Are there going to be pennant races this year? Maybe not. Former contenders like the Nationals, Orioles, and Twins have collapsed in the past few weeks, and not enough teams are playing well to come up and take their places. The A’s are seriously challenging the Angels’ defense of their AL West title, but it may not matter as whomever loses out for the division will very probably win the wild card. Oakland presently leads in that race by three games over the Yankees and four and a half over the Indians.
The AL Central has been settled for quite some time now, but I don’t think anybody expected the Twins to fold quite like they have. The White Sox are going to have a lot of time to think about their first-round playoff matchup. For their sake, I hope it ends up being the Angels or Yankees and not the A’s, who have beaten Chicago like a drum this year. The Indians have quietly put themselves in decent position for a surprise playoff run. I think they may still be one year away, though, and Oakland, New York, and Anaheim have a lot more talent.
The Red Sox’ recent winning streak has granted them some breathing room in the AL East. The Blue Jays aren’t out of it by any means at seven games back. In between are the Yankees, at 3 1/2 back. It’s looking bleaker for the Bombers than it has in years. They’re depending on Al Leiter, Shawn Chacon, and Aaron Small to somehow carry them to the postseason, and that’s completely insane. I almost feel sorry for Yankees fans. Okay, no, I don’t.
The Nationals aren’t statistically out of it in the NL East, but they sure haven’t looked like a playoff team for a while now. It sure seems as if Florida hasn’t played its best baseball yet, but do you really want to bet against the Braves at this point? No, you don’t. Meanwhile, the safety net for the NL East second place finisher is disappearing as the hot Astros are working on wrapping up the wild card race.
The Cardinals are going to win the NL Central. The Astros, in a repeat of last year, are riding a second-half surge to the wild card, although this time it’s entirely fueled by pitching. The Cubs are done. The most interesting team to watch in the division down the stretch may well be the Brewers, who are making a bid to finish .500 for the first time since before the Rockies existed.
The NL West title may well be a booby prize, but at least the Padres look serious about finishing over .500 in winning it. The current home series against Colorado may go a long way in revealing the Diamondbacks as pretenders. The way things are going for the Dodgers, a win streak on their part to get back into things could well result in a massive earthquake separating Southern California from the rest of the continent and disabling what’s left of their roster.
I wish I could make less obvious picks, but it looks to me as if Oakland, Anaheim, Chicago, and Boston are the AL playoff teams, and St. Louis, Atlanta, Houston, and San Diego will be the NL reps. The Cardinals seem significantly better than any of their in-league competition, but the AL playoffs could be quite wide open and very interesting indeed. It could all come down to positioning, as Oakland doesn’t want to play Boston in a short series and the White Sox don’t want anything to do with the A’s. There are no guarantees with this much season left.
To cut the tension during Rich Harden’s near-perfecto tonight, trusted colleague/official TGTBATB fact-checker Ali and I went down the rosters of every major league team and picked ourselves a 25-man roster of the most glaring underperformers. These are guys making seven or eight figures and struggling to play at replacement level. These are the guys who are going to cost GM’s their jobs.
Sources for this bit of research were ESPN.com for basic stats and salaries, MLB.com for injury news, and Baseball Prospectus for VORP figures. I checked Hardball Dollars a couple of times to confirm contract lengths as well. All salary figures are rounded to the nearest $100,000.
Catcher. This was a hard spot to fill seeing as MLB’s current standards for offense from a catcher are not very high. There are a few guys making big money and earning it, and there a lot of guys making nothing and deserving less. Philadelphia’s Mike Lieberthal is the obvious starter for our team, making as he is $7.5 million to hit .240/.323/.400 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging). Lieberthal’s VORP is 6.7, which is on the high side for this group. As backup we went with Houston’s Brad Ausmus, perennially one of the worst hitters in baseball. Ausmus’s numbers are .241/.327/.294, and his VORP is barely positive at 1.1. He’s a relative bargain at $3 million this year.
First base. Hopefully it’s due to injury and not permanent decline that the Phillies’ once-great Jim Thome makes this list as our everyday starter at first. Philadelphia certainly has to hope so seeing as they’re paying Thome $13.2 million this year and have three more comparable years left on his deal. The numbers are pretty awful: .207/.360/.352 for a 2.8 VORP. And he’s now hurt (again).
Second base. We’ve assembled a dynamite platoon combination to handle the second base job. The New York Mets’ Kaz Matsui, making $7.1m this season and more next year, has a negative VORP (-2.7, to be exact) and a mind-boggling .234/.284/.321 line. He’ll be partnered with Bret Boone, recently acquired by the Twins after a disastrous half-season in Seattle. The Mariners are still on the hook for Boone’s $9m salary. For their trouble they received a stat line of .227/.295/.379. A 4.3 VORP makes Boone one of the stars of this team.
Shortstop. Thanks to all of the good vibes coming out of Washington this year, the historically bad play of Cristian Guzman has somehow gone under the radar. Guzman is making $4.2m in the first year of a four-year deal. For that money he’s been the worst position player in the big leagues by a wide margin, hitting .198/.236/.288. His -13.1 VORP would be an incredible figure for a full season, let alone not quite half of one. We want Cristian in the lineup every day, but in case he gets hurt, Matsui is the backup.
Third base. An embarrassment of riches. There were so many great candidates for the hot corner spot that we could only pare them down to three, rationalizing that some of these guys can DH or back up at second and first. Florida’s Mike Lowell is a fine player having an inexplicably awful year; he’s at .226/.281/.353. That’s good for a -4.5 VORP. Lowell’s salary is $7.5 million this season. That’s nothing compared to Seattle’s Adrian Beltre, who gets paid $11.4m this year and more going forward in recognition of his one good season for the Dodgers. Beltre’s 7.1 VORP is easily the highest on the team, but for $11.4 million (according to Hardball Dollars, $17 million) you should really be able to do better than .262/.303/.403. Finally, if you detect the distinct scent of cheesesteak emanating from our infield, you’re not imagining things. David Bell is the third Phillie to crack the roster, earning $4.7m for his .252/.302/.359 numbers. We just couldn’t overlook a regular with a -1.8 VORP.
Left field. A personal anti-favorite of mine since his days in Oakland, the remarkable Terrence Long continues his careerlong parade of ineptitude in front of the long-suffering fans of Kansas City. T-Long is "only" getting paid $4.9 million, with San Diego assuming some of that burden, but for a team with a total payroll of around $47 million, it’s pretty hard to stomach this guy, who unlike more than a few of his "teammates" has never been good. .266/.304/.371, VORP of 0.1, meaning he’s just this side of being a guy off the street. Billy Beane still has nightmares about Terrence Long.
Center field. While Darin Erstad and Orlando Cabrera came close, our lone Anaheim representative is the eminently deserving Steve Finley. While being compensated $6 million on the button, Finley has compiled a .230/.290/.414 line. That computes to a VORP of 1.9. Finley probably should have retired after last year, but hey, if someone was willing to give him this much money to be this bad, more power to him.
Right field. Another loaded position. Sammy Sosa, now of Baltimore, although the Cubs are paying a good chunk of his $17.9 million salary, is going on the cover of our media guide. The erstwhile Slammin’ Sammy has been the black cloud spoiling the Orioles’ otherwise resurgent season. Double-check if you wish, but it says here that Sosa is at .222/.300/.377. The former MVP has a -1.0 VORP. That’s bad. Willie Mays-with-the-Mets bad. Our fourth outfielder is Texas’s Richard Hidalgo, who could easily be a starter. Hidalgo’s -3.7 VORP is one of the worst among all outfielders in the bigs. He’s making $5m to go .211/.284/.405.
Starting pitchers. The competition was fierce indeed to crack our rotation. There were enough deserving candidates to staff three teams, really. Therefore the five guys we’ve picked, three righties and two lefties, are made of really sterling stuff. Our "ace" is Eric Milton. Perhaps you’ve heard a little about the struggles Milton is having in his first, $5.3 million year of a long-term deal with Cincinnati. His numbers bear closer appreciation. Eric Milton is truly the Cristian Guzman of pitchers. The number on the tip of everyone’s tongue is Milton’s 29 homers allowed, but he also boasts a 6.92 ERA and .305 batting average allowed. His VORP is a team-low -18.6. Joining Milton in the rotation will be Baltimore’s Sir Sidney Ponson ($8.5m, 5.93 ERA, .331 BAA, -8.2 VORP), Florida’s recently released Al Leiter ($7.2m, 6.64, .292, -9.7), and Arizona’s Russ Ortiz ($7.4m, 5.88, .299, -4.0). The Rangers’ Chan Ho Park will have to be our fifth starter, as he boasts the only positive VORP in the group (3.9). What distinguishes Park, besides his numbers (5.64 ERA, .293 BAA), is his salary — $15 million. And he works for every penny!
Bullpen. Hey, if you thought the starters were nasty, it doesn’t get any better in the late innings. We opted for balance, choosing four righties and three lefties, although certainly many deserving candidates just missed the cut. Danny Graves, late of Cincinnati, now of the Mets, is our closer. For $6.3 million, Graves has a 7.81 ERA, .341 BAA, and an inconceivable 2.06 WHIP. That adds up to a tasty -9.8 VORP, which is extraordinary for the limited number of innings a relief pitcher sees. Complementing Graves from the right side we have Boston’s Keith Foulke ($7.5m, 6.23 ERA, .289 BAA, -1.9 VORP), Atlanta’s Danny Kolb ($3.4m, 5.56 ERA, .286 BAA, 0.6 VORP), and the Tigers’ Troy Percival ($5.9m, 5.76 ERA, 7 homers in 25 innings pitched, 0.1 VORP). Our southpaws are Yankee/National Mike Stanton ($4m, 7.07 ERA, .298 BAA, -2.0 VORP), Boston’s Alan Embree ($3m, 7.93, .287, -9.1), and Baltimore’s Steve Kline ($2.5m, 5.57, .252, -1.2). Bonus points go to Kline for badmouthing his own team and saying he wished he was still a Cardinal.
Disabled list. For fun, we also picked four guys, an infielder, outfielder, starter, and reliever, for the honorable distinction of being included on the team’s DL. What we were looking for here was players who got off to horrible starts, then got lost for the season or a big chunk of it with catastrophic injuries. All while making gobs of money. Ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Higginson, .077/.111/.077 in 10 games for the Tigers, out since mid-May with an elbow injury. Higgy "makes" $8.9 million this year ($11.85 by HD’s reckoning). Nomar Garciaparra, for $8.3m, was at .157/.228/.176 for the Cubs before going down with a groin injury you may have heard about. Oakland’s Octavio Dotel, earning $4.8m, actually had some decent numbers — 3.52 ERA, .185 BAA, 9.39 strikeouts per nine innings. But he blew 4 of 11 save chances and then elected to have elbow surgery despite the advice of no fewer than four expert doctors. Finally, we have Yankee Jaret Wright, he of the $5.7 million salary. Wright hasn’t pitched since April, but thanks to small sample sizes he has some hysterical stats. 9.15 ERA. 2.29 WHIP. .400 BAA! For a starter! Wow!
Total payroll for our All-Stars? $205.1 million. Still less than the Yankees!
Welcome to one of the worst sports days of the year! You’d think maybe the MLS would try to capitalize on no baseball with a made-for-TV doubleheader, or maybe some friendlies with touring Euro clubs, but apparently no one working for them is that smart. At least we have good news from the world of hockey (remember hockey?) to brighten our day.
So, anyway, let’s go nuts with midseason review and look-forward columns, because they’ll be plenty of time for reading with nothing on TV tonight except the World Series of Poker and the AAA All-Star Game. SI has midseason grades and second-half questions for all 30 teams. ESPN has Jayson Stark’s midseason awards and an uproarious if AL-centric Bill Simmons piece. Pretty much every local daily with a press credential has their own riffs on baseball at the break, the best stuff I’ve seen is at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (AL and NL), the Chicago Trib‘s Phil Rogers, and MLB.com.
If you want to brave the locals, the last few days have offered a Post column (underwritten by the Bud Selig Secret Committee to Convince People Parity Has Arrived) that suggests that parity has arrived, another Poster on possible roster moves, and the Rocky Mountain News indicates a semi-aggressive new policy on international free agent signings.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Colorado’s priority in a Preston Wilson trade is dumping every last possible cent of his salary, even if this means receiving lesser prospects (or effectively no prospects at all) from deal partners. Frankly, I’m too tired at this point to be outraged. Let them run their franchise into the ground, see if I care.
Happy 4th of July. This is a pretty good country and I’m glad I live in it. Except for those kids who were setting off fireworks behind my apartment all night last night, I hope they all lose an eye.
I’m not a big fan of the Seattle MLB franchise, thanks to my longtime affiliation with their divisional rivals in the East Bay and the Mariners’ avowed policy of not improving their playoff-bound teams in midseason. That said, it was very difficult to watch the press conference announcing Bret Boone’s release. Being essentially turfed out by the franchise with whom he secured his place in history had Boone choking back tears. Boone’s not a great player, just a good one who had a freaky great year for a freaky great team, but it’s hard to see why the Mariners, in the midst of a second consecutive lost season, couldn’t let him play out the string and retire with dignity.
An example of how my brain works: Since it’s America’s birthday, I chose this morning to conduct an in-depth survey on how things are progressing with Canada’s team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto is a well-run team with a lot of likable, under-the-radar players. One of these guys, Shea Hillenbrand, is an All-Star in a selection that the Toronto Star‘s Geoff Baker writes is an example of the flaws of the multi-tiered voting system. No one will argue with the selection of Roy Halladay, who beat the Red Sox yesterday to improve the Jays’ record against the leaders of their division to 8-3. Two games over .500 just past the season’s halfway mark, Toronto could go either way when it comes to the trade market. The Blue Jays are 22-13 in the AL East (15-11 if you don’t count the Devil Rays, which you shouldn’t). They’ve struggled with teams outside the division (except for Kansas City) and in interleague play. Reading between the lines of GM J.P. Ricciardi’s recent comments, this is a team looking two or three years ahead. Any further success they may have this year will come as a pleasant surprise. Maybe they’re not as far away as they think — despite a pedestrian offense, Toronto’s Pythagorean record would place them first in the division.
The White Sox probably didn’t expect to have the best record in baseball at the halfway point. That’s no excuse for them not making improvements, Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times writes. He’s right. The White Sox aren’t particularly young and they’re getting career years from a number of pitchers (Garland, Cotts, Politte, Hermanson). Plus they have to deal with the constant specter of The World’s Cubbiest 24-Hour Beer Garden over on the other side of the Red Line’s y-axis. Were Chicago’s unloved team to pull off the unthinkable and bring a World Series home, it’d be a dramatic reversal for the worst intracity inferiority complex in sports. (OK, well, yeah, the Clippers. But Clippers aren’t even trying. The White Sox have always tried to win. Except for that one time.) The ChiSox lineup seems to somehow be productive beyond its individual stat lines, and besides maybe light-hitting third baseman Joe Crede, who are you going to send out? You can never have enough pitching, though, and the White Sox owe it to their 18,000 devoted fans to be in hard on Jason Schmidt, Brad Lidge, A.J. Burnett, Jose Mesa, and even Kenny Rogers, as Mariotti suggests. Kenny Williams needs to start scouting Boston and Los Angeles de Los Angeles now and go get exactly what it is going to take to beat them in a 5- or 7-game series. Legitimate championship shots come to Chicago about as often as mild summers.
Back to the Rockies (long sigh) later today. Oh, that reminds me, here’s an interesting item courtesy of ESPN’s Old Man AL East, Peter Gammons: the Rockies had the best record in their division (12-15) in June. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.
Lots of bests and firsts in this one. Probably the hottest game the Rockies have played thus far on the year. Their best showing on the road all season. Jeff Francis’s best road start in his career. Danny Ardoin’s first major league home run. Francis’s first career extra-base hit.
Francis looked like the savvy vet and Jeff Suppan the rookie as five Colorado hitters had multi-hit games (leadoff man Cory Sullivan, Garrett Atkins, who also homered, Brad Hawpe, Ardoin, and Francis himself). The Rockies’ bullpen, which isn’t young but is at least cheap, was extremely efficient in maintaining the big lead with which Francis left in the sixth. Dan Miceli looks like a great midseason pickup, and Jay Witasick and David Cortes are having fine years. Colorado did hit into four double plays, but look on the bright side — at least they regularly had runners on base.
I think this game should be taken as a reminder of what it is we need to be prioritizing going into selloff season. The Rockies’ offense is not very good, but at least we have guys like Sullivan, Hawpe, and Atkins who have upside and plenty of years to develop it. Colorado has strung together a surprisingly efficient bullpen using spare parts, something that would be even easier if the club ever caught a whiff of contention. What we need is starting pitching. Francis is the only guy on the ML roster right now whom I expect to be in the rotation of a Colorado division title winner two, three years down the road, unless you consider the intriguing possibility of making Marcos Carvajal a starter. No making any deals unless there’s at least one AA or AAA starter candidate in the mix.
One name I’d like to throw out there is Oakland’s Juan Cruz, a guy who’s been a bust as a middle reliever in the majors because it just takes him too long to get into game mode. Cruz throws hard and had limited success as a starter for the Cubs a few years ago. If the A’s still want Joe Kennedy, Cruz recently was sent to Sacramento to start after a disastrous stint with the big club. Cruz’s fragile psyche might be poorly suited for Coors Field, but you don’t know until you try. The Orioles on the other hand aren’t going to trade Hayden Penn, and they really have nothing interesting beyond him. The Rockies need to keep working on the Cubs (for Rich Hill and/or Todd Wellemeyer) or reestablish contact with Boston (for any one of a number of guys). Message to Dan O’Dowd: If you see Brian Cashman’s name on the caller ID, hang up.
You can’t vote for the All-Star Game any more, at least until the 32nd man poll starts after Sunday’s selection show. Who will be the Rockies’ lone representative? There are at least a few worthy candidates I can think of — Garrett Atkins, Brian Fuentes, Jay Witasick, Jeff Francis as a longshot. What do the experts say? SI.com’s John Donovan likes Atkins. How can he name six Yankees to his team though? Joe Torre’s not even the manager this year. CBS SportsLine has Preston Wilson. What season are they watching?
Update: ESPN likes Fuentes.
The fan balloting for the All-Star Game closes tonight. In less than an hour actually. I voted twice more (since I could), once somewhat seriously and once for fun. It seems as if most of the early craziness has corrected itself. Derrek Lee is not going to get slighted. Ichiro and Tino Martinez aren’t starters as of right now. Cesar Izturis, who’s fallen off the map since his great May, has been overtaken by the slow but steady David Eckstein.
"Serious" ballot: AL Justin Morneau, Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, David Ortiz, Johny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Mark Kotsay NL Lee, Jeff Kent, Eckstein, Scott Rolen, Paul Lo Duca, Andruw Jones, Cliff Floyd, Miguel Cabrera
"Fun" ballot: AL Paul Konerko, Tadahito Iguchi, Brandon Inge, Bobby Crosby, A.J. Pierzynski, Bobby Kielty, Kevin Mench, Scott Podsednik, Travis Hafner NL Hee Seop Choi, Mark Grudzielanek, Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, Jason Phillips, Jason Bay, Carlos Lee, Willy Taveras
Pitcher A: 17 starts, 2 complete games, 110 innings pitched, 81 strikeouts, 33 walks, 12 home runs, 6.63 K/9, 1.22 WHIP, .240 BAA, 3.85 ERA.
Pitcher B: 16 starts, 1 complete game, 101 innings pitched, 63 strikeouts, 31 walks, 11 home runs, 5.61 K/9, 1.42 WHIP, .285 BAA, 4.54 ERA.
Pitcher A is Danny Haren. Pitcher B is Mark Mulder. Pretty neat, huh? I mention this because I listened to Haren win his sixth straight decision earlier today and Mulder will pitch against the Rockies on Sunday. You never know how trades involving fistfuls of prospects will turn out, and it sure seems as if Oakland (who also got useful reliever Kiko Calero and much-loved prospect Daric Barton) won this one. Almost makes up for the reaming they took in the Tim Hudson trade.
I don’t think there’s much that needs to be said about this Cardinals team that their best-in-the-NL 49-28 record doesn’t already communicate articulately. For fun, then, in lieu of our usual style of series preview let’s take a look at the chances St. Louis and the other division leaders have of staying put.
AL East: Current leader is Boston at 45-32. Baltimore is 2 games back. I think the Red Sox have the best talent in this division, and I don’t think many would disagree with me. Baltimore’s first half was a good (if overplayed) story. I doubt even a trade for Jason Schmidt would compensate for the healthy return of Curt Schilling which Boston anticipates. I put Boston’s chances at 80%.
AL Central: The Chicago White Sox have the best record in baseball at 53-24. The Twins are 10 1/2 back despite very possibly being the third-best team in the league. It’s pretty hard to blow a ten-game lead. That said, the White Sox have made a semi-tradition out of second-half slides the last few seasons, and Minnesota often seems to have their number head-to-head when it counts. It’s not impossible, just very improbable. Let’s call it 95% that Chicago takes it.
AL West: The Angels put a great deal of distance between themselves and Texas this past week. Anaheim is 47-31, and the Rangers are 6 1/2 back after winning today. A bigger threat may be the surging A’s, who have won 7 in a row to get within 10 games of the division lead and 2 games from .500. I have doubts about the Angels’ starters and their offense, but you have to figure they can afford to get the help they need. 65%, because the Angels have two legitimate challengers.
AL Wild Card: I like Minnesota. 75%.
NL East: Washington’s dream season continues, 47-31. Still, even last place New York is only eight back, and Atlanta hangs around at half that. I highly doubt the Nationals will be able to continue playing invincibly at home with a .600 record despite scoring fewer runs than they allow. I give them a 15% shot, Florida 40%, Atlanta 25%, Philadelphia 15%, and the Mets 5%.
NL Central: As I mentioned, St. Louis stands at 49-28. The on-again, off-again Cubs are nine back. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is no chance that Chicago will catch the better-constructed, better-managed, and way-less-cursed Cardinals. 100% chance of St. Louis repeating as division champs.
NL West: The most miserable division in baseball is led by San Diego at 43-36. The Padres may well be just as secure as St. Louis since the other teams in the division are so poor. No one else is over .500, and the Giants and Rockies have essentially eliminated themselves from playoff contention. Arizona is in second at 4 back, but I don’t think they’re even that good. The Dodgers, 5 1/2 back, are the Padres’ only threat such as it is. 85% we see the fourth different division winner in four years. Hey, if that trend continues, the Rockies will win next year!
NL Wild Card: The parity in the NL East could end up being the Cubs’ biggest asset here as they fatten up on average Milwaukee, subpar Houston and Pittsburgh, and dire Cincinnati. Still, it’s pretty wide open, with six teams within five games of each other. Advantage Chicago, but no better than 45%. Divide the rest however you want between all five NL East teams.