By Jon Heyman
October 04, 2010

The Phillies look like the clear favorite heading into a postseason derby filled with the very talented (Phillies, Yankees, Rays), resourceful (Rays), youthful (Reds, Rangers) and exciting (Rays, Reds). If pitching tells the story, the Phillies have a big edge, but the Giants, who also have excellent pitching, might have a say-so. If its offense, we could have a repeat World Series winner. If it's a little of each, we could easily have a repeat of last year's Series matchup.

There are some surprises in this year's postseason (Reds, Rangers), as well as a couple just-as-surprising omissions (Angels, Cardinals). Here go my ranking of the final eight teams and their chances to win it all.

They are first, far and away at this point. It's amazing what one great trade can do -- though to be fair, it's way more than the midseason pickup of pitching star Roy Oswalt. At the All-Star break, they were in third place in the NL East and were still in second when they made the move to get Oswalt from the Astros on July 29. From that point forward, the Phillies had the best record in the game, going 42-19. The return to health of the vaunted infield triumvirate of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins (who will play despite the fact that his hamstring could still be an issue) gives them back their excellent lineup to go with easily the best pitching rotation in the playoffs. Ace Roy Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels, who has returned to his 2008 form by posting a 3.06 ERA after having a 4.32 mark last year, give the Phillies the best front three in recent playoff memory. The Phillies' overall ERA of 3.55 is third best in the majors, and includes games started by back-enders Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and others. Closer Brad Lidge has converted 17 of his last 18 saves and has allowed only two earned runs since the start of August, so the bullpen is no longer an issue. The Phillies have been decimating National League competition over the past few weeks, going 23-7 since the start of September, and they could possibly blow out the NL field. They are "easily the best team'' in the NL, said one scout. But then, that's pretty obvious by now. Odds: 2-1.

They get the benefit of the doubt for their talent and even their tradition. But their recent performance (especially their starting pitchers' bad performances) has been nothing short of worrisome. After ace CC Sabathia, there are mostly questions. Phil Hughes hasn't had a good second half but a revamped changeup has helped in recent days, and Andy Pettitte, a playoff staple, has groin/back questions. They will need big performances from one or both of them considering A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez look all but unusable. The team's 4.30 ERA since the break is 26th-best in baseball. As for the bullpen, Kerry Wood has helped, and Joba Chamberlain and Dave Robertson are having nice second halves, but even Mariano Rivera has been less than perfect lately. The bullpen's 3.42 ERA is seventh-best in baseball. Their offense could carry them, in any case, especially if Alex Rodriguez can come anywhere close to repeating last year's October performance, when he batted .365 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 15 games. Their 855 runs is tops in the game. Mark Teixeira, who has endured thumb and toe injuries recently, is among their regulars who will go into the playoffs pretty beat up, though. Odds: 4-1

Their pitching has been excellent all year, so they are a clear threat. The bullpen has been nearly impeccable as winter pickups Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano have been nothing short of brilliant. Their offense, while productive overall, has been inconsistent at times this year. They can beat teams in several ways, as evidenced by their 799 runs, which was third best in baseball despite a .248 batting average, which was 26th-best. Their hitting can go cold: they got zero or one hit in five games this year. They also enter the playoffs in one of their worst slumps, having played poorly the final week of the season. Star third baseman Evan Longoria missed the final week with a hamstring issue, but people around the team say they were just playing it safe for the playoffs. Odds: 7-1.

They are "very dangerous'' in the words of one competing NL GM. And what makes them so is their excellent trio of starters -- Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. The 1.78 team ERA in September looks rather ominous to opponents. Closer Brian Wilson has had a brilliant year with 48 saves in 53 chances and a 1.81 ERA, giving them the type of playoff pitching that can take a team far. Their offense has gotten big boosts this year from inexpensive free agent pickup Aubrey Huff (.290, 26 HRs, 86 RBIs) and rookie catcher Buster Posey (.305, 18 HRs, 67 RBIs), and some late-season pickups have helped, but still may be a tad short there. Odds: 8-1.

Nobody wants to play the Rangers, especially in a first round where stud pitcher Cliff Lee can have two starts. While Lee started slowly in Texas, no one can forget his playoff dominance of a year ago, when he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 33 strikeouts and just six walks in five starts for the Phillies. Likely AL MVP Josh Hamilton has returned from a rib injury, and the Rangers have to hope he can play near to his .359-32-100 performance this year. That's a key, because without Hamilton their offense has been somewhat inconsistent, especially on the road. Their bullpen has been solid, with Rookie of the Year candidate Neftali Feliz as the anchor. Their 3.33 'pen ERA was third-best in baseball. They are a young team with a lot of talent, and are certainly dangerous. Their lack of playoff pedigree may be the biggest question. Odds: 12-1

They have a nice young nucleus that's shown a spark. They demonstrated a feistiness in standing up to the favored, more veteran Cardinals and a knack for coming through in the clutch with all their walk-off wins. But they "don't look like they can match the Phillies,'' in the words of one competing GM. But then, let's not forget that no one expected them to handle the Cardinals, either. Cincinnati's pitching is better than you think, with a 4.03 overall ERA, which was 13th-best. They may be just brash enough to surprise a few folks. Odds: 16-1

They have a very solid team and are a nice story in manager Bobby Cox's final year. But there's some question as to whether they have the lineup punch it will take to advance now that Chipper Jones and Martin Prado are out. Jason Heyward will eventually be that guy to lead them, but he's only 20 and struggling lately. Their pitching is strong (their 3.79 starters' ERA was sixth best in baseball, though not like in the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz days), and their bullpen has been especially good. The retiring closer Billy Wagner is having one of his better years, anchoring an excellent 'pen that has a 3.11 collective ERA that ranked third in all of baseball. Odds: 18-1

Manager Ron Gardenhire has done a terrific job considering all their injuries. Jim Thome helped fill the power void created by Justin Morneau's absence, and Matt Capps and, before him, Jon Rauch have done fine replacing closer Joe Nathan. Joe Mauer has returned from a recent knee injury that threatened to derail his playoffs. Their offense has been startlingly good lately, with a second-best-in-the-majors 372 runs since the All-Star break. Their starting pitching has been better than anyone could have expected, as has most of the rest of the team, and their bullpen has been among the better ones in the majors with a seventh-best 3.50 ERA. But they aren't at full strength, they don't have one dominating starter, and their recent playoff history (and all their history against the Yankees, their first-round opponent, for that matter) hasn't been very good. Odds: 20-1.

• Angels owner Arte Moreno gathered his baseball people and told them how disappointed he was in this year's performance, which resulted in the team's first losing record since 2003. Basically, the message was to work harder, and work smarter. The Angels' baseball people have done an excellent job overall over the years, but "nobody is happy'' with this year, one Angels person said. Well-respected scouting director Eddie Bane, who was interviewed for Arizona's GM job, plus three scouts were let go in a mini shake-up.

• Speaking of shake-ups, the Diamondbacks might be making changes to their roster after striking out an MLB record 1,507 times (more than nine whiffs a game). It seems there were plans in place to do this anyway, but new GM Kevin Towers can be expected to make his imprint, and major league trades have always been his strength. Power-hitting/strikeout king third baseman Mark Reynolds could be dangled in trades. AOL Fanhouse reported there has been talk of Reynolds going to the A's for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and pitcher Vin Mazzaro.

Greenwich Time, a Connecticut newspaper, reported recently that Mets COO Jeff Wilpon and then-GM Omar Minaya, who was fired on Monday, were seen having dinner with former Mets manager Bobby Valentine and Wally Backman, the manager of the Mets Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones, which could be taken as an indication that the Mets may hire Valentine as manager and Backman as bench coach. But multiple people reportedly involved in that meeting denied there was any such dinner date. However, such a pairing doesn't seem completely farfetched. Meanwhile, Jerry Manuel, who was fired as Mets manager on Monday, said the diference between leaving the White Sox, where he managed from 1998-2003, and this time is, "I don't feel I'm done here. I felt in Chicago it was time to move on.''

• The Mets will be looking for someone new to run their baseball operations department after announcing the firing of Minaya on Monday. With his reputation and personality, he should be able to get a job elsewhere rather easily. Among those expected to be considered to head the department are ex-Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes, White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, ex-A's GM Sandy Alderson, Rays executive Gerry Hunsicker and Rangers consultant John Hart, who is also an MLB Network personality. It isn't known whether Alderson, Hart and Hunsicker, all successful ex-GMs, are interested in taking a new GM job, and some have said Alderson and Hunsicker are very happy with their current baseball jobs. Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who succeeded Hart in Texas, could be a candidate but the Rangers are expected to try hard to lock him up. He has an "out'' in his contract.

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