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Sept. 25, 2006

The call of the wild card

by Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor
October is just around the corner, and the playoff races in Major League Baseball are sizzling hot. Here's a quick team-by-team preview of the franchises hoping to be headed for the postseason:

American League Power Rankings

1. New York Yankees
Buoyed by the trade deadline additions of Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle, and Craig Wilson, the Yankees have returned to dominance, once again securing the AL East crown. The return of Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui from the disabled list adds a boost to an already fearsome lineup with all-star caliber talent at every position. Derek Jeter is a serious MVP candidate, and a Yanks pack a solid starting rotation as well, including a bounce-back year from Mike Mussina and the emergence of Chien-Ming Wang. Team chemistry is extremely volatile with star third baseman Alex Rodriguez slumping and frustrated, but it has yet to stop the wins from rolling in. The Evil Empire has again proved the naysayers wrong and once more look like the team to beat come October.

2. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers hold a slim lead over the Twins and White Sox in an extremely competitive AL Central. With a nucleus of young talent and a few well-placed free agent signings, the Tigers have posted the best record in the majors. Under the guidance of veteran Kenny Rogers, a young staff including Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman has flourished. The only question is how their young players will hold up down the stretch. Bonderman has had rough patches as of late, including a winless August, and the wear and tear of an entire season has taken its toll on others as well. However, if Jim Leyland, the notoriously tough manager, can maintain focus down the home stretch, the Tigers will see success for the first time in recent memory.

3. Minnesota Twins
Star rookie Francisco Liriano returned from the DL and lasted but three innings before re-injuring his elbow. This is a crushing blow for the Twins, as Liriano was arguably the best pitcher in baseball prior to his injury. Still, Minnesota has looked very sharp even without their young ace. Touting young studs in Joe Mauer, the best hitter in the majors this year, and Justin Morneau, a legitimate AL MVP candidate, the Twins have produced well. Rookie pitchers Matt Garza and Boof Bonser have shown flashes of brilliance at times, and Johan Santana has been untouchable as usual, winning nine of his last ten decisions. Even without Liriano, the Twins are a force to be reckoned with, packing a decent lead in the wild card race and a solid shot at the division title.

4. Oakland Athletics
Barring an unlikely late season collapse, the A's have the AL West locked up, as GM Billy Beane has once again proven his ability to build a contender. An off-season gamble on the aging Frank Thomas has paid off spectacularly, as the Big Hurt has mashed 38 homers thus far at a near-minimum salary. Granted, "Beaneball" has not been without its dubious moves, like trading Andre Ethier, who has emerged as a key player for the Dodgers, in exchange for Milton Bradley, or lavishing $21 million on pitcher Esteban Loaiza. Still, with a rock-solid rotation packing Barry Zito and a stellar bullpen led by closer Huston Street (3.96 ERA, 36 saves), the Athletics are poised to capture the AL West with moderate ease.

5. Chicago White Sox
The defending champion White Sox, led by the loquacious Ozzie Guillen, have stumbled at times this year but stand a mere five and a half games back in a competitive wild card race. Last year's success was based on consistent starters who were able to pitch deep into games, with many a nine-inning effort in the postseason. However, the extended pitch counts have seemingly taken their toll on the rotation. The entire staff sports ERAs north of 4.00, not a good sign for a playoff contender. The offense has been solid. Outfielder Jermaine Dye is enjoying a career year, blasting a team-high 43 home runs and 119 RBIs, while off-season acquisition Jim Thome has been a tremendous asset, providing much needed lefty pop. Still, he is a liability against left-handed pitching, batting a meager .233. Thome, Dye and Paul Konerko form a brutal middle of the order, but without consistent starting pitching, Chicago will have difficulty repeating last year's success.

6. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Despite a recent surge, the Angels have little chance of capturing a playoff berth, with a seemingly insurmountable deficit in both the division and the wild card. Outfielders Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Rivera are having outstanding years and young starters Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana have emerged as future top-of-the-rotation pitchers, but the revitalization has come too late. The Angels look to be a legitimate contender next season with the return of ace Bartolo Colon, but 2006 is ending too fast for a serious push.

7. Boston Red Sox
Even the most ardent in Red Sox Nation have conceded defeat, as the Red Sox have zero chance of making the postseason, save for divine intervention. This season, Sox have relied too much on their youth. With rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon nicked up and relievers Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen slumping, the bullpen looks horrendous, and the starters are shaky at best. While Curt Schilling has recovered nicely from last year's struggles, star acquisition Josh Beckett has been smacked around to the tune of 34 homers allowed. Even the vaunted offense has seen a drop-off in production. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are having great years as expected, but it has been quite evident that Coco Crisp is no Johnny Damon, the top-of-the-order offensive catalyst of years past. The Red Sox are paying the price of off-season misjudgments and look to spend this postseason at home.

National League Power Rankings

1. New York Mets
In a weak National League, the Mets are head and shoulders above the competition. Led by the resurgence of star outfielder Carlos Beltran and a young, talented infield, the Mets are the unquestioned favorites to win the NL pennant. Manager Willie Randolph has constructed a close-knit and disciplined team. While the starters have looked old and shaky at times, Billy Wagner and rest of the bullpen have been able to bail them out of many a sticky situation. If the offense can continue to produce and Pedro Martinez can be some semblance of the Pedro of old, the Mets have a legitimate shot at a World Series title.

2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals look to have wrapped the NL Central, but the credit for this achievement is due more to the ineptitude of the competition than to their own efforts. After a torrid start and an unlucky injury, defending MVP Albert Pujols has resumed putting up excellent numbers. 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter has again looked sharp in 2006, posting an impressive 2.93 ERA. However, the rest of the roster has looked terrible all year. Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds are shells of their former selves and questionable moves like the acquisition of pitchers Sidney Ponson and Jeff Weaver have not panned out. The Cardinals will win the division, but postseason success will be difficult when relying solely on two players.

3. San Diego Padres
The Padres currently hold a slim lead in a tightly contested NL West race. San Diego's pitching has been their rock for the entire season. Jake Peavy has pitched better than his 10-14 record suggests and Chris Young has looked sharp as well. Still, the offense is abysmal, lacking a single bat that instills fear in the opposition. Playing in spacious Petco Park is not an adequate excuse for such measly run production. Brian Giles's abilities have tapered off the past few years, and once surging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has had cold stretches, having just 5 homers since July. If not for consistent starters and a stellar bullpen manned by Scott Linebrink and new all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, San Diego would not even be an October consideration. The Pad-Squad looks to have enough pitching to reach the playoffs, but not enough firepower to make a dent.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers are in an extremely tight NL West race with surging San Diego. The personnel is in place for this team: first baseman Nomar Garciaparra has been a great addition, and reliever Takashi Saito is doing his best Eric Gagne impression in the closer role, amassing 21 saves and a 2.15 ERA. Veteran starter Greg Maddux was an excellent pickup who solidifies a staff led by Derek Lowe and Brad Penny, and youngsters like outfielder Andre Ethier are contributing nicely. Still, the Dodgers have been fluky this year, going on long winning streaks and long losing streaks to match. If Los Angeles can muster any semblance of consistency, a serious playoff run is a viable possibility.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are just now starting to live up to their enormous potential, winning 10 of the past 12 games and taking a half game lead in the NL wild card race. First baseman Ryan Howard has been a monster, on the verge of breaking Roger Maris' "clean" home run record of 61 with a staggering 58 blasts already this year. Howard's teammates have just beginning to step up this season, save for Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Pitching has been wildly inconsistent, even with solid efforts from Brett Myers and Tom Gordon and the addition of veteran Jamie Moyer. The talent is in place, but the pieces are just starting to come together.

6. Houston Astros
With five straight wins, the Astros have reemerged as a possible wild card contender. Houston packs one of the league's top rotations with Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in tow, and a MVP candidate in first baseman Lance Berkman, with his 43 homers and 130 RBIs. These four have been money down the stretch, but underachieving from others on the roster has cost them. Brad Lidge has collapsed in the closer role, more than doubling his ERA from last year and veteran infielders Craig Biggio and Adam Everett have shown their age, both batting under .250 for the year. The Big Three starters will keep the Astros competitive, but others must step up if Houston hopes to make a push.

7. Florida Marlins
Rookie skipper Joe Giriardi deserves Manager of the Year for what he has done with this team. Deemed hardly Triple-A worthy in the off-season after a tremendous salary purge, the Marlins tout a near .500 record. Led by Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, young starters and adept infielders have elevated Florida to respectability. Flaunting talent like 22-year-old fireballer Anibal Sanchez, who threw the first no-hitter in two years this month, Florida looks to figure into the playoff picture greatly in the next few seasons. While their chances of making a splash in this year's playoffs look slim, this looks to be a team worth watching for years to come.

8. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds have been a surprising team all season, managing to stay afloat in the tepid National League. Still, they lack the personnel to make a serious push. Outfielders Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. have provided their usual power, combining for 66 homers, and starter Bronson Arroyo, acquired in the off-season from Boston, has been a pleasant surprise, but consistent production has been hard to come by. Bullpen acquisition Eddie Guardado has succumbed to elbow woes and the other no-name pitchers have been shaky. Players like second baseman Brandon Phillips and catcher David Ross have great potential, but Cincinnati just cannot compete with more talented teams right now.

9. San Francisco Giants
With a roster bursting with players who are fast approaching AARP eligibility, the Giants have been a surprise contender, kept afloat by an unexpectedly solid rotation. Rookie Matt Cain has looked sharp at times and Jason Schmidt has enjoyed a career renaissance after last year's injury plagued mediocrity. Barry Bonds is not the player he once was, but he still invokes fear in opposing pitchers. With his sharp eye, he can draw plenty of walks, and when given a good pitch, Bonds can still hammer the ball out of the park. Still, the damage on his body is apparent, with his balky knees and slug-like base running. With a veteran lineup peddling proven postseason experience, the Giants can try to make a September run, but age is catching up with them fast.

Bold Predictions:

AL East New York Yankees*
AL Central Minnesota Twins
AL West Oakland A's
AL wild card Detroit Tigers

NL East New York Mets*
NL Central St. Louis Cardinals
NL West San Diego Padres
NL wild card Los Angeles Dodgers

*already clinched



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  • DJ (View Email) on September 25, 2006 at 10:24 PM
    LETS GO MARLINS, RED SOXS AND YANKEES! (no mets please)
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