Stretch drive will put young studs to the test
Fatigue can be a concern regarding rookies playing through September for first time
One of the things you have to love about Major League Baseball today is the youth brigade that has swept the sport. With more natural aging curves for veterans and the decidedly picked-up pace of prospect promotion, a new generation of young stars has emerged. This was especially apparent at the All-Star Game, where a dozen players 24 or younger were on the rosters.
But when it comes to the pennant chase, youth can have both advantages and disadvantages.
The truth, really, is that it's hard to know for certain how well a young stud enjoying his first full big league season will hold up in the September stretch run. And for several contenders, this is a brewing development worth watching in the coming weeks.
No, we don't have any situations quite as captivating as the famed Stephen Strasburg shutdown of a year ago, but for such guys as Pittsburgh's Gerrit's Cole or St. Louis' Shelby Miller, some interest in innings counts does apply. And whether it's a rookie pitcher or a position player such as Tampa Bay's Wil Myers, what's ahead will be a test of both physical and mental fortitude.
"With young players, you normally have to watch fatigue come around September," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "because that extra month is something they're not used to."
Leyland doesn't think that will be the case with the recently acquired Jose Iglesias, who, at 23 and in his first full season, is entrusted with the job of Tigers' starting shortstop in place of the suspended Jhonny Peralta. Iglesias, after all, has a ton of energy, and energy, especially here in the so-called "dog days," is a good thing.
Iglesias, though, isn't being tasked with taking on a high-profile role in his lineup, as Myers is. It is a testament to Myers' raw talent that he began consistently batting in the Rays' cleanup spot about a month into his Major League career and quickly become a big component of their production as they try to win the American League East. Yet he's only 22 and, save for a 2011 stint in the Arizona Fall League, has never played a professional game later than Sept. 11.
With Luke Scott now on the disabled list with back spasms, Rays manager Joe Maddon is using the DH spot to occasionally give Myers' legs a break from the field.
"These young guys that have not really played meaningful September baseball, and even more meaningful October baseball, they get tired, man," Maddon said. "People say, 'He's young.' But they have no idea. A lot of it has to do with the mental and emotional component of it."
Mentally, Myers will be working off a base of calm and confidence that the Rays find encouraging.
"There's that subgroup that comes with all of that attached, the combination of skill and that makeup," Maddon said. "They know they belong here. They can do this. There's no doubt in their mind."
Bryce Harper certainly fit that particular profile last season, when his September surge (.330 average, 1.043 OPS) was a big reason the Nats polished off the best record in the game. Likewise, Manny Machado's first September was successful enough to help propel the O's to the second AL Wild Card berth.
Myers and Yasiel Puig certainly seem ripe to follow suit. Puig is in the middle of his first stateside season, but his body is accustomed to the idea of year-round play, Even so, manager Don Mattingly will have to be judicious about giving the National League Rookie of the Year favorite an extra day off here or there.
With pitchers the rest rubric is much more mathematical. As was the case with Strasburg a year ago, we'll see some enforced innings limits that will put a premature halt to the superb seasons of a couple of aces-in-training in New York's Matt Harvey and Miami's Jose Fernandez, but the Mets and Marlins are well out of the playoff chase.
What remains to be seen is how a few contending clubs dole out the innings at a time when teams often shy away from putting a 20-percent workload increase from year to year on a young arm.
Cole presents an interesting predicament for the Pirates. The pure power of his stuff might be an October weapon, but he's already venturing into innings territory he has never encountered.
The Pirates took the precaution of skipping Cole, who has filled in admirably for the injured Wandy Rodriguez, in the last turn through the rotation, so he made Friday's start against the D-backs on eight days' rest and fared well. That proactive approach should serve to benefit the Buccos in the stretch run, and the 20 innings Cole tossed in the instructional league last fall helps, too. But the Pirates will continue to watch not only the workload but the effort level it takes Cole to retire big league batters.
The Pirates' division rivals, the Cardinals and Reds, are in a similar spot with Miller and Tony Cingrani, respectively. Miller was given extra rest around the All-Star break and also had a start earlier this month cut short when he was hit by a line drive. So although he will undoubtedly exceed the 150 innings he pitched between Memphis and St. Louis last year, he'll probably land somewhere in the safe neighborhood of 175 at season's end. The question then, of course, will be how much the Cards choose to push him in the postseason, if they're still alive.
Cingrani spent a chunk of this season in the bullpen, so he, too, seems safe, from the innings perspective. Still, his innings, much to manager Dusty Baker's chagrin, have been a growing topic given how important he's been to a Reds team that has been without ace Johnny Cueto for much of the year.
"How you going to rest [Cingrani] during the pennant race?" Baker said. "Who do you have to take his place? Everybody talks about rest, but then everybody talks about winning at the same time. They don't match."
That's one of many reasons why the Braves' place in the standings is so beneficial. With the NL East in hand, they'll be able to ease off Julio Teheran, who has been a boon to their rotation, in the September stretch so that he's strong for his first taste of October.
Not every club has that luxury, of course, and that's part of the intrigue of these final weeks. For several young players, this will be the first taste of what it means to handle the grind of 162, and the playoff possibility provides plenty of incentive to handle it well.