Playoff Teams Get Boost From Midseason Makeovers
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NEW YORK (AP) — Bengie Molina hits a go-ahead homer to put Texas in charge of the AL championship series.
Cody Ross comes through with another clutch hit for the Giants.
Kerry Wood sets up a Yankees save.
Everywhere you turn in these playoffs, late pickups and midseason acquisitions are playing important roles on the field. And there’s more to it than just Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the star pitchers who were traded with such fanfare in July.
“You like to think on paper in spring training you’ve got what it takes and there’s not many changes,” said former Atlanta ace John Smoltz, now broadcasting games on TBS. “But history will show there’s always something you can do and certain moves you can make that will help you get to the next level.”
Take a look at the final four teams in this postseason. Each of them made at least one notable addition this summer, and many of those players have grabbed the spotlight this fall.
Besides landing Lee, the October ace who came over from last-place Seattle, the Rangers obtained Molina, Jorge Cantu and Jeff Francoeur between July 1 and Aug. 31. All that despite economic constraints and the comfortable cushion Texas had opened in the AL West.
“We are not expecting those guys to come in here and put us on their shoulder. We just expect them to come in here and fit in and be the baseball players that they are,” manager Ron Washington said this week. “They fit in perfectly.”
Cantu hasn’t hit much, but the strong-armed Francoeur starts in right field against left-handed pitching and brings a positive influence to the clubhouse, Washington said.
Molina, slow-footed but steady, filled a hole at catcher when Texas shipped reliever Chris Ray and a minor leaguer to San Francisco. Molina arrived with plenty of postseason experience from his days with the Angels, and is batting a team-best .385 with two homers and seven RBIs in the playoffs. His three-run homer off A.J. Burnett on Tuesday gave Texas a 3-1 series lead.
After losing Wednesday, the Rangers headed home still needing one win for the first World Series berth in the franchise’s 50-season history.
“I’m so thankful for the organization to take the time to go out and get a guy like that, because he has tightened things down quite a bit and it’s mainly because of his experience,” Washington said. “He’s been there, he’s done that.”
By unloading Molina, the Giants made room behind the plate for impressive rookie Buster Posey. And while under-the-radar moves for Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez fortified the bullpen, it is Ross’ bat that is winning hearts in San Francisco.
Picked up Aug. 22 on a waiver claim from Florida, Ross had a .433 on-base percentage with four home runs and seven RBIs through eight playoff games. He’s provided much-needed pop in a flawed lineup, spurring the Giants toward an NL pennant.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in New Mexico dreaming of becoming a rodeo clown.
“It’s just been an unbelievable experience for me so far,” Ross said. “The Giants were awesome to bring me over here and it’s just been a great ride.”
While guys like Ross and Francoeur were practically plucked off the scrap heap, big-name players usually come at a cost when teams try to gear up for the stretch run.
The Phillies had to give up pitcher J.A. Happ and two young prospects to get Oswalt from Houston. Texas parted with rookie first baseman Justin Smoak and three minor leaguers to beat out the Yankees for Lee, also a star in last year’s postseason after a trade from Cleveland.
That’s why midseason moves can create such a conundrum for general managers of contending teams. Is this the right year to go all-in with a three-month rental? How much salary can we add? Will new blood hurt the chemistry in a winning clubhouse?
“It’s a challenge,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels said. “They’re teammates, they’re friends, they basically spend every day together for seven months. I think you can’t underestimate the human element. Things like that are a reminder it’s a business.”
Sometimes, a harsh reminder for players.
“It’s the worst time of the year and the best time of the year wrapped in one,” said Smoltz, who pitched for Braves teams that won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005. “You’re saying goodbye to a friend and meeting a new one.”
Once fresh faces arrive, managers must figure out the best way to utilize them — without the benefit of spring training.
“The biggest challenge,” Yankees skipper Joe Girardi said, “is getting to know that player as quickly as possible.”
But the right swap in the middle of a season can help deliver a championship. Think back to Lou Brock (1964), David Cone (1992), David Justice (2000) and Orlando Cabrera (2004).
“It’s like a shot in the arm,” Smoltz said. “It’s like getting a present.”
Still, the 1996 NL Cy Young winner thinks the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline comes too late in the season, giving high-revenue teams a second chance to procure talent.
The Yankees were able to add Wood and switch-hitter Lance Berkman at the trade deadline in large part because their rebuilding teams were looking to trim payroll.
Wood has blossomed again in the New York bullpen as a setup man for Mariano Rivera. Berkman has supplied big hits this postseason — and the DH even became a starter at first base after All-Star slugger Mark Teixeira went down with a hamstring injury in Game 4 of the ALCS.
“Most of these guys that are coming from other teams are getting get-out-of-jail-free cards. So they’re excited,” Smoltz said. “I just think the lateness of it provides too many outs for teams that have the wherewithal and capability to just snatch this guy, that guy, that guy.”
Years ago, the trade deadline was in mid-June. Smoltz would like to see it moved up again.
“I just think some teams have to do their homework, have to make their (draft) picks count, where other teams don’t,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.