Team health determines who gets to the postseason as much as talent does. We’re looking at eight teams who rank among the best in the business at keeping their players healthy. There are three former Dick Martin winners here (I’m counting Ron Porterfield, who assisted Ken Crenshaw when the Rays won), and teams that have overcome injuries by their successful rehab programs. In the playoffs, injuries are magnified because the compression of talent and time weighs most heavily on any weaknesses a team may have. Most teams come into October healthy, or at the very least, with their health under control. Few have lost major contributors for the season, and in those cases they’ve all found adequate replacements for that talent. We may not know exactly what s**t works in the playoffs, but I know this much-a focus on health does.
The health issues of the Red Sox are pretty well known, and they’re looking up. Both Mike Lowell (hip) and J.D. Drew (back) will be available and are likely to start Game One. Using them is a bit of a risk, especially in Drew’s case; if he can’t make it through three or five games, they could replace him on the roster, but he would then would be lost for the ALCS, assuming the Sox made it that far. They’re likely to use some sort of job share with Mark Kotsay to give Drew extra time off, and the flexibility of the Sox roster allows them to take that gamble. While Lowell missing significant time would handicap some of that flexibility, they’re also thin up the middle. The shift of Josh Beckett to Game Three belies the fact that he’s not ready to pitch. If he goes out and can’t make it deep into the game, the team should still be fine, assuming that they don’t have any major meltdowns in the first two games, and Tim Wakefield makes for a nice backup and bullpen extender. The Sox are in this position largely because they had such flexibility all season long, and their medical staff now just has to hold on for a few more weeks if the team hopes to get their third ring of this decade.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
For a team with a ton of injuries over the second half, the Angels actually come in to the playoffs nominally healthy. The decision to go with ten pitchers and a three-man rotation gives them even more flexibility to cover any injuries among their position players, so behind Howie Kendrick and Chone Figgins the Halos have multiple options, while the outfield could be said to go nine deep if you count the players that could be out there in a pinch, though it would probably take some sort of accident on the bus ride over to have to go that deep. Kendrick’s hamstring problem is the major concern for the team in the near term, but he was able to play in several games over the last week. The worst-case scenario, a re-injury, isn’t that bad given their flexibility and the replacement rule between series. Torii Hunter‘s quad and Joe Saunders‘ stamina are the other two possible trouble areas, but they’re things that don’t seem to be a distraction for the Angels heading into October.
The Cubs have one concern and one concern only: the right shoulder of Carlos Zambrano. If Big Z is healthy, the rest falls into place. If not, the frailty of Rich Harden and Kerry Wood won’t matter, nor will the great job the Cubs medical staff did holding them together. The legs of Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, and Aramis Ramirez are just afterthoughts. No, for the Cubs, it all comes down to getting Zambrano’s shoulder through his start, and then ready for the next one. We’ve seen over his last three outings that he can be turn-by-turn no-hitter dominant, unable to strike out John McCain-bad, and a tantalizing “Goldilocks” pitcher (as he was in his last start of the regular season). The Cubs would take five or six good innings and wouldn’t turn down another no-hitter, but if Zambrano starts out shakily, Cubs fans around the country will start feeling that familiar sense of doom.
While the Red Sox are gambling on players’ health because they have a flexible roster, the Dodgers are just rolling the dice. Without significant depth and a massive drop-off when they’re forced to go to their backups, the Dodgers have taken what should be a very flexible roster-part veteran, part young, some multi-position guys, and a fertile farm-and managed to turn it into your basic Joe Torre roster. He’s found the guys he likes and the ones he doesn’t, and only emergencies can force him to deviate from that. It’s not a terrible thing, but it does force Stan Conte and his staff to scramble. With Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent expected to play, and Nomar Garciaparra around as the utility player, there’s not much margin for error here. The pitching staff is as healthy as it’s been, though Takashi Saito is still a bit risky with his elbow issue. Two of their starters, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw, have crossed the Verducci Line, though only Billingsley is in the playoff rotation.
The Phillies tend to start out every year with some injuries, but this year, it seems like everyone is healthy coming into the postseason. The only significant injury is to Greg Dobbs, which really isn’t that significant, since it is Greg Dobbs. Dobbs’ four-corners flexibility is nice during the season, and his absence reduces the options for Charlie Manuel late in games. The team hasn’t announced yet whether they’ll go with three or four starters, with Joe Blanton the hurler on the edge for a Game Four assignment. There are really no other issues here with significant injuries, depth, or workload, so give credit to Pat Gillick for the structure. Late word comes in that Pat Burrell had back spasms during Tuesday’s workout; this could be an issue in the short-term.
One of the toughest things about compiling injury statistics is figuring out how to assign credit and blame. The Jays staff will take a big hit next year for what happened to Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan. With Yovani Gallardo, it’s a bit more difficult. Gallardo’s knee injury was flukish, obviating anyone from blame, but getting him back in time for a Game One playoff start certainly deserves a figurative pat on the back for Roger Caplinger, Dan Wright, and Dr. Bill Raasch. The other major concern is J.J. Hardy, who dislocated his thumb in the celebration of a walk-off homer last week. Hardy played in the final two games for the Brewers, but was hitless, so there seems to be some effect on his bat. Ben Sheets was left off the roster, the last big decision once the Brewers determined that they could not be sure of his availability. He remains an option if they move past the NLDS. They’ll go with 12 pitchers despite a likely three-man rotation and the presence of six starters, in large part due to the need to “shadow” Gallardo, who will be on a pitch limit.
The biggest news is that Carl Crawford is back. He’ll start in left field and that’s a major upgrade. The risk is almost nil here, and even if his offense isn’t back, his defense and legs have value. It’s a bit of a surprise that he’s starting, given the uncertainty about the bat, and many people believe that at worst, he could be used as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement. Starting him is a bold move that speaks to the team’s confidence in his ability to get on base. The other major concern is in the bullpen. After a series of epidurals, Troy Percival has fought his way through to be on the playoff roster, but the time he’s missed during the season allowed the team to explore its other options. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour are the top choices, though Joe Maddon has been willing to go with others depending on matchups. Evan Longoria is all the way back from his broken forearm, while the only other major injury is that of Shawn Riggans, putting more pressure on Dioner Navarro to play every day. Jason Bartlett is also still affected by his knee injury, which could put pressure on the infield. While Longoria could play shortstop in an emergency and Ben Zobrist has been a solid utility player, Reid Brignac was being considered for the playoff roster as well.
The White Sox have already pulled the name plate off of Joe Crede‘s locker, but they’re otherwise essentially injury-free. They kept Crede as healthy as they could, used Ken Griffey Jr. well, and have him ready for his first October in quite a while, and they also had some of the chronic issues, like Jim Thome‘s back and Paul Konerko‘s knees, lessened by great medical management. Herm Schneider already has a Dick Martin Award on his shelf, and he’ll be a finalist again this year, I’m sure. Despite all of this, the worry for the White Sox isn’t so much of injury as it is fatigue. Winning two games to put themselves in is really just the start, added on to a schedule that had them playing virtually the entire month in pressure situations. Whether that will wear down the pitching remains to be seen. My take is that it will have no noticeable effect, and remember, they enjoyed the in-season benefits of their risking a five-day rotation and not really replacing Jose Contreras once he broke down.