National League Preview

Philadelphia Fever about to break out?

One of the beauties of baseball is that the game unfolds on the field, not stat sheets. If it was only a matter of paper, we could crown the Philadelphia Phillies World Series champs right now because they have the best roster in baseball. But they’re not invulnerable and they might not get out of the first round.

Philadelphia Phillies vs. Cincinnati Reds

It’s too bad this is the first-round matchup as these are the two best teams in the National League.

The Phils are the defending NL champs and have such a stacked roster that one wonders how they managed to blunder into second place until August. Oh yeah—Jimmy Rollins has been hurt and didn’t play well when he wasn’t, Raul Ibanez tailed off, and Cole Hamels is a head case. Still, there aren’t any easy outs in a lineup with Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Vicctorino, and Jayson Werth, and Placido Palanco. Even young catcher Carlos Ruiz hit .302! The Phillies might be vulnerable in a long series, but who sports a better one-two staff than the Philadelphia Roys (Roy “Cy Young” Halliday and Roy Oswalt)? Get to the pen, though, and the Phillies are vulnerable—Lidge blew five saves and Madson and Romero coughed up eight between them.

The Red can also thump the ball. Joey Votto (.324, 37 HR, 113 RBIs) ought to be the runaway MVP this year, and he’s backed by Jay Bruce, a revitalized Scott Rolen, the steady Brandon Phillips, and emerging star Drew Stubbs. In a short series, though, pitching generally prevails. Arroyo (17-10) and Cueto (12-7) are decent, but they’re hardly the equals of Halliday and Oswalt. The rest of the staff is lost, mediocre, or both. Closer Francisco Cordero blew eight saves of his own and has a bad habit of making games more interesting than they should be. If the Reds pull off the upset, it will be because they club their way to victory.

Prediction: Phillies in four entertaining games.

San Francisco Giants vs. Atlanta Braves

Call this one the ho-hum series. Both teams backed into the postseason, the Braves after a late summer swoon that took them from first place to near elimination, and the Giants snuck in when the Padres fell apart. but they still needed to win their last game to avoid missing the playoffs. They are the two worst teams still playing, though baseball is crazy enough that one of them could still win the World Series.

This is the series of those that can’t hit versus those that can’t pitch. Go with pitching and pick the Giants to prevail. Their “offense” is awful once one gets past superstar-rising Buster Posey. Juan Uribe led the team in homers, for heaven’s sake, with just 24. The rest of the everyday lineup is cast offs (Huff, Ross, Renteria, Sandoval) and washouts (Rowland, Burrell, DeRosa). But the Giants’ staff led MLB in ERA. Much-maligned Barry Zito was 11-14 but his 4.15 ERA would have made him an ace on some rosters. Plus he’s number four behind reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (16-10), Matt Cain (13-11), and Jonathan Sanchez (13-9). Closer Brian Wilson registered 48 saves.

The Braves have retiring manager Bobby Cox at the helm and a decent hitting lineup featuring Martin Prado, last-season pickup Derek Lee, Brian McCann, and Troy Glaus. Chipper Jones won’t be there, though, and stud Justin Heyward tailed off dramatically and isn’t even odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year anymore. It’s still more firepower than the Giants have, but the Braves start Derek Lowe (16-12) and Tim Hudson (17-9). Both are decent, but not on par with the Giants staff. After them, things get very shaky, very fast. (I’ll bet Bobby Cox would love to have Zito!)

Prediction: Giants in five.


American League Playoff Preview

Play ball! Forget football--October is playoff time. This year the Yankees are not the favorites to win it all—that honor goes to the Philadelphia Phillies. But first, a preview of the American League playoffs.

Tampa Rays vs. Texas Rangers:

Which Rays team will show up? They won 96 games—no small feat—but they did so by interspersing long winning streaks with ones in which they couldn’t hit an elephant with a bus. I wouldn’t be surprised if they caught fire and won the Series but, then again, three and done isn’t out of the question.

The offense is an all-or-nothing problem for the Rays. Once one gets past the magnificent Carl Crawford and the solid Evan Longoria, it’s a series of question marks. B.J. Upton and his .237 average are quickly inviting a “bust” label, and Carlos Pena’s 28 dingers do not compensate for a .196 batting average. This team can be dominated by good pitching. Of course, the Rays can pitch too. David Price is a Cy Young candidate and Matt Garza had a solid year. If they get to the closer, no one had a better year than Rafael Soriano. Niemann, Davis, and Shields struggled at times, as did everyone in the bullpen not named Soriano.

They’d all better bring their A-game because the Rangers can crush the ball. If Josh Hamilton had stayed healthy, he’d be the MVP. Even if he’s half speed there’s Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, Vlad Guerrero, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, and a supporting cast of very good bats. If Cliff Lee continues his postseason mastery, C. J. Wilson steps up, and they get a good game out of anyone else, the Rangers will break Floridian hearts. I think the Rays would have a better chance of prevailing in a seven game series, but because it’s only best of five…

Prediction: Texas in four games.

Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees

The Yankees won’t be favored because of their late season swoon. The open question is whether they were coasting and recuperating or succumbing to the ravages of age.

If Justin Morneau was on the roster I’d be more optimistic about the Twins’ chances. Without him there is the magnificent Joe Mauer, the ageless Jim Thome, and decent-but-not-fearsome sticks. In other words, you can pitch around the Twins. How far the Twins go rests on the choke-prone right shoulder of Carl Pavano and the surgically repaired left arm of Francisco Liriano. The Yankees dearly want to cream “Carla,” as he was dubbed in the Bronx, and they easily handled Liriano when they faced him. The rest of the staff is number four guys who had good years: Slowey, Duensing, Baker… The Twins have the home field advantage, but I still think they lack the horses to send the Yankees home early.

They may be old, but then again, they may have been playing rope-a-dope. Jeter’s done, right? Did anyone notice he raised his average 12 points in the last three weeks? Would you bet the farm against him in the postseason? Posada may be in decline and Curtis Granderson hasn’t lived up to his billing, but is there a pitcher who doesn’t quake at the prospect of facing Texeira, A-Rod, and MVP candidate Robinson Cano? Toss in the underrated Nick Swisher, the fleet-footed Brent Gardner, and a much-improved bench and the Yankees are scary. Will they dispatch the Twins? It all boils down to whether A.J. Burnett is Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, and whether Andy Petitte can shake off the rust. The Twins have nobody as good as C. C. Sabathia. Get to the Yankees bullpen before the seventh and you can beat them—otherwise it’s Wood, Rivera, and cue “New York, New York…”

Prediction: Yankees in five.