The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Cardinals are -- probably in that order -- the top teams in baseball heading into the 2010 campaign.
The vagaries of a long season can complicate matters, but those four clubs are the safest bets to reach the postseason. Of course, in a sport like baseball, which has so much built-in parity, even the best teams will lose 60-odd games in a given season. That's to say, there's no such thing as perfection in baseball. And a lack of perfection means flaws.
With that in mind, let's take a look at those four teams -- the acknowledged best in the game -- and evaluate what may be their "fatal flaw" in the season to come.
The 103-win Yankees have added Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez, among others, this winter. In other words, another 100-win campaign is likely in the offing. The offense will be the best in all of baseball, the rotation is solid, and Mariano Rivera remains one of the best closers in baseball. But ...
Fatal Flaw: Age
When talking about the "weaknesses" of the '10 Yankees, you are perhaps trafficking in fine points. After all, the reigning world champs are poised to make another vigorous charge for the title. But age -- and, by extension, decline phases -- could complicate matters. To wit, the closer is 40, the shortstop is 35, the third baseman is 34, the catcher is 38, the third starter is 33, the fourth starter is 37, the first lefty out of the pen is 35 ... Well, you get the idea. The Yankees have a number of core contributors who are on the wrong side of 30, and that means sudden declines and injuries are possible. They'll need to plan and adjust accordingly.
In terms of value on the dollar, no team had a better offseason than Boston. John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro -- all are sensible additions. Considering recent history and the talent already in place, it's almost certain that the Sox will make the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons. But ...
Fatal Flaw: Left-handed relief
The Sox boast one of the deepest and most balanced and rosters in all of baseball, but they still have some concerns. Can Beltre stay healthy and produce? Will J.D. Drew and Josh Beckett stay off the DL? Can David Ortiz stave off decline? Can Jacoby Ellsbury produce by left-fielder standards? Will Victor Martinez hold up? And so forth and so forth ...
Another worry is how the left side of the bullpen will fare. At present, the lefty of first resort will be Hideki Okajima. Okajima has been outstanding in his brief major-league career, but last season his numbers took a dive. In particular, his strikeout rate declined, and his home-run rate increased. Those aren't promising developments, especially for a pitcher who just turned 34. If trends hold, then Okajima in 2010 will post an ERA of around 4.00. That means the Sox might struggle to retire lefty bats in the middle innings. In a division that includes left-handed sluggers like Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Nick Markakis, Carlos Pena, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, that could be a (perhaps fatal) flaw.
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino. The twice-reigning NL champs have stars aplenty. But ...
Fatal Flaw: Closer
In the championship season of 2008, closer Brad Lidge was all but perfect. Last year, however, he posted a nightmarish ERA of 7.21 and, in a related matter, showed poor control and couldn't keep the ball in the park. And he wasn't much better in the postseason. The law of averages means Lidge will almost certainly improve in 2010, but his age and performance trends suggest he'll never again be an optimal closer. The Phillies are strong enough to compensate when it comes to winning the NL East (just as they were last season), but will the lack of a reliable closer haunt them in October?
You can quibble that the lineup is too right-handed and that the rotation behind Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is potentially unremarkable. Still, there's Albert Pujols (the best player in baseball), Matt Holliday (the prize of this winter's market), the top one-two punch in baseball, and assorted worthies (e.g., Gold Glove-caliber fielders at catcher, short and center; a power source in right; and a manager who ranks among the very best of all-time). But ...
Fatal Flaw: Closer
Holliday may have been the tidy foil of last year's untimely playoff exit, but closer Ryan Franklin was the real villain. Franklin was unable to get anyone out from August onward, so his meltdown in Game 2 of the NLDS was hardly surprising. Franklin, in his career, has been an effective reliever , but never has he been as good as he was last season. And never again will he be as good as he was last season.
Sure, it's possible that Franklin, at age 36, figured out how to give up just 0.3 home runs per nine innings and post a sub-2.00 ERA despite poor strikeout numbers. But it's highly unlikely. Will Tony La Russa, in many ways the "Dr. Frankenstein" of the modern closer, be willing to turn to an unproved other should Franklin predictably regress? Cardinals fans had better hope so.