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October 15, 2009

Prospectus Today

The NLCS

by Joe Sheehan

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When the Division Series matchups came together, it seemed relatively simple to divine the issues that would determine each series. Looking to the League Championship Series, though, the narratives aren't nearly so clear. These teams are pretty evenly matched, were the first and second seeds in their leagues and went a combined 12-1 in the first round. This is probably the strongest final four we've seen in some time, and the only thing that would be a surprise is if we didn't have long series.

With that said, though, the quartet of the 2009 Division Series were educational. While we saw just one game past the minimum, the vast majority of the games were in doubt going into the late innings, and but for a hit here, a bounce there, a changed call or decision, any might have swung the other way. A closely matched series, even a closely played series, doesn't necessarily mean a closely scored series. It is entirely possible that one of this series could end up like, say, the 2005 World Series, a sweep for the White Sox that was nothing like a dominant performance on the field.

Jay and Eric have the main-stage previews, so I'll dispense with structure and offer a jumble of thoughts on these cross-country matchups, starting with the NL one today and getting into the AL one tomorrow.

  • Charlie Manuel finally verified what had been clear for a while, that he needs to start right-handers against the Dodgers where possible. He deemed Pedro Martinez his Game Two starter, pushing J.A. Happ to the bullpen. He's made no announcement for Game Four, allowing him some flexibility, but it would seem that a full-rest Joe Blanton would be a slightly better matchup than a short-rest Cole Hamels. The Dodgers were a bit better against southpaws this season (.359/.427 vs. .342/.407) and the emergence of Ronnie Belliard as their everyday second baseman tips that balance even further right. There's nothing Manuel can do about the fact that his aces are southpaws-Cliff Lee and Hamels are going to be ridden-but he can turn Happ into a reliever, staying away from the Dodgers' strength early, bolstering his pen and adding to his matchup options against Andre Ethier late in games.

  • Joe Torre shook up his rotation a bit as well, sliding Randy Wolf to the fourth spot, moving up Vicente Padilla, and still finding no room for Chad Billingsley, instead using Hiroki Kuroda as the team's third starter (replacing Jon Garland on the roster in the process). While using Clayton Kershaw as his Game One starter accurately reflects the young lefty's spot in the pecking order, choosing to start his other lefty just once, and elevating Padilla-who has always struggled against left-handed batters-is peculiar, and seems to be an overreaction to Padilla's small-sample work since coming over as well as his Division Series start against the righty-heavy Cardinals. Wolf is unquestionably a better choice to start twice in this series, and the burial of Billingsley is just odd. Jay Jaffe elaborated on Billingsley's late-season problems in discussing the Division Series, but the stocky right-hander almost certainly has to be a better option than Padilla against the lefty-heavy Phillies.

    The one thing that this decision does is potentially add a third lefty to the bullpen for the first two games. Actually, make that a fourth: it's now been announced that Scott Elbert is in the house, with Jeff Weaver off of the roster. Billingsley will inherit Weaver's long-man role, while Elbert is clearly here to ensure that Torre can always come after Ryan Howard from the left side. I can't help but think that something else could be happening here, that perhaps Torre plans to exercise a very quick hook on Padilla in Game Two, using Wolf in relief, then dealing with Game Four as it comes depending on the usage of Wolf, Padilla and Billingsley to that point. In any case, look for Padilla to be on a short leash on Friday night.

  • The effect of the rotation decisions is that baseball fans get a real treat tonight: Kershaw versus Hamels. This should be as entertaining a pitching matchup as this postseason can provide. I wrote before the postseason began that Kershaw could be to this October what Hamels was to the last one; if that's to happen, tonight will be the tipping point.

    With that said, the Phillies have a significant rotation edge here, even with their two best starters being left-handed, and Kershaw being a bit underrated. If they win this series, it will be because their starting pitchers delivered the bulk of the innings and kept the Dodgers off the board. They'll have the better starting pitcher in as many as six of the potential seven games, and maybe every game depending on what Manuel does in Game Four. The edges are usually small, but they'll add up.

  • Jimmy Rollins was on base just five times and scored just one run in the series against the Rockies, continuing his struggles in a lost season. However, two of those times on base came in the ninth innings of Game Three and Game Four, in the middle of rallies that won those games for the Phillies. In a lineup that is just fantastic from two through six, Rollins' sub-.300 OBP has been like sand in the gas tank. The Phillies need him to be on base so as to maximize the long hits they get from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth. He is the key offensive player in this series.

  • Manuel's bullpen looks a bit better than it did heading into the Division Series. Scott Eyre appears healthy, Happ is in there as a second good lefty, and Chan Ho Park, who pitched well this year, returns from injury. There's no longer a Kyle Kendrick sighting, although it is a surprise to see Brett Myers off the roster. We've seen that Manuel is willing to play matchups into the ninth inning, as he used Eyre against the Rockies rather than open a save situation with Brad Lidge. Despite two saves, Lidge wasn't terribly impressive, throwing more balls than strikes, hanging a number of sliders and generally showing little command. If Manuel decides that Lidge is safe for all uses again, it is nearly certain that he will lose a game for this team. If Manuel spots Lidge against right-handed batters, who don't see the ball quite as well off of him, he may yet escape. Both manager and pitcher are on the hot seat here-Manuel has to be realistic about what he has, because it's not the 2008 closer. I'm not sure Myers wouldn't be a better use of the roster spot.

  • The bullpen is Joe Torre's biggest edge, as he has lots of talented arms that he can deploy from as early as the fourth inning. More importantly, he's shown that he's willing to go off script with them, paying attention to the opposition lineup as opposed to the scoring rules. It seems unlikely, given the addition of Elbert and Torre's occasional deployment of Jonathan Broxton in the eighth inning, that Torre is going to make the kind of mistake Jim Tracy did Monday night, when he allowed the Phillies' Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to bat against a right-hander with the game on the line. Adding Elbert just gives Torre another weapon with which to go back and forth, using lefties against the top of the lineup and righties against the bottom. The games could play out in any fashion of course, but the Dodgers are well-equipped to take on the Phillies.

  • Combining a couple of thoughts here, and noting that Charlie Manuel was quick this season to break up three left-handed bats, there's some merit to a lineup change that make it that much harder for Torre to get the platoon advantage for more than one batter at a time. Simply moving Rollins to the sixth spot in the lineup, while flipping Jayson Werth and Howard, would give the Phillies' a near-perfect sequence while getting Utley and Shane Victorino at-bats at the expense or Rollins. It's probably too radical to implement, but Victorino/Utley/Werth/Howard/Ibaņez/Rollins would be a nightmare for Torre and make the Phillies a better offensive team.

  • One other roster change of note is that Manuel added a position player to get himself to 14, putting Eric Bruntlett back on the team. Because Bruntlett is no longer needed as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell, he was deemed expendable, but the Phillies' use of Cliff Lee as a pinch-runner-as the tying run!-in Game Two of the Division Series made it clear that the team needed one more bench option as opposed to an eighth relief pitcher. I'm pretty sure that this move is a direct result of that situation, and it makes me like Manuel even more. He identified an error and moved to correct it once he could. Some managers might never admit that the original roster was flawed. Bruntlett may not be the best choice-John Mayberry Jr. is a bit faster-but Bruntlett plays more positions and is a little bit dangerous as a pinch-hitter against lefties. He'll probably have opportunities to hit for pitchers against southpaws in this series.

    I'd rather have Bruntlett than Juan Castro, anyway. Castro was once a great defensive shortstop, but he's not that guy any more, he brings nothing else to the table, and you're not going to pull Rafael Furcal for defense anyway. It likely won't matter, but Castro's presence on the roster in lieu of a fifth outfielder is the one reminder of the postseason rosters Torre botched so badly in the second half of his time in New York. Blake DeWitt or Doug Mientkiewicz would have more value than Castro will.

These are the two best teams in the National League, and choosing among them is not easy. They can both score and prevent runs, and they're helmed by managers who have shown a keen understanding of post-season baseball. As was the case against the Cardinals, the top of the Dodgers roster is no match for the top of the Phillies', but they get more value from more roster spots, most notably at the bottom of the lineup and in the bullpen. The Phillies have the two best pitchers and the best player in the series. The Dodgers match up a little better with the Phillies thanks to their skill against southpaws and their depth in left-handed relief, two things that might be worth a couple of wins over a full season of games. Over seven? There's no telling. I'll go with Dodgers in six, because of the edges they should have late in games, but it's possible that Hamels, Lee, and Pedro will make those edges irrelevant.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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