Torii Hunter's former team was elminated by the Yankees. Will his current team suffer the same fate?

Torii Hunter's former team was elminated by the Yankees. Will his current team suffer the same fate?

For the Angels, the path is a certain and familiar one as they take on the New York Yankees, who broke out the brooms last night with their 4-1 win over the Minnesota Twins.  For the Dodgers it could be just the same, as they watch the Philadelphia Phillies try and wrapup their  series with the Rockies tonight.

The Angels went 5-5 against the Yankees this season in a series of games that neither team was ever really out of, with the exception of the three-game sweep by LA at home just before the All-Star Break.  This has certainly been a trend for the Angels, who own the Yankees when they meet in Anaheim.  This will be a matchup between two teams that are as different in style in terms of play on the field as Hollywood and the South Bronx are in terms of glamor. The Angels will look to get it done the same way they always have against Yankee pitching by finding ways to get on base, and then running wild.  The Yankees know this, but with a defensive liability in at catcher in Jorge Posada, it’s hard to see them slowing down the Angels’ game plan.  The Yankees, on the other hand, will be looking for more of the same from Alex Rodriguez, who powered the Bronx Bombers past Minnesota, shedding his “Can’t get it done in October” moniker for the time being.  This should be a much more heated and contested series than these two teams had in the ALDS, and I fully expect it to go 6 or 7 games.

Assuming that Cliff Lee will pitch the way he did in Game 1 against Colorado, then we can safely say that the Phillies will advance to the NLCS to take on the Dodgers.  Of course, the last time I made this kind of assumption, I said the Twins were done and not making  the playoffs and look what happened there, but this time I’m confident that the Champs will prevail and advance to play Game 1 in Dodger Stadium.  The Dodgers desperately need to avoid getting into a high-scoring affair with the Phillies’ offense, because this plays right into what Philadelphia wants, as it makes it a battle to see which team’s pitching staff blinks first.  The Phillies should have a decided advantage in power and starting pitching, and have to feel like they have the best team remaining in the NL right now with the Cardinals being eliminated.  I struggle to see the Dodgers getting past Philly, but then again, I didn’t see them getting past St. Louis, either.

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Roughly 75% of all Philly natives have a crush on Chase Utley, regardless of gender or sexual preference. Apparently, I might, too, as hes #1 on this list.

Roughly 75% of all Philly natives have a crush on Chase Utley, regardless of gender or sexual preference. Apparently, I might, too, as he's #1 on this list.

Now that the playoff picture has pretty much all but taken its final shape, I have taken the liberty of removing any and all Twins or Braves from the remaining lists, so don’t be confused that the list stops at #8 as opposed to #10.  That being said, today we’re looking at the group of second basemen headed into the Divisional Series next week.  This is a group that is a good bit different from the first basemen in that some of these guys are really good, but you’ve never heard of them.  However, there is definitely more of a separation between the second basemen than their first base compadres.

1. Chase Utley, Phillies
I really had to look closely at both him and defending AL MVP Dustin Pedroia to determine which one is actually #1, but in the end it’s hard not to pick Utley because of what he means to the Philadelphia Phillies.  Utley has had another great offensive year as far as second basemen go, hitting .285 with 31 homers and 90 RBIs. He was named the starting 2B for the NL in the All-Star Game and is looking like he will win his 4th consecutive Silver Slugger Award.  He solidifies the middle of the Phils’ lineup with Ryan Howard and is probably the most popular man in the City of Brotherly Love. He also plays a solid defensive game, committing 12 errors in 153 games this season.

2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
I’m probably going to receive several complaints about Pedroia not being #1 on this list, but there are two reasons for that.  First, Pedroia, unlike Utley, is a top of the batting order guy, along with teammate Jacoby Ellsbury and to put a guy who isn’t the focal point of the team ahead of Utley would be just wrong.  Second, his numbers aren’t as good as last year, as he’s hitting .298 with 13 homers and 68 RBIs, all of which are down from the previous year.  However, the number that stands out with Pedroia is 45 strikeouts in 615 at bats this season.  There’s a reason he’s known as a pest by opposing pitchers, and that’s exactly why.  There might not be a player in the league who will fight off more pitches in a two strike count than Pedroia, which makes him extremely valuable in a situation where Boston needs to advance a runner or get a runner in.  He’s also one of the best defensive second basemen in the league.  The 2008 Gold Glove Award winner, Pedroia has committed only 6 errors in 150 games for the Sox this year.

3. Robinson Cano, Yankees
After a down year in 2008, Cano has had a pretty big comeback year, as he is amongst the AL leaders in batting average, hitting .322 and also has 202 hits on the year, including a career-high 25 home runs.  Cano has been a frustrating player for Yankees fans, at times, however, as he has a tendency to get a little to flashy with the glove, which has caused him to make 12 errors in 158 games this year.  Cano also has the luxury of hitting in a lineup behind guys like A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, which is a solid explanation for the jump in his numbers in ’09.

4. Placido Polanco, Tigers
Polanco is one of the most underrated second basemen in the MLB every year.  Much like Dustin Pedroia, Polanco is extremely difficult to strike out, which he has only done 43 times in 599 at bats this season, making him in the very widely recognized stat category of at bats per strikeout for the third-consecutive year in the AL.  Polanco is also looking like the favorite to win his second career Gold Glove, as he has been stellar defensively all year, committing only 2 errors in 147 games for the Tigers.

5. Orlando Hudson, Dodgers
Hudson left the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2008 season and was a player that was on a lot of teams’ wish list.  However, he didn’t sign until late in the free agent signing period with the LA Dodgers, but it hasn’t caused him to miss a beat in 2009.  The ’09 All-Star selection is having his best offensive season since ’06, which was his first year in Arizona, hitting .285, and is also just short of career highs in just about every major stat category.  The O-Dog also continues to play the position about as good as anyone in the Majors, committing only eight errors in 146 games, which puts him in position to be a candidate for his 4th career Gold Glove.

6. Howie Kendrick/Maicer Izturis, Angels
These two have spent the year splitting time at second base for the Halos, and their numbers are almost exactly the same.  Both are hitting right around .300 and lack power, but get on base a lot, which fits in nicely with Mike Scioscia’s overall strategy at the plate.  They have only committed 6 errors combined at 2B this year, as well, which would place them second in the AL behind Polanco if this were one player instead of two.

7. Skip Schumaker, Cardinals
Schumaker originally came up and looked like a super utility player for the Cards to hold onto.  However, Skip showed that he can hit in ’08 and has continued that through this season, hitting .303, which is important considering there are times when he bats in front of the pitcher, which explains his total lack of run production for the year with only 35 RBIs.  The permanency of him at second took a little while for him to adjust to defensively, as well, which explains his 9 errors in just 130 games at the position this year.

8. Clint Barmes, Rockies
Barmes looked like he was going to be the Next Big Thing after a great campaign in 2005.  However, after a disappointing ’06 and then a freak accident in the beginning of 2007, Barmes fell way off of everybody’s radar.  Now he’s working his way back at second base, rather than shortstop and has improved his power numbers, which is the norm for anyone on the Rockies, with career highs in home runs (23) and RBIs (76).  However, he is still only hitting .246 on the year for a team that could use a few more contact hitters in its lineup.  He’s also committed 12 errors in 136 games at the position, making him one of the weaker second basemen going into the playoffs.

There are a lot of great first basemen on playoff teams, but there is only one Albert Pujols.

There are a lot of great first basemen on playoff teams, but there is only one Albert Pujols.

After having a fairly easy time ranking the catchers on the teams contending for playoff spots yesterday, I had to spend a lot more time on the first basemen that are potentially playoff-bound.  The thing that makes it so difficult is that none of these teams has a particularly weak 1B.  They all have shown that they can lead their respective teams, and all are proficient on offense and defense. This is the list that I came up with. I expect at least a few objections.

1. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
OK, I don’t expect any objections on this one, though.  Pujols is simply the best player in the Majors right now, hands down.  From an offensive standpoint, he looks like the next candidate to be the player who will break all the major records.  He’s no slouch defensively, though, either.  This season, Pujols has only committed 12 errors this year and did win a Gold Glove in ’06. The Cardinals success, or lack thereof, in the playoffs this year lies heavily on The Machine.

2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees
Up to this point in the 2009 season, the $180 million dollar man has paid off with dividends for the New York Yankees, leading the AL in both home runs and RBIs.  The All-Star has also continued to live up to his reputation of being a very good defensive first baseman by committing only 3 errors on the year, putting him in line to potentially win his 2nd career Gold Glove.

3. Ryan Howard, Phillies
If not for Albert Pujols, Howard would be the NL first baseman everyone is talking about for the MVP this year.  His power numbers are fantastic, as always, and his average at .275 is a significant improvement from last season.  He is the heart and soul of the Phillies’ powerful offense along with Chase Utley and is one of the most dangerous men to have to face in a big spot in the league.  His defense is a bit suspect at times, committing 14 errors this year after 19 the previous year, but it’s a necessary risk for Philadelphia to take because it’s not like they can use him at DH in the NL.

4. Kevin Youkilis/Victor Martinez, Red Sox
Initially “Youk’s” position at the beginning of the year along with David Ortiz, Youkilis now splits time at first with Victor Martinez, usually replacing Mike Lowell at third.  Either one of them is a great option to have in the position, though, as they have combined to commit only one error in 99 games at first this season.  Also striking is the fact that they both are hitting over .300 this year and both have hit over 20 HRs and have over 90 RBIs.

5. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
In his first full season as solely a first baseman, Miguel Cabrera has excelled for the battling Detroit Tigers, hitting .329 with 33 home runs and 101 RBI, while only committing 7 errors in the field.  Unfortunately for Cabrera, he’s no longer a third baseman, which means that this year he is not in the MVP candidate talks in spite of his numbers.

6. Todd Helton, Rockies
Ol’ Reliable for the Colorado Rockies, all Helton wants is another chance to win a World Series like he had back in 2007.  His power numbers are significantly decreased from his prime, but he’s still hitting .323 for the year and hasn’t committed more than 5 errors in a season since he committed 11 in 2003.  He is the face of the Rockies’ organization and there might not be a guy in the league who wants to win more than Helton.

7. Adam LaRoche, Braves
Getting out of Pittsburgh might have been the best thing to ever happen to Adam LaRoche’s career.  At first, he was sent to Boston, where he lasted a whole six games before being sent to Atlanta for Casey Kotchman, where he has gone onto hit .344 in 52 games with the Braves and become the protection in the lineup that they have needed for Chipper Jones.  He’s also amongst the best defensive first basemen in the game, with a fielding percentage of .999 this year.

8. Kendry Morales, Angels
Another beneficiary of change, Morales finally got his chance to play full-time this year with the departures of Casey Kotchman and Mark Teixeira, and has solidified himself at the position for the LA Angels of Anaheim.  The 26-year old has been a catalyst for the Halos’ offense at times, hitting .303 with 33 home runs and 105 RBIs.  His defense has been passable, as well, committing 8 errors on the year.  However, it remains to be seen how Morales will react to his first time in the playoff spotlight.  If he struggles, the Angels might be in trouble against the Red Sox.

9. James Loney, Dodgers
Loney was a guy that a lot of people predicted to have a breakout year with the Dodgers, but hasn’t really lived up to those expectations, hitting almost identically to his numbers from last year. In 2008, Loney hit .289, with 13 home runs and 90 RBIs.  This year, Loney is hitting .285, with 13 home runs and 90 RBIs.  No, that is not a typo.  He is the exact same player he was last season.  He has improved defensively from ’08 though, cutting his errors down from 13 in ’08 to seven in ’09.  Loney just doesn’t match up with the rest of the guys on this list, and isn’t necessarily the guy Joe Torre’s Dodgers are counting on to drive their offense in the playoffs.

10. Michael Cuddyer, Twins
It’s not even that I think Cuddyer isn’t good, because he is pretty darn good and he’s having a career year in ’09, with highs in hits, home runs, and slugging percentage, but he’s not a first baseman by trade.  Cuddyer is a player who can play just about any position on the field, but was forced to stick to first after Justin Morneau went down with his season-ending back injury.  In 28 games at first, Cuddyer has committed four errors, which, when looking at the rest of these guys’ defensive stats, is not very good.  I just worry about a player who is placed into an unusual situation in important games and what could potentially happen.

Mauer is the class of the catchers that could be playoff-bound this year.

Mauer is the class of the catchers that could be playoff-bound this year.

With the MLB Playoff picture beginning to take its final shape, it’s time to start looking at each of the teams still in the race and see how they stack up against each other.  For the next week, I’ll be breaking down all the teams on a position-by-position basis. Today, we look at the guys calling the games, which really is a case of the haves and have-nots.

1. Joe Mauer, Twins
The guy might not only be the best catcher in the playoffs this year, but he might be the best player in the AL.  Mauer has had an unbelievable season for the Twinkies, and has kept it up even after the injury to Justin Morneau.  If Minnesota is going to make the playoffs, they need this guy to rise to the occasion in the next three days and lead them past the Tigers.

2. Brian McCann, Braves
It’s ironic that the teams with the two best players at this position are currently the two teams that are on the outside looking in.  McCann is the heart and soul of the red hot Atlanta Braves, and exactly what you look for in a catcher.  Very sound defensively, some power in his bat, and widely recognized in the Braves clubhouse as a team leader.  The Bravos seem to go as McCann does, and lately he’s been hot.  With games left against the Marlins and Nationals, there’s a chance we’ll get to see McCann in the national spotlight during the playoffs.

3. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
One of the Molina catching trio, but certainly the best of that group and one of the best in the Majors.  Molina enjoys quite a few comforts in the lineup, batting behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, but even before Holliday came to St. Louis he was one of the better offensive catchers in the game.  Defensively he is often regarded as one of the best, and catching for guys like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright hasn’t hurt him too much, either.

4. Jason Varitek/Victor Martinez, Red Sox
Had the Boston Red Sox not made the deal for Victor Martinez at the trade deadline, it’s hard to say where exactly they would have ended up.  V-Mart has increased the stability of the catcher position in Boston, and Varitek has responded with improved play in the second half.  Having both of them in the lineup in also a plus, as Martinez has really taken advantage of hitting in Fenway Park.  They are both very good game managers, as well, which is going to be important when they take on the Angels in the Divisional Series (barring a complete and utter collapse and the Rangers winning out.)

5. Russell Martin, Dodgers
Martin hasn’t had the offensive impact for the Dodgers that many were expecting him to have, but he remains an important piece of the puzzle for Los Angeles behind the plate, with a .994 fielding percentage this year, as well as throwing out 31% of all baserunners this season, which is important against teams that seem to always get more aggressive in the playoffs.

6. Jorge Posada, Yankees
Posada has the most playoff experience out of all of the catchers on this list and he would be much higher on here, but recent injuries have got to be a major concern for the Yankees and their aging catcher.  If New York deems that Posada can only DH for them, that means that they have to plug in Jose Molina or Francisco Cervelli into the lineup for every game during the playoffs and possibly bench someone like Hideki Matsui, which is a big blow to the vaunted Yankee offense.

7. Mike Napoli, Angels
It’s not that I don’t think highly of Mike Napoli, it’s just that the overall impact that he has on his team isn’t nearly as big as the players ahead of him on this list.  He is more than a serviceable player behind the plate, and has come up with some big hits for Los Angeles of Anaheim of California, et cetera, this season, but he just isn’t a huge part of the Angels’ master plan to win their first World Series since ’02.

8. Gerald Laird, Tigers
Most people don’t even realize that Gerald Laird is the Tigers’ starting catcher, especially since Brandon Inge is still widely listed as a catcher, and that’s because Laird hasn’t really had to do much this season, working with one of the better pitching staffs in the Majors, while being nicely protected in the bottom third of Detroit’s lineup.  Much like Napoli, he isn’t really a huge part of the Tigers as a team.

9. Chris Iannetta/Yorvit Torrealba, Rockies
I really don’t know what to make of these guys, or most of the Rockies, for that matter.  I don’t think that their really all that good on offense or defense, but they do what they can for Colorado.  They benefit from playing in Coors Field, but that’s just about all you can say about them.

10. Paul Bako/Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
It’s not good when you have Carlos Ruiz as your Opening Day catcher. It’s worse when you have to platoon him with journeyman Paul Bako because of the fact that they are both liabilities on the field for the defending champion Phillies.  This is a position where the Phils are going to have to make a decision on during the off-season.  They have some decent talent in the minors, but they might want to go out and look at a short-term fix, such as Paul Lo Duca or Johnny Estrada to but themselves more time.

Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 Ks this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

Justin Verlander leads the AL with 245 K's this year. Will it be enough to hold off the surging Twins?

After 150 games, there is only one race in Major League Baseball that really has any major storyline down the stretch.  The Detroit Tigers looked like they had the AL Central all but wrapped up about three weeks ago after dismissing the slumping Chicago White Sox.  The Minnesota Twins were floating around in 3rd place, right around .500 and not looking very dangerous.  Entering today, the Twins stand at only 2.5 games back of a Detroit team that has come back to Earth at a bad time to do just that.  Starting Monday, these two teams will get a chance to determine the final outcome of their race in a four-game set in Comerica Park.  However, the other 7-8 games on the schedule could play just as big of an impact.  Let’s take a look at how each team finishes up:

Minnesota (11 games remaining): Tonight at White Sox; Fri-Sun. at Royals; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 at Tigers; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4 vs. Royals

Detroit (12 games remaining): Tonight & Fri. at Indians; Fri-Sun. at White Sox; Mon-Thurs. Oct. 1 vs. Twins; Fri. Oct. 2-Sun. Oct. 4

Assuming the Tigers win against the Indians tomorrow and pick up the half game, that leaves them 3 games up with 10 to go for both teams.  The weekend series should be interesting for both teams.  Both are on the road, so that isn’t an issue and both are playing teams that are out of the race.  To make it even more fair, both teams are 7-5 against their respective opponents, and both finish their seasons with 3 game homestands against these same teams. So much for analyzing the remaining schedule.

That leaves it up to the four game series in Detroit.  So far this year, the Twinkies have taken 9 of 14 meetings from the Tigers, but they are an even 4-4 in games at Comerica Park.  The pitching matchups could very well determine the outcome of the series, with the Tigers holding a big advantage in the first two games of the series, sending out rookie Rick Porcello and flamethrower Justin Verlander against Chase Blackburn and Brian Duensing.  It’s hard to say that it gets any better for Minnesota with Carl Pavano taking the ball in the next game before their best pitcher in the second half in Scott Baker gets the ball in the series finale.  However, Detroit looks like they will have Nate Robertson and inexperienced Eddie Bonine for the next two games, unless the ineffective Jarrod Washburn can make the start in Bonine’s place, or if the Jim Leyland sees the opportunity of finish off the Twins and sends Edwin Jackson on three days rest, but that would be risky considering that they need to be thinking about the playoffs and matching up with the Yankees in the ALDS.

From an offensive standpoint, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Twins have been far more productive recently, outscoring the Tigers 54-36 over the last 10 games.  It’s also hard to argue against a lineup that’s anchored by Joe Mauer, who’s hitting .372 with 28 homers and 89 RBIs heading into tonight, and doesn’t appear to have been all that affected by the injury to his partner-in-crime Justin Morneau.

Outside of measuring the tangibles of this race, it’s hugely important not to underestimate the power of momentum.  Right now, the Twins have a lot of Mo’ going into the final stretch, while the Tigers are playing just to hang on.  The Tigers have struggled in September and there always seems to be a team that gets hot just in time to make the postseason.  Will this be enough for Minnesota, or will Detroit keep it together for long enough the grab the AL Central crown?  I personally think the Twins have come too far to fall short now and are poised to go into Detroit and take 3 out of 4 to complete their comeback.  If not, the Tigers are going to have to hope that they’re this year’s version of the ’06 Cardinals, who backed into the playoffs and ended up winning the World Series, ironically enough over the Tigers.

Mauer has had one of the best offensive seasons ever, but it still might not be enough to win the AL MVP.

Mauer has had one of the best offensive seasons ever, but it still might not be enough to win the AL MVP.

Somewhere in the bowels of the soon-to-be vacant Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome there is a player who is quietly having one of the most spectacular offensive seasons in Major League history, and yet, almost no one is recognizing the tremendous numbers that Joe Mauer has put up in 2009.  Mauer enters tonight’s showdown with the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers hitting at a just silly clip of .374 for the year with 27 homers and 87 RBIs.  Name the last catcher to have that kind of season?  That’s right, no catcher has ever hit like this before. Not Johnny Bench, not Yogi Berra, not Carlton Fisk.  In fact, name the last player to hit .375 with 30 homers and 100 RBI.  It’s only happened to three players in Major League history, four times by Babe Ruth, and once a piece by Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  That’s pretty amazing company for the somewhat underappreciated Twins catcher to be in.

In spite of these facts, though, Mauer has only been getting sniffs of the MVP talk.  This is a combination of several things. One is that the Twins are a mediocre 74-72 right now, but with a few wins over the Tigers down the stretch, they could sneak into the playoffs.  Another is that he doesn’t get the exposure of players like Mark Teixeira because he plays in small-market Minnesota.  The last is that his numbers aren’t legitimate because he missed all of April with an injury.

The small-market argument is probably the most compelling argument of the bunch.  It’s extremely difficult to escape the so-called East Coast Bias that exists through media outlets like ESPN.  Also, the reach of both the fanbase of the Yankees and the expansive national and international coverage that New York receives dwarfs anything the Minneapolis Star-Tribune can do for Mauer and the Twinkies.

The injury argument is one that can be looked at with respect to its face value.  Yes, Mauer missed a month’s time and therefore his numbers might be inflated.  However, I take the position that it’s that much more impressive that a guy could miss all of spring training and the first month of the season and get thrown right back into the fire and play at as high a level as Mauer has this year.  It just doesn’t happen.  I think that when all is said and done that Mauer has the ability to become the greatest offensive catcher in the history of the game.

So what does Mauer and/or the Twins have to do so that their star catcher snags the MVP award?  Well for starters, the Twins have to make the playoffs

Justin Morneau won the AL MVP in 06. Could his season-ending injury actually help Joe Mauer?

Justin Morneau won the AL MVP in '06. Could his season-ending injury actually help Joe Mauer?

and become relevant in the national baseball picture this year.  They’ll have plenty of opportunities as they face the Tigers 7 times in their final 16 games.  Also, it’s crucial that they don’t get swept out of the playoffs if they happen to make it.  Assuming they play the Yankees in the Divisional Series, they face an uphill battle, as they are a robust 0-7 against New York this year.  However, regular season series has proven to be unimportant in the past (See Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees, 2007 playoffs).

Other than that, Mauer can certainly help himself by getting on a hot streak over the remainder of the regular season that pushes his numbers to that .375/30/100 level, which would look even better considering that he no longer has Justin Morneau in the middle of the lineup with him.  That by itself might be just enough to push him over the top with voters, regardless of the Twins making the playoffs or not.