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August 5, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Navigating the Stretch Run

by Erik Siegrist

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The dog days of August are upon us and with them comes one of baseball's great traditions, the pennant drive. A baseball season is a marathon, to be sure, but every once in a while that marathon ends with two or more teams sprinting for the finish line, and a playoff spot, and occasionally even a place in history.

From a fantasy perspective, a pennant chase rarely has a direct impact on your own team's title aspirations. While the extra stats generated by a tie-breaking game could make the difference in a very tight league, for the most part the standings page, whether it's MLB's or BP's, holds little of interest. Fantasy baseball, after all, is about individual player performance--not team performance.

Player performance and team performance are not mutually exclusive, though. Whether a team is out of the race, in the thick of the pack or coasting to the finish line can have an impact on how that team juggles its roster, and divides playing time among its players. Just as Joe Sheehan looked at the bubble teams last week to suggest what they should do at the trade deadline, I'm going to look at which teams are in what positions in the playoff race and suggest what they might do over the next two months in terms of roster management.

Pulling Away: The Cardinals and White Sox have already built up just about insurmountable leads, and both teams have already begun to put their rosters on cruise control. Scott Podsednik, for instance, received back-to-back games off this past week, not because he was hurt, but just to keep him fresh. Expect more of the same from both Central leaders down the stretch as they set up their rosters for October--frequent breathers for veteran players, injured players getting extra recovery time, etc. It's a double-edged roto sword. While you'll lose some production from their regulars, their bench players become a bit more valuable in deep leagues due to the extra action they'll be seeing.

Except in the specific case of a starting pitcher in the Cy Young hunt such as Chris Carpenter, Tony LaRussa and Ozzie Guillen have no reason to push their starting pitchers to the limit either. Expect some shorter outings as the managers rein in their horses, and more innings (plus the occasional win) slipping away to the bullpens.

The Braves and Red Sox, currently about five games up each in their divisions, could join this group if they get hot and none of their division-mates keep pace.

Leading the Pack: Atlanta and Boston, plus San Diego and Houston (leading the NL wild card chase) fit this bill best at the moment. These are teams who will probably present the most 'normal' roster management trends, as they can't afford to give their best players too much time off, but have no reason to run them into the ground either. Expect exactly what you've been expecting from players on these teams, for as long as they stay just ahead of the competition.

Thanks to the wild card, the A's and Angels are in this group too despite being in a virtual dead heat at the top of the AL West. It's a curiously ambivalent position to be in, roster-wise. As long as the loser of the battle seems assured of a playoff spot anyway, they have little reason to push their players to the limit, but neither one can afford take it too easy. The players to watch out for here are those nursing long-term but minor injuries, such as Vladimir Guerrero with his wrist. As soon as the Angels feel comfortable that they'll make the playoffs no matter what, they could conceivably shut him down for a few games to try to get him as close to 100% for the post-season as possible. He'll stay in the lineup, though, as long as the team feels pressure from behind.

Keeping Pace: The list of clubs with semi-realistic shots at the playoffs is a long one: the entire NL East behind Atlanta; the Yankees and Blue Jays, with both AL East and wild card aspirations; the Indians, Twins, Cubs and (shockingly) the Brewers, still in the wild card hunt; and whoever decides they want the NL West. All these teams should, in theory, be going all-out to catch the leaders in their respective races. You should get full production from their best players, and anyone on these teams who gets hurt will either miss the minimum, or even play through the problem if possible.

The two teams that could be exceptions are the surprises on that list, Toronto and Milwaukee. Both are ostensibly rebuilding, and a playoff appearance this season would put them ahead of schedule. Both clubs could try to balance staying competitive in their races with actions more suited to organizations on the rise, such as auditioning prized prospects and deciding which semi-regulars might fit into their long-term plans. The Blue Jays, thanks to Roy Halladay's injury, have already begun this process, giving Dustin McGowan a look in the rotation. These are teams that got where they are by playing their kids, and they aren't likely to shift philosophies now.

Torii Hunter's injury could also force Minnesota into this position. Their best hope of keeping pace may, in fact, be to call up youngsters such as Francisco Liriano and hope to catch lightning in a bottle, rather than grind it out with roster status quo.

...And the Rest: Some of the clubs on the outside of the playoff race looking in have already begun falling into the usual 'wait until next year' pattern. The Mariners called up wunderkind Felix Hernandez this week for a start, Zach Duke is already making a name for himself in Pittsburgh, and the Reds finally made room for Edwin Encarnacion in their everyday lineup at the trade deadline. On teams such as these, you can't really assume anything, other than what they tried over the first four months of the season didn't work, so they'll probably try something else.

The players to watch for here are top prospects who are already on the 40-man roster. The Devil Rays aren't likely to call up Delmon Young and start his service clock ticking early, but B.J. Upton could bump someone like Alex Gonzalez out of a job at any moment.

(This, of course, assumes the team has top prospects in the high minors. With a team like the Royals, what you see right now is probably what you'll get, unless they decide to give someone like Calvin Pickering one more chance.)

Top pitching prospects are another matter, however. More and more organizations are concerned about seasonal workloads with their prized arms, and a team could just as easily decide to shut down a kid for the year as bring him up for a six week major league audition. In the case of someone like Hernandez, they could do both--don't be surprised if King Felix slips to the back of the bullpen at some point to try and protect his arm from whatever curse has been laid on Seattle's pitchers.

Fading Away: While in theory teams such as Washington, Baltimore and Texas still have playoff hopes, the reality seems to be that it's just a matter of time before they are mathematically eliminated. Clubs in this situation will often shuffle the deck chairs around to give the fan base a reason to stay optimistic (exeunt Lee Mazzilli, stage right), and will probably keep their veteran players in the lineup for as long as their fate is not written in 30-foot high neon green letters on the wall. That doesn't mean they won't slip into prospect evaluation mode, of course, just that their front offices will offer PR-based, "it'll improve the team, honest" reasons for doing so (interim Nationals' GM Jim Bowden's recent praise of first round pick Ryan Zimmerman being a notable example.)

Knowing what kind of playing time your players could see can help you prepare for your own stretch run. If your outfield is anchored by Guerrero and Jim Edmonds, for instance, you'll want to look at investing in some insurance in case they see significant erosion in their production. On the flip side if you're on the fringes of a money finish but have a number of prospects like Liriano, Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler in your farm system, you may not want to make a big trade and instead just hope a kiddie cavalry can ride to your rescue, just as the Brewers and Blue Jays are doing. Who says fantasy baseball doesn't reflect the real thing?

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Rosters,  The Call-up,  Playoff Roster

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