A quick run-through of the difficult decision facing each playoff-bound team over the next 48 hours:
Boston Red Sox
Terry Francona has already announced his intention to start Clay Buchholz in Game Three and, since he has also elected to leave the ultimate swingman, Tim Wakefield, off his ALDS roster, presumably Daisuke Matsuzaka will follow in the eventuality of a Game Four. Francona has before him then three major decisions. Foremost, he faces a real quandry at shortstop. Alex Gonzalez and Nick Green, who have played the most innings at the position for the Red Sox this season are both battling injuries. Although it was only his 19th start of the season, also due to a string of injuries, Jed Lowrie made a strong case for his inclusion by hitting a grand slam on Sunday afternoon. The switch-hitting Lowrie has the highest upside of the trio offensively and defensively, but there are still limitations in his swing from the right side. I expect Francona will choose to carry him and Gonzalez, a sad turn of event for the 31-year-old journeyman, Green, who was a nice underdog story this season, but undoubtedly the best-case scenario for Red Sox fans. If Lowrie is fully healthy, he could add even more depth to the potent lineup.
Francona will also have to decide what he wants out of his fifth outfielder. Obviously, since the brittle Rocco Baldelli is his #4, he will be looking for defense and the ability to play centerfield, something he can get from any of the three candidates - Brian Anderson, Joey Gathright, and Josh Reddick - although Anderson probably offers the best (and most experienced) glove. Anderson is also the only of the three with previous playoff experience, having gotten five at-bats with the White Sox last year. Unfortunately, he struck out four times. Reddick has by far the most upside and the most power. At only 21, last year he hit 23 HR in the minors and followed with 13 in less than 300 AB this year, before being promoted to a bench role on the big club (where he hit 2 HR in 59 AB). But as the BoSox are already carrying more experienced hitters in the form of Baldelli, Casey Kotchman, Lowrie, etc., I expect Francona might settle on Gathright, whose speed (21 SB in 25 AT in '08) makes him a solid candidate to fulfill the "Dave Roberts role" as designated pinch-runner.
Finally, their is still one bullpen spot up for grabs. Francona has to decide whether to stick with Manny Delcarmen, a great arm and a stalwart in the bullpen for the four years, or turn to a converted starter, somebody like Paul Byrd or Michael Bowden, as a long reliever who could throw multiple innings in a mop-up situation. The reason it has even come to this is that Delcarmen has a 7.27 ERA since the All-Star Break (after registering a 2.41 ERA in the first half) and allowed 11 ER in 7 IP in September. Delcarmen has also been roughed up in his postseason career (11 ER in 8 2/3 IP), so there isn't much reason to believe he's going to suddenly turn it around in October. However, neither Byrd nor Bowden was particularly good in their late-season bullpen auditions either.
The most pressing issue for Jim Tracy is the health of Jorge De La Rosa, who left his last start with a groin injury and is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Tuesday. De La Rosa went 16-3 with a 3.94 ERA in the last four months of the season, arguably the Rockies second-best starter. If he won't be ready in time for Game Three, the Rockies will have to use both Jason Marquis and Jason Hammel in their Division Series rotation. Marquis was a 15-game winner, but in his typical fashion, he suffered down the stretch, going 3-7 with a 4.89 ERA in his last 14 starts. Jason Hammel, on the other hand, did his best pitching after the All-Star Break, going 5-2 with a 3.87 ERA in his last dozen efforts. If De La Rosa proves himself healthy, Marquis could do something rather spectacular. This could be the third franchise for which he made 30+ starts and won 12+ games, but was left off the postseason roster.
In all probability, however, Marquis will at least get sent to the bullpen as a long reliever. Let's face it, the Rockies don't have many better choices, which brings us to what might be Tracy's most grueling decision. The Rockies outfield is loaded. Due to a variety of injuries, six players have gotten 300 plate appearances as Colorado outfielders. All of them have played pretty well, but while five of them have an OPS above 878, Ryan Spilborghs, a popular veteran and fan favorite, is sitting at 705, clearly the odd man out. In order to keep Spilborghs, the Rockies would have to decide whether they are willing to go with only seven relievers (leaving behind Matt Herges and Matt Belisle probably) or risk being caught without a natural backup middle-infielder in the form of Omar Quintanilla (480 OPS) or Eric Young Jr. (611 OPS). Remember, prior to the season Ian Stewart was working out at second base (he got 20 starts there this year and made "only" three errors), so maybe Tracy will take the gamble. After all, if something were to happen to Tulowitzki, the Rockies season is pretty much over anyway.
As for that final reliever...or two. Herges was very good (2.89 ERA in 9 1/3 IP) after coming over from Cleveland, as was Jose Contreras (1.59 ERA in 17 IP) after being let go by the White Sox. Belisle's overall numbers aren't good (5.52 ERA), but he was much better in his second stint with the club, posting a 1.42 ERA in September. Contreras seems like a safe bet to me, as he has a solid postseason history and the ability to pitch multiple innings. There is not easy way to separate Herges and Belisle, but the veteran, Herges, who has pitched 11 career playoff innings without allowing a run will probably get the call.
If the Tigers do manage to get past the Twins tomorrow, they may benefit from the fact that they have been playing games which feel like the whole season rides on every pitch for over a week now. Leyland's roster sets up fairly easily, with a relatively deep bench and a strong rotation, especially with a first-round schedule that will only require three starters (Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello). Where the Tigers are lacking is in the bullpen. Leyland will probably attempt to convert either Nate Robertson or Jarrod Washburn into a left-handed longman, with Robertson having the clear advantage, having pitched much better down the stretch and apparently not suffering from any lingering injuries. Jeremy Bonderman hasn't been great in his return as a reliever (5.68 ERA), but the fact that the other choice is Eddie Bonine probably works to his advantage.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Scioscia, typically compulsive, publicly set his roster before any of his fellow managers. There were a couple of surprises. Scioscia chose to keep a third catcher, Bobby Wilson, instead of Brandon Wood (who he clearly has never trusted) or an extra reliever like Jose Arrendondo. Although the Angels will only be carrying six relievers, two of them are converted starters, Ervin Santana and Matt Palmer, who could presumably eat a lot of innings in a blowout situation. Less surprisingly, Scioscia also elected to keep a fifth outfielder, Reggie Willits, who will fill the "Dave Roberts role" as pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Although the Dodgers have clearly taken a step backward in the second half and don't matchup well in a short series against the Cardinals, I'm not ready to rule out any team coached by Joe Torre. The old codger has a stacked, circular lineup and a very deep bench (Thome, Pierre, Belliard, Loretta, etc.), as well as a loaded bullpen. All these things are typical of his past postseason success. His rotation, however, has some serious holes. He has already announced Randy Wolf as the Game One starter and Clayton Kershaw in Game Two. I would guess that Chad Billingsley, despite how bad he has been in the second half (3-7, 5.20 ERA), will start either Game Three or Four. Torre won't completely bypass a guy with the potential to dominate as Billingsley can. So the real question is, Jon Garland or Vincente Padilla? Not a question many Dodgers fans are eager to answer. Both were castoffs from other teams and both are likely replaced by Hiroki Kuroda if the Dodgers advance to the NLCS, but both pitched surprisingly well for their new team. Garland went 3-2 in six starts, with a 2.72 ERA, while Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in seven starts, striking out 36 in 37 IP. Garland's advantage is that he was brilliant in his previous postseason effort with the champion White Sox in 2005, but Padilla has more overpowering stuff and the potential to dominate any time out, as evidenced by his 10 K in 5 IP his last time out.
After Torre makes that decision, he will have to decide whether to keep eleven or twelve relievers. As mentioned, Torre's bullpen corps are very deep. But somebody from the group of Padilla/Garland, James McDonald (2.72 ERA in 50 IP), and Guillermo Mota (3.44 in 65 IP) will have to be left out, unless Torre chooses to drop his backup shortstop, Juan Castro. Castro offer very little except defensive insurance, but if Rafael Furcal's back injury were to suddenly flare up, the infield would have to be captained by Ron Belliard or Casey Blake, neither of whom is particularly "rangy."
The job that Ron Gardenhire has done bringing the Twins to within a win of the playoffs is especially impressive when you consider the lack of production he gets from the lower third of his lineup and his bench. Brendan Harris, with 6 HR and a .363 SLG, is what passes for thunder off the bench. Jose Morales, who has a higher OBP (.386) than SLG (.363), is the primary DH since Justin Morneau went down. All told, the Twins bottom third and their four-man bench have combined for 14 HR. In other words, as many as thudersticks like Yunel Escobar, Jason Bartlett, and Jason Varitek all by themselves. With Morneau and Joe Crede out of action, Gardenhire has no choice but to carry Brian Buscher and Alexi Cassilla.
Gardenhire's bullpen has also set itself, although in this case it isn't a bad thing. The Twins has six relievers with ERAs under 3.00 in September...and Joe Nathan wasn't one of them.
New York Yankees
The opportunity to choose the long road (extra off days) means Girardi won't have to decide who his fourth starter is (Joba Chamberlain or Chad Gaudin) until the ALCS...if they make it. Both Joba and Gaudin are headed to the bullpen, which shouldn't be too big a problem since they both have considerable experience as relievers. The Yankees bullpen is DEEP, getting deeper. So is their bench. Good luck Twins/Tigers.
Much publicized has been the dearth of solid starting pitcher options available to Charlie Manuel this October. He has already announced that lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee will start the first two games of the NLDS, but it remains to be seen who among the group of J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, and Pedro Martinez will be dropped from the rotation. Happ would be the obvious choice. He is the youngest and has the most bullpen experience, having begun the season there, potentially filling a much-needed gap left by the injury to J.C. Romero. However, don't be surprised if Happ makes the rotation in the first round, perhaps even as the #3 starter. The Phillies are a tough matchup for the Rockies largely because of their bevy of tough left-handed pitchers. The Rockies were 65-44 against right-handers this season, 27-26 against southpaws. Colorado has six regulars left-handed regulars. By utilizing Happ (as well as Lee and Hamels), Manuel can perhaps force guys like Ian Stewart (664 OPS v. LHP) and even Brad Hawpe (775 OPS v. LHP) to the bench, while minimizing the damage done by Todd Helton (741 OPS v. LHP).
If Happ does remain in the rotation, then Manuel's big bullpen decision will be who to carry as his second left-handed reliever, Antonio Bastardo or Sergio Escalona? Both are rookies, and neither are particularly promising options. If he puts Happ in the bullpen, Manuel can turn to a more established reliever like Tyler Walker or Kyle Kendrick.
St. Louis Cardinals
Tony LaRussa announced today that the Cardinals would retain Troy Glaus and Joe Thurston as bench players in the first round. Glaus obviously provides excellent right-handed power off the bench and Thurston is probably just a defensive insurance policy and a pinch-runner (most likely for Glaus). If the Cardinals advance to the World Series, Glaus and Rick Ankiel will make a strong DH platoon.
So, the Cards main decision is how to comprise the backend of their bullpen. Presumably, both Kyle Lohse and John Smoltz will be on the roster, even though only one of them will make the rotation. LaRussa will definitely keep Blake Hawksworth and Ryan McClellan from the right side, as well as Trevor Miller and Dennys Reyes from the left. That leave him with two spots open for the group of Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte, Brad Thompson, and Todd Wellemeyer, all righties. After losing their spots in the rotation, Wellemeyer (3.24 ERA in 8 IP) and Thompson (3.89 ERA in 37 IP) pitched fairly well out of the bullpen. Motte and Boggs are both rookies and struggled as such over the course of the season. However, Motte made nine appearances in September without allowing a run, striking out 12 in 8 1/3 innings. His fastball is hard to ignore. Boggs also came into his own in September, with a 3.38 ERA in 13 innings. Meanwhile, LaRussa used Wellemeyer and Thompson less, only seven innings apiece. One wonders whether LaRussa was resting his veterans, or testing his younsters, or both. My personal impression is that Motte and Boggs, despite their inexperience, have excellent stuff (10+ K/9 for both), while Wellemeyer and Thompson have been around long enough that I know better than to trust them in critical situations.