L.A. or Chicago Could Be Headed Toward Inter-City Showdown

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In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that his greatest fear is that he might be in City Hall eight years without seeing a subway series. Perhaps the exact opposite fear can be found in network headquarters and Major League Baseball’s offices, because while New York’s already shut out of the American League playoff picture — and if the Mets bullpen has anything to say about it, New York might be absent from the entire playoffs — there’s nevertheless the possibility of two other parochially comfortable outcomes. In Chicago, with both the Cubs and the White Sox comfortably in control of their own destinies and likely to win Central Division titles in their respective leagues, the specter of an all-Chicago World Series looms. Similarly, in Los Angeles, a showdown between the Angels of Anaheim and the Dodgers as dueling champs of the two Wests is becoming all the more possible.

At this point, the odds that any one of the four won’t make it to October action are pretty slim. The Angels clinched last week, cruising to a fourth division title in five years in baseball’s short-stack four-team division, while the Dodgers seem almost certain to slip in with the Arizona Diamondbacks blowing their initial lead and slithering back down around .500 as keys to their success — especially on the pitching staff — struggle or fail down the stretch.

As for the El Series scenario in the Windy City, the Cubs had almost no shot at blowing their lead in the NL Central over the Milwaukee Brewers before yesterday’s extra-innings victory over the Brew Crew, and now that they lead by nine with 11 to play, it seems unlikely they’ll have to play that last hurricane-induced makeup date against the Houston Astros the day after the regular season ends. While the White Sox still have the challenge of next week’s three-game series in Minneapolis to confront, with the Twins mired in a recent losing streak and having to travel to Tampa Bay to face the league’s best team, there’s a decent shot that the anticipated Central showdown will be irrelevant by the time it’s played.

That isn’t to say that all of the four will go into October as perfectly-positioned teams. Because of the injuries and ineffectiveness of various key components on not just these four rosters but those of all of the contenders, none of the prospective playoff teams makes for an easy favorite. Consider the Dodgers’ lot — as the weakest of the four, they have the most cause for concern if they’re going to make a Freeway Series possible. Despite repeatedly finding out through direct experience that Juan Pierre is not an important part of a lineup that wants to score runs, Joe Torre keeps running the punchless vet out there at the expense of one of two better-hitting alternatives, Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier. Despite the obvious danger of wearing out star catcher Russell Martin, Martin’s still playing almost every day, having already caught 139 games, even as his production (.226 AVG/.330 OBA/.290 SLG in the last four weeks) dips to levels so low that even his backup, the well-traveled Danny Ardoin, might match them (career .206/.298/.310).

However, injuries are driving a lot of what makes up Torre’s tactical menu. While the Dodgers’ pen received an important reinforcement in getting closer Takashi Saito back from the disabled list, there’s the daily drama of seeing if Nomar Garciaparra or perhaps even Rafael Furcal are going to be able to play, or if they really are going to limp into the postseason playing a middle infield made up of a Royals reject (Angel Berroa) and a converted third baseman (Blake DeWitt). Because of injuries, the Angels also have major question marks about who’s going to be available to play in their infield, as starting second baseman Howie Kendrick (hamstring), third baseman Chone Figgins (elbow), and shortstop Erick Aybar (hamstring) have all missed significant chunks of September. The White Sox are a hospital ward as well, having lost their MVP candidate, outfielder Carlos Quentin, to a self-inflicted wrist injury, among numerous other hits.

There’s also reason to wonder about this quartet’s rotations. The Dodgers’ four starters might not include 20-year-old rookie Clayton Kershaw out of concern for his career-high workload (157.1 IP between the majors and minors), but Greg Maddux hasn’t been an especially palatable alternative since he’s been acquired from the Padres, failing to log a quality start in his first four turns. The Angels might also have to make a difficult call over whether or not to bounce a relatively unproductive veteran starting pitcher, Jon Garland, from their playoff rotation. The Cubs have reason to fear anything going amiss with notoriously fragile mid-season pickup Rich Harden, and have had to work around Carlos Zambrano’s fatigue down the stretch; losing either and having to plug in Jason Marquis would put the offense on the spot, if nothing else. Of these teams, only the White Sox can sit pretty with their four main starting pitchers, having already moved to a five-day rotation since Jose Contreras’s season-ending injury, a move that has had them skipping their fifth starters whenever the schedule permits, while keeping the front four on their regular turns.

Now, all of this doom and gloom neglects the fact that somebody’s going to win it, and the chances of a single-market series are pretty good in light of the absence of an established favorite like the Yankees or Braves of the 1990s. That should make for some great baseball, but it might not add up to great television in the long run. As the all-New York World Series of 2000 reflected, either one of these matchups could be a ratings disaster; that series saw national ratings dip to then-record lows (which have since been beaten, as audience fragmentation dwindles major network audience share to ever-smaller fragments).

However, the prospect of the Cubs taking their shot at resolving a century’s worth of frustration, at the hands of their perpetually envious crosstown rivals no less, might be a compelling-enough sports drama to inspire nationwide viewership to levels near those seen in 2002, when ratings spiked as the Red Sox took their turn getting history’s monkey off their backs. In contrast, an all-L.A. series might have trouble matching the last all-California series between the Angels and the San Francisco Giants. Either way, the threat of these kinds of possibilities should make for desperate viewing in some cities’ living rooms — and in New York boardrooms.

Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art commentary, visit baseballprospectus.com.


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