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October 3, 2006

Prospectus Today

Division Series Picks

by Joe Sheehan

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This is pretty cool. Of the four matchups, two are complete toss-ups, and a third is a lot closer than you'd think from looking at the way the teams closed.

Before I take a look at the Division Series, a wish: I hope that this October the emphasis can be on the baseball, and not the arbiters. The 2005 postseason was marred by an endless parade of blown calls, from the ones we remember-Doug Eddings' out/safe call on A.J. Pierzynski--to others that were just as critical but have been forgotten-the blown call on a tag play at second in Game Six on the NLCS that short-circuited a Cardinals' rally.

I really hope that not only do we get invisible umpiring, but that if and when a mistake is made, the umpires will work together to fix the problem. There's been a considerable slide back in areas of cooperation, and more visibly, in player relations. Player-baiting is back with a vengeance, and we don't need to see a confrontation that alters a game and becomes a story.

With that, on to the series…

A's/Twins

I had the big writeup for this one, so check that out. These two teams started very slowly, and picked it up when they started scoring. They started scoring when the biggest bat in each lineup started hitting, although in the Twins' case there were significant personnel changes as well. So while they look like pitching teams, they both actually feature strong offenses. There will be more runs scored in this series than you might expect.

The two are generally evenly matched, but the Twins have a lot of small edges that add up. They have the better of two very good bullpens. They have a more balanced lineup, and a stronger core in the middle of it. They have more team speed. They have the best pitcher in baseball in Johan Santana. They are healthier, and have less uncertainty coming in; the A's have the Rich Harden question and concerns about Huston Street

Either team could win this series, and I'm not enthusiastic about my prediction, With that said, I'll go with the Twins in five, with Santana making the difference by winning two games. I would be surprised only if one team swept, and I think at least one game will be a classic.

Yankees/Tigers

If there are people out there picking the Tigers, they're doing it quietly. The Bengals closed the season by losing 31 of 50, and spent the final weekend getting swept by the Royals at home, blowing 6-0 and 5-0 leads in the process. I can remember the 2000 Yankees limping in, and the Cardinals redfined "backing in" last week, but the extended nature and the visibility of the Tigers' slump is unique.

This isn't the 2005 White Sox. That team was much better offensively and in the rotation, and player otherworldly defense. This team has no speed, a tired staff with two young right-handers boldly going where they've never gone before, and OBP issues in seven lineup spots.

Oh, and they're facing the consensus favorite to win the World Series.

The "best lineup ever" storyline is misguided, because you don't judge a lineup by name value. The only Yankees having their best season are Johnny Damon and Robinson Cano, while Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield missed most of the year, and at that are well past their primes. Moreover, the Yankees lose a lot of power when a southpaw starts, and they'll see two in the first three games here. It's a very good offense, one that is a threat to put up a crooked number at any time, but it's not even as good as the '03 Red Sox or the '99 Indians.

The Yankees catch a break by facing the Tigers in the first series. The Tigers' hacktastic approach will make it easier on their staff, which has a bit of a hole in the middle, some heavy workloads at the back, and a limited Mariano Rivera. The A's and Twins are much better equipped to exploit these issues, and the Yankees will only have to face one of them.

And face them they will: Yankees in four. The Tigers will one of the games started by a lefty, but the Yankees beat Bonderman in Game Four to put it away.

Padres/Cardinals

I love this. This is the funhouse-mirror version of last year's matchup, with the Padres playing role of favorite and the Cardinals the division champ no one respects. They have the ace starter fronting a shaky rotation, they start on the road with the Wednesday day off, they play in the shiny new downtown ballpark...I mean, it's just too weird.

The parallels extend to the analysis. When a team can start one of the best pitchers in baseball twice in five games, they have a puncher's chance to pull the upset. The Cardinals also have this first baseman who's pretty good, and marginal Hall of Famers at third base and, if Jim Edmonds answers the bell, in center field. The pitching between Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is a mess; the Cardinals can give up six runs on any given day, and the offense can't really overcome that consistently. If Carpenter throws 15 innings and allows one run in two starts, though, the whole equation changes.

This is a very good Padres team. It led the NL in road OPS, has good OBP from 1-6 and pop from the other two spots, and a bench that got a lot better during the season, with the additions of Russell Branyan and Todd Walker (who usually starts at third base). The rotation has been excellent down the stretch, with Chris Young bouncing back from a mid-season slump and Woody Williams pitching very well after coming off the DL. The bullpen drew accolades all year, but heavy use by Bruce Bochy in August and September seemed to catch up to the key guys a bit; Trevor Hoffman, in particular, is a concern due to a spike in his home-run rate coinciding with a sore shoulder.

I went with the underdog last year, but not this time. Carpenter has been worn down a bit in the last couple of weeks, and the Cards don't have the shutdown bullpen the Padres had a year ago. I expect that Pujols can win a game by himself, but just one. Padres in four.

Mets/Dodgers

This could make a run at Yankees/Mariners 1995 or Red Sox/Indians 1999 for the best Division Series ever. Two teams that are a lot more evenly matched than you might think based on the way their regular seasons played out. The Dodgers come into the series with the better rotation, a comparable lineup and a better bench. The Mets play much better defense--Endy Chavez has been a very valuable find in the absence of Cliff Floyd--and have the deeper of two good bullpens.

Both teams are dinged up, and have been for most of the second half. The Mets lost Pedro Martinez, of course, but he hadn't lived up to that name since May. Carlos Beltran's sore quad is the more immediate concern, as it limits him in the field and on the bases. The five-tool player is down to three. Cliff Floyd may or may not play on any given day. The Dodgers have been using Julio Lugo to work around nagging injuries to Nomar Garciaparra, and their nominal #1 starter, Brad Penny, has been pitching like he's hiding an injury for two months. The Dodgers have more options should any injury flare up over the next week.

The Mets are reasonably well-equipped to win any given series, but I don't know that they can win three in a row. The rotation is larded with guys who might not see the seventh inning at all this month, and as deep as the bullpen is, that's an awful lot of weight for it to carry. The question isn't whether they'll lose, but when. I do not think they're an overwhelming favorite in the NL. The Dodgers have a very balanced offense with no lineup holes, a good bench, and enough relief pitching to win games that are tied in the seventh. Dodgers in five, with at least two extra-inning games and one blown ninth-inning lead.

If you've read this far, I should at least finish the story: Yankees over Padres in six.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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