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The Elite Eight: Strengths and Weaknesses
by James Deaux (MLB)
Posted on October 3, 2006, 4:52 AM

THE ELITE EIGHT: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES


American League

New York Yankees

--Biggest Strength: Murderer's Row Version 2k6. This lineup would put a white flag in Walter Johnson's hands. It's of little surprise to anyone that this lineup has scored the most runs of any major league team; but what's more insane is that they have scored almost 100 runs more than the next closest team in the playoffs, the Mets. Their lineup reads like an All-Star roster, because, well, they have an All-Star at every single position. There are absolutely no easy outs in this lineup, so opposing pitchers have no way to pitch around one guy because chances are the guy behind him is hitting over .300 and has double-digit home runs, too. I pity Nate Robertson. And Justin Verlander. And Kenny Rogers. After that, there's really no need to pity anyone because there won't be a Game 4 in this particular LDS.

--Biggest Weakness: Bullpen concerns. Let's start at the very top—Mariano Rivera. He has hardly pitched at all since August. Though he has looked pretty sharp, it's still a concern because how can Joe Torre send him out there night after night after night when he's pitched all of four innings since mid-August? Overall, the Yankees' bullpen has a very high 4.16 ERA, which happens to be the highest among the eight playoff teams. The Yankees' lineup can cover up for some of these deficiencies, but they desperately need for their starters to go at least 7 innings a game, maybe more. I highly doubt they want to go to Kyle Farnsworth or Ron Villone in a tight situation.

Minnesota Twins

--Biggest Strength: The World's Greatest Pitcher and 2006 AL Cy Young, Johan Santana. Yeah, this was really hard to pick. There is no doubt Santana is winning the Cy Young this year. He leads the world in virtually every important pitching statistic there is—wins (tied with Chien-Ming Wang), strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, K/BB ratio, innings pitched, etc. He's pretty much the only pitcher in the postseason from whom you can almost automatically bank on 2 wins. The weight of Minnesota is on his shoulders, and he can take it and run with it. However, if the Twins lose any game he starts, they are in serious trouble. Which leads me to...

--Biggest Weakness: Everyone after Santana. In a short series, the Twins can get away with some starting pitching questions after their ace. In the LCS, however? Not against a juggernaut offense like the Yankees. Santana can't pitch every day, so someone will have to step up and deliver. Carlos Silva, Brad Radke, and Boof Bonser are the other three starters, and none of them have had particularly great or consistent seasons. Silva, in particular, is just about the last pitcher on their staff I'd want to rely on if I were a Twins fan. His 11-15 record and horrific 5.94 ERA/1.54 WHIP are not going to cut it. Bonser is the Twin I look for to have a solid 6-inning start in the LDS, as he hasn't pitched all that badly in Francisco Liriano's stead. He pretty much has to at this stage. I still don't see this rotation being able to last very long in the ALCS, though.

Oakland Athletics

--Biggest Strength: They are underestimated. No one is talking about this team at all, and that can play directly into their favor. They don't have the media of New York or Los Angeles bearing down and scrutinizing every single move they make. The A's cruised to the AL West title, but they didn't appear to lose any momentum after clinching it last week. This is a very well-rounded club. They have a good rotation that got even better with their ace, Rich Harden, returning (despite his bad start on Sunday). They have a solid bullpen with Huston Street closing games out for them. The one thing they truly lack is power. However, given that this team has fantastic plate discipline, they can (and will have to) capitalize on every minute mistake the Twins' starters make.

--Biggest Weakness: The Metrodome. Unfortunately for the A's, they have to open up their LDS on the road against the team with the best home record in the majors this season. (There is a reason they call the Metrodome the greatest home-field advantage in the majors, after all.) And did I mention that they have to face a guy by the name of Johan Santana twice? That may prove too much for the A's to overcome, even with the Twins lack of dependability and depth in the rotation. However, if they miraculously manage to win just one game that Santana starts, then they will practically guarantee themselves of winning this series.

Detroit Tigers

--Biggest Strength: Starting pitching. Though they've had their share of struggles in the second half (who on this team didn't?), they still have a very solid pitching rotation for the postseason. Nate Robertson will get the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS, and he's been arguably their best starter in September. Justin Verlander is likely the Rookie of the Year. And Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman strung together decent seasons. The downside of their pitching really has nothing to do with them at all. It's the opposing dugout in this series that they have to sweat over.

--Biggest Weakness: Lack of momentum. The magic they had the first four months of the season practically evaporated once August reared its ugly head. And then, as day turns to night, September followed and this team stumbled and tripped over itself all the way into the playoffs. Ultimately, they squandered what was, at one point, a 10-game lead in the AL Central Division and allowed Minnesota to swipe the AL Central pennant away from them on the very last day of the season. What's even more remarkable (or pitiful, I can't decide which) is that the Tigers were swept by the Royals, a team they absolutely dominated for most of the season, to cap off a 5-game losing streak to end their regular season. Which leads me to their next biggest concern—they have to open up their postseason in Yankee Stadium. Against 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang. And the aforementioned lineup from hell. Good luck, kitty cats.

Prediction: Yankees emerge as the AL Champions over the Athletics in 5 games.

National League

New York Mets

--Biggest Strength: The back end of the bullpen. If the Mets' starters can get to Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner, then they will be living on Easy Street. Wagner has been everything the Mets could have hoped for when they signed him to stabilize a heretofore-hideous bullpen. Aaron Heilman has stepped up in a huge way for this team in the set-up role, with an under-1.00 ERA in the second half. However, if they are forced to go into their middle relief core early, then big problems could start arising because Los Angeles is the kind of team that feasts on guys like Darren Oliver (and I'm well aware of how crucial Oliver has been to this Mets team this year).

--Biggest Weakness: Losing Pedro Martinez. This weakness is so big, it's going to haunt the Mets all they way into June or July of next year or beyond. Pedro's three starts off the DL were a microcosm of the overall poor play the Mets had been indulging in over the last couple weeks of the regular season (save for the last 4 games of the year, but 3 of those were against Washington). Clearly, El Duque and Tom Glavine need to step up in a monumental way for this team to advance. There's no reason to believe they can't—after all, look at their individual playoff track records. It's the third starter (and possibly fourth) that should worry Mets fans. New York is going to go with Steve Trachsel for Game 3 of the LDS. Even though he's a 15-game winner, it's impossible to ignore that alarming 4.97 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. In a short series, this team should be fine. In the LCS...that's another story entirely.

St. Louis Cardinals

--Biggest Strength: The World's Greatest Hitter, Albert Pujols. This one was easy. If you absolutely have to pitch to this guy, chances are he is going to punish you. He deserves the MVP award because without him, this Cardinals team is easily 5 games under .500. Unfortunately for the Cards, they don't have all that much in the way of offense after Pujols, and the Padres are going to pitch around him every chance they get. Scott Rolen is going to be a huge key if the Cards hope to have any kind of success in this short series. If he hits like he is capable of behind Pujols, then the Padres pitchers are going to have some dilemmas. However, given that he's been in a slump for a few weeks now, that is anything but a certainty.

--Biggest Weakness: Lack of depth everywhere. In the starting rotation, they have Chris Carpenter. After him, they are relying on Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Anthony Reyes, or, Heaven help them, Jeff Weaver. Not exactly "Spahn and Sein and pray for rain", is it? (Although to be fair, at least Suppan has been pretty good of late.) In the batting order, they have Albert Pujols and a slumping Scott Rolen. Other than them, who else in their lineup puts any kind of fear into the mind of an opposing pitcher? After all, they are depending on contributions from So Taguchi, Aaron Miles, Juan Encarnacion and Yadier Molina of all people. The bullpen is an absolute mess. Though Jason Isringhausen wasn't even close to as dependable as he has been in years past, at least he provided stability for the rest of the bullpen. Adam Wainwright hasn't exactly been spectacular filling in for him, either. Decent, but not shut-'em-down like you need from your 9th inning guy. I really don't see this team winning any games in this series, but if they do manage to win one, chances are, it will be all Phat Albert's doing.

San Diego Padres

--Biggest Strength: The bullpen. There is a reason that so many teams were in contact with San Diego around the trade deadline. It's because they have one of the best pens in the business. And, oh by the way, they just happen to have the new all-time saves leader closing out games for them. But even before Hoffman, they have Cla Meredith, who bulldozed right-handers this year (and allowed all of 6 runs to score off of him in 50+ innings) and Scott Linebrink, who may very well be the best set-up man in the NL right now. The pitching staff as a whole is a huge strength for the Padres, but the bullpen is what is going to seal away the games for them. All they need is for the starters to do what they do best and get them into the 7th inning or beyond. From there, it's pretty rudimentary; and it's why I think the Pads are going to sweep the Cardinals and avenge their early exit last year.

--Biggest Weakness: Inability to throw out would-be basestealers. This is something that has plagued San Diego all year. Mike Piazza is still Mike Piazza. Which of course means, you have to take the strength with the obvious weakness. He simply cannot throw people out trying to steal. For that matter, Josh Bard isn't much better. That shouldn't be a problem against the Cardinals (25th in the majors in SB); but when they get to the LCS, whether they face the Dodgers (5th in MLB) or the Mets (2nd), they are in danger of allowing several innings to be extended because of the speed each team has all over their respective lineups. Jose Reyes and Rafael Furcal have to be licking their chops at the thought of Piazza behind the plate.

Los Angeles Dodgers

--Biggest Strength: The offense. This team has a strong, balanced, disciplined lineup that led the league in hits, batting average and OBP, and was fourth in runs scored and total bases. They have a noticeable lack of power (15th in the NL in HR to be exact), but that isn't their game. (That ridiculous back-to-back-to-back-to-back HR showing notwithstanding.) They rely on working counts, taking walks, and going with pitches and serving the ball into gaps and alleys. The Dodgers also have a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate in Andre Ethier, who put up a .308/11/55 clip this season. If the Dodgers are going to win the LDS, they need to work counts, wait for the fastballs, get El Duque and Glavine out of rhythm, and knock them out of their ballgames as early as possible. Those two are not 8- and 9-inning guys anyway, so any extra innings you squeeze out of the Mets bullpen is a huge advantage.

--Biggest Weakness: Lack of left-handed pitching. The Mets utterly obliterated right-handed pitching this year, and that's just about all that the Dodgers have save for Hong-Chih Kuo and Joe Beimel. (I'd include Mark Hendrickson, but he's been absolutely terrible since L.A. acquired him from Tampa Bay; especially against lefties.) The Dodgers absolutely have to win Kuo's start, or they will be facing the very real possibility of an early exit.

Prediction: The Padres win the NL Championship in 6 games over the Dodgers.



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