No team is perfect, not even the ones that are headed for October or still have a very real chance to get there. Here are the concerns, questions and issues surrounding baseball's postseason contenders:
New York Yankees
The Yankees remain the World Series favorite but after CC Sabathia, there are significant questions with their starting rotation -- though things have brightened some in recent days. Andy Pettitte returned from a groin issue that kept him out two months and looks ready after six innings of one-run ball against the Orioles in his first start back last Sunday. He is seen as the biggest key for the Yankees, which isn't unusual. "If they don't have him, they're in trouble,'' one AL executive said.
Phil Hughes showed improvement in his recent starts after an up-and-down second half (he's 6-6 with a 5.27 ERA in the second half after being 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA before the break), thanks to a rediscovered changeup, while A.J. Burnett has been more down than up this year. They follow Sabathia and Pettitte in the Yankees' imperfect rotation.
The "bridge to Mariano'' is another issue for the Yankees, according to one AL scout, referring to the relievers who come before closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera. Joba Chamberlain has had his moments lately, but last year's surprise postseason hero Damaso Marte is likely out for October. "The Yankees' question comes in middle relief,'' one AL scout said. "With Joba, I didn't see a lot of finish to his pitches early in the season. It's better lately.'' Several of their stars are also enduring nagging injuries, particularly first baseman Mark Teixeira, who's been playing with a broken toe for weeks and has an annoying thumb issue as well.
Tampa Bay Rays
Amazingly, the Rays have had one or no hits in five games this season, the most such games by any team since 1920. It's hard to believe they've had so many low-hit teams with a lineup that looks nothing but solid.
Offensively, they have had off years from several players, including Jason Bartlett (.252 batting average, down from .320 last year), Carlos Pena (.201 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs after averaging 39 homerse and 108 RBIs the past three years) and Ben Zobrist (.246 average, down from .297 in '09). "The two guys who concern me are Pena and Zobrist," one AL scout said. "They just don't look real good right now."
Despite that, the Rays have managed to hang with the Yankees all year and are now just one-half game behind New York in the David-and-Goliath race, an indication of how good the other facets of their game are. Their pitching is generally excellent, but if there's a concern, according to one AL scout, it should be over talented right-handed starter Matt Garza, who hasn't been the same since his no-hitter back in July (he has an 8.24 ERA in September).
The Twins, which are the only team to have already clinched a postseason berth, have done an incredible job this year considering all their injuries. And they are still dealing with sub-par health for their two biggest stars. Joe Mauer is resting his jammed knee and Justin Morneau hasn't played since July 7 because of a concussion. He hasn't been ruled out yet and is said to be continuing his workouts, but there are no guarantees with a concussion.
"It just comes down to how healthy they are," one AL scout said. "You can't count on Morneau. And [outfielder Denard] Span's right shoulder is an issue, not only with his throwing but it's affecting his swing."
The Twins have a poor playoff history against the Yankees -- they've lost all three postseason series they've played against New York, including last year's sweep in the ALDS -- and will need to have at least Mauer to have a realistic hope at winning their first World Series since 1991. That's what you'd think, anyway. But the Twins have surprised folks all year.
Cliff Lee appears to have answered questions about a balky back with two straight strong starts in which he went eight innings, allowed one run and picked up the victory, so the concern now is over outfielder Josh Hamilton, who's had an anti-inflammatory injection and epidural injection to try to relieve the pain associated with two broken ribs from running into an outfield wall Sept. 4. If the injections take, the Rangers hope he can get into games before the playoffs start. Hamilton's importance can not be overstated. He should be the MVP in the American League this year. Without Hamilton, the offense has sputtered at times, especially on the road.
The Rangers are another team with a weak postseason series history vs. the Yankees, having lost their last nine October dates against New York. However, a three-game sweep over the Yankees in Texas two weeks ago aided their confidence.
Riding a 10-game winning streak and cruising toward their fourth straight NL East title, it almost seems like the Phillies have no issues lately. But they do have a couple of concerns. One is Jimmy Rollins' hamstring. He hasn't played since Sept. 8 and Phillies people would like to see him get in against live pitching soon, but leg problems have bothered Rollins all year. Wilson Valdez has done an excellent job defensively in Rollins' place, but he can't hit like Rollins.
Another concern is their bullpen, which isn't as bad as folks think but ranks eighth in the NL with a 3.97 ERA. Although as one NL scout said, "They don't need much bullpen depth when they get seven innings from their starters.''
Their starting rotation "doesn't stack up to the Phillies,'' one NL scout said. Well, that's really not such an insult. And if the Braves make the playoffs, they won't have to face the Phillies in the first round, anyway. The loss of Chipper Jones hurt their middle-of-the-lineup presence. Derrek Lee helps, but he isn't having the best of seasons, and though he's hitting a solid .280 since coming to the Braves in an August trade with the Cubs he's hit just two homers in 100 at-bats. It's a lot of good, solid players but unless rookie Jason Heyward hits his potential now, they really don't have anyone hitting like a No. 3 or 4 batter.
The biggest question about the Reds may be their experience, as only seven players have ever been in the postseason (the one with the most experience, Jim Edmonds, is out with an Achilles injury). It helps, though, that manager Dusty Baker has 36 playoff games under his belt as a manager. The rotation, while decent, isn't as good as some others in the NL, with its 4.11 ERA ranking 11th in the 16-team league.
San Francisco Giants
Their starting rotation has the vaunted one-two punch of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain which could carry them far, but Lincecum has struggled a bit lately, at least by his standards. He has allowed nearly a hit an inning and has a 3.60 ERA overall. Barry Zito is back to struggling, so one NL scout said he'd employ Madison Bumgarner ahead of him.
Their offense has been bolstered with several second-half additions but still isn't great. Their 649 runs rank them 18th in baseball. Among all their many relative newcomers, Pat Burrell has provided 16 home runs and Jose Guillen is hitting .301, but Cody Ross (.208, 0 home runs, 2 RBIs) has done nothing since being acquired from the Marlins in August.
San Diego Padres
They are a young team on a deep slide, having lost 18 of their past 27 games, and that has to take a psychological toll. Their starting rotation, while solid, is "soft,'' according to one NL scout. Mat Latos looked like a world beater until the last few starts (7.36 ERA in September after leading the league in that category when the month began). Chris Young gets his second start since coming off the disables list on Friday night, and his success will be a key to helping them reach the postseason. Clayton Richard recently threw the first complete game by a Padres left-since Sterling Hitchcock in 1999, so it's a mixed bag.
And their offense, long an issue, took a hit with the loss of Jerry Hairston with a stress fracture in his right leg for the remainder of the year. Their 639 runs ranks them 20th and their .697 OPS ranks them 24th. But give them credit for hanging at the top of the division when last place was everyone's expectation.
The biggest issue at this point is that they are running short on time. They carry a four-game losing streak into a crucial weekend series against the Giants in Denver, and they need to turn things around immediately. With a 3 1/2 game deficit and two teams to chase in the NL West, they need to get as hot as they were in early September, when they won 10-in a row at one point, to have a chance at their first division title.
And while they've played very well overall this month, there are still a couple pitching issues. Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't been anywhere near the same pitcher he was at the start of the season. He was 15-1 record with a 2.20 ERA before the All-Star break but is just 4-6, 4.29 since the break. Also, Jason Hammel has been complaining about a tired arm, lasting just four innings in each of his last two outings.
• The Yankees will likely be most focused on Cliff Lee as a free agent. With Brett Gardner playing well in left field, they don't seem quite as anxious to put on a full-court press for Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth (though of course, you can never count them out). One other player that may interest them is Adam Dunn, who could hit 50 home runs in Yankee Stadium. One scout said of Dunn, who's spoken optimistically about re-signing with the Nationals, "He should go to the American League.''
• It was curious to see Nationals president San Kasten resign yesterday, effective at the end of the year, following all the Nats' turn-around moves via the draft. Kasten was interviewed within the past year by the Blue Jays but there was no word on his immediate plans, and his friend Paul Beeston now seems entrenched in Toronto. Kasten, who lives in Atlanta, said by phone the plan was for him to leave after 2010, but it's still rare to see someone resign such a good job.
• Agent Scott Boras does not believe the $66-million, four-year contract Jason Bay got from the Mets last winter is a comp for his client Jayson Werth. "Remember, with a platform year where Bay had many more home runs and RBIs, Holliday gets nearly double AFTER Bay signs,'' Boras said via text of the seven-year, $120 million contract Matt Holliday signed with the Cardinals last offseason. "The [Bay] signing (due to medical predisposition) had no impact on Holliday. Why should it have relevance to Werth or Crawford?''