Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September Situations

I love baseball anytime of year (including refreshing MLBTR during the dead-of-Winter Meetings), but there's nothing quite like the months of September and October, with the game's best fighting for playoff position followed by the ultimate tournament to decide who belongs atop the mountain of the long season. The sprint to the playoffs is a bit lacking this year, with only the Wild Card races presenting a chance for real pennant-chase drama.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the virtues and weaknesses of all teams within five games of the playoffs with roughly 15 regular season games to go:

BOSTON (leads AL Wild Card by 4.5 games): I'm feeling pretty confident about these guys at the moment. The offense is rolling, and Victor Martinez has been the best single mid-season acquisition of the Epstein era. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been outstanding of late, and Josh Beckett's five solid innings in a rain-shortened game Saturday indicate that he's gotten over a spate of ineffectiveness. In the ALDS, all a team needs is three strong starters, and I have no doubt the Sox will have that by October.

The big question (and it's a big one) concerns the fourth spot needed to win the ALCS and the Fall Classic. Part of the answer may come tonight when Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his first MLB start since June 19. It will be the ultimate test against the dynamic Los Angeles Angels. Maybe it will be unfair to expect a lot from Dice his first time out versus such a tough lineup. But if he can go six innings, give up a run or two, minimize the walks and keep the Sox in the game, maybe Boston will have found its fourth starter. That's not too much to ask, is it?

COLORADO (leads NL Wild Card by 3.5 games): The Rockies are once again in the midst of a late-season charge to the playoffs, as they were in '07. Jim Tracy has this team believing they can go deep in the playoffs behind a rejuvenated Todd Helton, a fully-healthy Troy Tulowitzki and solid contributors Seth Smith and Brad Hawpe. And if they were to actually get anything out of Garrett Atkins, who knows how good this offense could be?

They've already dropped the first of a three game set with the Giants to start this week. I'll have more to say about San Fran shortly, but I can't imagine anyone will want to face the Giants in the postseason with their starting pitching. The Rockies have some fearful hurlers of their own, and one of them, Ublado Jimenez, will be going tonight. The imposing fireballer has figured it out, with a 3.32 ERA and 167 K in 195 IP so far this year. As long as they keep plugging away, the Rockies should make the playoffs but they have to maintain focus to get there.

DETROIT (leads AL Central by 5.5 games): In light of recent news that Justin Morneau will miss the rest of the season with a back stress fracture (ouch) and the inconsistency of the White Sox, the Tigers and their fans can rest easy. Detroit will make the playoffs as the best team in baseball's worst division. I was dead wrong about the Tigers in my preseason previews, mostly because I whiffed on their pitchers. Justin Verlander is back to being an ace, going 16-8 with a 3.34 ERA thus far. Edwin Jackson has shockingly posted a 3.22 ERA in 190 IP this year, and Rick Porcello is a ROY candidate with a 3.40 ERA since the start of August.

With Porcello likely to get shut down at some point, they badly need Jarrod Washburn to come through. He has only two quality starts since coming over from Seattle at the deadline. Otherwise, the Tigers will face the New York Yankees with only two solid postseason rotation options. The '06 Tigers beat the Yankees in the ALDS, but that Detroit club was much better than this one. I have my own concerns about the Yankees come playoff time (I'll get to that shortly), but the Tigers are the weak link in the AL playoff picture. I'm not sure what to expect.

L.A. ANGELS (leads AL West by 6 games): Two words: Kendry Morales. The Angels lose Mark Teixeira ('09: .285-35-111-92-2)? Well, all they have his Morales. They're screwed, right? Wrong. The guy has been a revelation, with a line no one expected: .306-30-98-73-1. How come nobody is talking about this? The Angels lose the biggest free agent on the market, replace him with someone in house, and barely skip a beat? Morales is just one example of a fantastic Angels offense that separates it from teams of year's past. They're so well-balanced with Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar up top and Vlad Guerrero, Morales and Torii Hunter providing the pop.

The Angels acquired Red Sox and Yankees killer Scott Kazmir at the waiver deadline for virtually nothing, a move that I'm still steamed about. Couldn't the Rays have waited until the winter if they just wanted to dump salary? Why didn't either Boston or New York put in a waiver claim? Either way, the Red Sox and Angels are on a collision course for their fourth ALDS match-up in six years, with the Red Sox winning nine of the 10 games they've played. Will this year be any different? Well, they still have John Lackey, right? I feel good about that.

L.A. DODGERS (leads NL West by 4 games): Over in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers have been the Senior Circuit's best team for all of 2009. Manny Ramirez gets suspended for 50 games? No problem. Juan Pierre will just fill in and do an improbably great job. Jeff Kent retires in the offseason? They'll just get Orlando Hudson for peanuts and he'll be the best second baseman in the NL not named Utley. Jonathon Broxton gets hurt? Some dude named Ramon Troncoso will step in an be just as effective. These are the type of things that happen to winning teams.

Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are coming into their own as superduper stars in a town that loves them. With the way they've been pitching, the trio of Randy Wolf, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw looks awfully imposing come the postseason. They have the right manager to get deep in the playoffs and that excellent mix of youth and experience. Can they get over the hump, and prove they're better than St. Louis and Philadelphia? October will provide the answer.

NEW YORK (leads AL East by 7.5 games): Alright, there's no doubt the Yankees are going to be baseball's best team, at least in terms of win/loss record. They've already got 93 wins and are destined to hit the century mark for the fourth time this decade. Derek Jeter his hitting .330 and is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career at age 35. I've already outlined Teixeira's MVP-like numbers, with Johnny Damon, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada all turning excellent campaigns. CC Sabathia has 17 wins and Mariano Rivera is a God walking among men.

But I am I crazy for thinking the Yankees are not built to be successful in the postseason? Their roster is old, lacking players with fundamentals needed to win it all. Sabathia has a checkered playoff history, and A.J. Burnett has, well, no playoff history. What can we expect from Joba Chamberlain? Beyond Rivera and Phil Hughes, can anyone in that bullpen be trusted? These are questions and concerns that have to make every Yankees fan nervous. Unlike the Red Sox and Angels, I think the Yankees have peaked at the wrong time.

PHILADELPHIA (leads NL East by 7 games): The Phillies are just 6-7 this month and despite their undeniable talent look like they're about to back into the playoffs. It's very, very hard to repeat as World Series Champs, and it's almost as hard to just make the playoffs the next year after winning the World Series. So I give Charlie Manuel and the rest of that team plenty of credit for fielding such a strong crew this year, augmented by the dominance of Cliff Lee since he came over from Cleveland.

Without a doubt, my favorite part of the Phillies and their season is the rebirth of Pedro Martinez. Any team could have had Pedro this spring, but he settled on Philadelphia and the results have been terrific. He's gone 5-0 with 34 K and 6 BB in 37 2/3 IP so far, and his most recent start gave me chills. Pedro went eight innings, threw an incredible 130 pitches, struck out seven and did not yield a run. Watching him deal reminded me ever so briefly of his first three years in Boston. With that going for them, the Phillies will be playing with a full deck next month.

ST. LOUIS (leads NL Central by 9.5 games): If it's possible, let's forget about Albert Pujols and his from-outer-space season for just a second. The top two starters for the Cardinals have been simply incredible this year, and especially of late. Adam Wainwright, one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball over the last few years, has 18 wins and 175 K in 205 IP so far in '09. And Chris Carpenter, the pride and joy of Exeter, N.H., who threw 21 1/3 innings between '07 and '08, is now pitching better than ever. A lousy start on Sunday ended a string of 13 consecutive quality starts for Carp during which he also went 10-0.

In order for the Cardinals to win next month, they'll need Joel Pineiro and John Smoltz (aka "The Reasons Why the NL is So Inferior to the AL") to step up. Oh, yeah, they also have this guy Pujols I mentioned before. If the 47 HR and 125 RBI don't impress you, maybe the 1.137 OPS will. His partner, Matt Holliday, is hitting a cool .371 since the trade from Oakland. It's because of these players that I believe St. Louis presents the strongest challenge to L.A. in the playoffs.

SAN FRANCISCO (trails NL Wild Card by 3.5 games): Tim Lincecum, who's been dealing with some lingering injuries, came out last night and dominated the Rockies in a series his club badly needs to sweep. If the Giants get into the postseason, nobody in the NL will want to face them, as I mentioned above. Lincecum is the best pitcher in the league, Matt Cain is pretty darn close, and Barry Zito has actually been very useful (shocking, I know). With Brad Penny looking right at home back in the NL West, the Giants are a very scary team.

They need their offense to come through. GM Brian Sabean paid a hefty price to bring in Ryan Garko and Freddy Sanchez at the deadline, and both have underwhelmed. Beyond Kung Fu Panda Sandoval, the Giants are an offensively-challenged group. They need to look toward veterans Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina to guide them through the next couple of weeks. Zito needs to come through tonight against Jimenez and the Rockies, and they could be on their way to an October berth. Just the thought makes these other NL contenders shudder.

TEXAS (trails AL Wild Card by 4.5 games): I thought the Red Sox would have put away the Rangers by now. But here they are, still within striking distance of keeping Boston out of the playoffs. This is a huge week for the Rangers, but it didn't exactly get off to a hot start. They were routed by the lowly A's last night with one of their best pitchers, 16-game winner Scott Feldman, on the bump. With the Red Sox playing the Angels, Texas has a big opportunity to make up some ground, but they won't do anything of use if they keep shooting themselves in the foot.

Unless the Red Sox undergo an unforeseen collapse (they do have Billy Wagner, after all), I don't see the Rangers making up all this ground in just over two weeks. But major credit should be given to Ron Washington for motivating these players to get to this point. Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler and Marlon Byrd have all enjoyed fine seasons, and there's plenty of promise for this group of players going forward. They are one of few teams this year that might not make the playoffs but their season will still be considered a success.

Enjoy the rest of the games.

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