Can the San Francisco Giants defend their World Series title?
After projecting the playoff teams and their seeds last week (the link will open in a new window), the few games that followed have only confirmed the predictions. Texas is on a roll and should get the second seed, while Milwaukee has take the lead in the NL Central.
One thing that should be noted from the predictions is the strength of the East Division in both leagues. Perhaps it is time for those of us outside of the Eastern Time Zone to stop whining about East Coast bias, at least as it pertains to Major League Baseball.
Not only are both wild card teams going to come from those divisions, but both will likely finish with better records than any of the other division winners. In fact, the Tampa Bay Rays have a potential to finish with the third-best record in all of baseball and miss the playoffs.
Three of the four playoff teams in the National League will have the same seed they had last season, leading to familiar matchups. San Francisco will host Atlanta, who by rule cannot play their division rival in the first round, and Philadelphia will host Milwaukee just as they did in 2008.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a strong bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez as the set-up man to John Axford. They have a strong starting rotation with Yovanni Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Zach Greinke.
The top of their lineup features All-Stars Ricky Weekes, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
However, the Philadelphia Phillies have the best team in the league and more playoff experience. The only disadvantage Philly has is its closer-by-committee bullpen, but they still have six players with at least 10 relief appearances and an ERA under 4.00.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee (both All-Stars) and Cole Hamels beats Milwaukee's top three. Even if Greinke returns to form, the Phillies are stronger at the fourth spot because they have four choices: Roy Oswalt, Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick or Jay Blanton.
And while Philadelphia's lineup has been inconsistent, the smart money would be on Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins over the Brewers hitters—they might not be playing as well right now, but they are deeper.
The Brewers will do well to best their performance against the Phillies in 2008, when they took one in the divisional round.
Bruce Bochy is a fantastic coach who knows what buttons to push. He has been here before and is not up against a more experienced coach in Bobby Cox as last season.
But it is the players on the field who win the games. On paper, the Atlanta Braves are a better team than the San Francisco Giants right now in scoring, pitching and defense.
However, San Francisco will have one of the best home field advantages in the game, one that quashes offenses superior to the Braves'. The Giants also have a better bullpen and a deeper starting rotation: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong are all potential aces for playoff staffs.
They are going to get Freddy Sanchez back from the disabled list before the season is over and should add a bat to their lineup before the trade deadline.
But even without those moves, the Giants are a championship team because they are better than the sum of their parts and they know how to win tight games.
This one is going the distance this year, but the same team will be advancing.
The Boston Red Sox are another team with a significant home field advantage and a lot of playoff experience. They also have an incredible lineup, solid bullpen and very good starting rotation.
The Detroit Tigers may have an advantage at manager, as Jim Leyland is one of the very best in the game. But Terry Francona knows how to handle this club, and it seems unlikely the minimal edge there can make up for one of the best teams money can buy.
Leyland is not without talent to coach, however. Detroit has three players hitting over .300 and four with at least 10 home runs in its daily lineup.
They also have a leading Cy Young candidate in Justin Verlander anchoring an otherwise mediocre but deep starting rotation, with four starters over 4.00 but under 5.00 ERA. They also have a good closer in Jose Valverde (25 of 25 in save opportunities) and a fantastic setup man in Al Alburquerque (2.73 ERA).
That should be just enough to get them one win in this series.
Much like the Giants, the Texas Rangers rode great character past the highest payroll team in the league last season. They are showing more of the same this year after the tragedy that took place in Arlington before the All-Star Break.
There are two major differences between last year's team and this year's. The good news is they no longer carry the albatross of not being able to win in October. The bad news is Cliff Lee is in Philly now.
C.J. Wilson is an All-Star pitcher, but he is no Lee. With CC Sabathia not going against another ace in the two games he will pitch, the Yankees may only need to take one of those two because their lineup offers a greater advantage over the one in Texas than the disadvantage in the rest of their starting rotation.
They should be able to do it because they also have a better closer. This series is going the distance, but it is going to New York this year.
The addition of Cliff Lee is far more significant than the loss of Jason Werth. Philadelphia currently is best in the league in team ERA, primarily because of one of the best starting rotations ever assembled.
The Giants actually still have a better staff because of their superior bullpen, no matter what the numbers may say. But bullpen depth is increased in the playoffs by a shortened starting rotation, and the Giants are not stronger in the fourth spot (having to rely on the untested Ryan Vogelsong or the inconsistent Barry Zito or Jonathan Sanchez) as they were last season.
Neither team has great hitting, but the Phillies are better on paper as well as in action this season even if the Giants add Jose Reyes, the best possible short-term answer for their needs.
San Francisco will be away from the pitching-friendly AT&T Park one more time than in it, and the Phillies should be hungrier.
The Giants' edge in coaching and their ability to win tight games will not be enough...Phillies in seven.
This is going to be a tight match-up. The Red Sox and Yankees are virtually equivalent in coaching, hitting and the bullpen.
Boston will have home field advantage and a slight edge in pitching. But what should really make the difference is their ability to set their rotation because they played one game fewer in the first round.
This one will go the full seven games, but it will go to Boston.
Playing in Philly is tough for road teams, and four of the seven games will be there. That forces David Ortiz to play first base and Boston's pitchers to hit.
To top it off, the Phillies have better pitching. With steroid-induced sluggers on the decline, pitching once again beats hitting.