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Five cuts

Sweet relief, Manny's antics, darkhorse ALCS MVP

Posted: Wednesday October 17, 2007 7:21PM; Updated: Thursday October 18, 2007 2:58PM
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Indians setup man Rafael Betancourt has thrown 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the  ALCS.
Indians setup man Rafael Betancourt has thrown 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the ALCS.
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Taking my cuts . . .

1. Any baseball executive can identify middle-of-the-order hitters, front-of-the-rotation starting pitchers and good closers. What makes or breaks team-building in baseball these days is the ability of a front office and coaching staff to hit on relief pitching, the most fungible element in today's game.

Check out the NL champion Rockies and the Indians, the team that is one win away from joining Colorado in the World Series. Of the 12 relievers for both teams, only one was selected in the First-Year Player Draft (third-round pick Jensen Lewis of Cleveland). The rest? Flat-out bargains that panned out. The others include four journeyman free agents (Matt Herges, LaTroy Hawkins, Joe Borowski and Aaron Fultz), three undrafted amateur free agents (Manny Corpas, Ryan Speier, Rafael Perez), three pitchers acquired in low-level trades (Brian Fuentes, Jeremy Affeldt, Tom Mastny) and one released player signed as a free agent (Rafael Betancourt).

Bullpen turnover and variance are to be expected. Cleveland's postseason bullpen, for instance, includes none of the four most-used relievers from their pen last year: Bob Wickman, Fernando Cabrera, Jason Davis and Guillermo Mota. But you know what? There are no guarantees this bullpen will be any good next year. Look at the Tigers. The bullpen that carried them to the 2006 World Series ranked second in the league with a 3.51 ERA. This year? The Detroit 'pen sunk to 11th in the league at 4.37.

2. Does Manny Ramirez's goofball personality give him a free pass for showing up the other team or saying it's no big deal if the Red Sox lose? The Indians weren't happy to see Ramirez's over-the-top styling on his sixth inning home run in ALCS Game 4 -- the bat flip, the raised arms, the staredown, the slow walk ... it was a Dane Cook parody of a walkoff homer celebration. One problem: Manny didn't get the memo that his team was getting trounced at the time, 7-3. The Indians shouted at him from the dugout to run the bases.

"I wasn't trying to show up someone," Ramirez said. "If someone strikes me out and wants to show me up, go ahead. I like that."

Now Ramirez might have Red Sox fans mad at him. Breaking his usual silence with the media, Ramirez told a horde of reporters around his locker that he won't despair if the Red Sox get knocked out. His comment was made while answering questions about the pressure on Boston to come back from a three games to one deficit, and Ramirez was trying to convey a kick-back attitude to treat every game the same.

"We've got nothing to lose. Just play the game," Ramirez said. "Why panic? If we don't do it, we'll come back next year ... There's always next year. Who cares? It's not like the end of the world."

That should play well in Boston.

3. The darkhorse ALCS MVP candidate is Betancourt, who has pitched in all three Cleveland wins without allowing a run while holding the Red Sox to a .059 batting average (1-for-17). He won the biggest at-bat of the series, his all-fastball, 11-pitch war with Kevin Youkilis in the ninth inning of Game 2 with the winning run at second base. Betancourt is an amazing survival story. He failed as a minor-league infielder with the Red Sox (.195), converted to pitcher, pitched hurt for three years before finally getting metal screws to hold his elbow together (they're still in there), pitched in Japan in 2000, was out of baseball at home in Venezuela in 2002 but in the big leagues with Cleveland the very next year, flunked a steroids test in 2005, and in 2007 posted the third-lowest WHIP in baseball history among all pitchers who ever threw 75 innings in a season.

Said Betancourt, who has insisted that steroids did not cause his positive test, "I'm proving to a lot of people I don't need to put that stuff in my body."

4. It didn't generate much attention, but that two-year, $13 million contract the Cardinals gave Joel Piniero was a sign that owners are going to spend ridiculous sums of money on pitching this winter -- and they won't be deterred by the lack of good pitching, either. Piniero threw less than 100 innings with basically a league average ERA last season. I can't even imagine what the Kyle Lohses and Carlos Silvas are going to get. But it's another reminder just how awash with money is baseball.

5. No, Indians second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera is not named for the Carthaginian general who was a brother of Hannibal. Indeed, Cabrera said he had never heard of the old general, who was killed in battle, beheaded, packed in a sack and dumped off in his brother's camp. (And you thought the Cubs' elimination was rough.) Cabrera said he is named after his father, who has the same first name, but isn't sure where the elder Asdrubal got his name.

"It's not common," Cabrera said. "In my city [Puerto LaCruz, Venezuela] there are only two people named Asdrubal: my dad and me."

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