The Angels were the easy favorites in an AL West with the poverty-stricken A's, pitching-less Rangers, and untalented Mariners. They never opened up a huge lead but weren't spooked by a midseason surge from Oakland, winning 14 of their last 16 games to become the first American League team to clinch. The offense was expected to be improved with contributions from free agent veterans Orlando Cabrera and Steve Finley and young guns Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson, led as always by the transcendent Vladimir Guerrero. It didn't work out, as Garret Anderson was never healthy, Cabrera underachieved, Finley was simply terrible, and they got nothing from McPherson before he got hurt. When Guerrero slumped, which he did a few times, the Angels really struggled to score runs. They finished 21st in OPS but 11th in runs scored thanks to a teamwide knack for situational hitting (a 8th-in-the-majors .795 OPS with runners in scoring position). They're not one of the best offenses in the playoffs but they are miles better than Houston or San Diego and arguably better than the White Sox.
The Yankees, beautifully managed again by the saintly Joe Torre, overcame a slow start, an avalanche of predictable pitching injuries, and a season of otherworldly awfulness from Tony Womack to win the AL East by a tiebreaker over Boston. They're the same as they ever were: big names, big dollars, big numbers. It's wild that they're depending on a rookie and a Rockie to make up half of their postseason rotation, but A-Rod, Jeter, Sheff, Posada, and Giambi are much as you remember them. They're not going to win if they don't score -- not even Randy Johnson is a sure thing any more -- but they're probably going to score.
Starting pitching. Since the White Sox torched Johnson (17-8, 3.79 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) for back-to-back-to-back home runs on August 21st, he's been back to his old self, averaging less than two earned runs a start and never allowing more than three. That is huge news for the Yankees, because the rest of their rotation is an utter shambles. Mike Mussina (13-8, 4.41, 1.37) hasn't been himself, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and (shockingly) Kevin Brown all flamed out, and Al Leiter after a magical first few starts in New York turned back into a 39-year-old pumpkin. So Torre, George Steinbrenner, and Brian Cashman performed a black mass, sacrificed a few virgins, and turned Shawn Chacon (7-3, 2.76, 1.19 with New York) and minor league veteran Aaron Small (10-0, 3.20, 1.25) into aces.The success of Taiwanese rookie Chien-Ming Wang (8-5, 4.02, 1.25) was a little less out of the blue but still pretty fortunate for the Bombers. Mussina, Wang, Johnson, and Chacon will draw the starts in the series against Anaheim, in that order. Not what anyone expected in April, but it could be much worse.
The Angels' season couldn't have gone any differently. Only 13 games all year were started by pitchers besides their five-man rotation of Byrd, Colon, Washburn, Lackey, and Erwin Santana. The Yankees, on the other hand, had 14 different guys start at least one game. Like their 2002 World Championship team, none of Anaheim's starters are great but they're all pretty good. Colon (21-8, 3.48, 1.16) doesn't have much of a rep as a big-game pitcher, but here's his chance to build one. Lackey (14-5, 3.44, 1.33) started Game 7 of the World Series in his rookie year and acquitted himself extremely well. Paul Byrd (12-11, 3.74, 1.19) outperformed any number of flashier free agent starting pitching signings from last offseason. Jarrod Washburn (8-8, 3.20, 1.33) got some karmic payback this year after years of great luck with run support; although he pitched better than ever, look at his mediocre won-loss record. Colon and Washburn will match up against Mussina and Johnson in Games 1 and 3, and if you look at the numbers, they have the advantage. Lackey draws Wang for Game Two; Byrd should see Chacon in the second game in New York. Advantage: Angels.
Bullpen. The Angels have the numbers and...well, the numbers, but the Yankees have Mo. Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher to ever play the game, and he only gets better in the postseason. Flash Gordon was overworked in the regular season by Torre (again), and after that it gets pretty dicey for the Bombers -- not Boston dicey, but we're talking Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Proctor, and Felix Rodriguez here. Aaron Small will move down, but come on, he's so due for a pounding. All you East Coast-biased folks have no idea how good the Angels' relievers are. They're all right-handed, but they'll strike out anybody. Donnelly (7.13 K/9), Shields (9.53), and Rodriguez (12.08) are the real deal, although the callow K-Rod did commit the bonehead mental error of the year when he allowed Jason Kendall to score from third after bumbling the exchange from the catcher. That probably won't happen again. Erstwhile starters Kelvim Escobar and Santana should help in relief, and Esteban Yan and Kevin Gregg are OK middlemen. Advantage: Angels.
Catcher.Jorge Posada, although he didn't have a great regular season, is one of the core players of the fading Yankee dynasty. He's a better defensive backstop than a lot of people give him credit for, too. His backup John Flaherty is a total replacement player. The all-in-the-family Anaheim duo of Ben Molina and Jose Molina used to be all about defense, but Bengie at least has improved his work with the bat this year, hitting 15 homers and posting a respectable .295/.336/.446 line. Molina will have to do it for a little longer to be considered superior to Posada, however. Advantage: Yankees.
First base.Darin Erstad is one of the least productive first base regulars in the majors. Mike Sciosia loves his defense, but you know what, Todd Helton is a pretty good fielder too, and he manages to slug a little better than .367 every year. The second Tino Martinez farewell tour has gone better than expected for New York, as Martinez has smacked 17 homers and was for one surreal week in May an honest-to-goodness superhero. Advantage: Yankees.
Second base.Robinson Cano came up in May during a panicked Steinbrenner-mandated roster reshuffle and surprisingly, he nailed down the starting job almost immediately. At .295/.318/.457 he's not quite a Rookie of the Year candidate but he is approximately a million billion times better than Tony Womack. Mike Scioscia is a good manager who does incredibly weird things sometimes. One of them is his insistence on batting Adam Kennedy, one of the better on-base percentage hitters the Angels have, ninth every single day. I don't know what the difference between hitting Orlando Cabrera (.311 OBP) and Kennedy (.354) second would be in runs over a full season, but on a team that needs scoring as badly as the Angels, it makes you wonder. Both of these guys are average defenders. Advantage: Angels.
Shortstop. You know, for a guy I hate the ever-lovin' guts of, I sure do see a lot of Derek Jeter every day. His face adorns every bag of my favorite brand of sunflower seeds. His signature is on my baseball glove (which is weird because it's left-handed). You know the story with Jeter. Statheads hate him, but he makes big plays in big games like clockwork. He gets less attention than he used to thanks to A-Rod, but he's had an awesome year (.308/.389/.449, 19 homers). Through loads of hard work and superior baseball smarts, he's improved his defense greatly in the last two years -- from awful to average (for which he was promptly rewarded with a Gold Glove in '04). Orlando Cabrera is a much slicker fielder, but he's a crummy offensive player and lacks even a thimbleful of Jeter's intangibles. Advantage: Yankees.
Third base.Chone Figgins is a groovy catalyst for the Angels and a good fielder for a guy who's not a natural third baseman. He also tied for the major league lead in steals if you like that sort of thing. But, c'mon, Alex Rodriguez is the best player in baseball. Advantage: Yankees.
Left field.Hideki Matsui is licking his chops about his pending free agency after a .304/.366/.494 year. Why is it when the Yankees sign a Japanese star they get Godzilla while the Mets end up with Kaz Matsui? Oh, yeah, they're the Yankees. Ask and the Angels will be happy to tell you that it was Garret Anderson's absences that jammed up the gears of their offense, but Anderson and his bad back were pretty lousy when they did play. He's a doubles hitter who doesn't walk. Left is the least important defensive position on the field, but Anderson when healthy is the better glove for what it's worth. Advantage: Yankees.
Center field. New York tried a little bit of everything in center and ended up right back where they started: Bernie Williams. He's a warrior, he's an O.G. Yankee, but he's a shell of his former self. Steve Finley has cratered even more dramatically, although his defense hasn't degraded as much as the gimpy Williams'. Finley hit slightly better in the second half but still finished with an OPS of .645 to Bernie's .692. This is not a position of strength for either team. Advantage: Push.
Right field. Now, this matchup is more like it. Gary Sheffield's swing is a sublime mix of beauty and power. Just don't heckle him unless you're a safe distance away. New York is really a perfect situation for Sheff since the pretty-boy infielders take the attention away and leave him to do his thing, which is crank it. The brilliant Vladimir Guerrero, having received his enormous long-term contract, is just settling in for a happy decade of padding his stats against Texas Ranger pitching. These guys are both All-Stars, but Vlad is the Hall of Famer. Guerrero has an arm that should require a five-day waiting period; Sheff is an average gloveman. Advantage: Angels.
Designated hitter. Look at Jason Giambi's final line (.271/.440/.535, 32 jacks) and it's hard to believe that at one point this season he was so lost at the plate that the Yankees seriously considered demoting him to AAA. Jeff DaVanon is the most appealing of Anaheim's limited options here; he hits a lot like April's Giambi: tons of walks and nothing else. Advantage: Yankees.
Manager. Mike Scioscia is one of those guys everybody said would make a great manager. He is a great manager. The Angels use their good bullpen to perfection and their situational hitting is as good as it gets. Joe Torre makes weird decisions on the field sometimes, and he's never been much for saving his pitchers' arms, but as the eye of the storm in the unique world of the Yankees, he does the most difficult coaching job in pro sports better than you might think possible. If they ever really fire him, they will live to regret it. Advantage: Yankees.
That's four for Anaheim, eight for the Pinstripers, and one tie. Well, I think I just changed my own mind. Yankees in five.