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Monday, November 19, 2007

The Depth Chart

It's very early in the offseason to be evaluating the prospects of next year's teams. Despite the weakness of the free agent class, almost every franchise will sign a contributer before the beginning of next season. And, with the potential availability of such superstars as Johan Santana, Miguel Cabrera, and Miguel Tejada, there are likely to be numerous trades as well.

But, despite the likelihood of roster fluctuation well into 2008, some teams are clearly in better shape than others. As I discussed prior to last season, I believe that success over the course of the grueling major-league season is less about the quality of the opening day lineup and rotation, and more about a franchise's preponderance of practical replacements when those players suffer from injuries or unexpectedly poor production.

I'm not saying that teams which lack depth never make it to the postseason. Often they do, but it usually requires a tremendous run of good luck. The White Sox had it when they had four starters pitch upward of 200 innings in 2005. The Giants had it when they had five players 34 and older play 140 games or more in 2002, plus a 37-year-old Catcher who made 126 starts. And, Colorado had it this year when they won 21 of 22 in late September and early October, facing elimination on a daily basis. Teams like these make it thanks to tremendous play and consistently good breaks. Teams with depth can make it in spite of the breaks.

Based on their depth, I predicted that Detroit and Cleveland would be the two best teams in the majors in 2007. While neither proved to be the equal to the Red Sox, both were among the best teams in the AL, Cleveland finishing one win short of the World Series and Detroit winning 88 games, the best record any club falling short of the playoffs. They were able to succeed to they extent that they did largely because of their depth.

The bullpen which had been the strength of Detroit's AL Championship team in '06 was decimated by injuries to flame-throwing middle-relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. Certainly, those two are irreplaceable, unless you've got the capability of acquiring Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge midseason. However, Jim Leyland was able to look to the trio of Bobby Seay, Tim Byrdak, and Zach Miner to soften the blow. Between them, they threw 145 innings, accumulated 27 holds, and a 2.86 ERA. They solidified a bullpen that was almost exactly league-average:

Detroit Bullpen: 4.37 ERA, 26 W, 44 SV, 515 IP, 736 vOPS
AL Average Bullpen: 4.30 ERA, 24 W, 40 SV. 493 IP, 732 vOPS

Ask Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox or Sam Perlozzo, formerly of the Orioles, if they would have been happy with a league-average bullpen? Each of them suffered from a similar rash of injuries to their relief corps in 'o7, and finished with bullpen ERAs of 5.47 and 5.71 respectively.

In Cleveland, it was depth which saved their rotation. Their Opening Day rotation was C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Paul Byrd. Only Sabathia and Byrd made more than 25 starts. Westbrook missed much of the first half with an injury, and Sowers and Lee struggled so mightily that they were both demoted to AAA for significant portions of the season, neither making more than 16 big-league starts, and both finished with ERAs above 6.00. Luckily for the Indians, they had Fausto Carmona waiting for just such an opportunity. He joined the rotation in the middle of April, lost his first two appearances, and then with 19-6 the rest of the way, finishing 4th in Cy Young voting. They also got a modestly impressive late-season run from Aaron Laffey, who went 4-2 with a 4.56 ERA in nine starts. They were never even tempted to promote their 22-year-old future-stud, Adam Miller. Despite 29 dismal starts from Lee and Sowers, Cleveland had a league-leading 4.19 Starter's ERA.

Although I didn't think they'd be the equal of Cleveland and Detroit, Boston also entered 2007 with an impressive depth chart. It proved critical for them when Curt Schilling and Jon Lester were vacant from the rotation for extended spells, and when Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew made somewhat predictable trips to the D.L. Jacoby Ellsbury is the most obvious example, with his 926 OPS in September and his 949 OPS in October. But, former Rookie of the Year, Eric Hinske, pounded out 21 extra-base hits and a respectable 714 OPS in limited playing time, fielded three different position admirably, and, most importantly, hit .286 with a 933 OPS in games that he filled in for Manny Ramirez in left field.

Depth is not something which can be accumulated in a single offseason, which is why it is one factor that can be realistically evaluated in November. Look at your team. How many critical holes do they have to fill? Do they have any reasonable options available within the organization? Does the loss of any one player cripple the lineup or rotation? Perhaps, more importantly, look up and down the division. How many significant question marks do your competitors have to address by comparison. Before the Hot Stove League get really rolling at the winter meeting, I hope to address which teams come to Orlando with significant advantages thanks to depth within their own systems. Some of them are predictable. Others might surprise you.

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