancarlo Stanton played in just 18 games in his second season in the Bronx due to injury, and fellow slugger Aaron Judge missed 60 games.

Despite it all, the Yankees had the second-best record in the American League, winning 103 games on the strength of phenomenal seasons from journeyman players like Gio Urshela and Luke Voit as well as an MVP-caliber campaign from free agent signing D.J. LeMahieu.

Meanwhile, the Twins took the MLB by storm. Minnesota’s front office was lauded for a series of shrewd acquisitions this past winter, but they exceeded all expectations by winning 101 games, their highest total in 44 years.

Like the Yankees, Minnesota won on the strength of a deep and powerful lineup that featured no shortage of weapons from both sides of the plate.

New York tore through the month of August with a 21-9 record, and they enter the playoffs healthier than they have been all season. The Twins were in serious jeopardy in the AL Central thanks to a midseason push from the Cleveland Indians, but they went 35-20 over the course of the last two months to clinch their first division title since 2010.

The starters

Yankees

Left-hander James Paxton will get the ball in Game 1 of the series, and the the Yankees could not feel more confident after the second half that Paxton strung together.

Paxton dazzled in his first eight starts for the Bronx Bombers after New York acquired his services from the Seattle Mariners, but an injury in May seemed to set him back quite a bit. Paxton posted a 6.38 ERA in 10 starts between June and July, conceding 14 homers and a 40 percent hard contact rate.

However, the 30-year-old was brilliant during the stretch run. Paxton had a 2.51 ERA in 11 starts in August and September, and opponents combined for a .239 wOBA against the flamethrower.

Paxton has also been New York’s best starter at Yankee Stadium. He went 7-3 with a 3.35 ERA and 11.2 K/9 in 15 starts at home during the regular season.

Masahiro Tanaka gets the ball in Game 2, and he is another guy that has thrived at home. Tanaka had a 3.10 ERA and .665 OPS against in 16 starts at home.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone seems to be playing the percentages in the hopes that his team can take a stranglehold on the series heading to Minnesota. Tanaka has also been brilliant at Yankee stadium in his postseason career. He threw a pair of scoreless outings against the Indians and Houston Astros in the 2017 playoffs, scattering just six hits across 14 innings and notching 15 strikeouts.

Severino should get the ball once the series shifts to Minnesota. The imposing right-hander made just three starts in his return from the IL in September, but he looked dominant. Severino struck out 13 over the course of nine scoreless innings in his first two outings, and his velocity and sharpness have returned.

The Yankees are likely to go with an opener should the series go to a potential Game 4, a strategy that they employed throughout the regular season. Chad Green is an option here, as is left-hander J.A. Happ.

New York was dealt a crucial blow when Domingo German was suspended for the postseason in the wake of a domestic violence investigation, but Severino’s return is a pivotal development for a rotation that will need to eat some innings and conserve the bullpen if the Yankees hope to make a deep run.

Twins

The Twins also had a setback in their rotation when right-hander Michael Pineda was suspended for taking a banned substance. Pineda had been one of Minnesota’s best starters in the second half, posting a 3.04 ERA and 9.5 K/9 through his first nine starts. He had given the Twins rotation a spark in the midst of struggles from Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson, but now he is on the shelf.

Berrios gets the ball in Game 1, with manager Rocco Baldelli banking on his dominant potential. The 25-year-old was tremendous in the first half, posting a 3.00 ERA through his first 18 starts. Berrios continued his run of good form after the break, but his season hit a major snag over the final two months.

The Bayamon, PR native had a 5.83 ERA in August and September with an .834 OPS against. Aside from a clunker against the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 21, however, Berrios had strong performances in three of his final four starts. He has also yet to face the Yankees this season, whereas Jake Odorizzi was pummeled in his two starts against New York.

Odorizzi is still the likeliest candidate to start Game 2 after a successful run in August and September. Although he does not go very deep into games, Odorizzi’s K/9 skyrocketed in the final two months, and he has consistently adapted over the course of this season. He is also less susceptible to the long ball than the rest of Minnesota’s staff, which is a key factor against this Yankee lineup.

Outside of the top two, there is no clear picture for who will take the ball to start in Minnesota. There is a good chance that the Twins could use newcomer Devin Smeltzer as an opener, with Gibson available in long relief out of the bullpen.

The Twins likely need quality starts from both Berrios and Odorizzi to have any chance of winning the series given their lack of depth and uncertainty in the rest of the pitching staff.

The lineups

Yankees

The Yankees led all of Major League Baseball in runs scored (943) and ranked second in homers (306), and they are especially deep.

Urshela was already a story when he filled in splendidly for Andujar over the first couple months of the season, but he has only improved in the second half. Urshela slashed .326/.355/.601 with 14 homers after the All-Star break, and he has been especially tough against right-handed pitching.

Voit dealt with a number of injuries in the final few months, but he is as imposing as any Yankee in the lineup because he is just as disciplined as he is strong in the box. Voit drew 71 walks in just 118 games, but his 122 OPS+ suggests that he still has plenty of pop.

The rest of New York’s infield has been equally as prolific. Plenty of Yankees fans were disappointed when the front office elected to sign LeMahieu instead of Manny Machado, but the veteran infielder has been a massive upgrade. While Machado posted a 3.1 fWAR, LeMahieu slashed .327/.375/.518 with 102 RBI and accumulated 5.4 fWAR for the season.

LeMahieu has also had intrinsic value as a guy that can play all over the infield and be a premium defender at any position. He played first, second and third base for the Yankees, tallying seven Defensive Runs Saved.

Meanwhile, Gleyber Torres led the Yankees with 38 homers during the regular season.

Judge, Stanton and catcher Gary Sanchez remain the big stars, and each will be hungry to produce after injury-riddled seasons.

Sanchez hit 34 homers in 106 games, and he is a tough guy to run on behind the plate. Judge has faced plenty of skepticism this year, but he hit 16 homers over the final two months.

Stanton will be the player of particular interest. In nine games in September, he slashed .286/.382/.571 with a pair of homers. Of course, Stanton was also the standout for the wrong reasons in the 2018 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, posting a 33 percent strikeout rate and posting a .444 OPS in four games. But if he turns things around, Stanton is a game-changer in the middle of an already dangerous lineup.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has been brilliant in how he assembled the rest of the team. Edwin Encarnacion was a tremendous acquisition for New York, and he should be healthy for Game 1 on Friday night. Cameron Maybin is another fantastic bench option.

New York vets Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorious fill out the lineup, and both have plenty of experience in big games.

Twins

Minnesota ranked just behind the Yankees in runs scored (939) while pacing all of baseball in homers (307).

Nelson Cruz had the finest season of his career at age 38, slashing .311/.392/.639 with 41 homers and 108 RBI in just 120 games. He also ranked fourth in baseball in terms of OPS+ (166).

After being suspended for half of the 2018 season, shortstop Jorge Polanco was a catalyst at the top of Minnesota’s lineup, notching 69 hits (including seven triples) and scoring a team-high 107 runs.

Third baseman Miguel Sano had a phenomenal second half, slashing ..254/.362/.578 with 21 homers after the All-Star break. Sano also had a 1.067 OPS in September.

In the outfield, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler both topped 30 homers. Kepler has been dealing with shoulder soreness that has put a cloud over his status for this series, but he could provide the Twins with a huge boost from the left side of the plate if he is feeling healthy.

Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron have also been solid bargains at second and first base, respectively. However, both guys are coming off of brutal Septembers. With Byron Buxton out for the remainder of the season and Marwin Gonzalez having a down year, the Twins need their role players to contribute.

Mitch Garver and Luis Arraez could be major X-factors in this series.

Garver slashed .273/.3565/.630 with 31 homers and a 155 wRC+ in 93 games with Minnesota. Although Baldelli likes to alternate him with Jason Castro at the catching position, the Twins are going to need all the offense that they can get against the Yankees, and Garver demolishes left-handed pitching.

Arraez was thought to be done for the year after suffering a high ankle sprain in the final game of the regular season, But he was named to the ALDS roster and will give it a go in the playoffs. Arraez was one of Minnesota’s best hitters down the stretch, posting a .334 batting average in 92 games.

Although the Twins are not as deep as the Yankees, outfielder Jake Cave and Ehire Adrianza are solid bench options, and Gonzalez can play all over the field. Castro can also come in to catch in the later innings, if necessary.

The bullpens

Yankees

As has been the case for the past few seasons, the Yankees have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Even though New York was without Betances for the entire season, their relief corps still ranked second in fWAR and ninth in ERA.

Green overcame a brutal start to his season to reassert himself as one of the most electric arms in New York’s pen. He allowed just one run and posted a ridiculous 17.6 K/9 in 13 1/3 innings of work in September while also being used as an opener in three of his eight appearances.

At the back end, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino and Aroldis Chapman are as good a trio as any in the majors.

Outside of an iffy July, Chapman has been arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in the game. He did not allow a single run in August, and he is equally as tough on righties and lefties.

Meanwhile, both Britton and Ottavino posted sub-2.00 ERAs despite boasting high walk rates. Ottavino possesses one of the nastiest sliders in recent memory, while Britton uses his sinker-cutter combination against both righties and lefties to pound opposing hitters into the ground. Britton had a 77 percent ground ball rate this season, which was easily the highest among qualified relievers.

Tommy Kahnle, Luis Cessa, Tyler Lyons and Jonathan Loaisiga round out the bullpen, with converted starter J.A. Happ adding another left-handed option.

Twins

Despite commonly held notions, the Twins also have an excellent bullpen. Minnesota ranked third in bullpen fWAR, anchored by excellent seasons from Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Taylor Rogers. The Twins also acquired Sergio Romo at the trade deadline and the finesse right-hander had a 3.18 ERA in 22 2/3 innings.

Rogers actually ranked above Chapman in fWAR. The 28-year-old had a stellar 8.18 SO/W ratio this season, and his slider–like Ottavino–has been untouchable this season.

Duffey was just as efficient as Rogers, with a 12.8 K/9 against a 2.2 BB/9. Duffey had the lowest ERA (2.50) and ERA+ (184) in the Twins bullpen among qualified pitchers, and he also has tremendous success with the fastball-slider combination.

Zack Littell and Randy Dobnak have also emerged as pivotal contributors in the bullpen, and they will almost certainly be extended in this series. Gibson and Smeltzer could be pivotal as potential long relief options.

Luckily, Minnesota’s shortage of lefty options in the bullpen is negated by New York’s right-handed heavy lineup. However, many of these guys have never pitched in the postseason before, and they are likely to face a number of high-leverage situations.

The skinny

Perhaps this would be a different series if the Twins had more starting pitching options, or if Severino had not looked so strong upon his return. However, the matchup favors the Yankees.

New York is hungry to get back to the World Series, while most of these Twins players would be glad simply playing spoiler.

The Yankees are just too deep for a Twins club that will have to ask a lot out of their starters. New York also has a higher OPS as a team on the road, and they took four of six games from the Twins during the regular season.

Prediction: Yankees in 3