I sit here on Wednesday night, in the wake of Major League Baseball's second ever post-season no hitter and I just know that it is just beginning. When I look at the teams that made it this season, there is one juggernaut (Philadelphia) and seven others that are hungry for playoff success. Here is what I am thinking about each team starting the playoffs:
Philadelphia (97-65): The Phillies had a dominant September. They have an American League offense, the big three and their closer is back and pitching lights out. When I see this team, it is going to take a lot of heart to uproot the team that has played in each of the last two World Series. They are deep in pitching, deep in hitting and have a serviceable bench. They are going to have to get in their own way to get knocked out before the World Series, if they do that -- is it poor defense? is it Lidge reverting to his erratic self because of Manuel's overuse? I know what it won't be -- this team is cool and collected, they have been there each of the last three years and have the experience of the big games.
Tampa Bay (96-66): When I look at the Rays, I see the best record in the American League, yet I am not afraid. They have speed, they have range, they are young, they have been there and they are very well managed. What they do not have is a minimal fan base and players that have discussed this issue publicly in the past couple weeks. That seed of doubt has been planted in my mind that every time they are home with a crowd that leaves early or doesn't sell out, they are thinking about it. It's a distraction and distractions are a bad sign for any playoff team. Tampa is incredibly talented and will be led by solid young pitching. Their offensive leader, Evan Longoria, claims to be at 80%, another cause for concern. While Longoria at 80% is better than most everyone else at that position, he needs to be at 100% to lead an offense that does not have many well rounded hitters.
New York (95-67): Pitching is a serious cause for concern for the Yankees. CC Sabathia is about all they have that is consistent from the starting rotation. Phil Hughes has slowed down considerably, Andy Pettite is fragile and AJ Burnett is gone. The Yankees have a very solid back end of the bullpen with Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera, but they only have one left-handed relief pitcher, Boone Logan. That doesn't allow Girardi to mix and match much. If they have to face the Phillies in the World Series, good luck. They have to get through Mauer first. I do not like the Yankees chances because all it takes is Sabathia to lose one game and the odds of them losing will be far greater.
Minnesota (94-68): Justin Morneau is done for the season, oh well, Jim Thome makes this team deep enough to pull a 500+ home run guy into a significant spot in the lineup. The Twins seem to have what it takes to dethrone the Yankees in the LDS this year. The image of Carl Pavano beating the Yankees continues to run through my head and he will have his chance in Game 2. Delmon Young has had a coming out party in 2010, finally tapping into some of that potential everyone has talked about with him. In the bullpen, they are at their usual great status, even without Joe Nathan. If they have a lead, I don't see them losing it with the way they can mix and match. Ron Gardenhire is also a fantastic manager of a bullpen. Another factor, they are playing outdoor baseball in Minnesota in October, that has got to play in their favor against Tampa Bay or Texas.
San Francisco (92-70): The Giants almost tried to give away their comeback on the Padres, but they do it on pitching. Their rotation in September was incredible, starters having and ERA under 2.00. Their fault will continue to be infield defense and poor hitting. If the Giants get past the Braves, they will be a very good match up with the Phillies as they are probably the best team to go toe to toe with the Philadelphia pitching staff, advantage if it is Cincinnati. In the year of the pitcher, this postseason will be an exclamation point to that and with the best rotation (1-5) in the postseason, they have a shot at taking down the Phillies.
Cincinnati (91-71): How do you come back from being no-hit in the first postseason game for your organization in over a decade? It is going to be difficult, but they have the leading candidate for NL MVP on their team as well as a strong offense that could steal a game or two from the Phillies. Of the four teams in the NL, this starting rotation is the weakest. They have a solid bullpen, led by Francisco Cordero and how effective is Aroldis Chapman going to be against Ryan Howard and Chase Utley throwing 100MPH+ as a lefty? The Reds were comeback kings early in the season, so while it looked bleak today against Halladay, they aren't done.
Atlanta (91-71): The Braves did their best to try and giveaway the enormous cushion they had built up as being the best team in the NL through mid-September, they did limp their way into the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and they are here because they can pitch. This may very well be the best bullpen of all playoff teams with specialists and two guys at the end that have the ability to go 1-2-3 against just about anyone. Billy Wagner in the final season of his career and Craig Kimbrel in the first of his are a two headed monster that is key to Atlanta success. As September moved along, it became more and more apparent that Kimbrel was poised to play a huge role for this team in October, pitching in the 8th inning and occasionally 9th inning. There is no doubt that Billy Wagner is the closer, but Kimbrel is the right-handed solution to the 8th inning. In the starting rotation, Derek Lowe was the NL pitcher of the month in September and has the playoff experience, Tim Hudson is a top-5 Cy Young candidate and the NL Comeback Player of the Year and Tommy Hanson pitched great the second half of the season bringing his ERA down to 3.33. These three guys are going to match up with anyone and keep the Braves close. Whether this team sinks or swims will be because of someone on offense. At this point it is anyone that gets hot has the capability to carry this team. In May it was Troy Glaus; June, Brian McCann; August, Jason Heyward. Now who will step up? Steady defense will be key, over the past month the Braves defense killed them in close games. The Phillies took 5-6 from the Braves in September, the Braves made errors in each of those games (10 in total). Solid defense will carry this team.
Texas (90-72): I do not know why, but I feel very strongly about the Texas Rangers. This team has not been in the playoffs in more than a decade, but with Nolan Ryan at the helm, they really embody what Ryan was all about: grit, smart, hart-working. They are solid offensively while Josh Hamilton is still hurting, they have a healthy Nelson Cruz, who may have been a MVP candidate too, had he been healthy all season. I love this team also because of Cliff Lee. They have the best ace in the American League and he sure has looked good lately. The Rangers have some speed in Andrus, experience in Guerrero and will match offenses with anyone. If the Rangers win it, it will be likely be because of Lee and their very deep offense, they would effectively confirm and deny the year of the pitcher at the same time, which may be the perfect combination for this postseason.
For me, this postseason is going to be special, my first every experience of attending playoff baseball games. For baseball, this promises to be a very entertaining month.