Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals
There are people out there who are excited about the Dodgers and Cardinals facing each other in the National League Championship Series this year because they're two of the best brands that the game has to offer. These men and women have their reasons (either they're marketing and media executives or they work for them), and while I'm right there with them with the happiness, the brands don't really concern me. This series is supposed to be between the two best teams in the National League for the right to represent it in the World Series, and this year that's exactly what it is.
Los Angeles has the better pitching, with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the top of their rotation and a stronger bullpen headlined by closer Kenley Jansen; St. Louis has the better hitting, with two legitimate MVP candidates in Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, along with Carlos Beltran, the greatest postseason hitter in history, playing right field. The Cardinals will have homefield advantage for the duration, hosting the first two and the last two games of the seven-game contest; however, since the Dodgers pitched Clayton Kershaw on short rest to eliminate the Braves in four games while the Cardinals and Pirates went to five and required St. Louis to use ace Adam Wainwright to close the door, the layoff between series means that Dodgers will get to have either Greinke or Kershaw pitch at every game in St. Louis if they so choose, while the earliest Wainwright would likely be available to take the mound would be Game 3 when the series moves back to Los Angeles.
That may be the difference in a series that is essentially a toss-up. Both teams play in moderate pitchers' parks, and their lineups are slightly better suited to their home park's character: the Dodgers have more raw home run power in their lineup while their field suppresses triples and doubles, while the Cardinals have a lot more guys who hit for average and put up lots of doubles in a stadium that suppresses home runs but is kinder to guys who keep the ball in the park. In the end, the series should come down to how well the Cardinals can hit at home against the two of the game's very best pitchers; history shows that if a team takes the first two games of a series, they're tremendously likely (to the tune of an .814 winning percentage) to take the entire series. If the two teams split the first two games, however, I'd probably give the edge to Los Angeles due to the pitching matchups they can leverage later in the series, so that's precisely what I'm going to do. Dodgers in seven.
Detroit Tigers vs. Boston Red Sox
Repeat what I said above about brands coinciding with on-field success -- the Red Sox and Tigers were also the two best, most complete teams in the American League this year. There is a bit more of a gulf between the two of them right now, however, considering that the Red Sox will have homefield advantage throughout the series with one of the worst defensive teams in baseball being forced to adapt to Fenway Park's cozy atmosphere, and even in the games in Detroit will have the advantage of being the best road-hitting team in baseball.
The Tigers have a clear, if not huge, advantage in the rotation -- Scherzer/Verlander/Fister/Sanchez in whatever order you please was a better top to bottom group of pitchers than Lester/Lackey/Peavy/Buchholz, but not by much. After an inning of relief in Game 4 of Detroit's series against Oakland, Max Scherzer will get some extra rest, and the Tigers plan to start Anibal Sanchez in Game 1. But whatever advantage the Tigers gain with those matchups, they have to cede in the bullpen, where the Red Sox are the superior team.
In fairness to Detroit, and while no one likes to see guys get hurt, reliever Phil Coke's battles with elbow inflammation remove even the temptation for Tigers manager Jim Leyland to put him into a game against the Red Sox, barring any unexpected changes to Detroit's ALCS roster. But that still leaves Detroit with a pen of Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly and a bunch of question marks (the most reliable of which probably being former Houston closer Jose Veras, of all people) going up against the best offense in the American League. Leyland can supplement those guys with his starters in elimination games, but that's an emergency, all-hands-on-deck decision, not an ideal.
On the offensive side of things, the series might come down to Miguel Cabrera's health; the Tigers' best hitter showed signs of life in Game 5 with his first extra-base hit of the postseason, taking a Sonny Gray pitch just barely over the left field wall in Oakland to give Detroit a two-run lead they would hold onto for the rest of the game. That could be a sign that he's finally back on track and feeling better. Or it could be that Miguel Cabrera is simply good enough to homer once in a while even when he's not healthy enough to put MVP-caliber power behind all of his swings. I haven't seen anything over the last month out of him to make me think it isn't the latter, but if the Tigers walk away with this one, it's probably going to be because he proved me wrong. That said, Red Sox in six.
That would lead us to a Dodgers/Red Sox World Series and all the really fun storyline junk that you'd hoped to stop hearing about when 2012 finally ended -- who knows, maybe Bobby Valentine will even con somebody into giving him a few more interviews -- but we'll get there when we get there. Until then: here's hoping we see some great playoff #brands. Wait, no. Here's hoping the four best teams in baseball make this thing a bit more interesting on the field then it has been up until now.