The A’s found themselves in the playoffs despite several key injuries. They head into their first LCS of the Moneyball era with another player lost: Mark Ellis took an inside pitch off his hand in Game Two of the Division Series, breaking his finger and ending his postseason. It leaves the team extremely short-handed, having to dip down into the 40-man and beyond to complete its roster. While Christina will analyze the details of the roster moves and break down how they should affect the team, I’m left reminding people that Bobby Crosby had thought he would be available for the LCS, but there are no reports on his current status. Given the moves made, it appears that Crosby is not ready.
With Crosby still something of a mystery, there’s also some intrigue surrounding Rich Harden. We all saw him throw two solid outings towards the end of the season, and he wasn’t needed for the takeout of the Twins. Why is he again all the way down in the fourth slot? Is there a hidden injury here? The answer is no. The A’s staff simply seems to think that Harden is the fourth-best pitcher on the roster. He’s been sent to the fall instructional league in Arizona to get some work in, keeping him on turn with perhaps a chance to check in with his rehab coordinator. Harden is again due for a Game Four start and, this time at least, we know he’ll be needed. There’s an interesting parallel here to Mark Mulder a few years ago, but Harden’s pre-playoff appearances show that this isn’t a bluff.
There’s also some interest surrounding Frank Thomas. His inability to run is only a limiting factor on the bases, as shown by Michael Cuddyer’s attempt to go 9-3 on a Big Hurt single. Thomas isn’t slowing down, according to one scout. “Same times on home to first as I had in spring training,” I was told. “I can use an hourglass and not a stopwatch on first to third.” Thomas’ limitations are well-known and don’t appear to be exacerbated by having played a couple games in Minnesota. The rest of the playoffs will be on grass, so it seems that Thomas’ feet are no more a concern now than they have been all season.
Like the Mets, the A’s have known injuries and have had the time to adjust their roster accordingly. The team overcame injuries throughout the season in large part due to flexibility and versatility. That s*#t works in the playoffs as well.
Remember when I said that Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya looked tired? I was sitting on set in Bristol last week when Verlander and Zumaya both went triple digits on the Yankees. From the time Verlander was shown in the pen warming up, I knew he’d be on–his elbow was level, a key indicator of his fatigue level. At the end of the season, the rookie stud was dropping his elbow and “throwing uphill,” taking some velocity off and leaving the ball up in the zone. He had none of that last time out, and with normal rest, there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again. If you think the velocity might have been a TV-fueled exaggeration, think again. A scout on site told me he had both at a true 100 and 101. While concerns about seasonal fatigue remain alongside the Mark Prior/Mark Buehrle factor, Tigers pitchers will be effective in the short term. It’s clear that the Tigers have put more of an emphasis on pitch efficiency, something that should help guard against short-term fatigue.
The position players have shown no problems. Placido Polanco looked fine, though he still doesn’t appear to have full confidence in his injured shoulder. The rest of the lineup has stayed healthy through most of the second half. There are some worried about Ivan Rodriguez, but Pudge went through this in 2003 without effect. Well, at least no effect in the playoffs; he did start slowly in 2004.
The only concern now is fatigue. If a patient team like the Yankees couldn’t make the Tigers pitchers inefficient, it’s a tough task even for the OBP-conscious A’s. Credit Kevin Rand and his staff–aside from Verlander’s late-season fade, no one on this team has come up injured. That suggests a conditioning advantage.
New York Mets
The Mets haven’t lost any more pitchers. That’s a plus. Willie Randolph’s roster confused many until Randolph and Rick Peterson began turning every game into a bullpen game. While a matchup with Tony La Russa may turn this into a series of four-hour marathons, it’s hard to argue with the smart adjustment to losing the team’s ace and #3 starter in quick succession.
The Mets are much more concerned with their outfielders now. Cliff Floyd pulled up with another recurrence of his chronic Achilles problems, leaving the team saddled with Endy Chavez in left field. Floyd’s availability is in question for the LCS, and no decision had been made about his inclusion on the roster. If left off, the team could return to Lastings Milledge. However, Floyd could return for the World Series, especially in games where the DH was in play. Complicating matters are the continued leg problems for Carlos Beltran, as the slugging center fielder has dealt with a quad strain for much of the second half. It’s reduced his range slightly and made him very judicious with his baserunning. The team would be left severely shorthanded if Beltran was forced out of a game.
There are no other major concerns for the Mets. The team’s flexible roster has allowed them many options over the season and so far, the decisions made by GM Omar Minaya have paid off well. Assuming there are no traumatic injuries, the Mets are in perhaps the best condition of any of the remaining teams.
St. Louis Cardinals
Jim Edmonds has played tough. Albert Pujols has run through his foot problems and slugged through his elbow problems. David Eckstein has … well, he’s played through oblique and hamstring injuries. That leaves Scott Rolen as the target of Tony La Russa’s often-misplaced wrath. Rolen has been dealing with a sore shoulder for most of the season, and while the shoulder held up well post-surgery, it’s not 100% and has become progressively more problematic. La Russa is perturbed that Rolen has stubbornly denied the problem up until now. The Cards didn’t have much room for Rolen to take time off down the stretch, so this is another one of La Russa’s misplaced post-injury tirades, much like his treatment of Edmonds’ post-concussion syndrome. Rolen had a cortisone shot, one that could keep him out of Game One. With him out, the team is left with little in the way of star-level hitting, though that didn’t prevent the team from cutting through the Padres.
On the pitching side, there’s depth where there isn’t dominance. Aside from Chris Carpenter, there are no starters who can be said to be reliable. Carpenter’s use in Game Four prevents him from opening the LCS, but the Wednesday start to the series gives him the chance to come back in Game Two on three days’ rest with the possibility of starting Game Five (again on three days) or Game Six (on five days). Travel days may save the Cards here. The bullpen is without Jason Isringhausen, but is effective due to depth and smart usage. There’s no de facto closer, despite Braden Looper‘s touted experience in the role. (Note to broadcasters: he stunk.) Instead, the team is relying on La Russa and Duncan to mix and match pitchers like Garanimals. It’s no fun to watch, but it is effective.
Still, the Cardinals have become something less than the studs-and-scrubs team we saw at the start of the season. Now, they’re more like the 2002 Giants; it’s Pujols and the cast of “How I Met Your Mother.” As he goes, the team goes. One of these years, we’re going to see what this guy can do when he’s healthy. Scary, isn’t it?
Correction: In the original version of this UTK, Chris Carpenter was incorrectly described as starting on three days rest in Game Four of the NLCS.