World Series preview: Phillies vs. Yankees

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Except for that provided by some brutal umpiring, it’s so far been a postseason without a whole lot of drama. We’ve yet to see a decisive game in any of the six series to date. In fact, those series have lasted a total of 24 games, just four more than the possible minimum.
So, it’s going to be up to the World Series to give us a nail-biter. If it happens, it’d be quite a change. Three of the last five World Series have been sweeps and the other two lasted just five games. There hasn’t been a seven-game series since 2002.
Fortunately, we’re getting what looks like the best possible matchup. FOX would have preferred Yankees-Dodgers, but they’ll be glad they got the Yankees and they certainly have plenty of storylines. It’s the defending champs versus the all-time champs. Former Indians starters CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee just might face off three times. Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, out of the league for most of the year, is set to start Game 2 against his old nemesis. The much-maligned Alex Rodriguez could have a postseason for the ages. For that matter, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth just might set some postseason records themselves.
Maybe it won’t be a classic, but it hardly looks like a potential sweep, either.
World Series Probables
Game 1: Cliff Lee vs. CC Sabathia
Game 2: Pedro Martinez vs. A.J. Burnett
Game 3: Andy Pettitte vs. Cole Hamels
Game 4: CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee
And that’s as far as we’ll try to go with those. There’s no extra day off in the World Series, so it’ll be very difficult for either team to go with a straight three-man rotation. Both the Phillies and Yankees, though, appear to be lining up their aces to start Games 1, 4 and 7. Once Game 5 comes around, we’ll probably see Joe Blanton or maybe J.A. Happ for the Phillies, as Martinez hardly seems like a strong candidate to start on short rest. The Yankees could go to Chad Gaudin, though that would seem to indicate that Pettitte would make just one start.
The battle of the aces is the one everyone will want to key in on. Sabathia, who has already pitched on short rest once, is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA. Lee is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA, having lost his chance at a third victory because of a Jimmy Rollins error.
This won’t be Sabathia’s first postseason start against the Phillies. While toiling for the Brewers, a fatigued CC gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings to take a loss in the NLDS last year. Lee, of course, has plenty of history against the Yankees, having gone 4-4 with a 5.02 ERA against them while a member of the Indians. He was 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts this season.
Both are left-handed hitters going against lineups that rely on plenty of left-handed hitters. Maybe it will all go wrong, but the potential for a couple of outstanding pitcher’s duels seems high.
The other matchups aren’t all that much less interesting. Martinez appeared to be fifth in line for starts for the Phillies at the beginning of the postseason, but upon getting the call against the Dodgers, all he did was limit L.A. to two hits over seven scoreless innings. He’s also plenty rested, having pitched just once all month. And don’t underestimate the chip on his shoulder. Burnett was strong in his first two postseason starts before a dreadful first inning in Game 5 against the Angels. He rebounded well after that, but he hasn’t faced World Series pressure yet. In the stuff department, he has Martinez beat hands down. Whether it translates remains to be seen.
Pettitte vs. Hamels pits one of the game’s most successful October starters against the left-hander who put the Phillies on his shoulder and carried them to the title last year. In this case, though, it certainly seems to be advantage Pettitte. He’s 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA this month, while Hamels has managed to give up six homers and 11 runs in 14 2/3 innings. They’d never admit it, but the Phillies wouldn’t have bumped him behind Martinez in the rotation had they possessed a whole lot of confidence in him. With the way things are shaping up, Hamels will probably make just the one start.
If it is Gaudin vs. Blanton in Game 5, it’d seem to favor Philadelphia. Blanton, though, is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA in four career starts versus the Bombers. The Phillies might prefer to go with the left-handed Happ, but it would depend how he’s used in relief. Both Blanton and Happ will be in the pen to start the series.
The offenses
The Yankees and Phillies finished first and second, respectively, in homers this season, and both led their leagues in runs scored. The Yankees have a clear edge, especially at the bottom of the lineup, but they will give that up on two occasions if Jose Molina continues to replace Jorge Posada in Burnett’s starts. Also, they’ll lose a lot when Hideki Matsui takes a seat in Philadelphia.
Both teams figure to go with pretty set lineups. It’d take a couple of more bad games from Nick Swisher before the Yankees would consider a change in right. The two starts Molina gets, assuming that they materialize, might be their only changes.
The Phillies will use Ben Francisco in left field and Raul Ibanez at DH in Game 1. Against the right-hander in Game 2, they’ll probably put Ibanez back in the field and start Matt Stairs at DH. Outside of the DH, they’ll use the same personnel every game.
Whether the Phillies can match the Yankees run for run may come down to Jimmy Rollins. While he recovered from a brutal first half this season, he’s been lousy again in October, hitting .244 with an 8/0 K/BB ratio and no steals in 41 at-bats. There’s no way that Charlie Manuel is going to remove him from the leadoff spot now, so he really needs to step it up.
Overrated angle
The Phillies’ DH situation
Unlike many NL teams in recent memory, the Phillies come to play when adding a DH to their lineup. Francisco hit .278/.317/.526 in 97 at-bats after coming over in the Cliff Lee deal, and he’s a big upgrade from Ibanez defensively in left field. Stairs hardly ever got to start for the Phillies this year and his average suffered as a result, but he did manage five homers and 23 walks in 103 at-bats. Also, he has a couple of homers in 11 career at-bats against Burnett. It’s not a given that the Phillies will use him — Francisco’s defense is enough of an upgrade that keeping him in left field against the right-hander would be justifiable — but it’d be a shame if Stairs didn’t get at least one start.
Underrated angle
The AL experience of Philadelphia’s starters
Lee, Martinez and Blanton are certainly no strangers to opposing loaded lineups, and they’re not going to be surprised when suddenly faced with the prospect of dealing with a bunch of very patient, All-Star caliber hitters. The Rockies in 2007 and the Cardinals in 2004 just weren’t ready for the Red Sox, and the Yankees can maul an erratic pitcher even faster than those Boston teams could. The Phillies, though, will rely on starters with a ton of AL experience. Only Hamels, who will probably start just one game, doesn’t have any.
Prediction
It’s up for debate, but I think this is the first time since at least 2004 and probably since 2001 that the World Series has matched the best teams in each league. The Phillies truly can win this series. The non-Lee starters can’t risk pacing themselves, though. If Pedro and Hamels can give the team five good innings, manager Charlie Manuel shouldn’t push his luck and ask for much more. To his credit, he’s handled his pitching staff exquisitely to date. There’s no shutdown reliever in the Phillies pen this year, but there are a bunch of capable pitchers to provide lots of different looks and keep the Yankees off balance. If Lee can match Sabathia, if Pedro and Hamels can keep the team in games and if Chad Durbin and Chan Ho Park can keep it together in the sixth and seventh innings, then the Phillies have a real chance.
The Yankees, though, need less to go right. They know they own the ninth inning, when it comes down to Mariano Rivera vs. Brad Lidge. They have a slight advantage in both the rotation and in the starting lineup. It’s not a landslide, but they are the better team, as one should expect given the $80 million payroll advantage. Home-field advantage won’t hurt either. My guess is that we finally get our first suspenseful World Series in six or seven years, but I expect the Yankees to claim it in seven.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.