The Phillies look like a prohibitive World Series favorite. But that guarantees nothing, of course.
The Braves of the 1990s had the same sort of starting pitching that made folks assume they'd win many titles throughout the decade. Yet, that presumed dynasty only won one World Series, in the strike-shortened year of 1995.
While the playoffs aren't really a crap shoot, as some suggest, almost anything can and will happen. Anyone who makes it has a legitimate shot, and that includes the Diamondbacks, who may be baseball's best story this season. While one talent evaluator opined that the D-backs are "playing over their heads,'' another picked them as the possible surprise World Series winner, pointing to their youth and late runs.
That said, with the playoff spots all but settled, here is a rundown of the eight very likely playoff entrants (should the Giants, White Sox, Indians or Cardinals stage a monster rally, I'll adjust later).
1. Phillies. It's not just their starting pitching that makes them everyone's choice but their all-around play of late. Their 215 runs and .770 OPS are sixth best in baseball since the All-Star break, and their .443 slugging percentage is third best (and first in the National League).Their offense, once very streaky, has been more consistent since the addition of Hunter Pence. But of course, their pitching has been as brilliant as everyone suspected it would be. The overall ERA of 3.04 ERA is the best in baseball and the 2.85 ERA for their starters is the only mark below 3.00 in baseball. The one question is in the bullpen, but that hasn't been so bad, either. Ryan Madson has taken a step forward this year, and Antonio Bastardo has been nothing short of a revelation. The bullpen's overall 3.42 ERA is eighth best in baseball.
2. Rangers. Their run total (681) and OPS (.778) are third best behind the Yankees and Red Sox, which is not surprising considering the firepower those teams have. But they may actually be a bit better than that, too, because they have been hurt by injuries to key members of their lineup. Their starting pitching has been much better than anyone figured (the 3.78 ERA is ninth best in baseball, which is especially good considering their hitter-friendly home ballpark), and the bullpen isn't anything close to as bad as its horrible numbers (the 4.15 ERA is 26th best), thanks to the crucial mid-year pickups of Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez, which amounted to a needed and welcome overhaul.
3. Red Sox. They are very similar to the Yankees in that their strengths are in the lineup and bullpen, and their concern is the rotation. The Red Sox are actually first in baseball in batting average (.280), on-base percentage (.350), slugging percentage (.460), and of course OPS (.811) even though the Yankees have scored more runs. Although, to try to pick the better offense would just come down to splitting hairs. Boston's bullpen ERA of 3.45 is ninth best in baseball, not quite as good as the Yankees' mark. The one real edge Boston might have is that they have a bona fide top two in a rotation led by Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. Beyond that, though, there are lots of questions about John Lackey and whomever else they may throw into the rotation.
4. Yankees. They are baseball's best-producing offense, especially in the second half. Their 277 runs after the All-Star Break are 30 more than second-best Boston. Their bullpen is awfully good, too, and not just incomparable closer Mariano Rivera, either. The 'pen has an overall 3.05 ERA that is the best in the AL. One key has been David Robertson, who has been unhittable with the bases loaded, and not all that hittable in other circumstances, either. Their rotation ERA of 3.98, while only good for 16th in the majors, is still slightly better than Boston's 4.08. But of course, after ace CC Sabathia, it's either untested (Ivan Nova) or aging (34-year-old Freddy Garcia, 38-year-old Bartolo Colon). They are certainly a major threat, though.
5. Brewers. It's been an all-around brilliant job by the small-market team willing to spend under generous owner Mark Attanasio. It's no fluke they are in first place in the NL Central with their superb lineup and rotation, which has inspired incredible fan loyalty in baseball's smallest market. Most of the team is younger and less experienced than the other playoff-bound teams but they did get a bit of October experience in a four-game playoff appearance in 2008. Some suggest the bullpen could be a problem. But if things go right and they can limit the majority of duty to playoff-tested set-up man Francisco Rodriguez and excellent closer John Axford, they should be fine. I would rank them higher but they looked overmatched in a series in the Bronx in June when they were outscored 20-4 in a three-game sweep.
6. Braves. The reason Atlanta is down this low is injuries to starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder), which are somewhat of a concern. Their overall ERA is 3.34, third best in baseball. The biggest strength is their shutdown bullpen, with a 2.90 ERA that is second best and a dynamic young anchor combo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel (who's allowed no runs since June 11, spanning 35 appearances). The addition of Michael Bourn is huge for an offense that's struggled at times this year and is 17th in runs with 554 and 21st in OPS at .703. Chipper Jones is back in top form, so that helps. But they are still waiting for the talented sophomore Jason Heyward to play to his real ability.
7. Diamondbacks. If their lineup is weak, as someone believe, it surely hasn't killed them. The Diamondbacks have 612 runs, which is third best in the NL. Their pitching seems something short of dominant, although their bullpen is no longer the bane it was last year (ranking 16th with a 3.61 ERA). However, the main thing to recommend them is their worst-to-first story, which makes one wonder whether something special is happening. They have had two winning streaks of at least six games just in the past few weeks.
8. Tigers. The Tigers have arguably the best pitcher (Justin Verlander) and best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) in this derby. But the question is whether their other players are good enough. The offense seems fairly well supported by Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and others (their 614 runs are eighth best). But Verlander will have a lot of pressure on him. Their starting pitching is better than the 4.17 overall ERA (22nd best), as that number is affected by a coterie of previously untested No. 5 starters employed before GM Dave Dombrowski astutely added a decent No. 5 starter in Doug Fister (No. 5s don't generally pitch in the playoffs, anyway). The issue, though, is what kind of performance they'll get by anyone other than Verlander. Closer Jose Valverde is 39 for 39 in saves, but the rest of the bullpen hasn't been quite as efficient (the 4.11 ERA is 25th best).
• The Mets-owning Wilpons and Saul Katz broke off talks with David Einhorn, who had agreed to buy a minority stake in the team, after his keen interest in getting pre-approval from MLB to take majority control in five years became a concern for them that that was actually his main goal. The Wilpons and Katz eventually concluded that Einhorn was banking on the Wilpons running out of cash to remain in control. That is not the basis for a solid partnership. Einhorn told reporters in a conference call that he had obtained pre-approval from MLB to take over the team should it come to that, but the current Mets owners claim that isn't even allowed. In any case, Einhorn's fixation over this issue made clear to them what his real objective was. Wilpon and Katz want to keep the team in family hands. Einhorn complained in a statement he issued that Wilpons/Katz changed the deal along the way. The Mets have recapitalized their team by adding money from other entities and are said to be on solid financial ground into next season. Their new plan to get more money is to find many smaller limited partners who will invest perhaps $20 million apiece.
• Nobody is better at making something unpleasant sound as palatable as Mets GM Sandy Alderson. "The feeling is, even at $100 million or $110 million, we're still in the upper echelon of payrolls,'' Alderson told Adam Rubin of ESPN New York. Previously, Alderson expressed surprise when Fred Wilpon told SI's Tom Verducci that the team's payroll may fall to $100 million from about $140 million this year. Alderson surely has a way with words.
• Perhaps the biggest pickup at the Aug. 31 deadline was the Rangers adding lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez, who allowed no runs and one walk over his last 12 1/3 innings, with 15 strikeouts. Getting backup catcher Matt Treanor, solid backstop and husband of volleyball legend Misty May-Treanor, can't hurt, either. Rangers president Nolan Ryan is a better pitcher than predictor. After saying he wasn't expecting the team to do anything, they did maybe more than anyone. Ryan also previously denied a note here that the team had interest in Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez by suggesting on his friend Randy Galloway's radio show that they did not have interest in either of those two players, even giving specific reasons they made no sense. As it turned out, the Rangers tried extremely hard to land Beltran before the Giants acquired him.
• Angels wunderkind Mike Trout is 10 for 28 with four home runs since his re-call. It seems odd that Eddie Bane was fired as scouting director since tabbing Trout, who turned 20 last month, as a late first-round pick in 2009. That may have been the best single pick by anyone over the last decade. Bane now works for the Tigers. Baseball's other wunderkind, Bryce Harper 19, told Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com that he plans to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League.
• The Los Angeles Times reported that L.A. Marathon founder Bill Burke put in a $1.2 billion bid for the Dodgers. Frank McCourt has not responded to the report by Bill Shaikin. It is believed MLB is viewing the reported bid very cautiously. Burke is someone with previous ties to embattled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, as Burke sold the marathon to McCourt. Many people are lining up to buy the bankrupt Dodgers. Those expected to be interested include financier Ron Burkle, former superagent Dennis Gilbert and the ex-Dodger duo of Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey. All of those people are also L.A. institutions. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, a Beverly Hills resident, has told people he isn't going to leave Milwaukee to buy the Dodgers.
• Andy MacPhail does seem likely to leave the Orioles, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today suggested. Manager Buck Showalter has denied interested in taking over as GM though he once did have an interest in that back in his Texas days. But that won't mean he'll have no influence on who gets the job. Showalter and Orioles owner Peter Angelos meet regularly. Thad Levine, a rising star in the Rangers front office, seems like a logical candidate. He is a Baltimore product who knew Showalter when he was the Rangers' manager from 2003-2006.
• Japanese League pitching star Yu Darvish has been reported as likely to come to the U.S. to pitch in the majors next year. Teams that have shown interest include the Yankees, Rangers, Nationals, Orioles, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays, according to MLB Trade Rumors. He is a major star, and he could do especially well, considering the paucity of high-end rotation options expected to be on the market. C.C. Sabathia can opt out, and probably will, but he is very likely to go back to the Yankees, who will still be interested in Darvish, anyway. C.J. Wilson is the next best starting pitcher who's a free agent. Many of his comps -- John Lackey, A.J. Burnett (two free agents who aren't as good) and Jered Weaver (a non-free agent who is better) received in the $80-85 million range. So that's a fair guess for Wilson, who the Rangers wisely converted from the bullpen. He may feel some affinity or even loyalty for the team for helping his career so much. But of course, there are no obligations.
• The Angels set a deadline for Jered Weaver to accept their $85 million five-year offer, telling him they'd trade him if he didn't accept. His love for the Angels won out, and he accepted.
• The Mariners rewarded GM Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was about to expire, with a multi-year deal. Zduriencik and scouting director Tom McNamara have engineered three productive drafts, and the Mariners' future looks sound, especially with a potential rotation of Felix Hernandez, Danny Hultzen, Michael Pineda and perhaps James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. They could use a bit of hitting, however.
• Jesus Montero is perhaps the most ballyhooed Sept. 1 call-up. He appears to be in much better shape than he had been in at spring training. Reds catching prospect Devin Mesoraco may be the call-up that is most universally beloved by baseball scouts, however.
• The closer market is going to be saturated, as MLB Trade Rumors points out. The Tigers will pick up Jose Valverde's $8 million option, but free agents still include Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Madson, Matt Capps, Jason Isinghausen, Brad Lidge and Jonathan Broxton. Team options are held on Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch and Kyle Farnsworth.
• White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen needs to cease discussing his contract situation during a pennant race, particularly since no real contract situation exists. Guillen has a White Sox contract for 2012, so this shouldn't be a pressing issue. But apparently it is to him. Considering his performance this year, the White Sox should reconsider a trade with the Marlins, who seem to love him.
• Jack McKeon and the Marlins have decided someone else will manage the team in 2012. McKeon, 80, took over as interim manager in June and has a lifetime contract to work for the Marlins. Their manager field is wide open.
• Marlon Byrd told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, speaking of a possible trade from the Cubs, "If it's better for the organization to move me and bring back another piece because of my trade value, then (do it).'' The team resisted doing so at the July 31 trade deadline, with several teams, including the Braves, interested at the time.
• Word is, Davey Johnson can manage the Nationals again next year if he so chooses.
• The three-way trade a couple winters ago involving the Yankees, Tigers and Diamondbacks is a beauty. Curtis Granderson is an MVP candidate for the Yankees (he's the pick here) but the Diamondbacks may have done as well or even better in that deal, as Ian Kennedy is a Cy Young candidate for them, and Daniel Hudson, who was acquired for Edwin Jackson, is their second-best pitcher. The Tigers, who got Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson, are also likely playoff-bound. Good job all around.