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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bold Predictions - September 1

Seven out eight of my preseason playoff selections are very much alive, with only my darkhorse Giants long gone from contention. However, my World Series picks, the Tigers and Dodgers, have shown signs of fading recently. Both are still well within the range, but must have excellent final months. The Tigers made a move on the Yankees over the weekend, taking 3 out of 4 from the Yankees, including a 16-0 drubbing on Monday, but the undid much of their progress by losing the first two games against Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Indians have run off a five game winning streak, going 4.5 games up, the biggest separation they've enjoyed since June 1. The Tribe has invigorated itself with the additions of Kenny Lofton, Aaron Laffey, and Asdrubal Cabrera in recent weeks. The Tigers countered with the returns of Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Andrew Miller, but unfortunately lost Gary Sheffield and Kenny Rogers simultaneously. At the beginning of the year, I argued Detroit's eventual championship on the grounds of their depth and ability to compensate for injury. That theory is being tested. Ryan Raburn (900 OPS in 96 AB), Marcus Thames (15 HR, 779 OPS in 219 AB), Bobby Seay (2.49 ERA, 9 Holds in 49 G), and Zach Miner (3.65 ERA, 8 Holds in 25 G) have stepped up as Zumaya, Rodney, Miller, Rogers, and Sheffield have all spent time on the DL. Jim Leyland is hoping the Cameron Maybin experiment will also reap fruit. They could use some production from left field while Sheffield is on the DL, Thames is at DH, and Craig Monroe is playing for Chicago.

The good news for the Tigers is that the schedule works to their advantage. Detroit has only six games left with teams who are in contention, 3 with Seattle and 3 with Cleveland. That means throughout September they will face many teams who are testing young players and thinking about 2008. Not that teams like the White Sox (6), Twins (6), and Royals (4) wouldn't love to play spoilers. Detroit has a ten game homestand in the middle of the month, during which they need to improve upon their 34-31 home record in 2007.

The other AL contenders, on the other hand, are not quite so lucky. The Yankees have four games left against rival Boston and three against Seattle. Cleveland has 12 games left against Detroit (3), Seattle (5), and Los Angeles (4). The Mariners have 15 meetings with the Indians (5), Detroit (3), Los Angeles (4), and New York (3).

Largely because of the scheduling advantage, I think Detroit can catch the current Wild-Card leaders, even if that can't catch the Indians. Cleveland, despite their schedule seems to be in pretty good shape because, along with their potent lineup, which the Mariners and Yankees can match, they have great depth in starting pitching, with Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller among those awaiting September call-ups, while Seattle and New York (with the recent promotion of Ian Kennedy) have already raided the farm. Although New York certainly scares me and Seattle has impressed me, I'm going to stick with the AL pennant contenders I foresaw in March, except that Detroit is now my Wild Card prediction. It'll look like this:

Detroit (WC) v. Boston
Los Angeles v. Cleveland

In the National League, the playoff picture is a lot more complex. Ten teams are still in legitimate competition, with none of the divisions decided with any certainty. With all the races this close, very few games will be meaningless, for either team involved, which is what Bud had in mind when he started talking about "parity" a few years back.

Here's a breakdown of the schedule strengths:

16/28 @ Home
16/28 v. Contenders

New York




St. Louis



Los Angeles

San Diego

How do you make any sense of these numbers? Well, only a few things stand out. Most teams have about half home and half road games left, with a few exceptions. The Phillies and Dodgers are going to be spending much of September in hotel rooms. Los Angeles has been pretty consistent; that is, not too great at home or on the road. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is only 32-33 away from their personalized launching pad. They've come on strong of late, making up 4 games in...well...4 games. They need to ride that momentum on the road.

Los Angeles is also the team with the most games left against contending teams. That, along with their busy travel schedule would suggest that they are a long shot, with 3.5 games to make up in both the NL West and the Wild Card race. The optimistic view is that they will have ample opportunities to make up ground and they are getting hot at the right time, winning 5 in a row and 11 of their last 15.

Arizona is a young team, likely playing over their heads. They've been outscored by almost forty runs over the course of the season. The Phillies are scary, but only if Cole Hamels comes back as their bonafide Ace. Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse, and Kyle Kendrick are believable at the back end of the rotation on a team that scores a lot of runs, but none of them are going to intimidate anybody. If Hamels makes five starts in September, the Phillies take the Wild Card. If not, it's gotta be the Dodgers.

St. Louis will have ample opportunities to catch their NL Central rivals, with three games left against Milwaukee, and five!, including four in three days at home, left versus the division-leading Cubs. But bad news continues to plague the reigning champs, as they lost two middle of the order hitters, Juan Encarnacion and Scott Rolen, to season-ending injuries this week. Encarnacion may be replaceable if Ankiel continues to play well, but the Redbirds are going to be stuck with some combination of Brendan Ryan, Russell Branyan, and anonymous September call-ups from here on out (as if Brendan Ryan weren't anonymous enough).

Here's how I see things heading into the postseason,

Chicago v. San Diego
Los Angeles v. New York

Why is my team spending $5,000,000 on a middle reliever? (Part 1)

Regardless of your loyalties, if you're even a moderate baseball fan, at least once this year you've scratched your head while looking at the abysmal line of the Chicago White Sox in the morning's box scores. Last year the White Sox had the sixth best record in baseball, with 90 wins, even though they finished third in the AL Central and missed the playoffs. And, of course, the year before that they won the World Series. This year they are worse than the Royals...and the Rangers. Must've been a fire sale along the way somewhere, right? A Marlin-style, post-World Championship roster deconstruction? No, actually. They replaced Carl Everett with Jim Thome. They replaced Orlando Hernandez with Javier Vazquez. Both would seem to be upgrades. They did trade Freddy Garcia and Aaron Rowand to the Phillies without finding adequate replacements. John Danks has been O.K., better than Garcia in 2007. Center field has essentially been a black hole - the space where Chris Young should've been. But plenty of competitive lineups have holes (Detroit: Left Field, Cleveland: Third Base, etc.).

The real difference between 2005 and 2007 for the White Sox, besides improved competition from the rest of their division, is in the bullpen. Bobby Jenks remains, as dominant as ever at the back end, but between him and the very adequate starting rotation: nothing. In 2005 the White Sox had Dustin Hermanson, who began the season as a setup man for Shingo Takatsu, and converted 34 saves in 39 chances with a 2.04 ERA before losing his job to Shrek just before the playoffs. Neal Cotts (1.94), Cliff Politte (2.00), Damso Marte (3.73), and Luis Vizcaino (3.77) all made between 65 and 70 appearances. The Sox had half-a-dozen significant contributors out of the bullpen in their championship season - not including Takatsu, who logged 8 saves and 3 holds before being demoted and eventually let go. In 2006, the palehose 'pen was not nearly so dominant, but they still had some favorable performances. Politte (8.70) and Cotts (5.17) saw their ERAs sky-rocket, but still combined for 100 appearances. Their positions as reliable lefty-righty setup men were taken over by Mike MacDougal (1.80) and Matt Thorton (3.33). David Riske (3.93) gave them some quality innings and Brandon MacCarthy (4.68) was a workhorse with a team high in relief innings, as well as a couple of spot starts. In 2006, seven White Sox appeared 25 or more times. In 2007, the same thing can bet said, but none of those seven White Sox relievers (besides Jenks) with twenty or more games has an ERA under 4.35, and only two have kept themselves below 5.00. Nobody (again, besides Jenks) has logged fifty innings yet. The argument I appear to be making, circumspectly, is that more than their vaunted five-man rotation and Ozzie-ball offense, it was the bullpen that got the White Sox to the postseason in '05.

I will continue to argue that depth is the single most important factor in surviving the 162 game grind. Part of that depth should be in relief pitching. When you look at teams who are drastically underachieving or overachieving you'll usually find a correlation in the bullpen. Take, for instance, those pesky Kansas City Royals who recently moved in front of the Sox in the AL Central. Kansas City doesn't have a hitter with more than 16 HR or 52 RBI. No regular has an OPS over 800. Although Gil Meche (3.85) and Brian Bannister (3.27) have been a pretty good 1-2 punch in the rotation, Bannister is the only piece of the starting core with a winning record. The Royals are getting better, undoubtedly, but they still don't have whole lot to work with in the everyday lineup. What Kansas City does have is four relievers who have made more than fifty appearances already in 2007, none of which have an ERA higher than 3.87. That doesn't even include Octavio Dotel, who logged 11 saves for the Royals before getting traded to the Braves, or Zach Greinke, who between starting assignments pitched 53 relief innings, recording 55 strikeouts, and a 3.54 ERA. Even journeyman Brandon Duckworth has found his Kansas City swing, grabbing two wins, a save, and a 2.94 ERA in thirtysome innings between the bullpen and the rotation. All told, the Royals have nine pitchers with primarily relief innings who have ERAs lower than any of the members (non-Jenks) of the White Sox bullpen. Kansas City's starters aren't going to scare anybody, but when they hand the ball over with a lead, their teammates get it done. That's how Jorge de la Rosa and Odalis Perez each have 8 wins despite their 5.50+ ERAs.

So reliable bullpen arms are valuable, the trouble is identifying them. After all, keeping with the White Sox analysis, Cliff Politte, Neal Cotts, Shingo Takatsu, and Mike MacDougal all saw their ERAs rise by more than three runs from one year to the next. There have been some disastrous or near disastrous contracts given to middle relievers in recent years: Latroy Hawkins (3 years/$12 M), Danys Baez (3 years/$19 M), Steve Karsay (4 years/$21 M). But there have also been some guys probably worth well more than they get paid: Bobby Howry (3 years/$12 M), David Riske (1 year/$2 M), Mike Timlin (1 year/$3 M). How do you know which is which? I've got some ideas.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Premature Obituary

Much has been made of D-Lee's troubling season-long power outage. Even the precocious Steve Stone, baseball analyst extraordinaire, has been claiming the Derrek Lee is no longer an elite first baseman. And while it may be true that Lee has had a couple of long slumps in 2007 - most notably an 8-for-42 with no homers slide from late June to mid-July - and only hit half a dozen long balls prior to the All-Star break, nobody seems to have noticed that pre-wrist injury Derrek Lee has been alive and well in recent weeks. His 420-ft. inside-the-parker yesterday afternoon gives him 9 HR and 23 RBI since July 15. There have been better NL one-baggers during that stretch. Namely, Prince Fielder, Prince Albert, and Ryan Howard. Pretty elite company. For the season, despite his slump, he's 11th in the NL in batting average, 9th in on-base percentage, and 19th in OPS. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, regardless of how he is hitting, he saves runs with his immense athletic frame protecting the first base line and saving the hides of an otherwise thoroughly mediocre infield defense in Chicago. Sure, this season D-Lee won't be receiving many MVP votes, which is a surprise, but his decline has been thoroughly exaggerated, much as fellow golden-gloved RBI-machine, Mark Texeira's, was when he hit only nine homers in the first half last year. He's hit 47 since he started hearing the term "overrated," and if he continues the tear he's been on since getting traded to Atlanta, he'll get his share of MVP consideration in 2007. If elite means Fielder, Pujols, and Howard (a.k.a the last three NL MVPs, assuming Fielder holds on this season), than maybe Lee's not elite, but I wouldn't bet against him being elite by the end of '08.

Four Quartets

Cliff Floyd has come back from bereavement swinging a hot bat. Daryle Ward is healthy again, and proving to be a very hard out. And Jim Hendry performed some late-season general managing magic by procuring Craig Monroe, a powerful right-handed bat with pretty good defensive tools, to spell the popular slugger. Monroe hit five dingers in 50 postseason at-bats in 2006. Hopefully, he will murder left-handed pitching. While all of these are great developments for the Cubs as they face the home stretch, their fate lies squarely in the hands of fifteen key players. They don't have a Yankee-sized lineup or a Red Sox rotation, but in the NL Central, they have enough. If these four quartets gel, they could go deep into the postseason.

The Tenors: Jacque Jones - CF, Derrek Lee - 1B, Aramis Ramirez - 3B, Alfonso Soriano - LF

The Cubs middle-of-the-order sluggers averaged 30 HR apiece last year, even though Derrek Lee missed most of the season with a broken wrist. In 2005, they averaged 34 HR apiece. So far this season, none of them has hit more than 18 and with only 4 from Jones, they are on pace to average only 17 apiece. All of them have spent time on the DL in 2007. But regardless of lost time, there can't be any disputing that it is a troubling power outage. Nonetheless, the Cubs have remained in the pennant chase in the thoroughly mediocre NL Central. If these four get healthy and hot in the season's final month, they could catch a lot of teams by surprise. Jones seems to have already figured out what was ailing him during his awful first half. Since July 1, Jones is hitting .362 with a 962 OPS. (Literally, as I write this, Jones bashes a two-run blast into the wind to put the Cubs ahead of the Cardinals 2-1.) Lee found his power stroke in the second half. He's hit seven of his thirteen homers since the All-Star Break. However, his average has only been .260, thanks primarily to a .174 stretch during his last dozen games. Pitchers have been pounding the outside corner and for some reason D-Lee has been reluctant to go the other way. Lee is not likely to suffer a prolonged slump, but he and Ramirez need to be productive until Soriano returns in September. This quartet is not Jeter, Abreu, A-Rod, and Matsui. It isn't Granderson, Sheffield, Magglio, and Guillen. It isn't Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Delgado. But it is the best foursome in competition for the NL Central title. The Brewers have Braun and Fielder. The Cardinals have Pujols and Rolen. But, neither team can string together four hitters as intimidating as the Cubs quartet. They need one good month.

Scrappy Strings: Ryan Theriot - SS, Mike Fontenot - 2B, Mark DeRosa - UT, Jason Kendall - C

This crew of sub-six-foot crackers has done as much to keep the Cubs afloat as the underperforming powerhouses above. Theriot is batting .321 with 15 runs in 18 games since Soriano went on the disabled list. Kendall is batting .304 with an 810 OPS since joining Chicago in mid-July. DeRosa is batting over .300 in each of the last three months and .386 on the season with two outs and runners in scoring position. He has provided all this offense while playing 10 games or more at four different positions. Fontenot hasn't found as many at-bats in the last month, but is still hitting .320 with men on base and has an 891 OPS at Wrigley Field, the "friendly confines" which has not been so friendly for many of the Cubs this season. This quartet is more than just spare parts. They keep innings alive. They play critical defensive positions. And they get better in the later innings of close games.

The Barbershop: Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Bobby Howry, Kerry Wood

The back end of the Cubs bullpen averages more than a strikeout per inning, led by the dynamic Carlos Marmol and his microscopic 1.58 ERA. All of these guys can bring it, quite clearly. The key down the stretch will be keeping Wood and Dempster healthy and not overusing the young Marmol. This is a bullpen that can shorten the game, but it improves considerably if Lou Pinella can come to trust Scott Eyre, Micheal Wuertz, Will Ohman, or Sean Gallagher in the middle innings of games which are still on the line.

Big Z & Trio: Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Sean Marshall

You can't argue with the year Ted Lilly is having. However, Cubs fans should keep in mind that he was signed to fill the role of third or fourth starter, not #2. In his four full seasons, Lilly has never had an ERA under 4.06, a WHIP under 1.32, or more than 15 W. Generally, he hovers right around the league average for full-time starters. This year he has 13 W, a 3.85 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP in 27 starts. A mediocre September could have him finishing with numbers right in line with his career norms. I wouldn't bet against it. Like I said, Lilly at #3 is fine. Which means Rich Hill needs to step up and be what he was expected to be after his dynamite second half in 2006 (6-3, 2.92 ERA), a left-handed complement to the dominant Zambrano. Hill's only picked up two wins since the All-Star break in 2007, but there is room for encouragement. His ERA is 3.40 in his last 8 starts, including a seven inning, ten strikeout performance in his last outing. Marshall also needs to pick it up, seeing as it's about time Pinella took a page out of his good friend Tony LaRussa's book and left Jason Marquis out of the postseason rotation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


While Tom Glavine chased down his magical 300th victory, we were subjected to a lot of commentary regarding the growing difficulty of achieving the milestone most associated with Hall of Fame pitchers. As the 500 HR club grows at a dramatically faster pace, it has been widely publicized that the 300 W plateau is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. The five-man rotation, smaller ballparks, the slider, steroids, etc. All are indicted as creating an atmosphere for pitchers which has allowed only three 300 game winners in the last sixteen years. In other words, as many as will likely join the 500 HR club this season.

The fact is, however, the 300 W club has always been this exclusive. Only three times in baseball history have there been three new members of the 300 W club in the span of five seasons. From 2003-2007 we have seen the addition of Glavine, Maddux, and Clemens. From 1982-1986, five pitchers - Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, and Don Sutton - reached the mark. And the first five ballplayers to win 300 did so between 1888-1892: Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, Charley Radbourn, and John Clarkson. So, you could say, there has been a glut of 300 game winners in recent seasons. Many of our contemporary commentators were probably spoiled by the richness of legendary pitchers in the '80s, which may be why it seems to them that winning 300 is getting harder. But, prior to 1982 there had been an even longer drought. Eighteen seasons came and went between Early Wynn's 300th win and Perry's. When Wynn won his 300th, Perry was still a relief pitcher with four career wins. And that isn't even the longest stretch without new members. Nineteen full seasons expired between 1941, when Lefty Grove won his 300th, and 1961, when Warren Spahn did. There has been speculation that we could be in for another, perhaps longer, drought, now that Glavine has reached the plateau. But I doubt it. Perhaps, due to his chronic back problems, Randy Johnson really will call it quits only 16 wins shy of 300. But I doubt it. The Big Unit proved this season that even in pain he could still be pretty dominant. He made seven quality starts in ten attempts for the Diamondbacks. Next season he is likely to start receiving the Roger Clemens treatment, thus giving him extra time to rest his back. And, he'll be pitching on a young team that is proving during the second half of this season that they can win a lot of games. Perhaps Mike Mussina, at age 38, cannot expect to win 50 more games. But I doubt it. He hasn't thrown less than 165 innings or won less than twelve games since his rookie season in 1991. He is a physically fit, control pitcher playing for a perennial contender. He is likely to follow in the footsteps of Glavine, Maddux, and Clemens, pitching well into his forties. Perhaps Pedro Martinez' surgery will leave him a shadow of his former self and prevent him from chasing the best winning percentage of any pitcher from the modern era (Spud Chandler - 71.7%; Pedro - 69.1%). But I doubt it. Pedro is only 35, but still needs 94 wins to reach 300. That's something of a long shot, I'll admit. But if Pedro does maintain the pace of his injury-free seasons, he'll only need five and a half more years.

Those are the only three who have already recorded upward of 200 victories who have a legitimate chance. Here are five more active pitchers who with another decade or so, have at least an outside chance of winning 300: Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, C. C. Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, and Johan Santana. Three factors figure heavily in these choices. Longevity: this includes both a track record of avoiding injury and a body-type likely to age gracefully (i.e. not David Wells or Bartolo Colon). Since Christy Mathewson (1912), only Maddux and Carlton have reached 300 prior to the age of 40. Stamina: the ability to consistently work deep into ballgames, the longer a pitcher stays around the more likely he is to get the W. The three most recent additions to the club averaged 6.77 inning per start over the entirety of their careers. Control: While there are some great strikeout artists in the club, the vast majority of the members pitched to contact and avoided the base on balls. Only Clemens (#14) and Ryan (#4) have 300 wins and also rank among the top 70 all-time in K/9 IP. Only four members (Wynn, Carlton, Glavine, and Niekro) averaged more than 3.00 BB/9 IP.

Friday, August 17, 2007


The Dodgers are 8-17 since July 20, during which they have fallen from a first place tie with San Diego to 7 games back of Arizona, in 4th place. Baseball analysts have been blaming the recent swoon on Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, and Juan Pierre. But, in fact, both Kent and Garciaparra are hitting well over .300 during the losing streak, and Pierre is hitting .287 with a .350 OBP, better than his overall 2007 numbers.

One of the problems has been Russell Martin, who has played 113 more innings than any catcher in the NL and is finally showing some fatigue at the plate. He carried the team while Garciaparra was slumping and Kent was hurt, but since July 20, he is hitting .208 with a 612 OPS, even including his 2 HR game a couple nights ago. Many critics foresaw this. Overuse has limited the production of similar (though perhaps not as talented) speedy, run-producing catchers like Paul Lo Duca and Jason Kendall. Hopefully, Grady Little will learn his lesson and give Coltrane more rest in the first half next year.

The biggest problem, however, is that Little refuses to entrust his young outfielders with everyday roles. Since June 28, Luis Gonzalez is batting .227 with 1 HR and an abysmal 558 OPS. The Dodgers are better off with Brad Penny (.271, 654 OPS) at the plate. They are definitely better off with Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, or Delwyn Young. During that same stretch, despite limited playing time, Ethier has hit .288 with 9 2B, 1 HR, and an 833 OPS. Kemp hasn't been quite as good, only .211 with a 632 OPS, but does have 3 HR, and might be expected to improve with regular at-bats. Young had seven hits in fourteen chances during his eight game cup of coffee. All three offer significant upgrades on defense. The Dodgers need to take a lesson from the division-leading D-Backs. The best solution lies within the organization.

The Dodgers have enough talent and pitching to climb back into the thick of the NL West race. But they need to shake things up immediately. Little won't do it, but they have the ideal lineup for the now-infamous La Russa maneuver of batting the pitcher 8th. I think their order should look like this:

Furcal - SS
Martin - C
Loney - 1B
Kent - 2B
Ethier - RF
Garciaparra - 3B
Kemp - LF
(Pitcher's Spot)
Pierre - CF

The theory here is that you should not be giving the most possible at-bats to a player with an OBP twenty points below the league average, Juan Pierre. However, if you bat Pierre in front of the pitcher you are less likely to get full advantage of the skills he does have, creating havoc on the basepaths and scoring runs, because the easy out behind him will kill a lot of opportunities. By batting him ninth, you give him the opportunity to do many of the things he would do as a leadoff man. When he does get on base, he will have dangerous hitters coming up after him and his pesky presence provides a distraction for the opposing pitcher.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why St. Louis Scares Me

1. The Other Prince
Which Prince would you rather face? Since the All-Star Break, Albert Pujols is hitting .342 with 9 HR, 24 RBI, and a 1.108 OPS.

2. Anthony Reyes' Cahones
He has a 3.00 ERA in his last 5 starts, after spending much of the season in the minor
leagues. Coincidently, he also has a 3.00 ERA in the postseason.

3. Adam Wainwright's Curveball
It's like a Cardinal trademark. It worked for Dave Veres. It worked for Darryl Kile. It worked for Matt Morris.

4. September Call-Ups
Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Yadier Molina, and David Eckstein spend extended time on the D.L., but they all got healthy done the stretch and the Cardinals squeaked into the postseason three games over .500. Sound familiar.

5. Walt Jocketty on the Waiver Wire.
The trade deadline doesn't apply to him. Last year he picked up Preston Wilson in August. Wilson hit 8 HR in 33 games, as many as he had in his previous 100. In 2004 he plucked Larry Walker, who hit 11 HR in 44 AB and six more on the way to the World Series. It was Jeff Fassero in 2002. Etc. Etc.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Real Golden Gloves

Who are truly the best defensive players in baseball in 2007?

Catcher NL : Russell Coltrane Martin - Los Angeles Dodgers

One of the rare occasions when popularity may benefit the deserving candidate. Martin has become known as one of the game's preeminent hustlers, he is easily the best offensive catcher in the NL, and the catch he made hanging onto the netting behind home plate will be on every highlight reel for years to come. Martin is a converted infielder who hasn't been catching for two full seasons yet, at any level. As such, baserunners have not been shy of him. He has given up more stolen bases than anybody but Jason Kendall and Jorge Posada. However, teams have slowed down as the season has gone on. Coltrane's CS% is 2nd in the NL among qualifying backstops. (He'll fall to third if Yadier Molina eventually accumulates enough innings.) He's picked off four of ten would-be basestealers in August. Seizing control of the running game is one thing, seizing control of the pitching staff is significantly more important. Martin has the best Catcher's ERA in the NL, second in all of baseball, even though the Dodgers pitching staff is 5th in the NL and 7th in the MLB. He also leads all catchers in Innings and Range Fielded. I don't dispute that a healthy Yadier Molina deserves the golden mitt on his mantelpiece annually, but this is the year to give it to the man who may be his only legitimate competition for the next decade.

Runner-Up: Molina, David Ross

Catcher AL: Kenji Johjima - Seattle Mariners

Kenji has made only one error all season. He's thrown out about 38% of basestealers, 2nd in the AL. And, most amazingly, has managed a pitching staff composed of raw youngsters and veteran castoffs into playoff contention. As with Martin, his notoriety as a valuable offensive catalyst doesn't hurt. I-Rod will probably win again on his much deserved reputation, but for the first year it appears his defensive skills are fading (24.5 CS%, 5 ER).

Runner-Up: A. J. Pierzynski, Jason Varitek

First Base NL: Todd Helton - Colorado Rockies

The National League is replete with solid, even exceptional, defensive players at a weak defensive position. The recent addition of Mark Teixeira only adds to the abundance. Teixeira, Derrek Lee, and Helton have all won the award on multiple occasions. Albert Pujols won his first last year. The fact that Lee and Helton both spent significant time on the DL should not diminish the accomplishment. This year Pujols is 2nd in Zone Rating, 2nd in Range Factor, and 2nd in Assists. But Helton deserves to win his 4th. He leads the league in Zone Rating, Range Factor, Fielding Percentage, and Double Plays. Plus, he captains a young infield that includes some loose canons.

Runner-Up: Pujols, Lee, Adrian Gonzalez

First Base AL: Kevin Youkilis - Boston Red Sox

In the AL, thanks to the loss of Teixeira, there is no first baseman with previous gold glove credentials. Guys like Lyle Overbay, Richie Sexson, and Sean Casey have solid reputations, but , amazingly, Youkilis, a converted third baseman has gone 820 innings without dropping a Mike Lowell lightning bolt or botching a tricky Fenway hop. He hasn't made a single error all season. It's hard to argue with that.

Runner-Up: Lyle Overbay

Second Base NL: Brandon Phillips - Cincinnati Reds

I'll lead with some statistics. He's first in Total Chances (574), Putouts (245), Double Plays (89), and Fielding Percentage (.990). He's second in assists (323). He's third in Range Factor (5.10) and Innings (1003). In those latter categories, he trails by only a narrow margin. But if you watch Baseball Tonight, you don't need these statistics. Phillips makes regular appearances on Web Gems, almost Omar Vizquel-regular, and his spectacular plays are often in game-saving situations. His athleticism will make him a perennial contender for this award.

Runner-Up: Orlando Hudson, Adam Kennedy

Second Base AL: Placido Polanco - Detroit Tigers

He's not got the best range in the league, but he just set a record for second basemen for the most chances and games without making an error. As I put forth for Youkilis, that kind of consistency makes for an easy case. And, it isn't like Polanco doesn't take any risks.

Runner-Up: Mark Ellis

Third Base NL: Pedro Feliz - San Francisco Giants

Sure, my Bonds obsession means I watch a lot of Giants games. One might conclude that my daily observance has given me a bias towards Feliz. Keep in mind, claiming that Feliz deserves a gold glove is not equivalent to claiming that Feliz deserves to be the Giants everyday third baseman. The statistics show that what I have been observing of Feliz' defensive gifts is no illusion. He leads the NL in Range Factor and Zone Rating. He is only behind Aramis Ramirez and Scott Rolen in Fielding Percentage by the slimmest of margins (.002). Those who would support the ever-popular David Wright should note that he isn't near the top in any of these categories.

Runner-Up: Rolen, Ryan Zimmerman

Third Base AL: Eric Chavez - Oakland Athletics

Eric Chavez' streak of six consecutive Gold Gloves is unlikely to come to an end this year. Not because Chavez has been very good, but because nobody else has been exceptional either. This race was opened up by the injury to Joe Crede, who was playing exceptionally, despite his bad back. Don't get me wrong, I think Brandon Inge, Mike Lowell, and Chavez are all great third basemen, but they have all had mediocre years on defense after great performances in 2006. Chavez and Lowell led the league with .987 Fielding Percentages in 2006. Chavez' .975 is good enough this year. Inge led the AL with a 3.45 Range Factor in 2006. Inge, Lowell, Crede, Adrian Beltre, and Chavez were all better last year than Melvin Mora's league-leading 2.97 in '07.

Runner-Up: Inge, Lowell

Shortstop NL: Omar Vizquel - San Francisco Giants

Not much explanation is needed here. Somebody may get a chance to start their own collection soon, but Omar has made an excellent case for his twelfth Gold Glove; 1st in Fielding Percentage, 1st in Zone Rating, 4th in Range Factor.

Runner-Up: Jose Reyes, Troy Tulowitski

Shortstop AL: Orlando Cabrera - Los Angeles Angels

I will start by pointing out that Derek Jeter is 12th of thirteen eligible shortstops in Zone Rating, 9th in Range Factor, and 6th in Total Chances and Fielding Percentage, despite playing more innings than any other AL Shortstop. If he wins again this year, it will be the biggest travesty yet. It should be a four-way competition. At this point it is too close to call. The sure-handed Orlando Cabrera would be my bet.

Runner-Up: Jhonny Peralta, Micheal Young, Juan Uribe

Outfield NL: Carlos Beltran - New York Mets, Andruw Jones - Atlanta Braves, Aaron Rowand - Philadelphia Phillies

Another rare instance where the voters might get it right. Playing centerfield on an NL East contender apparently demands the best. Jones is, of course, a perennial winner, and Beltran won his first last year. Rowand is getting a lot of attention thanks to his highlight reel plays and his all-star appearance. They are 1, 2, and 3 among NL centerfielders in Fielding Percentage, none of them having made more than 2 errors. They are 1, 2, and 5 among NL outfielders in Range. Rowand is tied for 2nd in outfield assists. Beltran is 2nd in Zone Rating.

Runner-Up: Shane Victorino, Jeff Franceour, Corey Hart, Alfonso Soriano, Austin Kearns, Eric Byrnes

Oufield AL: Ichiro Suzuki - Seattle Mariners, Curtis Granderson - Detroit Tigers, Gary Matthews Jr. - Los Angeles Angels

Ichiro has been downright amazing during his conversion to centerfield. He hasn't made an error all year. He has 8 outfield assists and trails only Granderson in putouts. Granderson and Ichiro should be easy choices. However, after them, Matthews Jr, Torii Hunter, David DeJesus, and Coco Crisp all deserve consideration. And that's just among centerfielders! A special notice should be made of Micheal Cuddyer and Mark Teahan who, as converted infielders, are ranked 1 and 2 in outfield assists. Teahan has led all AL Rightfielders in Range.

Runner-Up: DeJesus, Hunter, Crisp, Teahan

Thursday, August 09, 2007

2007 Kisses and Curses - Part 1

One is tempted to wax poetic about the expectation with which every season begins. Players from the Diamondbacks to the Devil Rays pronounce, assuredly, their intentions for October. For some, undoubtedly, it is just another in the long string of cliches which comprise their dialogue with the media throughout the season. For many, however, these enthusiastic predictions are sincere, often among the only sincere statements they prove capable of. Similarly, as fans, and fantasy-junkies especially, we begin each season with pronouncements and predictions. Sleepers and keepers; steals and busts and locks; overrated and underrated; can't-miss prospects and falling stars. If we have the guts, around this time of year, in mid-August, we must size ourselves up. Sometimes we resemble the White Sox, the Giants, and the Athletics. All that spring training effusion was just so much hot air. Other times we are like Detroit, Cleveland, and Anaheim, right where we expected to be. And then, on those rare occasions, as with the Diamondbacks and the Mariners, there we are, but we're not exactly sure how it happened. This edition of The Sporting Hippeaux isn't about teams, it's about players. We've got those that have lived up to - no - exceeded our expectations: the Kisses. And those that have failed them: the Curses. We all know, regardless of spring platitudes, every year is a little of both.

Ryan Braun - 3B - Milwaukee Brewers (Kiss)

Ironically, since recalling the mighty Braun from Triple A on May 25, the Brewers are 29-39. That is, after starting the season 31-15. Nonetheless, Braun is not only the best rookie of 2007, he has been arguably the best hitter in the league ever since he joined it. Check this out. These are stats for some of the MVP front-runners since May 25:

Alex Rodriguez (991 OPS, .292 AVG, 18 HR, 63 R, 66 RBI, 9 SB)
Magglio Ordonez (897 OPS, .344 AVG, 6 HR, 42 R, 49 RBI, 2 SB)
Vladimir Guerrero (908 OPS, .325 AVG, 8 HR, 39 R, 52 RBI, 1 SB)

Prince Fielder (1009 OPS, .287 AVG, 20 HR, 47 R, 50 RBI, 0 SB)
Miguel Cabrera (1091 OPS, .350 AVG, 20 HR, 41 R, 49 RBI, 0 SB)
Ryan Howard (1070 OPS, .296 AVG, 26 HR, 52 R, 70 RBI, 0 SB)

Ryan Braun (1060 OPS, .349 AVG, 21 HR, 53 R, 55 RBI, 10 SB)

Besides telling you that the rumors of Miggy's weight problems and Ryan Howard's regression might have been a bit exaggerated, the numbers suggest that Braun was, like Pujols and Ichiro before him, an MVP candidate from the moment he stepped on the field.

Alex Gordon - 3B - Kansas City Royals (Curse)

It was not Braun, but Gordon, who got all the rookie hype going into the 2007 season. He was coming off a stellar performance at the 2006 Futures Game and, unlike Braun, he was given a starting role on opening day. Unfortunately, Gordon has followed in the footsteps of many preseason rookie-of-the-year favorites. Of the thirteen rookies with 250 plate appearances, he is 11th in AVG and OPS, 12th in SLG, 7th in HR, and 8th in RBI, despite having the 4th most at-bats. Despairing fantasy owners should remember in this case especially, this year's curse is next year's kiss.

Eric Byrnes - OF - Arizona Diamondbacks (Kiss)

...and vice versa. It's almost impossible not to root for Eric Byrnes. He shamelessly flirts with Fox anchor, Jeanne Zelasko, and employs the word "Dude" in every potential grammatical situation. And this season, for the first time, he is outplaying nearly every outfielder in the National League. He shouldn't have been reporting from McCovey Cove during the all-star game, he should've been starting in center field. But beware. Byrnes is the prototypical sell-high player. He's never shown skills like this before, he's over thirty, and despite his big contract, he's going to have lots of competition for playing time in the Arizona outfield in the next couple seasons. I hope he, like Gary Matthews Jr., is just a late-bloomer. His personality certainly suggests as much. Don't go putting $30 Million on it. Oops.

Nick Swisher - OF - Oakland Athletics (Curse)

In my 12-team Salary Cap Keeper league draft this April, Nick Swisher was the #1 pick. Spurred no doubt by accounts of his down-on-the-farm winter workout and his 35 HR/95 RBI performance in '06, this owner drafted Swisher ahead of guys like Dice-K, Prince Fielder, Sheffield, Helton, Francoeur, Sheets, and Robinson Cano. To be fair, had he fallen to me, I would've picked him ahead of all but Prince, Sheff, and Cano. When the season began it looked like a fair choice. In April and May Swisher accumulated 9 HR and 32 RBI, with a respectable average. Unfortunately, he has added only 5 HR and 23 RBI in the interceding months, while hovering around the Mendoza line. The one promising sign is that Swisher has cut back on his strikeouts (a discouraging 152 in '06), while continuing to improve his plate discipline. His OBP remains outstanding (.392) even during his power shortage. Many critics will suggest that the much-heralded Swisher has settled into the league as Adam Dunn Lite, but next year he will be 27, that magical number for baseball players, and there is still a fair amount to get excited about.

Erik Bedard - SP - Baltimore Orioles (Kiss)

Bedard is striking out hitters at an obscene rate. At this pace he will easily surpass the 250 K plateau, which hasn't been done since 2004, and could reach Big Unit-levels (he's currently on pace for about 275). During his current 8-game winning streak he has 80 K in 60 IP, with a 2.24 ERA and a .167 Batting Average Against. Whether it is the tutelage of Leo Mazzone or thet magic 27, Bedard has officially arrived as one of the few true Aces in the major leagues, alongside guys like Santana, Halladay, Zambrano, and Oswalt.

Dontrelle Willis - SP - Florida Marlins (Curse)

Of course, pitchers are more susceptible to chance and whimsy than any other set of players. The list of supposed aces who've had catastrophic seasons in '07 includes Cris Carpenter, Rich Harden, Kenny Rogers, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson, Ervin Santana, Freddy Garcia, A. J. Burnett, and Barry Zito. These ten pitchers will make a combined $76 Million in 2007, but so far have accumulated a record of 40-66. Granted, many of them have spent significant stretches on the DL, which is why Willis seems to most fit the moniker "curse." The former Cy Young runner-up has not won a game since the end of May. He's dropped nine straight decisions. His ERA is a full run higher than in any of his previous four seasons. He's on pace to walk the most batters in his career, while striking out the least. Because of age and histories of injury or inconsistency, we could have probably foreseen the potential struggles of all these pitchers save Santana, Carpenter, and - especially - Willis.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trade Waiver Fantasy #1 (Giants Edition)

The deadline has past, rumors and speculations have waned, and we assume that the dozen or so remaining postseason contenders are resigned to winning or losing with what they already have. There are only two options for change. One I posted on earlier today. You can bring up a young stud like Justin Upton and hope that he has a couple of games like the one he had last night (3-4, 2B, 3B, HR). Or, you can attempt to sneak somebody through trade waivers, as Oakland did with Mike Piazza. Deals made after the waiver deadline rarely have significant impact. Although, last year guys like Phil Nevin, David Wells, Javy Lopez, Jeff Conine, and Matt Stairs all were involved in deals after July 31. As this group suggests, waiver deals are usually reserved for overpaid veterans who fill minor bench rolls, or act as the replacement for an injured regular. Teams that offer a player on waivers see three alternatives. They can get the player through waivers and negotiate a deal for him on the open market. Presumably, if the player is put on waivers, the GM thinks he has at least two or three bidders in mind. Or, if the player is claimed, the GM can then negotiate with that team or withdraw the player from waivers. A player who has been withdrawn cannot be offered up again by the same team.

When, for instance, your team loses a player like Alfonso Soriano after the trade deadline, it is easy to find yourself exploring waiver fantasies. As I said before, big names rarely pass through waivers, but there are occasions which inspire such fantasies. Like 2004, when the Cardinals claimed Larry Walker on August 6th from the Rockies. Walker gave the Cardinals one of the most lethal orders in recent memory hitting in front of Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, Sanders, and Renteria. He hit 11 HR in the season's remaining 44 games and 6 in the playoffs before the Redbirds lost to the Red Sox in the World Series. He also stayed around for a relatively productive, though injury-shortened, season in 2005, when St. Louis again returned to the postseason.

I'm stringing together waiver fantasies on a daily basis as I see infernal teams like the Yankees and Braves gaining ground. Many of these would never happen due to issues like publicity and ticket sales, but I think each scenario, when considered closely, has potential benefits for both teams involved.

Barry Bonds - LF - San Francisco Giants

The media frenzy is over. ESPN has stopped covering the lowly last-place Giants on an everyday basis just because of Barry's quest (although the topic is still consuming the network 24 hours a day). Bonds will continue to draw people to the ballpark as he sets a new record each time he parks it, but even in San Francisco fans will settle into the recognition that now there team isn't playing for anything. And, perhaps more importantly, Bonds will face that recognition. Despite all his accomplishments, he still lacks that thing which ballplayers crave most: the Ring. Brian Sabean has said repeatedly, on national broadcasts, that this offseason he will push to make the team younger. He has a good rotation already, with several quality arms still on the horizon. But he needs young position players, and he needs the young position players he already has - guys like Fred Lewis, Kevin Frandsen, Rajaj Davis, and Todd Linden - to play everyday. The more Bruce Bochy learns about these guys in the next two months, the better chance he has of putting a contending team back on the field within the next two years. Doesn't it seem then, that it would be best for everybody involved if Barry did now what he will almost surely do at season's end. That is, join the American League. Bonds is earning $15.5 Million this season. Who would be willing to take on a third of that?

Detroit : Sheffield, who deserves more credit for what he has done on the field this season, is hurting and missing games. His patience and power have been essential to the productivity of Detroit's lineup, which is second in the MLB in scoring. He leads the team in Runs, HR, SB, and OBP, and is 3rd in RBI and SLG. Sheffield's game is almost identical to Bond's, except that he still has his speed. They have perhaps the two most intimidating swings in the game and they don't swing at anything they can't murder. Manager Jim Leyland would find himself with the most lethal platoon in the game's history. He would be able to rest both aging sluggers, giving himself a dangerous late-inning pinch-hitter, or, when he wanted them both in the lineup, they both can still play a moderately plausible left field, conveniently one of the few positions where the Tigers are struggling to get consistent production.

The Tigers are in the position to win now. As such, they should be going for it as best they possibly can. However, they also have one of the most productive farm systems in the majors. They would almost certainly be willing to part with a top-tier offensive prospect (they have several of them) if it might push them ahead of the Yankees, Indians, and Mariners down the stretch, and help them in the playoffs. The Giants need that kind of prospect (they have none).

New York : This is an obvious combination. The Yankees will not bark at the pricetag. They are looking for a DH. They have a famously short left-field porch. Bonds fits perfectly into their program: seeing a lot of pitches and driving them into the seats. He is close friends with A-Rod. The only problem is, he can't pitch.

On the other side of the coin, this is not as perfect a match. Most of the Yankees top prospects are pitchers, which New York is (and should be) reluctant to part with. And which, though everybody needs them, the Giants need less than most. However, San Francisco is in no position to be picky. They need prospects in bunches. The Yankees Alberto Gonzalez (SS), Juan Miranda (1B), or Bronson Sardinha (OF) might make good matches.

Anaheim : The Angels desperately need another thumper besides Vlad. Batting in front of Guerrero, Bonds would see more pitches (as he would with any of these teams) and Vlad would get more RBI opportunities. The Angels are rumored to be in the running for Piazza. This would be a step better. The presence of Garrett Anderson would allow Mike Sciossia some flexibility. In all honesty, the Angels could probably use both Piazza and Bonds in their lineup if they are going to be serious about holding off the Mariners and being a contender in October.

The Angels system is the single most replete with young talent in all of baseball. They don't have enough room in Anaheim for all the players that are major league ready: Aybar and Wood Kendrick and Izturis and Willits and Haynes. Because of the abundance, the Angels would probably part with an excellent player, like Kendry Morales, or some decent players, like Tommy Murphy and Nick Guernhalt, because their progress is blocked and they haven't been exceptional in brief MLB stints.

Omar Vizquel - SS - San Francisco Giants

Like Bonds, Vizquel has left a mark on Giants fans. If he does intend to retire after the season, it would perhaps be insensitive to let him go elsewhere. However, also like Bonds, Vizquel has never won a World Series. He hasn't been to one in a decade. Giving him one more shot at the postseason would be the best thing the Giants could do for him. Now, nobody is going to give up a top-tier prospect for a shortstop hitting .256. But, despite his age and mediocre numbers this season, Vizquel is still a wizard with the glove who doesn't go a week without a web gem nomination.

Boston : This is the only situation where the argument could be made on offensive grounds. Vizquel has a 25-point advantage in AVG and OBP to Julio Lugo, who has been downright awful with the Red Sox. Lugo has also be below average with the glove, while Vizquel is among the league leaders in every defensive category, including 1st in Errors (only 6), Fielding Percentage, and Zone Rating. Vizquel would mean a great deal to this pitching staff, which induces a fair amount of groundballs and allows too many baserunners via walk. Perhaps the Giants would be interested in Wily Mo Pena?

Detroit : With Neifi Perez' career likely ended by his most recent stimulant suspension (80 games), the Tigers need a back-up infielder and late-inning defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen. It would seem likely that in certain situations Leyland would opt for Guillen at 1B, rather than Sean Casey, and Vizquel at SS to benefit the groundball-inducing pitchers like Bonderman and Robertson. As I said earlier, the Tigers have a lot to offer as far as prospects, particularly in the outfield, where Cameron Maybin, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez are likely to be slated for several years to come.

Dave Roberts - CF - San Francisco Giants

There's not a huge market for a 35-year-old speedster coming off an injury who has a career .268 AVG., but Roberts proved in his career's defining moment that speed off the bench is a necessity in a short series. He is 22 for 25 in stolen base attempts this season, despite his injury, including 15 for 17 since returning, and he is hitting .279 in that span. He is a solid defender who plays all three outfield positions and has been to the postseason each of the last three years. And, unlike Bonds and Vizquel, he has no symbolic or sentimental tie to San Francisco.

Chicago : With no true centerfielder, a manager who likes to run and juggle his outfield, and a leadoff hitter on the DL, Chicago seems a likely destination for Roberts. Chicago doesn't have a whole lot to offer, but San Francisco shouldn't demand much in return, since they need that space in center to test Rajaj Davis and Fred Lewis.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Fantasy baseball junkies are dangerously nearing overdose after the surprising injection of young talent in early August, especially Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), Adam Jones (Mariners), and Delwyn Young (Dodgers). Milwaukee has three rookies playing every day and another in the rotation. Detroit is calling up Jordan Tata. Danny Richar's playing everyday in Chicago. Lastings Milledge is back with the Mets. Billy Butler has joined the Royals. Even the Yankees are supporting cheap labor in the form of Phil Hughes. All of these teams, with the exception of Butler's Royals, are in the thick of pennant races, which suggest a change in the accepted "book," which suggested you didn't introduce a rookie in the second half unless you had a catastrophic injury or were completely out of it. The season-making performances of midseason callups like Jeff Francoeur, Russell Martin, and Jered Weaver in recent years no doubt have something to do with changing the thinking of general managers around the league. While there was a great deal of activity at this years trade deadline, it will be interesting to see whether the Indians get as much out of Kenny Lofton down the stretch as Arizona gets out of Upton, or Seattle gets out of Jones. Will Kyle Kendrick outperform Kyle Lohse in Philadelphia? We may see more rookies in August. We will definitely see more rookies in September, when the rosters expand. Here are some names you might not recognize (you won't find Felix Pie or Philip Humber on this list), but who will be known by fantasy junkies by next spring at the latest.

Steven Pearce - 1B - Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates traded for Adam LaRoche last year, giving up Mike Gonzalez, as well as Brent Lillibridge (SS) and Jamie Romak (OF). Both Lillibridge and Romak have put together good minor league seasons. In fact, if the Braves weren't so loaded with middle infield talent, we would probably see Lillibridge in the majors this year. As usual, the Braves came away from this trade a winner, even though Mike Gonzalez is going to miss a year to injury. LaRoche has struggled with the Pirates. He is significantly off the pace he set during a career year in Atlanta in 2006, over a hundred points off in Slugging Percentage, and forty points in Batting Average. He is dead last among NL first basemen in AVG, SLG, OBP, runs, hits, and RBI. But, perhaps more importantly, in a move common to the Pirates of the last decade, this thoroughly mediocre veteran is blocking their best young talent. After setting an assortment of school records during two seasons at the University of South Carolina, Steven Pearce has moved quickly through the minor leagues, scorching at every stop. This year he has made three stops - High A, AA, and AAA - with a combined .338 average and a 1.046 OPS. After hitting .357 with 2 HR in his first 9 games with the AAA Indianapolis Indians, it seems reasonable to expect that Pearce will get a good long look in Pittsburgh this September.

Rick Ankiel - OF - St.
Louis Cardinals

He was subject to perhaps the most infamous big-league meltdown in baseball history, challenged only by Chuck Knoblauch in recent memory. After finishing second in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2000, Ankiel was completely unable to find the plate and set a postseason record for wild pitches. Now he's back, at the age of 27, but as a rightfielder with outstanding athleticism, a 95-mph canon, and impressive power. But, still thinking like a pitcher, he believes everything is a strike. At AAA Memphis this season he has slugged 32 HR and 89 RBI in only 101 games. He's also struck out 88 times and drawn only 24 walks. This is indicative of an all-or-nothing Rob Deer-esque power hitter. Such a player might be valuable to the depleted Cardinals, who need to focus their free agent dollars on pitching, especially if Ankiel can develop just enough plate discipline to make himself more Adam Dunn-esque.

Kevin Slowey - SP - Minnesota Twins

Matt Garza, Boof Bonser, and Scott Baker are on everybody's radar because of they are being groomed at the major league level this season. However, Slowey was 3-0 for the Twins during a seven start cup of coffee in the first half. His ERA was nonetheless 5.84, so he must of benefited from some Morneau-sized run support. However, back in the minors he has gone 8-3, with a 1.89 ERA, and seven times as many strikeouts as walks (84/12). Minnesota is only six games out. They have an interesting remaining schedule. 21 games against the White Sox, Rangers, and Royals, teams they should be able to handle. And, 18 games against the Mariners, Indians, and Tigers, the teams they will presumably be chasing. If the Twins get within striking distance, look for Slowey to replace Carlos Silva.

Sean Gallagher, Jeff Zamardzija, Mark Holliman - SP - Chicago Cubs

Gallagher is probably the only of these three that might be legitimately major league ready, and I wouldn't be taking a flier on any of them in my fantasy league. However, I leave you with this reasoning: Do you think the Cubs believe that there will be two consecutive World Series winners who consider Jason Marquis a quality fifth starter? Over the last three seasons, in the second half Jason Marquis is 10-20 with an ERA around 6.00. Lou Pinella has been complaining that he doesn't have a long reliever (a.k.a. Mop-up Man). He sure does. He just has him in the rotation.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Other Shoe

This is the true face of the Cubs!

Darn That Dream

I don't consider myself a gullible person, but year after year I fall for the same stunt. Ever August I swear to myself that I will not dare to dream of a Cubs contender. I watch as my favorite team fields everyday players like Ronny Cedeno, Neifi Perez, and Steve Buechele, and I swear never, ever to be fooled again. I say, "There is nothing that could happen this offseason that could make me a believer again."

But then I hear about a hot-shot five-tool centerfielder they're going to be bringing up from AAA. I hear that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are striking out spring hitters by the dozens. I hear that they've signed a bonafide superstar, resigned a bonafide superstar, and drafted a bonafide futurestar. Somehow I can't help myself. I love Dusty Baker! I love Don Baylor! I love Don Zimmer! I am a Lefebvre Belebvre! And I forget that the Cubs haven't had the same centerfielder for three years running since Brian McRae ('94-'96). I forget that they haven't had three consecutive winning seasons since the early '70s. They haven't won 95 games since 1984. How easily I forget!?!

This year was more of the same and by the beginning of June I was cursing myself again for being such a dupe. There was in-fighting, ridiculous baserunning mistakes, and embarrassing fielding miscues. And then something happened. Lou Pinella put a charge into his dirt-stomped cap that would've made Beckham proud, got ejected and suspended, and somehow ignited a 36-20 run which has the Cubs neck and neck with the Brewers headed into the season's final third. They've got the best run differential in the National League. They're hitting with men on base. They're hitting close and late. They're holding leads. They're catching the ball. They're stealing bases and breaking up double plays. Some days it's hard to believe these are the Cubs, even now that Kerry Wood has rejoined the team. Everybody has gotten hot at once. Derrek Lee has as many homers in 17 games since the All-Star break as he did in 84 games leading up to it. Jacque Jones has raised his average 25 pts. since the beginning of July. Carlos Zambrano is 9-2 since he beat the crap out of Michael Barrett, with 82 K's in 81 IP. Ted Lilly is 8-1 over that same span. And, the phenomenal young arm, Carlos Marmol, has a 1.71 ERA with more than twice as many strikeouts (58) as hits allowed (26).

Simultaneously, the Brewers have suffered some significant setbacks. Their ace went on the DL, along with their centerfielder. Their starting second baseman was demoted to AAA. Their closer, unhittable during the first half, has an ERA above 4.00 since the All-Star break. Their primary set-up man has an ERA over 6.00 during that same span. Even MVP candidate Prince Fielder suffered a two-week slump. In July and early August, the Brewers are 13-19.

The Cubs and Brewers play almost identical schedules during the season's final two months. Chicago plays 38 of their final 52 games against teams with losing records. Milwaukee has 33 such pairings. This would appear to benefit the Cubs, the team at full strength and playing well, but their is a saying in Wrigleyville, "Fear the mediocre." Especially the mediocre represented by NL Central rivals. The Cubs have 35 games remaining against NL Central teams. And they have lost more than they have won against the divisions supposed doormats, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Neither team went crazy at the trade deadline. Milwaukee securing Scott Linebrink to solidify the bullpen and the Cubs grabbing the infinitely acquirable Jason Kendall as Michael Barrett's replacement. A move which inspired this gem,

"They got a proven big-league hitter. Kendall didn't come cheap. But you know what, neither does winning." - Rick Sutcliffe

Only a member of the '84 goats would be able to employ such cubby-bear optimism. After all, Kendall is dead last among everyday MLB catchers in HR, RBI, AVG., OBP., and SLG., keeping in mind that his competition includes such offensive forces as Brian Schneider and Miguel Olivo. But Kendall does handle pitchers well, as evidenced by his league-leading Catcher's ERA of 3.46, he sees a lot of pitches, doesn't strike out much, and is a career .300 hitter against the NL Central.

The question Cubs fans continue to ask themselves, cannot help but ask themselves, is when is the other shoe going to drop. HBO has begun running its sadistic documentary, "Wait 'Til Next Year," regularly, just so that anybody who isn't aware of the Cubs inevitable failures can have an opportunity to experience the tragedies of '69, '84, and '03. It's a good way to get hyper-macho Chicagoans to unapologetically bawl. Those of us who have lived through a few especially spectacular failures cannot help but look over our shoulders for goats, black cats, Lou Brock, cork, or Steve Bartman. We know it's coming. Sometime before the middle of October.