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September 30, 2003

Prospectus Today

LDS Previews

by Joe Sheehan

Conceding that I get excited about catching a Dominican League game on Spanish-language television in January, I am really pumped about this postseason. The first-round matchups are tremendous, there are an amazing number of great players in the postseason and I think every one of these teams can win the World Series. I'm predicting the Giants over the Red Sox, but I can honestly say that no outcome, not even the Marlins over the Twins, would surprise me.

All of the following comes with the standard caveat: anything can happen in a short series between two good teams.

Yankees vs. Twins

I drew this one in the staff lottery, so I won't repeat myself too much here. The fact that the Twins went 0-7 against the Yankees this year, which is the first thing you hear about this matchup, is meaningless. The last game between the two teams was on April 21, and the Twins are a completely different team now than they were then. So are the Yankees, for that matter, at least in the bullpen.

The Twins' hope is in keeping the Yankees off the scoreboard and turning the series into a succession of 4-2 games. Their pitching strength is control, which will help counter the Yankee plate discipline, but they give up a lot of fly balls, dangerous against the Yankees' power. Johan Santana gives them a puncher's chance, but I think they'll come up short. Yankees in five.

Athletics vs. Red Sox

Unlike in the past two seasons, when they entered the Division Series with the better team and lost, the A's are up against the juggernaut this time. The Red Sox bring a thousand-run offense and the world's best pitcher to the table; the A's counter with their Big Two and a great defense.

The A's' hope for this series rests on two pillars: the memory of August 11, and their two left-handed starters. On August 11, Tim Hudson threw a two-hit shutout to beat Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox 4-0 at Network Associates Coliseum. The two will reprise that matchup tomorrow, with the A's needing a similar result to put a big dent in the Sox's chances.

With Mark Mulder unavailable, the A's will follow Hudson with the erratic Barry Zito in Game Two and the even-more-erratic Ted Lilly in Game Three. The A's, who miss Mulder against the Sox as much as any team can miss a player, have to cling to the idea that the Red Sox didn't hit left-handers as well as they did righties this year, and have a number of platoon players masquerading as full-timers. Johnny Damon (.275/.333/.399), Todd Walker (.234/.282/.373), David Ortiz (.216/.260/.414) and Trot Nixon (.219/.296/.375) leave the Sox with significant lineup holes against southpaws, and the team lacks adequate platoon partners for them.

Will it be enough? The Sox shouldn't need to score six runs a game to win this series, because the A's have a below-average offense that's reliant on the contributions of two flawed hitters. If Ken Macha gets Billy McMillon on the field every day, that solves one problem, but like the Dodgers, the A's carry too many bad hitters to sustain rallies.

Given how Martinez has been throwing the ball of late--37 strikeouts and six walks in 33 September innings, one home run allowed since July 25--I don't expect the A's have much chance to beat him once, much less twice. Sox in three.

Braves vs. Cubs

One team has dominant starting pitching. The other has the best offense in the league. The latter is dogged by accusations that it can't win in the playoffs, and has a heavily right-handed lineup that is drawing the wrong matchup at the wrong time.

I might be overthinking this, but coming into this series, the Braves sure look like an updated version of the recent Houston Astros to me. The '98 Astros led the league in runs scored (in the Astrodome!), but got victimized by Kevin Brown (who started Games One and Three of the extended series) and the last good start of Sterling Hitchcock's career. They scored one run in each of their three NLDS losses. In '99, the same team returned to be shut down by Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. (The Astros scored 15 runs in the four games, but eight of those came at the end of games off the Braves' pen or in blowouts.) In 2001, the Astros scored six runs in three games and were swept out of the playoffs, again by the Braves.

The Cubs have the pitching staff to inflict that kind of damage, at least until everyone starts booking tickets to Alabama. They're going to feed the Braves' right-handed power a steady diet of righties who throw 93 and up and have wicked breaking stuff. The Braves pounded the Cubs' pretty badly this season, but it wasn't a representative sampling: in the six games, Shawn Estes started twice, and something called Sergio Mitre started one of the other games.

Then again, the Cubs could get four starts from the Curt Schilling Collection and still lose the series, because they combine a mediocre lineup with a do-nothing bench that would make Joe Torre blush. The bottom five slots in their lineup are devoid of OBP, which makes them susceptible to being shut out any time Sammy Sosa doesn't have a strong game and puts the whole thing on the shoulders of their rotation. The Cubs won't win any game in which their starter allows four runs.

Maybe I like the irony that when the Braves finally bring a great offense and a shaky pitching staff--the bullpen outside of John Smoltz is just plain bad--into October, they run the risk of being treated just like they treated those Astros squads. Maybe I'm annoyed that Bobby Cox has relegated Greg Maddux to the #3 slot. Maybe I have Mark Prior Fever, and the only cure is more fastball.

Or maybe I'm just off my meds. Cubs in four, with one side prediction: Game Three, Prior vs. Maddux, is going to be one of those games we talk about for a long, long time.

Giants vs. Marlins

As long as I'm playing the home version of "Past Is Prologue"...in 1997, the Wild Card Marlins and the NL West champs faced off in the Division Series. Helped along by the stupid 2-3 format that gave them the first two at home, the Fish won both Game One and Game Two in the bottom of the ninth, then completed the sweep behind Alex Fernandez in San Francisco.

That's not a real reason to be scared, Giants fans, but this is: your team can't hit. Barry Bonds is so great that he creates the illusion that the Giants have a good offense. Even with Bonds, however, the Giants fell to fourth in the NL in Equivalent Average this season. Only Bonds and Ray Durham were more than a couple of runs above average, although to be fair, the Giants have no regulars significantly below average, either. It's a lifeless collection of blah hitters who happen to have a run-creation machine in their midst.

As long as Bonds runs his usual .550 OBP, the Giants should be all right. If Bonds is just a little off his game, say, .200/.450/.400, the Giants are going to have trouble scoring, especially in the first two games of the series against Josh Beckett and Brad Penny. The Giants don't hit righties, especially at Pac Bell Park.

The Giants' edge is that they have three power right-handers, and the Marlins are more righty-heavy than Bill O'Reilly's Christmas-card list. Why Alou is choosing to use Kirk Rueter, who gets pounded by right-handed hitters, in Game Three instead of Jerome Williams is a mystery. And if you're going to start Rueter in this series--a debatable idea in itself--why not use him at Pac Bell, where he's been much more effective? Flipping Rueter and Sidney Ponson would increase the Giants' chances of winning the series.

Jack McKeon has some time to reconsider one decision as well, and in his case, it's a huge one. Right now, Dontrelle Willis is scheduled to start Game Four. However, McKeon has just one left-handed reliever in Michael Tejera, and more importantly, the Giants have that significant platoon split (.283/.363/.498 vs. LHP, .257/.330/.401 vs. RHP; five lineup spots jump from mediocre or worse to plain scary). McKeon can start Carl Pavano instead, keeping the Giants' righty hitters at bay. Despite struggling down the stretch, Pavano was excellent at home this year, and effective in two starts against the Giants. Willis would provide a second tactical option from the left side as soon as Game Two, and his delivery could make him as strong a weapon against Bonds as you're going to find.

It seems to me that managers have become slaves to routine in establishing their pitching rotations in the postseason. The #3 follows the #2 who follows the #1, with little room for strategic considerations. Maybe this is old-fogeyism, but I seem to remember that managers, as recently as the 1980s, were more willing to get away from their in-season order in an effort to get whatever advantages they could. Like the rush to create closers and a set five-man rotation, this lack of initiative seems like just another way in which managers abdicate decision-making and eschew risk, all to the detriment of their teams.

I don't see McKeon, as much as I respect his work, bucking that trend, so I'll go with Giants in four, and only because Rueter gets hit hard in the third game.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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