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NEW TGS COVER STORY...IT'S MLB PLAYOFF PREVIEW TIME!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Although the MLB regular season won’t end until Wednesday, with playoffs not commencing until the one-game wild card round in each league later in the week, we’re going to provide a quick preview of how the postseason breaks down in both the American and National Leagues. Pennant win prices are included next to each team’s name.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Technically, three sides not currently projected into the postseason remained mathematically alive into Monday (although after the wild events on the final three days of last season, we can’t dismiss any possibilities). We can probably disregard the fading Chicago White Sox (25/1), who missed their chance to put away the Detroit Tigers (17/4) throughout August and September and have been done in by a debilitating slump that saw them lose 10 of 12 through the weekend. We would have a bit more fear of either the LA Angels of Anaheim (14/1) or Tampa Bay Rays (22/1) if one can somehow slip into the mix; both have been extremely hot in recent weeks and each has the pitching to sustain a deep postseason run. If either should somehow sneak into the playoffs, it would be our long-price recommendation.

We are a bit intrigued by the possibilities of the aforementioned Tigers, who finally caught an updraft over the past two weeks to catch and surpass the bumbling Chisox in the Central. Although its defense rates as a liability and is the worst by a good margin of playoff-bound entries, Detroit has been fueled in recent weeks by the unlikely Triple Crown bid of 3B Miguel Cabrera, who has removed the power burden from solely resting upon 1B Prince Fielder’s shoulders. Jim Leyland might be forced to juggle his playoff pitching rotation with Max Scherzer suffering from a deltoid strain, but recent efforts from Drew Smyly suggest he could be an alternative should Scherzer not be ready or Leyland hesitates to use Rick Porcello or Miami trade- deadline addition Anibal Sanchez alongside Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. The Tigers have been here before (ALCS last year) and can’t be discounted.

Why are we not convinced about the NY Yankees (14/5)? Perhaps because we haven’t been sold on the depth of the starting pitching all season, and because GM Brian Cashman couldn’t swing a major deal (not for lack of trying) for rotation reinforcements at the trade deadline. What’s scary for the opposition, however, is that the Yanks might finally be getting healthy with 1B Mark Teixeira slated to return this week from his calf strain, and A-Rod and Derek Jeter also appearing beyond several nagging hurts. Rafael Soriano has been a serviceable closer in Mariano Rivera’s absence, but we’re just not convinced the Yanks have enough pitching, especially with CC Sabathia not as dominant as in past seasons.

How about the Baltimore Orioles (8/1)? It took us a while to be convinced about the Birds this season, especially after Buck Showalter appeared to wear out his bullpen before the All-Star break, but the O’s found their second wind in late July and had won 37 of their last 53 through the weekend, pulling astride of the Yankees in the East and threatening to win the division and force the Bronx Bombers into the nervy one-game wild card playoff. Credit an underrated bullpen for keeping the O’s afloat, but Showalter has piled so much work on the relievers that we doubt the recipe continues to work in the postseason.

Will the third time be the charm for the Texas Rangers (19/10) On paper this team might look every bit as strong as the last two World Series editions, but the Rangers had yet to even close the deal on a playoff spot by the weekend, and the bridge to closer Joe Nathan looks unsettled with set-up man Mike Adams’ recent shoulder issues. We know the Rangers can score runs, although it might be up to two new faces in the starting rotation that weren’t around the past two years, Japanese import Yu Darvish and a midseason addition from the Cubs, Ryan Dempster, to change the staff dynamics that failed in the World Series last fall.

The Oakland A’s (8/1) ? More unlikely, perhaps, than the emergence of the Orioles, Oakland had the same record as the Houston Astros on June 1 (really!) yet has played almost .650 since, despite losing several pitchers for a variety of reasons and counting upon lots of rookie arms to fuel the surge. But this has emerged as GM Billy Beane’s masterpiece, with several career spare parts such as Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, plus Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes emerging as offensive linchpins, and Bob Melvin has jerry-rigged a deep and effective staff. This team has some magic about it, and if can survive an expected wild card game, look out!

NATIONAL LEAGUE

A bit more settled than the AL, with the only questions if the LA Dodgers (25/1) can make up two games on the St. Louis Cardinals (10/1) in the last three days to force a wild card playoff, and whether the Washington Nationals or Cincinnati Reds (both 11/5) get home-field edge for the postseason.

Can the Cardinals repeat their magic playoff run from last October? It’s not out of the question, with lots of depth in the rotation (four starters with at least 13 wins). And the Redbirds survived the departure of Albert Pujols to the Angels thanks in large part to Carlos Beltran’s contributions. Sorts such as 1B Allen Craig and last year’s playoff hero 3B David Freese are established forces, although getting Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday healthy for the postseason would be key. We suspect the Cards could cause trouble in the NLDS should they survive the wild card game.

Speaking of that wild card game, we’re relatively sure that the Atlanta Braves (15/2) are going to be the home team for that one (unless they somehow collar the Nats for the East crown in the in the final three days). And we like their chances since manager Fredi Gonzalez likely starts the amazing Kris Medlen, in whose starts the Braves have won an astounding 23 times in a row. Moreover, lefty Mike Minor has been dominating in recent starts, and closer Craig Kimbrel has been near-automatic all season. We wonder, however, if the Braves have enough depth in their rotation to forge a deep postseason run. And their many free-swingers in the lineup such as Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman can be liabilities vs. top-notch playoff staffs.

Aside from Medlen, however, we think St. Louis is a greater threat than Atlanta to advance deep from the wild card round.

Did the Nationals arrive a year too soon? Pitching depth kept Davey Johnson’s team from any extended slumps this season, but Stephen Strasburg has been shut down, and among the staff only Edwin Jackson (who has wobbled lately with a 7.92 ERA in his last five starts) has postseason experience. In fact, the playoffs are going to be a new experience for almost everyone on the Nats’ roster. We suspect this team will be a more dangerous postseason threat in years to come.

Cincinnati? The Reds seem to be the NL team du jour at the moment, and good news that skipper Dusty Baker is expected back in the dugout from his recent hospital visit. There’s more playoff experience on this roster than Washington, and Homer Bailey’s recent exploits suggest the Reds can match anyone with their Johnny Cueto-Mat Latos-Bronson Arroyo-Bailey playoff rotation. Add in a bullpen ERA of 2.62, and we know why Cincy is getting such respect.

Still, we suspect nobody wants to face the San Francisco Giants (29/10), who unlike the Nats and Reds have won a World Series lately and won’t blink on the road having fashioned a 45-33 mark away from AT&T Park through the weekend. One difference from two years ago is that starter Tim Lincecum has not been close to as dominating as he was in 2010, but Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner established themselves as playoff heavyweights in 2010, and the Giants have also won the last ten starts made by Barry Zito (who was left off of the 2010 postseason roster). They’ve also got MVP candidate C Buster Posey healthy and in the lineup like he was two years ago (and wasn’t, due to injury, last season). As they did two years ago when we suggested as much when trhey also weren't the favored team, the Giants appear to be the team to beat in the NL.

Stay tuned.


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