None of baseball's certain playoff entrants are playing great except the win-a-day Yankees now. The powerful Cardinals have slowed to a crawl, while the stacked Red Sox and Dodgers, in particular, have appeared to be trying to perfect the art of backing in.
None of this is likely to matter when the playoffs begin next week, as these teams are all better than they are showing lately (except for the Yankees, who can't possibly be any better, and the Rockies, Braves and Twins, who are still fighting hard to get in). But the reality is that every team -- and that includes the $200 million Yankees -- has something to worry about. Some imperfection, a flaw, a weakness.
Here is a rundown of each team's main concern (and in some cases, concern is putting it kindly):
New York Yankees
There's no debate where the Yankees' vulnerability lies: it's in the back end of their rotation. Which is why they are going to opt for the longer division series, with the extra day off. That's certainly understandable if their opponent is the Twins, who have five fairly interchangeable starters, but the Tigers are slightly top-heavy, too. The Joba Rules have changed as the games have gone on, but the preferred treatment today is to keep him out of the rotation (at least for the division series), no matter who they play. A.J. Burnett went to the videotape and appears to have cured a series of mechanical flaws that made him into a shell of himself for the better part of the summer, while October veteran Andy Pettitte now reports no shoulder fatigue after missing a start in September.
Worry Meter (1 to 10 scale): 3
Los Angeles Angels
Baseball's best organization let record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez go, then saw Scot Shields suffer a season-ending injury and Jose Arredondo fail to show his considerable talent. Free-agent pickup Brian Fuentes actually saved more games this year than K-Rod (that's mostly because poor K-Rod went to the sad-sack Mets), but one scout said, "I'd be nervous about Fuentes. Right-handed hitters get a good look at his pitches." That scout did say he loved setup man Kevin Jepsen, whose ERA is down from 11.68 on July 1 to 4.82. Another scout said flat out about Fuentes, "He doesn't have closer stuff." Overall, their bullpen has a 4.56 ERA, 24th-best in baseball and worst among playoff teams.
Worry Meter: 6
Los Angeles Dodgers
The current plan is to use Randy Wolf in Game 1, followed by talented kid Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda, then choose from among presumed ace Chad Billingsley and recently acquired innings-eater Jon Garland for the fourth starter. Billingsley hasn't won since Aug. 18, and one person familiar with their thinking said the Dodgers seemed to be losing faith in Billingsley, though his solid effort Tuesday night in a 3-1 defeat to the Padres may give him the edge for the No. 4 spot here over Garland, who's outpitched them all lately (1.91 ERA in his past five starts). The rotation is underwhelming enough that Vicente Padilla (who was released by Texas) "may be their best starter," one scout said, unless it's Garland, who came for infielder Tony Abreu, assuming they can work out Abreu's service-time issue. But still, let's not forget their rotation's ERA is 3.59, which is behind only the Braves and Cardinals. The biggest issue is actually starting to look like the offense and whether Manny can become Manny again anytime soon.
Worry Meter: 4
Boston Red Sox
Frequent October ace Josh Beckett just sat out a game with back trouble, while Jon Lester, who's been their best pitcher, suffered a bruised thigh when he was hit by a liner. Lester seems to be fine, and Beckett says he is, too. Rookie Clay Buchholz seems to be improving, while Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn't been bad since coming back. But with Tim Wakefield still hurting, they're going to need Beckett and Lester to be on point.
Worry Meter: 4
Closer Brad Lidge may not have made a deal with the devil, but it sure seems that way. Lidge has followed his perfect 2008 season with the worst imaginable year. "His breaking ball is flat," said one scout, espousing one of about a thousand theories. Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez are among the closing alternatives. Madson looks decent in the ninth-inning role, but if he's promoted to that spot, they'll miss him as a setup man. Lidge is the man most responsible for the 2008 title. But his struggles represent the most serious concern any playoff team faces now. Several other relievers are dealing with a variety of injury issues.
Worry Meter: 10
St. Louis Cardinals
Closer Ryan Franklin was terrific for six months, carrying a 1.05 ERA into September, but the mark is up to 7.56 in September. "He needs to have control because he doesn't have dominating stuff, and he hasn't had that lately," one scout, comparing him to journeyman Chad Durbin, said. The Cardinals do have a terrific rotation, and may rely less on their 'pen than any of the playoff-bound teams, but at some point they're going to need help from what appears to be a very average bullpen.
Worry Meter: 5
They have a nice, balanced young team that seems to have the same sort of mojo that drove them in 2007. But like Rockies teams of old, they still struggle on the road. Their main worry at the moment is getting in, though, as the Braves are hot and have four games left against the hapless Nats.
Worry Meter: 4
The lineup looks formidable ... on paper. But for most of the year it has been anything but that, reflective of their 716 runs, which ranks a very average 16th in baseball. Magglio Ordonez has had a resurgence (at least in terms of batting average), and Placido Polanco has been better in the second half, too, but they are surprisingly reliant on MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera. Brandon Inge has been slowed by health issues in the second half, and Curtis Granderson's old issues against left-handed pitching have returned. The Tigers looked to improve their defense (adding Gerald Laird and Adam Everett) this winter, and that call paid off. But it also shows at bat.
Worry Meter: 7