Thursday, October 9, 2008

WWOD? NLCS Preview

Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles versus Philadelphia Phillies

It's the oldest team goal in all of baseball. Winning the National League pennant, that is. The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs formed in New York City on February 2, 1876. It was put together at the behest of a Mr. William Hulbert, a grocer turned coal trader turned owner of the Chicago White Stockings, because the National Association, the forerunner to NL, was on the skids. And so it was done. The NL was formed. It originally contained eight teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks were not amongst this group. Nor were the Metsies.

Somewhere early along the line it was decided that a flag was to be awarded at the conclusion of each season to the team that finished with the best win/loss record. This symbolic pennant would rise above the team's ballpark for all to see. There were no playoffs to decide who got to fly the pennant up the flagpole at season's end. There were no best-of-x series. There was no exhibition All-Star Game providing a decided advantage in deciding the league's winner. It was very simple. The best team over the course of the season was named that year's champion. The team's raced for the pennant. It was simple. And straightforward. The best team often did win. Which almost seems quaint these days.

This, of course, all changed once the National League had too many teams and therefore too much earning potential to just let the season end on it's final day. There was more money to be made. And, there was also the upstart American League to contend with. Beginning in 1903 these two professional baseball league's would each send there pennant-winning team to participate in the World Series. It would determine the word champion, rendering the individual league championships slightly less meaningful. Still, I think that most teams want to win the pennant whereas they really just want to reach the World Series.

Without much further adieu, let's break down this year's National League Championship Series matchup:

Phillies: Carlos Ruiz/Chris Coste
These guys are prototypical National League catchers. They catch the ball. They don't do much else. Both are right-handed. Neither hits for power. All of these things were also true about Yadier Molina.

Dodgers: Russell Martin
This guy, on the other hand, is an All Star. From Canada. Actually, the 24-year-old Martin is already a two-time All-Star. Last year he was awarded a Gold Glove Award and a Silver Slugger Award. This year, he led all catchers in steals and at-bats. Which shows he is a superior athlete and he stays on the field. However, he did crouch behind the plate for more innings this season than any other backstop. Which could be a concern.

Edge: Dodgers. And, it's not even close.

First Base
Phillies: Ryan Howard.
After missing the All-Star Game, thanks in large part to an anemic .234 batting average, Howard turned around his 2008 season and enters the NLCS as the presumptive NL MVP. He led the league (and the Majors) in home runs and RBI. He raked at a .352 clip in September and is good as he's ever been right now. Today. Which brings me to a fact that I have been slow to realize. Maybe because I'm a Mets fan. But I don't think so. Seemingly all of a sudden, Ryan Howard could be a two-time MVP winner, home run king and playoff regular. It was only a few years ago that Jim Thome was the Phillies slugging, strike-out prone first baseman. That was through the early part of 2005. A short time later, Howard's 48 longballs, coming in a year when power numbers dropped precipitously across the game (cough, no more steroids, cough), have established him as the game's premier power hitter. He's led his team to two, and counting, division titles. That description sounds sort of like a future Hall of Famer. Which is weird. And depressing. For me. And the Mets. Not for Howard, obviously.

Dodgers: James Loney.
He's not Ryan Howard. Which makes him seem the ugly stepsister in this comparison. But Loney is the real deal. He's got a solid, soon-to-be gold-edged glove and he can swing the bat. He's a middle-class man's Mark Teixeira. If I had to sign either Howard or Loney to a seven-year deal then I'd take Loney. And it wouldn't even be close. Loney is 24 years old and already playing in his third Major League season. Howard is already older than me. Which is old. In sporting years. Regardless, Loney led the Dodgers in RBI (90) and just behind teammate Andre Ethier in hits with 172. And, it was Loney that really (well, not really because everything goes back to the Manny trade) got this whole things started in the NLDS against the Cubs. He hit a Game 1 grand slam and the Dodgers never looked back.

Edge: Phillies. But barring a wild power-surge from Howard (which is not altogether unlikely) this matchup could be much closer to a wash than most people would think.

Second Base:
Phillies: Chase Utley
He was supposed to be the 2008 NL MVP. Howard won in 2006. Rollins won in 2007. This was Chase's year. And, it sure seemed like it in the early going as Utley broke out the gate hitting .352 in April to go along with 10 home runs and 21 RBI. The season was coming right to Chase. Until it wasn't. He never batted over .295 in any other month the rest of the season or hit more than eight home runs. Make no mistake, this guy is very good. He led all National League second baseman in runs, doubles, home runs and RBI. And, probably other stuff. Like spontaneous marriage proposals from the stands. Because he is dreamy.

Dodgers: Blake DeWitt.
He did not lead National League second baseman in runs, doubles, home runs, and RBI. He's 23 years old. And has 97 hits to his Big League resume. Utley had more just this year. Jeff Kent is the "real" two-bagger for the Dodgers. He is all-time home leader for the position. He is also old and on the bench with injury. And crankiness.

Edge: Phillies. And, it's not even close. Even if Utley has been hot and cold and cold and hot and cold and colder and warm and hot and cold throughout the season there is no doubting his ability. He is one of four people (Utley, Howard, Manny, Hamels) capable of single-handedly winning this LCS. The young Blake DeWitt? Not so much.

Third Base

Phillies: Pedro Feliz
This guy signed with the Fightins as a free agent during the offseason after coming up and playing with the Giants for the early portion of his career. I remember hearing that he was going to be a good fantasy baseball sleeper because he would hit 25 home runs by accident at the band box in Philly. I might have even drafted him in a league or two. Well, he hit 14 dingers, batted .248 and only drove in 58 runs. He didn't exactly carry anyone to a fantasy baseball title. To someone outside of the City of Brotherly Love, Feliz seems like a space filler in the lineup. He seems like the anonymous "replacement value player" that is used in all those sabremetric comparisons. The only thing about him that is worth thinking about is that having been a San Fran Giant for so long he was schooled in hatred for the Dodgers. They have been his rival his whole career. He even batted .417 against them during the regular season, which is the highest average he as against any team. Probably won't mean anything, but surely worth mentioning.

Dodgers: Casey Blake.
He has a playoff beard. And he's used it in the playoffs before. And that's all you need to know.

Edge: Playoff Beards. And, the Dodgers who wisely saw their one glaring weakness and traded for Blake during the season. The Indians, who had realized that they were not destined for October baseball this year, understood it would be a crime to keep Blake from contending late into Autumn.

Phillies: Jimmy Rollins.
He's a chatty fellow. In case you didn't know. Last season he was a heck of a baseball player as well. He hit a now suspicious number of home runs last year. He hit 30 as opposed to just 11 in 2008. All of this great 2007 play earned him the NL MVP Award. And, a NL East division title. He was the catalyst for last year's club. This year he was less of a catalyst. He was occassionally like a heavy stone chained to a tiring swimmer. He hit .217 in June. But, like all good players (there I said it) he stepped up when it mattered and hit .313 in the final month of the season as the Phils again passed the Mets for the division title. So, the real question is going to be which Rollins shows up in the NLCS. If it's September Rollins then you've got to love him as the difference maker. But if June Rollins shows up then, well then things are very different.

Dodgers: Rafael Furcal.
Much like his counterpart in the other dugout, the Dodgers have a potential difference maker at short and at the top of the batting order. Furcal came out as hot as anyone in baseball when the season started. With the exception of Chase Utley, that is. He hit .367 in April. And then he went down with a back injury and missed just about the rest of the season. I was shocked when he was on the postseason roster. But there he was in Game 1 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. There he was at the top of the Dodgers batting order. He hit .333 against the Cubs and crossed home plate four times. If he's really healthy then the Dodgers lineup becomes better than it was at any point during the regular season. And, so does their infield defense as Furcal has a great arm and good range. When healthy.

Edge: Right now you've got to say it's even. But given all the adversity both players faced this season you can't think both are going to come through. Whichever one does will likely be doused in champagne in the near future.

Right Field
Phillies: Jayson Werth
Although he sports the ideal baseball goatee, he is not your ideal ballplayer. Ideally, Werth is your club's fourth outfielder or part of a platoon in one of the corner spots. Due to injury and lack of depth, Werth ended up starting most of the season in right for the Phils. To his credit, he did what he could with the opportunity. He set career highs in home runs (24), hits (114), runs (73) and RBI (67). He went 5 for 16 in the Division Series.

Dodgers: Andre Ethier
Ethier is yet another young, up-and-coming go-getter making his name in the Chavez Ravine. Going over this Dodgers roster you do realize how stacked they are going forward. I don't know if this is a year (or two) too early for them but in 2010 you need to watch out for these guys. In fact, go out and find a sportsbook that has MLB futures and put down a few bucks on the Dodgers to win the NL pennant in each of the next few years. Do that. You'll win one of those bets. Then come back and finish reading this. Back? Ok. Good. So, this Ethier character in some ways is the poster child for the 2008 Dodgers 2.0. Going into the season he was battling with oldster Juan Pierre for playing time in left field. Ethier got the Opening Day start but by mid April it was a time-share. Meanwhile next door in center field, Andruw Jones was keeping Matt Kemp at bay on the depth chart. Luckily for Kemp there was room for him to get playing time in right field. Anyway, eventually Manager Joe Torre got acclimated out on the left coast, realized that Andruw Jones was now more myth than man, and that Ethier was too good to spend a few days a week on the bench. Well played, Joe, as Ethier would go on to lead the team in batting average (not counting Manny and Furcal who didn't play enough games to qualify) and home runs.

Edge: Slightly favoring the Dodgers. Ethier is the better ballplayer with the brighter future but over seven games that might not mean much at all if Werth is swinging a hot bat as he did in the Division Series against the Brewers.

Center Field
Phillies: Shane Victorino
The Flyin' Hawaiian is his nickname. There was a bobble-head doll of him wearing a hula skirt. The Phillies let Gold Glove-winning center fielder Aaron Rowand walk away so they could play Victorino every day this year. Not only was Victorino a cheaper option than Rowand (who signed a hefty deal with the San Fran Giants), but he didn't disappoint, setting career highs in almost every cumulative stat category. He can cover ground in the field and motor between the bases. In other words, he flies. And, he is from Hawaii.

Dodgers: Matt Kemp
There are 14,726,910 reasons why Kemp should not be the starting centerfielder for the Dodgers. It should be Andruw Jones, the man who is being paid one dollar apiece for each of those reasons I just mentioned. However, Kemp will trot out to the not-so-large patch of lawn in Philly for Game 1 of the NLCS while Jones won't even be on the roster. And, while this is partly because Jones has joined the Jerome James Contract Year All-Stars it is also because Kemp is a preternaturally gifted athlete who had a breakout year. In 2005 Baseball America ranked him as the best athlete in the Dodgers organization and he hasn't dissapointed in that regard. He's also gone a long way towards becoming more well-rounded player on the diamond, leading the club in hits, runs scored and total bases.

Edge: Dodgers. Both are solid players but I'll take the higher ceiling for Kemp in this series.

Right Field
Phillies: Pat Burrell
The best thing that the Dodgers have going for them when it comes to Pat Burrell is that they are not the Mets. Burrell terrorizes the Mets in a Chipper-esque fashion. I've seen him hit too many back-breaking home runs at Shea to take him too lightly. Especially in the tiny confines of Philly's home park. Another layer for Pat The Bat in this postseason is his contract status. His one-time long-term deal with the Phils expires after the World Series. He is a man without country at that point. So he's trying out for AL teams across the country right now. Moreover his relationship with the fans in Philly has been rocky at best. They loved him after his breakout year in 2002 and then hated him as he slumped through large stretches of 2006 and 2007. They wanted him shipped out of town alongside Bobby Abreu. Burrell has been gifted the chance to define his Philly legacy. A good performance in the NLCS and perhaps the World Series and he can be a legend in that town. A few too many strikeouts and it will be good riddance when it's all said and done.

Dodgers: Manny Ramirez
Last, but not least, is Manny. Being Manny. Which doesn't have nearly as much to do with idiosyncracy as it does with crushing baseballs. Absolutely crushing them. No matter who threw them. Where they are in relation to the strike zone. Or what the situation. In the 53 regular season games that Manny played with the Dodgers after being traded from Boston he hit .396, knocked 17 home runs and drove in 53 runs. In the three-game NLDS against the Cubs he hit 2 homers, got seven hits in 14 plate appearances, scored five runs, walked four times and drove in four runs. Is there any hitter that you would want your team to have to face less right now? He's the leading home run hitter in postseason play. He's on his way to having the most RBI in postseason play. He's arguably one of the top five right-handed hitters of all time. And, he's playing as well as he's ever played right now. Years down the road people are going to talk about his career the same way they talked about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. Both players were polarizing personalities. But they were great. And we eventually studied and recalled their frailty and selfishness off the field just as we did there greatness on it. That being said, I can understand why Boston fans are disgruntled. But we must remember that "disgruntled" is their natural inclination. Even if the past several years have made them forget it. They think that Manny screwed them over. That he dogged it and got a free ticket out of town. But the fact is that the Red Sox ran Manny out of town. Or, at the very least, they forced him into the blocks and then fired the starting gun. They had the chance during Spring Training to pick up at least one of the two options years on Manny's contract and they chose not to. They told the player most responsible for the franchise's turnaround that he had to prove his worth this season if he wanted to stay around. They told Manny he had to audition. Is it a surprise that something dramatic followed? Telling a famously mercurial player that you don't know if you want him around longer than this season is the easiest way to sour this season. You'd think that famously Harvard-educated GM Theo Epstein would have deduced as much. Especially with uber-agent Scott Boras perched on one of Manny's shoulders holding a pitchfork. But this is a debate for another time. Manny is a Dodger. And he is appointment television. I don't want to miss an at-bat.

Edge: Um. Dodgers.

UP NEXT: Pitching and Managerial Comparisons and the WWOD? Predicition