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October 9, 2008

Playoff Health Report

ALCS

by Will Carroll

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Tampa Bay Rays

For the record, I owe Andrew Friedman nineteen bucks.* If that's what it took-removing the "Devil" to push this team over the top-then 2009 could be the year of the Devil Cubs, Satanic Yankees, and Crowley's Royals. It was much more than that, a triumph of scouting and planning that came together a year ahead of schedule, and should be the subject of Mind Game 2: Electric BugaStu.

About the only thing that didn't go according to plan was the incidence of injuries. They're normally one of the best in the league, even if they've often been held back in raw statistics by Rocco Baldelli (something we now know was completely out of their control), and helped by the organizations near-perfect record avoiding sending pitchers to their medical director, Jim Andrews. However, the Rays were below average this season, putting 20 guys onto the DL in 2008. Some of those were easily anticipated-Cliff Floyd, Al Reyes, and Troy Percival three times-but overcoming early arm injuries to Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza while still succeeding on the field is an impressive feat for Joe Maddon as well as head trainer Ron Porterfield.

The return to health of Carl Crawford, who showed no signs of trouble with his fingers or his hamstrings, and B.J. Upton's re-discovery of his power stroke are big positives. While Upton's shoulder is still going to require off-season surgery, his relative comfort and production are the result of smart management of the injury and his recovery process. Some managers would not have been so quick to let Upton out of batting practice earlier in the season, but Maddon had a long-term view and trusted his medical staff. It's the same with Crawford, who healed up and proved he could play, which now gives them more flexibility come playoff time.

Carlos Pena missed the first two games of the ALDS with a scratched cornea. The painful injury blurred his vision and made it hard for him to field, though he reported that he wasn't having much trouble at the plate. It now appears that Pena is fine and shouldn't have any issues during the ALCS.

While the roster is not yet set or publicly released at the time I write this, it doesn't appear that Troy Percival will make the ALCS roster. Having used only 10 pitchers in the ALDS, it's hard to say who the Rays would remove to put Percival on the roster, especially given his questionable effectiveness. One option would be to remove Andy Sonnanstine and go to a three-man rotation, but the Rays seem more inclined to go four-man. That's smart, given that only James Shields is past the injury nexus, and that Matt Garza and Sonnanstine are both over their individual Verducci lines. Fatigue hasn't shown up among the rotation regulars yet, but you can be certain that the Rays want to win in 2009 and beyond as they do now.

* And Nate Silver owes him a buck for dropping what might be the latest "Devil" this season, Tuesday night on the Colbert Report.

Boston Red Sox

Even more than the Rays, the Sox overcame injuries rather than avoiding them. It's a tough path that requires depth, flexibility, and a medical staff that can avoid the death spiral. The Sox had all three, in large part because they've taken sports medicine seriously, especially rehab. The results haven't been perfect, and one could make an outsider's argument that they could be better at prevention, but given significantly more injuries this season, the worst that happened was having to have t-shirts made that said "Wild Card" rather than "Division Champs."

The Red Sox come to the ALCS without having kept their pitching staff healthy. Curt Schilling was never able to pitch, forced to have the shoulder surgery he wanted to delay. Every other pitcher save Jon Lester went on the DL at some point, but the key is that only Beckett had to go twice. Daisuke Matsuzaka brought out the critics when he suffered some shoulder fatigue, but it only served to make him work harder and buy into rehab coordinator Mike Reinold's strengthening program. Lester not only avoided the DL, he also appears to have avoided any issues with fatigue; however, even including his 90 minor league innings in last year's total, Lester's well over the Verducci line. I have a theory that Lester pitched some of those 2007 innings in a weakened state, which allowed him to build stamina, but it will take another year to see whether or not that's the actual result.

As for Beckett, there's continued trouble with his strained oblique. Given his earlier problems, some scouts have expressed concern with small changes in his mechanics, though it's been more of a compensation than an actual change. Beckett pitched well enough in Game Three, making it difficult to say how much of the performance was due either to the Angels or the oblique. He made his side session and continues to show good velocity, so signs are positive for him to make his two scheduled starts effectively, though I wonder what Plan B is if Beckett were to come out early in Game Two.

The most noticeable difference for the Sox in the ALCS is that they'll play all seven games without Mike Lowell, rather than just one. Lowell's acetabular labrum tear and subsequent hip strain is a classic injury cascade that pushed him out of the Division Series, and by rule he's not allowed onto the ALCS roster. There's some small glimmer of hope that he'd be available if the team made it to the World Series, but with surgery on the horizon, that's unlikely. The Sox got a bit lucky having Mark Kotsay at first base in Game Four and in position to make two plays that only a center fielder could make, but that's the residue of design. Kotsay was picked up for his flexibility, adding to a roster that already has Kevin Youkilis, who can play Gold Glove-caliber defense at three positions.

J.D. Drew made it through the ALDS without things changing much for him. He's still headed for back surgery and still requires a lot of treatment, just to be available, and to keep from tightening up both in and after games. It's a tenuous situation, much like Lowell's, but he's still active, so it's holding together a bit better. The Sox will continue to try and keep Drew available, and they have the flexibility to swap in Kotsay or Coco Crisp if needed, either to give Drew a game off or as a defensive replacement.

One other thing to keep an eye on is Jonathon Papelbon, as he appeared to wear down late in the year. His 2008 was streaky but effective, with periods of hittability throughout. His September was weak, seeing his ERA go up by better than a half-run, and with his advanced metrics showing the same decline. He pitched in more games, to more batters, and threw more pitches than in any other year of his career as a reliever. Papelbon continues to get results, but he did show some signs of fatigue in the playoffs, and was using what appeared to be a shorter stride. If head trainer Paul Lessard and Reinold can hold Papelbon and the rest together, they could have another picture of them holding the World Series trophy to post on their blog.

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