Postseason Edge

Apparently, the memo never got to A's manager Kevin Macha.  The one that said, "We, the Oakland A's, believe in the power of on-base percentage".   If it did, Macha either has had trouble deciphering it or is outright ignoring it, because over the last several weeks, he has been habitually sitting the A's best on-base talent, Erubial Durazo.  There is no question Durazo has been struggling lately, yet despite his struggles he still leads the team in on base percentage by a substantial margin.  The only player with more than 100 at bats this season who is within 25 points of Durazo is Billy McMillon, who's 23 points behind and no player is within 30 walks of Durazo's total.

The last two nights, Durazo has shown signs of breaking out of his slump: 1-for-2 with a double and 2 walks, then 3-for 4 with a double the following night.  Today, Macha pinch hit for him in a 14-4 whitewashing.  Although McMillon did hit a home run in his pinch appearance, it is Durazo who needs as many at bats as he can get to firmly re-establish his confidence at the plate.  It is Durazo he will need to be in top form come playoff time.  It is Durazo who will key the A's offense, making sure that opposing pitchers can't just pitch around Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada.  If Macha does not understand this, then the A's will again find themselves sitting at home after the first round of the playoffs.  With only two of their big three starting pitchers healthy, Zito struggling with consistency down the stretch and a bullpen with questionable depth, the A's will be more reliant on their offense this post-season than in previous years.  Without Durazo clicking on all cylinders, the A's will struggle to match other playoff offenses and might fall easy prey to their playoff opposition.

The Braves have slugged their way to another division crown and the best record in baseball to this point in the season.  However, that won't mean squat in the playoffs, where they look ripe for a first round exit.  Good offensive teams, like the ones that make the playoffs, make starting pitchers throw a lot of pitches, which usually means turning the game over to the bullpen around the 6th or 7th inning.  Although they have pitched well in September despite the absence of John Smoltz, there is little chance that the Braves will be able to continue that magic for another month without him. 

This week, Smoltz visited Dr. James Andrews, who operated on his elbow 3 years ago, to look at his sore elbow due to lingering pains.  This is not good news for the Braves and probably means that Smoltz is suffering from more than just "a little elbow tendonitis".  Without Smoltz, the Braves will have to rely on journeyman like Will Cunnane and Jaret Wright to close out games.  Just as worrisome is that they will have to depend on aging and only marginally effective Roberto Hernandez to get them to that point. 

Russ Ortiz throws a lot of pitches and has yet to complete a game this season.  In fact, he has completed the 8th inning only 3 times this season in 31 starts.  Neither Greg Maddux or Mike Hampton are the type of pitchers who can throw 120+ pitches effectively if need be, and Shane Reynolds certainly isn't more than a 5 or 6 inning pitcher.  The Braves bullpen will be key to their fortunes and if they have to go to the post-season with the patchwork pen they have without Smoltz, their chances of winning are as remote as spinning 00 on a roulette wheel.  Even with Smoltz, they may have a tough time getting to the ninth with a lead.

Another team with a somewhat underwhelming bullpen is the San Francisco Giants.  Tim Worrell has done an excellent job as the team's closer this season, but does not possess a single pitch that could be called exceptional.   The last team that won a World Series with a closer that had no exceptional pitches was the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers with Jay Howell and Alejandro Pena closing, and they only won because Orel Hershiser and Tim Belcher pitched 26.2 of the 27 innings in 3 of their wins.   No closer was needed.  Before that, you have to go back to the 1987 Twins with Jeff Reardon closing things down.  The point is that since the advent of the modern closer, or at least teams using one pitcher to close out the ninth inning, no team has won a World Series without a dominating closer.  And Tim Worrell simply does not qualify. 

The rest of the Giant's bullpen doesn't offer much solace either.  Matt Herges, Scott Eyre and Jim Brower do not exactly strike fear in the hearts of major league hitters.  Only Felix Rodriguez has a track record of being very tough and this year he has had his struggles.  And even though they have a couple of starters who can tolerate a heavy workload in Jason Schmidt and Sidney Ponson, the Giants, like the Braves, are vulnerable to pitch counts in the rotation with 6-inning starters Kirk Rueter and Jerome Williams.

Just looking at the Cubs bullpen, one might say the same weakness plagues their chances for postseason success.  The difference is that Dusty Baker has already extended Mark Prior and Kerry Wood to 130 pitches on a couple of occasions, and Carlos Zambrano frequently throws around 120 pitches per start.  So unless they actually break down before or during the playoffs, the Cubs won't have to rely on their bullpen as much during the postseason.  Also working in their favor is that they will be able to call on Juan Cruz from the pen, who could fill the middle innings the way Ramiro Mendoza did for the Yankees from 1998-2000.  And with playoff veterans like Antonio Alfonseca, Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres and Mark Guthrie to call on, the Cubs won't have to worry about first time jitters if their starters need to be bailed out of jams.  And even though their offense has been underwhelming this season, they have several postseason heroes to call on - Moises Alou, Kenny Lofton, Tony Womack - who have come through in big situations in previous Octobers. 

Both the Yankees and the Red Sox look like they have the personnel for success in the pen.  Even though both teams have struggled recently in the late innings, there's no debate there's enough talent there to put in quality innings in crunch time.  Their biggest obstacle remains depth in the starting rotation, which sounds odd when referring to the Yankees because they've had a wealth of starting pitching candidates this year.  But Roger Clemens has looked his age recently and with the exception of his last start against the Red Sox, so has David Wells.  Andy Pettitte hasn't been any great shakes either, getting his wins largely due to run support (as usual).  The Yankees can't survive their rotation suffering another bashing like last year at the hands of the Angels and their rotation doesn't look any more steadfast.

The Red Sox look only marginally better, but that's only because Derek Lowe has started to resemble the Derek Lowe from last year.  With Pedro and Tim Wakefield giving solid starts each time out, an effective Derek Lowe means that the Red Sox' offense can likely bash their way deep into the playoffs.  How deep depends on how hot the Red Sox bench players are when they're needed.  Grady Little has been reluctant to use anyone but his regular starting line-up since the beginning of May - Gabe Kapler is the only non-regular who has received more than 30 at bats in any month - so the bench may be dangerously rusty.

Injuries have finally forced Twins manager Rod Gardenhire to rely on his talented younger pitchers like Johan Santana and Grant Balfour.  If the Twins end up winning the Central division, this will be the primary reason why.  The Twins would enter the postseason with perhaps the strongest bullpen in the AL and Gardenhire has done a solid job of keeping all the hitters on the roster fairly active so he should have any number of quality options should a pinch hitting situation arise.

Likewise, the Astros have a strong bullpen and a fairly active bench making them a strong contender to go deep into the playoffs should they make it.  In fact, Jimy Williams is often cited as going overboard in keeping his bench active, especially in cases like Morgan Ensberg, who deserved to be starting full-time all year but has had to split time with utilityman Geoff Blum.  Neither the Twin or Astros have a deep starting staff, but both teams have 3 very good starters they can throw out there in a short series - Santana, Radke, Milton for the Twins; Oswalt, Miller and Villone for the Astros - and a number of decent options from the rotation to lengthen their bullpen.

Florida is somewhat of an enigma because I don't believe anyone really knows how they've managed to stay in the race.  They are 6th in run scoring, 7th in team ERA.  The offense is probably better than it looks because of the park they play in but then the pitching is probably not as good for the same reason.  Their bullpen is 8th in the NL in ERA so it's not as if they are holding the opposition scoreless in the late innings.  Their starting staff is 4th in the NL in ERA, but only has a 60-51 record.  If anything, their bullpen is costing them games.  Their offense is 12th in the league in close and late situations so they are not hitting in the clutch.  They have scored the 4th most runs from the 7th inning on, so maybe they just get enough runs late to win.  Regardless, even with the miracle that Jack McKeon has worked in South Florida, this team does not look like a strong candidate to go far in the postseason should they make it.

Finally, two teams who's postseason hopes depend on their managers not being themselves - the Phillies and the White Sox.  Jerry Manuel has been abysmal in his handling of the bullpen this year, despite having plenty of talent to work with.  The offense struggled mightily for the first half of the season and the only reason it seems to be better now is that the team traded for Carl Everett and Robby Alomar, and Paul Konerko decided to stop worrying about justifying his contract and just start hitting.  So apparently, Manuel has had little, if anything, to do with their second half resurgence. 

Philly has underachieved all season, despite solid contributions from their offseason free agent acquisitions, Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood.  Bowa has done nothing but exacerbate problems with the bullpen and Pat Burrell's struggles this season, likely due to the same reasons Konerko struggled.  Bowa's tendency to wear his emotions on his sleeves, even when it comes to expressing how he feels about his players, has worn thin on the Phillies and had it not been for cooler heads in the clubhouse, might have inspired a player mutiny.  The only way these two teams make the playoffs is their managers take a lesson from Bobby Valentine in 2000.  After a season full of fits and histrionics, he finally ran out of things to do or say and was relatively quiet for the final month of the regular season.  His team responded with a strong finish and he silently rode their backs to the World Series, where he suddenly got a case of being himself and cost his team a chance of beating the Yankees.