...and DOWN the stretch they come!  (08/16/01)

(Editor's note: the title is my little homage to horse race announcer Dave Johnson, who along with Michael Buffer, has the most recognizable call in sports.)  With three quarters of the season completed, 5 of the 6 divisions are still up for grabs, and 15 of the 30 teams still have legitimate shots at the playoffs.  The trade deadline passed, so there is little opportunity for any major changes to occur from here on out.

With that in mind, here is how the races look:

AL East

The Yankees currently hold a slight lead on the Red Sox, but that lead might as well be a gulf.  It's not that the Yankees have much more talent.  No, with a healthy Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox are perfectly capable of out-muscling the Yanks for the division crown down the stretch, which says a lot about the quality, or lack thereof, of the Yankees' bench.  The Red Sox' problem is with their management.  Why GM Dan Duquette would fire manager Jimy Williams at this point in the season is beyond reason.  Greg Kaden, a good friend of mine and a diehard BoSox fan summed it up perfectly:

"Duquette should fire himself.  If he is upset with the way Jimy has been using the bullpen, he has only himself to blame.  It was not Jimy's idea to take on a whole bunch of "rehab project" pitchers who, because of the nature of their injuries, can pitch no more than 5-6 innings, while failing to develop any starters in the system (though keep an eye on Casey Fossum).  It was not Jimy's idea to re-sign the washed-up Rod Beck and let his residual dislike of [Red Sox former GM] Lou Gorman players influence his decision not to take on the most obvious rehab project of all -- Flash Gordon.

This whole "quick fix" mentality of the Red Sox management disgusts me.  Red Sox fans would much rather "win sometime" than "win now."  These rash firings, and trades of young talent for mediocre vets do little to help us
win now and certainly make it even harder to win sometime."

I would add that many of those same sentiments apply to the offense as well.  Williams' replacement, Joe Kerrigan, is a great pitching coach.  But now that he's the manager, that expertise won't be as available to a staff that could use all the coaching wizardry it can find.  This firing, which was largely driven by a personality conflict rather than any on-the-field measurement of competence, will probably cost the Red Sox their post-season berth.

AL Central

Sorry Twins fans, but this race is over and you have no one to blame but your team's general manager.  The Twins were underpowered on offense as it was and when they traded away one of the team's best offensive players without getting some kind of offense in return, their ship was sunk.  The fact that they traded Matt Lawton for a starting pitcher who's record outside one of the best pitcher's parks in the majors was dubious... well, that was the clincher.  Rick Reed is a decent pitcher, but without Shea stadium, he's average at best.  Had he gone to the Tigers, his story might be different.  As it is, he'll now ply his trade in one of the better hitter's parks in the AL and that's just not a good combination.

So even with just 2 decent starters, the Tribe will have enough pitching to win the division fairly easily.  Their offense is fantastic and if they can ever get the end of their bullpen straightened out - Rocker and Wickman have not been particularly effective lately - this team could surprise in the playoffs.

AL West

Save a collapse of Tacoma Narrows proportion - you've probably seen the footage of the suspension bridge twisting to disintegration - the Mariners have sewn up the division title.  However, come playoff time, they might not be the best team from the AL West.  The A's have just as much potency on offense and probably moreso in the starting rotation.  Their weakness is in the bullpen, but those troubles like that are routinely fixed via waiver wire deals.  Don't be surprised if they make a move to pick up a quality reliever, perhaps even a closer to replace Isringhausen, who's August ERA is a shade under 6.00.

NL East

As I opined in the preseason, the Phillies have enough of the right ingredients to win this division.  With Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu catching fire in the last month, there's no reason to expect they won't.  Sure, they are depending on 3 young starters to help carry them to the promised land, but Brandon Duckworth and Nelson Figueroa have quality arms.  Duckworth had a fabulous winter season in 1999-2000, and it only took a year for the Phillies to recognize his ability.  There does seem to be a trend regarding winter and fall league ball: players who make big time impressions in the fall league, like Albert Pujols did this last year, are increasingly making an impact the following year.  Players who make some noise in the winter leagues, like Duckworth and Erubial Durazo the year before seem to make their major league splash a year later.

The Braves on the other hand are still being carried by Greg Maddux and his dybbuk, John Burkett.  The offense is 11th in the NL in scoring which is probably not good enough to win the division.  They have a lot of experienced players that have been through the playoff pressure cooker before, but they don't seem to be playing with the same urgency as they have in recent years. Perhaps they are in denial that it is the once-lowly Phillies that are threatening to knock them from making the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.

I thought the Marlins might still be in contention, but apparently, all that reputed knowledge that Tony Perez accumulated on those championship Reds teams was lost in baggage handling somewhere.  He seems to be utterly bemused when making game deciding decisions.  For example, in today's game, AJ Burnett was throwing a 2-hitter going into the 8th inning.  The first hitter of the 8th, a pinch hitter for opposing hurler Shawn Estes, doubled and was brought in by a single from Marvin Benard.  He moved over to second on a Rich Aurilia infield single.  So, three straight hits and the thinking is that perhaps Burnett has done all he can do and it's time to bring in a reliever, especially with Barry Bonds coming up to the plate with just a one-run lead and nobody out.  At this point, any person with a functioning cortex would think, " OK, bring in someone who gets lefties out, or barring that, get a guy who might get a double play grounder so we can get out of this inning."  But who does Perez bring in?  Vic Darensbourg.  It's true that Darensbourg uses his left arm to throw pitches toward the catcher.  However, left handed hitters hit him MUCH better than do right handers, 4 points better in batting average and 138 (!!!) points better in slugging.  In the current Marlins' bullpen, only Antonio Alfonseca and Braden Looper are less effective against lefties than Darensbourg.  This means that 3 other guys who are sitting in the bullpen are better at it.  As for inducing a groundball, of the relievers who have appeared in at least 12 games this season for the Marlins, only Jason Grilli, a right hander, has a worse groundball-to-flyball ratio.  This means that 4 other guys sitting in the bullpen are better at it.  Put the two results together and you couldn't pick a worse choice out of the bullpen than Darensbourg in this situation.  In essence, Perez was saying, "I want Barry Bonds to hit a very long fly ball right now."  Hey, and guess what... he did.  A game-deciding 3-run homer.  The Marlins will lose many more with that kind of leadership.  In defense of Perez, Bonds was only 1-for-7 against Darensbourg in his career.  However, that doesn't show that Bonds had 3 career walks against him also.  So he's not exactly keeping him off base.  And then there's the issue of sample size - which is more likely to be trustworthy: 10 plate appearances over 4 years, or 71 batters faced this year?  The next question is this: would John Boles, a man who was fired earlier this year because he lost the confidence of his players due largely to the fact that he had never played in the majors... would he have made that same blunder?  Can it be that a guy who never played in the majors knows more about winning management than one who excelled as a player?  Makes one wonder.

NL Central

Well, I knew the Astros and Cards would be battling for the division, and I suspected that with a healthy Kerry Wood and Tom Gordon, and with the additions of Mueller and Stairs, that the Cubs could make things interesting.  What I didn't see coming was Jason Bere surpassing his rookie year performance and Julian Tavarez, despite an incredibly mediocre control of the strikezone, has pitched quite effectively, inducing a majors leading 2.84 groundball/flyball ratio.  He's been a brilliant pick-up by GM Andy MacPhail and perfect counter to high fastball strikeout pitchers Bere and Wood.  With the acquisition of McGriff, the Cubs' lineup becomes much deeper and harder to pitch around due to improved bench strength.  So although the Cubs will come nowhere near scoring the number of runs that the Astros and Cards will, they will generate enough offense to make this an exciting 3-way race.

The Astros' only "weakness" is that they are depending on 3 very young pitchers to keep them in the race.  The acquisition of Pedro Astacio will lessen that pressure considerably, even if he doesn't pitch up to expectation.  He's a solid innings eater and with the Astros infield defense, should post a number of quality starts.

The Cards didn't address their issues in the bullpen, but as I said earlier, those kind of things can be taken care of over the waiver wire.  They have good starting pitching and a good offense if McGwire can stay healthy.  However, catching two teams, especially two that have more depth, will be difficult.

These 3 teams are the most complete in the NL and it wouldn't surprise me, given that they'll get to play the majority of their remaining schedule against lowly Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, if all three finished with better records than the other NL division winners.  It also wouldn't surprise me to see Sammy Sosa finish the season with the most homers in the majors.

NL West

Like the AL Central, this race might be over as well.  The Arizona Diamondbacks have 2 adequate starters... hmmm... perhaps I should say they have 2 not-terrible starters behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and that's all they needed on the pitching side.  With starting pitching like that, they really don't have to be that good offensively to win.  The D-backs do in fact have a decent offense, so they should be the favorite to win the West, if only by default.

Look, the Giants have Dusty Baker and Barry Bonds, but Bonds has never been this good and the idea of someone starting to fulfill one's athletic potential at age 36 is a bit far-fetched.  Regardless, the Giants have serious questions with 3/5 of their rotation.  That can be overcome if you have Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on your staff, but as has been mentioned, they're on another team.  Jason Schmidt and Russ Ortiz fall quite a bit short of that quality.  And if you don't believe that the Giants have been extremely lucky all year when it comes to getting wins, then consider this: they have scored fewer runs and allowed more opposing runs to score than the Padres have this year.  Their Pythagorean projection places them with a record of 63-58, 6 games behind their current pace.  The laws of physics conspire against them remaining in the race.

The Dodgers might have enough to challenge but it's hard to see how.  If Kevin Brown comes back soon, they could have enough starting pitching to make things interesting, but after Sheffield, Green and LoDuca, they really don't have much offense.  It's somewhat of a minor miracle that they're 8th in the NL in scoring, especially considering the park they play in.  Any team that gives low production players like Marquis Grissom, Tom Goodwin, Jeff Reboulet and Alex Cora a significant number of at bats in this run-scoring environment has stacked the deck against themselves.

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