Five Up, Five Down
Angels' playoff advantage, curse of Polanco and more
Posted: Friday August 31, 2007 4:07PM; Updated: Saturday September 1, 2007 8:30PM
I. Angels' potential three-man rotation: Last summer, Major League Baseball announced that there would be four additional off-days in the postseason under a new television agreement starting in 2007. Many folks lamented the fact that Game 7 of the World Series would be scheduled in November, but Dodgers catcher Mike Lieberthal didn't mind: "What's four or five more days," Lieberthal said to the Associated Press. "If it increases revenue, more power to it."
What Lieberthal failed to realize was that this schedule tweak could have a far broader impact. With the four extra off-days, it's been largely speculated that managers will be able to revert to a three-man rotation throughout the playoffs. And this is something that could largely benefit the Angels, who pretty much locked up the division title by sweeping the Mariners in Seattle earlier this week.
Los Angeles' potential three-man rotation includes John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and Jered Weaver. That 1-2 punch at the top is unparalleled in the American League this season. Lackey has developed into a true ace in his second year as Los Angeles' No. 1. The durable right-hander is tied for the major league lead with 16 wins -- which is already a career high -- and owns a 3.18 ERA. With those numbers, Lackey's a bona fide Cy Young candidate, but currently, he may not even be the most qualified hurler on his own roster.
Teammate Kelvim Escobar is in the midst of a huge breakout season. The 31-year-old right-hander boasts a 15-6 mark and the American League's second-lowest ERA (2.77), thanks in large part to a nasty splitter that simply keeps the ball in the yard. He and Lackey could accumulate a combined 40 wins by the end of the regular season.
After the Big Two, Mike Scioscia will fill the third spot with Weaver. Following a fabulous rookie campaign in '06, Weaver struggled at times this season, but he still owns a 3.79 ERA and has given up two or fewer runs in four of this last five starts. It remains to be seen how the 24-year-old will perform on the big stage in October, but we all saw what his normally erratic brother did last October.
Even if Weaver were to falter, the Angels have tough-minded southpaw Joe Saunders, who has been a pleasant surprise at the back end of the rotation. Saunders could also be used in that third spot against a lefty-heavy lineup.
One month from today, the playoffs will be set. And it's hard to imagine any AL team having a better three-man playoff rotation than Lackey-Escobar-Weaver. Although it may ruffle some feathers in Beantown and the Bronx, I'd take L.A.'s trio over Beckett-Matsuzaka-Schilling and Pettitte-Wang-Clemens for this postseason.
II. That other Phillies infielder: Prior to breaking his hand in July, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was a leading candidate for NL MVP. Since Utley's injury, Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard has emerged as a frontrunner for the vaunted piece of hardware. But, there's a chance that neither player is even the most valuable Phillie. That title may belong to Jimmy Rollins.
Rollins, who has started all 133 games this season, is enjoying the best all-around year of any shortstop in baseball (sorry, Hanley, but I'm counting defense, too). At the plate, Rollins leads the National League in runs (115), triples (15) and total bases (305), and he's hitting .293 with 24 homers, 33 doubles, 75 RBIs and 27 steals in 32 attempts.
Defensively, Rollins is as sound as ever and could finally earn the Gold Glove that has somehow evaded him during his seven-year career. J-Roll is constantly overshadowed by his Philadelphia infieldmates and fellow shortstops (Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter, etc.), but this year he's arguably better than all of the above.
III. Micah Owings' bat: On the hill, Diamondbacks rookie pitcher Micah Owings has experienced an up-and-down season, with a 6-7 record and 4.51 ERA. At the plate, though, Owings has enjoyed unbelievable success. The sweet-swinging 24-year-old is hitting .280 with four homers, two doubles, a triple, 12 RBIs and a .902 OPS. Against the Braves earlier this month, Owings went 4-for-5 with two jacks, a double and six RBIs. And these weren't cheap homers, either; the first one landed 20 rows up the left-field pavilion and the second one traveled an estimated 446 feet.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though; Owings hit .382 last year in the minors and smacked 69 homers during his high school career -- one shy of the national record. Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin even acknowledged that the D'backs have thought about playing the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder in the field during his off days. "If that's something that next year we feel like [doing] ... there's no doubt in my mind he could probably play a position," Melvin told MLB.com.
IV. Yunel Escobar: Former Cuban defector Yunel Escobar has accomplished great things since making his debut for the Braves on June 2 -- batting .333 with two game-winning hits, fielding three infield positions with admirable success and possibly turning Edgar Renteria into Wally Pipp.
Renteria was in the midst of a fine offensive season before he badly sprained an ankle and basically missed all of August. In his absence, Escobar manned shortstop full-time, hitting .359 in the month. Now there is talk that Escobar's success has made Renteria expendable and could lead to an offseason trade. Granted, this is Internet fodder and nothing more, but would the Braves be wise to sell high on their 32-year-old shortstop?
V. Papa Grande: I have a confession to make: For most of the season, I've been sullying the good name of Jose "Papa Grande" Valverde to just about anyone who will listen; forewarning the masses of a spectacular collapse by the Arizona closer. But we're at September's doorstep, and Valverde's major league-leading 41 saves, 2.77 ERA and 1.03 WHIP are staring me in the face. Bottom line, Papa Grande has proven that my season-long disparagement was unfounded. As an act of penance, I reveal to you an e-mail I received last week entitled "Constructive Criticism:"
"You are an atrocious hack of a sports columnist. My advice to you would be take some more writing classes, stop trying to meld pop culture into your work, and pay your dues as a beat writer following minor league lacrosse for a few years."