- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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In October, it isn't about home run trots. And it isn't about bobblehead days. And it definitely isn't about trade rumors, incentive clauses or your owner's personal psychic.
No sir, in October, it's all about starting pitching, friends.
Dominating starting pitching.
As much of it as possible.
So which teams have that kind of starting pitching as the postseason approaches? That's a question Rumblings aspired to answer this week. So we polled 17 executives of teams around baseball and had them rank the five most October-ready rotations.
Now, not all of these teams will even make it to October. In fact, two of them -- the Phillies and Red Sox -- would be heading for the fishing boats, not Game 1, if the playoffs started tomorrow. But a lot of plotlines can get rewritten in the next seven weeks. So we included all 14 teams that were within five games of a playoff spot, in the loss column, in this poll. And here are the five that made the cut:
Amazing how one big trade can change the perception of a group like this. In came Oswalt, and all of a sudden, the Phillies had the rotation that was named by more of our voters (16 of 17 ballots) than any other team in baseball.
Oswalt is 71-25 lifetime after the All-Star break and has never lost a postseason start (4-0, 3.66 ERA). Hamels owns a World Series MVP trophy. And Halladay inspires astonishing big-game faith for a man who has never thrown a postseason pitch. He "makes his team the favorite in almost every game he starts," one AL executive said.
On the other hand, the Phillies still have some scrambling to do just to get to October. And several people we surveyed questioned whether Oswalt was quite the same dominator he was in October 2004 and 2005. Meanwhile, technically speaking, we're not supposed to be discussing bullpens here, but it's tough to overlook the fact that "the Phillies may have the largest gap between quality starting and non-quality relief pitching in baseball," as one scout put it.
Nevertheless, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt have averaged 6.85 innings per start, more than any other big three in the National League. So at least they're more capable of keeping that bullpen out of the line of fire than just about any other threesome in the game.
Is there any one-two tag team you'd rather start a series with than Carpenter and Wainwright -- two guys who have a combined 2.37 postseason ERA?
"Almost all these teams have one dominating guy," one scout said. "This team has two."
But the reason the Cardinals finished just behind the Phillies in this poll is that, beyond those two, there are questions. Garcia has a 4.61 ERA in his past eight starts and has made it beyond the sixth inning only twice in that stretch. And although Westbrook is a representative fourth starter, he also has a 5.60 career postseason ERA.
"Their key," one scout said, "is how well Jaime Garcia finishes the year, and can he be the kind of guy they can slot in between Carpenter and Wainwright in the playoffs. I think they need that third guy."
Like the Phillies, the Red Sox need to figure out a way to get to the postseason or it won't matter a whole lot how October-ready they might be. But if they can sneak in, it's hard not to see the upside in a group that features three men who have started the clinching game of a World Series (Lester, Beckett and Lackey).
The four pitchers in this team's prospective October rotation have pitched in a combined 37 postseason games, have combined for 12 postseason wins and own a spiffy 3.00 October ERA. So they've been there, done this. The question is whether they're as good today as those numbers make them look.
No one doubts Lester anymore. And "Lackey is Lackey," one scout said. But our panel was split on whether Beckett, after all his health issues, can rediscover his big-game magic. And even though one scout said Buchholz "might have the best stuff of all these guys," others had their doubts about his lack of postseason experience and about his readiness for "full exposure" to games like this.
Still, seven voters we surveyed ranked the Red Sox rotation either first or second on this entire list -- and, based on track record alone, with good reason.
It's always interesting to compile these votes. And one of our biggest surprises was that the Braves' rotation got mentioned by as many of the people we surveyed as the Giants' rotation did.
But we assigned points to each vote based on how high a team was ranked. So the Giants still make our top five because nearly everyone who voted for them placed them in the top three.
The people who love this staff start the lovefest with Lincecum -- a fellow so talented, one AL exec said, that he gives the Giants "a chance to win every game, 1-0." Then there's Cain, "a guy who can get very hot and really pitch great," one NL scout said. And Zito, who has made seven more postseason starts than the rest of this rotation put together (i.e., it's 7-0), "is still capable of dialing up a good game," another scout said.
On the other hand, nearly half our voters left the Giants off their list entirely. "Is Lincecum running out of gas, and can we really trust Zito?" one scout wondered. Another worried about Cain's frustrating habit of running into trouble in his second and third turns through the order -- saying, "It's got to be mental because the stuff coming out of his hand is great."
Nevertheless, the numbers tell us that the Giants have been the most unhittable rotation in baseball (.238 opponent average). And that ought to worry any team that has to visit AT&T Park in October.
The Rays just eked by the Yankees in this poll. But we haven't heard this many mentions of the word "health" since the passage of Obama-care.
How are we supposed to know what to make of a rotation that went four months without a missed start -- then dropped two starters (Niemann and Davis) onto the disabled list on the same day? The honest answer is that we might not have any idea how to look at these Rays for weeks. But it tells us something that they still got a ton of top-three votes.
"They've got such a combination of power from both sides," one AL executive said. "They just give you so many different looks."
Price and Garza are turning into "two bona fide No. 1 starters," another AL exec said. Opponents were hitting just .231 off Niemann before his shoulder started throbbing. And if the Rays need to plug in an emergency starter, Hellickson "can fill that void," said one scout who was dazzled by him this month.
But even the panelists who voted for this group admitted they were nervous about it. Several voters made a point of saying they would have ranked the Rays much higher two weeks ago, and not just because Niemann and Davis landed on the DL. Worries ranged from Price's pitch-count issues to the fact the Rays "have worked their starters hard" -- and they have. They've ground far more innings (708) out of their Opening Day five than any other rotation in baseball.
But "I still like this rotation better than the Yankees right now," one scout said. "For reliability, I like this rotation much better."
That's a debate we can easily see raging for the next two months. But the great thing about baseball is that, sooner or later, this will all get settled -- on the diamond, not the debate floor.
Just missed this cut: 6) Yankees, 7) Braves, 8) White Sox, 9) Rangers.
Ready to rumble
Catch a waive: We're a week and a half into August, and we've seen exactly three major league waiver trades -- all for complementary players (Mike Sweeney to the Phillies, Jim Edmonds to the Reds, Mike Fontenot to the Giants). And from what we've heard from sources monitoring the waiver wire, it could be that kind of month.
An official of one team says there's been a "flurry" of early claims on prominent players, with virtually all useful bats and bullpen arms getting blocked.
According to one source, three relievers who spent much of July starring on the Rumor Central circuit -- Toronto's Kevin Gregg and Seattle's David Aardsma and Brandon League -- were all claimed and pulled back. So the only "big-name" reliever known to have cleared waivers is Dodgers left-hander George Sherrill. Then again, Sherrill has a 7.00 ERA and about $1.25 million left in salary. So there won't exactly be a stampede to go trade for him.
Unless the claiming frenzy slows, in other words, it looks as if the only deals on the horizon this month will either be "large contracts or very small trades," said one GM. "The days of David Cone getting moved in late August -- I think those days are over."
Earth to Manny: One big name that was theoretically going to be a big waiver attraction in August, if his team falls out of the race, was Manny Ramirez. But the Dodgers don't sound particularly optimistic that Manny will even be back on the active roster in time to get placed on August waivers.
Which makes us wonder: If Manny is done, or even all but done, for the year -- and he's about to head out on the market coming off a lost season with his 39th birthday approaching next May -- is he even employable?
On one hand, he's hit .317, with a .409 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage. On the other, he's been a defensive nightmare in left, even for him (UZR/150: minus-17.8). And he's scraped together only 186 at-bats, and missed 53 games, with no end to his little sabbatical in sight.
"Some American League team will give him a job," an official of one team predicted. "They'll give him a million bucks and incentives tied to plate appearances, and they'll make him their DH. But that's the only possibility, because he ain't playing in the National League. I can just about guarantee that."
That other deadline: Set your alarms. The deadline for teams to sign their 2010 draft picks comes around Monday night at midnight ET. And we're still trying to figure out what baseball has gained by setting a mid-August signing deadline.
Of the 30 first-rounders, 17 are still unsigned. Of the top nine picks, seven are still unsigned. So this has become a wasted summer for most of the best players in this draft. And what's it accomplishing?
If anybody in charge is interested, every scouting director -- and most players, too, for that matter -- would love to see this deadline moved up so these kids could actually play baseball in the same year they get drafted.
"The earlier the better," one scouting director told Rumblings. "Make it two weeks after the draft. Let's go. Make a decision."
If the deadline were, say, June 25 or even July 1, the same scouting director said, "the agents would play the same wait-until-the-end game. But at least we'd get six to eight weeks of development time. It's a brutal, inefficient system. And what are we accomplishing?"
Absolutely. Amen. Can somebody please add this item to the agenda when the next labor talks begin? Thanks.
Bryce-A-Roni: Speaking of wasted summers, if that deadline is approaching, it means the Bryce Harper signing staredown between the Nationals and Scott Boras is finally going to roar to its thrilling conclusion.
Of course, before it can conclude it first has to start. And there have been no signs -- none -- that the Nationals and Boras have even had a meaningful conversation, in two months, about what it would take to get Harper signed.
That will change by this weekend, we're guessing. But all that's been accomplished in the 66 days since Harper got drafted has been Boras sending signals through intermediaries that when it comes time to establish Harper's proper value, he should be compared to Stephen Strasburg ($15.1 million) or even Aroldis Chapman ($30 million) -- not to other 17-year-olds.
The Nationals, obviously, are going to argue otherwise. What some clubs wonder, though, is whether Boras has already "guaranteed" Harper that if the Nationals try to "low-ball" him with an offer in the range of Justin Upton's deal ($6.1 million), there will be more money out there next year if he goes back into the draft.
"It's always been risky to put off signing, and the start of your career, by a year," said an official of one team with an unsigned first-round pick. "But now, with the climate of what's going to happen in collective bargaining in a year, it's never been more risky.
"So my advice to Bryce Harper is, if a team is making him an offer and guaranteeing that offer and putting it in writing, and there's somebody else guaranteeing that 'I'm going to get you more money,' I'd make them guarantee it and make them put it in writing."
OK, so clearly that's not happening. But as we've been writing for months, the likelihood of a slotting system in the 2011 labor deal means this is a dangerous year for any draftee to play the I'll-just-go-back-in-the-draft card.
If the Capp fits: Time to clear up a popular myth out there that was being kicked around by some clubs after the trading deadline:
We heard that tale ourselves last month. But the more we've investigated, the clearer it's become that the Twins told the Mariners they were willing to have Ramos front their package for Lee. The Mariners just preferred the Rangers' and Yankees' offers to what the Twins dangled, because Seattle liked Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero more than Ramos.
The Twins then took the stance they were only going to deal Ramos for a difference-making starter or a closer, and wound up swapping him for Capps. Now Capps remains in their plans for next year, regardless of how Joe Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery goes.
Rob Antony, the Twins' assistant GM, declined to comment on any specifics of the team's pre-deadline trade discussions. But he did tell Rumblings: "One reason we were willing to trade Ramos for Matt is that we had control of Matt next year. He gives us great insurance if Joe is not ready. But if he is, we've got what every team would want -- a great eighth-inning guy and Joe Nathan. Matt gives us the luxury of letting Joe get healthy on his schedule."
Twin peaks: Before we exit Minnesota's portion of this column, let's discuss the future of the Twins' most prominent potential free agents, Jim Thome and Carl Pavano. The club would like to bring both back, but
Pavano, after a big year, figures to be unaffordable for a team that already has $70 million committed next year to just eight players, with eight more arbitration-eligible players who project to hike the payroll beyond $100 million for the first time in franchise history. So if Pavano is looking for a multiyear deal and a raise over his current $7 million salary, that almost certainly wouldn't fit in this team's budget.
Thome, on the other hand, is a lower-ticket item (2010 salary: $1.5M). He's unfurled a .972 OPS (fifth-best in the entire AL) and hit 15 homers in just 195 at-bats. And even though he turns 40 in two weeks, he's saying he'd like to play another year, when his 600th home run would be well within reach.
"We'd certainly have interest in him coming back next year," Antony said. "He's helped a lot of our young players mature and understand how important it is to prepare to play at this level. To watch this guy prepare to play a game, it's like an all-day process for him and he might not even be in the lineup. It's a little tough for a 27-year-old to not want to put in the work when he sees the 40-year-old doing what this guy does."
Blue Jay way: Another team we heard massively second-guessed at the deadline was Toronto, which hung on to all its relief pitchers and to Jose Bautista, after listening to offers for weeks.
The most often-asked question about the Blue Jays went kind of like this: Why did they tell other teams they would rather take the compensation picks for their three prospective free-agent relievers -- Gregg, Scott Downs and Jason Frasor -- when those picks might not play a single minor league game for them before 2012?
So we offered GM Alex Anthopoulos the chance to explain that philosophy. What he told us was that this team, which now employs more scouts than any franchise in either league, believes it can find potential impact, high-ceiling players in the draft. So if it's going to be stuck playing in the AL East -- where it takes 95 wins, minimum, to make the playoffs -- it needs those kinds of players more than it needs inventory.
"Whatever you think the chances are of getting that kind of player in the draft," Anthopoulos said, "we'd rather take that chance on getting an All-Star than making a trade and getting an average to below-average player, even if it's a major league player. At least in the draft, you've got a shot to find those kinds of [star] players."
Other clubs have remained skeptical that the Blue Jays will really offer arbitration to a player like Frasor, in order to guarantee they get those compensation picks if he leaves via free agency. After all, if Frasor, who is making $2.65 million, were to accept arbitration, he could earn more than $3 million to be a setup man next year.
But while Anthopoulos would not discuss Frasor specifically, he said the Blue Jays have no fear of any free agent accepting arbitration.
"[Indians GM] Mark Shapiro said it best," Anthopoulos said. "There's no such thing as a bad one-year deal."
Anthopoulos also said his team was never particularly motivated to trade Bautista, who won't be a free agent until after 2011, because "we're not trying to move our best players."
"A lot of rumors were talked about," the GM said. "But they were all about us subtracting from our team. And when you look at the ages of the players on our team and how well we've played, we're looking to add, not subtract."
But as they proved two weeks ago, they're certainly not looking to make any deal just to say they made one. They're only looking, Anthopoulos said, at how to build a team that can win in the AL East.
"Everything we do," he said, "is geared to: How do we get to 95 wins?"
There he Gose: When the Blue Jays swapped Brett Wallace to Houston for center-field prospect Anthony Gose, it went down in the books as a companion trade to the Roy Oswalt deal. But for the Blue Jays, it actually was the final piece in the Roy Halladay trade.
As far back as nine months ago, when the Phillies and Blue Jays started talking about the Halladay deal, Anthopoulos was relentless in his attempts to get Gose included. But the Phillies drew a hard line, saying they would put Gose or pitcher Kyle Drabek in the trade but not both.
So the Blue Jays wound up taking outfielder Michael Taylor instead. Then they dealt Taylor to Oakland for Wallace. Then, all these months later, they finally got their man, by shipping Wallace to Houston for Gose, in a deal that fell in place because the Astros needed a young first baseman to replace Lance Berkman.
That trade leaves the Blue Jays without a clear-cut first baseman of the future themselves. But they believe there's a shortage of high-ceiling center fielders in the sport and a glut of productive first basemen. So it was a swap they had no second thoughts about making -- especially since they've been trying to make it since before Thanksgiving.
Diamondbacks in the rough: All of a sudden, the Diamondbacks have shown a little life, going 9-4 in their past 13 games. But it's about time, for a talented team that would win many people's Biggest Underachievers of 2010 award.
"They have more than enough talent," said one scout. "They just don't play good baseball. And I don't know if that's going to change with the group of players they have. I'm not sure if they've been around enough good veteran players to understand it's not about tools. It's about playing the game the right way. They just don't seem to have any leadership within the players. They don't seem to have any grasp of playing for a purpose.
"You compare them to the Cardinals. That team finds a way to win with Aaron Miles playing, and Skip Schumaker, and Allen Craig, and Jon Jay. Yeah, they've got a great rotation. But the players they run out there know what they have to do, because it's demanded of them. I've never seen these guys in Arizona play with any demands on them. And that has to change."
Shuffle the Cards: Speaking of the Cardinals, the same scout says he can't believe how few teams back Albert Pujols off the plate.
"It amazes me that Pujols keeps leaning out over the plate, and he's got one hit-by-pitch all year," the scout said. "You've got to move him back, and clubs just don't do that. I'm not sure how much of it has to do with Tony [La Russa] and the intimidation game he plays when somebody knocks down his hitters. I just know you can't pitch to Albert Pujols if he doesn't have to worry about [pitches on] the inner third of the plate."
Tale of the tape: As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago in Rumblings, there continue to be no signs that Bud Selig is seriously contemplating the expansion of instant replay. Not after Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga. And not after Bob Davidson messed up a fair/foul call on what should have been a game-winning double in Florida last week.
The commish keeps saying that there is "little, if any appetite" inside the game for more replay. But all we know is, we have no trouble finding people who couldn't disagree with him more.
A high-ranking official of one team, for instance, was telling us this week there's no reason baseball couldn't handle fair/foul calls almost exactly the way tennis deals with lines calls.
"Of course you could do that," he said. "They just don't want to. Now you've even got Little League Baseball using replay with a challenge system. But we can't do that? It's ridiculous."
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, let's check in with some of America's finest scouting minds.
• On Jeremy Hellickson: "Outstanding changeup. Great deception. Great command. And great presence. If they need him to fill a void in October, that's a lot to put on the shoulders of a young pitcher. But this guy looks like he can do that."
• On Tim Hudson: "He's been as good as any pitcher I've seen this year. He throws strikes. He's so competitive. And he's relentless. He's a legit No. 1 starter who matches up with anybody else's ace."
• On Billy Wagner: "I'm seeing a lot of sliders now, and not a lot of fastballs. And that tells me Billy is a little afraid of his fastball right now. He shouldn't be, but he is."
K Klub Update of the Week
In last week's Rumblings, we asked our amazing readers for help trying to figure out Tim Lincecum's potential place in history if he can lead the league in strikeouts for a third straight season. If he does, it would mean he'd done that in each of his first three full seasons in the big leagues.
So how many other pitchers have ever done that? We got some excellent research from the folks in Reader Land. But nobody outdid loyal reader Joe Boecker, who provided us the complete list. Way to go, Joe.
• Noodles Hahn, 1899 to 1901 (first three seasons)
• Dazzy Vance, 1922 to 1928 (first seven full seasons)
• Lefty Grove, 1925 to 1931 (first seven seasons)
• Dizzy Dean, 1932 to 1935 (first four full seasons)
• Bob Feller, 1938 to 1941 (first four full seasons)
Plus these two:
• Nolan Ryan, 1972 to 1974 (first three years as full-time starter)
• Johan Santana, 2004 to 2006 (first three years as full-time starter)
Quotes of the Week
• From Rays manager/quote machine Joe Maddon, on how large an MRI machine it took to fit the mammoth Jeff Niemann inside: "They used to use it on dinosaurs."
• From Orioles manager, and proud ESPN alum, Buck Showalter on how he was handling the "rigors" of managing: "Have you seen the rigors at ESPN at 3 a.m. when a guy blows a save on the West Coast and you have to stick around for another two hours? And then try to go through the Taco Bell with John Kruk. That ain't fun."
• From Rays first baseman Dan Johnson (to the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin), on Alex Rodriguez's 600th homer: "Even if you include all the video games I've played in my life, I don't think I've hit 600."
Tweet of the Week
From yet another Late Show tweeting genius, Paul Masella (@PaulMasella), on A-Rod's big homer: "A-Rod finally hits his 600th homerun. About time! I'm so sick of hearing about this already. Any updates on Brett Favre?"
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this just in from the always-entertaining Philadelphia parody site, PhillyGameDay.com:
STUDY FINDS PHILLIES FANS LESS LIKELY TO 'BOO' AFTER WIN
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Getting to the postseason may be the biggest challenge for a few of the best rotations in the majors.