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Position breakdown: Red Sox, Rays can make cases

Boston appears to hold edge on paper, but Tampa Bay has turned the tables before

BOSTON -- The Red Sox went 12-7 against the Rays this year, and after the two were tied atop the division on Aug. 24, Boston broke out and finished 5 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay. Between their having the top seed and home-field advantage, it would appear this American League Division Series, which starts Friday afternoon at Fenway Park (3 p.m. ET, TBS), is tilted dramatically in favor of the Red Sox.

But there's more to the matchup than your typical David vs. Goliath fare. Consider that half of Boston's 12 wins in the season series were decided in the ninth inning or later, and that Tampa Bay was only outscored by 14 runs over the course of 19 games despite subpar production with runners in scoring position.

What's more, the Rays have won three straight must-win games and 10 of their past 12 games. Tampa Bay has gotten hot at Boston's expense before, including its dramatic late-season comeback for a Wild Card berth in 2011 and the classic 2008 AL Championship Series.

In other words, it's always interesting when these two AL East rivals take the field together. This series shouldn't be any different.

A panel of's experts broke down the coming American League Division Series, position by position.

Tampa Bay's Jose Molina may not do much at the plate, hitting just .233 with a .594 OPS this season, but he makes up for some of it with his pitch-framing and game-calling. Switch-hitting backup Jose Lobaton is more of a threat offensively and should see some time in this series. But the edge goes to Boston and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who took major steps forward offensively and defensively this season, along with backup David Ross.

This one essentially comes down to what you value more. Do you want a consistent contact hitter with modest power and a super-slick glove? Then Rays first baseman James Loney, with his .299 average and 13 homers, is the man for you. Do you want big, game-changing power that comes and goes? If so, you'll take Mike Napoli, who clubbed 23 homers and slugged .482 but struck out 187 times. Both are fine options, but if Napoli gets hot, he could swing the whole series.

It seems unfair to discount Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay's perennially underrated do-everything man. He found a home at second base around mid-June and thrived there defensively while hitting .294/.365/.427 in the second half. Unfortunately for Zobrist in this exercise, he plays the same position as Dustin Pedroia, an equally tough out and just as much of a vacuum at second base. Pedroia's offensive numbers -- including a .301 average and .787 OPS -- give him the edge.

Will Middlebrooks posted a .368/.434/.621 batting line between Aug. 10-Sept. 8, but he's cooled off dramatically since then. Another hot streak could do wonders for the Red Sox. Still, the decision here goes to Evan Longoria, the Rays' team MVP and franchise cornerstone. He didn't have his best offensive year, but he hit 32 homers, drove in 88 runs and stayed healthy enough to play in 160 games. Plus, he has something of a flair for the dramatic down the stretch.

Neither shortstop's offensive numbers will make you stop what you're doing, whether it's Stephen Drew's .253/.333/.443 line or Yunel Escobar's .256/.332/.366. Drew has more power, and he's been much improved since August, batting .291 with an .864 OPS. Escobar's final numbers were bogged down by a miserable first three weeks, but he has more than made up for that with steady and occasionally flashy work at shortstop. He is coming off arguably the best defensive season of anyone in the AL.

Pick a platoon. The Rays will trot out veteran David DeJesus while also using Sean Rodriguez (against lefties), Matt Joyce, Kelly Johnson and even Sam Fuld. DeJesus has been a nice addition, working tough at-bats and playing great defense, but the rest leave something to be desired -- particularly Joyce, the 2011 All-Star who has only seven hits since Aug. 26. So the edge goes to Boston's Daniel Nava-Jonny Gomes combination, as Nava (.303/.385/.445, 12 homers) has emerged as the best player in this group.

It will be interesting to see whether Jacoby Ellsbury's right foot is healthy enough to utilize his speed in the outfield and on the basepaths, where he stole 52 bases this year. Then again, Tampa Bay's Desmond Jennings is a little banged up, too, and he's stolen only five bases since the All-Star break. While Jennings can serve as a run producer in the middle of the lineup, Ellsbury is simply a better option in all facets of the game.

Rookie slugger Wil Myers has been a huge addition to the Rays lineup since making his Major League debut at Fenway Park in June, batting .293 with an .831 OPS, 13 homers and a team-high 53 RBIs since the time of his promotion. Shane Victorino is a more complete player, enjoying a bounceback year at the plate while adding value as a defender and baserunner, but Myers' potent bat is just too big a factor to ignore.

This is no knock on Delmon Young, who is seemingly at his best in the postseason. Young has been in the playoffs every year since 2009, and his nine homers since the 2011 postseason are the most in the Majors during that time. He's been a pleasant surprise for the Rays, but he can't compete with Big Papi. At age 37, David Ortiz is coming off another spectacular offensive season for the Red Sox, hitting .309 with a .959 OPS.

Rays manager Joe Maddon puts together his lineup and makes in-game adjustments in such a way that it's difficult to distinguish who, exactly, should be considered a reserve. In keeping with that mentality, Tampa Bay has received major contributions from a number of unexpected players this season. What sets the Red Sox apart, however, is an obvious power threat like Mike Carp, a reliable veteran like Gomes and a sharp young infielder like Xander Bogaerts.

It was not Tampa Bay's pitching that let the team down against Boston this season, as the staff recorded a 3.54 ERA against the Sox. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner David Price is obviously a tough draw, especially if his Game 163 performance was a sign of things to come. Left-hander Matt Moore, the Game 1 starter, is an All-Star, and Alex Cobb might be their best pitcher right now. Boston's got a strong group, too: Jon Lester has pitched like an ace in the second half, John Lackey has been great at home and Clay Buchholz has been tremendous when healthy.

The Rays are loaded with strong late-inning options, and few managers are better than Maddon at finding spots for them. Setup man Joel Peralta is tough on lefties and righties, complementing hard-throwing left-hander Jake McGee. Lefty long man Alex Torres has been a revelation, and veteran right-hander Jamey Wright is capable of pitching in big spots. There's a lot to like in the Red Sox bullpen, particularly setup man Junichi Tazawa (9.5 strikeouts per nine innings) and lefty Craig Breslow.

Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney hasn't come close to replicating his record-setting 2012 campaign, but he's had a nice enough year, recording 37 saves with a 3.38 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. But he's much less of a sure thing than Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, who went 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves while posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 11. He's good against everybody, especially the Rays, who collectively own a .115 average and .402 OPS against him.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays