Monday, October 20, 2008

2008 World Series preview

By Rick Morris

I said that it was highly improbable. As a fan, not an analyst, I have never been so happy to be wrong. The Rays have eliminated the Red Sox and are going to the World Series!

Rarely if ever in recent history has a team averted a historic “choke” in Game 7, but Tampa managed to do so, and if you think about it, it’s kind of fitting that a young, come-from-nowhere (not in terms of talent, but in terms of shockingly sudden collective maturation of young talent) team that has been compared to the ’69 Mets would be the team to get it done. In other words, the accomplishments of this team are already historic, so why not this Tampa Bay squad when it comes to having to climb out of a steep psychological hole caused by kicking away a World Series near-miss in Game 5?

Until the Rays’ stunning collapse at Fenway, I was already contemplating an upcoming Tampa Bay-Philaldelphia World Series (show me anybody who had THAT daily double on their futures bets at the start of the season!). I’m always interested in the storylines for a big series. Certainly, at first blush, the clash of these cities’ franchises in the NFC Playoffs and NHL Eastern Conference Finals this decade establishes some small competitive connection. A World Series would give Tampa its third world championship this decade to go along with the Bucs and Lightning, while Philly is still searching for its first world title since the ’83 Sixers (as a Clevelander, my heart bleeds for them!). But on a deeper level, this fresh matchup is most interesting because you really have to scratch well beneath the surface just to see how fresh it really is.

I started digging through recent World Series battles to see if I could find a precedent for two teams dominated by a core of young talent making it to the end without having made any deep runs previously (Philly was in the NLDS last year for their first postseason appearance since ’93, but they were swept quickly by Colorado, so this is the first time these players have been in for longer than the proverbial cup of coffee). The few times that teams deemed relative fresh faces had been around for the final round in recent years, they had been knocking around the playoff picture for a few years (i.e. White Sox-Astros in ’05). Angels-Giants in ’02 probably comes the closest in recent years, although San Fran had been in the playoffs a few times with that core; otherwise, you almost have to go back to 1986, with the Mets’ vast young talent on one side and the Clemens/Boggs/Hurst troika on the other side. Boston had a veteran core, though, even if they hadn’t made it to the postseason since 1975, so even that analogy falls apart somewhat. In other words, we haven’t really seen anything like this at all in recent decades, a celebration of the game’s future becoming the present before our very eyes on this stage, so it is something to celebrate.

[Some other World Series matchups would have been very interesting as well. We already had the media beat us over the head with the whole Manny/Torre/Nomahhh vs. Boston angle – as well as Boston vs. LA for a title in a sport other than hoops – but there were some other good possibilities as well. Boston and Philly could have reprised the spirit of the Braves-As World Series tilt of 1914, as well as Sox-Phils the next year. We all know the antagonism between these cities with football and hockey rivalries, as well as the fairly recent Pats-Eagles Super Bowl. And a Tampa-LA World Series would have been chock full of the promise of rematches to come, given that they are both among the top five teams in baseball in terms of their blend of young major league and minor league talent.]

With the American League’s decided superiority in recent years and the fact that Tampa just knocked off the world champions, an extremely resilient club to say the least, the Rays must be considered the favorites right off the bat before any further analysis. And that is to say nothing of the rust that the Phillies may well be collecting right now. Ask the ’06 Tigers what it’s like to sit on your recliners for a week waiting for the other league to sort out its business – or see how the Rockies enjoyed their wait last year. Additionally, Tampa has the home field advantage and that madhouse should be rollicking for all of their home games – and Philly, typical of most NL teams, comes out on the short end of the stick as far as whether the DH is used or not because they don’t have one more big booming consistent bat on their bench while the Rays lose little without their DH (sorry, Cliff Floyd!).

The starting pitching is a double-edged sword. Surely Cole Hamels is the best of the bunch on either side, based both on his abilities and the extent to which he has advanced in his career. With the Phils’ long rest, he could pitch three times in this series and probably not lose much effectiveness. But Tampa’s Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza show signs of moving up to that level at some point through greater consistency and both have shown flashes this postseason of being able to go toe-to-toe with a Hamels. With Jamie Shields and Andy Sonnanstine, the Rays have the definitive edge over a Philly rotation that is like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates with Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton. Charlie Manuel would do well to park Moyer in long relief and use a three-man rotation, but Tampa still rates the edge here.

In the bullpen, with Brad Lidge back as a full-blown killer, the Phillies have it better, particularly as troubled as the Rays’ ‘pen looked in recent games. David Price is the “X factor,” though, as he could well perform the role of K-Rod circa ’02: the young flamethrower coming in for late-inning shutdown work. Will he be trusted to close as he was in Game 7 of the ALCS? I doubt it initially, but it’ll be necessary if those in front of him can’t get it going.

Each team has a bit of a funny note to the lineup, although both are strong. For Philly, they’ve got one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the infield in the recent history of the game with former MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, along with the individual who may be the best talent on the team in Chase Utley. But for whatever reason, the Phils seem to think that because of these young megastars that they can coast with somebody of the ability of, uh, me at third base! Seriously, though, Pedro Feliz and Greg Dobbs are decent as far as platoons go and the rest of the lineup is serviceable to above-average collectively, with streaky power hitter Pat Burrell in the outfield to go along with two blue-collar heroes who have found a home in Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste are nothing special behind the plate.

Tampa’s weird aspect to the lineup is the fact that they have defied a notion of what they would resemble if indeed they ever made it to this point. Back in 2005-06, I was touting Tampa Bay as very possibly “the next ’95 Indians” in looking at that lineup – which is completely different right now. Subtract Aubrey Huff and Delmon Young (who was still on his way up then, but projected to be an anchor of this lineup when it reached maturity), Jonny Gomes (still with the team, but somebody who peaked and then regressed) and Rocco Baldelli (still a great player when 100% healthy, but somebody who has struggled with injury and illness issues). At that time, BJ Upton was projecting to show much greater power than he did this year, although he lived up to the billing in 2007 and has again very recently. So that part of the core didn’t materialize in the way I thought they would if the team made it this far. On the other hand, add in Evan Longoria (fated to probably become the best hitter of the bunch) and Carlos Pena (who has worked to minimize the hole in his swing and become a dangerous power hitter). Carl Crawford has been a constant all throughout this time.

All in all, under manager Joe Maddon, this team shed its aspirations to imitate the Tribe of the mid-‘90s in favor of a more balanced approach. This team runs quite effectively and can scratch and manufacture much like a National League team – or the Angels, the organization from which Maddon was plucked. Ironically, many see the Phillies as more of a prototypical American League team with an offense that occasionally veers towards all-or-nothing power. This style is, of course, less effective in October.

The one part of my analysis of the Rays from 2-3 years ago that has held up was the prediction that this team would take great strides forward if they could manage to deal part of their hitting surplus for some strong arms – because outside of Scott Kazmir, and more recently, Shields, this team has historically been really lacking in that area. The Garza-for-Young deal in the offseason was the epitome of such a trade, a rare transaction involving very young players in which one projected as a potential five-tool All-Star and the other projected as a potential ace at some point.

Certainly, I thought that if Tampa Bay made the World Series that they would score really high in my “superstar analysis.” Last year, I broke down all of the Octobers since the first one with the Division Series in 1995 to examine how many players who could rightly be deemed superstars at the present time were playing for each team. It’s very strange to consider that, for as star-studded as I consider this particular matchup to be, that it comes in slightly below the average in terms of number of present superstars in this era. Philly has five players who I would slot as stars at the present time: the three big-time infielders, Hamels and Lidge. For Tampa Bay, I would only designate Crawford and Longoria (who, notwithstanding only being a rookie, may well be the team’s best hitter already – and he has a superlative minor-league and collegiate pedigree). But therein lies the rub: while there is a fairly strong break between the Phillies’ “Big 5” and the rest of the roster, the Rays are crawling with players who could very well be slotted as superstars at this time next year: Upton (who is regaining the power stroke and respect that he lost during a fallback ’08 year), Baldelli (if he can stay healthy), Pena (if he can find a way at this stage of his career to make better contact), Kazmir/Shields/Garza (with more consistency) and even David Price (one of the most dominant young arms in the game). For that matter, Tampa’s farm system, loaded with more potential superstars-in-waiting, could yield even more names to this list very quickly. So Philadelphia’s 5-2 edge in this area is very misleading, because they only have a handful of players you could even make a case for being on that next level: probably up-and-down slugger Burrell and setup ace Ryan Madson. Myers and Blanton are great when on, but are extraordinarily spotty to say the least.

I was also wrong in believing that Tampa’s road to the World Series might come to an end because the team did not acquire one more power bat to play right field at the trading deadline. Baldelli’s resurgence, which the team surely could not have counted on at the time, has helped greatly. Suffice to say that they got lucky.

While we’re tallying up where I have been wrong, I am only 2-4 in my series predictions this postseason; ironically, my two correct picks were Tampa Bay and Philadelphia in the first round, but I had them both losing in the LCS because of matchups I thought were unfavorable. I am very impressed at the manner in which both teams proved me wrong, Tampa by overcoming the almost insurmountable Boston postseason aura and Philly by getting past what seemed to be a “team of destiny” in the red-hot Dodgers.

And should I be proven wrong again on another claim, I am prepared to pay the price. I stated both right here in The Lounge and also on that, as a longtime Charlie Manuel skeptic, I am prepared to eat dog food on the air if he leads a team to a world championship. Let me note that I am very fond of Charlie on a personal level, as he seems to be one of the nicest guys in baseball and I would be very happy for him personally if he were to win and prove me wrong. I just think he’s going to get his lunch eaten by a shark like Joe Maddon. Nothing personal.

Ultimately, in the end, I give the edge to the Rays in terms of ability to manufacture runs, depth of starting pitching and managing. I give the edge to the Phillies in late-inning pitching. As such, the wunderkinds who just knocked off the defending world champions should be hoisting their own trophy by the end of the month. Rays in 6.

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