Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Regular Season Is Over

It was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of major league baseball. On my 25th birthday, August 7th, the Detroit Tigers held a 10-game in the AL Central. With only 50 games left, the Tigers were as certain a postseason lock as you can get. How many teams have lost a 10-game lead in August (I don't know, but I'd guess not many). It would take a historic collapse reminiscent of the 1951 Dodgers or the 1964 Phillies to dethrone the Tigers.
And that's exactly what happened.
After August 7th, the Tigers went 19-31. The Twins, who were 10.5 games behind the Tigers in 3rd place (the White Sox were in 2nd) have since gone 31-20. And on the last day of the season, the Twins defeated the slumping White Sox 5-1 (the White Sox went 25-27 after the 7th to finish 90-72). The Tigers blew an 8-7 lead over the Royals in the 8th inning, and then lost the game in the 12th inning. The Twins clinched the division title in historic fashion. All the Tigers had to do was take one game from the Royals at home, but as impossible as it may sound, the Tigers got swept by the Royals to end the season. And so the Twins completed one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.
But no one noticed. Why? Because the Twins and the White Sox were both guaranteed a playoff berth a week ago, and after that, who won the division was much less important. It was not unimportant, as the Wild Card Tigers have to face the Yankees in the first round, whereas the Twins get the Athletics. But simply because of the Wild Card, this great playoff race was rendered moot.
I've never really liked the Wild Card, but I've come to accept it as a necessary part of a game with 30 different teams. Baseball sends a little more than 25% of its teams to the postseason, which is a lot, but is nowhere near the 50%+ that basketball and hockey send. It was a competitive and financial necessity, and I've grown to accept the Wild Card (or the Water Closet, as Rob Neyer calls it) and don't think it should be abolished. I think the Wild Card and the 3-division format have done more for competitive balance than any of the revenue sharing measures baseball has introduced. But that doesn't mean I have to like the results.
I've often heard the 1993 NL West race referred to as the "last great pennant race." That's because 1993 was the last year of the 2-division format in each league. It also saw a race between two legitimately great teams, the Giants and Braves. In that season, the Braves made an improbable comeback, and the race went down to the final day of the season. The drama came from the simple fact that it was "win or go home." The Braves won on the last day of the season, and the Giants lost. The Giants' final record was 103-59, making them most likely the last 100-win team to miss the postseason. Since then, the best team to miss the postseason was the 1999 Cincinnati Reds, who finished 96-67, losing a 1-game Wild Card playoff to the Mets.

In the National League, we have a nearly identical situation in the NL West, although it wasn't nearly as interesting or dramatic, mainly because it did not involve any really good teams or any big-time comeback. The Dodgers and Padres finished the regular season tied 88-74 in the West lead. But they will not play a playoff game. Since both teams are guaranteed a playoff spot as division leader and Wild Card, the seeding will be determined by the in-season series. The Padres beat the Dodgers in their seasonal series, and so will technically be the NL West "Champions," while the Dodgers will be the Wild Card. The difference is that the Dodgers have to face the Mets (sans Pedro Martinez) and the Padres get the Cardinals.
As for those Cardinals, they managed to back into the playoffs in historic fashion. The Cardinals lost today to the Brewers, narrowing their NL Central lead to one game. If the Astros could beat the Braves, the lead would be just 1/2 game, and the Cardinals would be forced to make up a game against the Giants tomorrow afternoon. Then, if the Cards lost and the division were tied, the two teams would have a one-game playoff on Tuesday to determine who would win the Central and who would go home.
Luckily for schedule makers everywhere, the Braves were able to beat the Astros 3-1 on the strength of an excellent start by John Smoltz, who notched his 16th win and lowered his ERA to 3.49. The Astros finish the season just one game short, at 82-80. The Astros have made improbable comebacks in each of the last three years, but this year it was not to be.

That leaves the Cardinals facing the Padres in the first round of the NLDS, a rematch from last year. The tides have turned, however. Last year, the 100-win Cardinals went in as heavy favorites against the 82-80 Padres and swept them in three games. Now, the 88-74 Padres are the favorites over the dismal 83-78 Cardinals. The Cardinals have Albert Pujols, yes. They also have Scott Rolen and the unlikely Chris Duncan. But their only good pitcher, Chris Carpenter, has been showing signs of fatigue lately, and the rest of the their rotation is pretty sorry (except perhaps for Jeff Suppan). The Padres, on the other hand, have an underrated offense and a fine pitching staff. I'll be making my official postseason predictions sometime in the next day or two, but I think the Padres should have an easy time of it with St. Louis.
The Mets and Dodgers series may seem like a mis-match, but no such luck. Not only will Pedro Martinez miss the postseason, as previously reported, Martinez has a serious arm injury that will sideline him for eight months, meaning he won't be back until early June 2007, according to an report. This is bad news. This is bad news times twenty. The Mets are still a good team and are certainly still capable of winning the pennant, but we can no longer call them clear favorites to do so. The Dodgers have a strong pitching staff and a pretty good offense and are certainly capable of winning against the likes of Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel.
The worst part of this is for Pedro's future. Pedro will be 35 next year, and even if he returns in June, I'm guessing that it's doubtful that he will be very effective in 2007. Considering Pedro's injury history and age, an injury of this magnitude at this point of his career could be catastrophic. I'm not saying that it will be career-ending, but I'm saying that it may be the end of PEDRO, and all we have left may be a few good innings and a couple glimpses of what used to be. This is awful for Pedro, but especially so for the Mets, who still owe him $25 million for the next two seasons, and definitely won't be getting the ace they thought they signed. This is exactly why the Red Sox balked at giving Pedro a 4th year in their contract negotiations.

Some random thoughts on the year's final standings:
  • Despite their 3-game sweep of Detroit, the Royals still finished the season 62-100, making them the first team in 30 years to lose 100 games three years in a row. That previous team, the Blue Jays, was an expansion team that at least had a good excuse. The Royals have turned things around with a new GM and would be well served with a new manager, but I just don't know if this franchise can contend with David Glass as owner.
  • What the Royals did manage with that 3-game winning streak was to avoid finishing with the worst record in baseball. That honor goes to the Devil Rays, who ended up at 61-101. Many people picked this year as the year the Rays would take a big step forward, thanks to their big-time young talent. Instead, it's the second-worst record in franchise history. Yay team.
  • Thanks to a late surge from Toronto, the Blue Jays finished in 2nd place in the AL East, at 87-75. This isn't what the front office wanted, but it is right about where I thought the team was at the beginning of the season. On the other hand, you have the Red Sox, who finished in 3rd place at 86-76. The Red Sox have finished in 2nd place every year since 1997, when they finished 4th. I fear that there may be bloodshed in Boston in the offseason, as the Sox have to be considered one of the league's biggest disappointments.
  • I predicted earlier that the AL would have a 90-win team that missed the playoffs. I was right; the White Sox went 90-72 and finished 3rd in the AL Central. It was an unfortunate downfall for the Sox, but considering the strength of their division, I don't think it's quite the catastrophe that others have made it out to be. The bad news is that the Sox don't have anything like the young talent that Cleveland, Minnesota, and Detroit have, meaning that their window of opportunity in the AL Central is narrow. But hey, at least they've got a World Series banner that will fly forever.
  • The Angels finished the season 89-73. They're actually in pretty darn good shape as a team and should challenge the A's for the division title next year. The Angels got off to a terrible start, going 37-44 in their first 81 games. From then on, they went an amazing 52-29 to make the AL West a close race. They've got the pitching talent to compete with anybody, and if they can replace some of their dead weight (Darin Erstad) with their young talent, they're as good as anybody.

I'll be back later with my official playoff predictions. I'll also keep you up to date on the Trevor Hoffman Project (hereafter known as the THP).


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