Yankees, Phillies have the edge in a pair of tight LCS matchups
There's no better front three than Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels
Brian Wilson anchors the Giants' bullpen -- best among the four LCS teams
There's no rest for pitchers facing the Yankees' power-packed batting order
Breaking down --and ranking -- baseball's Final Four in five key categories...
1. Phillies. From the moment that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. landed Roy Oswalt from his old pal Ed Wade in Houston to go with Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels there was no better front three in baseball "Everyone [of the four teams] has two good ones, Philly's got three,'' one scout said in what might an oversimplification of four very good rotation tops. Oswalt was red-hot until seeing the Reds in Game 2 of the NLDS and giving up four runs in five innings. But two scouts say they believe that Hamels is really the Phillies' second-best pitcher, behind no-hit artist Halladay, who will be shooting to become the first pitcher ever to throw three no-hitters in a year. Halladay was unhittable (obviously) in his Game 1 start in the NLDS, and Hamels wasn't that far behind him in Game 3. Now these great pitchers get to face the Giants, by most accounts a weaker offensive team than the Reds. Joe Blanton is a solid and versatile fourth starter for the Phillies, though certainly nowhere near the class of their top three.
2. Giants. A case could be made for the Giants at No. 1. "Take your pick,'' between the Phillies and Giants," one scout said. Tim Lincecum is just the sort of strikeout artist that thrives in the postseason, as shown in his 14-strikeout, two-hit effort in NLDS Game 1 vs. the Braves. Game 3 starter Matt Cain is an excellent complement to Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez, who's being moved up to start Game 2 against the lefty-heavy Phillies, limited opposing hitters to a league-low .204 batting average. The Phillies' trio gets the edge here, but mostly for their experience. It also doesn't hurt that Halladay is more durable than Lincecum (or anyone else) and more apt to make three starts if called upon. But the Giants' trio isn't far behind. Rookie Madison Bumgarner was solid in his Game 4 start vs. the Braves after a very nice finish to the season.
3. Yankees. CC Sabathia will likely finish second to Felix Hernandez in the AL Cy Young voting after winning 21 games. Sabathia earned his postseason pedigree last year, though he was overshadowed by Cliff Lee. Andy Pettitte is the alltime postseason leader with 19 wins. And Phil Hughes employed a nasty cutter en route to a dominant Game 3 start in the ALCS, giving the Yankees a very impressive front three, as well. However, No. 4 man A.J. Burnett is an utter mess, turning in one of the worst years ever for a Yankees starter, and certainly anyone making $16 million annually. He seemed distracted in just about all his starts the final month. Their starters' second-half ERA of 4.22 (22nd-best in baseball) shouldn't be taken too seriously as it reflects a raft of starts by Burnett, Javier Vazquez and other lesser lights, and they'll only have to employ Burnett once and the others not at all.
4. Rangers. Lee's inability to start Game 1 or 2 hurts them, but C.J. Wilson is a hard-throwing left-hander who transitioned brilliantly to the rotation. "I think Texas has a shot,'' one scout said. "With Wilson and Lee, Texas has a better chance than Tampa would have had [against the Yankees]. "C.J. Wilson's a pretty good lefty who throws hard and learned a lot from Lee,'' one AL scout added. Lee is a postseason dynamo on the cusp of a contract to rival Johan Santana's -- or even Sabathia's -- after dominating two straight Octobers. Colby Lewis re-invented himself after returning from Japan under excellent pitching coach Mike Maddux's tutelage. Tommy Hunter is no better than average -- but miles ahead of Burnett at this point.
1. Giants. Brian Wilson had one of the best seasons of any closer. He anchors a hard-throwing bullpen that's tough to navigate. Their 2.99 'pen ERA during the year was second-best in baseball. "The middle of the 'pen is better than Philly's,'' one scout said. And that's true even if most don't know the names.
2. Yankees. Any team with Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher and arguably the greatest postseason performer of alltime, has to be ranked high. Still-hard-throwing Kerry Wood has been brilliant for the Yankees, right up until Game 3 vs. the Twins, when he struggled with his control. David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain give the Yankees two more viable options but are hit-or-miss. Boone Logan had a decent year as a situational lefty, but probably can't repeat Damaso Marte's 2009 postseason. "If I'm the Yankees, I'm not feeling fantastic about my 'pen; same goes for the Rangers,'' said a scout.
3. Phillies. Brad Lidge is back to being the Good Lidge, temporarily setting the Philly faithful at ease. And that's the main concern considering their strong and durable starting staff. With two complete games, they needed only four innings from their relievers in the NLDS vs. the Reds, all of them scoreless. Ryan Madson seems to pump it up in October. Jose Contreras has been solid, but if a team gets past those three, it may be in luck. C.J. Romero and Chad Durbin can be had right now.
4. Rangers. There are some great arms in their bullpen, led by rookie closer Neftali Feliz. Another newcomer, Alexei Ogando, isn't far behind in terms of talent. But as a group they weren't great in their series against the Rays, giving cause for concern about the ultra-young 'pen.
1. Yankees. There's none better. Longtime Astros star Lance Berkman bats eighth, which provides an idea just how good this lineup is. They appeared to be taking a half step back with the loss last offseason of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, but Curtis Granderson has come on strong in recent months and Nick Swisher is having a huge year. The Yankees' 889 runs this year led baseball, and they kept it going in the ALDS, scoring 17 runs and posting an .865 OPS in three games vs. the Twins. Plus, they have more speed than you might think, between Granderson, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter. "They're tough one through nine, and [Marcus] Thames can hit one out of the park, too,'' one scout said. "There's no rest,'' said another scout.
2. Phillies. They were inconsistent or injured for much of the year but showed their potential in the second half, when they were second to the Yankees with 362 runs. They have "more weapons,'' than the Giants, one scout noted. Those include Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, who each can carry a team when hot. Placido Polanco gives them nice balance, and Carlos Ruiz provides more big hits than almost anyone. Usual lineup igniter Jimmy Rollins isn't 100 percent after returning from a calf injury.
3. Rangers. Like the Rays, they can beat teams in a number of ways, which they showed in Game 5 with some speed, even from surprising sources (Vladimir Guerrero and Bengie Molina). Their 123 stolen bases was seventh-best in baseball. Their power is more obvious, helping them to a fifth-in-baseball 787 runs. Their eight home runs in the ALDS shows the damage they can do. Josh Hamilton "has a few at-bats under his belt and might be ready to hit like he can,'' one NL scout said. But they have other strong hitters, namely Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler. They don't quite match the Yankees, but they're not bad at all.
4. Giants. They are no longer an offensive joke, as they made more additions to their lineup in-season than anyone, beginning on May 29 with the promotion of rookie catcher Buster Posey. It didn't come close to ending there, though. While Jose Guillen has fallen out of favor, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, a waiver pickup selected partially to block the Padres, have fortified an underperforming outfield. "They've got guys who are capable now,'' one scout said. The Giants finished 17th in runs scored with 697, which is just about average considering the pitchers' park in which they play.