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October 10, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
Unless You're Still Playing
Perhaps in Jim Hendry's perfect world, Carlos Marmol would have never been in the bullpen to relieve Carlos Zambrano in Game One. Similarly, Josh Byrnes would have never had an infield containing Augie Ojeda and Game One hero Mark Reynolds backing up Brandon Webb. Franklin Morales and Kyle Kendrick weren't supposed to be major leaguers in 2007, much less matched up against one another as Game Two starters in a Division Series. Heck, names like Asdrubal and Joba weren't supposed to become known in Cleveland and New York in 2007.
But as we learn time and again, general managers' perfect worlds never become reality. Injuries and slumps are inevitable, but the 2007 postseason teams are evidence that minor league depth is needed to make the playoffs. Even if Justin Upton's ETA read 2008 before the season, it's a testament to Mike Rizzo and the Diamondbacks that the top prospect was ready to step in for Carlos Quentin in right field.
Every October, the inexperience card is trotted out by broadcasters with frightening regularity. Don't listen to them. Witness the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose inexperience didn't interfere with their getting to the playoffs, nor did it stop them from rolling over the Cubs in the first round. In fact, Arizona's inexperience defied history, as the team became the first post-1969 organization to get almost 30% of their total plate appearances from rookies (actually, 29.8%) and still make the playoffs. Inexperience isn't a problem with the right rookies, those players who will step up in a short series and dominate.
Surely, these analysts would have pegged the Colorado Rockies dead anytime they depended on Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez in a big game, but the two hard-throwing youngsters have been special in the last month, and the Rockies have won the last nine games either has pitched. So far, the 2007 playoffs have been defined by which midseason call-ups have performed, and who had their youthful energy run dry.
While the slumps of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada got the most attention, for me, the series was a story of two different rookie-dependent bullpens. In Game One, Joe Torre turned to Ross Ohlendorf to stop Chien-Ming Wang's bleeding, but Ohlendorf put the game out of reach with bad control and bad pitches to Casey Blake, Travis Hafner, and Kenny Lofton. Meanwhile, the Indians turned to Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis to relieve C.C. Sabathia, pitchers called up May 5 and July 16, respectively, and received three hitless innings. In Game Two, we had a contrast of bug-bothered pitchers in Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Perez. The Yankees' September hero was flustered and lost complete control of his fastball, while Perez threw 17 of his 23 pitches for strikes. New York's lone win in the series came as a result of Phil Hughes' heroics, while the Game Four finale involved two more innings from Perez for the Tribe (not to mention an RBI from Asdrubal Cabrera).
Add it all up for the two teams, and for rookie relief work, you get:
Boston is really the only postseason team not dependent upon any mid-season call-ups. While the team made the playoffs relying on rookies Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Hideki Okajima, the team didn't look to Triple- and Double-A in the same way as the other postseason teams. Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury were dynamic in Boston's September success, but neither had a significant impact in this series.
However, the Angels did look towards a pair of well-regarded midseason call-ups for energy and found nothing. With Casey Kotchman limited due to injury, Kendry Morales-although no rookie, any more than Lester-became an important member of the Angel offense, but he did nothing in the series, going 1-for-9. Also, the team twice turned to catcher Jeff Mathis, and the former prospect continued to disappoint.
By default, we have to turn to Manny Delcarmen as the in-season call-up of the series, as the Boston native stepped into a high-leverage situation with Game Two tied at 3-3 in the sixth. He responded by registering four quick outs before turning things over to Okajima and Papelbon.
Game Two was supposed to be the big face-off of mid-season call-ups, but both Franklin Morales and Kyle Kendrick were pretty disappointing. Kendrick had commanded his sinker effectively almost all season since his mid-June promotion, but constantly left pitches up against the Rockies, and really got hurt for it. Morales more characteristically lacked command, but Clint Hurdle was proactive in getting Morales out of the game early. However, the Rockies would see their loaded farm system pay off in Game 3, as Ubaldo Jimenez pitched, for the second game in a row, 6.1 dynamic one-run innings. Jimenez has had no-hit, electric stuff in his last two outings, and he seems destined for the big stage. Remember, this is a right-hander who had a 5.89 ERA in 19 starts at Triple-A, posting a disastrous 5.42 BB/9. However, Jimenez has come alive in the heat of this pennant race, with only two mediocre outings since August 10. The Rockies' ability to survive the midseason injuries of Jason Hirsh and Aaron Cook with electric pitching prospects is one large reason they are in the NLCS.
When Rocky Cherry proved not to be the answer at the back end of the Cubs bullpen in mid-May, the Cubs turned to the hard-throwing Carlos Marmol. A converted catcher who used up his rookie status in 2006, Marmol had been allowing Triple-A hitters just 30 hits in 40 1/3 innings, showing an improved slider to go with his mid-90s fastball. Marmol has clearly found a home in the bullpen, as his fastball jumped in velocity and he didn't allow a run in his first ten appearances. Called up in mid-May, Marmol was the league's 11th-most valuable reliever, as ranked by WXRL.
D'backs infielder Mark Reynolds was called up in mid-May when Chad Tracy initially got hurt, and he never looked back. Reynolds was really only drafted as high as the 14th round because he drew notice as Ryan Zimmerman's infield-mate, but his breakout in the California League last season held true across multiple levels in 2007. Reynolds gave Josh Byrnes quite the predicament for his 2008 hot corner depth chart after maximizing on his opportunity.
As a result, it was really only fitting for these two mid-May call-ups to face one another in Game One's most pressure-packed moment, with the teams tied 1-1 in the seventh inning. With one of his first bad pitches of the second half, Marmol allowed a dart to left field that cleared the outfield fence.
In Game Two, Ted Lilly's bad start was augmented by rookie Kevin Hart, a relatively unknown right-hander who impressed Lou Piniella in eight September appearances. While Geovany Soto homered in the game, giving the Cubs a brief lead, it was the only damage that the phenom catcher caused in the series. In Game Three, it was Justin Upton who began the scoring with a RBI single, one of three times he would reach base. In the end, the Cubs got nothing of real substance from Geovany Soto, Mike Fontenot, Felix Pie, Marmol, or Hart, while Arizona advanced in no small part because of the efforts of rookies Upton, Reynolds, and Chris Young.
It should come as no surprise that the four teams that advanced past the Division Series all were in the top half of Kevin Goldstein's organizational rankings in May. The lesson to be learned here is that the best-prepared, deep teams will always be better off, and if the playoffs' current trend continues, the one with the best group of Plan Bs to choose from should end up with a world championship.