Cliff Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the NL since he was traded from Cleveland. Can he do it in the NLCS?

Cliff Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the NL since he was traded from Cleveland. Can he do it in the NLCS?

The National League Championship Series is set to kick off tonight in Los Angeles as the Dodgers and Phillies meet in a rematch of last year’s playoff series.  Last year, the Phillies took care of business en route to their first World Series title in 28 years.  Will it be any different this year?

Catcher
At the outset of these playoffs, it was not a case of which of these two, Russell Martin or Carlos Ruiz, was better.  It was more a question of how much better Martin was than Ruiz.  However, in the NLDS, it was Ruiz who showed up for his team in a way that he usually doesn’t, coming up with key hits in the Phils’ 3-1 victory.  So, the gap has certainly narrowed. Still, Martin has shown a more consistent pattern of success, and there was never enough concern about him to make the Dodgers go out and get Paul Bako.

Advantage: Dodgers

First Baseman
Much like in the American League, this is a very big mismatch.  The Dodgers have a serviceable 1B in James Loney, who disappointed by not really having the breakout season that many were predicting, but still had a very respectable year.  The Phillies counter with the Big Man, Ryan Howard, who continues to rack up stunning power numbers, benefitting greatly from having a powerful lineup around him.  He also got his batting average up to a respectable level this year, making him even more dangerous to pitch to.

Advantage: Phillies

Second Baseman
Chase Utley is hands-down the best second baseman in the Majors today.  Not one other 2B gets it done batting and fielding quite like he does.  On top of that, he is the Phillies’ quiet team leader and a hero in the City of Brotherly Love.  The Dodgers have yet another solid presence at 2B in Ronnie Belliard, who I personally think is one of the more underrated second basemen in the Majors, but he’s not nearly in the same category as Utley.

Advantage: Phillies

Third Baseman
Moving to the left side of the infield makes it a lot tougher to determine who’s superior between these two teams.  The Phillies have Pedro Feliz at the hot corner, who is always solid, but far from spectacular, and isn’t the player you expect to get hurt by if you’re a Dodger fan.  Casey Blake has had a bit of a resurgence since leaving Cleveland for LA, but still is far from a superstar.  That being said, it’s hard to imagine either of these two having a major impact in this series.

Advantage: Push

Shortstop
Another slot in the infield that it’s truly unclear as to who has the advantage, but the difference is that both Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal could have a major impact on this series.  Rollins has the ability to give the Phils a quick start, with his unusual power hitting from the leadoff spot, as well as good speed on the basepaths, and very good defensive skills.  Furcal has been one of the more clutch players for LA down the stretch, along with Andre Ethier, and isn’t a slouch out in the field, either.

Advantage: Push

Outfield
The Dodgers’ outfielders have certainly drawn the most attention this postseason, and that’s not a surprise when you have Manny Ramirez in left field.  The real surprises have been his supporting cast of Ethier and Matt Kemp, who have come up with numerous timely hits and home runs for LA down the stretch, and who both played very well in the sweep of the Cardinals.  The Phillies have a pretty good outfield, though, too, with Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez, all of whom could have been All-Stars this year in the NL.  The play of these groups in the field, as opposed to at the plate, might be a key to this series.

Advantage: Push

Starting Pitching
This is the separating point between these two teams. I feel it would be a dis-service to take the time and explain this, so I’ll just list the starting rotations for both teams.  For the Dodgers, it’ll be Clayton Kershaw, followed by Phillie outcasts Vincente Padilla and Randy Wolf, and finally either Hiroki Kuroda or Chad Billingsley.  These five have a combined season record of 51-39, and an ERA close to 4.00.  The Phils counter with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez, and maybe Joe Blanton.  Lee should automatically give them two wins, Pedro has been a huge surprise and has always pitched well in the playoffs, and Hamels and Blanton have been here before and excelled.

Advantage: Phillies

Relief Pitching
Almost the complete opposite of starting pitching, with the Phillies having some major bullpen issues as they sit on the ledge whenever they need to call on Brad Lidge to close out a game.  The Dodgers, meanwhile, might have the best overall group of relievers in the playoffs, which is a huge advantage for the Dodgers if they get into a high-scoring game or an extra innings game with the Phils.  Not to mention, Johnathan Broxton has been lights out all year for Los Angeles.

Advantage: Dodgers

Taking all of these things into account, as well as a few other factors, including the Phillies success on the road and its similar success against left-handed pitchers.  This is why I am taking the Phillies in six.

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.