1. Philadelphia. This one’s easy. The Phillies are the clear favorites because of their Fearsome Foursome rotation. And if Vance Worley (11-1, 2.85) is your fifth guy, what a bonus. It’s the reason they’ve won more games than any other team, and will be the reason they win another World Series. The Phillies know better than anyone that their rotation will get them where they want to go, but they also know their weaknesses. They don’t have the bullpen they’d like (but other than Atlanta, who does?) and they know their lineup is vulnerable against lefthanded pitchers (.245, .707 OPS). “I just don’t see any of the National League playoff teams being able to compete with them,’’ said an NL general manager. “Their toughest competition will be whichever American League team emerges as their World Series opponent.’’
2. Detroit - The Tigers’ appeal is growing, for a few reasons. First, they have the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, who can pitch twice in a five-game series and three times in a seven-game series. “That’s going to be hard to beat,’’ said an NL scout. “I think that team, I don’t know, they’ve got something going on over there this year. They have the best pitcher, the best closer [Jose Valverde, 42 for 42 in saves], they have a manager [Jim Leyland] who can tune it up when it counts most. They also have a good pitcher in Doug Fister. Some of those guys who are 6-7 or better have a tough time with their angle, but he’s figured it out and he’s got good deception. He’s the one guy out there you can say that over the last four or five years has improved every single year.’’ The Tigers are far enough ahead in the division that they’ll be able to set up their rotation the way they want.
3. Boston - Another National League evaluator said this: “They should be the team that makes it to the World Series, but it all depends on [Josh] Beckett’s health and what that bullpen is going to do leading up to [Daniel] Bard and [Jonathan] Papelbon. We’ve seen that bullpen really pitch well. Alfredo Aceves is a life-saver for them. But if you have to depend on guys like Matt Albers and Dan Wheeler and Franklin Morales, then it gets a little dicey for them. Not having a really good lefty hurts them. They’re also a little bit vulnerable against tough lefthanded pitching.’’
4. New York - Potentially the most explosive lineup. The Yankees hit home runs and score runs in bunches. Home field is very important to them, to take advantage of their lefthanded power. The rotation is where the landmines are. They need CC Sabathia to be the horse he was in 2009. They need A.J. Burnett to be effective and hope that rookie Ivan Nova doesn’t melt in the spotlight. Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Phil Hughes are also in the mix, but who goes fourth remains to be seen.
5. Texas - One American League evaluator said, “I still don’t like their starting pitching overall, but if they face a team that can be vulnerable against lefthanded pitching like Boston, or if they made it to the World Series against Philadelphia, I think they could match up real well. Deadly lineup. You can’t make many mistakes against those hitters or they’ll make you pay. I think they could assault some of those National League pitching staffs if they got that far.’’
6. Milwaukee - The Brewers are considered one of the better all-around teams, but are they vulnerable in certain areas? Of course. “They have some good starting pitching,’’ said the NL evaluator who was quoted on the Tigers, “but I’m curious to see how guys like Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum react in that playoff situation, because they’ve never been there. Their bullpen could also sink them. K-Rod is K-Rod, you take the good with the bad. No lefty in the bullpen could come back to haunt them.’’
7. Arizona - How is this team doing it? “They have a manager [Kirk Gibson] who gets every drop of blood out of them,’’ said the American League evaluator. “They have two excellent starters [Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy] and a decent bullpen. The right fielder [Justin Upton] is a bear, and the catcher [Miguel Montero] is an animal.’’ GM Kevin Towers made an outstanding deal for second baseman Aaron Hill (with John McDonald as a backup), who needed a change of scenery and has been re-energized in a pennant race.
8. Atlanta - An NL scout said, “This is the team I wouldn’t want to face because if they can keep it close and you get into that bullpen, then forget it. That’s one of the best bullpens I’ve seen in years and that means something in the postseason.’’ The trouble is leading up to it. Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) are injured, so there’s a lot of pressure on Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, etc. The lineup doesn’t always click.
9. Los Angeles - The Angels are on the outside at the moment but are still in contention. They were once left for dead, but most Mike Scioscia teams tend to get the memo sooner or later. The Angels were able to introduce three outstanding young players to the majors this season in center fielder Mike Trout (the Minor League Player of the Year), first baseman Mark Trumbo (26 homers, 80 RBIs), and catcher Hank Conger. Jerome Williams has become a solid fourth starter.