The Houston Astros/Colt 45’s have never played in a World Series, let alone won one. They’ve had their fair share of close calls. Obviously, they went to seven games with these Cardinals last year. They won 4 of 5 NL Central titles from 1997-2001 but won two games in four division series. In 1986 they lost in six games to the eventual champion Mets, falling in a well-remembered 16-inning Game 6 with their controversial ace Mike Scott set to go in Game 7. In the strike-shortened year of 1981, they made the first "Division Series" and lost in five to the Dodgers. In 1980 they made the more traditional playoffs and lost in five to the Phillies.
Besides the novelty, the best reasons to root for a Houston championship this year are Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. These two old-schoolers have each played their whole career for Houston, and if there’s any justice in the world they’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a set. They both have some bad postseason history to shake off (.198/.267/.292 lifetime for Biggio, .232/.371/.337 for Bagwell). But these are great players. Bill James in the New Historical Baseball Abstract (2001) ranked Biggio the 35th greatest player of all time and Bagwell the 45th. James had Biggio 5th all-time among second basemen and Bagwell 4th among first basemen. I might have some trouble convincing most people they’re that good, but I don’t expect many would deny them Hall of Fame status. In any case, they’re greats, and they deserve to win a World Series.
The St. Louis Cardinals have won nine world championships, the most recent in 1982. They’ve lost their last three, though, and in all three cases it had to come as a bit of a surprise. Last year the Cards went 105-57 and were swept by Boston (98-64). In 1987 St. Louis was 95-67 and lost in seven to Minnesota (85-77). And in ’85 a 101-61 Cardinals team lost in seven to a 91-71 Royals squad. If St. Louis does make it the Fall Classic this year, they won’t have to worry about meeting a team that won 10 games fewer than they did — the White Sox won 1 less (99) and the Angels only 5 (95). Maybe Cardinals fans should be rooting for Chicago just in case.
Larry Walker might be retiring, and he’s never won a World Series. His all-timer credentials pale in comparison to the Killer B’s, though. Reggie Sanders is getting up there, and although no Hall of Famer he’s one of baseball’s good guys. He won in ’01 with the Diamondbacks though. Jim Edmonds at 35 ought to have a few more good years yet. I won’t be terribly disappointed if Mark Grudzielanek’s career comes to an end without a ring — but he’s 35 too. The guy who most "deserves" a championship on the Cardinals to my mind is Tony LaRussa. It’s true he has won one before (1989, with Oakland). But all of the four World Series LaRussa has managed in have been lacking in tension. In ’88 his A’s lost in five, in ’89 they won in four, ’90 they lost in four, and last year’s Cards were swept as well. The leader in active managing wins deserves a nice six- or seven-game series to demonstrate his smarts.
I think the Astros will win in 6, but I have no idea why. That’s just the gut speaking. I’m a lot more emotionally involved in the ALCS, but I think this could end up being the more entertaining of the two series. There are certainly plenty of candidates for amazing pitching performances, superstar hitting feats, and unlikely heroes. Fasten your seat belts.
I’m not going to write a breakdown for this one because I already discussed both these teams’ strengths and weaknesses in my Division Series previews, and besides, what do I know? Three of my four picks were wrong. (Nailed the Cardinals in 3, but that was as sure a thing as you’ll see in the MLB postseason.)
Instead, let’s pull back a bit. What would a world championship mean to each of these teams? Chicago, as most people know, hasn’t appeared in a World Series since 1959 and hasn’t won one since 1917. More recently they’ve made playoff appearances in 1983, 1993, and 2000, winning a total of three games and never advancing to the second round. It would be a huge deal for the White Sox to even get into the World Series. Their national bandwagon kind of collapsed with the dramatic surge the Indians had, but it’s building back up with the three-game sweep of Boston. For me a White Sox championship would be worth it just to see what Ozzie Guillen would do and say afterwards.
The Angels won a championship in 2002, their first. They were all the rage at the time but their quiet ’03 (missed playoffs) and ’04 (swept by Boston in the first round) has somewhat added weight to the contention that the 2002 Angels got a little lucky. Certainly the three home runs in Game 5 of the ALCS against Minnesota from Adam Kennedy, who had hit seven all year, was a little fluky. Their pitching staff lacked a true #1 guy. Their bullpen was very good but no one besides Troy Percival was a "name" and he’s now gone. Francisco Rodriguez, probably their playoff MVP in 2002, hasn’t completely proven himself to be as dependable a reliever during the regular season. Likewise John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn haven’t elevated their play to the level expected after a World Series win. Another championship for the Angels would be a huge legitimizing factor. Unlike the 2002 team, this group was expected to contend from the beginning. They’ve done so rather quietly, but here they are in the Championship Series.
Who do I like? Wow, I have no idea. After the Red Sox series is tempting to start saying "this is the year for the White Sox," but all series start 0-0. The Angels are tired but confident. Chicago has Jose Contreras. What a story this guy is! Discarded by the Yankees, resuscitated by Ozzie and El Duque, ace of the postseason rotation. I’ll tell you, I saw him pitch in person against the Rockies earlier this season and he was lights out. Paul Konerko had a fine division series. Vladimir Guerrero didn’t; you have to figure he’ll be due. I’m really looking forward to this series no matter how it turns out. It’s great to see new blood (well, the Angels don’t really count, but they’re better than the Red Sox or Yankees again) on the big stage and both these managers like to run, pitch out, bunt, change pitchers like crazy, and generally make nuisances of themselves. Lots of things can happen in a series like this.
OK, fine, you got it out of me: White Sox in seven. No particular rationale, it just seems about that time.
Worth the wait, I hope. To tell you the truth I don’t have a lot of insight into this series. I don’t follow either of these teams closely, although I am a fan of Brad Lidge’s slider and Kyle Farnsworth’s right cross. I guess after the Astros’ 10-5 explosion last night it would be easy to jump on their already swelling bandwagon (9 of 10 ESPN experts pick Houston to win this series) but I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see that game. Which I didn’t, actually, I was on a plane. But you know what I mean.
Starting pitching. A lot of the writeups for this series begin and end here. The Astros have Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt. These guys are pretty good. The Braves in theory would be able to match up to the first two with Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, but Smoltz isn’t healthy. Jorge Sosa (13-3, 2.55 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) has been Atlanta’s best pitcher but his record and ERA are frankly a little lucky given his peripherals. The Astros can use a three-man rotation without fear while Smoltz’s fragility leaves the Braves with the unsavory necessity of having to start John Thomson (4-6, 4.47, 1.41) or Horacio Ramirez (11-9, 4.63, 1.39) in an elimination game. The Astros have the edge here but it’s not anywhere near as sure a thing as some would have you believe. The loss of Mike Hampton, by the way, is really no big deal for Atlanta because Mike Hampton’s reputation as an A-list starter is a bizarre myth. Advantage: Astros.
Bullpen. On the other hand, Houston’s group of Lidge, Mike Gallo, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls simply dominates compared to Atlanta’s lackluster relievers (Jim Brower, Chris Reitsma, John Foster, et cetera). Farnsworth has stuff that’s silly good but he’s completely unreliable. Lidge on the other hand was sick this season (13.12 K/9) and starred in the posteason last year. Advantage: Astros.
Catcher. Brad Ausmus is one of the most overrated players in baseball. He has no power and doesn’t hit for average, but he has been playing long enough that he at least understands the difference between a ball and a strike. Raul Chavez, his backup, also has a terrible bat and he hasn’t yet made that distinction. Johnny Estrada had a disappointing year for the Braves but simply put he and Brian McCann can hit, Ausmus and Chavez can’t. Advantage: Braves.
First base. Adam LaRoche (.775 OPS) had a slightly better statistical year than Jeff Bagwell (.738) and of course he was much healthier. But you’d have to be pretty coldly unsentimental to give LaRoche the edge. There are two schools of thought on Bagwell and his teammate Craig Biggio’s well-documented playoff struggles: either they ain’t got it, or they’re really, really due. Personally, I tend to favor the latter option. Advantage: Astros.
Second base. Craig Biggio, after some strange misadventures in Minute Maid Park’s surreal center field, is back where he belongs for Houston and his offense has benefited from it (.264/.325/.468). Biggio broke Don Baylor’s modern hit-by-pitch record this year, for what it’s worth. I don’t think there’s another major league player around who generates a greater percentage of his value from sheer plunkability. There are some young candidates out there to be heir to Biggio’s throne, though: Chicago’s Aaron Rowand got hit 21 times in 2005, and the Jays’ Shea Hillenbrand 22. Marcus Giles was only hit 5 times this year but he did go .291/.365/.461 with 15 homers. Biggio hit 26 long flies, but you and I both know that homers to right at Minute Maid Park should only count as ground-rule doubles. 19 of Biggio’s shots came at home. Giles is the better fielder and baserunner. Advantage: Braves.
Shortstop. Adam Everett had a good year (for him) last year while Morgan Ensberg struggled; this season it was the other way around. If the Astros ever get both guys going at once, they’ll really have something. Rafael Furcal will be the biggest free agent shortstop on the market this season. After the money Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera got last year, Furcal’s agent is probably a pretty happy man right about now. Rafael is younger and better than either of those guys. Advantage: Braves.
Third base. Chipper Jones is one of those guys like J.D. Drew who gets hurt every year but it never seems to affect him when he does play. Chipper was the best hitter on the Braves when he was out there (way better than Andruw Jones, which is yet another reason that A. Jones’s MVP candidacy is a joke) and he’s healthy now as far as I know. Morgan Ensberg was the Astros’ offense at times this season but he’s not in Chipper’s class quite yet. He hit 16 of his 36 homers on the road, though, so you know his power’s legit. Advantage: Braves.
Left field. Ryan Langerhans is one of the many young Braves who played over his head this year. He doesn’t hit a lot of homers for a corner outfielder but he’s a nice player. Lance Berkman’s return from injury helped kickstart the Astros’ surge from 15 below .500 to the playoffs. If he’d played all year, he’d have borderline MVP credentials: .293/.411/.524, 24 homers. He used to be kind of a joke as a switch-hitter but he slugged .429 hitting right-handed this year. Advantage: Astros.
Center field. Willy Taveras is a guy writers and managers love, but we know better. A guy who eats up 592 at-bats with a .666 OPS is not helping your team win. He was also caught stealing about a quarter of the time which for a guy with his pure speed is embarrassing. Andruw Jones should not under any circumstances be considered for the National League MVP award, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great player. He did win the home run title, and if he really has lost a step on defense he’s still miles better than everybody else this side of Torii Hunter and Jim Edmonds. Advantage: Braves.
Right field. A matchup of two real good young players: Jason Lane and ROY candidate Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur has a gaudy OPS and doesn’t walk at all. Lane has a lower batting average but comparable overall numbers. When it’s this close you give the edge to the guy who’s done it for longer. Advantage: Astros.
Bench. The Braves have a strange mix: greybeards Brian Jordan and Julio Franco and young’ns Wilson Betemit, Pete Orr, and Kelly Johnson. All of these guys save Johnson can hit. The Astros’ outlook is far grimmer: Orlando Palmeiro is the best of a bad lot that also features Eric Bruntlett, Jose Vizcaino, Chris Burke, Mike Lamb, and Luke Scott. Advantage: Braves.
Manager. Bobby Cox is a marvel. Veterans and rookies alike love him. He also has the nonpareil Leo Mazzone hanging around to perform his voodoo on the pitchers. Phil Garner is a salt-of-the-earth type I thought would have worn out his welcome in Houston by now, but after recovering from awful starts to make the playoffs two seasons in a row, you have to give him his propers. Advantage: Braves.
OK, final count: Houston five, Atlanta seven. Well, I guess I can’t pick the Astros now. Braves in five?
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.
They also have much better pitching than the slugging Red Sox and Yankees, one reason they were such a chic pick among ESPN’s panel of experts. Bartolo Colon might take the AL Cy Young with his 20 wins, but Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey had lower ERAs and Paul Byrd was not far behind. Besides Colon these guys don’t get much attention but Anaheim, not Chicago or Minnesota, had the best overall starters’ ERA in the American League. Their bullpen isn’t as deep as Chicago’s but that matters less in the postseason and Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, Scot Shields, and Brendan Donnelly make for a vicious big three.
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.
Bench. Joe Torre has Ruben Sierra, who is pushing 40 but can still get around on a fastball, the serviceable Matt Lawton, and the remarkable Womack. Scioscia has Kotchman, Robb Quinlan, and Juan Rivera. 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.
Terry Francona, I’m going to tell you how to win this series right now. It’s a little unconventional, but hear me out: throw Game 2. Just let them win it. Send Tim Wakefield out to toss batting practice for nine innings. He’s a knuckleballer, it’s not like he’s going to get tired. Then you can use Mike Timlin and Bronson Arroyo for a combined three innings in each of Games 1, 3, and 4. Let’s face it — if Lenny DiNardo or Chad Harville or Jeremi Gonzalez gets in there, you’re basically conceding. Get it all out of your system in one night, go back to Fenway all tied up with your two decent relief arms fully rested, and let the good times roll. Easy!
As for the White Sox, well, muzzle Ozzie Guillen, don’t teach Scott Podsednik the steal sign, have Frank Thomas mindmeld with Aaron Rowand, and hypnotize Joe Crede to think his every at-bat is occurring in the ninth inning with the game on the line. And maybe get a cardboard cutout of Jay Mariotti set up in the locker room like in Major League, except in reverse — each win puts another piece of clothing back on. For starters.
Starting pitching. On either side, these guys have seen better days. For Chicago’s Mark Buehrle (16-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Jon Garland (18-10, 3.50, 1.17), and Freddy Garcia (14-8, 3.87, 1.25), those days were as recent as the first half of this season. For Curt Schilling (8-8, 5.69, 1.53) and David Wells (15-7, 4.45, 1.31), you have to reach a little farther back. Matt Clement (13-6, 4.57, 1.36) was Boston’s most reliable guy for most of the regular season but has the shortest playoff portfolio. Jose Contreras (15-7, 3.61, 1.23), rather shockingly, carried the ChiSox down the stretch and will draw the Game One assignment. Wakefield (16-12, 4.15, 1.23) is a great guy and a true Red Sox diehard but knucklers tend to flatten out in cold weather and it gets chilly in Chicago and Boston in October. Advantage: White Sox.
Bullpen. The White Sox, again, were much better in the first half than in the second. Nagging injuries dragged closer Dustin Hermanson down, fatigue set in slightly for Cliff Politte and Neal Cotts, and Ozzie got to Damaso Marte. Bobby Jenks has the closer’s mantle for the time being but the results might not be pretty when he tries to throw straight fastballs past hitters the pedigree of Man-Ram and Big Papi. Still, Chicago ranked 4th in the majors in bullpen ERA thanks not least to a hardy, efficient starting staff (29th in the bigs in relief IP). They have a few minor concerns while the Red Sox have a full-blown disaster. My suggestion at the top of the page is hardly in jest as closer Timlin and converted starter Arroyo are basically the only two semi-reliable guys they have on board. Chad Bradford can under no circumstances be allowed to face lefthanded bats; Mike Myers is the other way around. Just a glance down a roster that includes such luminaries as DiNardo, Harville, and Gonzalez and you know why Boston finished second-to-last in the majors in bullpen ERA. The unknown quantity is rookie Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched well both in starting and relieving roles for the Red Sox down the stretch. If he can handle eighth-inning playoff pressure, maybe Francona doesn’t have to throw Wakefield out to the dogs. Advantage: White Sox.
Catcher. Jason Varitek is Boston’s emotional leader and a two-way All-Star receiver. A.J. Pierzynski has thrived in U.S. Cellular’s homer-friendly environment (12 of 18 home runs hit at home) but is slightly inferior defensively and vastly deficient when it comes to on-base skills. If reports out of San Francisco are correct, he’s Varitek’s polar opposite in the clubhouse as well. Tek is supported by Doug Mirabelli, who is great at the two things Boston asks him to do: keep Varitek extremely far away from Wakefield’s knuckler and hit occasional home runs with an impeccable sense of timing. White Sox backup Chris Widger is just another guy. Advantage: Red Sox.
First base. Kevin Millar’s power utterly abandoned him this year, with his playing time increasingly going to John Olerud, who hit nearly as many home runs as Millar (7 vs. 9) in fewer than half as many at-bats. They’ll probably be in a mixed platoon with Olerud being utilized for his still-solid defense in addition to his lefthanded bat. Longtime Chicago first sacker Paul Konerko should work his way on to a few MVP ballots this season with his .283/.375/.534 line and 40 homers. He’s not a super glove guy, but he’s not awful for a man his size. Advantage: White Sox.
Second base. Boston’s management finally tired of the truest of Mark Bellhorn’s three outcomes and brought on inoffensive vet Tony Graffanino from Kansas City. Surprise! Graffanino’s been super (.319/.355/.457). Tadahito Iguchi meanwhile has done it all year for the White Sox. He’s a good defender and Ozzie Guillen’s dream #2 hitter: he hits behind runners, bunts like a dream, and is a chore to double up. After an August slump he came up with a few huge hits as the White Sox fought off the Indians down the stretch. A Rookie of the Year candidate, if you don’t mind the fact that he’s 30. Advantage: White Sox.
Shortstop. Big free-agent signing Edgar Renteria hasn’t done all that was expected of him for the Red Sox. He had a good May and a torrid August but his June and September were awful. Perhaps most alarming have been his 30 errors at short compared with 11 in a comparable number of innings with St. Louis last year. Still, his overall line of .276/.327/.401 is not unspeakable for a middle infielder and he’s useful for a double here and a stolen base there. Juan Uribe is one of the "Kids Can Play" White Sox from a few seasons ago who has actually stuck with the club, and like a lot of his teammates he has a surprising number of homers (16) but a rather ugly OBP (.301). He’s a solid defensive shortstop but not a Gold Glover. Advantage: Red Sox.
Third base. Joe Crede is one of those players I like completely out of proportion with his actual ability since seemingly every time I attend a White Sox game in person, he hits a game-winning home run. It’s happened like four times. It’s getting freaky. Crede has reportedly been on the hot seat in Chicago ever since Ozzie Guillen arrived as manager but he’s never been seriously challenged for the starting job, thanks to a lack of decent competition more than anything else. 22 homers, .252/.303/.454, it is what it is. Boston’s loyalty to Bill Mueller is odd given the obvious major-league readiness of Moneyball‘s infamous Kevin Youkilis, but you have to hand it to Mueller for making his job hard to give away — he had another solid campaign, posting a .295/.369/.430 line. Mueller is a good third baseman who has lost a couple of steps while Crede is a bit of a head case afield. Advantage: Red Sox.
Left field. Thanks to a simply amazing blarney campaign on the part of his manager, Scott Podsednik was somehow labeled the poster boy for the Pale Hose’s early-season success and was elected over Derek Jeter as the "Final Vote" All-Star representative. A groin injury in mid-August scuttled both his chances for the AL stolen base crown and his usefulness to the White Sox. He’s a fan favorite and a real dirtball, but if I hear Hawk Harrelson’s speech about how his presence at first base so distracts a pitcher one more time, the result will be a hostage situation. He’s a fair leadoff hitter but his bat is so unsuited for left field it’s kind of funny. Then there’s Manny Ramirez. He’s one of the all-time great flakes, but he’s also one of the most intimidating right-handed sluggers who ever lived. His OPS was under 1.000 for the first time since 1998 this year, but he did hit 45 home runs and knock in 144 baserunners so I don’t think we can describe him as being in his decline phase quite yet. Podsednik was a good leftfielder before he got hurt while Manny is (absent his habit of occasionally taking bathroom breaks or calling his relatives on Neptune in the middle of innings) somewhat underrated. Advantage: Red Sox.
Center field. Johnny Damon may have the most famous facial hair in baseball, but Aaron Rowand is a good candidate for the ugliest. It looks like it was drawn on a Woolly Willy. Rowand had a sick 2004 but has regressed this season; his glove it seems is fantastic except in must-win games on national TV. A .329 OBP and 13 homers were not what Guillen was hoping for from the 28-year-old. Damon meanwhile is on the verge of a truly silly long-term deal somewhere after this season. He’s one of the best if not the best power/speed leadoff guy in baseball, and according to a line of dialogue in last week’s "Veronica Mars" episode "he’s so pretty." Damon’s girly throwing arm is his most promoted Achilles’ heel; Rowand’s is better but it hardly makes up for the difference in offensive output. Advantage: Red Sox.
Right field. Jermaine Dye, with 31 homers, has been one of the biggest bats on the South Side. But stop me if you’ve heard this one before: his .333 OBP leaves something to be desired. Trot Nixon would be one of the best hitters on the White Sox if he played for them; instead his .275/.357/.446 numbers cushion the back end of the Boston lineup. Neither of these guys is making money for their defense. Advantage: White Sox.
Designated hitter. It was all downhill for the White Sox, I’ve suggested, when they failed to move Carl Everett only so they could reacquire him for the third straight year. I kid, but Everett has been a positive contributor for Chicago this season (23 homers) and he’s one of the few guys on the roster who’s "postseason-tested." David Ortiz on the other hand is the Cookie Monster. There is no single player in the game with a better reputation for delivering in the clutch. At some point in this series Ortiz’s bat is going to make solid contact with one of Bobby Jenks’ triple-digit fastballs and Fox will have an image that will run in their promos for a decade. Advantage: Red Sox.
Bench. Olerud, Youkilis, and Adam Hyzdu for Boston; Timo Perez, Willie Harris, and Geoff Blum for Chicago. Not only are the Red Sox’s guys much better, but you know for certain at some point Guillen is going to take Konerko or Everett out in the seventh inning of a tie game to pinch-run Willie Harris, leading to a situation where Harris comes up with the winning run in scoring position in the ninth and dribbles out to the pitcher. Advantage: Red Sox.
Manager. The Mouth Almighty vs. Mr. Right Place, Right Time. Neither Francona nor Guillen has shown much of a knack for effectively managing their bullpens or their substitutions, but Francona is infinitely less likely to run out onto the field in a hailstorm of bilingual obscenities, wielding a bat at one of his own players. The best hope for the White Sox as I see it is for Ozzie to miss a few games or perhaps the entire series when one of his already-legendary pregame press conferences runs a week or so long. Advantage: Red Sox.
Let’s see, that’s five for Chicago and eight for Boston. However it ends up, I think that the team that wins this series will win it at home. I like Boston in four, but if I got a second choice it would be the White Sox in five.
The Cardinals were again wire-to-wire winners in the NL Central, led by a Cy Young-level campaign from Chris Carpenter and another all-world year from the ethereal Albert Pujols. The Padres had one excellent month (22-6 in May) and never really needed to find that level again as none of the competition in the NL West could break .500. San Diego making the playoffs with the most losses ever for a postseason team isn’t the end of the world, as the team does boast a genuine ace in Jake Peavy and a star bat in Brian Giles. Add that to closer Trevor Hoffman, who recorded his 400th save earlier in the season (against St. Louis), and the Padres have enough to at least win a game in this series, which begins Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Or do they?
Starting pitching. The case against the Cardinals last year was that having a deep rotation with no standout ace is all well and good for the regular season, but of little use in the playoffs. Problem addressed. Walt Jocketty traded for Mark Mulder (16-8, 3.64 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) in part to get that guy for the Cardinals, but as it turned out they had him in the organization all along: Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.83, 1.06) will probably win the NL Cy Young this year. But two guys alone will not get you a major-league best 3.49 staff ERA. That takes good work from the likes of Jeff Suppan (16-10, 3.57, 1.38) and Matt Morris (14-10, 3.94, 1.25), a strong bullpen, and a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Fifth starter Jason Marquis (13-14, 4.13, 1.33) outpitched Morris in September but Tony LaRussa will want him on the bench for the strategic implications of his bat — Marquis has a .786 OPS on the season and he swings lefty.
There’s nothing wrong with the Padres’ #1. If Peavy (13-7, 2.88, 1.04) played for a team with a more prolific offense (and Roger Clemens still played for the Astros), he’d be in the thick of the Cy Young discussion himself. It gets somewhat dicier for San Diego after that. Adam Eaton (10-5, 4.51, 1.50) is a talented guy but for whatever reason he’s never really "put it together." Brian Lawrence (7-15, 4.83, 1.37) and Woody Williams (9-12, 4.85, 1.41) are as vanilla as it gets. In fact, since the Padres seized him off of the scrap heap in July, former Rockies hurler Pedro Astacio (4-2, 3.17, 1.34) has been San Diego’s second-best starter. Bruce Bochy will start Astacio in Game Two and turn to Eaton for Game Three. Should there be a Game Four, take your pick between Williams and Lawrence. Lawrence has pitched better against the Cardinals (a 4.05 ERA in 6 2/3 IP, compared to Williams’ 6.00 in 6), so I guess he’s your guy. But this isn’t a choice that a playoff team should have to make. Advantage: Cardinals.
Bullpen. Well, if this was all there was to it, this series would be quite a barnburner. St. Louis has the third-ranked bullpen in the majors and San Diego has the 6th. The Padres’ late-inning group of Scott Linebrink, Akinori Otsuka, Rudy Seanez, and Hoffman is the strength of the team. They also have well-traveled lefty specialist Chris Hammond and rookie Clay Hensley contributing. Williams, whose "value" is mostly as an innings sponge, won’t add much if he moves down from the rotation. If he even makes the postseason roster, Chan Ho Park, whose only known talent is convincing Scott Hicks to give him enormous amounts of money, is also now a Padre. It’s hard to see how this not entirely unique ability could help San Diego advance to the NLCS. I doubt Albert Pujols can be bought.
The Cardinals counter with their usual balance of star power and depth. Jason Isringhausen is the closer and he’s legit. Ray King and Julian Tavarez aren’t going to win any beauty contests, but they get the job done. Randy Flores is the resident lefthander. Al Reyes, who has been terrific this year (2.15 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 62 2/3 innings) hurt his elbow in the last regular season game. Marquis and young Brad Thompson will try to compensate but that loss costs the Cardinals one of their edges. Advantage: Push.
Catcher. The Cardinals let longtime backstop Mike Matheny leave for the Giants after the World Series last year, and with good reason. Yadier Molina is basically the same player for much cheaper. St. Louis has an organizational distaste for offense from the catcher position, and to this end they couldn’t have picked a better backup than Einar Diaz. The Padres have the far more threatening Ramon Hernandez and as his backup the intriguing talent of Miguel Olivo. Advantage: Padres.
First base. Nothing against Mark Sweeney, who has been San Diego’s second-best rate hitter this year (.295/.396/.468) as a part-timer, but he’s simply not on the same planet as Albert Pujols. I’m not going to waste any more time telling you things you already know. Advantage: Cardinals.
Second base. Perhaps if Mark Loretta had been healthy all year, San Diego wouldn’t be saddled with all this Worst. Playoff. Team. EVER stuff. Loretta is a team leader, a plus fielder, and a trustworthy on-base guy. Both the Dodgers and the Cubs gave up on Mark Grudzielanek, and at age 35 he’s had something of a career renaissance as a regular in St. Louis. Grud has slightly more pop than Loretta, but he gives up thirty points of OBP and Loretta is the superior defender. Advantage: Padres.
Shortstop. The Red Sox paid the Cardinals’ old shortstop, Edgar Renteria, more than St. Louis was willing to part with. The Angels in turn gave Boston’s old shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, a pretty nice chunk of change himself. That left St. Louis without a shortstop and David Eckstein without a job. How fortunate for them both. Eckstein doesn’t look like a shortstop, but his decent offensive numbers (.294/.364/.397) came at a huge discount compared to those other two guys. Khalil Greene is billed as one of the Padres’ young stars but his OBP in his second full season (.297) leaves a lot to be desired. Greene is massively better with the glove than Eckstein, but he still tends to make rookie mistakes and he’s quite fragile. Advantage: Cardinals.
Third base. Scott who? Well, not really. The great Rolen’s lost season was one of the few stormclouds hanging over the Cards’ 100-win NL Central campaign. However Abraham Nuñez has played well over replacement level (.285/.343/.361) in preventing the hot corner from becoming a complete black hole for the Redbirds. Nuñez has established career highs in every imaginable category this season after an undistinguished eight years with the Pirates. Sean Burroughs by contrast has been so bad in 2005 that he spent part of the year trying to rediscover his swing in AAA Portland. Like a lot of San Diego’s roster, Burroughs has a chronic lack of power for a guy who plays at a power position. Of course, Nuñez doesn’t have any pop either. Scott Seabol would probably get a start in the series if the Padres had any lefty starters, but they don’t. Likewise Joe Randa is around to spell the lefty-swinging Burroughs (and the Cardinals do have a lefthanded starter in Mark Mulder). Randa hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since coming over from Cincinnati, but the Padres’ duo has the edge when it comes to experience. Advantage: Padres.
Left field. Ryan Klesko is the Padres’ biggest power threat (he leads the team with 18 homers). Reggie Sanders is the "weak link" in the Cardinals’ outfield, and he has 20 jacks. Neither is a great defender but Sanders looks infinitely less like a tank with a glove. Advantage: Cardinals.
Center field. Dave Roberts created maybe the single biggest play in 2004’s postseason with his steal off of Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS. However for San Diego he’s not in the role of late-inning speed replacement, he’s a starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. He’s had one of his best years (.275/.356/.428) but he should have quit while he was ahead with the basestealing (23 steals against 12 caught-stealings). In any case he’s nowhere near a match for Jim Edmonds even in one of Edmonds’ lesser years (.263/.385/.533). Edmonds has 29 homers and is the premier highlight-reel centerfielder in the National League. Advantage: Cardinals.
Right field. Larry Walker has been playing hurt all year and has talked often about retirement. Still, .289/.384/.502 with 15 home runs is not bad. Brian Giles is the Padres’ offensive MVP with a .301/.423/.483 line and 15 homers of his own. Walker is a plus defender when healthy; he’s not. Advantage: Padres.
Bench. I couldn’t find the postseason rosters anywhere (they may not have been finalized yet) but my best guesses are Seabol, John Mabry, Hector Luna, and So Taguchi for the Cardinals and Randa, Eric Young, Damian Jackson, and Xavier Nady for the Padres. San Diego’s group has a lot more speed, pop, and versatility. The Cardinals are not sweating their bench and they probably don’t need to. Advantage: Padres.
Manager. Tony La Russa and Bruce Bochy are two of the longest-tenured guys in the game, but La Russa is the Hall of Famer. He sees the game from more angles than anybody, but he’s not going to do anything stupid like call for Pujols to bunt. Bochy has been driven by his team’s lack of offense to overmanage at times this season. The Padres are 18th in stolen base percentage and 8th in sacrifices. They don’t want to be giving outs away left and right against the mighty Cardinal pitching staff. Advantage: Cardinals.
That’s six nods to the Cardinals, five to the Padres, and one push. As close as that may seem, I don’t think it’s going to be that tight of a series. Some elements (starting pitching) are far more important than others (catcher, bench). Plus the Cardinals’ huge advantages at first base and center field rather trump tiny San Diego edges at third and in right. And looking at the series another way, which is the game that the Padres are going to win? Peavy is their money starter, but he will be facing off against Carpenter. Can Astacio beat Mulder at Busch? What about Eaton vs. Suppan with St. Louis up 2-0? I don’t see it. Cardinals in three is the pick, but don’t be astonished if it goes four or even five — these short series can be wild.
Hey, we’re playing the Dodgers again. Didn’t we just play the Dodgers? Why yes, we did. This is where the unbalanced schedule really stinks. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I’m always looking for an excuse to go to a Rockies game. Another series against a mediocre L.A. team missing its two best players is not a good excuse. I think I’m going to go buy Mario Superstar Baseball instead.
The other thing that’s stupid about a schedule heavy on divisional matchups late in the year is in the National League at least, all of the division races are more or less wrapped up. Now three worthy NL East teams will lock in a death struggle while the Astros get to play the less challenging likes of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. I’m not one of those people who’s inherently against change in baseball — hey, without the wild card, we wouldn’t get the Red Sox and the Yankees in the playoffs every year — but it is annoying when the sport simultaneously unleashes two "innovations" that blatantly contradict each other like the unbalanced schedule and the wild card. Plus there’s so many good teams I haven’t gotten a chance to see this year…the Phillies, the Braves, the Astros, the Cardinals…it’s annoying. Even the thrill of heckling Jeff Kent loses its luster the third or fourth time around.
So here we go, it’ll be S. Kim–Weaver, B. Kim–Houlton, and Day–Penny. I think the Rockies will probably lose the Zach Day and Lesser Kim games but I have a good feeling about Byung-Hyun tomorrow. But in a weekend that I approximate has eight more interesting MLB series going on, plus college football, I will not blame any of you for shutting off whichever small part of your brain pays attention to the Rockies altogether at this point.
I haven’t lived in Colorado long enough to have a rooting interest in the CU-Colorado State clash tomorrow, but the local radio stations are sure making a big deal out of it. I live in Boulder, but I also was in Chicago when Gary Barnett was the coach at Northwestern, and Gary Barnett is a horrible human being. Go, Rams. My alma mater Cal also begins play, and they’re ranked (#19) in the preseason for the first time since before I went there. I don’t think they should have much trouble against Sacramento State, but there you go, I just jinxed them. Honestly I don’t follow college sports very closely (probably because when I went to college, my school was hopelessly bad at both football and basketball). Liverpool has the week off because of World Cup qualifiers. I guess it’ll be Mario Superstar Baseball this weekend, then.