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September 29, 2010
Last Friday, I brought up the Reds' rotation situation as they gear up for their first post-season series since 1995. We can't peg everyone's rotations perfectly just yet, of course, because there are still a few issues to resolve—which two teams from among the Braves, Giants, and Padres will join the Reds and Phillies in next week's action, for example, set against the much less exciting proposition over who is going to win home-field advantage in the AL.
These things aren't alike in terms of their import to the teams concerned—as long as the outcome is still in doubt in the NL, the Braves, Giants, and Padres won't have the benefit of trying to line up their respective rotations for playoff assignments, where the three AL skippers who still have something to sort out can, of course, elect not to. Or, in the case of a team with the Rays' riches in terms of pitching talent, leave it up to somebody like Jeremy Hellickson and still have a great shot at winding up the winner.
There are an even larger set of variables that will determine who draws who in the National League's October dance card. There's also the television-mandated schedule spread that will let the two clubs that open their series on Wednesday, October 6, to get by with three-man rotations. Both teams will have an opportunity to use their respective first and second game starters in the fourth and fifth games (if needed) on a full four days' rest. In contrast, the other NLDS will force the two skippers to employ a fourth starter, but that spread's more difficult for some teams than others. Because the Phillies will be doing the picking as a result of their predominance, you can probably anticipate their doing as the Yankees did last year, and choosing the series that lets them skip throwing their fortunes to the vincibility of Kentucky Joe Blanton or, gods forbid, Kyle Kendrick.
In contrast to the NL, the ALDS schedule is identical for both series, so there's not a lot at stake beyond the acquisition of home-field advantage. With the Rays, Twins, and Yankees all sparring for the privilege of home-field advantage—and keeping in mind that the Secret Sauce doesn't quite pack the same spice as it did of old—we're left with the interesting spectacle of the Royals and Blue Jays playing major roles in determining who plays where in October. While the Yankees are probably facing the toughest challenge of the three by hitting the road against the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, the Rays draw the Orioles at home and the Royals in Kansas City; meanwhile the Twins get the Royals in KC and the Blue Jays at home.
With that, let's run through a quick review of the nine teams' rotation situations, with any potential additional factors worth considering:
It might be just me, but this might be the most interesting to kick around, not just because this is it for Bobby Cox, but in light of his willingness to start people on short rest in order to keep his swan song on the charts. The bad news is that, to try to make it, they started Tim Hudson on short rest Tuesday night, and will do so with Derek Lowe today. The good news is that Hudson is lined up to pitch in the 162nd game and lead off the Thursday-start LDS on short rest as well. Unfortunately, if the issue of making it or not is still in doubt on the regular season's last day, they won't be able to make a game-time decision, because their home game on the East Coast precedes that day's Pads/Giants game out in California.
There's also the huge drop-off between Hudson and the rest of the rotation, even relative to the Braves' next-best starter, Tommy Hanson. It's also worth noting that Hudson's good fortune this season as far as ball-in-play outcomes ranks him among the majors' top 20 in the differential between his SIERA and his actual ERA, creating the question of whether or not he's an ace in the emperor's clothes. And assuming the Braves pull off winning the wild card, they're in a tough spot because they don't even know whether they have a plausible choice for a fourth starter thanks, to Jair Jurrjens' knee issue. Unfortunately for the Braves, that's also the Phillies' call to make, so Atlanta-in scenarios basically demand they either use a fourth or start Hudson on short rest in Game Four of the LDS.
While the Braves might have the benefit of the second-best bullpen in the circuit (behind only the Padres' relief crew) to help compensate, having to turn over a Game Four start at home to an ailing Jurrjens would be a tough proposition, even if they're up in the series, and even if he's purportedly good to go at that point. Jurrjens has a much better overall record at home than on the road, but that reflects small-sample heroics—five quality starts in his first seven in Atlanta, after which he's been banged around in his last three (before his knee problem put him on the shelf).
Do they have any alternatives? Sure, if the Braves draw the Reds in the LDS, they might decide to see if Kenshin Kawakami can repeat his six-inning shutout of Cincinnati earlier this season. However, if they're down a game and Jurrjens can't go in Game Four, having Hudson start on three days' rest seems like the obvious solution. It would also leave them set with their Game Two starter on full rest in a fifth game—if they get there.
The order of who Dusty Baker uses and the Reds' specific opponent is probably going to make the biggest difference, because they already have their problems playing well on the road. Things might be especially tough for them if they wind up with Philadelphia as their first-round opponent, in which case I have to think they'd want to make sure they get to throw the left-handed Travis Wood against the Phillies twice. However, a lot of what's being said publicly indicates that Baker is only locked in on using Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. Wood, Homer Bailey, and Edison Volquez are all still under consideration for the other two assignments, and who knows, maybe Dusty being Dusty would lead to a decision to skip convention and use all five. Not getting the Phillies in the first round might be the best possible outcome for the Reds because at least the alternative opponents all have their flaws, and if they're lucky, they wouldn't wind up having to lead off with Arroyo in the LCS if they get there.
Happily, this is a strong enough unit top to bottom that the Giants might be the one contender of the three who haven't yet clinched with the least to worry about if they have to play to win all the way through Sunday afternoon. As I suggested on Friday, the biggest part of the Giants' problem should only be telling Barry Zito that they're very grateful for his rebound season, but the third and fourth slots belong to Madison Bumgarner, their second-best starter per SNWP, and Jonathan Sanchez. But if they wind up with the three-starter LDS schedule opposite the Phillies, would they favor Bumgarner in front of Jonathan Sanchez, or would they just run with a quartet anyway because it gets at least two starts by lefties in the series? Complicating matters, there are match-up wrinkles to give Bruce Bochy some gray hairs. For example, Bumgarner beat the Padres twice, but the only other playoff team he faced this season was the Reds, who creamed him. Sanchez beat the Phillies both times out but got knocked around by both the Reds and Braves, which leads to the question of whether or not he might be skipped in favor of Zito against either of those teams.
Some things seem straightforward enough. Mat Latos is their best and should be who they open with, assuming they don't need to use him on Sunday against the Giants to clinch. Jon Garland will be best left in the third or fourth slot, especially if that involves taking his turn with the benefit of Petco, but if the Phillies wind up with first-round home-field advantage, putting him out there in Game Two would make sense. On the other hand, using Clayton Richard in the second slot against the Braves or Phillies, and especially if they wind up with the three-starter LDS schedule against Philadelphia, would also make some sense. But will they really count on swingman Tim Stauffer as their other starter? They may not have much choice; Wade LeBlanc is apparently off the table and trusting Chris Young so soon after his return from the DL would be tough.
To some extent, it might seem as if Ron Washington has got it easy. Derek Holland and Rich Harden aren't really choices, so the quartet that they'll employ is pretty straightforward. There are no additional stakes for him to gun for in the meantime, so Washington can focus on making sure that Cliff Lee is cued for the first-game assignment... except there's still that nagging concern over whether or not Lee is 100 percent healthy.
Things get even more interesting after that. Tommy Hunter has gotten tremendous run support and pitched well over his head, but he's not the only guy to do so—C.J. Wilson also doesn't make a great automatic choice for the second game of a post-season series for a few reasons, starting with a SIERA that's also almost a full run higher than his actual ERA. Add in Wilson's failure to log a quality start against the Yankees or Rays (as well as getting knocked around by the Twins two out of three times), and you can see how that shouldn't really appeal to the Rangers.
If there's a darkhorse candidate for a post-season hero, I'd nominate Colby Lewis. Statistically, he makes for an interesting enough alternative, and he's been striking out over a batter per inning in the second half. Perhaps most importantly, neither the Yankees or Rays got a chance to face him even once this year. If pitchers are supposed to have the initial advantage, is Lewis the man who might be his club's surprise savior?
The front pair was relatively straightforward, in that Francisco Liriano is their best starter on the season with quality starts both times out against the Yankees and another in his spin versus the Rays. You can expect that they'll plug Carl Pavano in as well, perhaps more on the basis of his 17 wins and his ERA than anything more analytical. Think on that, Yankees fans, Carl Pavano could be coming to another playoff game near you, looking to avenge last year's tough loss. We'll see which order they appear in, since it's a matter of picking who will also be their Game Five starter, but on a qualitative level, Liriano makes for an obvious choice.
It's after that pair where choices got a little more difficult. Scott Baker might have been an obvious third, but between a bum elbow that had limited him to two starts in September and his Jekyll/Hyde swings between souvenir-generator and strike-thrower, he was a little hard to count on. Instead, Ron Gardenhire is turning to Brian Duensing, who has had a fine year as a utility pitcher. That might seem like an easy and sensible choice, but keep in mind he has the second-largest difference between his actual ERA and his SIERA among pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched.
Since Baker hasn't inspired a ton of confidence as far as his health, selecting a fourth is a Dirty Harry decision: Did Gardy feel lucky? When it came to picking between that Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, would they put their faith in the hot hand and turn to Blackburn on the basis of six straight quality starts? He also spun a pair of quality starts against the Yankees back in May, but he got cuffed around by the Rays his lone time out there against them. Slowey missed the Yankees, but in his turn against Tampa Bay he was cruising through a seven-inning shutout against the Rays in August, only to see the game blow apart in the eighth. Complicating matters is that both pitchers have huge home/road splits, with road ERAs more than two runs per nine higher than at home. The answer is Blackburn.
For a team in the running for the best record in the league, the Yankees seem to have more than their share of question marks once you get past their ace, CC Sabathia. Andy Pettitte has managed to shut down the Orioles and get hammered by the Red Sox since his activation from the DL; if they can't count on him, they don't have another starter with an above-.500 SNWP, placing that much more pressure on Joe Girardi to turn to his pen early, as well as leave them hoping for big offensive ballgames against post-season rotations.
Even so, I don't really think the Yankees have nearly as confused a situation as it might seem. Javier Vazquez failed to make a quality start against any of the Yankees' potential playoff opponents in five tries; he won't get a sixth. And no, I don't really take Ivan Nova very seriously as much more than a motivational cats paw for A.J. Burnett. Despite his lackluster performance in the second half, Phil Hughes should be a lock, but whether or not he starts in front of Burnett might be the open question.
Burnett, he of the 5.33 ERA, really? Beyond his performance last October, Burnett has that nice separation between his SIERA and his ERA, and it's worth noting that he managed two quality starts against the Rangers and might have logged a third if he hadn't been hooked after four frames on September 11. He also had a pair of good games against the Twins. If any question over Pettitte's availability comes up, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Burnett is the pitcher put on the spot to pick up the slack.
Even with that sort of endorsement, if you consider the drop-off from everyone who isn't Sabathia, a Game Four start on short rest from the big lefty if they're down 2-1 and facing elimination wouldn't be surprising.
For all of the fame and prospect touts attached to this unit, it isn't quite as good as its reputation or its still highly anticipated upside. Their problems aren't quite as severe as the Yankees, in that they know they'll be giving starts to David Price and Matt Garza. The challenge of deciding what to do with James Shields, formerly reputed to be their ace but currently boasting just a .430 SNWP, makes for an unfortunate distraction. Shields' loss to the Mariners now leaves him with four bad games in his last five, but will he be granted some residue of mojo from his stature from the '08 pennant-winning club? He endured a blown quality start against the Twins in Minnesota after holding them to one score through six. As much as SIERA suggests better things should come his way, his tendency to pass out cookies to right-handers makes the Rangers a particularly tough matchup for him. And a road assignment? He gave up six runs in seven in his turn in Texas.
Ideally, Joe Maddon could simply pick Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann and be done with it, as both boast better records, and they've managed Davis' workload with enough care that he should be fine heading into October action. However, Davis got knocked around by the Twins both times out and blitzed by the Rangers. Niemann did well against the Twins both times out, so he's perhaps more of a sure thing in the LDS. However, it's possible the Rays could play mix and match. Niemann's bad turn against the Yankees his one time facing them back in July might get him swapped out for Davis or Shields in the LCS if the Rays advance, for example, and Garza hasn't put up a quality start against the Bombers in three tries.