Looking Ahead to Interesting AL Postseason Roster Decisions

Collin McHugh is one of multiple Astros starters whose role will likely change in the postseason.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

With still roughly two weeks left in the regular season, the divisional races across the major leagues have sputtered and nearly died. Three divisions have already been clinched. The Los Angeles Dodgers have already guaranteed themselves a playoff berth and should secure the National League West in short order. Beyond the Wild Card races, then, the NL Central and AL East remain the only hope for meaningful baseball over the season’s closing weeks. The Cubs have a four-game lead in the former and 96.6% odds of taking the division. The Red Sox, meanwhile, possess a three-game lead in the latter and 89.6% odds.

The Cubs have four games this week with the Brewers in Milwaukee. That series has a chance to facilitate some of the season’s most consequential games, provided Milwaukee can remain within striking distance of Chicago in the meantime. As for the Red Sox, though, don’t play the second-place Yankees again, which will make it tougher for the latter club to make up ground.

The bright side of having these races more or less decided is that we can start to look at the potential rosters for the League Division Series a little sooner. I’ll begin today with the American League. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll proceed by the odds and regard the Red Sox as the presumptive winners of the East. If that turns out not to be the case, feel free to come back here in October and squawk at me.

For my purposes here, I’m mostly concerned with the questions that each roster may or may not have. To that end, I started by looking at how many players have started games in the field over the past seven days and how many pitchers have recorded an appearance over that same span of time.

Starts in Field, Pitchers Pitched, 9/11-9/17
Pos 16 13 14 13 16 15
SP 6 5 6 5 5 5
RP 11 8 11 12 9 11
Total 33 26 31 30 30 31

As you can see, of the game’s six likely division winners, five have utilized 30 or more players in the last week. That’s a luxury of September roster expansion and likely represents an effort to get rest for regular players. Nevertheless, there will be some painful roster trimming in store, no doubt. Let’s take a look at some of those areas.

Houston’s Pitching Staff

This is one of the most fascinating areas to me. With Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel fronting the rotation, the Astros are a formidable team. And if Lance McCullers can get right by October, the club will enter the postseason with a dominant front three. Even if McCullers moves to the bullpen, however — as has been bandied about — Houston still have some decisions to make. Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock have been solid starters this year, and Collin McHugh has pitched well of late, running a 1.83 ERA over his four most recent starts. McHugh is also the longest-tenured starter on the team after Keuchel. Over the past three calendar years, McHugh has started 75 games for Houston, whereas Peacock and Morton have combined for just 50. Should that really matter moving forward? No, but loyalty is a real thing.

On the other hand, here’s a potentially revealing comment from the Astros’ manager in the Houston Chronicle piece to which I’ve linked above:

Referring to the division of labor between starters and relievers in the postseason as a crapshoot, Hinch said of McCullers, “We want him to get healthy first before worrying about when he would pitch.”

Hinch’s characterization of pitcher roles in the postseason as a “crapshoot” is suggestive. Could the Astros really do away with the standard notion of starters and relievers this October? I doubt they’ll play around too much with Verlander and Keuchel, but perhaps we should think about tandem lineups in the other games. Between Peacock, Morton, McCullers, McHugh, Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, and Francisco Liriano, Houston has plenty of multi-inning pitchers from which to choose if they want to go down that road.

The only issue with that is it only leaves three to four slots for “normal” relief pitchers on the roster. Maybe that’s fine, though even there you’d feel a crunch. Michael Feliz, Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, James Hoyt, Francis Martes, and Tony Sipp all have a legit claim to a postseason roster spot. Obviously, that’s more than three or four names.

Houston will be dangerous either way, but it’s fascinating that they have enough flexibility to choose which way they want to be dangerous: do they want to push a few starters to multi-inning bullpen roles or operate more traditionally? I can’t wait to find out.

Boston’s Bench

Red Sox manager John Farrell is still playing Brock Holt. If you haven’t followed the Red Sox this season, that might not seem so odd. After all, Holt was an All-Star in 2015 and a solid two-win player in 2014 and 2015. Since the start of the 2016 season, however, Holt has been worth -0.7 WAR. This season, he’s produced a -1.0 WAR. Of the 428 position players in baseball who have accumulated at least 100 plate appearances this season, only seven have been worth less than Holt. One is former Red Sox infielder Pablo Sandoval. Of these same 428 players, only seven have been worse hitters than Holt by wRC+. Holt has four extra-base hits this season. All four were doubles. Farrell defended Holt on Sunday, pointing to Holt’s increased walk rate. Left unmentioned was how Holt’s strikeout rate has also risen to a career-high 22.1%.

It’s very difficult to justify playing a hitter with no power who strikes out a lot even when no good alternatives exist. The frustrating thing for Red Sox fans is that, in Tzu-Wei Lin, the team might have one. Certainly, in their time in the majors this season, Lin has been better overall.

Brock Holt vs. Tzu-Wei Lin
Player PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Tzu-Wei Lin 64 12.5% 25.0% 0.273 0.365 0.345 0.318 93 0.1 -0.5 2.6 0.4
Brock Holt 140 12.1% 22.1% 0.175 0.286 0.208 0.236 37 -1.6 -12.6 -2.0 -1.0

Does this make Lin worthy of a spot on the playoff bench? It’s hard to say with any authority. What I can say with some authority is that Holt doesn’t deserve one. Despite that, Holt has started the last four games, and five of the last seven. In the past, Holt’s main virtue has been his versatility. That remains true this year: he’s started at five defensive positions this season. But the only position at which he possesses a positive UZR this season is in left field. Come the playoffs, he’d be very unlikely to start over Andrew Benintendi in left. Farrell has a bit of a balancing act to maintain in terms of prepping for the postseason and securing a playoff spot, and that makes it difficult for him to give Sam Travis or Blake Swihart time and let Mitch Moreland and Sandy Leon have a breather. But Holt is already playing so poorly — he’s hit .158/.333/.211 in September, in case you’re curious — that there is no downside to playing Lin and seeing if he’s capable of filling that utility role on the Red Sox bench.

This may seem like a small thing, but the Red Sox are going to be hard-pressed to beat either Cleveland or Houston, so they it’s essential that they choose their best 25 guys. Another player with an uncertain postseason role is Chris Young. For the longest time, Young has mashed left-handed pitching. Last season, for example, he posted a 166 wRC+ against lefties. The year before, it was 162. This year, it’s 54. In the second half, Young has posted just a 30 wRC+ against lefties. Given that his main on-field utility is as an outfielder who can hit lefties well enough to give Jackie Bradley Jr. and Benintendi the occasional break, you have to wonder if he deserves a spot on the playoff roster, as well.

There’s also the question of what to do with Hanley Ramirez. He’s dealing with biceps soreness and has missed time recently. It seems likely that he’s been banged up for awhile. Looking holistically, you’d say the position-player roster has 10 definites. Going around the diamond, those 10 players are Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, Mitch Moreland, Dustin Pedroia, Eduardo Nunez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts. From there, the team will have three or four roster spots (depending on if they carry 11 or 12 pitchers) for Holt, Young, Ramirez, Rajai Davis, Travis, Lin, Swihart or Deven Marrero. Surely, you can see the issue. If the Red Sox carry only 13 position players, they have just four bench spots — Leon/Vazquez and three of the eight players on this second list. If those three are Holt, Ramirez, and Young, the Red Sox are basically without any effective bench players, because none of those three is in anywhere close to peak form.

If you’re a Red Sox fan of a certain age, you might remember Mariano Rivera striking out a hapless Damon Buford (he of the 65 wRC+ that season) to close out Game 2 of the 1999 American League Championship Series. The Sox were down by a run and had runners on first and third. Surely there was some more equipped to hit in this spot than Damon Buford, right? Unfortunately there wasn’t, as the bench had been emptied. There was no one left but him, and he posed little threat to history’s greatest closer. This postseason, it could be Holt hitting in that situation instead of someone like Lin, Davis or Travis, but it doesn’t have to be.

Cleveland’s Outfield

Cleveland has quite the outfield logjam. In the past five games, they’ve started five different center fielders; in all, eight different players have started in the outfield in the past seven days. And that’s with Jay Bruce starting every game in right field and without having accounted for Michael Brantley and Bradley Zimmer, both of whom may miss the rest of the season.

Leaving them out of the picture for a second, you’d have to think that Lonnie Chisenhall, Austin Jackson, and Bruce have separated themselves from the pack, and that Jason Kipnis has a spot on the roster, which probably leaves one spot for Greg Allen, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, or Tyler Naquin. Maybe two, if Cleveland only wants to carry one of Yandy Diaz and Giovanny Urshela. That seems unlikely, given that Diaz has been a fixture for the team recently and Urshela has shown the ability to handle shortstop. Then again, they could choose to carry Francisco Mejia. That seems unlikely — he’s only garnered 11 plate appearances so far — but with the win streak over and the division locked up, perhaps manager Terry Francona will ramp up his playing time in the last couple of weeks.

There are further roster machinations that we could address — and that’s only the American League. Jake Arrieta and Bryce Harper still need to be accounted for, and the Dodgers need to decide if Adrian Gonzalez deserves a roster spot and who is going to be in their postseason rotation. We’ll tackle those questions on a different day.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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4 years ago

Nobody that’s watched the Astros play baseball this season wants to see Tony Sipp or Michael Feliz throw a single postseason pitch. I think the Astros’ decisions on who to carry are going to be pretty simple, and they are going to have a whole bunch of ‘starting’ pitchers coming out of the bullpen, who spent whole seasons in the minor leagues preparing for a such a role.

4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Swydan

Certainly possible that they have a player (or two) start the last week of the season and not make the playoff roster. Interesting is the right word.