Everywhere else, though, chaos reigns. While some of the other combatants are in place, no one knows for certain who will face who in the division series that begin September 30.
We know there will be no Red Sox-Yankees, Rays-Yankees or Braves-Phillies. A somewhat archaic rule prevents divisional foes from meeting in the first round of the postseason. Of the feasible options, though, which series would be the most fun? Which would be the most tense? Here is a ranking of the 14 possible division series draws, according to prospective level of competitiveness and play.
This would be a repeat of the Reds-Phillies series from last October. While no one can guarantee another Roy Halladay postseason no-hitter, it sure wouldn't be out of the question in this series.
The Diamondbacks are having a great season and are a great story, but they're far from a great team. Beyond Justin Upton, Chris Young, Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy, they just do not have enough depth to match up with the Phillies in any phase. This would be over in three games.
Having Upton and the two young aces at the front of their rotation is great for Arizona. The problem in this match would be that the Brewers have two Uptons in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and three such aces on staff in Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Both teams have significant holes, so this series would not feel like classic playoff baseball, either.
Though now three games back in the wild card, the Angels are not out of it yet, and this series would actually have some intriguing storylines.
Would red-hot prospects Mike Trout and Jesus Montero make their respective postseason rosters? Could the Angels, by virtue of dropping to a three-man rotation and getting two starts each from Jered Weaver and Dan Haren in five games, actually steal this set? Probably not, but it's not out of the question. If I'm the Yankees, I might let the Red Sox win this weekend so as to avoid this matchup.
This is the last scenario involving Arizona, so having said some unkind things about their chances, let me now say this: The D'Backs can hit, hit for power, run and pitch. They have a great bullpen, one of the game's brightest young stars and a solid chance to be just as good next season if they can re-inflate their payroll to even 2010 levels.
They would probably still struggle to beat Atlanta, especially because their right-heavy lineup would scuffle against Atlanta's stable of northpaws, but they deserve the division title they will win in the coming days, and Kirk Gibson deserves credit for being willing to adjust and be creative at all times. Too few managers think the way he does in the modern game.
If the Rays make the playoffs, they are a dangerous club. Their starting rotation is very flat, which is not a good thing in October, but it's also very deep; they could easily stick to a four-man rotation and not lose a step. Moving Wade Davis to the bullpen, getting Matt Moore and Kyle Farnsworth back on that unit (after Moore shut down the Yankees in his first career start, there should be little doubt he can dominate in short stretches) and having Joe Maddon in the dugout to maneuver those parts are all advantages if the team makes it that far.
At the same time, they may not match up well with Detroit. Justin Verlander could no-hit this lineup at any moment, and meanwhile, the Tigers have the three most dangerous hitters in this potential series.
This one would be fun, if not necessarily close. The Cards' late-season charge evokes 1964, in that any victory would come only with the continued help of the free-falling Braves. That season, though, the Phillies gave away their spot in the World Series to St. Louis on the final day of the season. This time, it would be St. Louis trying to forcibly take the Phillies' lunches in October.
It's unlikely, but again, it'd be a neat matchup. The Phillies would win, unless Matt Holliday returned and he and NL MVP candidate (sarcasm—don't get me started) Albert Pujols went nuts.
Justin Verlander is the presumptive AL Cy Young winner, and there's no doubt he has been better than C.J. Wilson this season. Over a single game, though, Verlander isn't measurably better than Wilson. They're essentially even in a setting like this, and given that, the Tigers fall to an immediate disadvantage.
Texas has depth, and not the sort of arcane depth that plagues teams like the 2010 Twins and 2008 Cubs, but real and usable depth. Their top 15 roster spots are loaded with tools and talent perhaps unsurpassed by any team in baseball. They would simply overwhelm the Tigers with their ability to keep coming and to bring in fresh arms like Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz, fresh bats like Michael Young and Mike Napoli and fresh legs like those of Leonys Martin at any given moment.
Texas would not have won last season's five-game beauty of an ALDS without now-departed Cliff Lee, but then, both teams look a lot different now than they did then. The Rangers are as good or better; the Rays are a bit worse for wear. It'd be a fun series. We're starting to get into the really flashy, exciting potential matches here. But the Rangers would win.
Ah, yes, the Red Sox. They will be fascinating to watch in any series, assuming of course that they get involved at all. They may or may not get Clay Buchholz back, although it sure looks like he would need to come out of the bullpen in that case. If they don't have him as a starter, they may struggle. Lester and Beckett and pray for rain doesn't rhyme, but it remains good advice. In a series with Detroit, maybe they get by despite starting John Lackey and/or Tim Wakefield. If they play Texas, forget it.
I'm not sure you want to spotlight the city of Milwaukee itself all that thoroughly, but what a showcase this would be for Milwaukee baseball and its increasingly wild fans. Hank Aaron and Bud Selig would be fixtures here. The tradition of the game would be on display in the least likely of places, and while both teams have flaws—the Brewers can't field, the Braves can't hit—they would play a thrilling and tight series.
The Brewers do not match up with Philadelphia all that well. No National League team does. A few lucky breaks here and there could make this series very interesting, and playing in Miller Park with the roof closed will be perhaps the most hostile experience most of the Phillies will have ever faced.
The Brewers, at least, have three starters only marginally worse than Philly's top three, which puts them in the same sort of situation described earlier regarding Wilson and Verlander.
Again, it comes down to Boston's pitching depth, and whether they will have any at all by the time they get to this series.
If not, the Rangers will steamroll them. If so, it gets a lot spicier.
Entering the season, there was a case to be made that Boston and Texas were the two best teams anywhere in baseball. While injuries and the underwhelming Carl Crawford have slowed the Sox, this remains a match of two remarkably talented teams.
Narrative drivers will love this series if it comes to fruition. Justin Verlander against CC Sabathia, the twin towers of the AL Cy Young race doing battle. As perhaps the only above-average starters on their respective clubs, each will be asked to be at their very best each time they pitch.
Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera will try to establish himself (this should have happened long ago) as the best hitter in the American League by out-slugging Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and the rest. Curtis Granderson will face his former team with everything on the line.
Again, the Rangers are without Cliff Lee, who was a major reason they felled the Yanks last October to reach their first-ever World Series. That's the bad news. The good news is that they do have Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and a bullpen as good as any playoff teams' has been since the middle of the last decade. This series would be tension-filled, close and of the highest possible caliber.