- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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I've been trying to play Nostradamus for 11 Octobers now. It's not a good gig.
The assignment I'm always handed is: Pick the team that's going to win the World Series. What I've learned is, I might have almost as good a shot at picking the horse that's going to win the Kentucky Derby -- in 2037.
Oh, I've picked a couple of winners. (Yeah, seriously.) But I've mostly picked a lot of teams that just reinforced America's long-standing conviction that I'm a total knucklehead. (And I'm still pleading nolo contendere to that charge.)
I've tried picking favorites. I've tried picking long shots. I've tried picking the Red Sox. (Actually got that right in 2004. You could look it up.) I've tried picking the Cubs. (Did that twice, in fact. And please don't look it up.)
I've tried picking teams that went in en fuego. I've tried picking teams that bumbled and stumbled their way home. I've studied matchups. I've flipped coins.
And I've finally figured it out. It's hopeless. Even though I start with a one-in-eight shot, it's hopeless. Yeah, it sounds kinda easy. But as one of my scout friends quipped, "Picking six numbers in the lottery sounds easy, too."
You can't predict Cody Ross hitting two homers off Roy Halladay. You can't predict Brooks Conrad lighting up that "E" three times in one game. You can't predict Edgar Renteria having TWO three-RBI World Series games after having NO three-RBI regular-season games. There isn't a Ouija board in America that saw any of that coming.
So this year, I came up with a whole new way of picking. I picked brains.
I've always checked in with 10 or 12 people in baseball before I launched my Carnac the Magnificent act. But this year, I expanded the group -- to more than three dozen. I surveyed GMs, assistant GMs, managers, scouts and players, all of them from non-playoff teams so there were no vested interests.
Not only did I learn a lot, but I accomplished something even more helpful:
If I screw this up again, which is likely, I can just blame them.
It's a beautiful thing.
So what am I (translation: we) predicting is about to happen over the next four weeks? You might be stunned, but here goes:
You should now book your flight to Vegas -- and bet on somebody else immediately.
And how did I (translation: we) come to this heartfelt conclusion? We're about to explain that. So stay tuned:
Why the Phillies?
I should mention at the top that not everybody I surveyed made an actual prediction. Others were more comfortable picking one league over the other. But there was one conviction just about everyone in this group shared:
The Phillies are The Pick to get through the National League side of the draw.
There were 35 votes cast for the NL World Series entrant. Here are your final vote totals: Phillies 33, Brewers 2. There's a trend in there someplace.
Not that there was no love or admiration for the Diamondbacks. One NL GM went so far as to say, "The team that's playing the best of anybody of late is Arizona. If anybody's going to upset the Phillies, I think it's them."
But in general, the group summed up the D-backs this way: Great story. Great chemistry. Great coaching staff. Underrated pitching. Just not as much talent as the rest of the field.
There also was a surge of "watch out for those Cardinals" sentiment. "They've played the Phillies better than anybody else [winning six of nine this year]," another GM said. "So if they get by that team, I bet they get to the World Series."
But the prevailing wisdom was: Judge them by the full season they had, not the finish they had. As one NL hitter put it, "Their pitchers are good. But they don't give you that fear factor that the Phillies' pitchers do."
I think people are underestimating the Cardinals. But the beauty of October is, they now get to prove exactly how good they are.
The Brewers, meanwhile, feel like the team everyone wants to pick but can't quite convince themselves to do it. Over and over, I heard folks say they were taking the Phillies, but boy were they tempted to go with the Crew. And who could blame them?
Who would want to mess with a team that just won 96 games, and has two game-changers (Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder) in the middle of its lineup, two potential dominators (Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke) in the rotation, a closer (John Axford) who hasn't blown a save since April 18 and a bullpen that had a 1.01 ERA in September?
"They don't seem to have any fear right now," one American League exec said.
"Their pitching is almost as good as the Phillies'," said one AL scout who picked the Brewers to win it all. "And Braun and Fielder are so much better than any other [NL] team's bats."
So what stopped most of those Brewers admirers from predicting The Upset? For one thing, no left-handers in the bullpen to match up with the Phillies' left-handed bats, other than Chris Narveson -- whose name elicited an "Oh, God" from one NL executive.
For another thing, the Brewers have piled up wins against the bad teams but have had their issues with the good teams. They went 34-12 against the Astros, Cubs and Pirates, but didn't have a winning record against any of the other playoff teams and won two road series all year against teams that finished over .500.
And finally, there's a surprising amount of skepticism about whether this team's offense is as good as its numbers make it look. We're talking huge home/road splits (57 more runs, 40 more extra-base hits, 107 more OPS points at home) and, as one GM put it, "a lineup full of swings and misses."
But you know what really kept the masses from jumping on those Brewers parade floats? Mostly it was the feeling that the Phillies are just, well, better.
"If I were the Phillies," one NL exec said, "I wouldn't be too worried about the matchups. With the pitching they've got, they match up with anybody."
We can almost stop this brilliant analysis right there, with those four words: the pitching they've got.
The rest of the Phillies' roster isn't perfect. Their bullpen could be an issue if the starters don't go deep enough. Their lineup could get shut down. But ask yourself this:
How many nights in the entire month of October will the Phillies look at the starting pitching matchup and think: "We're in trouble tonight?"
"The answer to that is: None," one scout said. "And that's what that club is built on. Every night they feel good about who's pitching and about the matchup. Most likely they'll be favored every night -- even though it's October."
The Brewers can front their rotation with Gallardo and Greinke. The Diamondbacks will feel great about pitching Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. The Cardinals have Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. The difference is, in that ace-studded Philadelphia rotation, the big-time starters just keep on coming.
As one NL East executive put it, every time he thinks about picking somebody else, he "just can't get past the Phillies being able to roll out [Cole] Hamels in Game 3 and [Roy] Oswalt as a fourth starter."
How formidable are these Four Horsemen? Well, they're coming off a regular season in which their combined ERA as starters was 2.69 and their combined WHIP was 1.07. In other words, the four of them, as a group, were so good, they beat Ian Kennedy (2.88, 1.09) in both departments -- in a season in which Kennedy went 21-4.
What ought to really terrify the rest of the field is that all four of these guys have risen to even more insane levels in October. Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hamels and Oswalt have made 35 career postseason starts -- the equivalent of one regular season. They've gone 20-7 with a 2.84 ERA in those starts -- against the best lineups in baseball.
So if you take a step back and think it through like that, you understand why one NL GM said, flatly: "If that team doesn't get to the World Series, I'll be shocked."
Why the Rangers?
Over in the American League, there was no Rangers landslide. But by the time all precincts had reported, the voting looked this way: Rangers 15, Yankees 9, Tigers 5, Rays 1.
So would it shock us if any of these four teams wound up in the World Series? Obviously not. How could it?
The Rays? They believe in miracles -- and just made one happen. And more important, they have the best and deepest rotation of any team on this half of the draw.
"I've seen all these teams in the last month," one scout said. "And I'll tell you the team I would not want to play. I would not want to face the pitching of Tampa Bay."
Maybe the Rays will have that 2010 Giants mojo working in October. Maybe they have another month of perfect storms, fortuitous hops and Dan Johnson-esque swings of the bat ahead of them. But this also is a team that hit only .244 this season, with a .322 OBP. And "the area where they could really get their hearts broken," the same scout said, "is the end of the game. We've seen Kyle Farnsworth at the end in the postseason before."
So if not them, the Tigers maybe?
"To beat them," one NL exec said, "you know you have to beat the big fellow [Justin Verlander] two times and maybe three times. And I wouldn't depend on that."
The Tigers also have the least-talked-about great bullpen in the game, fronted by a closer (Jose Valverde) who hasn't blown a save and a setup man (Joaquin Benoit) who hasn't given up a run in eight weeks. And you probably haven't even noticed that the last time the Tigers lost more than two games in a row was Memorial Day weekend.
This also is a team that went 50-22 against its own division but just 45-45 against everybody else. And it's a team that ranked last among the AL playoff entrants in defensive efficiency. Oh, and one more thing: The Verlander Factor cuts both ways.
"The way he's pitching, I like their chances in a five-game series," one scout said. "I'm not sure they have the [rotation] depth to go through a seven-game series."
Then there are the Yankees. Best offense in the tournament. They score against good pitching. And beyond that, with their procession of tough at-bats, "they grind on you," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. If they get a lead, "they might shrink the game better than anybody, with [David] Robertson and Mariano (Whatsisname)," said one scout. And October is their time of year.
But it all comes back to their rotation. And here's their nightmare scenario: "What happens if CC [Sabathia] DOESN'T win Game 1?" one exec asked. "Can they win a series if they don't win all the games CC pitches? I'm not sure they can."
The overwhelming sentiment of this group was that he's right, that the Yankees will go as their ace goes. And in case you missed it, their ace hasn't had the aura lately of a guy who's about to have a 6-0 kind of October. Over his past nine starts, the Yankees lost five, and the hitters he faced batted .314 and slugged .528.
So that leaves Texas, the least-noticed dominating team in the game. You think the Rays or Cardinals or Tigers will come in as the hottest team? Guess again. Down the stretch, the Rangers went 10-1 in their last 11 games, 15-3 in their last 18 and 35-15 in their last 50.
More important, the descriptions of them went like this: "Most complete team" "most balanced team" "greatest depth" "match up with anyone" etc., etc.
The difference between the Rangers and Yankees, one NL exec said, is that the Yankees HAVE to have CC pitch well and HAVE to bludgeon you to win. But Texas "doesn't HAVE to win any one way. They don't have any certain formula they need to follow to try to win games. They can beat you in so many different ways."
The Rangers' offense was in the top four in the league in homers and steals, struck out less than any other team in the league, and had the third-best on-base percentage. Their pitchers threw the most shutouts in the league (19). And Baseball Prospectus ranked them No. 2 in the big leagues in defensive efficiency.
And oh, incidentally, they played in the World Series last year. So they're familiar with the territory. But if you thought they can't possibly be the same this time around because there's no Cliff Lee on the roster, well, you're only half-right.
"These are not the Rangers of last year," one scout said. "They're much better."
Why would the Rangers beat the Phillies?
Glad you asked that question. While I've never worked for Bodog or hung out with Danny Sheridan, I know what an odds-on favorite looks like. And this October, it looks exactly like the Phillies.
But the Phillies CAN be beaten. And an astounding number of people in the game suspect they WILL be beaten -- especially if they get matched up with the Rangers. Why is that? Here's why:
(1) The best team in baseball never wins
OK, so "never" isn't exactly true. Of the 16 postseasons in the wild-card era, the team with the best record has won occasionally, as long as it's known as the "Yankees" or "Red Sox."
The 2009 and 1998 Yankees and the 2007 Red Sox survived the Best Record World Series Curse. But that's it. And in the 35 years since the Big Red Machine did its thing, there has been precisely one NL team that had the best record in baseball and won the World Series. That was the 1986 Mets -- a quarter-century ago.
(2) The team that clinches early never wins
Once again, that word, "never," isn't completely accurate. But the trend line for a Phillies team that had to kill two weeks until the postseason after clinching its division wouldn't inspire anybody in Philadelphia to start pre-ordering confetti.
To find the last team that won its division by 10 games or more and went on to win the World Series, you have to go all the way back to the '98 Yankees. Since then:
Seventeen teams have won their division by at least 10 games. Nine of them lost in the first round. Only two got to the World Series. And one of those two -- the 2004 Cardinals -- got swept.
Eight of those 17 teams won 100 games or more and won their division by at least 10 games. Five of them didn't make it out of the first round. Only the '04 Cardinals made it to the World Series. The last NL team to win the World Series after winning its division by double-digit games? The 1995 Braves.
Maybe the Phillies' eight-game losing streak after clinching worked the boredom out of their systems. And there was very little concern about their ability to kick back into big-game mode from most folks who took part in this survey. But it wasn't unanimous.
"This is a timing-and-rhythm game," one NL exec said. "You lose that, you're in trouble. It's just hard to jump in that HOV lane, and slam on the brakes, and then accelerate again and keep up with the traffic."
(3) The best rotation doesn't always win
We love to rhapsodize about Johnson and Schilling, Lincecum and Cain, or the 2005 White Sox. But the truth is, "sometimes we overstate the impact of starting pitching dominance in October," a different NL exec said.
"Look at all those Atlanta teams," he said. "Look at Oakland with Hudson-Mulder-Zito. Those teams had dominant starting pitching, and they didn't win."
Yes, the Phillies led the major leagues in shutouts -- but they did that last year, too. The Braves led the big leagues in shutouts four times in the '90s -- and won the World Series in none of those four seasons. The last team to lead the majors outright in shutouts and go on to win it all? Orel Hershiser's 1988 Dodgers. Just sayin'.
(4) The Rangers negate the Phillies' strengths
The formula for beating this Phillies team is essentially identical to the formula the Giants were able to use to beat the last Phillies team to make it to the Octoberfest:
Roll out a staff perfectly suited to shut down their lineup, expose their bullpen flaws and put just enough pressure on their starters to make them sweat.
Well, if that's the formula, said one scout, the Rangers "are the Phillies' worst nightmare."
"The Phillies' hitting can come and go," he said. "And Texas has the left-handers to make it go."
The Rangers' three best starters down the stretch all are left-handed -- C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. And Hunter Pence or no Hunter Pence, said one NL GM, "to beat the Phillies, you have to have left-handed, dominating starting pitching, which is their bugaboo."
In their bullpen, the Rangers don't have classic situational left-handers, in Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez. But their three late-inning shutdown relievers -- Neftali Feliz, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara -- held left-handed hitters to averages of .189, .189 and .130, respectively.
"They have so many different options out there, it feels like they can always find a way to get the ball to the right guy in the right spots," one scout said. "They can really match up with you."
You don't need to be a member of the Rusty Greer Fan Club to know the Rangers' lineup can throw way more thunder and speed at the Phillies than the Giants' cast of characters did last October. But one scout believes it wasn't just the Giants' pitchers who shut down that Texas lineup last year. It was also AT&T Park -- which will be nowhere to be found in this postseason.
"I love Texas' lineup," the scout said. "And if you put those guys in a park like Philly's, they fit. You start putting them in a park where the long ball comes into play, like it does in Texas, they can be scary."
But if the October winds are howling and the long ball isn't coming into play, "Texas can really play a National League style game, too," Showalter said. "They've got a lot of versatile players, guys who play multiple positions. They move people around. They'll have no trouble playing the National League game in National League stadiums."
Now maybe I (translation: we) will be wrong about all this. That's usually how it works in these columns, after all. Maybe form will hold and those Phillies starters will hang more zeroes than the '66 Orioles and the parade floats will be motoring down Broad Street again.
But so much of what happens in October is determined by matchups. And the more people in the game who weighed in on this, the more clear it became that Texas is the one matchup the Phillies ought to want no part of.
That's how I (translation: we) see it, anyway. And at least this year, if this annual prediction turns out the way it usually turns out, I don't have to blame it solely on my own flawed logic. I have three dozen accomplices who can stand trial with me.
This October might very well provide yet more proof that I'm a knucklehead. But at least it'll also be proof that I'm not the only knucklehead in our midst.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst