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A mixed playoff forecast

Despite flaws, Sox are in good position

What you don't know after 162 games of a baseball season is how a team will perform once it gets to the playoffs. It can be a head-scratcher when teams like the Mets and Yankees of 2006, for instance, get booted. Or the 2001 Mariners, who won 116 regular-season games and were eliminated in the ALCS by the Yankees in five games.

So, we ask, are the Red Sox going to be a good playoff team?

If the season ended today, they would face Cleveland in the Division Series. The Indians are another team that's a little tough to figure out. Many folks are surprised they have hung around, and some believe they will fade again at the end.

Yet others picked the Indians to be the top team in that division from the outset, feeling they would have a sensational lineup and decent pitching. That's flip-flopped, as well.

"Don't bother," said one National League executive when informed of the exercise I was about to undertake. "People try to figure it out with matchups. Others try to figure it out by history of one team against another. Others try to figure it out by ballparks and home-field advantage. Don't waste your time. You're not going to figure it out."

Sounds like good advice, but we'll attempt it anyway.

Of course, you never know whether baseball people are giving you a line when you ask for an opinion about a team that represents the city you work in. They know this is going to be read in Boston, so perhaps they don't want to be the one to paint the team negatively. Nor do players from other teams take the bait and say, "The Red Sox won't get past the first round."

But what you hear more than anything is how good people feel the Red Sox are. While here in Boston we see the team's flaws and the possible pitfalls in a short series, they're merely relative to what's going on in other places.

So we asked a few baseball folks to be as honest as possible - no names attached. Here's what we got.

"No lefty in the rotation hurts them," said an American League scout. "You could see that in the Yankee series. If they have to play the Yankees in the postseason, I don't think it's going to go so well for them then, either.

"You can also shut down their lineup. I know Manny Ramírez missed part of that series, but when they go up against good pitchers like [Andy] Pettitte, [Chien-Ming] Wang, and [Roger] Clemens, it's pretty tough on them."

Said an NL GM: "They're better than anyone in the National League. So if they can get by a Cleveland or a New York, they're home free because they'll beat anyone in the NL."

Really?

"You have to be concerned about their lack of another big lefthanded hitter after David Ortiz," said an AL executive. "It cries out for J.D. Drew to do something. There's no other way to say it.

"They need to get Coco Crisp hot and running the bases. [Jason] Varitek is an excellent player, but offensively he gets shut down. The other big problem for them is whether Curt Schilling is still that guy who can pitch a gem in the postseason. Tim Wakefield has been tremendous, but how do you know from start to start? [Daisuke] Matsuzaka is a very good pitcher and competitor, but he's showing signs that the long season is beginning to take its toll."

Valid points all. But will any of it play out that way?

"I think you always think your team is going to be the one that goes all the way," said Mets general manager Omar Minaya, whose team was swept by the Phillies last week to tighten up the NL East. "I think we believed that we had a very good baseball team last year, and if a couple of things had gone differently, we would have been in the World Series, and who knows what might have happened?

"But it also serves as a wake-up call that you don't have the perfect team and it's a way of trying to make it better."

Johnny Damon was criticized last year when he uttered the "best team doesn't always win" comment after the Yankees were eliminated by Detroit in the Division Series. But he's absolutely correct.

"There are teams that are built for the postseason," said former Toronto manager Buck Martinez. "They can beat you in a number of different ways."

Martinez was referring to the Los Angeles Angels.

"Nothing is assured at no time," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "You fight to get there and you hope your team is hot and free of injuries and that you match up well at that particular moment."

How important is it that the Sox won't have a lefty starter?

"If their guys are pitching well, it won't matter," said an AL scout. "But if there's a little struggle there and they have to play the Yankees, it's always better to make it tougher for Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Bobby Abreu. It's always better to flip Jorge Posada righthanded. The only guy the Yankees really fear is Josh Beckett, and they got 13 hits against him."

One special assistant to a general manager said this about the Sox: "They'll be a good playoff team, but not unbeatable. Strengths: experience, solid first three in rotation, bullpen, and Manny/Ortiz combo. Weaknesses: playoff inexperience at some spots, expectations, streaky veteran players, age in rotation showing up after seven months."

What does all of it mean?

"If the Red Sox have their team in order over the last week to 10 days, they'll be tough to beat," said the AL executive.

Boggs wades in on Ichiro

A few questions for Wade Boggs, who just returned home to Tampa after stone sheep hunting in British Columbia:

Ichiro Suzuki is about to tie your American League record of seven consecutive 200-hit seasons. Surprised?

WB: "No, I figured someone would do it again at some point. Ichiro is a perfect guy for it because he can leg out some infield hits and, really, I haven't seen any evidence that anyone has figured out how to get him out. When I was the hitting coach in Tampa Bay, we had a terrible time figuring out how to pitch him. We'd pitch him inside and he'd pull the ball somewhere and we'd pitch him away and he'd slap a hit the other way."

He has more speed than you did, but is he close to your hitting style?

WB: "I was at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony this year in Cooperstown and I was proud of the fact that Tony Gwynn mentioned me in his acceptance speech. Tony and I were similar hitters, and Ichiro is cut from the same cloth as we were. Of course, it helps greatly that Ichiro has exceptional speed. He's been able to get a lot of infield hits. I had average to above-average speed, but I didn't have the benefit of all those hits."

How far can this guy go?

WB: "He's not done yet, either. He's still got productive seasons left. He takes care of himself and that shows in his durability. That's half the battle."

Anyone else who might do it?

WB: "I always thought Derek Jeter would do it. But once I saw Ichiro and the fact that his style of hitting was similar to mine, I thought he had a chance. Now he's right there. Good for him."

If you played today, how much would you be worth?

WB: "Probably $15 million-$16 million. I was the OBP guy when it wasn't fashionable. All of a sudden, Moneyball comes along and those OBP guys are all making big money. I had to fight every year in arbitration."

Can Cooper manage to hang on in Houston?

One good thing that came out of the Houston housecleaning is that Cecil Cooper finally received a chance to manage. It might be only temporary as team president Tal Smith and owner Drayton McLane sort through candidates for general manager and manager to replace the fired Tim Purpura and Phil Garner, but the former Red Sox first baseman has been waiting a long time for this chance.

"Good, good man," said Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. "I'm really happy for Coop because he's been wanting this for a long time, but at the same time it's a tough situation over there.

"That was my team. Those were my guys, who I went to battle with every day in my hometown, so I don't feel too good about what's happened over there."

Part of what led to the Astros' downfall was allowing Pettitte and Roger Clemens to leave as free agents. While McLane thought the Astros "had a great team" out of spring training, he was on an island by himself in that opinion, and it quickly became clear that Garner had almost nothing to work with.

"I was rooting for those guys," said Pettitte. "Even though I was gone and decided to come back here to New York, I was a part of that team for a while and I still kept in touch with a lot of people over there. That's my hometown team so I followed it like any fan would follow their team.

"So, yeah, I feel bad for Phil and Tim and hopefully they can surface in other places because they're good baseball people and they work hard and I wish nothing but the best for them."

Commissioner Bud Selig strongly endorses Cooper, who played for the Brewers from 1977-87 while Selig owned the team. The commissioner is interested in African-American managers being retained for the long term, but McLane will have to make that determination on his own, depending on Cooper's performance the rest of the way.

On the GM front, Dan Evans, the former Dodger GM and now right-hand man to Bill Bavasi in Seattle, could get the job. Others mentioned are Tal's son Randy Smith (Padres, Tigers) and Ed Wade (formerly Phillies GM).

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. The Brewers went 15-26 in Ben Sheets's absence. I call that valuable; 2. As we wrote here weeks ago, make managers wear their uniform jerseys, just don't pester them about it in the middle of the game; 3. How do owners make millions in business, then make so many dumb mistakes with their baseball teams?; 4. The Yankees could win it all, couldn't they?; 5. B.J. Upton seems to be turning into Alfonso Soriano before our eyes; Bonus: Old friend Larry Rosoff on J.D. Drew: "The Red Sox' $70 million investment in J.D. Drew replaces the Big Dig as the biggest budget disaster in Boston history."

Issues and no answers
Manager Fredi Gonzalez will have another year to get the Florida Marlins on the upswing, but the firing of 2006 NL Manager of the Year Joe Girardi looks worse by the day. The Gonzalez issue is the least of that regime's worries. They have Dontrelle Willis with one win in his last 16 starts. And they have serious business issues. Commissioner Bud Selig and Marlins ownership have been campaigning for a new stadium and meeting with local business leaders. It's an issue that appears vital to the Marlins' survival and is the reason John Henry sold the team. One bad idea: razing the Orange Bowl and building a stadium in that part of town. Location, location, location. Same problem as Willis.

Bad fit in Pittsburgh

Dan Duquette deserves the chance to run a baseball team again; many of his moves for the Red Sox were superb. He'd be better in Houston, where there's a personable, extroverted owner in Drayton McLane, as opposed to Pittsburgh, which has the introverted, conservative Robert Nutting. The Pirates need an outgoing CEO/GM who will create excitement again in a town where baseball interest has been stagnant for a long time. The last thing Pittsburgh needs is a tight-lipped guy with a limited personality, which is why people close to the Pirates scene don't buy reports that Duquette is the leading candidate.

Talent in the Royal family

Former Sox pitcher Mike Boddicker, who does radio work for the Royals, raves about righthander Brian Bannister, a Rookie of the Year candidate (11-7, 3.27 ERA). "He's like [Greg ] Maddux but he doesn't quite have the movement on his pitches quite yet, but he's very smart and really knows how to pitch," said Boddicker. "You can tell his dad [Floyd Bannister] was a major league pitcher. I remember seeing him in spring training and I think then he was trying to impress on the radar gun like young guys try to do. But he's smart on the mound, really thinks. He's got a good breaking ball and he's very good with his location." Boddicker also feels that Zack Greinke, who is back in the rotation, could be a star. "He throws 97 with nasty stuff," said Boddicker. "The Royals could have five very good starters next season."

Theoretical swap

If things don't turn around for Drew, would you send him and a lot of cash to Philadelphia for Pat Burrell this offseason? Granted, Drew has some bad blood with Phillies fans; he didn't sign after being their top pick in 1997. But that was 10 years ago. Drew is clearly more comfortable in the National League. In interleague play this season, he hit .328 in 58 at-bats, with 4 homers, 13 RBIs, a .394 OBP, and .603 slugging percentage. Burrell, soon to be 31, is a guy the Phillies would have given to you for a thank you card a couple of months ago. But he is up to 24 homers and 77 RBIs with a .270 average and .409 on-base percentage, a big part of the Phillies' resurgence. He has one year left at $14 million, and lists Boston as one of the teams to which he would accept a trade.

Extra innings

The Cardinals are scheduled to play 35 games over the last 34 days of the season, which would be a major league record, according to the Elias Bureau. The current record is 31 straight days of games, shared by the 2000 Mets and Expos . . . The Twins will start righthander Kevin Slowey Tuesday against Cleveland. The International League Pitcher of the Year walked only 17 in 129 2/3 innings, going 10-4 with a 1.74 ERA . . . Tom Glavine has thrown 169 1/3 innings. When he hits 170, his option for 2008 kicks in at $10 million. At 180 innings, it's $11 million, 190 innings $12 million, and 200 innings $13 million. Glavine, however, has not made a decision on whether he'll pitch another year . . . Yup, former Sox backstop Josh Bard leads the National League in hitting with runners in scoring position at .412 (35 for 85), with 2 homers and 40 RBIs . . . With righthander Scott Mathieson added to the September roster, the Phillies have used a franchise-record 28 pitchers . . . Happy 46th birthday, Jeff Russell.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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