With a minty new Cliff Lee, a resurgent Jimmy Rollins and a 20--7 record since July 3, the Phillies have become baseball's It team. There's talk of a pennant-winning repeat, even a good shot at becoming baseball's first back-to-back champs since the Yankees won three World Series from 1998 through 2000. It's a nice story line, but it's shortsighted. The big dogs in the NL are still the Dodgers.
The game's first-half darlings, the Dodgers remain the best team by record, and that is no fluke. Through Sunday, Los Angeles was the only NL team to have outscored its opponents by 100 runs; the club was third in the league in runs scored (behind the Rockies and the Phillies, who play in more generous hitters' parks) and second in runs allowed. In Baseball Prospectus's Adjusted Standings report, which takes into account schedule strength and other variables such as run differential, L.A. is six games better than everyone else in the NL and nine games better than the Phillies. That's a gap that can't be made up with a single trade.
For all the focus on the Phillies' recent upgrades, it's the Dodgers who are just now rounding into form after missing key contributors for much of the season. They played half the season without Manny Ramirez and his MVP-caliber bat. Lefty reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, a devastating force when healthy—as rare as that has been—rejoined the bullpen last week. Righthander Jason Schmidt, a ghost since signing a three-year contract as a free agent in December 2006, threw six one-hit innings at the Braves last Friday and may be the solution the team has needed in the fifth starter's slot.
Just as Rollins turned around his lost season and sparked his team by heating up with the weather, so too has Rafael Furcal. The Dodgers shortstop is hitting .330 and slugging nearly .500 since July 1. And while it's not as sexy as acquiring Cliff Lee, the Dodgers did bring in lefty reliever George Sherrill, who, along with Kuo, brings balance to a bullpen that listed to the right. He'll serve as reinforcement for a group of rookie relievers who have been worked, in Joe Torre tradition, extremely hard. Sherrill—who's virtually unhittable against lefthanded batters—can also serve as backup closer to Jonathan Broxton, who has been intermittently unavailable with various ailments. The bullpen, effective so far, was the team's biggest concern at the trade deadline, and it got stronger.
Even with Lee, the Phillies' rotation doesn't match up with the Dodgers' in the postseason, especially with Cole Hamels still unable to find his 2008 form for Philadelphia and Clayton Kershaw establishing himself as an ace for L.A. On offense the Phillies have the better middle of the order, but the Dodgers get at least average production at every lineup spot. There's no reason to believe that the Dodgers aren't still the team to beat.
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He's No Mo
Why is everyone worried about Jonathan Papelbon, who is on pace to have a lower ERA and the same number of saves and blown saves as he did last year? For starters, the Red Sox closer is running the highest walk rate of his career, having already issued a career-high 19 unintentional free passes (in 45 innings). Hitters are laying off his splitter; a year ago batters chased Papelbon's pitches out of the strike zone a whopping 34% of the time. That figure is a career-low 26% this year. He's also allowing more—and more dangerous—contact: His flyball and line-drive rates have spiked. Don't be fooled by the pretty ERA (2.00) and saves (27 in 30 chances): Papelbon is having the worst year of his career, and he may be heading for a difficult stretch drive.
BRAD MANGIN (LEE)
ACE IN PLACE Lee was everything the Phils hoped for with a four-hit, complete-game debut, but the rotation still has holes.
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (PAPELBON)