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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Under Constructions Indefinitely (World Series Preview)

How much can a general manager really do during the season?  Sure, the trade deadline provides an exciting midseason sideshow which sometimes leads to stars changing uniforms, but only on rare occasions (say, C. C. Sabathia in 2008) do those moves really create contenders.  Remember when the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira from the Rangers for a package that included two key players on their World Series roster (Elvis Andrus & Neftali Feliz), as well as two more players who made minor contributions during the 2010 season (Matt Harrison & Jarrod Saltalamacchia).  (You think the Braves might've been a better team this year with Andrus at short and Feliz in the bullpen?)  Teixeira played great down the stretch, but it wasn't enough to push a flawed Atlanta team past the Phillies and the Mets.

Although a GM can certainly contribute by building organizational depth and knowing who to promote and when to promote them, most of their job is done during the offseason.  Look at the Yankees and Phillies for instance.  When the Yankees took the field in the ALCS, they had exactly the lineup New York fans enjoyed on Opening Day, with the exception of Lance Berkman/Marcus Thames being substituted for the injured Nick Swisher.  Ditto for the Phillies.  On their pitching staffs you had a couple notable additions, Roy Oswalt and Kerry Wood, but otherwise they looked much as they had six months ago.  You could make the same observations about the Rays, Reds, Twins, and Braves.

One of the most interesting things about our two World Series contestants is their exceptional roster turnover.  When the managers set their 25-man rosters on Wednesday, both sides will likely feature at least a dozen guys who didn't break camp with the team in April.

For Texas, the top two thirds of the lineup, though they've struggled through injuries to Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler, have been crucial to their success.  Thats the core you think about when you think about the Rangers.  The bottom third, however, composed generally of catchers, first basemen, and right-fielders, has been a constant source of stress for Ron Washington.  The Rangers began the season with a bunch of promising young players, many of the former first-round draft picks fighting for these positions - guys like Justin Smoak, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Julio Borbon, Max Ramirez, and Chris Davis.  They ended up giving an unfortunate number of at-bats to also-rans like Matt Treanor, Jorge Cantu, Jeff Francoeur, and Ryan Garko, because several of the kids had trouble finding the Mendoza line.

However, Texas's most drastic renovations came in the rotation.  The Rangers year began with starts by Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, a few days later they turned to Matt Harrison.  If those names aren't familiar to you, that's because none of them made the playoff roster.  Ten pitchers got the chance to start games for Texas in 2010 and only Colby Lewis and C. J. Wilson were constants.  That's not generally a recipe for postseason success, but the Rangers eventually found a rhythm, mainly through the acquisition of Cliff Lee and the promotions of Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland.

The bullpen was a similar work in progress, as Frank Francisco was expected to return as the closer and Chris Ray was going to be one of his key set-up men.  Francisco went on the D.L. after a week and when he returned, Neftali Feliz had taken his spot.  Ray eventually got shipped to San Francisco following the discovery of Alexi Ogando.  All told, though the Texas bullpen was one of the best in the American League, they used fourteen different pitchers for at least ten innings.

The Giants tell basically the opposite story.  Four pitchers made 33 starts, a picture of rotational consistency which is the envy of nearly the entire league.  Only one change was made all year, when 20-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner replaced Todd Wellemeyer at the end of June.  The bullpen, conceived around closer Brian Wilson and set-up men Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt did have some turnover, as all bullpens do, but the central pieces were always in place and five pitchers threw at least 50 innings.

The lineup, however, was something of a marvel of musical chairs.  Assuming that Bruce Bochy starts the World Series with the defensive alignment he's used through most of the playoffs, it will feature exactly one player, Aubrey Huff, who was in the lineup on Opening Day.  (Freddy Sanchez would've been in there had it not been for a lingering injury.)  Four of the Giants eight starting position players weren't even with the team until June or later.  Here's a comparison of Opening Day and the likely Game One lineup:

Aaron Rowand, CF Andres Torres, CF
Edgar Renteria, SS Freddy Sanchez, 2B
Pablo Sandoval, 3B Aubrey Huff, 1B
Aubrey Huff, 1B Buster Posey, C
Mark DeRosa, 2B Pat Burrell, LF
Bengie Molina, C Cody Ross, RF
John Bowker, RF Juan Uribe, SS
Nate Schierholtz, LF Mike Fontenot, 3B
Tim Lincecum, P Tim Lincecum, P

Bet you didn't recall that the Giants "big" offseason signing was Mark DeRosa.  Ten players got double-digit starts in the Giants outfield in 2010.  The infield provided significant amounts of work for Matt Downs, Ryan Rohlinger, and Emmanuel Buriss.  Remember them?

Honestly, I haven't yet found one team, let alone two, that did these kind of renovations over the course of their season, yet found their way to the World Series nonetheless.  It helps, of course, that each has a abundant strength - the top of the lineup for Texas, the rotation for San Francisco - but even so, we all know that dominating one aspect of the game isn't enough to make it to the mountaintop.  You've got to give a great deal of credit for these team's opportunities to the in-season creativity of Brian Sabean and Jon Daniels.

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