ST. LOUIS -- It's not the Yankees, it's not the Phillies and it certainly isn't the Red Sox here in the World Series. FOX will fret. And MLB has to worry. But of course, the Rangers and Cardinals know they deserve to be here, and they figure they're going to put on a pretty good show.
"If you don't like the way Texas is playing and you don't like the way we're playing, then you're not really a true fan of baseball,'' Cardinals star Albert Pujols said.
Both teams are hot. Both lineups are long. And both bullpens can dominate. This Series will be like looking in a mirror for each team. They have only faced off once before, in a three-game interleague series in 2004, but even before they arrived here, they realized all the similarities.
Yes, it's hard to tell these two deserving and exciting teams apart, and it's harder still to pick a winner. Here are the big questions going into the World Series:
1. Is Texas going to pitch to Albert Pujols? The Rangers pitched to Miguel Cabrera, but as Rangers reliever Mike Adams said with a chuckle, "that didn't work out so good.'' The Brewers and Phillies also pitched to Pujols, and he hurt them. Even so, the Rangers pitchers think they can get him out. "We're not scared of anyone,'' starter Matt Harrison said.
That's easy for him to say since he has never actually seen Pujols. Adams has, and he still wants the challenge. "He's very similar to Cabrera. You can't sit in one spot. He's a great mistake hitter. If you make two mistakes in one at-bat you're dead.''
Beyond Darren Oliver, who'll be receiving an AARP card soon, you get the feeling Rangers pitchers are too young to know better. Adams said, "I hope we pitch to him.''
Pujols has been brilliant in the postseason, posting a 1.211 OPS. "Hopefully, I can have the same series [as I did] against Milwaukee and Philly,'' he said.
The Rangers will have a lot to do with that, depending on how they decide to approach his at-bats.
2. Who's the hotter hitter, Nelson Cruz or David Freese? Tough call. Cruz has shown a little more power for the Rangers and Freese is hitting for a slightly higher average for St. Louis. But both are hotter than Arlington in August, Freese from the unlikely No. 6 spot and Cruz from the even unlikelier 7 hole. "He's probably the best No. 7 hitter in the history of the game,'' Adrian Beltre said.
Cruz, who had six homers in 22 at-bats and a 1.273 slugging percentage in the ALCS, didn't disagree with that assessment (who would at this point?). But it seems like he's never gotten the respect he deserves. He was once traded straight-up for Jorge Velandia, was once a throw-in in the deal that sent Carlos Lee to Texas and yet another time was on waivers only to have no one pick him up for the $50,000 fee (word is, the poor Pirates were going to but somehow missed the deadline). "I wasn't good enough, I guess,'' Cruz said with a laugh.
Freese, who had a 1.691 OPS and .434 batting average in the NLCS, once almost quit baseball, then the Padres traded him to his hometown team for a nearly-finished Jim Edmonds. "I saw Ryan Freese tearing it up,'' Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman said. "Seems he's been swinging it pretty good.'' True, enough but the name is actually David. The good-natured Feldman laughed off the mistake. But he and the other Rangers pitchers had better not make a mistake to Freese once the games begin.
3. Whose lineup is better and deeper? That's a tossup. The Rangers were right there with the Yankees and Red Sox for scoring runs, while the Cardinals, despite injuries, led the National League in scoring. "I think we're the two best lineups in the game right now,'' the Cardinals' Lance Berkman said. "We're the one National League team that can play the American League games, and that's one reason we're here.''
4. Whose bullpen is better? Both bullpens were weak earlier in the year. But the Rangers beefed up their relief corps with trades for Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez and moved the ultra-talented Alexi Ogando into the bullpen for the playoffs, where he's been dominating (12 strikeouts thus far). Though Uehara has a 33.75 ERA in the playoffs, the other seven Rangers relievers range from three at 0.00 to Adams at 2.84.
The Cardinals' bullpen was really horrific earlier, back when Ryan Franklin (long since released) was their closer. It was transformed with the Colby Rasmus trade, when they received Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Edwin Jackson, who allowed them to move Kyle McClellan to the 'pen. The biggest boost of all was the emergence of 100-mph-throwing Jason Motte (one hit allowed in eight playoff innings for a 0.13 WHIP) as the closer. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who practically invented the quick hook, must be in heaven with this team.
5. Will Ron Washington be able to keep up with La Russa? Come on. Is that even a question? "Nobody can match wits with La Russa. He's one of a kind,'' said the Rangers' Oliver, a former Cardinal. Not even Wash thinks it can be done.
"Well, I don't think I can ever live up to matching with Tony La Russa," he said, "but what I will do is put my players in the right position, and if my players don't perform, I don't have to worry about matching wits; they'll take care of things.''
6. Are any of the stars hurt? If they are, they don't want to say. "I'm 100 percent'' said Pujols, who slammed his lower arm into the sod in Milwaukee making a tag. Matt Holliday answered, "Yeah,'' when he was asked if he was 100 percent. (He does feel it in his hand, he admitted, but he claimed it doesn't affect his swing.) Beltre has a few aches. But he said, "Tomorrow I won't feel a thing. It's the World Series! I might steal a base.''
The one concern could be about Cardinals Game 1 starter, Chris Carpenter, who received elbow treatment following his Game 3 start against the Brewers. But La Russa said, "If he wasn't sound, he wouldn't pitch.'' La Russa also said Carpenter put his hand on the bible for extra help.
"Everybody has got soreness and everybody has got aches," Carpenter said. "My elbow is fine. Tony and Dunc (pitching coach Dave Duncan) would not throw me out there if it wasn't, and neither would the trainers or doctors."
Carpenter even said he would have been OK to pitch Game 7 of the NLCS two days ago if he had to. But of all the players, Carpenter has to be the biggest concern, if only because of the location of his discomfort.
Final prediction: The Rangers are a solid favorite, but the Series here is seen as a tossup. Since I have to pick someone, I'll take Texas in 7.
• Padres GM Jed Hoyer is definitely in the mix for a job with the Cubs once Theo Epstein officially goes to Chicago, several people familiar with the talks said. It isn't clear whether Hoyer would accept, but the Cubs could give him the GM title and also pay him more than San Diego pays him, so it isn't out of the question.
Epstein is also considering Padres VP Josh Byrnes and Padres assistant GM Jason McLeod. All along, some have seen Byrnes as most likely, but people familiar with the talks say not to rule out Hoyer. (Incidentally, Hoyer has been busy in hitting coach interviews. Gary Denbo, Butch Wynegar and Greg Walker have been interviewed the past couple days and are three of the six initial candidates).
If Hoyer can be hired, Byrnes would replace him as Padres GM. Byrnes becoming GM in San Diego would be an interesting turn as he was the GM for Padres owner Jeff Moorad in Arizona as well. Moorad, in fact, gave Byrnes a deal through 2015 when both were in Arizona, so some of his current VP salary is paid by the Diamondbacks, in effect saving Moorad money since he doesn't pay Byrnes' whole salary now.
Hoyer and Byrnes are seen as two of the best young executives in the game, so San Diego couldn't go wrong with either one as GM.
• Meanwhile, the compensation talks are going slowly, as Boston continues to name high prices for Epstein. Most execs aren't blaming them, as the Cubs targeted Epstein as their potential savior. Although at some point one might have to wonder if Red Sox owner John Henry and president Larry Lucchino are getting some extra joy out of Epstein's wait (though before Epstein asked to interview it's thought his relationship with Henry was very good and his one with Lucchino passable).
The Cubs said no on Matt Garza. The Cubs' minor league ranks are thin, perhaps making them more possessive of those they do have. Among their top prospects are outfielders Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur, third baseman Josh Vitters and pitcher Trey McNutt, some names suggested by Nick Cafardo (@nickcafardo) of the Boston Globe.
• The Red Sox still seem to be leaning toward hiring a younger guy to manage them, which would put all these names potentially in play: Dave Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Pete Mackanin, Tim Wallach and Torey Lovullo (though it was suggested that while they like ex-Pawtucket Red Sox manager Lovullo, they aren't sure he's a fit).
Internet rumblings suggested A.J. Hinch could be a leading candidate but while he will one day make a fine GM or manager, and any young manager hire is a gamble in Boston, it does not seem likely the Red Sox would tab him on the heels of his quick Arizona firing last season. Hinch did nothing wrong in his tenure there, but it was tough for old-time baseball people to accept a front office person managing, ultimately hurting his chances to hold the players' respect.
One person familiar with Boston's situation said the biggest issue may have been the loss of pitching coach John Farrell, a big, tough guy who that person said wouldn't have put up with the shenanigans going on behind the scenes from their starting pitchers, namely Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.
• Lester gets a point here for telling Peter Abraham (@PeteAbe) of the Boston Globe he was wrong for drinking beer and occasionally eating fried chicken during games this year, an assertion first reported by John Tomase (@jtomase) in the Boston Herald. Lester downplayed the beer-drinking's effect on the team's collapse.
All three starters plus ex-manager Terry Francona issued statements through the team denying the extra allegation that there was beer drinking on the bench in games this year. Unlike Lester, Beckett and Lackey have yet to respond to the clubhouse beer drinking report, but their public denials of the bench drinking add to the assumption that they were part of the beer-and-chicken parties in the clubhouse.
Lester also told Abraham that while he really liked Francona for supporting him when Lester had cancer, that Francona had lost the clubhouse and it was probably time for Francona to go.
• The Yankees do not seem inclined to add three years to CC Sabathia's contract to ensure he stays in New York. While they love Sabathia, who's been terrific on and off the field, there is some concern about seven more years, partly because of Sabathia's shape. He lost weight over the winter (he said by cutting out Cap'n Crunch, a favorite staple) but appeared to regain some of that by year's end.
The Yankees see Sabathia having four good years left, but they know they won't be able to stick with the $92 million and four years remaining on his deal. The question seems to be whether they're willing to add one or two years to his contract. Sabathia's leverage was enhanced last time by the impressions he'd have to be convinced to come to New York. Now that he's already in New York and hasn't hidden the fact he enjoys it, his leverage has taken a hit.
But there's little question the Yankees need him, as the best options are the Rangers' C.J. Wilson and Japanese League star Yu Darvish, who isn't a proven major league ace. As Joel Sherman (@JoelSherman1) of the New York Post reported, the Yankees do not see Wilson as a No. 1 pitcher either. In the case of Darvish, the Yankees would have to win the posting competition.
• The Angels are said to be high on Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, and if they hire him, that could create another issue for the Yankees. Oppenheimer is seen as one of the better scouting stars in baseball.
• One baseball insider said he could see Jose Reyes winding up with any of the NL East teams. The Mets are going to give it a try, and while Reyes may be worth more to them than anyone, there's a question about whether they'll want to go big at a time when they may be cutting their payroll by as much as $40 million.
Marlins star Hanley Ramirez, the incumbent shortstop in Miami, said he'd move for Reyes. The Phillies don't have a shortstop as long as star Jimmy Rollins remains unsigned. The Nationals are expected to make another big splash this winter, and the the Braves' Alex Gonzalez is a free agent.
• Jerry Di Poto appears to be a leading contender for the Orioles GM job. Marlins exec Dan Jennings and Tigers assistant GM Al Avila are unlikely to receive permission to talk about the job as they have very long deals with their current clubs, as Dan Connolly (@danconnollysun) of the Baltimore Sun reported. Tony La Cava is another candidate in Baltimore.
• The Rangers have at least two terrific GM candidates in Thad Levine and A.J. Preller, who've helped Texas to two straight World Series. But both could be hurt by timing, as they've just helped make the Rangers too good. Levine grew up an Orioles fan, but an additional question there would be whether Orioles manager Buck Showalter would support someone from the Rangers management team considering Showalter was fired by Rangers GM Jon Daniels (the move didn't work out too bad for either side; Showalter had three years left at $1.8 million per).
• Robin Ventura's staff will also include ex-big league catcher Mark Parent, who'd done some work as a bodyguard, as has been reported. Joe McEwing, a terrific guy, will also be on the staff. Ventura is a worthwhile gamble, it says here.
• Ozzie Guillen (@ozzieguillen) seemed to be bragging on Twitter when he noted that this is the second year in a row he's made it to the World Series. Or perhaps he was joking. Last year it was with FOX, this year ESPN. Good luck to Marlins management on the next four years. (The over/under may be closer to a year and a half.)
• Guillen is not happy with pitching coach Don Cooper, telling Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times while referring to GM Ken Williams, "We all know Coop was Kenny's b****.'' Guillen said that while Cooper didn't backstab him, he "backstabbed" his fellow coaches. "Look, Coop is not a good coach; he's a great coach," Guillen said. "But Coop is Coop. He doesn't worry about anyone, he worries about himself.''
(Cooper said: "It doesn't deserve a response.")
Guillen also asserted of the White Sox, "I didn't leave them. They didn't want me back.'' That's odd. Everyone reported it was Guillen's call whether to go. But yes, the White Sox are relieved to have the low-key Ventura, who is being called the "anti-Ozzie'' behind the scenes in Chicago.
• It is understandable Jamie McCourt agreed to take the $130 million to settle her divorce with Frank as she wants the opportunity to be first in line if McCourt can somehow come up with the money to pay all his creditors. Dodgers fans desperately are rooting for MLB to win in court so McCourt will be booted out of baseball.
• One of the Texas people responded to my preseason pick of them losing in the World Series (to Colorado, ouch), by saying, "What are we, the Buffalo Bills?" The Rangers' hunger to make amends for their World Series defeat to the Giants last year is to their credit. They also deserve credit for making it to the Series once again.