I preach over and over that player health is the single most important factor for winning baseball. Talent counts, but only when it’s on the field. Just look at these NL playoff teams, all among the healthiest in baseball. In the playoffs however, my bleep doesn’t work. Injuries are a problem, but the all-or-nothing short-series management gets around injuries or at least can greatly minimize their effect. There are the occasional major injuries-Scott Rolen‘s shoulder, or Vince Coleman‘s leg-that expose a team, but that’s really the extent of it. Teams generally get to the playoffs because they were relatively healthy, and for the most part they’ll stay that way through the playoffs. All that said, it’s important enough to take a look at the teams’ shortcomings and foibles. Can the problems they’re faced with bite them? That’s “Crunch Time”-I’ll point out the point where the teams weaknesses will be most exposed. I’ll also give you the details on the injuries and tell you how many players that would most likely have been on the playoff roster if healthy will be missing. At this time of the year, we want to see the best players in the most dramatic situations. Here’s hoping we see all of that, starting tonight in Minnesota. (We’ll do the AL on Wednesday, once we know who’ll be the AL Central’s representative.)
CRUNCH TIME: Someone has to be a third starter, because nothing rhymes with “Wainwright and Carpenter and pray for _____.”
PLAYERS OUT: 0
Saying that the Cardinals are the healthiest team coming into the playoffs is damning with faint praise. There are certainly issues, but no significant ones besides the ever-present questions of fatigue. Many wonder if Ryan Franklin ran out of gas or if John Smoltz has anything left in the tank, but the Cardinals have coasted over the last month of the season. There are some of the inevitable minor dings, such as the ever-present issues with Albert Pujols, and there’s also the unsettled left side of the infield. Still, this plays right into the hands of Tony La Russa, who likes being an underdog as much as he likes matchups. The most significant problem is the knee issue that struck Yadier Molina late in the year. He’s not a runner, and his hustle has been in question, so it’s more the grind of catching that figures to be the problem. Five games shouldn’t be an issue, but 19 could be. Mark DeRosa hasn’t been what the team expected, but his wrist injury has been to blame for that. He’s still a better option than Troy Glaus, who likely won’t be on the roster. The rest of the minor concerns are just things like bruised fingers and sore knees, so this isn’t an issue.
The pitchers are healthy, especially at the front end of the staff. It’s at the back of the rotation where there’s a small issue. Joel Pineiro has been up and down since a series of arm problems plagued him in the second half. If he can’t go effectively, things get really thin. Smoltz is simply pitching on guile at this stage, while Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer offer the same type of inconsistency. (Dave Duncan doesn’t turn everything into gold forever, people.) While it’s too simple to say that the Cardinals will ride Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter as far as they can take them, it’s also true.
CRUNCH TIME: If the starters don’t go at least six, the pen will be taxed.
PLAYERS OUT: 4
The Phillies have been another one of the most healthy teams all season long, but now, when it really counts, injuries might bite them. The pen has been stretched thin with the losses of J.C. Romero and Jamie Moyer for the year, and with Chan Ho Park‘s status for the beginning of the series questionable; while Scott Eyre is back, it’s still unsure he’ll be able to go in back-to-back games. The quick fix is to shift Rookie of the Year candidate J.A. Happ to the pen to give them a quality lefty there, leaving Pedro Martinez in the fourth slot of the rotation. (Pedro’s also likely to be skipped in the LDS, which could make him the de facto long man.) The wild card in the pen is Brett Myers, but like Eyre, he will be taxed if forced to go in back-to-back games. (Granted, he did the last two days of the season, but no one seems sure if that was a bluff or a test.) The five-game set has two such stretches, so there’s going to be a lot of chess going on with Charlie Manuel and Jim Tracy in regards to matchups.
The position players are set, with almost no injuries or fatigue concerns. The only situation of any import is catcher Carlos Ruiz, who’s back from a wrist injury suffered in the last couple of weeks of the season. Ruiz played three of the four final games, and showed no problems in the field or at bat. If the Phillies do make it back to the World Series, I’m curious if they’ll vote a share for Dr. Bryan Kelly, who repaired the hips of Chase Utley and Brett Myers.
CRUNCH TIME: Tiring starters mean the fifth and sixth innings might be a bridge too far for Hollywood’s team.
PLAYERS OUT: 2
Now playing the part of the hare, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, the Dodgers sprinted out to an insurmountable lead, but nearly found themselves caught from behind by the Rockies in the last series of the year. They needed every bit of their early-season margin because they simply wore down. The rotation is where the biggest concerns are-Hiroki Kuroda escaped disaster earlier this season, but broke down just when his team was expecting him to be their healthiest starter. His herniated cervical disc has him out for at least the first round and likely throughout October, which puts Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Randy Wolf on the spot. Wolf was the most durable starter Joe Torre had in ’09, which just about says it all. With Kuroda out, the rotation beyond those three looks like one of those old maps. The bullpen is better off, though a mid-season swoon from a couple of players that had never been this deep into a campaign definitely leaves some questions in the event the middle of the pen gets taxed.
On the player side, Casey Blake is the big question mark, and the pivot point for the roster. Blake’s ability to play all four corners is an optional bit of flexibility that Torre never leveraged, but with a shorter bench, it’s a useful skill. With his hamstring not back to 100 percent, Blake has to be backed up, and his flexibility goes to nil absent a true emergency. Ronnie Belliard‘s nursing a sore groin, but is nevertheless expected to back up at third (and perhaps start at second in some situations, if he’s healthy). There’s always some concern with Manny Ramirez and his legs, but it’s very hard to tell how much any lingering remnants of his hamstring strain show up in his play, and how much is just the standard-issue Manny “defensive indifference.”
CRUNCH TIME: Because of the work the medical staff has done the past two years, there’s really no major weakness now.
PLAYERS OUT: 2
Maybe in the fullness of time we’ll know how much difference bringing in the Ol’ Tracer really made for this Rockies team. What we know now is that head trainer Keith Dugger and his staff made a big difference. The season started with their losing Jeff Francis, something that had really happened in 2008, but many think it went back to a “World Series hangover” in his case. So what the team did in ’07 is affecting ’09, but the one thing that Dan O’Dowd has done during his time in Colorado is build up a talent base. Ubaldo Jiminez is this year’s Matt Garza, while Jorge De La Rosa is this year’s Ubaldo Jimenez. There are some issues with De La Rosa’s groin, which could lead to him being left off the roster (pending the outcome of a throwing session today), but that’s the only injury of any real significance. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba has some hamstring issues, but he only splits time with Chris Iannetta, so the Rockies have options and depth.
This Rockies team might seem awfully healthy, but don’t look past what Dugger’s done for them this year. He kept some young speedsters healthy, kept Todd Helton productive, brought Troy Tulowitzki back from a lost season, and minimized the lost time for Huston Street. That’s a pretty impressive year for any medical staff, and at least as valuable as anything a manager does.