Jon Heyman
Friday October 15th, 2010

Breaking down --and ranking -- baseball's Final Four in five key categories...

1. Phillies. From the moment that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. landed Roy Oswalt from his old pal Ed Wade in Houston to go with Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels there was no better front three in baseball "Everyone [of the four teams] has two good ones, Philly's got three,'' one scout said in what might an oversimplification of four very good rotation tops. Oswalt was red-hot until seeing the Reds in Game 2 of the NLDS and giving up four runs in five innings. But two scouts say they believe that Hamels is really the Phillies' second-best pitcher, behind no-hit artist Halladay, who will be shooting to become the first pitcher ever to throw three no-hitters in a year. Halladay was unhittable (obviously) in his Game 1 start in the NLDS, and Hamels wasn't that far behind him in Game 3. Now these great pitchers get to face the Giants, by most accounts a weaker offensive team than the Reds. Joe Blanton is a solid and versatile fourth starter for the Phillies, though certainly nowhere near the class of their top three.

2. Giants. A case could be made for the Giants at No. 1. "Take your pick,'' between the Phillies and Giants," one scout said. Tim Lincecum is just the sort of strikeout artist that thrives in the postseason, as shown in his 14-strikeout, two-hit effort in NLDS Game 1 vs. the Braves. Game 3 starter Matt Cain is an excellent complement to Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez, who's being moved up to start Game 2 against the lefty-heavy Phillies, limited opposing hitters to a league-low .204 batting average. The Phillies' trio gets the edge here, but mostly for their experience. It also doesn't hurt that Halladay is more durable than Lincecum (or anyone else) and more apt to make three starts if called upon. But the Giants' trio isn't far behind. Rookie Madison Bumgarner was solid in his Game 4 start vs. the Braves after a very nice finish to the season.

3. Yankees. CC Sabathia will likely finish second to Felix Hernandez in the AL Cy Young voting after winning 21 games. Sabathia earned his postseason pedigree last year, though he was overshadowed by Cliff Lee. Andy Pettitte is the alltime postseason leader with 19 wins. And Phil Hughes employed a nasty cutter en route to a dominant Game 3 start in the ALCS, giving the Yankees a very impressive front three, as well. However, No. 4 man A.J. Burnett is an utter mess, turning in one of the worst years ever for a Yankees starter, and certainly anyone making $16 million annually. He seemed distracted in just about all his starts the final month. Their starters' second-half ERA of 4.22 (22nd-best in baseball) shouldn't be taken too seriously as it reflects a raft of starts by Burnett, Javier Vazquez and other lesser lights, and they'll only have to employ Burnett once and the others not at all.

4. Rangers. Lee's inability to start Game 1 or 2 hurts them, but C.J. Wilson is a hard-throwing left-hander who transitioned brilliantly to the rotation. "I think Texas has a shot,'' one scout said. "With Wilson and Lee, Texas has a better chance than Tampa would have had [against the Yankees]. "C.J. Wilson's a pretty good lefty who throws hard and learned a lot from Lee,'' one AL scout added. Lee is a postseason dynamo on the cusp of a contract to rival Johan Santana's -- or even Sabathia's -- after dominating two straight Octobers. Colby Lewis re-invented himself after returning from Japan under excellent pitching coach Mike Maddux's tutelage. Tommy Hunter is no better than average -- but miles ahead of Burnett at this point.

1. Giants. Brian Wilson had one of the best seasons of any closer. He anchors a hard-throwing bullpen that's tough to navigate. Their 2.99 'pen ERA during the year was second-best in baseball. "The middle of the 'pen is better than Philly's,'' one scout said. And that's true even if most don't know the names.

2. Yankees. Any team with Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher and arguably the greatest postseason performer of alltime, has to be ranked high. Still-hard-throwing Kerry Wood has been brilliant for the Yankees, right up until Game 3 vs. the Twins, when he struggled with his control. David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain give the Yankees two more viable options but are hit-or-miss. Boone Logan had a decent year as a situational lefty, but probably can't repeat Damaso Marte's 2009 postseason. "If I'm the Yankees, I'm not feeling fantastic about my 'pen; same goes for the Rangers,'' said a scout.

3. Phillies. Brad Lidge is back to being the Good Lidge, temporarily setting the Philly faithful at ease. And that's the main concern considering their strong and durable starting staff. With two complete games, they needed only four innings from their relievers in the NLDS vs. the Reds, all of them scoreless. Ryan Madson seems to pump it up in October. Jose Contreras has been solid, but if a team gets past those three, it may be in luck. C.J. Romero and Chad Durbin can be had right now.

4. Rangers. There are some great arms in their bullpen, led by rookie closer Neftali Feliz. Another newcomer, Alexei Ogando, isn't far behind in terms of talent. But as a group they weren't great in their series against the Rays, giving cause for concern about the ultra-young 'pen.

1. Yankees. There's none better. Longtime Astros star Lance Berkman bats eighth, which provides an idea just how good this lineup is. They appeared to be taking a half step back with the loss last offseason of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, but Curtis Granderson has come on strong in recent months and Nick Swisher is having a huge year. The Yankees' 889 runs this year led baseball, and they kept it going in the ALDS, scoring 17 runs and posting an .865 OPS in three games vs. the Twins. Plus, they have more speed than you might think, between Granderson, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter. "They're tough one through nine, and [Marcus] Thames can hit one out of the park, too,'' one scout said. "There's no rest,'' said another scout.

2. Phillies. They were inconsistent or injured for much of the year but showed their potential in the second half, when they were second to the Yankees with 362 runs. They have "more weapons,'' than the Giants, one scout noted. Those include Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, who each can carry a team when hot. Placido Polanco gives them nice balance, and Carlos Ruiz provides more big hits than almost anyone. Usual lineup igniter Jimmy Rollins isn't 100 percent after returning from a calf injury.

3. Rangers. Like the Rays, they can beat teams in a number of ways, which they showed in Game 5 with some speed, even from surprising sources (Vladimir Guerrero and Bengie Molina). Their 123 stolen bases was seventh-best in baseball. Their power is more obvious, helping them to a fifth-in-baseball 787 runs. Their eight home runs in the ALDS shows the damage they can do. Josh Hamilton "has a few at-bats under his belt and might be ready to hit like he can,'' one NL scout said. But they have other strong hitters, namely Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler. They don't quite match the Yankees, but they're not bad at all.

4. Giants. They are no longer an offensive joke, as they made more additions to their lineup in-season than anyone, beginning on May 29 with the promotion of rookie catcher Buster Posey. It didn't come close to ending there, though. While Jose Guillen has fallen out of favor, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, a waiver pickup selected partially to block the Padres, have fortified an underperforming outfield. "They've got guys who are capable now,'' one scout said. The Giants finished 17th in runs scored with 697, which is just about average considering the pitchers' park in which they play.

1. Phillies. Their very sold defense is anchored by Gold Glove shortstop Rollins and Gold Glove center fielder Shane Victorino. Jayson Werth covers decent ground in right field, Polanco catches everything he gets to, and Ruiz is a treasure behind the plate. Utley hangs tough on double plays but experienced a temporary case of the yips in Game 2 of the NLDS. Ryan Howard is much improved. Few holes here.

2. Yankees. Derek Jeter might not have the range of some other shortstops now, but he is still very solid, and this is the playoffs, so it's his time. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are the biggest strengths of this defense, two Gold Glove-caliber players on the right side, while Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are still proficient. The outfield is solid if unspectacular, with Gardner covering a lot of ground in left field, Granderson decent in center and Swisher OK in right. Scouts say that Jorge Posada has slipped defensively, but it's yet to catch up with the team. Francisco Cervelli, who's expected to be Burnett's personal catcher, is a bit better defensively. "I'm sure Texas will try to exploit him as much as they can,'' one scout said of Posada. And as Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse pointed out, baserunners are 51 of 54 stealing bases against Yankees relievers.

3. Rangers. Elvis Andrus is a supreme talent at shortstop, and Young has taken to third base. "Andrus is quicker and more athletic than Jeter, but if you put the two side-by-side in a playoff series, I still have to take Jeter,'' one AL scout said. In the outfield, the ultra-talented Hamilton will risk life and limb, and has. Catchers Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor are average at best.

4. Giants. Nothing special defensively. Burrell is a statue in left, Juan Uribe is only OK at short and Aubrey Huff is seen as an offensive player at first (though he was better than advertised). You'd think in their ballpark, they'd emphasize speed. Seems like a missed opportunity, but they also know that they have a lot of strikeout pitchers.

1. Yankees. They have the tradition going for them, and don't think that means nothing. Somehow, things seem to go right for the Yankees in October. They got a break when Lee had to be used in Game 5 of the ALDS by Texas, meaning they will only have to face him once in at least the first five games. They have also won nine straight playoff games against Texas -- though that was in the 1990s.

2. Phillies. They are one tough bunch and have been through this drill before. The two-time National League champs seems to do what they need to do to get where they want to go.

3. Rangers. They are on a roll, and may feel like they are playing with house money after escaping a Game 5 on the road. They showed they can win away from home in the playoffs, and have confidence against the Yankees, whom they swept late in the year.

4. Giants. They survived a tough final weekend and several tight playoff games. Seem to be having a lot of fun. Can't hurt that perennial malcontent Guillen isn't on the roster.

Yankees in seven games and Phillies in six. More expert predictions here.

• A contentious interview led the Marlins to not hire Bobby Valentine and instead choose interim manager Edwin Rodriguez in the summer, and apparently that whole episode caused Valentine to turn down the Marlins' offer this week. Some have speculated that Valentine rejected the deal over finances, a logical assumption when it comes to the Marlins, but he probably realized that taking it might have led to a difficult regime, considering that he was rejected this summer. Valentine and Marlins president David Samson apparently didn't hit it off, and perhaps Valentine's concerns were raised by seemingly quick triggers on the firings of Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez.

• The Braves surprised no one by naming Gonzalez as Bobby Cox's successor. Cox had a great career, but apparently he understood that it was time to finally step down. Gonzalez is an excellent choice for the Braves, who avoided having to do fake minority interviews by actually hiring a minority.

• The Mets are expected to interview one or two more GM candidates after candidate No. 5, Logan White, interviews on Friday (the first four were Allard Baird, Rick Hahn, Josh Byrnes and Sandy Alderson). Commissioner Bud Selig is a big fan of Alderson's from his work for MLB and he's viewed as the favorite because of his longtime relationship with Selig and Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who also happens to be close to Selig. Rangers GM Jon Daniels, whose team is in the ALCS, is a wild card. While the Mets haven't officially reached out yet, they have him in mind, as well. Second interviews are expected to begin sometime next week.

• The Dodgers' decision to not allow coach Tim Wallach to interview for the manager's job in Toronto, as first mentioned by foxsports.com, might not make new Dodgers manager Don Mattingly too comfortable. The Dodgers are extremely high on Wallach, and some within their organization felt that he was more ready to manage than Mattingly, whose contract guaranteed him the job to replace Joe Torre. The Dodgers traded Mattingly's son Preston a few weeks ago, and that's probably for the best, as it eliminates any whiff of favoritism.

Mike Quade is believed to remain the favorite for the Cubs' managing job, though Ryne Sandberg is surely the fans' choice.

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