Why are these called the “Division Series?” I’ve never gotten a good answer. They don’t decide divisions. Those are now all decided and six winners, plus two wild cards, head into the playoffs with questions. Every single team has both a chance to win and every team also has significant health problems. We’ll talk about those here. Health may not have decided which teams are here, but it did play a major part in why some teams aren’t.
Powered by the hope that we’ll see the best teams possible on the field and not in the training room, on to the Health Report:
San Diego Padres
The Padres come into the playoffs as one of the healthiest teams. While they have some concerns, as any team does after six months of baseball, they are either covered by depth, disguised by the rotation shortening of the playoffs, or not significant to their success.
The exception here is Trevor Hoffman. While effective down the stretch and able to pitch on consecutive days, the all-time saves leader has been sporting a lot of ice. Reports are that Hoffman’s shoulder is simply worn out. When this happens, there are two possibilities: dead arm or injury. Hoffman’s reliance on the change helps, but the more he’s used, the less effective he is likely to be.
Khalil Greene is expected to play a backup role, working as a defensive replacement for Geoff Blum. He’s had very limited playing time despite pronouncing himself fully healthy a few weeks ago, making many think the finger problem is still in play.
The final major concern is the health of David Wells. He’s already been shifted out of his expected Game 3 slot and could be skipped if needed. Wells will be more necessary in later, longer series, but his availability and effectiveness is in question due to significant injuries. There’s a reason I list this team first–they’re my pick to win the Series, though I’m admittedly horrible at predictions.
St. Louis Cardinals
Where to start? Can I just talk about the healthy Cardinals? Nothing wrong with Ronnie Belliard right now. Preston Wilson‘s not bad, though he’s lost mobility. Juan Encarnacion is healthy, one of few players to avoid the trainer’s room. Everyone else–everyone!–is dealing with significant injury and limitation.
At deadline, I’m not sure whether Jim Edmonds is even with the team. Edmonds’ concussions have caused doctors to not clear him to fly as of last week. While he has played, he hasn’t been effective, showing several times that he’s still feeling the effects. David Eckstein has both hamstring and oblique injuries. Tony La Russa was visibly angry with Eckstein two weeks ago after the hamstring injury, showing the fire that pushes Eckstein to gut out the pain. Albert Pujols has been MVP-caliber despite foot and elbow problems that have limited him in the second half of the season. It may be that Pujols has never been healthy during his six-year career, a pretty scary thought. Scott Rolen has back problems, Chris Carpenter has shown reduced velocity and movement in his past few starts, and Yadier Molina has been limited this season, needing more frequent rest.
That’s all without mentioning the bullpen, one that will be without its closer, Jason Isringhausen, who is recovering from hip surgery. The Cardinals weren’t going to be as good as the 2005 version, but no one expected this type of comedown. The medical staff might have had a clue.
New York Mets
Pedro Martinez is out. That alone affects the Mets more than any single injury to a playoff team. The question now is can the Mets overcome this, pushing Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Orlando Hernandez and John Maine into more important roles.
The more pressing concern is the still-strained quad of Carlos Beltran. Once a solid MVP candidate, Beltran was rested down the stretch after the thigh injury but even the rest didn’t get him back to 100%. It’s hard to get a straight answer on just how close to full-go Beltran is, but the Dodgers are going to try and find out.
The only other major concern for the team is Cliff Floyd, who’s longstanding Achilles problems were called out by manager Willie Randolph as the month started. As expected, Floyd is on the postseason roster and his availability will be the difference between a very good lineup and a great one. There’s enough offense here to overcome the loss of Martinez, but they’ll only go as far as their pitching, making the bullpen the difference maker–and they’re ready to go.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are an interesting team and not unlike their opponent, the Mets. They’re deep. They’re flexible. Where they may hold an advantage is in the rotation. Where Pedro Martinez is out, Brad Penny is just a question mark. Penny has been the ace all season, but Derek Lowe has quietly been their best pitcher, largely because of improved defense. The big concern is that Penny will be ineffective, exposing a weak middle of the pen. While Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito are good at the end, the Dodgers have counted on their starters to make it into the sixth inning.
Behind the pitchers, the defense is an interesting mix. The biggest injury concern is Nomar Garciaparra. It’s still strange to refer to him as a first baseman, though that shift down the spectrum probably kept him as healthy as he was. The Dodgers can shift one of their many shortstops around if Garciaparra is unable to go. While the Dodgers had a ton of injuries this season, the team is relatively healthy at this stage.
New York Yankees
Sing the chorus again. The Yankees have some pitching problems. Unlike many other teams, the Yanks have their guy penciled in. Randy Johnson is expected to go in Game 3 after a good side session over the weekend. Johnson had an epidural injection, taking the edge off of his back pain. How long that relief will last is the big concern now, so Joe Torre and Ron Guidry have to try and figure out how to most effectively and efficiently use the Big Unit.
There’s not as much concern with Mariano Rivera. Torre seems to understand that Rivera can only go one inning a stint now, putting pressure on Kyle Farnsworth and the overextended Scott Proctor. The Yankees’ wrist trio of Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield should all be able to contribute, operating as something of a platoon at left field, first base and DH with Melky Cabrera focused on defense. The other three, all healthy enough to contribute, are there to mash. The Yankees will need all the hitting they can get in this series. I think they’re healthy enough to do it.
The Tigers aren’t so much hurt as they are tired. Like the marathon runner passed at the tape, the dead heat in the AL Central was equal parts inspiring comeback and deflating collapse. Jim Leyland didn’t use his big lead well, failing to rest his young pitchers, and proving to need every single game of that lead. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya have shown that fatigue can make talented pitchers into average pitchers quickly. That’s placed more pressure on the more seasoned pitchers like Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones. It’s a surprise then that Mike Maroth isn’t on the playoff roster. While he wasn’t completely back from minor elbow surgery, he would make a nice long-relief option, giving Jim Leyland the chance to pull the young starters early.
The rest of the lineup is essentially healthy. Ivan Rodriguez is typically beat up after a full season of catching (and a couple innings at second base.) He’s been this deep before and knows how to stay ready. Placido Polanco hasn’t been back long, but he’s shown no ill effects, losing three points of BA, but keeping his OBP and SLG the same.
Is Francisco Liriano as important to the Twins as Pedro Martinez is to the Mets? It’s an interesting question. Martinez was clearly the ace while Liriano was never really more than the third starter for the Twins. The Twins still have their best starter, sure Cy Young winner Johan Santana, and the gritty Brad Radke. It’s the damaged shoulder of Radke that may be more important. Radke, if effective, would remove the need to use three young starters, assuming that Santana isn’t the Game Four starter.
The Twins have played much of the season without Shannon Stewart, Jason Kubel and Rondell White. While Mike Cuddyer has established himself, the left-field slot is a big problem. Rondell White can’t play a full series on turf, while the DH slot was actually improved by Phil Nevin, a guy dumped by three teams in the last year. The Twins have to win the way they won all year, with pitching and defense and hoping that Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can generate just enough offense. Speaking of Morneau, is it any surprise that his breakout season comes in his first healthy campaign?
If the A’s miss Bobby Crosby, it’s tough to tell. Besides the shortstop, the A’s have some concerns, but no real unknowns heading into the Division Series. There’s certainly concern about Rich Harden, especially in light of his start Sunday. Still, the A’s go in with the deepest rotation, which leaves the bullpen to close things out.
Since returning from a groin strain, Huston Street has shown that he can be effective, if not lights out. The groin is likely still bothering him, his odd sweeping motion looking constrained since his return.
Eric Chavez still has some problem with his hamstring, though he did get a couple days rest at the end of the season and has shown he can play through the injury. There are the typical concerns about Mark Kotsay‘s back and Frank Thomas‘ feet, but the medical staff knows about these conditions and has done a masterful job managing them through the season. If the A’s don’t make it past the first round this year, the answer why won’t reside in the training room.