10/22/08 10:42 AM ET
Smallest edges could decide Series
Rays, Phils have different areas of strength around the diamond
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
Since the ALCS ended late Sunday night, talk has swirled over which team might be better equipped to bring home a World Series title: the Phillies or the Rays. And it's a fair argument. Neither team seems to have any sort of extraordinary edge over the other.
The Rays have speed and youth. The Phillies have experience and one heck of a bullpen. And both teams have more than enough pop to win the World Series.
The Phillies know that. So do the Rays. And so, to that end, the following is a guide to precisely how these two teams compare.
For the better part of this week, the Phillies have been praising their catcher, Carlos Ruiz, for his defense and game-calling prowess. If he's not the most improved man on their club, he's close. But the Rays' Dioner Navarro is already an All-Star, having earned that distinction for the first time this summer. He has more pop in his bat and more lightning in his arm, having thrown out 38 percent of would-be base stealers.
This, not surprisingly, is where the power lies. Despite his dormant stretches throughout the season, and despite his complete power outage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs, Ryan Howard remains one of the game's foremost power threats. He all but carried the Phillies during September, hitting .352 with 11 home runs. And though Carlos Pena is one of the few men who can match Howard swat for swat, it's tough to argue with consistent results.
Chase Utley quietly had a fine National League Championship Series, hitting .353 with a home run and five walks. When both he and Howard are clicking, the Phillies become a doubly dangerous lineup. As Utley showed on multiple occasions during the NLCS, he's also as good as it gets defensively. Not that Akinori Iwamura can't hold his own at second base -- in his first season at the position, Iwamura has shown that he can. But Utley is one of the elite second basemen of this generation.
All Evan Longoria has done this year is hit 27 home runs in an abbreviated rookie season, make the All-Star team, swat six more home runs over the first two rounds of the playoffs and generally proceed with the demeanor of a player twice his age. If Longoria is hot -- and it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which he won't be -- then Pedro Feliz simply can't match him offensively. Known primarily for his defense at third base, Feliz has endured a disappointing season at the plate.
Leave it to Jimmy Rollins, even in a down year, to come through for the Phillies when it matters most. Rollins hit leadoff home runs in the clinching games of both the National League Division Series and the NLCS, after a season that saw him finish with greatly diminished power totals from a year ago. Rollins can still steal bases and create havoc on the bases, and he's certainly still got plenty of pop in his bat. And despite Jason Bartlett's key home run in the ALCS, the Tampa Bay shortstop remains little more than a defensive specialist.
Given Carl Crawford's injury-plagued struggles at the plate this season, it would be easy to hand the edge to Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell, who hit 33 home runs in the regular season and another three in the playoffs. But Crawford has shown a hot bat in the postseason, is a more complete player when healthy, and is a difference-maker on defense. And Burrell, often removed from games for a defensive replacement, may spend significant time during the World Series as a designated hitter.
It's tough to argue with Shane Victorino, an MVP candidate in the NLCS who seems to save his best for the most critical games. Yet it's even tougher to argue with B.J. Upton, who could break Barry Bonds' record for most home runs in a single postseason. Upton has blossomed during his first full season as an outfielder, and has shown tremendous power throughout the postseason, hitting .304 with seven homers, a triple and a double.
Because the Phillies boast two left-handed starters, Rocco Baldelli might see more playing time than usual in right. But neither he nor Gabe Gross has produced much during the postseason -- and nothing beats a sure thing. Jayson Werth has become just that for the Phillies, hitting 24 homers in his first season as an everyday player. Werth can bat second or sixth in the lineup, and manager Charlie Manuel is apt to use him in either spot.
Manuel is keeping quiet about who his designated hitter will be during the World Series, only furthering the notion that his options are limited. Burrell is one, but there's no telling if Manuel will want to shake up his regular defensive alignment. His few other options include a hot hitter in Greg Dobbs, or a pair of power-hitting lefties in Geoff Jenkins and Matt Stairs. The Rays have a more permanent solution in Cliff Floyd, and also a better group of defenders to come off the bench late in games. That could prove critical.
Both teams were able to line up their rotations just as they saw fit, which should make for some interesting World Series matchups -- most notably Game 1, which will pit lefties Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir against one another. Yet the Rays seem to take a slight edge as the series progresses, thanks simply to the depth that they have. Whereas Jamie Moyer has struggled in two postseason starts, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine have both enjoyed tremendous playoff success.
Certainly a strength of both teams, the bullpens could be a deciding factor in the World Series. Though both groups have been quite successful on paper, the Phillies have been hotter -- just see Tampa Bay's seven-run meltdown in Boston as proof. And the Phillies still employ Brad Lidge, who has now converted 49 consecutive saves dating back to last season. The Wild Card here is Tampa Bay's rookie left-hander David Price, who proved in Game 7 of the ALCS that he can potentially make a significant difference.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.