National League benefits greatly from mining AL rejects; more notes
John Smoltz, Cliff Lee and Brad Penny have all profited from a league switch
One American League GM: "Going from the AL to the NL, it's like oxygen"
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John Smoltz, who posted an 8.32 ERA for the Red Sox, has turned his game around since getting to St. Louis and has a 2.65 ERA for the Cardinals. Rafael Betancourt, who was an average reliever for the Indians, didn't allow a run his first 14 outings for the Rockies. Cliff Lee, who pitched well but lost more games than he won with the Indians this year, transformed into an almost-unhittable hurler in his first five starts for the Phillies.
Then, in perhaps the biggest league-switching eye-opener of all, Brad Penny, who was released by the Red Sox after appearing to run out of steam in Boston, threw eight shutout innings in his first start back in the National League for the Giants after never getting past seven for Boston. And that start came against the Phillies, who are described as the NL team that's most like an AL team.
"Going from the AL to the NL, it's like oxygen," one AL general manager said.
"If I'm an NL GM," said another AL GM, "I'm taking every scrap heap player from the American League."
That actually does appear to be a strategy for some opportunistic NL GMs. Whether or not they intentionally focused on the AL-to-NL switch, the Cardinals, Rockies and Dodgers especially appear to have benefited by mining the superior league for talent. Not coincidentally, those three teams are in playoff positions as of today.
The Cardinals, whose rescue of Matt Holliday from the A's was maybe the best midyear move (along with Lee), have used the Red Sox in particular as a source of talent, acquiring Smoltz and Julio Lugo this year after importing Joel Pineiro two years ago. The Dodgers, who last year transformed their season by acquiring Casey Blake and especially Manny Ramirez from the Indians and Red Sox, respectively, went so far as to take a DH, Jim Thome, from the White Sox this summer.
The Man-child became otherworldly when he went to the Dodgers in 2008 (although part of that could have been because of increased effort, as well), and so did CC Sabathia when he went to the Brewers (though to be fair, he's having that sort of second half with the Yankees, too).
Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has done very well by importing Huston Street and Betancourt, and within the past several days took flyers on struggling former stars Jason Giambi and Jose Contreras. Giambi, who had been horrendous with the A's this season, already helped win a game. As for Contreras, well, Rockies people privately will tell you they took him because they had few other options. But Contreras could be the best test case of all. Since he was absolutely putrid on the White Sox this season, if he thrives in Colorado he has a chance to become the greatest turnaround example of all.
When O'Dowd was asked whether he considers a change of leagues in making deals, he answered honestly. "I do," he said, before adding that sometimes he also considers a change of scenery, as was the case with Jason Marquis, who was mediocre for the Cubs in recent years before becoming an All-Star for the Rockies this year.
O'Dowd said the difference in leagues has been obvious for a decade. He cited Randy Johnson's trade from Seattle to Houston way back in 1997 as the first case of an incredible transformation. "He was OK in Seattle [that year], but he went on a roll that was phenomenal in Houston," O'Dowd recalled. Johnson was known as a terrific talent with the Mariners but wound up winning his four straight Cy Young Awards with the NL's Diamondbacks.
The AL has won 11 straight All-Star decisions (assuming each team has a 50-50 chance in All-Star Games, the chances for the AL to win 11 straight would be 1 in 2,048), and has also won the interleague battle six straight years, with that tally being slightly more lopsided over the past four years. (The AL has won 55 percent of interleague games over the last six years but the percentage rises to 57 percent over the last four.)
However, it's still the individual examples that are most glaring. Holliday, a superstar with both the Rockies and now again with the Cardinals, had a rough three months with the A's before happily escaping a bad situation for one of baseball's better environments. Hitting .286 and slugging .454 with the A's, Holliday has gone on a tear since getting to St. Louis, where his batting average has jumped to .375 and his slugging percentage to .691 as he has helped to lead the Cardinals' surge that has all but wrapped up the NL Central Division.
LaTroy Hawkins is yet another example of a complete turnaround. Released by the Yankees last year, he has been lights out with the Astros this year. His ERA in New York was 5.71; with Houston it was 0.43 last year and 2.05 this year.
Since the leagues draw talent from the same amateur and professional pools, it seems odd that one league would be so dominant. Theories abound, ranging from the DH in the American League to differing styles (the sac bunt is all but dead in the AL) to the high payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox to increased competition based on trying to keep up with the teams at the top (usually those two juggernauts in the AL East).
"You can do nothing like the Houston Astros and still compete every season in the NL," one AL executive pointed out. (The Astros aren't exactly in the mix this year, though.) Another executive said he believed that the White Sox and Blue Jays, two AL teams with losing records this year, would contend in the NL.
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