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Experts asked to take a first look at second season

By Nick Cafardo
September 11, 2011

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We pretty much know who most of the playoff teams are going to be, but who will be the strongest once they get there? Is momentum important? Is it the team that plays best at the end and can carry it into the playoffs? The Giants did that last year.

Some years, it doesn’t matter. The 2005 White Sox had a bad stretch in mid-September when they lost 10 of 14, and then they poured it on at the end to win the World Series.

When we asked our experts around both leagues how they viewed the potential playoff teams, there were a lot of Phillies and Tigers fans, and with good reason. Here’s how they view the probable field:

1. Philadelphia. This one’s easy. The Phillies are the clear favorites because of their Fearsome Foursome rotation. And if Vance Worley (11-1, 2.85) is your fifth guy, what a bonus. It’s the reason they’ve won more games than any other team, and will be the reason they win another World Series. The Phillies know better than anyone that their rotation will get them where they want to go, but they also know their weaknesses. They don’t have the bullpen they’d like (but other than Atlanta, who does?) and they know their lineup is vulnerable against lefthanded pitchers (.245, .707 OPS). “I just don’t see any of the National League playoff teams being able to compete with them,’’ said an NL general manager. “Their toughest competition will be whichever American League team emerges as their World Series opponent.’’

2. Detroit - The Tigers’ appeal is growing, for a few reasons. First, they have the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, who can pitch twice in a five-game series and three times in a seven-game series. “That’s going to be hard to beat,’’ said an NL scout. “I think that team, I don’t know, they’ve got something going on over there this year. They have the best pitcher, the best closer [Jose Valverde, 42 for 42 in saves], they have a manager [Jim Leyland] who can tune it up when it counts most. They also have a good pitcher in Doug Fister. Some of those guys who are 6-7 or better have a tough time with their angle, but he’s figured it out and he’s got good deception. He’s the one guy out there you can say that over the last four or five years has improved every single year.’’ The Tigers are far enough ahead in the division that they’ll be able to set up their rotation the way they want.

3. Boston - Another National League evaluator said this: “They should be the team that makes it to the World Series, but it all depends on [Josh] Beckett’s health and what that bullpen is going to do leading up to [Daniel] Bard and [Jonathan] Papelbon. We’ve seen that bullpen really pitch well. Alfredo Aceves is a life-saver for them. But if you have to depend on guys like Matt Albers and Dan Wheeler and Franklin Morales, then it gets a little dicey for them. Not having a really good lefty hurts them. They’re also a little bit vulnerable against tough lefthanded pitching.’’

4. New York - Potentially the most explosive lineup. The Yankees hit home runs and score runs in bunches. Home field is very important to them, to take advantage of their lefthanded power. The rotation is where the landmines are. They need CC Sabathia to be the horse he was in 2009. They need A.J. Burnett to be effective and hope that rookie Ivan Nova doesn’t melt in the spotlight. Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Phil Hughes are also in the mix, but who goes fourth remains to be seen.

5. Texas - One American League evaluator said, “I still don’t like their starting pitching overall, but if they face a team that can be vulnerable against lefthanded pitching like Boston, or if they made it to the World Series against Philadelphia, I think they could match up real well. Deadly lineup. You can’t make many mistakes against those hitters or they’ll make you pay. I think they could assault some of those National League pitching staffs if they got that far.’’

6. Milwaukee - The Brewers are considered one of the better all-around teams, but are they vulnerable in certain areas? Of course. “They have some good starting pitching,’’ said the NL evaluator who was quoted on the Tigers, “but I’m curious to see how guys like Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum react in that playoff situation, because they’ve never been there. Their bullpen could also sink them. K-Rod is K-Rod, you take the good with the bad. No lefty in the bullpen could come back to haunt them.’’

7. Arizona - How is this team doing it? “They have a manager [Kirk Gibson] who gets every drop of blood out of them,’’ said the American League evaluator. “They have two excellent starters [Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy] and a decent bullpen. The right fielder [Justin Upton] is a bear, and the catcher [Miguel Montero] is an animal.’’ GM Kevin Towers made an outstanding deal for second baseman Aaron Hill (with John McDonald as a backup), who needed a change of scenery and has been re-energized in a pennant race.

8. Atlanta - An NL scout said, “This is the team I wouldn’t want to face because if they can keep it close and you get into that bullpen, then forget it. That’s one of the best bullpens I’ve seen in years and that means something in the postseason.’’ The trouble is leading up to it. Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) are injured, so there’s a lot of pressure on Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, etc. The lineup doesn’t always click.

9. Los Angeles - The Angels are on the outside at the moment but are still in contention. They were once left for dead, but most Mike Scioscia teams tend to get the memo sooner or later. The Angels were able to introduce three outstanding young players to the majors this season in center fielder Mike Trout (the Minor League Player of the Year), first baseman Mark Trumbo (26 homers, 80 RBIs), and catcher Hank Conger. Jerome Williams has become a solid fourth starter.


Epstein still mentioned as a candidate for Cubs

There will be denials from here to Timbuktu, but the baseball community has not dropped the Theo Epstein-to-Chicago talk. And until Cubs owner Tom Ricketts selects a new president of baseball operations or general manager - or Epstein agrees to a contract extension with the Red Sox - the rumors likely won’t die.

The Sox have Epstein under contract for another year, but it isn’t clear whether he is free to leave for a bigger job.

Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman and Oakland GM Billy Beane are also on the Cubs’ preferred list. Friedman does not have a written contract with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, and Beane has the blessing of A’s owner Lew Wolff to pursue other opportunities.

Hall of Famer Pat Gillick likely would not want to be in the daily grind again.

If Epstein bolted, Friedman and Beane would likely become Red Sox targets. Friedman could also be in play in Houston, where he’s from, or Baltimore, where owner Peter Angelos will be looking for a new GM if reports that Andy MacPhail is leaving are true.

There are ex-GMs who would love to return, including J.P. Ricciardi, Omar Minaya, Joe Garagiola, Wayne Krivsky, Josh Byrnes, Jim Hendry, Paul DePodesta, Jim Duquette, Dan Duquette, John Hart, Jim Bowden, Allard Baird, Jim Beattie, Gerry Hunsicker, Terry Ryan, Chuck LaMar, Ed Lynch, Bill Bavasi, and Dave Littlefield.

And there are plenty of young assistants who would love to step up, including the Red Sox’ Ben Cherington, Texas’s Thad Levine, the Dodgers’ Logan White, Arizona’s Jerry DiPoto, the White Sox’ Rick Hahn, and the Yankees’ Billy Eppler.

As one AL GM pointed out, “The Cubs job is the prize because it’s a great city, and the owner seems to want to spend the money to make it right.’’

The tougher situation appears to be in Baltimore. MacPhail tried to do it right, but the scouting and development weren’t top-notch. There is also the Buck Showalter factor. The manager is said to have a lot of power (almost Mike Scioscia-like) and could steer the owners to a GM of his choice.


Sox haven’t produced top starting prospect

The Red Sox do not have a top prospect in Pawtucket ready to replace an injured starting pitcher. If you want to count Kyle Weiland, go ahead, but the kid clearly isn’t ready for this.

They thought they had one in Andrew Miller (left), although he wasn’t a pitcher they developed but one they tried to remake.

Miller has given the Red Sox a few starts, but with an ERA around 6.00, that’s not exactly what they’re looking for. Will he be able to repeat his delivery well enough and consistently enough to be truly effective?

Junichi Tazawa recovered from his Tommy John surgery and started pitching but has not been a factor in helping the parent team.

Weiland had the best season of any of their top so-called prospects, but he didn’t really wow scouts who watched him. He may yet develop into a decent major league pitcher with more experience.

Felix Doubront, now up with the Red Sox, had a disjointed season with injuries, and his once-rising stock has leveled off.

Even the highly touted Anthony Ranaudo, who was expected to rise quickly through the ranks, had a setback season in Single A.

Righthander Alex Wilson (9-4, 3.05), who pitched well in Double A and was promoted to Pawtucket, could be the next hope.

The Red Sox had to rely on veterans such as Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield to plug the holes in the rotation. They were forced to deal for Erik Bedard, who had just come off the disabled list, after rejecting Rich Harden because of medical issues.

Apropos of nothing 1. Love watching the Royals outfielders; Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur are throwbacks to a time when outfielders could actually throw and throw accurately; 2. Rays manager Joe Maddon told his players Friday, “Don’t come to the ballpark early. Take your wives out to lunch’’; 3. Most improved manager: Don Mattingly; 4. 10th player award: Alfredo Aceves; 5. Will Middlebrooks looks like a budding Evan Longoria.

Updates on nine 1. Chuck LaMar - The assistant general manager who ran the Phillies farm system has left the organization. LaMar was Tampa Bay’s original GM and oversaw the early years when all of those top players were drafted, but things never seemed to click between him and the Phillies front office. Call it a personality clash, but it apparently had gone far enough.

2. Orlando Cabrera, SS, Giants - Looks like the Cabrera Magic is just about gone. The rent-a-shortstop who helped lead a few teams to the playoffs - including the 2004 Red Sox - seems to be at the end of the road, hitting .238. He wasn’t able to spark the Giants and in fact has looked very slow at times. Some have questioned manager Bruce Bochy for playing Cabrera ahead of rookie Brandon Crawford.

3. Carlos Carrasco, RHP, Indians - He will undergo Tommy John surgery, likely keeping him out of baseball in 2012. The Indians hoped to get something substantive from the Phillies in the Cliff Lee trade (Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, catcher Lou Marson, and pitcher Jason Knapp), but so far the return has been short on impact.

4. Ozzie Guillen, manager, White Sox - The White Sox probably have the best owner in baseball in Jerry Reinsdorf. So why is there so much uncertainty in the team’s management ranks? It appears more and more that the Marlins will get a chance to speak to Guillen about their managing job. But whither GM Ken Williams and assistant GM Rick Hahn? Looks like Hahn will interview for the Cubs job if one of the big names doesn’t get it. Williams could be in the mix as well, though he’s under contract, and it’s hard to believe he would leave Reinsdorf. Williams could be promoted to president and Hahn could take over as GM. One coach in possible danger: hitting coach Greg Walker, who has had words with Williams.

5. Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers - He has given the Tigers just what they thought they were getting: production and leadership. “Obviously, everybody knows he’s a great player and a key addition to this lineup,’’ said center fielder Austin Jackson, “but he’s always pumping everybody up. That gets you going a little bit. On those days you’re kind of dragging, he’s trying to motivate you and keep you in good spirits. He’s a verbal leader. That’s something guys need sometimes, especially around this time of year when guys can be a little tired.’’ Martinez, 32, is hitting .326 with 10 homers and 89 RBIs, and he has done it playing 94 games as a DH and 26 as a catcher. With the coming of Alex Avila, Martinez doesn’t have to catch much. He has come through with clutch hits and been a vocal leader. He also has been a big help to Avila, a workhorse behind the plate.

6. Davey Johnson, manager, Nationals - All signs point toward him returning, but the team is required to conduct a search that includes minority candidates. The season seemed to go south after former manager Jim Riggleman left abruptly in a contract squabble. The Nats were 38-37 when he quit. After John McLaren went 2-1, Johnson was hired, and they were 26-38 under him entering last night. Having a healthy Stephen Strasburg next season should lure DJ back.

7. Derrek Lee, 1B, Pirates - Pittsburgh went 15-33 after being 51-44 and a half-game up in the National League Central July 19. But Lee is one midseason acquisition manager Clint Hurdle would like to see return. Hurdle understands that every young team needs at least one veteran to show the way, and he’d like that to be Lee. “Have you seen many teams that have won a lot without having at least one five-year guy in their lineup? I haven’t,’’ Hurdle said. “You need somebody who’s been tested by fire, who can lend some quiet confidence and a voice of reason to the clubhouse when times are challenging.’’

8. Jim Crane, potential owner, Astros - He’s kidding, right? It’s because he’s hesitant about the team moving to the American League that the owners are holding up his approval? How about his past views on African-Americans, Hispanics, and women? Think that might have something to do with it?

9. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers - He will likely have knee surgery after being shut down for the season. Ethier, who won’t be a free agent until after next season, had a disappointing year, hitting .292 with 11 homers and 62 RBIs. The power shortage could have been due to the knee problem. He could be a pretty good pickup in a deal this winter if that’s the case. The Dodgers want to re-sign him and Matt Kemp to long-term deals, but nobody seems to know what the landscape is with Dodger finances these days.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “From the start of the 2000 season through this past Wednesday, the Yankees led all of baseball with 7,475 walks. Right behind them are the Red Sox with 7,377 and the Phillies with 7,207.’’ Also, “The Tigers have 74 games with 10 or more hits, the Red Sox 73, and the Rangers 71.’’ And, “The Yankees have received 20 intentional walks this season while the Jays’ Jose Bautista has 21 by himself.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Jacoby Ellsbury (28), Ellis Burks (47), and Jeff Newman (63).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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