Which team will win it all? For those of us who picked Oakland and St. Louis in March, things seem far less clear now.
So, here is a guide to three good reasons why each of the playoff teams can win in the first round:
1. The obvious -- the deepest pitching staff in baseball. Greg Maddux is pitching as well as he can, Tom Glavine spent the year passing Hall of Famers in wins and Kevin Millwood was as good as either of them. Then the bullpen ... and you know they will not pitch to Barry Bonds.
2. John Smoltz.
3. Rafael Furcal, Gary Sheffield and Andruw Jones all getting hot around Chipper Jones.
San Francisco Giants
1. Bonds throws everyone out of whack trying to avoid him. And when he gets something to hit, crushing it and his past postseason failures.
2. Jason Schmidt is Curt Schilling II, right down to the arm angle, and he, Russ Ortiz, Felix Rodriguez and Robb Nen can overpower the Braves lineup.
3. The Giants were the best road offensive team, and best home pitching team.
1. Randy and Curt, Curt and Randy.
2. They have a lot of players who can execute, which wins 2-1, 3-2 games.
3. Even with all the injuries, Steve Finley, Matt Williams, Mark Grace and the veterans have histories of coming up big.
St. Louis Cardinals
1. The best everyday lineup in the league, including Gold Glovers at second base, shortstop, third base, catcher and center field.
2. That lineup can get Schilling and Johnson out in the seventh or eighth innings, and their bullpen can then win those games.
3. They are America's Team.
New York Yankees
1. If Mariano Rivera is all right, the collection of Mike Stanton/Ramiro Mendoza/Steve Karsay in the bullpen becomes an increasingly significant factor the longer the Yanks play.
2. The Yankees' five starters may have been unpredictable the last couple of months, but they are 37-18 career in the postseason. That's history.
3. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Joe Torre and company have a history of October excellence.
1. They have played at Yankee Stadium better than any team in the last four years.
2. Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz can shut any team down, and their bullpen can match the Yankees if they perform as they did during the regular season. And the cutters thrown by John Lackey -- against whom lefties hit .207 -- and Francisco Rodriguez could be surprise factors.
3. David Eckstein, Darin Erstad and Garret Anderson are fearless.
1. Hudson, Mulder, Zito. Best starting three in the league. Mulder and Zito shut out the Twins recently and the Twins struggle against left-handed pitching (22-29 record when left-handers start).
2. David Justice, Scott Hatteberg and Ray Durham have brought experienced, cool heads to the Frat House.
3. There's something magical about Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez.
1. If they can get the A's into a couple of bullpen games, they can win, especially since they have Johan Santana, J.C. Romero and Everyday Eddie Guardado to negate the Oakland left-handed bats.
2. If they win a game in Oakland, they can turn the BaggyDome into an open ice arena, which could be big trouble for that A's outfield.
3. Never underestimate the big-game capabilities of Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz.
Front-office rumblingsDoug Melvin is a prefect choice to rebuild the Brewers. He wants Buck Showalter as his manager, but so does owner Tom Hicks in Texas and so might GM Dave Littlefield in Pittsburgh. Rangers GM John Hart had given a vote of confidence to manager Jerry Narron, but Hicks wants a star, and it may come down to whether Rangers pitching Orel Hershiser wants the job as to whether Showalter goes elsewhere. Meanwhile, Oakland bench coach Ken Macha, who was denied permission to interview for the Boston managerial job in March, is rumored to be one of the leading candidates to get a managing post with the Cubs, Tigers or Pirates.
The abysmal, embarrassing finish of the Baltimore Orioles reportedly has sparked owner Peter Angelos to move Syd Thrift out as head of baseball operations. Former Orioles pitcher and current club broadcaster Mike Flanagan, teamed with current special assistant Ed Kenney and director of scouting Tony DeMacio, is one possibility to run the O's baseball operations.
Pat Gillick says he will wait until after Sunday to decide whether he will return as Seattle's GM. As for manager Lou Piniella, it's not just owenership's refusal to upgrade the team that makes him wonder, but he also has four generations of family in the Tampa area that he misses and makes his life -- 3000-something miles away -- difficult.
Cleveland's managerial choice comes down to Joel Skinner or Angels pitching coach Bud Black.
With rumors abounding in Boston that Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi will leave Toronto to take over his hometown team, there was a sign in SkyDome the other night that read, "We Love You, J.P., Don't Go to Boston."
Looking back at '02
Expos GM Omar Minaya has a simple explanation for Orlando Cabrera's season: "His back was bothering him for half the year," says Minaya. "When he was healthy the last month to six weeks, he's been great."
This and that on the M's
There have been questions raised in Seattle whether or not the M's will pick up the $10 million, 2003 option on Edgar Martinez.
There's also talk of trading shortstop Carlos Guillen and signing someone like Rey Sanchez for middle-infield protection. One encouraging thing is that Gil Meche was throwing well at the end of the season, as was Ken Cloude until a minor late-season setback; they have to re-sign Cloude, who is a six-year free agent with a lot of interest. Piniella's been impressed with Willie Bloomquist, who prompted this first 15 plate big-league appearance comparison by Jay Wolfe of Steinberg and Moorad:
Only the great Hercules Burnett and the underrated Ed Sanicki kept Bloomquist from having the highest slugging percentage all-time in his first 15 big-league plate appearances.
Willie Bloomquist, .538
Cliff Dapper, .471
Vince Sherlock, .462
Joe Burns, .429
Vic Rodriguez, .429
Joe Peitz, .423
Gale Staley, .423
Gene Curtis, .421
Gordon Massa, .412
Hercules Burnett, .412
Ed Sanicki, .882
Hercules Burnett, .882
Willie Bloomquist, .769
Joe Peitz, .731
Jerry Brooks, .714
Cliff Dapper, .706
Babe Ruth, .690
Domingo Martinez, .682
Grant Dunlap, .647
Ted Williams, .634
Lee Sinins of Baseball Immortals offers this worst list for runs created above average.
Here's the top 10 worst active RCAA:
Neifi Perez, -259
Joe Girardi, -220
Rey Sanchez, -204
Rey Ordonez, -200
Royce Clayton, -196
Mike Matheny, -168
Jose Vizcaino, -165
Mike Bordick, -164
Alex Gonzalez, -155
Darren Lewis, -153
That no-good turf
When one sees what the Toronto turf does to young pitchers -- Roy Halladay was 9-1 on grass, 9-6 on turf this season -- one assumes that when and if Chris Carpenter is non-tendered by the Jays as a fourth-year arbitration player, even coming off an arm injury he could be a wise signing for some team willing to give him time to rehab and restore his confidence, which was so shot on the phony turf.