If the baseball playoffs are truly a crapshoot (as some contend), well then the 1996-2000 Yankees got awfully lucky. And nobody gets that lucky. Good fortune is always a help, of course, and few figured that the 2003 Marlins or 2006 Cardinals would prevail. But that doesn't mean those teams won on luck. Perhaps we just need better prognosticators. With that in mind, here are my seedings from one through eight (as you can guess, my first-round winners are the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Dodgers).
Plusses: They have the deepest lineup and most weapons. Their 915 runs and 244 home runs were first in baseball. They are built even better for new Yankee Stadium than the old place (they went 57-24 in their initial year). Plus, the Yankees lead the league in pie-in-the-face heroics, with a major-league-leading 15 walk-off and 51 come-from-behind wins. Their clubhouse cohesion is improved over last year. The back end of their bullpen is as strong as it gets, with Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes (and possibly Joba Chamberlain). Their 40 bullpen wins are first among playoff teams. The 483 strikeouts by relievers was fifth-best in baseball. CC Sabathia was dominant in the second half (11-2, 2.74), and could be primed for a big postseason.
Minuses:A.J. Burnett struggled for much of the second half and has never pitched a postseason game (though he does have a ring from the 2003 Marlins). Big-time October performer Andy Pettitte had some shoulder weakness late. Alex Rodriguez, who was more valuable than you think during the regular season, still hasn't had a big playoff series since his first one with the Yankees. The Twins are somewhat depleted following a fight to the finish that carried into Tuesday night.
Odds to win World Series: 3-1.
Plusses: Their lineup is better than you think, and better still since Victor Martinez arrived. Their .806 OPS was second in baseball. And they're more versatile than you think. Their 126 stolen bases was second among playoff teams. Josh Beckett is a big-game performer, and frankly, so are Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka (check out his WBC results). Their 3.80 bullpen ERA is best among AL playoff teams. All of their summer pickups are contributing -- V-Mart, Billy Wagner and Alex Gonzalez. Terry Francona is 8-0 in the World Series. They've knocked out the Angels their last three October meetings.
Minuses: Beckett had a minor back concern late, though says he's fine, and Lester appears 100 percent after being drilled by a liner in his penultimate start.
Odds to win World Series: 5-1.
Plusses: Their lineup is deeper and stronger than anyone but the Yankees. Their 883 runs are second-best in baseball. They have become more disciplined since patient Bobby Abreu was imported (that goes for everyone but Vladdy Guerrero, anyway). No surprise, their 148 stolen bases are tops among playoff teams. Their rotation is deep and playoff worthy. The addition of Scott Kazmir is an upgrade vs. the Red Sox or Yankees (he's 8-7 lifetime vs. Boston, 6-5 vs. the Yankees). Their starters' 4.44 ERA is best among AL playoff teams. Mike Scioscia is a terrific manager who won three World Series (two as a player and one as manager of the 2002 Angels).
Minuses: While closer Brian Fuentes saved a league-high 46 games, one scout said, "He doesn't have closer stuff.'' Kevin Jepsen helped fortify a 'pen that needed it. Overall, their 'pen had a 4.49 ERA, 23rd-best in baseball.
Odds to win World Series: 6-1.
Plusses: Their offense is deadly. The .447 slugging percentage was tops in the NL and their 224 home runs was second-best in baseball. While they didn't dominate at Citizens Bank Ballpark this year (they're only 45-36 there), they rode a home advantage to a World Series victory last year. They have an excellent and clutch core, led by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Their defense is first-rate, especially up the middle. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels give them a nice-one-two punch, though J.A. Happ has been as good as either lately.
Minuses: Their closing situation is a mess. Manager Charlie Manuel said Ryan Madsen will handle the duties -- for now. The team generally has been inconsistent in the Year After.
Odds to win World Series: 7-1.
Plusses: They have an excellent young nucleus. Matt Kemp is a burgeoning star. Their pitching isn't the question mark you think (they have an MLB-best 3.41 ERA, though it doesn't hurt to pitch in Dodger Stadium, of course). Their bullpen is "the best in baseball,'' one scout said (the 3.14 ERA is tops). Clayton Kershaw has ace potential. Manager Joe Torre has four titles, and guided a slightly lesser team to the NLCS last year.
Minuses: Their rotation doesn't have a proven ace and is somewhat unsettled, with the fourth starters' job not decided until this past weekend. Russell Martin and James Loney had power deficiencies this year. Overall the Dodgers were only 23rd with 145 home runs. The team seemed to lose a little steam in the second half, going 39-35 after the All-Star break -- though they still finished with the best record in the NL.
Odds to win World Series: 8-1.
Plusses: Their one-two starting punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is the best in baseball. Albert Pujols is the most feared hitter in baseball, and Matt Holliday (his 1.047 second-half OPS was second best in baseball to Derrek Lee) provides the perfect complement. Tony La Russa may be the best strategist in the game.
Minuses: The Cardinals were eighth among eight playoff teams with 730 runs. The Cardinals' Ryan Franklin has done a terrific job closing, but his ERA has almost doubled over the last month (from 1.05 to 1.92), though their overall relief ERA of 3.67 ERA is fifth-best in baseball. The team had a lackluster finish, winning just two of its final 10 games.
Odds to win World Series: 9-1.
Plusses: That it's hard to name a weakness may be their biggest plus. They were easily the best team in the NL in the second half and are 74-42 under manager Jim Tracy. Troy Tulowitzki (1.042 second-half OPS was third-best in baseball) is a budding star at shortstop. Their defense is solid. Closer Huston Street is tough (though he hasn't been as good since returning from a biceps injury). Ubaldo Jimenez has ace potential.
Minuses: They are still very young. They remain much better at home than on the road (their 40-41 road record is the worst of NL playoff teams). Jorge De La Rosa, who's key to their rotation, is out for the first round with a groin concern.
Odds to win World Series: 10-1.
Plusses: They bring momentum, having become the first team to make the playoffs after being three down with four to play. Certain MVP Joe Mauer is great on both sides of the ball. The bullpen is very good (3.87 ERA), especially closer Joe Nathan. They have scrappiness on their side, having come back from seven games down in September. ("This is one tough team,'' one scout said). The Metrodome is a great home-field advantage, especially in its sentimental last season (49-33 there this season).
Minuses: Rookie Brian Duensing starts Game 1 out of necessity. Their one experienced starter, Carl Pavano, is perhaps the biggest bust in Yankees history and the Bronx Bombers and their fans will relish taking it out on him (the players didn't like him, either). Historically they have trouble with the Yankees, including very recently, going 6-18 in their last 24 games (including 0-7 this year).
Odds to win World Series: 25-1.
• Cagey way for the Marlins to suggest that Fredi Gonzalez is returning without having to make an announcement, wasn't it? They instead announced on Tuesday which coaches would be returning "under Gonzalez.'' Club officials are saying behind the scenes that Gonzalez does indeed appear safe, so perhaps the reassignment of pitching coach Mark Wiley and first base coach Andy Fox will be it. Club owner Jeffrey Loria is said to believe that the 87-75 team underachieved, and he has been in contact with Bobby Valentine, although the low-budget team always had an uphill battle to sign Valentine.
• If Gonzalez was going to be fired, several teams would be interested. The Braves are said to see him as the perfect successor to Bobby Cox. The Nationals' team president Stan Kasten used to run the Braves, though there appears to be a decent chance that the Nats will wind up keeping interim manager Jim Riggleman, who did a decent job after taking over for Manny Acta (33-42 for Riggleman).
• There are those who say that Astros interim manager Dave Clark has made himself a real consideration in his short time on the job, though the Astros need to consider a list after rushing to hire Phil Garner and upsetting the commissioner's office by not considering minorities.
• Many baseball people believe that Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer is the favorite to succeed Kevin Towers as Padres GM. If so, good choice.
• Joe Girardi made his toughest call as Yankees manager by sitting Jorge Posada for A.J. Burnett's start. This isn't the first time a pitcher has preferred pitching to the backup over Posada, and it's obvious that Burnett does, but as Posada said, they "better win'' that game now.
• Early impression: The Mets favor Matt Holliday for left field over Jason Bay, though either would help immensely. Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said they expect to spend money this winter, and really, they have no choice.
• Mets higher-ups made it fairly clear that the heat is on both GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel. "Omar would be gone if not for that extension,'' said one Mets person loyal to Minaya, referring to his $3.5 million, three-year deal. One tipoff that Manuel's in slightly better stead is that he got to make coaching calls (such as keeping Razor Shines), while Minaya was pressured to fire friends Tony Bernazard, Ramon Pena and Julio Franco. One plus for Minaya, according to several sources, is that Fred Wilpon likes him.
• Minaya is considering jobs for Kevin Towers and J.P. Ricciardi, particularly with longtime scout Sandy Johnson telling Mets people that he's likely to retire. Towers has proven to have excellent scouting instincts over the years.
• Magglio Ordonez rewarded the Tigers for doing the right thing and allowing him to trigger his $18 million option for 2010 with a huge finish (.374 in the second half).
• Great season for Tigers 20-year-old Rick Porcello, who should win the Rookie of the Year award.
• I didn't have an MVP vote this year. But if I did, I would have left Miguel Cabrera off my ballot. A drunken episode (0.26 blood alcohol) and late-night antics don't work when you go 0 for 11 in the final series of the season. He needed to care more than he obviously did.