Sunday, September 21, 2008

Breaking Down the Final Week

Through 150+ games, the Phillies and Mets have been very difficult to predict. Just when it seemed as if one team had fallen out of the race for the NL East (or wildcard, for that matter), corresponding winning/losing streaks would tighten up the standings again. Now, with 7-8 games remaining for each team, the Phillies sit atop the division by a hair. Each team has the rubber game of their current series today, followed by two more series. But who has the advantage?

On paper, it's got to be the Phillies. They have their final two series against the Braves, who they have dominated this year, and the Nationals, who everyone has dominated this year. Meanwhile, the Mets face the Cubs, the team to beat in the NL, and those pesky Marlins.

That looks pretty good for the Phillies, but one major question looms: Which Cubs team will the Mets face? The one that leads the NL in wins by a wide margin? Or will it be the Chicago Scrubs? The Cubs have all but locked up homefield advantage and have no real need to play their star players in the final week.

This brings up the age-old argument of momentum vs security. No team wants to back into the playoffs, but is it really worth sending out your A-squad for meaningless games? Odds are the Cubs won't fall victim to any major injuries in their last eight games, but you never know.

In all likelihood, the Cubs' top hitters will start most, if not all, of the games against the Mets. And why not? Hitting is not a particularly risky business. Lou Piniella might do well to tell his players to take it easy in the field and on the basepaths, but the odds are that the Cubs' bats can stay healthy for one more week. The pitching, however, is a different story. Pitching injuries are far more common and the Cubs' rotation doesn't exactly have the best track record in this department.

Of course, Rich Harden is the first name that comes to mind in this discussion. Harden's 142 innings pitched this year are his second most ever and his most since 2004. He can probably handle one more start, but should the Cubs really press their luck? (The Brewers' luck finally caught up to them with Ben Sheets and it may well cost them a playoff spot.) Ryan Dempster hasn't exactly been a workhorse either, over the years. He'll likely pitch over 200 innings this year in his first season as a starter since 2002.

Whether or not the Cubs should play their starters is irrelevant to this blog. All we care about is will they play them. Since there is no established "right" answer to the momentum-security question, the best way to guess is to look at Piniella's history. The best example comes in the last season that a Lou Piniella team has the option of coasting into the playoffs: the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

Seattle won 116 games that year and finished the season with a 14 game lead over the Oakland A's (talk about hard luck, the A's won 102 games that year and only got the wildcard). With the division locked up in the final week, how did Piniella handle the team? The Mariners made no major adjustments to their lineup and rotation, but Piniella did take it relatively easy on his starters. While Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer (then only 38!), and Aaron Sele (he won 16 games that year) all made starts in the last five games, Piniella did not overwork them. They all started, but left after about 90 pitches. As for the hitters, all the key Mariners (Ichiro, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Bret Boone) started the final games of the year.

One thing to note is Piniella's handlng of the bullpen. He did not change the way he used his relievers, even in meaningless games. Kazuhiro Sasaki notched his 45th save on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Sasaki also pitched the final inning of a 6-2 game the night before. The fact that Piniella would use his All-Star closer, not only to finish off a 4-run game (granted it was a 3-run game after 8 innings), but also on consecutive nights with everything already locked up, gives us a pretty good idea of how he is likely to handle the end of this season.

The Mets should expect to see the Cubs starting lineup pretty much intact, but they should only have to deal with Chicago's starting pitching for five innings or so. However, Piniella will do what he can to win the games with his bullpen. Does that mean Kerry Wood will tempt fate and pitch late in the season? Probably. Cubs fans should be concerned.

But not as concerned as Mets fans, who will likely see their team fall short of the NL East crown once again. However, the wildcard should be easy pickings. The Brewers are falling apart at the seams and guess who the Cubs play right after the Mets? Sorry Milwaukee.

Of course, if we've learned one thing from the last two seasons, it's that there's no predicting the Phillies and Mets. Reason tells us the Phillies will take the division, but last year the Mets appeared to have things pretty well locked up in late September, and we all know how that went.