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By JAY LeBLANC
September 30, 2008

Thirty teams harbored championship dreams, realistic or otherwise, in April; those dreams have been dashed for all but nine - eight by day’s end - as we creep up on October. Baseball’s grueling 162-game schedule has a way of separating the contenders from the pretenders, and this year is no exception. Make no mistake about it: Every one of this year’s playoff teams will have a legitimate chance to hoist the World Series trophy. On the flip side, none of them are immune from the possibility of a crushing first-round defeat. So now, while the ending eludes us, and while fans of all the playoff teams - and even one that’ll be left out - still believe this is the year, let’s offer a toast to the contenders. Reaching the playoffs earns your team that first sip; enjoy it. After that, is their glass half full or half empty? You decide.

 

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
100-62, A.L. West Division Champion

Glass half full

Pitching is vital in postseason baseball, and the Angels have it. New all-time single-season saves leader Francisco Rodriguez is the headliner in one of baseball’s best bullpens, and right-handers Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo and lefty Darren Oliver are having outstanding seasons as well. The Angels starting rotation is somewhat lacking in star power, but all five starters - John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Jon Garland and Jered Weaver - managed at least 11 wins this season, with Saunders and Santana leading the way with 17 and 16 respectively and Lackey checking in at 12 in just 24 starts. The staff as a whole ranks fourth in the American League in ERA and fifth in opponents’ batting average. The Angels also benefit from having Mike Scioscia, who led the team to a World Series title in 2002, calling the shots in the dugout.

Glass half empty

Sure, the Angels have an impressive pitching staff, but do any of their starters really scare anyone? De facto ace Lackey coughed up 10 earned runs against the Rangers on Thursday, soft-tosser Saunders has cooled down considerably since the All-Star break, Garland and Weaver have been mediocre all year and, as good as he’s been this year, Santana is coming off a season in which he lost 14 games and posted a 5.76 ERA. And even if the Angels’ starters are on point, will the offense score enough runs for them? Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter are nothing to sneeze at and the addition of slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira certainly helps, but the fact remains that the Halos’ offense finished just 10th in the A.L. in runs and ninth in slugging percentage. Also, how much will K-Rod have left in the tank for October after making a career-high 76 appearances this season?

 

Tampa Bay Rays
97-65, A.L. East Division Champion

Glass half full

If the Rays can overcome the defending champion Red Sox and the deep-pocketed Yankees to win the A.L. East, who’s to say they can’t take it all the way? Tampa Bay has the game’s best young pitching staff, with reliable right-handers James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson following left-handed fireballer Scott Kazmir in a fearsome rotation. The Rays also boast one of baseball’s best and deepest bullpens. Career years by right-handers Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford and lefty J.P. Howell couldn’t have come at a better time, Trever Miller, Dan Wheeler and closer Troy Percival bring veteran savvy to the ‘pen, and top prospect David Price is the ultimate X-factor. The Rays’ staff finished second in the A.L. in ERA, third in strikeouts and second in opponents’ batting average and shows no sign of slowing down. This team may be inexperienced, but they’ve developed great chemistry under skipper Joe Maddon and play hard night in and night out. Plus, at this point, they’re playing with house money, which is always a good feeling.

Glass half empty

The Rays are actually a lot like the Angels in that their bats lag well behind their arms. Tampa’s hitters ranked just ninth in runs and finished second to last in the American League in batting average this season, and, with Carl Crawford’s status uncertain as he tries to return from injury, the lineup is completely devoid of star power with the possible exception of 22-year-old rookie third baseman Evan Longoria … which brings me to my next point. Can anyone think of a team that entered a postseason more dependent on youthful, inexperienced players? The starting rotation is the Rays’ greatest strength, and the average age of its members is a tick under 25. The closest most of the players on Tampa’s roster have come to postseason baseball is watching it on TV, and after an intense, overachieving summer, you can’t rule out the possibility that they’ll hit the wall in say, the first week of October.

 

Boston Red Sox
95-67, A.L. Wild Card winner

Glass half full

The modern-day Sox are no strangers to postseason success, having won it all two of the past four seasons, and the core of the team remains largely intact under skipper Terry Francona. The offense - which ranked second in the American League in runs, batting average and slugging percentage this season - features one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball in David Ortiz and several other All-Star caliber players in Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and new acquisition Jason Bay. The pitching staff finished near the top of the A.L. in all the vital categories and is strong from beginning to end. Starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester both enjoyed breakout sophomore campaigns, Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield bring valuable postseason experience. The bullpen boasts a pair of lights-out lefties in Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez, and despite his youth, closer Jonathan Papelbon is no stranger to the big stage.

Glass half empty

As nice as what the Sox have is, what they recently had but no longer have may loom larger. Big-game gunslinger Curt Schilling was felled by injury before the season even started, and may be joined on the sidelines by reigning World Series MVP Mike Lowell this October if his hip and oblique problems don’t heal mighty quickly. J.D. Drew is fresh off the disabled list, and there’s no guarantee his balky back will hold up. And while Bay is a fine player, he doesn’t put the scare into opposing managers and hurlers that Manny Ramirez did, meaning Big Papi might not see many pitches to hit this fall. At the ripe old age of 28, Josh Beckett has already established himself as one of the most dominant October hurlers in baseball history, but an oblique injury has his postseason status in doubt. The Sox also depend heavily on some talented but inexperienced right-handed relievers in Manny Delcarmen - who has an 8.31 career postseason ERA - and Justin Masterson, who started this season in double-A.

 

Minnesota Twins
88-74, A.L. Central Division champion (?)

Glass half full

You’ve got to hand it to the Twins - they sure are pesky. Nobody gave them a real shot this year after they lost baseball’s best pitcher - Johan Santana - and best defensive center fielder - Torii Hunter - in the offseason, but they’ve hung around all season and might just sneak into the postseason party through the back door if they can win today. The Twins managed to finish third in the American League in runs by leading the league in sacrifice hits and finishing second in team batting average, proving there’s still a place for small ball in today’s game. Left-handed fireballer Francisco Liriano looks like he’s getting his No. 1 starter stuff back and unheralded Scott Baker went 4-0 with a 2.37 ERA during the last month of the season. Fellow starters Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn each won at least 11 games this year with an ERA around 4.00, which is solid if unspectacular. Having Joe Nathan and his 1.34 ERA at the back of the bullpen certainly helps, too.

Glass half empty

Small ball is cute and all, but it helps to have big boppers in your lineup this time of year and the Twins don’t. They finished last in the American League in home runs this season and had just three players - Justin Morneau (23), Jason Kubel (20) and Delmon Young (10) - reach double-digits in longballs. With apologies to Liriano and the overachieving Baker, the Twins would enter the postseason without anything resembling an ace if they were to qualify, and the staff as a whole is troublingly mediocre - or, by some statistical measures, worse. Minnesota’s pitchers ranked seventh in the A.L. in ERA and just 10th in opponents’ batting average and strikeouts. Young, Carlos Gomez and Denard Span cover a lot of ground in the outfield, but the Twins finished third in the A.L. in errors this season, which doesn’t help when small ball is your game.

 

Chicago White Sox
88-74, A.L. Central Division champion (?)

Glass half full

Chicks dig the longball, and so, apparently, do the White Sox. The South Siders’ 234 home runs this season led the American League by 34, and they finished second in the circuit in slugging percentage. Six players in their lineup - Carlos Quentin (36), Jermaine Dye (34), Jim Thome (33), Nick Swisher (24), Paul Konerko (22) and Alexei Ramirez (21) - finished with at least 20 home runs. The ChiSox also have four reliable starters in Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez, Gavin Floyd and John Danks - all of whom won at least 11 games and pitched at least 187 innings - and a dominant, flame-throwing closer in Bobby Jenks. Postseason experience goes a long way, and manager Ozzie Guillen led the White Sox to a title just three years ago with many of the same players - Dye, Konerko, Buehrle, Jenks, A.J. Pierzynski - who make up the core of the 2008 squad.

Glass half empty

Home runs are exciting, majestic, sometimes even beautiful - so much so that they can make an average offense look outstanding to the casual observer. Sure, the White Sox won the American League’s home run derby in 2008, but they finished just sixth in the most vital category: runs scored. Stealing the second fewest bases in the league, hitting into the most double plays and finishing 11th in batting average will do that do you. On top of that, the status of the player who led the White Sox in home runs - Quentin - is uncertain for the playoffs. And while reliable, workhorse starters are nice to have for the 162-game regular season, aces shine in the postseason and, with apologies to Buehrle, the ChiSox definitely don’t have one of those. The staff as a whole reeks of mediocrity, having finished fifth in the A.L. in strikeouts and sixth in both ERA and opponents’ batting average. Don’t expect any help from the defense, either - the White Sox finished fourth in the A.L. in errors.

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Chicago Cubs
97-64, N.L. Central Division champion

Glass half full

This year’s Cubs team seemingly has it all. The hard-hittin’ Cubbies have six players with 20 or more longballs and are one of the few squads in all of Major League Baseball that, on most days, doesn’t have a single gaping hole in its lineup. The exception to that rule, of course, is the pitcher’s spot - except when .341 hitter Carlos Zambrano takes the hill. Speaking of the hill: No team is more dominant there than the Cubbies, who led the National League in strikeouts and opponents’ batting average while ranking second in ERA. Big Z is a horse, Rich Harden is one of the game’s best starters when healthy - which he apparently is right now - and, when you toss 17-game winners Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly into the mix, you could very easily make the argument that the Cubs’ rotation is the best entering the postseason. The nastiness carries over to the bullpen, which is led by fireballers Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood and rounded out by useful relievers like Bob Howry, Neal Cotts and Jeff Samardzija. They’re lights out at home as well, with a 55-26 mark this year.

Glass half empty

After reading the previous paragraph, it’s clear that this Cubs team doesn’t have many weaknesses. They can pitch, they can hit, they’re adequate defensively and they have a manager in Lou Piniella who’s won it all before (in 1990 with the Reds). The big question is, Can they handle the pressure? The Cubs’ championship drought is the most celebrated in all of pro sports, which may explain why Cubs fans have refused all season to let go of the past and allow themselves to truly believe that this is the year. The Cubs need to get off to a fast start in the playoffs or the weight of an entire city - well, the Northern half of it, anyway - will start to push down on them. Piniella has a World Series ring, but he’s also got an impressive temper, which won’t help matters if things start going wrong at Wrigley.

 

Philadelphia Phillies
92-70, N.L. East Division champion

Glass half full

The star-studded Phillies offense can slug with the best of ‘em. The Phils’ hitters ranked just 10th in the N.L. in average this season, but led the Senior Circuit in home runs while finishing second in slugging percentage and third in runs. Like the Cubs, they don’t have an automatic out in their lineup, and unlike the Cubs, they’ve got Ryan Howard. The big bopper has been playing out of his mind the past several weeks, ensuring that his teammates won’t be making tee times in early October while thrusting himself into consideration for his second MVP award. On the other side of the ball, lefty Cole Hamels and second-half stud Brett Myers give the Phillies a one-two punch to rival that of any other postseason participant, while Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer are competent enough in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots. Closer Brad Lidge has converted all 41 of his save opportunities and fanned 92 batters in 69 1/3 innings of work this season.

Glass half empty

Hamels you can generally count on, but the rest of the staff certainly has its question marks. Myers has proven time and time again that he can implode at any moment, while Blanton is awfully hittable at times. Moyer relies on impeccable command to stay effective in his mid-40s; if he’s off at all, he’s going to get lit up. Lidge had a career year, but his first sniff of a blown save this October will revive all the bad Albert Pujols memories he’s worked so hard to put to bed. And that’s if you can get the ball to him with a lead in the first place; the other members of Philly’s bullpen don’t scare anyone. Philly fans can turn on their team as fast as any, and after last year’s first-round exit, it won’t take much adversity for them to sour on this season’s squad.

 

Milwaukee Brewers
90-72, N.L. Wild Card winner

Glass half full

First of all, the Brew Crew heads into its first postseason since 1982 feeling pretty darn good after clinching the Wild Card on the last day of the regular season. Left for dead by some after the team’s fortunes crumbled to the extent that manager Ned Yost was canned with just two weeks left in the regular season, Milwaukee got the job done in dramatic fashion on Sunday behind another superb outing from the hottest pitcher still playing, CC Sabathia. The big lefty has been phenomenal since his move to the National League, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, and has come up especially big over the past few weeks by repeatedly getting the job done on short rest. The Brewers will also benefit from having young fireballer Yovani Gallardo - who has posted a 1.88 ERA in limited action this season - back off the disabled list and in their rotation for the playoffs. And of course, some of Milwaukee’s hitters are known to hit the ball a long way. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun & Co. lead a dangerous offense that finished third in the National League in home runs and fourth in slugging percentage.

Glass half empty

Sabathia is the best thing the Brewers have going for them, but how much will he have left in the tank for October after making his last three starts on three days’ rest? And as good as he’s been this year, he was an absolute disaster in last year’s playoffs, letting Cleveland down by coughing up 15 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings. After Sabathia, Milwaukee’s rotation is filled with question marks. Gallardo looks good, but with just four starts under his belt this season, his continued health can’t be taken for granted. Ben Sheets‘ elbow - apparently even more creaky than usual, if that’s possible - will likely force him to miss the playoffs, and Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra and Dave Bush have all been very hittable all season. That said, the bullpen presents even more of a problem. Salomon Torres has been decent enough as the team’s closer, but has blown seven saves in 35 opportunities this season, and Eric Gagne and David Riske - who have combined for 95 appearances - both have ERAs over 5.00.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers
84-78, N.L. West Division champion

Glass half full

The Dodgers have been on a roll ever since Manny bolted Boston and decided to bring his potent bat on his West Coast vacation while leaving his Beantown baggage behind. His arrival made an otherwise mediocre offense dangerous and breathed new life into a team that was underachieving in baseball’s weakest division. Players like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Jeff Kent and Russell Martin have fared much better in their new roles as supporting actors while letting the dreadlocked wonder play the star. The improved offensive production can only help an unheralded staff that has quietly put together the National League’s best ERA. Derek Lowe had a great year and is playoff tested, while Chad Billingsley only scratched the surface of his potential this year - and won 16 games in the process. L.A.’s bullpen has excelled all year, with left-hander Joe Beimel and righties Cory Wade and Takashi Saito bridging the gap to flame-throwing closer Jonathan Broxton. And, oh yeah, their first-year manager has a little October success under his belt as well.

Glass half empty

If Manny struggles, the Dodgers are toast. While it’s tough to imagine that happening given his 2004 World Series MVP award and strong showing during last year’s Red Sox run, the fact remains that he’s only a .269 career hitter in the postseason. Besides, as great as Manny is, he can’t carry a team alone. If those supporting actors fail to shine on the big stage, Ramirez won’t see anything to hit. For a team based in Hollywood, L.A.’s starting rotation is sorely lacking in star power. Lowe had 14 wins this season and has done the job in October before, but he’s easily the least frightening No. 1 starter in the playoffs. Billingsley is nasty when he’s on but also struggles with command at times; he’s eighth in the N.L. in walks and sixth in wild pitches. Greg Maddux and Hiroki Kuroda get bombed anytime their command is even a little bit off, and reliable reliever Hong-Chih Kuo has been ruled out of the NLDS because of numbness in his pitching arm. Plus, the early fan exits don’t do much for team morale. And I know he’s safely stashed away on the disabled list, but if everything started going right for the Dodgers, don’t you get the feeling that Andruw Jones would find some way to screw it up?

 

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photos by The Associated Press

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Jay LeBlanc

Jay LeBlanc

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