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October 16, 2001

Playoff Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Atlanta Braves

by Christina Kahrl

Okay, so I blew it and got a series prediction flat-out wrong. Serves me right for writing what I wanted to happen (sensible usage of Octavio Dotel, for example) to predict an Astros win instead of simply picking the Braves to conquer the Astros' battered pitching staff.

That kvetching aside, the NLCS should be a great matchup. Not surprisingly for one of the nation's grayest of retiree nirvanas, the Arizona Diamondbacks feature all sorts of people with past histories, and among this group, that involves plenty of postseason fun. Luis Gonzalez, Jay Bell, Mark Grace, and Matt Williams have all enjoyed the privilege of losing to the Braves in a postseason series, while Curt Schilling and Steve Finley are among the happy non-Yankee few who can remember beating them. When you assemble a team out of the famous and the ex-famous, those kinds of campfire stories are a fringe benefit.

However, the Snakes come in after a full-length series against the Cardinals with only a day's rest, which means that the Braves will have the strategic advantage of opening the series with their rotation and bullpen fully set up and rested.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

Atlanta Braves

2B Marcus Giles (.262/.338/.430/.261)
1B Julio Franco (.300/.376/.444/.286)
LF Chipper Jones (.330/.427/.605/.338)
RF Brian Jordan (.295/.334/.496/.281)
CF Andruw Jones (.251/.312/.461/.264)
3B Ken Caminiti (.228/.312/.407/.251)
SS Rey Sanchez (.281/.300/.336/.230)
C Paul Bako (.212/.312/.343/.236)

Arizona Diamondbacks

SS Tony Womack (.266/.307/.345/.234)
2B Craig Counsell (.275/.359/.362/.254)
LF Luis Gonzalez (.325/.429/.688/.354)
1B Mark Grace (.298/.386/.466/.293)
RF Reggie Sanders (.263/.337/.549/.286)
CF Steve Finley (.275/.337/.430/.262)
3B Matt Williams (.275/.314/.466/.262)
C Damian Miller (.271/.337/.424/.260)

The Braves' lineup above is what we'll probably see in the opener against Randy Johnson, although Ken Caminiti might be in front of Andruw Jones. Strictly on the issue of a lefty-lefty matchup, Paul Bako might not make much sense as a starter, but it's unlikely that Bobby Cox would hand Steve Torrealba his first big-league start in a Championship Series game against the Big Unit. Cox has had the courage (or the confidence in his and his organization's ability to judge talent) to go with young players in the postseason before--witness Andruw Jones--but starting Torrealba would transcend brazen and move somewhere into the vicinity of cockiness. At any rate, against the Snakes' right-handed starters, B.J. Surhoff will start and bat fifth, with Andruw Jones dropping to sixth, Chipper Jones moving to third base, and Caminiti going to the bench.

While it's significant to note that the Braves were pathetic against right-handed pitching (hitting .242/.301/.358 against right-handers), and that basically means they won't catch a break per se when they're facing Miguel Batista and Albie Lopez, this isn't the same team that compiled that mark over the bulk of the season. The Braves probably have their best possible lineup right now, featuring a few assets.

Chipper Jones needs no introduction, and there's entertainment value in the knowledge that his success is probably only matched by the extent to which he's loathed by opposing players. Marcus Giles and Andruw Jones should have great futures ahead of them, and both are capable of playing better than they have this year. Brian Jordan is a good bad-ball and fastball hitter, which probably makes him the critical hitter for the Braves in the series. All four of the Snakes' starters rely heavily on their fastballs; if Jordan gets hot, it should mean the Braves can score more than three runs in a game. Julio Franco looks young enough to play himself in the forthcoming TNN film about his life's story destined to play between Red Dawn and a Chuck Norris marathon in that primo midnight-to-4 A.M. slot. The most you can say for Rey Sanchez is that he puts the ball in play, which isn't worthless, but the problems created by the Caminiti/Surhoff platoon and by having to stick with Paul Bako through thick and thin will hurt.

The Diamondbacks have a surprisingly similar lineup to the Braves, especially if Javy Lopez had been available to play for Atlanta. Like the Braves, the Diamondbacks have one of the league's best hitters in the third slot, but unlike Chipper Jones, Luis Gonzalez has nothing resembling a track record of hitting at anything approaching this year's performance. That isn't to diminish Gonzalez's astounding season, but to make the point that unlike Jones, he hasn't already been sprinkled with whatever pixie dust that anoints one of baseball's reigning postseason stars.

Also like the Braves, the Snakes don't have a real leadoff hitter, and rely heavily on a core trio of offensive players. While Tony Womack might be a godawful leadoff hitter, though, the remainder of Arizona's lineup is a pretty balanced group, consistently better than the Braves throughout the order. Mark Grace had a Mark Grace kind of year, while Reggie Sanders provided the Snakes with the right-handed power that Matt Williams and Jay Bell were initially brought in to supply. What's also important is that this balance will probably translate into a couple of freebie walks, because it isn't like this is a team with Brad Ausmus or Mike Matheny or Rey Ordonez screaming "auto out!"

Offensively, the Snakes aren't a fast team, but they're faster than the Braves.

You would hope that the tactical embarrassments of the last game of the Division Series would discourage Brenly from getting too fancy. The lineup listed above is just a sketch, as Brenly will almost certainly shake things up on a game-to-game basis. Going in, he'll stick with his worst hitter in the leadoff slot and his catcher in the eighth slot, while randomly jumbling the other non-Gonzalezes to suit his whim, punish a cold hitter, or reward the hot hand. Against Tom Glavine, he might spot start Jay Bell at second base. That might finally get Womack onto the bench, with Craig Counsell at shortstop, but don't hold your breath.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Atlanta Braves

LF B.J. Surhoff (.271/.321/.405/.255)
OF Dave Martinez (.287/.347/.384/.256)
OF Bernard Gilkey (.274/.339/.387/.256)
IF Mark DeRosa (.287/.350/.390/.263)
2B Keith Lockhart (.219/.289/.303/.213)
C Steve Torrealba (.271/.347/.424 at Double-A Greenville, translating to a .200 EqA)
Unlikely: 3B/1B Wes Helms (.222/.293/.435/.248)
Really unlikely: C Eddie Perez (effectively did not play this year)

Arizona Diamondbacks

1B Erubiel Durazo (.269/.372/.537/.302)
1B Greg Colbrunn (.289/.373/.495/.292)
IF Jay Bell (.248/.349/.400/.261)
OF David Dellucci (.276/.349/.479/.278)
OF Danny Bautista (.302/.346/.437/.266)
C Rod Barajas (.160/.191/.274/.163)
Unlikely: OF Midre Cummings (.331/.383/.544 at Tucson, translating to a .240 EqA)
Even more unlikely: 2B Junior Spivey (.258/.354/.423/.272)

The Snakes have a significant advantage here, especially since the third-best hitter in the series is riding pine in purple and teal. Erubiel Durazo is biding his time until he gets to DH in the World Series, but in the meantime he's as dangerous a bench weapon as a manager could want. Brenly isn't afraid of using his bench, and as a result it's been kept in pretty good repair, constantly getting refreshed with doses of playing time instead of going stale in the dugout. With the likelihood that the Snakes will carry 11 pitchers for a seven-game series, Midre Cummings will probably get bumped off of the roster, which is fine, considering he should have been bumped for Junior Spivey in the Division Series. Against Tom Glavine, Spivey's .323/.416/.585 against lefties would definitely merit a spot start in the leadoff slot, but the shortage of spots might still keep him off of the active roster. David Dellucci and Danny Bautista can fill in well enough if Reggie Sanders' legs cramp up again.

You want postseason surprises? Bobby Cox lost Javy Lopez for the Division Series, and he didn't carry a third catcher on his postseason roster. He might carry Eddie Perez now, especially for starts against the Big Unit, but it would be at Steve Torrealba's expense, not in addition to him.

Otherwise, the Braves' bench features a gaggle of ex-regulars playing out the string (Dave Martinez, Bernard Gilkey, and Keith Lockhart), each of whom have their situational uses. Lockhart has been extremely effective as a pinch-hitter this year, while Martinez might be a useful spot start/leadoff man for a lineup that could probably use Marcus Giles's power deeper in the order.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

Atlanta Braves

Greg Maddux (2.8, 3.05, 233)
Tom Glavine (2.3, 3.57, 219 1/3)
John Burkett (2.6, 3.04, 219 1/3)
Kevin Millwood (-0.5, 4.31, 121)
or Jason Marquis (0.7, 3.48, 129 1/3)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Randy Johnson (6.0, 2.49, 249 2/3)
Miguel Batista (0.8, 3.36, 139 1/3)
Curt Schilling (5.0, 2.98, 256 2/3)
Albie Lopez (-0.4, 4.81, 205 2/3)
or Brian Anderson (-2.2, 5.20, 133 1/3)

Because of the different lengths of the NL Division Series, you might think that the Braves have a significant advantage. You'd be wrong on two counts. First, Bob Brenly has the flexibility to have Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson to start five of the seven games if he really wants to push it. He would have to get Randy Johnson into Games Four and Seven on three days' rest, and he'd have to make the decision about the Game Four to get himself a shot at starting Johnson in Game Seven. Here are the alternatives:

Aggressive
G1: Johnson
G2: Batista/Lopez
OFF
G3: Schilling
G4: Johnson
G5: Lopez/Batista
OFF
G6: Schilling
G7: Johnson

or

Standard
G1: Johnson
G2: Batista/Lopez
OFF
G3: Schilling
G4: Lopez/Batista
G5: Johnson
OFF
G6: Whoever started G2 between Batista and Lopez
G7: Schilling

Both have their merits, but nobody's been as aggressive as I've outlined above in some time. However, Brenly's management style seems to have been derived from his experiences catching for Roger Craig in the 1980s, and Craig was successful in the 1989 NLCS using Scott Garrelts and Rick Reuschel on short rest against the Cubs (and flopped against the Cardinals in 1987 while giving his starters regular rest).

In the end, the choice will be entirely determined by whatever has happened in the first three games. If the Snakes are up 2-1 or 3-0, they'll almost certainly go with the standard, more conservative, option.

The other factor for why the days off and setting up their rotation does not translate into instant good news for the Braves is that Greg Maddux got lit up pretty badly by the Snakes this year, losing both of his starts against them while giving up 13 runs in 11 2/3 innings. So while the Braves might have the advantage of three reliable starters versus the Snakes' pair, that's overstating the case. If Maddux continues to struggle against the Diamondbacks, then the potential advantage of matching up John Burkett with either Miguel Batista or Albie Lopez becomes pretty minor.

Because of the number of left-handed bats in the Diamondbacks' lineup, I'd be reluctant to hand the Game Four start to someone like Kevin Millwood; lefties pasted him at a .282/.365/.441 clip this year. If Marquis is the intended starter from the get-go, Millwood may be dropped off of the postseason roster (again), as the Braves get a roster advantage from the fact that their pen didn't pitch over the weekend, arguably eliminating the need for a seventh reliever.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

Atlanta Braves

John Smoltz (13.0, 3.36, 59)
Steve Karsay (17.6, 2.35, 88)
Mike Remlinger (10.8, 2.76, 75)
Steve Reed (10.7, 3.55, 58 1/3)
Kerry Ligtenberg (9.7, 3.02, 59 2/3)
Rudy Seanez (2.5, 2.75, 36)
Jason Marquis (-4.0, 3.48, 129 1/3)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Byung-Hyun Kim (23.3, 2.94, 98.0)
Greg Swindell (3.8, 4.53, 53 2/3)
Brian Anderson (2.5, 5.20, 133 1/3)
Bobby Witt (0.2, 4.78, 43 1/3)
Mike Morgan (0.0, 4.26, 38)

And pick two of three:

Bret Prinz (9.2, 2.63, 41)
Mike Koplove (-3.8, 3.60, 10)
Troy Brohawn (-4.4, 4.93, 49 1/3)

The key component here is whether Bret Prinz's tender shoulder will allow him to throw in the NLCS. If he can't go, then the Snakes have Byung-Hyun Kim and little else. Bobby Witt and Brian Anderson can both be useful as long relievers, going several innings if a starter breaks down or gets rocked, but the matchups games that Brenly can play shouldn't frighten Cox away from using his meager bench to maximum effect.

In contrast, the Braves have relief help to spare. Cox can shorten a rough day by a starter earlier than most, turning the game over to long relievers like Steve Karsay and Mike Remlinger while eventually working their way through a rejuvenated Kerry Ligtenberg, Rudy Seanez, and, finally, John Smoltz. Steve Reed's value is in facing those right-handed hitters who are too famous for their manager to pull, but his usefulness will be limited against an opponent as well-stocked with left-handed bats as the Diamondbacks are.

Defense

The Diamondbacks aren't nearly as good in the field as their trophy cases might lead you to believe, while the Braves are actually the better all-around unit.

The Braves feature plenty of adequacy around the games' best defensive shortstop and center fielder, not to mention one of its better right fielders. Paul Bako won't stop Tony Womack from running, and while Marcus Giles is better on the deuce than anybody the Snakes have, that's not a ringing endorsement. Third base is a problem spot for the Braves, whether it's manned by Chipper Jones or by Ken Caminiti, so the Snakes might be able to sneak in a bunt hit now and again.

The Snakes feature plenty of vaunted defensive reputations, but most of them are no longer merited. Although players like Mark Grace, Steve Finley, and Matt Williams are only shadows of their former selves defensively, they're still useful, while Tony Womack is better than advertised at shortstop, if somewhat error-prone.

The Managers

As previously mentioned, Bob Brenly does some strange things and some bold things, but he's definitely in the business of doing things, as opposed to taking Ralph Houk-style naps. Although Brenly has made a fool of himself with a variety of inane comments about unwritten rules, he's done a fine job of using his bench to advantage, and a less fine job of building a bullpen on which he can rely.

Bobby Cox has another loaded pen, but very few spare parts. There will be plenty of aggressive bench use, and with the Diamondbacks' weakness in the pen, that means pinch-hitters facing tiring starters or Bobby Witt, creating all sorts of chances for Cox to look good at Brenly's expense. But that's less of a situation where either man is outsmarting the other as much as Cox having the opportunity to use a weak portion of his team against the weakest part of his opponent's team.

Brenly is in a very similar situation to Jim Fregosi in 1993: the pen isn't an asset, so will he risk sticking with his starters deep into games, or will he ignore the limits of his pen in an effort to get a fresh arm into the game? Similarly, Brenly will have opportunities in every game to use Erubiel Durazo to maximum advantage. The Braves have a righty-heavy pen, so Durazo (and to a lesser extent, David Dellucci) will get a few high-leverage at-bats. The challenge for Brenly will be not flinch if Cox brings in an ultra-specialist like Steve Reed to face Reggie Sanders or Matt Williams. If Brenly accepts those matchups to avoid embarrassing a veteran by pinch-hitting for him, Cox will have secured an advantage.

The Call

The Snakes have advantages in terms of hitting talent in the lineup and on the bench, they're not a bad defensive team, and they've got the two best starters in baseball. The Braves have better offensive talent than they're usually credited with having, and a potentially significant advantage in the bullpen.

That advantage will play a role in the games that Johnson and Schilling aren't pitching, so while I expect the Snakes to move out to an early lead in the series, I also expect the Braves to get the series back to Phoenix down 3-2. Don't be surprised if the Snakes roll the dice and try to win the fourth game with Lopez or Batista while reserving Schilling for Game Seven (if necessary) or Game One of the World Series if they should win Game Six. That's the opening the Braves will need to get to the last game, and while anything can happen in a single game, that's the point at which the Snakes will end the threat with Schilling, and they'll still be able to open Game One of the Series with the Big Unit. Snakes in seven.

Chris Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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