It's no surprise that the New York Yankees are back in the postseason for the 16th time in the last 17 years. However, it is a surprise that the Yankees not only won their 12th American League East title in that span, but that they enter this year's playoffs with more wins than any team in the American League at 97.
Their quest for an unprecedented 28th World Series title begins on Friday when they open the best-of-five American League Division Series against the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium.
New York, which lost in six games to the Texas Rangers in last year's ALCS, is of course led by its terrific lineup, but does have some major question marks surrounding its starting rotation behind staff ace and Game 1 starter CC Sabathia.
There are no questions however surrounding the Tigers' staff, which is led by AL CY Young favorite Justin Verlander, whose 24 wins could make him the league's first pitcher to take home MVP honors since Roger Clemens in 1986.
Thanks to Verlander's terrific season the Tigers won their first-ever American League Central title, while claiming their first division crown since winning the 1987 AL East. They ended the year 95-67 and are back in the postseason for the first time since winning the American League pennant back in 2006.
That remarkable run, of course, started with a four-game series win over the Yankees in the only other previous postseason matchup between the two. The Tigers also took four of seven from the Yanks during this season after the two teams split the eight-game season series a year ago.
It is no secret as to what makes the Yankees go, and that is their star- studded lineup that produced more home runs (222) than any other team in baseball, and also finished third in OPS (.788) while scoring the most runs of all the postseason teams (867).
Detroit manager Jim Leyland once called the Yankees' potent lineup Murderer's Row and Cano. Well, Robinson Cano has established himself as one of the best players in baseball since then and should get some MVP consideration this year, as he hit .302 with 28 home runs, 118 RBI and 104 runs scored, while playing a near-flawless second base.
As impressive as Cano was, though, it was a former Tiger who drove the Yankees offense this season in center fielder Curtis Granderson. As well rounded as they come, Granderson displayed some pop this year, finishing second in the American League with 41 homers, while topping the AL with 119 runs RBI and 136 runs scored.
The rumors of Derek Jeter's demise seem to have been exaggerated, as the Yankees captain thrived after getting career hit No. 3,000, batting .327 in the second half. October, of course, is Jeter's home and nobody comes up with bigger hits this time of the year than the Captain.
Then there's Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. No longer the focus of opposing pitchers, Rodriguez dealt with injuries for most of the season, while Teixeira still swatted 39 home runs and drove in 111 runs, despite hitting just .248.
Manager Joe Girardi has toyed with the idea of moving Cano to the three-hole and dropping Teixeira to fifth, while leaving A-Rod in the cleanup spot. Should that happen, Rodriguez could become a huge factor should teams decide to walk Cano to face the three-time AL MVP.
The Yanks will score their runs in bunches, but if they are going to win on the basepaths, speedy left fielder Brett Gardner will likely be in the middle of it. Gardner may be streaky at the plate, but he did tie for the AL lead with 49 stolen bases this season.
It will be interesting to see how manager Joe Girardi uses Jesus Montero, the team's top hitting prospect, who batted .328 with four home runs and 12 RBI following a September callup. Montero is expected to split DH duties with the aging Jorge Posada, who had the worst year of his career, hitting a mere .235.
Cabrera led the American League in hitting this past season, batting .344 with 30 home runs and 105 RBI.
You can make the argument that the Tigers weren't complete until the mid- August acquisition of Young from Minnesota. Young, who hits in front of Cabrera, batted .274 after the trade and hit eight homers with 32 RBI in 40 games with the club.
In his first year with the Tigers after inking a four-year, $50 million deal, Victor Martinez batted .330 and knocked in 103 runs.
It all starts at the top, though, with speedy center fielder Austin Jackson, the former Yankees' prospect who was the centerpiece of the Granderson deal. Jackson strikes out a ton (181 Ks), but he is a pain in the neck to deal with on the basepaths in addition to being one of the best defensive players in the game.
After being spurned by Cliff Lee this winter followed by the retirement of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees starting rotation was expected to be a huge question mark entering the year.
Then to make matters worse, 18-game winner from a year ago Phil Hughes labored through dead arm issues early on and A.J. Burnett was, well, A.J. Burnett. So, the Yanks were forced to rely heavily on a pair of castoff veterans in Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, who hadn't even pitched in the league a year ago.
Garcia and Colon came through, though, with the latter looking downright dominant at times before running out of steam down the stretch. As bad as Colon may have ended the year, though, Garcia finished just as strong, earning himself a start in Game 3 of this series.
As impressive as the two right-handed veterans were at times it was rookie Ivan Nova who stood out, going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.
Through it all, though, staff Sabathia produced yet another terrific season in pinstripes and will be on the hill to open the playoffs for a third straight season. Sabathia fell a win short of becoming the first Yankees starter to post back-to-back 20-win seasons since Tommy John back in 1979-80, but ended the year 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA.
Sabathia is no stranger to the Tigers, having faced them 32 times over the course of his career and posting a 15-12 mark to go along with a 4.54 ERA.
Opposing Sabathia will be Verlander, who put forth one of the best years ever by a Tigers' starter, as he won the league's pitching Triple Crown, going 24-5 with a 2.40 earned run average and 250 strikeouts.
Verlander finished the year strong, winning 12 straight starts before earning a no-decision in his final start on Friday.
The hard-throwing righty, though, earned two no-decisions against the Yankees this season and is a mere 4-3 lifetime against them with a 3.97 ERA in 10 starts. The Yanks are also the only team that Verlander faced twice and did not beat.
After Verlander it will be right-hander Doug Fister, who very well may have been the best trade acquisition at the deadline, as he has gone 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) since being picked up from Seattle. He has been even better of late, posting a 7-0 mark, while allowing one run or less in his last eight outings.
Fister and Verlander combined to go 14-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 16 outings from Aug. 16 to the end of the season.
Max Scherzer will get the ball in Game 3. Still another player acquired as part of the Granderson deal, Scherzer went 15-9 this season with a 4.43 ERA. However, he beat the Yankees twice and is a perfect 3-0 in three starts against them with a 2.84 ERA.
Should the Tigers need a fourth starter it will likely be young righty Rick Porcello, while the Yanks could send the inconsistent Burnett to the hill. Depending on the situation, though, expect one of the Game 1 starters to go on short rest in this one.
There won't be many series this postseason where the Tigers bullpen will be at a disadvantage, but this is one of them. Why? Well as good as Jose Valverde has been this season, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the best postseason reliever of all-time and he may have the best supporting cast he's ever had.
Fresh off another scintillating season that saw him become the league's all- time saves leader, Rivera enters what has been his domain since 1996. There has never been a better postseason closer than Rivera, who has pitched to a 0.71 ERA in 139 2/3 postseason innings.
Most of Rivera's damage has come in the ALDS, where he has saved 18 of his 42 postseason games and has surrendered just two earned runs in 54 2/3 innings.
David Robertson emerged as the premier eighth-inning guy in baseball this season, going 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 66 innings. He and fellow right-hander Rafael Soriano form a formidable bridge to the great Rivera.
If there is one downside to this terrific group it is the fact that Boone Logan is the only lefty. The Yanks could opt to carry Raul Valdez to help ease the burden on Logan.
As good as Rivera is, Valverde may have been the best closer in the league this season and set a franchise record by saving 49 consecutive games, while pitching to a 2.24 ERA in 75 appearances.
His main setup man is righty Joaquin Benoit, who struggled early on but was 3-0 with a 1.36 ERA in 50 games since May 20. Righty Al Alburquerque has also become a weapon in the seventh inning, as his 1.87 ERA indicates.
Thanks to injuries to Jeter and Rodriguez the Yankees were forced to rely heavily on Eduardo Nunez this season. While he did lead the team with 20 errors in the field, he did hit .265 and has shown some pop. Eric Chavez was once one of the best defensive third baseman in the game and got some big hits for the Yankees this season. Andruw Jones will provide some pop from the right side of the plate, while Chris Dickerson will be used as a late-inning pinch runner. Dickerson could also play some outfield if need be late in games.
The losses of Carlos Guillen and Brennan Boesch really put this team in a bind from a depth standpoint. Now the Tigers bench includes the likes of Don Kelly, Raburn and Andy Dirks, while being forced to play Ordonez on a regular basis. Brandon Inge was so bad that he was sent to Triple-A for a stretch, but he could find some time at third with the versatile Wilson Betemit.
Everything on paper suggests the Yankees should win this series easily. But, as the Boston Red Sox taught us this past month, these games aren't won on paper. How the Yankees were able to get to 97 wins this season with the starting staff they had is quite an achievement. But, we've heard it a million times. Good pitching beats good hitting every time. The Yankees supplied their starters with more run support than any team in the league. History tells us that won't happen in the playoffs. If the Yankees get Game 1 against Verlander they could get by here, but I have a feeling the righty's magical season continues here.
Prediction: TIGERS in FOUR