McAdam: Who's the best playoff matchup for Sox?

McAdam: Who's the best playoff matchup for Sox?
September 18, 2013, 1:45 pm
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The Red Sox are closer to wrapping up their first division title since 2007 than they are in finding out their potential Division Series opponent.     

Boston's magic number for clinching the division is down to three, but the number of potential first-round opponents is at six.     

Here's a look at which teams loom for the Division Series, listed in order of likely preference for the Red Sox -- i.e. easiest to toughest opponents.

1) New York

Red Sox record against this season: 13-6     

Strengths: Post-season experience; a tested late-inning bullpen combination of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera; Alfonso Soriano, the best post trade-deadline acquisition for any team in the league.     

Weaknesses: An injury-depleted lineup, missing Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner; a thin rotation featuring an overworked Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia.     

Overall: The Red Sox have won six of the last seven head-to-head matchups, games the Yankees desperately needed to win. The Sox have always fared well against Sabathia and that's particularly true this season when he's compiled a 7.22 ERA. Moreover, the bullpen getting to Robertson-Rivera is a mess. Given the nature of the rivalry, nothing can be assumed when these two teams, but in the unlikely event that the Yanks 1) get in and 2) win the wild card round, this would seem to be a pure mismatch.

2) Cleveland

Red Sox record against this season: 6-1

Strengths: Simply put -- Terry Francona. Francona is an experienced post-season manager and, even two years removed, knows the Red Sox personnel well. On paper, the Indians probably don't belong in the race, but Francona has them very much in contention with 10 days to go. The Indians also have the benefit of playoff-tested performers like Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi, and the benefit of some young, hard throwers like Danny Salazar.    

Weaknesses: The Indians aren't a very strong offensive team, with Swisher's 20 homers leading the team. Currently, they have just one player with more than 67 RBI. Also, although Ubaldo Jimenez has rebounded for a strong second half, the teams lacks a true front-line starter. And closer Chris Perez isn't
consistent enough.    

Overall: From a talent standpoint, the Indians shouldn't scare anyone. But their manager remains a huge 'X' factor and in a short series, that could prove problematic.

3) Texas

Red Sox record against this season: 2-4    

Strengths: A deep bullpen, with a number of proven, quality late-inning arms. Overall team speed. Strong power from the right side, assuming Nelson
Cruz returns to join Adrian Beltre. Deep starting rotation.    

Weaknesses: For the second straight season, the Rangers are in a September free-fall and there are questions about the team's makeup. General manager Jon Daniels thought it necessary to dismiss questions about manager Ron Washington's job security, never a good sign for a team in the playoff hunt with a week and a half to go.    

Overall: There's still plenty of talent here if the Rangers can hold on and qualify. The prospect of potentially having to face Yu Darvish and Matt Garza three times in a five-game series is ominous. But the Rangers look like such a mess now, it's hard to see them holding off all the other challengers just to qualify.

4) Baltimore

Red Sox record against this season: 6-8    

Strengths: Beginning with the infamous final series of 2011, the Orioles have had the Red Sox number for the last 2 1/2 seasons. Buck Showalter relishes playing the role of underdog against the deep-pocket Red Sox and would undoubtedly use that to motivate his team. When not overworked, the O's bullpen is imposing, thanks to set-up men like hard-throwing Tommy Hunter and lefty Brian Matusz. Starter Chris Tillman has been tough on the Sox. Team defense is a definite plus.    

Weaknesses: Beyond Tillman, the Orioles starters are comprised of a bunch of middle-of-the-rotation types (Scott Feldman, Bud Norris). The O's have
been playing catch-up in the playoff race for the past month and might be exhausted should they get there.    

Overall: If the O's were to face the Red Sox, there would be the possibility of 11 games between the two teams in the span of three weeks. What would that over-familiarity mean? Recent history -- and spectre of Tillman twice in a brief series -- would be daunting for the Sox.

5) Kansas City

Red Sox record against this season: 2-5    

Strengths: The Royals won both series against the Sox this season: at Fenway in April and in Kansas City in August. The Royals have a deep rotation with three quality starters who can give them a chance to win most nights. Closer Greg Holland may be The Best Closer No One Knows. The offense has improved greatly in the second half. Catcher Salvador Perez can shut down the Red Sox running game.    

Weaknesses: The Royals haven't reached the post-season since the Reagan administration, so the playoffs will be a totally new experience. Power is in  short supply, with only Eric Hosmer likely to finish with 20 homers or more.    

Overall: The Royals clearly aren't intimidated by the Red Sox, as they demonstrated twice this season. The Royals were counted out at the trade deadline, but have played their best baseball in the ensuing six weeks and that momentum could be valuable should they overcome the deficit in the standings.

6) Tampa Bay   

Red Sox record against this season: 12-7    

Strengths: Starting pitching, starting pitching and starting pitching. Versatility, with the ability to move a half-dozen players around the infield
and outfield. Manager Joe Maddon is an asset, with the ability to get the most out of his personnel and motivate, too.    

Weaknesses: The bullpen isn't nearly as formidable as in past years, with closer Fernando Rodney experiencing an off-year. Though improved offensively, the Rays don't scare anyone at the plate beyond Evan Longoria and rookie Wil Myers.    

Overall: The Rays are a team no one wants to face in a short series because of their dominant starting pitching. The notion of facing David Price and Matt Moore twice -- with Alex Cobb and Chris Archer thrown in for good measure -- is far from enticing. The fact that Price and Moore are both left-handed is further reason to avoid them.