"They're a good team," Hal Steinbrenner said of the Phillies. "They've had more days off than us ... We'll see how it plays out. But we're confident."
Perfect. Young Hal certainly knows the drill.
First he damns them with faint praise ("good team"). Then he notes some alleged advantage for the other team ("more days off"), more imagined than real. Then he suggests he likes the Yankees' chances.
It's hard to blame young Steinbrenner for liking the Yankees' chances. But then, chances are he hasn't spent too much time scouting the Phillies, who are the team most like the Yankees for a variety of reasons. Each team has a worthy ace that started their career in Cleveland. Each team has one monster power hitter, one of the very best sluggers in the game, who could not be hotter right now. Each is known for its comeback victories. And each has a positive history, though the Yankees' positive history dates back to the beginning of the previous century, while the Phillies' positive history mainly goes back to last year's championship.
Here's an early look at some of the better matchups:
The Yankees' CC Sabathia and the Phillies' Cliff Lee are left-handers with a Cy Young Award each who teamed together with the Indians before that small-market ballclub started its two-summer dismantling program with the trade of their beloved CC to Milwaukee. The Yankees eventually paid a pitching record $161 million for Sabathia, while the Phillies got Lee for four minor league prospects, testaments to the Yankees' bank account and the Phillies' drafting acumen. Both have been absolutely brilliant this postseason. Sabathia, the ALCS MVP, is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, while Lee is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA. Each has struck out exactly 20 batters and walked exactly three. Sabathia has rough postseasons in his past, including a grand slam surrendered to the Phillies' Shane Victorino in the Division Series last year. While Sabathia is rated better by scouts, the records are closer than one might think (Sabathia has a lifetime winning percentage of .627, and Lee is actually higher at .634). Sabathia clearly had the better 2009 season, though, going 19-8 to Lee's 14-13 (though Lee had a handicap in that he was 7-9 when he came over from the struggling Indians). Derek Jeter said of Sabathia, "It seems like every time out he's been more and more dominant." The ex-Indians will match up in at least Game 1, though that could be it for that pairing, as Sabathia is more likely to come back on three days rest for Game 4. Edge: Yankees.
The Dodgers determined that the way to get out Ryan Howard was to pound him inside, and the Angels felt the same about Alex Rodriguez. In neither case did that strategy work. Howard blasted the Dodgers right out of the playoffs, contributing at least one RBI in every game, just as he did in the Division Series against Colorado. Rodriguez was even better against the Angels, with a ridiculous 1.519 OPS. In almost any other year, he would have been the ALCS MVP (but Sabathia got it with his two wins). Rodriguez played like superman with the pressure squarely on him, perhaps finally answering affirmatively to the continuing questions of whether he'd ever be a true Yankee or rise to postseason prominence. "He's been great," Jeter said. "I don't know what else you'd want him to do ... He seems comfortable. Hopefully it continues." Overall this postseason Rodriguez has seven extra-base hits, 12 RBIs and a 1.516 OPS. Howard has seven extra-base his, 14 RBIs and a 1.203 OPS. A-Rod's hole is supposedly in, while Howard's is up and in. The reality is, it's probably better to avoid either right now -- though both teams get power from other sources. The Yankees led the majors in homers with 244 while the Phillies were second with 224. Edge: Yankees.
Charlie Manuel isn't the bumpkin he plays on TV. While he appeared to be picking pitchers out of a hat at times this October, the results have been excellent. The faith he placed in Pedro Martinez was a key in the NLCS. His use of Joe Blanton out of the bullpen worked wonders, too. Joe Girardi did a super job in the regular season, but seemed to suffer from temporary insanity or incompetence at times in the ALCS. The removal of the tough David Robertson after consulting his trusty book was silly, the removal of Rodriguez for a pinch runner was downright stupid. However, he redeemed himself with a nice job in the clinching Game 6. Normally a better strategist than Joe Torre, he may just be getting the hang of this postseason thing. Edge: Phillies.
The Yankees' hitters who are not Rodriguez and Jeter all struggled in the Division Series, but Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano improved against the Angels. Mark Teixeira still isn't quite himself (.259 slugging in the ALCS), and neither is Nick Swisher (.150 slugging). Phil Hughes hasn't been as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, as he's allowed nine hits in 4 2/3 innings. While they thought they corrected a flaw, Girardi skipped right over him from Joba Chamberlain to Mariano Rivera in the clinching Game 6. If the Yankees use a fourth starter, it'll be journeyman Chad Gaudin, but they could also opt to use Sabathia twice on three days' rest. The Phillies' bullpen was thought to be a mess entering the postseason, especially closer Brad Lidge. But Lidge hasn't allowed a run in October, and Manuel has used his starters liberally in relief, covering other 'pen shortcomings. Another query: Does Pedro have more magic in him, even against his old nemesis? Edge: Phillies (Yankees have more concerns).
THE RECENT GAMES
The Yankees and Phillies are both 7-2 so far this October. As opposed to blowing out their opponents, the Yankees have relied on more oppositional screw-ups (the Twins' baserunning and Angels' fielding left quite a bit to be desired), but charitably, perhaps the Yankees forced them into those errors. The Phillies weren't nearly as good in the regular season, winning fewer games in the inferior league, but won several games late to give them a feeling of invincibility. The Phillies have hit the best of all the playoff teams, posting an .840 team OPS (the Yankees' mark is .800 exactly). Edge: Phillies.
The Yankees led the majors in come-from-behind wins, walk-off wins and pies in the face. There clearly was a team unity, even if a lot of the guts of the team is new. A.J. Burnett brought the pies and Nick Swisher adds some goofiness, but no one should underestimate the presence of Sabathia, who disproved all predictions that he might struggle in New York. "This team was built with dollars, but it has character, too," Damon said. The Phillies don't just talk a good game, they play it. Nobody should ever count them out. Little Jimmy Rollins' game-winning hit in Game 4 off gigantic Jonathan Broxton was merely the latest of the late heroics. They terrorized Rockies closer Huston Street in the Division Series, as well. The Yankees are more fun, but the Phillies are as tough they come. Edge: Phillies.
The Indians beat the Astros for coveted young manager Manny Acta on Sunday -- a day of surprising managerial maneuverings that appears to have left each team without its top choice. In any case, the Indians do seemed pleased with Acta, who fits their young team. But if Bobby Valentine badly wanted the job, he probably could have had it.
There was a lot more going on behind the scenes than was actually recorded Sunday. One source close to the Indians said Valentine was actually their first choice -- "If he's willing to accept it, he's got it," that person said a couple days ago -- and it is believed they only acted quickly upon Acta after first checking early Sunday with Valentine about how committed he was to coming to Cleveland.
The Indians, apparently understanding Valentine made perfect sense to reenergize their franchise but also feeling extremely comfortable that Acta was a great fit, tried first to get a quick answer from Valentine about whether he could commit to Cleveland. But when he told them he couldn't give them one, they turned immediately to Acta, outbidding the Astros, who are disinclined from bidding wars in such matters. It appears the Indians were apparently spurred into action well ahead of their original schedule (they still were planning to interview Don Mattingly), when Acta received an offer from the Astros.
The Cleveland source said Indians GM Mark Shapiro was impressed by Acta's intelligence and popularity, among other things. It also doesn't hurt him that the Indians have a very young and very Latin team and organization.
In some ways it's an odd union, The Indians found the one manager available who had a worse record than them (Acta was 26-61 with the Nationals last year), while Acta found the one team looking for a manager that drew worse than the Nationals (the Indians drew a few hundred fans a game fewer). But it makes sense in other ways.
Acta is beloved everywhere he's worked. He toiled for years in the Astros organization, and the Mets were anxious to take him back as third-base coach if none of the managerial chances worked out. Meanwhile, Nationals president Stan Kasten, whose team fired Acta at the All-Star break this summer, said, "He's certainly deserving of being a manager ... Intelligent baseball people understand all the hurdles he had here in Washington."
The Indians take the managing job seriously. While Cleveland is a team that knows its sabermetrics, the organization also doesn't perceive the manager as a mid-level functionary only there to carry out the GM's wishes. And one source connected to the Indians said he believed they'd have gone as high as $2 million, or perhaps even a bit higher, for Valentine. But it doesn't appear to have been about money. The longtime manager seems content to work on TV for a year, recharge his batteries and wait for the best possible fit. It is believed Valentine still yearns to manage. Though with several teams showing interest but nothing yet working out (at least the Marlins and Nationals called), Valentine may be content to wait awhile for a better fit.
The Indians very much like their longtime minor league manager Torey Lovullo, but his lack of experience made him a long shot among their "final four" of candidates. They also like Mattingly, but they suspected all along he'd be more apt to stay in Los Angeles, where he's seen as the heir apparent to Torre. Valentine and Mattingly remain candidates in Washington, but with Valentine seemingly unlikely to jump at a job that's expected to pay no more than $1 million and Mattingly still loving L.A., the Nationals' likely favorite remains interim manager Jim Riggleman.
The Astros might have loved Acta, but you have to question their commitment after they reportedly offered only a two-year deal. Word is that their choice may now come down to veteran manager Phil Garner, interim Dave Clark and Red Sox coach Brad Mills -- three men relieved to still be in the running after Acta turned them down.
• The Yankees and Red Sox are expected to do battle for talented left-handed pitcher Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector. While many other teams have shown interest, it's still hard to imagine anyone else plunking down $40 million-plus for a pitcher who's unproven at the big-league level.
• The Mets don't seem inclined to pursue top free-agent pitcher John Lackey, who will surely shoot for a $100 million-plus contract in light of A.J. Burnett's $82.5 million deal. They do want to add a solid starting pitcher (they may try a do-over on Randy Wolf), but their big-ticket target is most likely going to be a left fielder. Matt Holliday is believed to top their list, though Jason Bay will certainly suffice. Bobby Abreu is another top free-agent outfielder, while Carl Crawford could be available in trade. The Mets have no interest in taking on Milton Bradley's problems.
• It's hard to imagine Orlando Hudson returning to play for Joe Torre since Torre employed Ronnie Belliard over him. But Hudson had a decent year for the Dodgers, and didn't complain once during the playoffs.
• Jed Hoyer is expected to be introduced Monday as the Padres' new GM.
• Executives around the game are watching the soap opera that's playing out in Los Angeles involving the McCourts. There isn't a person in baseball who believes the battle of Frank vs. Jamie won't get even uglier than it already is.