The 2012 MLB playoffs begin next weekend, and the field is slowly taking shape with 3 days left in the season as of this writing.
In the National League, no one saw the changing of the guard in the East coming the way it did. I had picked Atlanta to win the division, but they'll go as a Wild Card instead. Then again, given Davey Johnson's past track record, we should've known the Washington Nationals would have a legitimate shot. It took Johnson 3 seasons to get the Mets a World Series title, and were it not for some bad strategy 2 years later, maybe we would've gotten a rematch of the '73 Fall Classic vs. Oakland, instead of Los Angeles avenging their defeat in the '74 Series.
Washington had teased us before, about 4 years ago, before fading. This time, once they took the lead in the division, they never gave it up, ending Philadelphia's run of 5 straight titles. However, the Nationals are not a lock to advance all the way to the series.
That is because of GM Mike Rizzo's safety-first decision to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg earlier this month with an innings limit imposed on Strasburg, coming off Tommy John surgery. That leaves Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez, the hired gun brought over from Oakland via trade in the offseason, as the default ace heading into the playoffs. In the 80's, no one would've thought much of taking a top-shelf pitcher and putting him on the sidelines to preserve his arm and career. Today, it's about the team protecting its investment in the wake of the surgery and hoping to avoid further injury.
The Mets are doing it, too, having shut down rookies Matt Harvey & Josh Edgin after accumulating x number of innings between the minors and the National League. Of course, with the Mets, the horse had already left the barn with the injury curse having taken 3 starting pitchers (Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee) down. Pelfrey, in fact, may have pitched his last game for New York, as he could be a free agent this winter. The Mets are locked into 4th place in the East, their annual collapse coming right after the All-Star break, but comforted by the fact that the hated Phillies will miss the playoffs as well.
Philadelphia & Miami both went into fire-sale mode around the break, with the Phillies dumping outfielders Shane Victorino & Hunter Pence and pitcher Joe Blanton, while the Marlins, seeing their offseason spending spree go for naught, sent All-Star Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers (who also obtained Blanton & Victorino), Gaby Sanchez to Pittsburgh, and shipped Omar Infante back to Detroit, taking Anibal Sanchez with him in the deal. Jose Reyes, for one, didn't foresee another last place finish after leaving the Mets for Miami. Manager Ozzie Guillen, some think, could be one and done, scapegoated not so much for his mouth getting him in trouble, but the team underachieving. The fire sale figures to resume after the World Series. In Philadelphia, now they can cheer for the Eagles.......
Guillen isn't the only manager on the hot seat. Boston's Bobby Valentine thinks he'll be back next year, but I doubt that. The Red Sox have not been able to elevate themselves past 4th place in the AL East, and close the season against the Yankees. I think Red Sox ownership will call for the U-Hauls by this time next week.
Meanwhile, the Nationals aren't the only ones getting fans along the Potomac excited. Baltimore is returning to the postseason for the first time in 15 years, as Buck Showalter kept the Orioles in contention all season, and they need the Red Sox to upset the Yankees over the next three nights to have a chance to win the division. The last time Baltimore qualified for the postseason, they were eliminated by Cleveland in the ALCS in 1997.
The defending World champion St. Louis Cardinals are all but in as a Wild Card, and would have to get past Atlanta to advance further. Not easy. The AL Wild Card game figures to be Baltimore vs. Oakland. By Wednesday, the picture will come into full focus. By then, I'll have a handle on the playoffs, and will have predictions.