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By Michael F. Tapia:

It’s been a long wait, but the “Fall Classic” is here and everyone is hyped about the upcoming MLB Playoffs.

This year’s postseason features a somewhat different cast of teams, as five of the eight did not qualify last year.  The three returning teams are the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and the Philadelphia Phillies; with the other four including the Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, and the San Francisco Giants.

Representing the American League East are the Tampa Bay Rays who started the regular season in first place and slipped down to second place until the last month of the season. The Minnesota Twins are coming out of the American League Central for the second year in a row after finishing six games on top of the Chicago White Sox. The American League West pennant winners are the Texas Rangers who clinched the postseason with the biggest lead (nine games over the Angels). The winners of the American League Wild Card are the defending champions New York Yankees; the team with the most playoff experience.

In the National League, the only returning team are the NL Champion Philadelphia Phillies who won the East Division. Playing for the Central Division will be the Cincinnati Reds who have not been in the playoffs since 1995, longer than any of the participating teams. The winners of the NL West are the San Francisco Giants who return to the playoffs after an eight-year absence. The other wild card team are the Atlanta Braves, who despite injuries still managed to earn a chance to compete for the World Series.

American League

AL East – Tampa Bay Rays:

Despite being a young team, the Rays surprised the world of baseball two years ago when they eliminated the Boston Red Sox to play in the World Series. Do not be amazed if this group of youngsters makes it to the championship series again.

During the regular season, they shocked their division rivals, the New York Yankees by reclaiming the divisional lead and finishing with the best record in baseball. The Rays are known for being speedy on the base paths with players like Carl Crawford and BJ Upton who stole 47 and 42 bases respectively. Should the Rays face the Yankees in the playoffs – it will be interesting to see Andy Pettitte – the best pick off pitcher in baseball, contain Crawford and Upton. In addition, it is worth noting that the Rays count with quality hitters like Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena.

Not only is Tampa a great offensive club, but they have one of the premier starting rotations in baseball. Pitchers worth looking at in this club are, David Price (19-6), Matt Garza (15-10), Rafael Soriano (1.73 ERA), and Joaquin Benoit (1.34 ERA). Unfortunately, the lack of experience can cost them in the latter rounds as it did in the 2008 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Pro: Great base running

Con: Lack of experience

What to look for: Hit and run

Key players: Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, BJ Upton David Price, Matt Garza

AL Central – Minnesota Twins:

The Twins are back for a second year in a row after an early exit last year when the Yankees defeated them.

This year, the Twins get to the “Fall Classic” thanks to one of the best defenses in the league; but despite all this, this year should be a bigger challenge for them to advance to the second round as one of their biggest bats is on the disabled list, Justin Morneau. He’s been injured since the All-Star break after suffering a concussion. Although Morneau will not be playing, the Twins do have the reigning MVP Joe Mauer and notable hitters like Delmon Young and Jason Kubel. Jim Thome – who has hit 25 home runs this season – is another important bat who did not play the last week of the season, and his participation will be crucial being that Morneau will be missing from the lineup.

The Twins’ dilemma has been their pitching, which has not been deep enough to get them to the latter stages of the playoffs. Unlike last year, the team has four pitchers with more than 10 wins: Carl Pavano (17-11), Francisco Liriano (14-10), Kevin Slowey (13-6), and Scott Baker (12-9). Hopefully, Minnesota will not miss their highly talented closer Joe Nathan who was injured the whole year.

Pro: Excellent fielding/lineup

Con: Rotation depth

What to look for: Great defense

Key players: Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano

AL West – Texas Rangers:

Despite the tug-of-war for ownership of the team, this distraction did not affect the Texas Rangers.

The Arlington team clinched their first playoff berth in ten years by winning the division by that same exact number (the largest in the league).

Texas is perhaps the best contact team leading the league with an overall .276 batting average. Their lineup consist of sluggers like, 2010 MVP contender Josh Hamilton who leads the league with a .359 batting average and 32 home runs – All Star Vladimir Guerrero – and Nelson Cruz and Michael Young who have 20+ home runs each.

Their ace is 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. They also have pitching sensations Colby Lewis, who accumulated 196 strike outs, and C.J. Wilson who had a stellar season as well(15-8, 170Ks). The only negative thing that can be said about Texas – is that it has drawn the least amount of walks – of the four American League teams still competing.

Pro: Contact/Average

Con: Lack of patience at the plate

What to look for: Runners on base

Key players: Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz, Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis

AL Wild Card – New York Yankees:

As usual, the Yankees are always part of these festivities making it 15 out of the last 16 years.

In essence, nobody in the Yankee lineup is a liability being that every batter hits for contact or power, is a switch hitter or has great speed on the base paths. With good contact hitters like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Robinson Cano; power hitters like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher; and fast runners like Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson, the Yankees have the most complete lineup in the majors. It is hard to beat the Yankees in the postseason with all the experience that they have. They have such a productive lineup that they ended the season with 859 runs scored, the most in the majors.

On other hand, their pitching has been questionable at times with AJ Burnett posting a dismal 10-15 record, and Javier Vasquez being lit up to a 5.32 ERA. Their starting rotation has been limited to only three reliable starters. Even more concerning is the bullpen situation. Mariano Rivera, the best reliever of all times, had a difficult September blowing three saves in six games. It makes one wonder if age is taking its toll on this 40-year-old workhorse. Something to be even more skeptical about are the middle relievers, with the exception of Kerry Wood and Boone Logan, who have all been shaky; specifically Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, Chad Gaudin, and David Robertson. Alfredo Aceves who was one of the most effective bullpen arms for the Yankees, though he has not played since May.

Pro: Productive lineup/great offense

Con: Bullpen

What to look for: High scoring games

Key players: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, CC Sabathia

National League

NL East – Philadelphia Phillies:

After trailing for most of the season behind the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies were able to run away with the NL East pennant for a fourth year in a row. As you may remember, the Phillies made it to the World Series the last two years. Led by Ryan Howard on offense and Roy “Doc” Halladay, this is considered by many the most complete out of the four teams coming out of the National League. The only thing that hinders this team is their home run friendly stadium, Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies rotation is as good as they come with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. The centerpiece of their lineup is power slugger first baseman Ryan Howard (31 HRs). They also have All Stars in Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. In the outfield, look for talented players like Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino who won Gold Glove awards in 2008 and 2009. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Phillies back in the World Series for a third consecutive year.

Pro: Good line up and rotation

Con: Citizens Bank Park

What to look for: Home runs

Key players: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt

NL Central – Cincinnati Reds:

Also known as the “Red Hot Machine,” the Reds are the winners of the National League Central Division. Thanks to a great season from NL MVP Contender Joey Votto, the Reds are back in the “Fall Classic after being absent since 1995.

Led by red-hot Joey Votto, the Cincinnati team also has former All-Star Scott Rolen and All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips contributing to this run.

One interesting piece of this team is power pitcher Aroldis Chapman who throws a supersonic 105 mph fastball (fastest pitch in MLB history). The Reds also have good pitchers in Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. It will be interesting to see how far the 1990 champions get in this postseason.

Pro: Slugging

Con: Rotation depth

What to look for: Slugging: Home runs/Doubles

Key players: Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Aroldis Chapman, Jhonny Cueto

NL West – San Francisco Giants:

The Bay-area team led by two time Cy Young (2008, 2009) Tim Lincecum are in the playoffs thanks to their superb rotation. The best pitching staff in the majors also feature young pitching sensations Matt Cain (3.14 ERA) and Jonathan Sanchez (3.07 ERA). Another Giant pitcher to look out for is NL saves leader Brian Wilson (48).  Although they have exceptional pitching, their lineup isn’tdangerous. The Giants only have two batters with more than 20 home runs – Aubrey Huff (26) and Juan Uribe (24). Despite San Francisco winning their division, do not expect high scoring games from them.

Pro: Starting rotation and closer

Con: Low stolen bases

What to look for: Low scoring games

Key players: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe

NL Wildcard – Atlanta Braves:

After a five-year drought, postseason regulars, the Atlanta Braves are back in the hunt for October. Many credit this to the arrival of rookie phenom Jason Heyward who was regarded by many in the sport as the top prospect in baseball for 2010. Aside from Heyward, Atlanta also has All Star second baseman Martin Prado who is batting .307 and All Star catcher Brian McCann who has 21 home runs.

On the pitching end, the Braves feature All Star Tim Hudson and former All Star Derek Lowe who have 16 wins each. Even though the Braves pitching staff is not loaded with big names like those in San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia and Tampa, they still manage to rank third in ERA in the majors. It will be interesting to see the Braves make some hold up against stronger teams like Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

Pro: Good on base percentage

Con: Batting and pitching depth

Key players: Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe


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