I hate to whine, but do the Yankees really need to be in the prime time slot every single night? World Series ratings this decade have shown pretty conclusively that the Yankees do NOT draw on a national level, as the 2004 and 2002 series have garnered the highest ratings, while the 2000 and 2003 have had the worst. Baseball fans don't want to hear about "Yankee mystique" every night, they want to see the best matchups. Today's best matchup is Santana against Zito, which will be on at 10:00 am for those of you who live in the A's market.
This isn't mindless Yankee bashing. One of the reasons the NFL has surpassed MLB is because of marketing. This is often seen as the marketing of individuals, but the NFL does a superior marketing of all its teams, as well. Flip on Fox's Sunday afternoon game. I would venture to guess, that, over a 16 week season, their 4:00 games will feature between 16 and 24 different teams. Same with Sunday Night Football. Now, go to Fox's Saturday afternoon baseball. It's the Red Sox or Yankees or a Chicago team every single week. 2005 was the worst. Every other weekend, we had the Red Sox against the Yankees both on Fox Saturday, and again on ESPN Sunday Night.
There are marketable personalities and compelling stories outside of these three markets, but MLB and the networks don't seem terribly interested in lining them up.
On to the predictions...
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Mets.
Have you seen the Mets starting rotation for this series? Take out John Maine, and Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel still have a combined age of roughly 195. Without Pedro, this is a very unimpressive rotation, but the loss of Pedro would be a bigger deal if Pedro had been a good pitcher this season. From mid-May on, he was alternately injured and ineffective, and the Mets still had the most wins in the National League.
The Dodgers rotation is strong. Lowe and Penny were a good 1-2 combination all season, and Maddux was excellent down the stretch.
On paper, the two teams match up pretty evenly, but my inclination right now is to go with the Mets. Carlos Beltran had one of the best postseasons in recent memory in 2004, nearly single-handedly carrying the Astros all the way to a Game 7 against a much stronger Cardinals team. He's coming off of a huge season, and, when you factor in his strong CF defense, he's arguably the best player in baseball.
Down the lineup, the Mets have the star power in Beltran and Wright, as well as two other very good players in Carlos Delgado and the miscast-but-still-valuable Jose Reyes. Their depth is a concern, but Randolph doesn't use his bench as much as some other NL managers. Meanwhile, with Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano and Bradford, the Mets have a very strong bullpen, with Heilman especially valuable in a postseason series because of his ability to pitch multiple innings.
The Dodgers lineup is balanced, but Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent are no longer stars. Leftfielder Andre Ethier and catcher Russell Martin, two rookies who were so valuable to Los Angeles throughout the summer, seemed to fade in September, particularly Ethier.
Given the Mets stronger bullpen and defense, and the fact that they seem to have players more likely to carry the team, I'm giving them the very narrow edge in the Series.
Mets def. Dodgers, 3-2.
San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have backed into the playoffs, and they're a great bet to back out pretty quickly, even against the mediocre Padres. The Cards are basically a three man team, and while Pujols is baseballs best hitter, and while Carpenter may be the NL's best starter, that's just not going to be enough. In fact, this is probably the worst team to find its way into the playoffs since the expanded divisions in 1995. (Now that I've said that, considering my other predictions for this year, I'd encourage every single person who's going to read this--yes, both of you--to wager double your net worth on the Cardinals. I've just made them a can't lose).
The Cardinals chances are best summed up in the fact that Jeff Weaver is going to start Game 2 for them. I can think of about 200 pitchers in baseball that I'd prefer to start a playoff game. The combination of Weaver being a mess under pressure, and not all that good in the first place doesn't make for a great combination.
The Padres will get through on strong starting pitching and enough fair hitters to light up the stiffs that St. Louis will throw out there.
Padres def. Cardinals, 3-1.
Minnesota Twins vs. Oakland A's
The Twins are a trendy pick right now, and it's easy to see why. They have likeable, good young players, the best pitcher in baseball, and were on fire in the second half. Consider me on the bandwagon. Joe Mauer is my MVP this year, one of baseballs best hitters playing the hardest defensive position in baseball. And, unlike Victor Martinez, Mauer is a plus at the position--in fact, he's such a plus, he has a good chance to win the Gold Glove. Justin Morneau isn't the league MVP, but he may win because of voters obsession with RBI. He is a devestating young hitter, though, likely one of the top 10 in the American League. Joe Nathan could well be THE player to break out on the national scene, one of the elite closers in baseball. And Johan Santana is baseball's best pitcher by a pretty huge margin.
What does Oakland have? A fairly good team, if not one that looks like a championship contender. Frank Thomas worked himself into the MVP race in the second half with a series of clutch homers, and their pitching staff is a force to be reckoned with, if Rich Harden is healthy. Unfortunately, Rich Harden didn't appear healthy in his last start, Barry Zito didn't have a great second half, and for reasons I can't really comprehend, Esteban Loiaiza is starting game 2, ahead of Danny Haren.
Minnesota has the better lineup, better defense, better bullpen, and, if not better starters, then a more solidified starting rotation heading into this series. It's a best of five, so anything can happen, and the A's are due a bit of luck, but there's no rational reason to pick against the Twins here.
Twins def. A's, 3-0.
New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers
After sitting in first place nearly all season long, the Tigers fell out on the very last day of the season, losing in extra innings to the Kansas City Royals, of all teams. The Tigers lineup was in such disarray in the final month that they actually had Neifi Perez, who has a .298 career OBP, leading off.
The Tigers pitching staff is the real deal, though. Verlander, Robertson, Rogers and Bonderman is the best front four in the major leagues. As important as that is made to be, how many World Series did the Braves win during their run? Like those Braves teams, these Tigers have great starting pitching, great defense, an underrated bullpen, but a bit of a mismatched lineup. Only Carlos Guillen had a VORP of over 30--though it was WELL over 30, at 67.0. After that, Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Ivan Rodriguez and Marcus Thames were the only players in the 20's. They're not a good team at getting on base, finishing 12th in the AL with a .329 OBP, behind the much-maligned Royal offense.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are sort of the complete opposite--the best team in the AL at getting on base and scoring runs, but not so great at keeping the other guys from scoring. Chien-Ming Wang somehow turned his hard slider, 76 strikeouts and some smoke and mirrors into 19 wins. There was talk about whether the Yankees were putting softer dirt around home plate in his starts to make his grounders slower in getting to the holes. If that is the case, it worked, as he had a 3.03 at home, while putting up only a 4.35 on the road. After Wang, the rotation is shaky. Mussina battled injuries and inconsistency in the second half after an excellent start to the season. Randy Johnson continued his descent from "Hall of Fame stud" to "mediocre innings eater with a temper." He's apparently going to try to pitch through a herniated disc. That doesn't sound like a great idea for either him or the team, but I'm not a doctor.
It seems to me that the Yankees have too much offense, though the Johnson injury has evened the odds quite a bit. I feel like Game 1 is huge in this series, for both teams. Don't like the matchup, though. Wang tends to succeed most against impatient teams that will drill first pitch sliders into the ground. The Tigers fit that profile.
Yankees def. Tigers, 3-2
Twins def. Yankees, 4-2
Mets def. Padres, 4-2
Twins def. Mets, 4-1.
From a non-rooting standpoint, Twins against Yankees is very compelling. If you had to pick one thing that the Yankees do well, it would be their hitters ability to be patient and get ahead in counts in order to get good pitches to hit. If you had to pick one thing the Twins do well, it would be their pitchers ability to throw strikes early and get hitters into tough counts. Always fun to see two teams that match up like that.
Also, as I said above, Wang was much better in New York than on the road. If the Yankees series with the Tigers goes to five games, Wang will be starting that Game 5. Unless the Yankees get out to a huge early lead, Wang may not be available until Game 3 of the ALCS. Something to watch for.
As far as the national league goes, the Padres are a well-rounded team, but I can't see them getting to World Series with that lineup unless Peavy starts pitching like an ace again. I have to think that whichever team comes out of the Dodgers-Mets series is going to be the heavy favorite to be Quadruple-A champ.