Tony DeMarco MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
Q: With there being an extra wild-card spot this year, there are a lot of teams in contention for the playoffs. But in your opinion, which team is best suited to make a long run once in the postseason?
- Bobby Franklin, New York
A: Every contender - even the regular-season top four of the Rangers, Yankees, Reds and Nationals - have their share of concerns and potential trouble spots. That's what will make this postseason so tough to predict - and likelier for a relatively unexpected World Series winner to emerge.
With talent levels for the top eight or so teams being fairly equal, it will come down to which teams are playing best in October: whose stars come through with clutch performances that win games, whose starting pitching performs best, whose closer is most dominant, whose roster is healthiest and operating on all cylinders. And at this point, it's really a guessing game.
The Rangers will go in as the AL favorites, with their offense, power bullpen and the motivation and focus sparked by consecutive World Series losses. Their rotation lacks that dominant guy, however, as keep in mind they have lost Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis from their last two postseason rotations.
The Yankees have some health concerns right now, and those will need to be cleared up by October. Even so, you have to wonder about their No. 3-4 post-season starters, and as good a season as Rafael Soriano has had, he isn't Mariano Rivera.
Neither the Rays or Tigers would be playoff teams if the season had ended Monday, but either could be the team that gets hot. The Rays' chances are tied to their four-man rotation and lights-out, crooked-capped closer Fernando Rodney. With just enough offense, they are a solid sleeper pick.
The Tigers have underachieved to this point, and are in a fight for the playoff-qualifying lives. But there is great star power on Jim Leyland's squad, and great players can rise to the occasion in October.
The Giants and Cardinals make for a dangerous next rung of top NL contenders. Everybody respects the Giants' pitching and they're playing with an edge in the wake of Melky Cabrera's suspension and all the hype surrounding the new Dodgers.
The Cardinals clearly were the NL's best team through mid-May before hitting an extended stretch of mediocrity, still have the league's most-dangerous lineup, and their pitching staff is coming together - the exception being Lance Lynn.
For all the star power the Dodgers have added, it's very late to be expecting everything to come together so quickly, and as Don Mattingly said the other day, it likely will come down to their pitching. And there isn't enough beyond Clayton Kershaw.
Q: As a Cardinals fan, I would like to see them get Josh Hamilton and put him at first base next season. Would that be a good, creative idea?
- Cody Kane, Columbus, Ga.
A: I do believe at some point soon, Hamilton will shift out of center field to save wear and tear on his body. For all his fabulous talents, he hasn't been a durable player, and it's likely get worse as he gets deeper into his 30s. Most likely, though, the first move will be to left field. But first base and designated hitter certainly are possibilities.
As for the likelihood of the Cardinals signing Hamilton, 31, in free agency this offseason, I'd call it slim at best. Considering how they handled the Albert Pujols situation, I'll say they won't be willing to give Hamilton the kind of money he'll be seeking - and while it may not be as much as Pujols received from the Angels, it's going to be very substantial.
Even as the market's clear No. 1 free agent, I don't think Hamilton will get a nine-year deal to match Pujols and Prince Fielder in length. But the $25-million-per-year mark for at least six years seems likely.
And it's time to say here that the Cardinals and general manager John Mozeliak made the tough-but-very correct call in drawing the line where they did in the Pujols' negotiations. That decision probably won't garner Mozeliak votes for NL Executive of the Year, but it should.
The money saved by not re-signing Pujols will go to good use throughout the roster, and it's not as if the Cardinals don't have solid first base options going forward in Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams and perhaps David Freese. And there's always the option of a Lance Berkman type in free agency.
Q: Hi, Tony. In most professional sports, except perhaps hockey, lots of kids start in the pros coming straight out of college. Why is it that in baseball, so many top prospects spend a few years being groomed in the minors?
- Thom Hayes, Milford, Mich.
A: The answer is simple. The gap between the caliber of baseball played at the major-league level and the collegiate level is enormous - much greater than the gaps between the NFL and NCAA football, and the NBA and NCAA basketball.
In truth, the top level of collegiate baseball is roughly equivalent to the high-A classification of the minor leagues, maybe Double-A, tops.
But not so much when it comes to position players, who must adjust to wood bats, playing games every day, extensive travel, and pitchers with far better command of their entire repertoire than those they faced in college.
Another reason is that MLB organizations draw from around the world, making competition for big-league spots that much tougher for players coming through the American college ranks. It's gotten to the point now where foreign-born players account for about 35-40 percent of all players in the minor leagues.
The NBA also has become a worldwide game - probably even more so than baseball - but the elite talents in NCAA basketball can step into the NBA. However, with NBA roster spots at a premium due to the influx of foreign-born players, most American college players have to go the NBA developmental league or play in pro leagues abroad before they reach the NBA - if ever.