A Series of close calls

Analysis

World Series

October 22, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

It might not be the matchup TV executives and corporate America wanted.

It lost intrigue when Manny Ramirez, Joe Torre and Red Sox Nation were booted to the curb in League Championship Series play.

The 2008 World Series, which begins tonight, simply will feature two very good, very balanced teams. And that should be interesting enough for most baseball fans.

The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the National League crown, boast star power with the infield trio of first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, as well as ace left-hander Cole Hamels.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the best story in sports right now, four wins away from an unprecedented worst-to-World Series-champion turnaround. No team in baseball history has gone from having the worst record one year to a World Series title the next (the 1991 Atlanta Braves had a shot but lost in seven games to the Minnesota Twins).

It's a contrast in payrolls, with the Phillies starting the season 13th in the majors at $98 million compared with the Rays' $44 million, second lowest overall. The rosters, however, are comparable, and that should create a tight, evenly matched Series.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown.

CATCHER

Tampa Bay's Dioner Navarro

vs. Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz

Both have emerged as important and calming influences on their respective clubs. They call good games, block pitches and possess strong arms. Navarro is younger and has more offensive upside, but they're rather similar.

Advantage: Even

FIRST BASE

Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena

vs. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard

On the surface, Howard runs away with this. But because of defensive superiority, Pena deserves the nod. The 2006 NL Most Valuable Player, Howard led the league in homers (48) and RBIs (146). But he has batted .258 with no homers and three RBIs in the postseason. Pena had 31 regular-season homers and 102 RBIs with a much higher on-base percentage and has hit well this October (.333, three homers, eight RBIs). One major league scout said: "It's close, but you win with defense, and they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Pena is one of the best; Howard is one of the worst."

Advantage: Rays

SECOND BASE

Tampa Bay's Akinori Iwamura

vs. Philadelphia's Chase Utley

Iwamura has been a splendid surprise, and his switch to second base allowed the Rays to promote third base phenom Evan Longoria. Utley is in a class by himself. He has worked diligently to become a solid defender capable of making great plays. And offensively, he has no peer.

Advantage: Phillies

SHORTSTOP

Tampa Bay's Jason Bartlett

vs. Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins

The Rays considered Bartlett the club MVP for his steady, all-around play. Rollins, though, is the defending league MVP and has the ability to take over a game and a series.

Advantage: Phillies

THIRD BASE

Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria

vs. Philadelphia's Pedro Feliz

Feliz made just eight errors in 129 regular-season games for the Phillies and has a little pop. But he does nothing special offensively and owns a woeful .290 career OBP. Longoria, the likely AL Rookie of the Year, has been a difference-maker offensively and has the potential to be a Gold Glove defender.

Advantage: Rays

LEFT FIELD

Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford

vs. Philadelphia's Pat Burrell

This is the Series' biggest contrast. Burrell is a walk machine with major power and limited defensive abilities. Crawford is an above-average defender and gap hitter who doesn't walk much but steals bases at will. He is coming off an injury, and Burrell is playing for a contract. Burrell's streakiness can be frustrating.

Advantage: Rays

CENTER FIELD

Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton

vs. Philadelphia's Shane Victorino

They could have been the MVPs of their respective Championship Series. Victorino is the classic, speedy overachiever and fan favorite. Upton is the supremely talented athlete who needs only more experience and maturity to become a superstar. This postseason could be his national coming-out party.

Advantage: Rays

RIGHT FIELD

Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli/Gabe Gross

vs. Philadelphia's Jayson Werth

Werth, the Orioles' first-round draft pick in 1997, finally stayed healthy and had the year once projected for him: 24 homers, 20 steals, .363 OBP. Baldelli, once a can't-miss prospect, has battled back from a career-threatening illness while Gross, another former first-rounder, has been steady since coming over from the Milwaukee Brewers. All three are solid, nothing more.

Advantage: Phillies

BENCH

A typical NL team, the Phillies have a well-constructed bench that includes pinch-hit specialist Greg Dobbs. The late-season acquisition of Matt Stairs helped in the NLCS and will be a plus when the designated hitter is used in Tampa Bay. The Rays have Cliff Floyd at DH and as the primary pinch hitter in Philly. Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist also provide some reserve pop.

Advantage: Phillies

STARTING ROTATION

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