The Rangers and Rays are two well-run franchises. Model franchises, even. One might have more money and a stadium they're happy in, but both of them have rosters and front offices that are the envy of most teams around the league. Last year, these two teams met after a 162-game season, and played a best-of-five series to see who was better. A best-of-five series after 162 games is just a cruel tease.
Oh, there's no way to fix that. You're not going to find a lot of support for my best-of-13 Division Series idea, especially since the plan also includes the World Series ending with a double-header on Christmas. But it seems anti-climactic for two fantastic teams to meet after a long, long season and play a best-of-five series. That feeling of "That's it?" is going to get much worse with the single play-in game, for better and worse.
So we'll have to be sated with the short playoff series when they come up, and we'll have to pay extra attention to the regular season. The Rangers and Rays kick off a three-game series at Tropicana Field on Friday night, so here's our chance to pretend it's something like a playoff series.
On the surface, the two teams are similar to the ones that met in last year's ALDS. There are noticeable differences, sure. Mike Napoli and Michael Young aren't nearly the hitters they appeared to be last season, but Mitch Moreland and David Murphy have helped balance them out. Fernando Rodney decided that, after four years of being one of the wildest pitchers in baseball, he's now one of the best relievers to ever live. But we all expected that.
But the big differences are in the rotations of the two teams. The Rangers have a radically different rotation, for one. They thought they were replacing C.J. Wilson with Yu Darvish, but Matt Harrison ended up as the team's most reliable starter. Darvish hasn't exactly been a disappointment as a pitcher who helps his team win more than lose, but he's been a disappointment relative to expectations. Derek Holland went from a Steve Blass episode in the 2010 World Series to a dominating performance in the 2011 World Series, but he can't keep the ball in the park this season.
The Rangers also lost Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the year with elbow surgeries, leading them to rely on the newly acquired Ryan Dempster (who's been good) and an amalgam of Scott Feldman (better lately) and Roy Oswalt (urf). That's 60 percent of the rotation turning over since the ALDS last year, and not all for the better.
The Rays don't have a radically different rotation. If they were in the ALDS tomorrow, they might use the same four starters from last year's ALDS -- Matt Moore, James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson. What's different is the expectations for the pitchers. Not the Rays' expectations -- they're smarter than us, and they probably had them pegged right -- but the expectations of analysts, writers, and fans.
Last year, David Price was something of an enigma. He wasn't bad, but his ERA+ was just 107 and he had a losing record. He wasn't the hyper-ace that his stuff, command, and strikeout-to-walk ratio indicated he should be. This year, he is that hyper-ace again, even if his strikeout, walk, and home-run ratios are almost exactly what they were last year. The 2011 season was the anomaly, not the 2010 season. We know that now. And if you want to pry him away from the Rays, keep tossing All-Stars and top-ten prospects onto the pile until they say stop. Which they won't.
Matt Moore was even more of an enigma last season, making just his second big-league start in the first game of the Division Series. He obviously had liquid talent leaking out of his pores, but so have a lot of highly touted young pitchers who didn't take the shortest, quickest path to big-league success. It was possible Moore was going to have some young-pitcher things to work out when he was given his first full-time rotation slot.
He did have some young-pitcher things to work out. All kinds. Then he didn't. With the help of some arbitrary endpoints:
He's moved his season from "Young pitcher figuring things out" to "rare specimen who could definitely start a playoff game if needed."
And the expectations for Jeremy Hellickson are different, too. Last year, there was a lot of focus on his below-average strikeout rate. Just wait until that catches up to him, and such. But we're now 370 innings into the Hellickson experience, and it's starting to look like the theories should catch up to him for whatever reason, not the other way around.
The Rangers have had to reinvent their rotation as the season has progressed. The Rays have sat back and let the talent break through. These aren't the same two teams that met last year in the ALDS. Obviously. These aren't the same two teams that met in April. But they're both wonderful teams, even after all of the shifting around. Most of the baseball world will be focused on the Giants/Dodgers or Yankees/Orioles this weekend. But when it comes to the best baseball of the weekend, this is probably the series to watch.
Friday -- Derek Holland vs. Jeremy Hellickson
Saturday -- Yu Darvish vs. David Price
Sunday -- Matt Harrison vs. James Shields
Edit: Looks like Chris Archer on Saturday
Joe Maddon just told us that David Price has a sore shoulder and will miss Saturday's start...not serious.Archer will pitch sat in his place— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) September 7, 2012