September 29, 2003
Playoff Health Report
Say hello to my little friend.
Yes, the Team Health Reports are back for the postseason, morphed a little bit to fit the format. In each of the four Division Series, we'll address the key questions and concerns each team has. We'll break down how injuries or good health will affect who might win and who might lose. While some have said that their bleep doesn't work in the playoffs, injuries are even more important. A talented team can be decimated by one flukish injury. Just last season, a well-positioned Cardinals team fell short of where their talent projected to take them when Scott Rolen injured his shoulder. Worse, the Cardinals made bad decisions based on Rolen's injury (keeping him active and playing with a short bench) that also contributed to their downfall.
Just to remind everyone, we'll use the stoplight metaphor to give warnings about health. Instead of breaking it down by player, this time we'll do it by the four major positional breakdowns. Green means that there's no discernible injury risk above average. Yellow means that there are significant concerns that could lead to a foreseeable injury. Red means you'd better know what you're getting into by sending the guy out on the field. This isn't to say that your "red" player can't be effective or even injury-free, but in baseball--like most things in life--you'd better know the risks.
There is no bigger question in any series than the health and effectiveness of the Cubs' young starters. Neither Carlos Zambrano (22) nor Mark Prior (23) have been this far into a season, or topped this many innings, in their careers. And while Kerry Wood did pitch effectively in 1998's postseason, he was not healthy, and in fact headed to Birmingham afterward to have his elbow rebuilt. With the entire staff being worked extremely hard down the stretch--including a series of 120+ pitch outings--the ability to keep Wood from pitching the last game of the season is huge. Wood now goes in Game One on normal rest, while Zambrano and Prior get five days each.
The Cubs have no serious issues among their position players. Moises Alou has been amazingly healthy during the season, and no other player has significant concerns. Alou did have a very mild concussion after a collision on Sunday, but this should be no problem by gametime. The roster should be constructed to give maximum flexibility. The bullpen and bench likewise have no significant losses, and with an excellent medical staff, the Cubs postseason should go just like the regular season--as their starters carry them.
Year after year, the Braves were built on solid starters and a bullpen that Leo Mazzone would slap into shape by mid-season with a no-name closer, a rehab reclamation, some old guy, and some kids. This year, Mazzone wasn't quite able to work his full mojo; while the starters were solid (helped by run support), the bullpen fell apart under a load of injuries. The most visible breakdown was John Smoltz missing most of September, then coming back and pitching on guts. Smoltz should be able to will himself to be effective, but that can only go so far. Add in problems with Darren Holmes, who is having more shoulder pain, and Ray King, who left a game this weekend with "shoulder stiffness," and Bobby Cox is left with Kent Mercker and Jaret Wright trying to bridge the gap from his starters to Smoltz. One short outing for a starter could spell doom for a pen held together by chewing gum and twine. Luckily, the starters seem to be healthy and only go three deep, leaving Horacio Ramirez to help out the decimated pen.
The heart of the Braves this year is not the great starting pitching, but the bashing offense. At least that is intact and has no concerns going into the playoffs. Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones both have been hit by annoying small injuries, but both have been rested and should be 100%, one of the bonuses of running away with the division.
Just as last year, the Giants headed into the playoffs nowhere near healthy, but this time it's a bit different cast of characters. The team is of course built around Barry Bonds, and if Bonds' hamstrings snap at any point in the series, the Giants hopes go with them. Add to that some smaller concerns: things like the testy ankle and hamstring of Ray Durham, or the back troubles of Edgardo Alfonzo. With both, there are better-than-adequate backups, and Felipe Alou may elect to use Pedro Feliz and Eric Young as more than mere bench strength. The roster that Brian Sabean has constructed gives Alou and the Giants more moves that the...um, let's call her "an artist" that I saw in Toronto on Saturday night.
In the rotation, there are questions about the workloads of both Jason Schmidt and Sidney Ponson, but both have had good runs at times this season. Schmidt is much less questionable than Ponson, but has has had flare-ups in his shoulder from time-to-time. Jerome Williams has been good, but has never been this deep in a season before. The bullpen has no serious issues, but it's not the dominating pen that helped the Giants last year. Felipe Alou's Manager of the Year consideration should be based almost completely on his using a substandard pen to get good results.
It's not deja vu. The Marlins head into their first postseason in six years (answering the question, how long does it take to rebuild after a fire sale?) with their star third baseman questionable, but likely on the roster. Lowell has been able to return over a normal rehabilitation period, going through some batting practice. The question at this point is not whether he'll play, but how effective he'll be. With the emergence of Miguel Cabrera and the timely play of "Mr. Marlin," Jeff Conine, Lowell becomes not a necessity, but a luxury. If Jack McKeon and the Marlins medical staff feel that Lowell has recovered enough to help them, he'll play. If not, he's at worst a very good bat off the bench. When you hear someone compare the Lowell and Rolen situations (from a year ago), laugh at them. Beyond the Lowell situation, the Fish have no problems. Their depth--again affected by Lowell--is a bit shaky.
Moving to the pitching, there's some concern regarding the workload on Dontrelle Willis. The phenom hasn't been quite as phenomenal over the last two months of the season. While this is more an issue of fatigue than injury, Willis' workload partially led to the use of a four-man playoff rotation. Of course, the other reason is that the Marlins have four good starters, and Carl Pavano has looked good at times.
The Scalies have no real injury issues in the bullpen, though how Braden Looper has escaped more serious injury is just beyond me with his mechanics. McKeon figures to keep his bullpen short, putting something of a heavy workload on Looper, Ugueth Urbina, and the injury-prone Chad Fox. Fox has been a revelation after his acquisition from the Red Sox, proving that anyone can get hot over a short period of time.
Back tomorrow with the AL...