Indians, Rays evenly matched on paper
The American League Wild Card Game will be decided on the field, but how does it look on paper? We discussed the matchup with MLB.com reporters, columnists and editors. Let's take a look, position by position, to see whether the Indians or Rays might have an edge Wednesday night at 8:07 ET on TBS.
Both clubs feature two starting catchers, though the Indians' definition has shifted considerably. Manager Terry Francona hasn't made it official in his public statements, but his lineups demonstrate that Yan Gomes has taken over for Carlos Santana behind the plate, where Gomes, with a 39.1-percent success ratio on stolen-base attempts, is a huge defensive improvement with a strong bat. The Rays split the job 50-50 between the Joses -- Lobaton and Molina -- with the former making considerable offensive and defensive strides this season. Gomes has the most upside here.
James Loney resurrected his sagging career this season with the Rays and has been a key offensive contributor. But between Nick Swisher, the primary first baseman, and Santana, who sometimes gets the start at first against right-handers, the Indians simply have more power in play here.
Hopefully by now, baseball fans everywhere realize what an incredible asset Ben Zobrist is for the Rays. He can play just about anywhere, but he spends most of his time at second base, and Kelly Johnson is another attractive option there. But Jason Kipnis is one of the game's rising stars. He carried Cleveland with a scorching June (1.216 OPS), and he was getting hot again in the season's final week (1.127 OPS).
Evan Longoria is simply one of the best all-around players in the sport. A 27-year-old power hitter in his prime and a game-changing defender at the hot corner, Longo stepped up huge in the tiebreaker against Texas. The Indians hoped for a breakout season from Lonnie Chisenhall, but his continuing struggles at the plate have forced the need in recent weeks to give utility man Mike Aviles more playing time at third.
Asdrubal Cabrera was a big piece of the Indians' core, but he's had a frustrating season at the plate (.242/.299/.402). Yunel Escobar was a risky addition on the part of the Rays, given his past, but he's been a solid offensive contributor and has been stellar defensively (12.1 UZR/150 innings mark, per FanGraphs).
The Rays use a rotating cast at this position, with Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, Sean Rodriguez, Johnson, and in recent weeks, David DeJesus, all employed as options. The Indians' Michael Brantley, meanwhile, has been as steady as they come. The man they call "Dr. Smooth" had a .284/.332/.396 slash line while batting in virtually every lineup spot.
B.J. Upton left the Rays in free agency to sign a gargantuan deal with the Braves, replacing Michael Bourn, who signed a less gargantuan but still substantial deal with the Indians. Bourn has been a little bit of a disappointment for the Tribe in the leadoff spot (23 steals and a .316 OBP). Desmond Jennings, meanwhile, had a .333 OBP and 20 steals. Both players have been banged up recently, but Jennings returned to the Rays lineup on Monday and provided an immediate spark.
The Indians' right-field spot all depends upon whether Francona puts Santana at DH or first base. If it's the former, then either Ryan Raburn or Drew Stubbs will get the start in right. If it's the latter, then Swisher will shift from first to right. Whatever the case, the impact Wil Myers has made in his rookie year -- and particularly the past month -- can't be overstated. And while he might be one of the most inexperienced players on the field Wednesday night, he's also one of the players most capable of changing the game with one swing.
A moving target for both clubs. Delmon Young has filled the role for the Rays in recent days and done well, and he has a strong postseason pedigree. Santana, though, has had a superb season, posting an .832 OPS, 20 homers and 74 RBIs. In recent days, though, Francona has used veteran Jason Giambi (.183 average, .653 OPS) as his DH against right-handers, so this could go a number of ways. We'll bank on Santana for now, though, and say ...
The strength of both of these clubs is the ability to rotate guys in and out of the lineup and in and out of various positions and stay afloat. So this one could be a wash. But has any bench player in baseball made a bigger impact than Raburn? He has a .901 OPS, 16 homers and 55 RBIs in just 86 games.
One of the beautiful things about this particular matchup is that it will pit two of the lesser-known but must-see young pitchers against each other in Danny Salazar and Alex Cobb. Salazar began the year in Double-A but has provided the Indians with a huge pick-me-up in the second half (3.12 ERA in 10 starts), and he has only recently seen restrictions lifted on his pitch count. Cobb survived a scary batted ball to the head in mid-June and returned two months later to continue what has been a terrific breakout year (2.76 ERA in 22 starts). Because of his experience and his 0.59 ERA over his past two starts, we'll give Cobb the nod.
Both bullpens have suffered regression from a season ago. The difference-maker right now is Justin Masterson, erstwhile ace of the Indians who is pitching in a relief role after coming back from an oblique strain. The length he can provide in a game like this could make a big difference.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fernando Rodney took a huge step back from his incredible 2012 season, so the Rays don't have nearly the closer strength they once did. And Chris Perez was rocked the past two months, essentially losing his closing job and forcing the Indians to go with a committee approach. Maybe playing the percentages and matchups is a better arrangement than going with Rodney, but Rodney did allow just one run over his last 12 innings, so we'll give the Rays the edge.