Friday, September 21, 2007

The Home Stretch

There's a lot to be excited about as we head for the last 10 games of the regular season. The AL playoff field is pretty much established: Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Angels. Although, as you may have heard, the first two teams on that list have been engaging in a life-or-death struggle simply to determine who gets to face which of the latter two teams.
The above-linked article compares the Red Sox situation to that of the '78 team that blew a comfortable lead to the Yankees and then lost it all in a one-game playoff. In a sense, the comparison is valid; the '07 Sox had a quite comfortable lead in the AL East and have seen it dwindle to 1.5 games with 9 games remaining (the Yanks have 10 to play).
But in the realistic sense, this is nothing like '78. The AL East race is an overblown battle of collective egos in New England. It has basically no bearing on the postseason. In '78, the team that lost the race went home in October. This year, the team that loses this particular race will be the Wild Card rather than the AL East Champion. And that is absolutely no big deal.

By W-L Record and by a subjective eye-balling, the 4 AL playoff teams are very close in quality. None of the four are truly great -- each has its faults -- but they're all pretty good teams on pace to win 95 games or more. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter so much who faces whom so long as you get to the postseason in the first place.
Under no circumstances would the Sox and Yanks play each other in the ALDS. So the Sox are basically competing for home field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS against either the Indians or the Angels. Home field advantage is nice to have, but it's not worth the nervous breakdowns affecting half the population of Massachusetts. I'm sure if you looked and analyzed closely, you'd find out which team -- the Indians or Angels -- would be the most favorable matchup for Boston. But it's almost not worth the effort, because even if you do get the most favorable circumstances in October, you can still piss it all away. The Yankees beat out the Sox for the division title in 2005, and neither team made the World Series.

No, the real excitement will commence in October, when these four teams square off. As of Thursday's games, the Angels have the best record in the AL (and the MLB) at 91-62. Their win over Seattle last night clinched at least a tie for the AL West title, so the Angels are basically a lock for the postseason. As of right now, their record (a half game better than the 90-62 Indians) would grant them a spot against the Wild Card Yankees. This would leave Cleveland .vs. Boston in the other ALDS matchup. The Indians' magic number is 3, as they punched their postseason ticket with a convincing sweep of the 2nd-place Tigers earlier this week.

So who do I think will win the AL pennant? It's a toss-up, but I'll go with Cleveland. The Angels have the best rotation among the AL postseason hopefuls, and the Yankees have the best offense. But I think the Indians have just a good enough combination of everything to make it. But I have to admit that I'm also rooting for them in support of their front office (which I'm a fan of), but mainly because I want to see another curse fall; after the Cubs, the Indians are the team with the longest World Series drought (they haven't won one since 1948, when they beat the Braves). The other AL teams (LA, Boston, the Yankees) have all won the Series in the past six years, while the Indians have waited six decades.

The races in the NL are much more exciting, because they're more of the "win or go home" variety. And even those races that looked like sure things are starting to look even more doubtful:

The Mets, while not nearly as strong as last year's squad, still looked the only sure thing to make the postseason out of the NL contenders. But a dismal September saw them lose a lot of games to some very poor teams. Meanwhile, the Phillies -- having beat up on the Mets themselves -- have moved within 1.5 games of first. Here's what the two teams are facing the rest of the way, including the current winning percentage of their opponents:

3 games @ Marlins (.431)
3 games .vs. Nationals (.444)
1 makeup game .vs. Cardinals (.467)
3 games .vs. Marlins (.431)
The Marlins are tied with the Pirates for the worst record in the NL (66-87). The Nats are only modestly better (68-85). The Cardinals are marginally better, but when you take into account their woeful current state-- with half the roster injured and the possibility of finishing the season without Albert Pujols -- they're probably no better. And the Mets will be playing the last 7 of these games at home.
3 games @ Nationals (.444)
day off
3 games .vs. Braves (.523)
3 games .vs. Nationals (.444)
All eyes should be on the Braves, the only remotely competitive team either the Mets or Phillies face the rest of the way. This is bad news for Phillies fans -- sure they get to beat up on the Nats, but they also have to face a tough Atlanta team and somehow make up 1.5 games in the process. The Phillies have made a valiant effort, but I highly doubt it will result in a postseason berth (Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds list the Phillies at 48%. Not too bad, but the Mets are at 90%).
And even though they've played some exciting baseball and managed to contend in spite of a poor, injured pitching staff, this season will be a big disappointment in Philly if they don't make the playoffs. The Phillies have finished in 2nd place for three straight seasons (this season would be four straight) and have been competitive for seven straight, but they still haven't made the playoffs since 1993. Under manager Charlie Manuel, the Phillies have finished 2 games out of the East and 1 out of the Wild Card ('05) and 12 games out of the East and 3 back of the Wild Card ('06). They look to continue the trend of "almost" seasons this year, which could result in the firing of Charlie Manuel.
The Braves are still technically in the race (4.5 back), but the only real satisfaction they can find is to play spoiler versus the Phillies.
This one has been swinging back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee from the start of the season. Despite a misleading charge by the Cardinals (who are now in danger of falling past the Reds into 4th place), this has always been a two-team race between the Cubs and Brewers. Their relative mediocrity isn't quite as captivating as the tradition of losing inherent in both franchises. For the Brewers, it's the past 15 years since they were contenders. For the Cubs, it's the 99 since they won the World Series.
Through Thursday's games, the Cubs lead the Brewers by 1.5 games. With so few games left to play, this is a pretty good lead, but let's take a look at the upcoming schedule for both teams:

Cubs (80-73)
3 .vs. Pirates (.431)
day off
3 @ Marlins (.431)
3 @ Reds (.458)
Brewers (78-74)
3 @ Braves (.523)
3 .vs. Cardinals (.467)
4 .vs. Padres (.559)
Despite the fact that the Brewers have more home games left, their schedule is much tougher. The Cubs get the two worst teams in the league, and it's hard to imagine the Brew Crew getting 1.5 games on the Cubs while fighting off the Braves in Atlanta and an underrated Padres squad. Their best hope is that the Padres clinch a playoff spot before the series starts and rest all their stars.
So it looks like the Cubs will be making their first appearance in October since the infamous 2003 ALCS loss to the Marlins. They may win the division by default, but hey -- the Cardinals did the same thing last year and won the whole thing.
The drama here is, like the AL East, mainly just an anticlimactic battle between the Diamondbacks and Padres to see who wins the division and who takes the Wild Card. The D-backs lead the former by half a game, and -- considering that they're not much of a team, all told -- I wouldn't be surprised to see the Padres pass them and take over first. That would still leave Arizona with the Wild Card, as the only team still challenging them is the Phillies, who are 2.5 back of the Padres in the WC right now.
So if the season ended today, we'd see the Mets, Cubs, D-Backs, and Padres in the postseason. That's a far, far inferior collection of talent than the AL will field, but see the above comment about the '06 Cardinals. As it stands now, the Diamondbacks (86-67) have the best record in the NL, but if the Padres win the Wild Card, this would make the Cubs their NLDS opponents. While I do give the D-Backs credit, I have to wonder if the Cubs wouldn't win this one. Arizona just isn't that impressive a club, as is reflected in their Pythagorean W-L Record (74-79, which could make them one of I think 3 teams in history to make the postseason with a losing pW-pL record). The Cubs have surprisingly good starting pitching, a good bullpen stopper in Carlos Marmol, and enough offense to make things interesting.
If the Mets and Padres meet, I would predict victory for San Diego. They're probably the best team in the NL, and if they get home field advantage, would be able to put together some good-looking pitching at Petco. The Mets, on the other hand, have a weak back end of the rotation and some hitting issues of their own.
If you put a gun to my head and made me pick, I'd go for the Padres to win the pennant, edging out the Cubs in the NLCS. And I don't think any NL team will win the World Series this year (for whatever my opinion's worth).
Some more news bits:
  • The Astros named Ed Wade as their new GM, two years after he was fired from the same post in Philadelphia. Wade's track record isn't impressive, and he also doesn't seem like the guy to build from the ground up, which is what the Astros will be faced with. Keith Law refers to Wade as Tal Smith's (Astros' higher-up) "crony," which if true doesn't bode well for a franchise that has already seen too much interference from upper management, resulting in a pretty barren farm system and low expectations even in the game's most accessible of divisions.
  • Jayson Stark wrote an interesting article today about eight managers on the hot seat. Some, like John McLaren of the Mariners, should (and hopefully will) be terminated. Others, such as Ned Yost and Charlie Manuel, shouldn't be fired, in my opinion, although they'll be feeling the heat if they don't make the playoffs. But the two most interesting cases are the two Hall-of-Fame managers possibly looking for a job this offseason:
    Joe Torre. Torre will likely get the axe if the Yankees don't win the World Series; who knows, he might be gone even if they do. As easy as it is to criticize Torre's use of his bullpen, I do agree with the consensus that firing him would do more harm than good. Most every manager misuses his bullpen, and Torre's ability to keep the peace under fire is unusually important with the Yankees. It's hard to imagine anyone else doing a similar job, and I'm not convinced that the team would be better off under Don Mattingly or (more likely, according to the talking heads) Joe Girardi. Torre's far from perfect, and the boss shouldn't fire him, but he probably will. On the bright side, Torre can take some time off and pretty much take the pick of any open managerial job he wants. But I'd hate to see the Yankees have to weather such unnecessary troubles just as the team makes the jump on board Brian Cashman's youth movement.
    Tony LaRussa. The possible exit of LaRussa from St. Louis is a much more recent development and also much more nebulous. To my knowledge, nothing definite has been said either way about LaRussa, but there have been "hints" that, as he's in the last year of his contract, he may leave for Seattle, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. Any of those cities would be thrilled to have him (and rightfully so, considering their present pilots), but it's farm from a sure thing. There were some rumors of GM Walt Jocketty also departing, but that's much less certain, since (according to Stark) he's got a year left on his contract. So too does Dave Duncan, pitching coach and LaRussa right-hand man who's been by his side for 20 years.
    The Cardinals seem like they want to keep LaRussa. And while he's made his mistakes, no one should be blaming the team's present plight on him. While it would be grand for LaRussa to enter Cincinnati or somesuch as a conquering hero, it would be an incomplete victory for the city that gets him if they don't also get Jocketty and Duncan, both of whom are among the elite of their respective fields. My guess is that LaRussa uses his leverage to extract money and promises of a renewed effort to contend from St. Louis and then re-signs.
  • Over at Baseball Prospectus, David Laurila points out an interesting bit of trivia while Dan Fox has a wonderfully geeky pair of charts to look at. The ever-brilliant Nate Silver embarks on a quest to determine the best players in baseball, not on a yearly basis, but as the answer to the simple question "Who's the best player in baseball?" on a historical level.
  • I have been seriously remiss in not mentioning Astros center fielder Josh Anderson, the first major league baseball player ever from my hometown of Somerset, KY. Anderson didn't go to the same high school I did (I went to the city schools -- Somerset High -- he went to Pulaski Co. HS), but he was just a year behind me and only 1 year and 3 days younger than me. It's quite possible that I, as a sometime observer of SHS baseball games, saw him play, although I'm sure I didn't know what I was looking at at the time.
    Anderson has been a semi-prospect with Houston since he was drafted out of Eastern Kentucky University in 2003. Hometown affinities aside, I never though Anderson would make the majors. He hit for a good average in the minors, had good speed, and played good defense, but that was it. He didn't hit for any power or draw many walks, and he was basically a clone of former Astros center fielder Willy Taveras. So long as the Astros had Taveras, who is a pretty marginal major-leaguer, I didn't figure they would want to bring up his twin. But they traded Taveras in the offseason and promoted Anderson in September, and to his credit, Anderson has done an excellent job so far. He'll be back next year and may even get a starting job in the outfield next to Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. But if he does -- and no disrespect intended -- it will say more about the sorry state of the Astros than anything.
    By the way, if you've never gone to to see what major league players are from your home town, county, or state, go there now; it's a great way to kill some time. Viz:
  • Notable players from the state of Kentucky include: Dodgers utility man Dave Anderson (Louisville); perfect-game pitcher Len Barker (Ft. Knox); Baseball patriarch Gus Bell (Louisville); 19th-century star Pete Browning (Louisville); former Seattle slugger Jay Buhner (Louisville); Hall-of-Famer and Senator Jim Bunning (Southgate); turn-of-the-century Pirate Howie Camnitz (Covington); Yankees Hall-of-Famer Earle Combs (Pebworth, a very small town in Owsley County, near Beattyville); 1930s Reds ace Paul Derringer (Springfield); 70's infielder Denny Doyle (Glasgow); Reds and Expos infielder Doug Flynn (Lexington); former Indians hurler Woodie Fryman (Ewing) and his son Travis (Lexington); Red Sox All-Star Mike Greenwell (Louisville); Reds pitcher and pitching coach Don Gullett (Lynn, KY, Greenup Co.); 20's outfielder George Harper (Arlington); Phillies first baseman Don Hurst (Maysville); old-time Baltimore Orioles Dan McGann (Shelbyville); 19th-century second base star Fred Pfeffer (Louisville); Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Ekron, near Louisville); Outfielder John Shelby (Lexington); Senators star Stan Spence (South Portsmouth); Boston Braves infielder Bill Sweeney (Covington); spitballer Jesse Tannehill and his brother Lee (Dayton); old Tigers star Bobby Veach (St. Charles); and 265-game winner Gus Weyhing (Louisville).
    Current major leaguers from KY include A's pitcher Joe Blanton (Bowling Green); Astros infielder Chris Burke (Louisville); Indians starter Paul Byrd (Louisville); Rockies sinkerballer Aaron Cook (Ft. Campbell); Milwaukee outfielder Corey Hart (Bowling Green); Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns (Lexington); lefty specialist Trever Miller (Louisville); gigantic relief pitcher Jon Rauch (Louisville); Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds (Pikeville); Marlins All-Star Dan Uggla (Louisville); Arizona ace Brandon Webb (Ashland) and Rangers outfielder Brad Wilkerson (Owensboro).
    There are only three major-league managers in history from Kentucky, and the only one from this century is Eddie Haas, who was one of several pilots guiding the 1985 Braves. That's not exactly representin', Eddie.
    An interesting side story is that the only major leauger ever killed by a pitch (Ray Chapman, 1920) was born in Beaver Dam, KY, not far from where my father was born. I asked my Dad if he knew any Chapmans when he grew up, and he did, possibly some of Ray's distant relations. Coincidentally, the man who threw the fatal pitch -- Carl Mays -- was born in Liberty, not far at all from Somerset.
    Speaking of which, other than Josh Anderson, the players born closest to my home town would be:
    Marv Foley, from Stanford; played in 203 career games from 1978-84, mostly with the White Sox.
    Jim Jones, from London; played in 90 games from 1897-1902.
    Carl Mays, from Liberty; the afore-mentioned.
    Jim Park, from Richmond; 42 forgettable games from 1915-17.
    George Payne, from Mt. Vernon; 12 games in 1920.
    Lexington isn't that far away, either, and a lot of these towns I've never even heard of (and may not even be on the map anymore).
    So other than Josh Anderson, the major-leaguer who's nearest to me by geography is Carl Mays.
Next up is (hopefully) another installment of my series on underrated ballplayers, and I'd also like to discuss the 2007-08 class of free agents before the offseason actually begins.

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