Tuesday’s Top Twelve: The Contenders

This is one of my favorite (and maybe the only) regular Top Twelves.  About this time in the baseball season, it’s interesting to start thinking about (a) the races and (b) what teams are best suited for fall baseball, as opposed to spring or summer baseball–and I’m not talking about the weather here.  Some teams are just flat-out better suited for postseason baseball than they are for regular season baseball.  Just look at all those Braves teams that won 14 straight NL Easts, but only 1 World Series.  That was not a fluke, it was because they had a deep, consistent pitching staff that feasted on mediocre and bad teams, but weren’t always equipped to go through the best offenses.  They also had just mediocre bullpens, which can really hurt you in postseason series because one blown game could mean your season.

That being said, it’s time to see who has, in my opinion, the best chance to win the 2010 World Series.  I honestly think we can narrow the field to a dozen (6 from each league), without leaving anyone out who truly has a shot–with all apologies to the Rockies, Dodgers, and Tigers.  Oh, and the Mets are not on this list, in case you were wondering.

12). Chicago White Sox.  The ChiSox are currently 4.5 games behind the Twins in the AL Central, which is probably their only chance to get in, considering they are 9.5 games out of the wild card.  They are on this list because it’s not unreasonable to think that they can catch the Twins in the Central to make the playoffs.  And, as the 2006 Cardinals showed us, you just have to get in and anything can happen.  It was a hard call between 11 and 12–mainly because I don’t think either really have a shot–but I went with these Sox as having the longest odds just because I don’t really see them built for either the regular season or the postseason.  Their offense is just okay, and they are counting on guys like Gavin Floyd and Freddy Garcia.  As a Phillies fan, you can probably guess my level of trust in those two guys.

11). Boston Red Sox.  Look, the Red Sox may just be the third best team in baseball, despite all their injuries.  But, it doesn’t matter if the first two are in your division.  The Sox are a real longshot to even make the playoffs right now, but if they can put it together, they do have the talent to make a run at a title (though, that run is much less likely now with the season-ending injury to Youkilius).  And, they are only 5.5 games behind the Yanks and Rays–and they only have to catch one of them to get in, most likely.  So, despite their incredibly long odds to even make the playoffs, they are still on the list of possible contenders.  Consider this:  they have been ravaged with injuries and have played a combined 20+ games against the two best teams in baseball, but they are still only one-half game behind the Twins and a full game ahead of the Rangers in the standings.  Plus, there is always some fight left in this team.

10). San Francisco Giants.  Now, we’re into the ten teams that really have legitimate shots at this year’s World Series title.  The Giants do have a shot to win this year’s World Series.  They are only one game back in the wild card race, and they have a pitching staff built beautifully for the postseason, if they are running on all cylinders.  Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez would be a devastating trio in any postseason series, plus they probably have the best closer in baseball that no one’s ever heard of, in Brian Wilson.  Honestly, I have them as the longest shot among contenders from the NL because I have no trust in their offense to score any runs when needed, but I certainly wouldn’t want to face them in a playoff series.  All of this, of course, is completely dependent upon Tim Lincecum actually pitching like Tim Lincecum and not Tim Belcher.

9). Minnesota Twins.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the Twins have an excellent team, but there are a couple reasons why I have them as low on this list as I do.  First of all, it’s still unclear whether or not Justin Morneau will really get back to 100% this year.  Without a fully-healthy Morneau, this offense is just a bit light in the middle.  Yes, Joe Mauer is absolutely blistering hot, but, as you saw last year, they need a little bit more than just Mauer to really make any noise.  The second big reason is that the front of their rotation is not exactly Koufax and Drysdale.  Francisco Liriano has become a really good pitcher and is clearly their ace, but he is a distant fourth among the likely four aces that will be in the AL playoffs (Sabathia, Price, and Lee).  Plus, after Liriano, there is a pretty big dropoff to the likes of Kevin Slowey (might not be healthy) or Scott Baker or even Carl Pavano.  That means that the Twins might not have a pitching advantage in any playoff game they enter all October.  And, finally, think about the road for Minnesota.  They will most likely have to go through both the Yankees and the Rays in order to get to the World Series.  And, unless they beat out the Rangers, they might have to play that first 5-game series without home-field advantage.  It’s a long road for the Twins.

8). Cincinnati Reds.  Yes, the Reds have a 2.5 game lead on the Cardinals in the NL Central, and a 1.5 game lead over the Phillies, should they need the wild card to get in.  So, chances are the Reds will be playing in the postseason for the first time in a very long time.  However, I really don’t see them built to win in October.  Harang and Arroyo are nice pitchers for 25-30 regular season starts.  They keep you in every game, but are they really stoppers?  Johnny Cueto is a nice piece, but Mike Leake looks like he’s completely hit the wall (not surprising since he didn’t spend a single season in the minor leagues).  Joey Votto is a dark horse MVP candidate, but the rest of the offense is mediocre, and Votto hasn’t proven that he can do it when it matters.  It hurts because I root for the Reds (great fans in a good baseball city that are mired in a long stretch of futility right now), but I have to say that they are more of a longshot than a couple teams they are looking down upon in the standings, including a team in their own division…

7). St. Louis Cardinals.  This team is dangerous.  They are on the outside looking in on the playoff picture, as we sit today, and, to be honest with you, I don’t have a ton of confidence that they’ll get there, but if they do, they’re gonna be a tough out–that’s for sure.  With Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia, they are built for the postseason.  Plus, they are seasoned on how to play in big games, and they have one of the game’s best managers in Tony LaRussa.  Oh, and by the way, they have the best player on the planet sitting in the middle of their order.

6). Texas Rangers.  If you’re a Rangers fan, how thankful are you that Cliff Lee fell into your lap?  He is the only saving grace for the World Series chances of the Texas Rangers.  Again, don’t get me wrong here, I think the Rangers have a really solid team, top-to-bottom.  They have a very potent lineup with the likes of Hamilton and Vlad and the eternally underrated Michael Young and Ian Kinsler.  They have solid pitching even after Lee in Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson.  And, they have a decent bullpen bolstered by probably AL Rookie of the Year, Neftali Feliz as the closer.  But, just like the Twins, they are going to, almost assuredly, have to beat both the Yankees and the Rays in the AL playoffs just to get to the World Series.  I’m not saying this can’t happen; I’m just saying that if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t exactly put the farm on this inexperienced team winning 7 playoff games against the beasts of the AL East–even with the great Cliff Lee.  Plus, you can throw on the Angels theory from the past couple of seasons.  The Rangers probably won’t play a meaningful game for a good three weeks before the playoff start because they lead the division by so many games, so who knows if they’ll be on top of their game? 

5). San Diego Padres.  I really struggled with #4 and 5.  I am going to go with the Padres here at #5 just because I’m not totally sold on the depth of their talent.  Yes, they have the best record in the National League (third best in all of baseball), and yes they are well on their way to homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (which is big for a team so perfectly suited for its ballpark), but how much faith can you possibly have in a team that will probably be throwing Jon Garland out there in Game One.  I like Latos and Richard behind Garland, but they are just kids.  Plus, they have already given more than 250 at bats to the following marginal MLers:  Wil Venable, Chase Headley, Tony Gwynn, Jr., and a couple of Hairstons.  Yes, Adrian Gonzalez is an absolute monster and David Eckstein is a proven winner (albeit incredibly overrated), but this team is still not immensely talented.  Right?  If it were not for the gigantic additions of Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick recently, I would have them a lot lower.  Well, that and the fact that they have, by far, the best bullpen in baseball.  This might actually be the best bullpen baseball has seen since the Wetteland-Rivera days of the mid-90’s Yankees.  And, bullpens win in October.  But, we’ll see.

4). Atlanta Braves.  The Bravos have been playing some really good baseball lately, and they added a proven hitter in Derek Lee to address their biggest problem–run production at firstbase.  They also have a fantastic pitching staff, led by the immensely underrated Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, the recently blossoming star in Tommy Hanson, and the ole veteran who’s been there before in Derek Lowe.  However, despite all of this, they do have some question marks.  Chipper is done for the year, so they really don’t have a big-time run producer (unless Lee can provide that or someone like Brian McCann or Jason Heyward can step up and fill the void).  Plus, they also do not exactly play the best defense in the league with guys like Melky Cabrera, Martin Prado, and Alex Gonzalez in key positions.  Billy Wagner has had a really nice year, but he might be tiring down the stretch, as he has struggled as of late.  The one reason, however, that I have the Braves ahead of San Diego in this order is because of the Bobby Cox Factor.  It is the swan song for one of the best managers of a generation, and you never know what kind of motivation that will provide.

3). Philadelphia Phillies.  I have been accused of being a homer before, and I’m sure I will be accused of it again, but I can assure you that I tried as hard as I could to find a reason NOT to make the Phillies the odds-on favorites to win the National League for the third straight year…but I couldn’t.  This team is loaded again.  There are two big question marks (health and the bullpen), but all in all, this team has to be considered the favorite to win a third straight pennant, and possibly a second World Series in three years.  In 2008, this team won the World Series with Cole Hamels as their ace.  Cole Hamels is pitching just as well as he did then, and he is their #3.  In 2008, this team won the World Series with Pedro Feliz as its thirdbaseman.  Now, it’s the amazing Placido Polanco.  Everything else is the same.  Throw in the fact that this team is on their way to 90 wins having only had their starting lineup play together SEVEN TIMES!  Ya, that’s right SEVEN.  Six of the 8 everyday players have spent extended time on the DL this year.  The bullpen has  been in shambles, due to major injuries and ineffectiveness, yet this team is still only 2.5 games out of the NL East title and is leading the wild card race.  Oh, and to bolster the argument even more, they happen to have added Roy Oswalt to be their NUMBER TWO STARTER.  Plus, they play in the National League, so instead of having to go through the Yankees and Rays to get to the World Series, they will probably be facing some combination of the Padres, Reds, Braves, Giants, or Cardinals.  If the season ended today, they would face San Diego in the NLDS and then the winner of the Braves-Reds in the NLCS.  Not exactly a “tough road.”  The question marks will persist, however, about the bullpen and the overall health of guys like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, but it is hard to argue (damn near impossible) that this is the National League team that is best-equipped for a championship run.

2). New York Yankees.  The defending champs have brought back the team that dominated both the 2009 regular season and the 2009 postseason to give it another run.  And, they are set up to do just that.  They still have CC Sabathia at the front of the rotation, and they still have Mariano Rivera to close out games.  They still have Mr. Clutch in Derek Jeter and the most talented player of our generation in Alex Rodriguez.  They have seen breakout seasons from guys like Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes.  They have the best infield ever assembled and the best closer to ever live.  This team is, well, pretty good.  However, they are not the BSB pick for the favorites to win it all this year.  And, there are a couple of reasons for that–most of which have to do with the flaws of this team, rather than the overall dominance of the other.  The Bridge to Mariano is shaky again this year.  Joba is just not that good and the rest of the ‘pen is a bit suspect.  But, they can get around that, if some other things were in place.  But, Father Time is also looking like he may have come calling.  Derek Jeter is starting to actually look old (something I thought I’d never see).  A-Rod is still very good, but no longer great.  Mark Teixeira has had a miserable season.  Curtis Granderson (the big offseason pickup) looks completely lost against left-handers (and, by the way, the aces on the other three likely AL playoff teams are all left-handed–Lee, Liriano, Price).  Jorge Posada doesn’t look like he can really catch anymore.  And, the big acquisition of Lance Berkman looks like a big bust.  All that being said, this team is still a fantastic collection of baseball talent and will be a very tough out.  I just don’t see them being the odds-on favorites right now.  But, have no fear Yankees fans, not winning the World Series this year will basically just assure the fact that Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford will be wearing pinstripes next year and everyone else will be playing for second place.

1). Tampa Bay Rays.  Yes, all that young talent that shocked us all in 2008 is a little bit older and a whole lot better.  David Price has taken his rightful place at the top of one of the best rotations in the game.  Evan Longoria is leading an offense that just doesn’t stop hitting all the way up and down the lineup.  Jason Bartlett leads one of the most athletically-gifted defenses in baseball.  They still have question marks in the bullpen, but expect rookie Jeremy Hellickson to play the role of 2008 David Price out in the ‘pen this offseason because, well, why not?  When you have 5 immensely talented pitchers, just throw your young stud out in the bullpen.  This team is young and good, but the difference this year is that they’re probably a lot more hungry.  They tasted the glory in 2008 and then the pain in 2009.  And, looking ahead, they know that Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are probably long-gone from this team, so there is a sense of urgency.  Right now, I think it’s pretty clear that the Tampa Bay Rays are the favorites to win the 2010 World Series.

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One Response to Tuesday’s Top Twelve: The Contenders

  1. Doogan says:

    Think I pretty much agree with your order here. Should be an interesting series in San Diego this weekend. I do think Latos will definitely be the Game 1 starter for the Padres. Kid is a stud. Awesome that the scorching Phillie offense gets to face him tomorrow night, in Petco Park, with the best bullpen in the game backing up. A run would be a miracle.

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