After a fantastic season, baseball's postseason came down to the final four teams -- the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs (in the NLCS) and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (in the ALCS). But while these were supposedly the four best teams in Major League Baseball, each team had glaring weaknesses.
I never thought I'd need to say this, but I believe the reason is that there isn't enough talent to go around MLB today. There aren't enough bona-fide major-leaguers available to fill every major-league roster.
The Red Sox featured a potent, record-setting offense. But their pitching -- from starters to closers -- was just OK. The Cubs had a couple of strong starters, but their bullpen was iffy at best. The Yankees had four good starters, but their erratic middle-inning and setup relievers had trouble getting the ball to closer Mariano Rivera. The Yankees also struggled offensively in the Series.
The Marlins, despite their victory, struggled with closing games toward the end of the pennant race and into the postseason. And while they excelled at small ball, their lineup lacked power.
Remember, it isn't always the best team that wins the World Series, but the team that plays the best in the postseason. Give the Marlins credit, though, because they never played afraid -- even when they faced a 3-1 series deficit vs. the Cubs. They weren't afraid to lose but played to win.
My premise about the dilution of major-league talent is merely an observation. Perhaps I'll attempt to address the problem with a solution another day in another column.
With the decline of the Yankees' most recent dynasty -- if you can call reaching six of the past eight World Series a decline -- MLB has lots of good teams with weaknesses but no great teams. It looks like we're in an era of greater parity. Was there a team this season that you'd compare to the great teams of the past? You'd have to combine two of these final four teams to field a great team.
MLB has seriously considered contracting franchises in recent years, and contraction would solve part of the problem (although it would create other problems). Too many No. 5 starters are weak, and too many position players -- five or more per roster -- are basically minor-league players. The bottom line is that there are too many teams today for the amount of talent that's available year in and year out.
MLB's best players are still as good as ever. But the talent toward the bottom of each roster is lacking, in my opinion.
One contributing factor is that many of today's best athletes are going into other sports. In the past, baseball attracted the best athletes. That's not the case anymore. After such a dramatic postseason, I wish there were more day playoff games (and earlier starts for night games) so that youngsters could see the exciting finishes. Perhaps if more kids were able to watch these games, baseball would regain some of the popularity it has lost to other sports.
Marlins primed for long-term success
I believe Florida will be a serious playoff threat for the foreseeable future because of its young starters. Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano all will be better next year because of the confidence boost following their successful postseason.
The last time the Marlins won a world championship (in 1997), they were decimated due to finances, trading away their best players to clear salary. I don't see that happening this time, but Florida's front office still has some tough decisions to make.
Their No. 1 priority is keeping All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Second baseman Luis Castillo probably will be lost to free agency. The Marlins might let third baseman Mike Lowell go, but midseason call-up Miguel Cabrera is ready to step in.
The Marlins will have to get rid of some salary. I read recently that to keep all their free agents, their payroll would have to increase by $40 million. The way they drew fans this past season -- or failed to draw fans -- I don't see how they can do that. In 2004, though, I expect fans in south Florida to support the Marlins more than they did in 2003.
By the way, to anyone who picked the Marlins last spring to win the World Series -- congratulations! With the Angels and Marlins winning the past two World Series, maybe next year it'll be the Devil Rays ... you never know.
Yanks eye major offseason change
The Yankees are definitely facing an offseason of change. The starting rotation could have a 60-percent turnover or more. In fact, we may have seen the last of this Yankee dynasty, which has been built on starting pitching.
Roger Clemens plans to retire, and the Yankees have declined David Wells' $6 million option (though GM Brian Cashman says they still might bring Wells back, supposedly with a restructured deal). Andy Pettitte hasn't filed for free agency officially yet, but all indications are that he'll test the market, with an eye toward his home state of Texas.
If pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre doesn't return, that could influence Pettitte's decision. Pettitte and Stottlemyre have a close relationship.
If those three starters are gone, Mike Mussina and Jose Contreras would be the No. 1 and No. 2 guys. The Yankees might try to trade Jeff Weaver, but after he struggled this year they won't be able to get a quality starter for him. Also, remember that the Yankees picked up starter Jon Lieber last offseason knowing he would miss 2003 due to injury. Lieber has a track record of success (most recently with the Cubs).
This offseason's crop of free-agent starters includes Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood and Greg Maddux. If the Yankees can sign someone, they can revamp their rotation. As for the bullpen, it needs a major overhaul (except for closer Mariano Rivera).
In terms of New York's lineup, I don't expect third baseman Aaron Boone to return, and outfielders Karim Garcia and David Dellucci need to be replaced. But some great free agents are available, such as Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield and Miguel Tejada.
DH/first baseman Rafael Palmeiro is also a free agent, but the Yankees have Nick Johnson and Jason Giambi at those positions. Depending on how his injured knee recovers, Giambi might DH more next season.
It won't be easy for the Yankees to revamp. I'm not sure you can solve every problem with money, but George Steinbrenner will give it a try.
Best free agents?
Regarding the best available free agents, regardless of position or team need: If I were a GM, I'd go after the 27-year-old Guerrero as my first priority, because of his youth and his superb ability. You can build a team for the long haul around Guerrero.
Next, I'd pursue Tejada. Also 27, Tejada is another guy you can build a team around.
But if I wanted to win next year and needed a powerful bat to anchor my lineup, I'd go after Sheffield first. As far as pitching, Colon would be No. 1 on my list.
This is my last column of the year, and I've enjoyed posting them and hosting chats throughout the season. These forums enable me to talk directly to baseball fans and to voice comments that I don't have time to express on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. I've appreciated the opportunity.
I'm already looking forward to next season -- only 106 days till spring training!
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76.