Front-runner? Take your pick

Who's the favorite?

It's mid-September, and we're supposed to know the answer to this by now.

Who's the favorite to win the World Series?

"It's not the Yankees," says one GM.

"Atlanta has had the best year," says another. "But to me, they're ripe to flop in the playoffs."

OK, great. Now that we've talked ourselves out of the two teams with the best records in their leagues, we can just throw a dart, haul out a Ouija Board or leave all our predictions to Bailey the Sports Dog (consult Page 2 for details).

Because Bailey the Sports Dog's guess on who's going to win the World Series is as good as yours, or ours, or even George Steinbrenner's.

It's a little over a year since the labor deal got done -- a deal theoretically forged in the name of competitive balance. Well, nobody ought to think this is all the labor deal's doing. But if this isn't competitive balance, we need a new dictionary.

There are 15 games scheduled in the major leagues today, and 13 of them have pennant-race significance. There are still 15 teams with a realistic chance to make the playoffs. Only two (Braves and Giants) already know they're in. And just about every one of them can make some kind of case for why they should win the World Series.

"There is no perfect team this year," says one GM. "And that's what they wanted, right? They wanted parity. They've got it."

So which of those flawed teams will win the World Series? We surveyed a bunch of general managers, front-office men and scouts this week. Even they came to absolutely no consensus.

The Braves, Giants, Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, White Sox and Mariners all got at least one vote. Well, that sure cleared that up.

We tried looking at recent World Series history for insight. That didn't help much, either. We checked the last 10 Series champions. On the average, they finished fourth in the league in ERA and fifth in runs scored.

Five finished in the top three in their league in ERA -- but the '92 Blue Jays ranked ninth. Five finished in the top three in their league in runs scored -- but the '95 Braves and '96 Yankees both ranked ninth.

Three of those teams -- the '96 Yankees, '97 Marlins and 2000 Yankees -- won the World Series even though they didn't finish in the top three in either runs scored or ERA. Those 2000 Yankees didn't even finish in the top five in either department. They did lead the league in saves, though.

So to sum up our findings so far, the baseball experts can't agree, history is no guide, and we haven't heard yet from any psychics or sports dogs. But we're going to try to forge on with this analysis anyhow. Let's look at all the contenders that got a vote:

YANKEES: Boss Steinbrenner is just about demanding that they win. And he'll be happy to hear that of our 15 serious contenders, only the Giants (36-24) have topped the Yankees' record against the other contenders (36-26). He won't want to hear the Yankees rank 11th out of 15 in bullpen ERA, 10th in rotation ERA and only seventh in run differential vs. their opponents (plus-102).

"(Jason) Giambi isn't hitting the ball inside at all," says one AL scout. "Bernie (Williams) is just a singles hitter now. Aaron Boone is an out right now. And they're not a real good defensive team. But they can still line up (Mike Mussina, (Andy) Pettitte and (Roger) Clemens. So against certain clubs, they can match up."

RED SOX: The Angels pounded their way into a parade last October. So who's to say the Red Sox can't do the same? They lead the contenders in every significant offensive category. They lead all of baseball in the runs scored/allowed (plus-143). But among the contenders, only the Royals have a worse bullpen ERA (4.98), and just the Royals and Twins had worse starters' ERAs (4.41).

"If I had to pick one team, I'd pick them," says one GM. "And the only reason is, I think Pedro (Martinez), (Derek) Lowe and (Tim) Wakefield give them a chance to get the game to the seventh inning. Which is what they need, because their bullpen scares the hell out of me. But they've got the best offense in baseball, which makes them the least likely team to get shut down by good pitching."

WHITE SOX: This is the hottest team going right now. Best record in baseball since the All-Star break (33-17). Averaging six runs a game and two homers a game since the break. Third in the league in starters' ERA (4.09), even though their fifth starters have exactly three wins in 24 starts. Third in the league in overall ERA. But five games under .500 against contenders outside their division. And the worst road record of any contender (11 games under .500 on the road, vs. 23 over at home).

"Dangerous team," says one GM. "They've got three real good starters and a good back end of the bullpen, even though they have no true closer. And they've got a dangerous lineup. My concerns would be bullpen depth, major questions on defense, and a lack of true cohesiveness and makeup." Another GM seconds that sentiment, saying: "The only thing I don't like is, I just don't trust that cast of characters."

MARINERS: At the All-Star break, they had the second-best record in baseball (58-35). Since the break, the only contender with a worse record than this team (24-27) is the Royals. But we still say: Watch out for the Mariners. They still lead the AL contenders in bullpen ERA (3.34). They're plus-135 for the year in runs scored/allowed, second only to Boston in the AL. And they're 36-26 against other contenders (tied with the Yankees for best in the AL).

"Two or three weeks ago, I really felt like Seattle had the best chance to win it all," says one GM, "because the things they do best are the things that matter most in October: defense, pitching, professionalism, experience. They looked like the best team out there in all those things. But they've placed a big burden on young pitching, and it looks like lack of experience and the fatigue factor is taking its toll. They've still got a shot if they get there, but they're going to have to fight just to get there."

BRAVES: A very tough team to evaluate. They have the best record in baseball, even though they've given up at least 15 runs in a game five times. They have the best runs scored/allowed ratio in the league (plus-136), even though they lost those five blowout games by a combined 71 runs. They have a closer (the now-injured John Smoltz) with an ERA under 1.00 -- but still rank sixth among the NL contenders in bullpen ERA (4.16). They lead the league in every major offensive department -- but the only NL contender with a higher team ERA (4.19) is the Cardinals. So no wonder our panelists did everything from pick them to win the Series to lose in the first round.

The optimist's view: "Assuming Smoltz comes back, they're the best team in the league," says one GM. "Their lineup is very deep. They just keep coming at you. They've got speed at the top of the lineup. And there isn't an out any place in the lineup. Their pitching isn't what it was, but with (Greg) Maddux and (Mike) Hampton and (Russ) Ortiz, they've got veteran guys to lean on in the rotation. If Smoltz is OK, they've got one of the best closers. And the manager (Bobby Cox) has been there numerous times. So I'll stick with them. To me, they're better than they've ever been."

The pessimist: "They've had the best year, but I'm not convinced they're the best team. They're one of the best offensive teams I've seen, but teams like that can get shut down in the playoffs. And if they do, they can be down, 2-0, in a hurry in that first round. I'm just not sold on their starting pitching. They've got no dominating starter."

GIANTS: This team gets the same kind of mixed reviews. They've played the other contenders the best (36-24). They've had the best second half in the NL (30-18 since the break). And of the 15 contenders, only the Dodgers and A's have a better team ERA (3.78). But a lineup that includes Barry Bonds ranks only 13th among the contenders in runs scored and 12th in on-base-plus-slugging. And that's an ominous sign for a postseason in which Bonds might not get many more pitches to hit than Karl Ravech.

"Of all the teams in the league," says one NL GM, "they're probably the team I least like playing. You get a lead, they come right back. They have a lot of veterans who know how to play. But you look at their rotation, and they're young. Jerome Williams has never been through this. (Sidney) Ponson has never really been there. So do they really have the depth in their rotation to be able to win a seven-game series? And why would any team let Barry beat them? To win, they've got to get somebody hot behind him, like Benito (Santiago) was last year."

CUBS: If you pick them to win, there's just one reason: Starting pitching. Only the Dodgers (3.48) and A's (3.61) have better ERAs than this rotation (3.72). But after that, only the Dodgers keep this from being the lowest-ranking offense among all the contenders. They've outscored their opponents by only 25 runs for the season, fewest among NL contenders. And they were five games under .500 against contenders until they won four of five against St. Louis last week. But two GMs we surveyed think they have a chance to win it all, for the same reasons people were once picking the A's -- three potentially dominating starters (Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood).

"It's the same formula as the A's, but they might be a little better offensively than the A's," says one GM. "These are all young guys who have never been through it, and they'll have to step up. But as far as quality arms, they've got it."

BEST OF THE REST: Amazingly, nobody picked the A's, with Mark Mulder gone for the year and Barry Zito "not the same." If you just look at numbers, the Phillies rank amazingly high -- but the panel questioned the "holes in their offense," lack of a closer and relationship with their manager. One scout described the streaking Marlins as "scary," but one GM called them "the Kansas City of the National League" (i.e., great story, not built for October). Nobody picked the Dodgers (no offense), Twins (too many holes), Astros (shaky rotation), Cardinals (ditto) or Royals (double-ditto).

THE PICK: Well, we tried doing this mathematically. We ranked the contenders in nine categories -- winning percentage, runs scored/allowed, record vs. contenders, second-half record, runs scored, team ERA, starters' ERA, bullpen ERA and OPS. Using that system, we got Giants vs. Yankees, with the Giants winning it all.

But that seemed way too easy. So we're not going to pick by the numbers. We're going to pick the best story: Cubs vs. Red Sox. Why the Cubs? Because Prior and Zambrano are a combined 14-1, 1.40 since the break, and if Kerry Wood is your third-best starter, nobody can top that. Why the Red Sox? Because this is baseball's best lineup since the '95 Indians -- and they can run Pedro out there twice in a short series.

Now if those two teams really played in a World Series, it would be reasonable to wonder if anybody would win. But our first prediction is: Somebody would. Our second prediction is: That team would be the Red Sox, because they're better-balanced. And our third prediction is: The party in New England wouldn't end till Opening Day.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.