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September 14, 2007

Prospectus Today

Dialing the Wrong Weekend Series

by Joe Sheehan

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In the media environment of 2007, with the Internet having lowered the barriers to entry and then expansion of television bandwidth having reached a point where it seems like there's a channel devoted entirely to "Scrubs" reruns, speaking of any kind of overall bias seems outdated. While there was probably a time when the viewpoints of New York or the East Coast were overly represented in setting agendas and influencing opinions, that time was comfortably left behind in years that began with the numbers "1" and "9." There are simply too many inputs and outputs now for any one region, media outlet or conglomerate to have sway over a discussion.

All that makes sense to me, right up until I look ahead to the weekend and see this:

Fri, 7:05 p.m. New York at Boston, ESPN
Sat, 3:55 p.m. New York at Boston, FOX
Sun, 8:05 p.m New York at Boston, ESPN

The Yankees/Red Sox rivalry is loaded with history, and the two teams are arguably the two best in the game right now. It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see, a month from now, the two meeting in the ALCS for the third time in five years.

These games this weekend, however, aren't that important. The Red Sox are 5 games up on the Yankees, so they could get swept this weekend and still have a manageable lead in the AL East. The Red Sox are a whopping nine games ahead of the Tigers for the AL Wild Card, with their magic number for clinching a playoff spot at seven. The Sox have moved into cruise control, sitting Manny Ramirez since August 28 to allow the slugger to recover from his latest injury. Since Clay Buchholz threw 115 pitches in his no-hitter on September 1, just one Sox starter has thrown more than 100 pitches, Josh Beckett doing so twice. As much as the players will talk about the value of winning the division, every bit of information we have, going back to 1995, indicates that teams are orders of magnitude more concerned with setting themselves up for the playoffs than playing for a slightly better seed once there.

The Yankees would certainly like to win the AL East, but their concerns are behind them, in Detroit, rather than ahead of them. They're trying to reach the postseason, and their personnel management over the next 17 days will be driven not by the gap between them and the Sox, but by their edge over the Tigers. Once they lock up a postseason berth, you'll see Joe Torre begin to rotate out the veteran players on his aging roster to keep his team fresh for October, regardless of the gap that remains between his squad and Terry Francona's.

As we've seen time and time again, division titles lose meaning when second place gets into the postseason as well. So the focus this weekend, broadcast partners notwithstanding, should be west of Beantown, where games will be played between teams battling for one playoff spot, or at least in a race for the wild card that's a bit more interesting than what the Yankees have.

Take a peek at the action in St. Louis, where the fading Cardinals get one last chance to stay alive in a four-game series against the Cubs. This series looked to be a lot more important a week ago, when the Cards were a game behind both the Cubs and Brewers. After an 0-7 week fueled by six "non-quality" starts and a team OBP of .302, the Cards are buried five games behind those same two teams, neither of which is setting the world on fire. In fact, with so few common games remaining among the Cards, Brewers, and Cubs, it remains possible that the NL Central champion will finish at or below .500, particularly if the 69-75 Cardinals take a bite out of the Cubs this weekend.

The Cards absolutely have to take three of the four games to have any chance of staying in the race, and realistically, they may need all four. And on whom do their fortunes rest? The Cards' starters the next four days include Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Piniero, and Mark Mulder. If you're scoring at home, that's two guys who were relievers a year ago, another who was basically let go twice in the past year, and Mulder, who has three strikeouts and three homers allowed in two starts this year. Give the Cardinals credit for their late-summer run, but realistically, it ends this weekend.

So let's go further west, then, to Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers, who moved to within a game-and-a-half of the Wild Card-leading Padres last night. They'll continue their September push-seven of 11, 11 of 17-tonight against the Diamondbacks. Like the Yankees, the Dodgers are 5 games behind the division leaders, a steep enough hill that they really have to be more focused on the Wild Card, even though the D'backs-still being outscored-are a far cry from being as dominant as the Red Sox. The Dodgers' offense has improved as Juan Pierre hit a good stretch, batting .340 in September to prop up a .392 OBP. As much as Pierre has hurt the Dodgers overall, his September performance is one reason why they're still in the race. Throw in James Loney and Matt Kemp, both playing almost every day just four months later than they should have been, and this offense is good enough to win.

The Dodgers will be playing their competition almost exclusively down the stretch. While they don't play the Phillies or Padres the rest of the way, they do have 13 games-their next 13-against the Diamondbacks and Rockies, one leading the division, the other just behind them for the Wild card. Their pitching couldn't set up any better this weekend, with their top two starters and Esteban Loaiza throwing, while they miss seeing Brandon Webb in the series. As with the Cards, just winning tise series probably won't be enough to make a dent in the division race; they need to sweep to change that discussion. With the Phillies, Padres, and Rockies all in action in different time zones this weekend, it will be a scoreboard watcher's feast in the NL Wild Card race.

The Yankees and Red Sox get the main national stage for three days, but it's the Cubs/Cardinals and Diamondbacks/Dodgers games that carry more weight. Even setting those aside, the Phillies/Mets, Brewers/Reds, and Marlins/Rockies and Giants/Padres series are more important, from a competitive standpoint, than a matchup between two likely playoff teams in the AL.

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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