With September only a week away, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus.
There's still a long way to go—about 34 or 35 games for most teams—but that doesn't mean we can't start dreaming about picture-perfect World Series matchups.
With apologies to the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics (and even a few others in the wild-card hunt, like the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees), these matchups are going to focus on the six clubs leading their divisions through Friday's games.
The fact that the American League East is currently a dead heat (win percentage-wise) between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays complicates things a bit, but the edge goes to the former club, which has led the division for all but 18 days this season.
The Rays are undoubtedly contenders, but perhaps a Fall Classic between them and the Pittsburgh Pirates—two of Major League Baseball's smallest-market clubs—would be more wishful thinking than realistic.
While we're dreaming about that, here's a rundown of three more likely World Series showdowns and the predicted winners.
Boston Red Sox versus Los Angeles Dodgers
This would be quite the potential battle, wouldn't it? There would be subplots galore, given where both teams were only a year ago when they swapped superstars in one of the most historic trades in baseball. If these two clubs met in October, the series winner would be the one who got the most out of the deal.
Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia has his flaws on defense and against lefty pitchers, but he's in the midst of his best all-around season, whereas A.J. Ellis is more of a serviceable starter who doesn't hurt the Dodgers much.
Advantage: Red Sox
First Base: Adrian Gonzalez isn't the elite hitter he used to be, which is part of the reason the Red Sox unloaded him last August, but he's much better than Mike Napoli with both the glove and the bat.
Second Base: Even with Dustin Pedroia slumping in the second half, Mark Ellis doesn't quite compare, does he?
Advantage: Red Sox
Third Base: It's kind of amazing to think that Juan Uribe would win a positional matchup, but he has had a surprisingly solid season, while Boston's hot corner remains unsettled until Will Middlebrooks (or phenom Xander Bogaerts) stabilizes.
Advantage: Dodgers, barely. For now.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez versus Stephen Drew? Please.
Outfield: If Matt Kemp were healthy and productive—he's been neither this season—this would be in favor of L.A. pretty easily thanks to Yasiel Puig's breakout and Carl Crawford's bounce back.
Boston's outfield doesn't have quite the same star power, but Jacoby Ellsbury is having a great year, while Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava have been quality bookends.
Advantage: Push, with Kemp as the X factor.
Designated Hitter: Even if Kemp gets back and allows the Dodgers to use Andre Ethier at DH in games played at Dodger Stadium, David Ortiz is winning this head-to-head. No contest.
Advantage: Red Sox
The Red Sox likely would line up Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and John Lackey (with Ryan Dempster as the next option), but the injured star, Clay Buchholz, could be the X factor for the Dodgers offense.
Still, it would be hard for Boston's starters, even with Buchholz back, to best the Dodgers quartet of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco.
Advantage: Dodgers, especially if Buchholz isn't healthy.
It's hard to say whether Boston's Koji Uehara or the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen—neither of whom started 2013 as their club's closer, by the way—has had the better season, but Jansen's overpowering fastball might be more effective in the postseason than Uehara's splitter.
As for the rest of the relievers, both teams are stocked with arms you've probably never heard of, but the Dodgers have recently acquired Brian Wilson, a former World Series-winning closer, and Paco Rodriguez, an underrated weapon from the left side. The Sox, meanwhile, have Junichi Tazawa...and a bunch of injured relievers (Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller, Matt Thornton).
The Dodgers. They have been the hottest team in baseball over the past half-century and then some and their stars have been healthy (for the most part) and extremely productive. No other team is scarier right now than Los Angeles, who could get even better (gasp) if Kemp can get himself right.
Detroit Tigers versus Pittsburgh Pirates
This possible showdown would be between one of the most veteran, postseason-experienced—not to mention, big-market—teams in baseball against a club whose payroll is about half the size and who hasn't played October baseball since Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera were nine years old.
Catcher: Neither backstop is much more than average in any facet, but Russell Martin is just a bit more reliable than Alex Avila.
First Base: Whether it's Garrett Jones or Gaby Sanchez doesn't really matter because Prince Fielder, even in a down year, is just way, way better.
Second Base: There's not much separating the solid but not spectacular Omar Infante from an underrated and overlooked Neil Walker, so let's call it even.
Third Base: Pedro Alvarez can impact any game with one swing of the bat, but Miguel Cabrera can do so with many swings of the bat.
Shortstop: There's not much going on at the middle infield spot for either club, and the opposing shortstops offer less than the second baseman, especially with Jhonny Peralta's questionable return following the Biogenesis-related suspension. When in doubt, go defense, so Jose Iglesias gets the nod over the Jordy Mercer-Clint Barmes duo.
Advantage: Tigers, but by the slimmest of margins.
Outfield: Both sides have two very good all-around outfielders and one borderline black hole (at least compared to the other spots). The difference is that in addition to breakout left fielder Starling Marte, the Pirates also have an MVP-caliber difference-maker in center fielder Andrew McCutchen. That's something even Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter can't offset.
Designated Hitter: Presumably, the Pirates would use either Jones or Sanchez, but Victor Martinez, who has come on strong over the past two months after a very slow start, is a more dangerous extra hitter when games are at PNC Park.
The Pirates rotation has been their biggest asset to this point, with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano leading a staff that precedes first-half All-Star Jeff Locke and impact rookie Gerrit Cole.
The top two have pitched well enough to match up with just about any other team's duo for Games 1 and 2, but Locke has struggled of late and Cole could be overextended—he's already approaching 150 total innings in his first pro year.
Detroit has five horses, each of whom is playoff-tested and pitching without any limitations. The biggest question for the Tigers might be whether Verlander deserves to get the nod ahead of Max Scherzer, who's had an incredible year. Regardless, backing them up with Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister makes it tough for any team to beat Detroit.
As recently as a month ago, the closer battle would have been anything but, as Jason Grilli was owning the competition and the Tigers were still hoping to find a ninth-inning answer. But with Grilli still sidelined with arm problems, Mark Melancon doesn't give the Pirates quite the same edge over the Tigers' Joaquin Benoit.
Assuming Grilli can make it back and return to form before season's end—which looks like a possibility, according to Tom Singer of MLB.com—then the rest of Pittsburgh's "Shark Tank" bullpen can fall into place with quality arms from both the right (Melancon) and left (Tony Watson, Justin Wilson) sides.
Detroit's relief corps is much improved with Benoit and Jose Veras stabilizing the back end and Drew Smyly emerging as an elite option among lefties, but the Pirates' group has been special.
Detroit, which is a better all-around team, has more starting pitchers capable of dominating in a short series and more offensive firepower. Cabrera and Fielder are in the middle of a potent lineup that is leading the majors with 5.1 runs scored per game.
The fact that the Tigers have plenty of postseason experience after last year's run to the World Series could also give them an edge over a Pirates team that hasn't made the playoffs—or had a winning season—since 1992.
Texas Rangers versus Atlanta Braves
This theoretical matchup would pit two of baseball's most injury-riddled rosters against each other, as the Rangers have been dealing with life without Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando and Lance Berkman (not to mention the suspended Nelson Cruz), while the Braves are currently sans Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, Dan Uggla, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and Brandon Beachy.
Catcher: Brian McCann and A.J. Pierzynski are two of the better offensive catchers in the game, but the former's power edge gives him the slim win.
First Base: For a minute there, it looked like Mitch Moreland was going to have that season some have been anticipating, but instead, Freddie Freeman became one of baseball's breakout first basemen of 2013.
Second Base: Unless Uggla's LASIK surgery can also close up the holes in his swing, this one goes to Ian Kinsler. He's better all-around player even if he isn't having a typically good year after dealing with an injury to his right side that cost him a month midseason.
Third Base: As great (and fortunate, as his MLB-high BABIP indicates) as Chris Johnson has been in his best big league season, he's no Adrian Beltre. And it's not all that close, either.
Outfield: Ummm, this is a giant question mark on both sides. Atlanta is dealing with Heyward's fractured jaw, which could keep him out into the playoffs, and B.J. Upton's inability to hit even .200, leaving only the streaky Justin Upton.
Meanwhile, Texas has the emerging Leonys Martin, recently acquired Alex Rios and a decent David Murphy, but is without Cruz, their second-best bat, for the rest of the regular season. His performance level after a long suspension could be the tipping point here. For now, though, it's too volatile to decide.
Designated Hitter: For games at Turner Field, Atlanta is the rare NL team that would actually be able to hang with its AL opponent in the DH department thanks to Evan Gattis, who is a bigger threat than either Berkman, Murphy or Jurickson Profar.
The Rangers' biggest advantage in this entire matchup would be the fact that Yu Darvish is the only true No. 1 shutdown ace on either rotation and he could get the chance to put his strikeout ability up against one of baseball's most whiff-tastic lineups. Texas would also bring out trade acquisition Matt Garza and lefty Derek Holland, but after that, their staff gets thin quick, even if Ogando can make it back.
Atlanta, by comparison, has a deeper rotation—even without Hudson and Beachy—but Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm or Alex Wood cannot match up with Darvish. Frankly, figuring out which starters the Braves would choose after Minor and Teheran is tricky enough.
Advantage: Rangers, even if it's just because of Darvish.
While many would argue that the electric Craig Kimbrel is baseball's best closer—and he might be—he's not dramatically better than the battle-tested Joe Nathan, so this is one instance where the Braves don't possess a huge ninth-inning edge.
Of course, Nathan's playoff track record (9 ER, 14 H in 9 IP) doesn't exactly help Texas' case much.
The rest of the pens are pretty evenly matched, as Atlanta can throw righty Jordan Walden and lefties Luis Avilan and Scott Downs. Because of season-ending injuries to Venters and O'Flaherty, though, the Rangers have a slightly deeper group, including Tanner Scheppers, Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor from the right side, along with Robbie Ross and Neal Cotts from the left.
The Braves win out at the position breakdown and have the better closer, but their more recent injury issues and ability to make contact against Darvish are real concerns going forward. If Cruz, who has been a postseason monster in recent years, can regain his pre-suspension form, this matchup might all add up to the Rangers' first title in franchise history.
Who would win these potential World Series matchups? What other showdowns would you most like to see in October?
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