PHOENIX - The defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks enter the postseason with the two most dominant starting pitchers in the National League, yet they appear to have little margin for error in October.
The St. Louis Cardinals have only one starting pitcher with an impressive won-lost record, but they have a balanced, explosive offensive lineup that just might be good enough to carry them all the way to the world title.
The New York Yankees appear to have it all, which should be no surprise considering the size of their payroll, but that is no guarantee they'll cruise past the energetic Anaheim Angels in the American League Division Series or fly over the division winner they would play in the second round if they are fortunate enough to get that far.
That's the beauty of the three-tiered playoff format. There are way too many variables to get comfortable with any particular configuration. But with three of the four Division Series opening today, it's fair to ponder just what it takes to be the ideal playoff team.
Pitching and defense? Speed and power? Fantastic chemistry? Terrific balance? Great depth? Every manager would love to circle "all of the above," but it usually doesn't work that way.
The Diamondbacks enter the postseason without three players who were critical to last year's world title run, losing key offensive components Danny Bautista, Craig Counsell and - just recently - Luis Gonzalez to major injuries. They're banking heavily on bookend Cy Young Award candidates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to dominate their first-round matchup against the Cardinals, which begins tonight at Bank One Ballpark.
"Obviously, those players aren't replaceable," Johnson said yesterday. "They won't be here, so somebody will have to step up and do what they did last year and be the hero."
The Cardinals will open with 17-game winner Matt Morris tonight and hope their big offensive advantage will pull them through the best-of-five series.
Their greatest strength might be that they have no major deficiencies - though there will be a lot of attention focused on their resilience after a season in which they endured the deaths of pitcher Darryl Kile and broadcaster Jack Buck.
"I think what makes a strong playoff team is the same thing that makes a good team throughout the season," Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "That is, to have a certain level of strength in all the key component areas. Your pitching has to be in the upper echelon of the game, your offense has to produce and you have to play solid defense and have good fundamentals. Those are the things you have to have."
The Braves have a long string of playoff appearances to back up Schuerholz's theory, and they have returned this year to face the wild-card San Francisco Giants in the first round.
The Yankees probably come the closest to having the ideal postseason makeup, with their deep pitching staff, power-packed batting order and winning attitude, but manager Joe Torre doesn't hesitate to pick out which attribute is No. 1.
"It's all about pitching," Torre said over the weekend. "The depth of our pitching gives us a little more security ... knowing that we have a lot of backup. It's an old saying, but it's true: Good pitching stops good hitting. And we have the capability to do that up and down our rotation."
No other manager in this postseason has the luxury of keeping two front-line starting pitchers in long relief. Torre has six quality starters and room for only four of them in the playoff rotation, so Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Weaver will open up in the bullpen. Either likely would be among the top four on most of the other playoff teams.
Torre will go with Roger Clemens in the opener today and Andy Pettitte tomorrow at Yankee Stadium. Mike Mussina and David Wells are expected to start the road games.
The Oakland Athletics also enter their Division Series against the Minnesota Twins with a distinct pitching advantage. Top starters Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson make them a decided first-round favorite, and they also have a formidable offensive lineup and stingy bullpen.
If the Yankees are the best team money could buy, the A's are - by far - the best team for the money. Last year, they lost two of the most exciting offensive players in the game when leadoff man Johnny Damon and former AL MVP Jason Giambi left for free agency, and yet they haven't lost a step.
So, Yankees vs. A's in the ALCS is a foregone conclusion, right? Torre didn't win four World Series rings by taking the opposition for granted. The Angels might be the wild-card team, but they had to have something going for them to stay neck-and-neck with Oakland during the A's 20-game winning streak.