It's much easier for guys like me to look back at the season and say "this didn't work" or "that backfired" than it is for GMs and managers to make the tough decisions at the start of the season or even at the trade deadline. It's easier to look back and point to injuries costing a game or two than it is to predict which players will be injured. Still, it is now valuable to point to those injuries and decisions that led to teams making it to October or not. I'll be doing that in the coming days, but for now, let's take a focused look at the health situations that will affect the Division Series.
- St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are one of the best teams to come through the National League in recent memory. Unfortunately, late-season injuries have put a couple of chinks in their armor, as comparisons to the '01 Mariners creep into the discussion. It's a classic "studs and scrubs" lineup where the studs are oh-so-studly yet the depth just isn't there.
Despite its solid performance throughout the season, the pitching staff is the obvious Achilles' heel of the team. Having a great offense that creates leads and a defense that holds them certainly helps in a long season, though less so in the postseason. Woody Williams will take the hill in Game One. At 38, Williams has been healthy, consistent and mediocre. He was shelled in his last outing (by the red-hot Astros) but shows no real signs of fatigue.
Williams stands in contrast to Jason Marquis. A real breakout season could be ruined by the drastic increase in innings this season for Marquis, a pitcher with shifting mechanics. Marquis has shown some signs of fatigue over the last month, but he's worked well with Dave Duncan and Mike Matheny this season.
With Chris Carpenter out, Matt Morris remains the titular, if not actual, ace of the staff. Morris has been a pitcher in the best sense of the word this season. His velocity has been abysmal, as he shows every sign of someone struggling with a shoulder injury. Despite this, he's stayed effective while displaying some odd splits.
Closer Jason Isringhausen had his healthiest season in years, and was one of the NL's better relievers. The question will be if Steve Kline will be healthy enough to team with Julian Tavarez, Ray King and Cal Eldred's five-inch screw to get the ball to Isringhausen.
The Cardinals have fewer but equally important questions about their position players. Scott Rolen is playing with an injured knee, hyperextended in the last month of the season. He played well during his few games back, giving Redbird fans hope that he'll continue to power up a modern-day Gashouse Gang and provide important infield defense. The Astros tested Rolen with bunts; he passed.
At second base, Tony Womack has played like…well, not like Tony Womack. Still just barely a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Womack had some hitting ability installed during the procedure. He's slumped in the last month, fighting fatigue, exposure and a groin pull. He ended the season on the bench after being hit in the left hand by a pitch. Marlon Anderson is an adequate replacement.
Larry Walker has been exactly what the Cardinals expected: dangerous and fragile. He'll fight shin splints while playing on the larger right field of Dodger Stadium, something that could force So Taguchi or Roger Cedeno into the lineup. The Cardinals are not expected to have Ray Lankford on the post-season roster. He's become something of a lost man after a wrist injury derailed a nice season as a fourth outfielder.
- Los Angeles Dodgers
After waiting until the last weekend to lock up the West, the Dodgers still have to answer the critics that will see a team without an ace, a credible catcher, and a version of Shawn Green that doesn't look like the one who signed an $84-million deal some years ago. The biggest question will be focused on the powerful but sore pitching shoulder of Eric Gagne.
Gagne followed his singular 2003 with another dominant campaign. An increased workload was dropped on him after the trade of his set-up man, Guillermo Mota, and the subsequent injury to Darren Dreifort. Gagne's "tired arm" shouldn't be a problem--he was able to pitch just a day after the diagnosis and he's thrown only one inning in the last week. Yhency Brazoban has emerged as Mota's equal, giving him a chance to be this year's K-Rod.
Less can be said for the starting rotation. In Dodger Stadium, a three-man of Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver and Jose Lima could be enough with a little luck. Against the Cardinals lineup, they'll need a lot of luck. The loss of Brad Penny has more effect in the playoffs than it did in the regular season. Obviously, the Dodgers were good enough to make it to October. Quality seems to be more important than depth in the playoffs, though there's no definitive playbook for October success.
Shawn Green has improved progressively this season. By May, I was convinced he would never be effective after his 2003 shoulder surgery. It's not incorrect to say he's not the same player, but with a VORP of 35.7, Green remains good, if not great. The return of Milton Bradley from suspension will push Green back to first base, keeping Hee Seop Choi on the bench for another postseason.
The rest of the Dodgers lineup and bench has no serious questions. It is more flaw vs. flaw in a short series than missing pieces for the Cardinals and Dodgers. We'll see if Paul DePodesta's [stuff] works in the playoffs.
- Atlanta Braves
Instead of the unholy trinity of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz leading the Braves into the playoffs, this 13th edition of the Tomahawk Dynasty features Jaret Wright, John Thomson and Mike Hampton. Yes, Wright will take on Roger Clemens in Game One. You might have expected one of those names in the playoffs, but I'll sincerely doubt that all but the most die-hard of Braves fans had any inkling that Jaret Wright would return to his once-expected form. It's another data point in the continuing case for Leo Mazzone's Hall of Fame induction.
Wright is coming off a late-season ankle injury that called his Game One start into some question. He's shown that he'll have little problems from the injury. Hampton still has problems with a knee that will require post-playoff surgery. His athletic skills keep him an above-average defender even with the bum joint. The Braves actually go five deep in their rotation, so finding roles for Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd could be interesting.
The bullpen also adds shine to Mazzone's star. Beyond a closer that can't go on back-to-back days, Mazzone has turned three more castoffs (Antonio Alfonseca, Tom Martin and Juan Cruz) into weapons. Close games may tax Smoltz's arm, but Smoltz is the type to fight through the pain. He'll be better than last year, when it was just painful to watch him in the Division Series.
The Braves come into the series healthy on the field. Chipper Jones was hit on the hand by a pitch over the weekend. Rafael Furcal has had recurrent leg problems, not to mention his driving difficulties. Marcus Giles is the type of player who always seems to be running into walls, players or other solid objects. Somehow, the most injury-prone of the Braves, J.D. Drew, played in 144 games. That career high in games and plate appearances translated into a solid season. He'll be on display during the playoffs and, as a free agent-to-be, he's got a lot on the line.
The Braves are among the healthiest of the NL teams a we head into the playoffs. That's not actually saying much, considering the other teams. The typical Mazzone/Bobby Cox magical brew of depth and resurrection has led the Braves back to the site of so many previous failures. It's another chance, one that 22 other teams wish they had.
- Houston Astros
A Playoff Health Report shouldn't look back. Teams that overcome injuries to make the postseason either had good roster construction, some luck, or both. Maybe it's the Cubs-tinted lenses I look through, but I have no idea how the Astros made it. Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller are long gone. They'll get rings if it comes to that, but they'll be no help in acquiring them. The playoffs, like the last couple months of the season, will rely on Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and a bullpen that was lights-out in the last six weeks.
Clemens has been in this spot before, many times. Oswalt hasn't. Everything behind them--Brandon Backe's good start not withstanding--recalls "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." With a retractable dome and two names I can't find a rhyme for, I doubt that will work. Backe is the choice for the needed third starter after a fine September and comps out as an inexperienced, right-handed Mike Hampton with a decided home-field split. His biggest weakness is that he seldom takes the ball into the seventh. This rotation looks good in a five-game set, but could be exposed in seven.
The lack of rotation depth has caused a weak bullpen to throw more innings than the Astros would like. In addition, the midseason manager and pitching coach changes produced a decided change in usage patterns. Brad Lidge has been consistent and nearly unhittable all season. Opposing hitters will be much more clued in to his wicked ways than will the mainstream media. He fits the profile of Houston closers: fragile, powerful, and a fresh UCL installed a couple years back. The rest of the pen--quick, name any two Astros relievers--is as nondescript as it is effective.
The lineup has only one major question. Adam Everett only recently returned from a fractured left wrist, and is still limited to pinch-running and possible use as a late-inning defensive replacement. He has been hitting in BP, so the possibility exists that the team could be whole. Jose Vizcaino has been a solid replacement.
The only other problem is the long-standing issue of Jeff Bagwell and his arthritic shoulder. He's tinkered with his swing more than normal this season--Bagwell is a notoriously dour player, constantly critiquing himself--and remains unable to make throws with any authority. Even in obvious decline, Bagwell remains a productive and dangerous hitter.
Of the NL teams, Houston comes in the hottest and healthiest. If the playoffs are just a coin flip--and all evidence seems to suggest this is the case--consider health an element that might throw an advantage to one team, if only so slightly.
I'll be back tomorrow with to break down the breakdowns for the AL contenders. Monday is just the pause that refreshes or, in this season, the eye of the hurricane.