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AL West: Mariners Sinking
Last week in this space, I proclaimed that the Mariners were done in the division race and close-to-finished in the Wild Card as well. After Wednesday's 10-2 loss to the Yankees -- Seattle's 11th defeat in 12 games -- the Mariners blogosphere was all doom and gloom. Both U.S.S. Mariner and Caffeinated Confines confirmed that this latest setback is the death blow to Seattle's season. Now that the Mariners have reached their last day, it's time to appreciate the surprising season that was.
Here are the top 10 positives to take away from Seattle's 2007 campaign:
10. Seattle signs Phillipe Aumont. Many scouts believed Aumont was a top-five talent, but the Mariners snatched him up with the 11th overall pick. Seattle signed the 6-foot-7, 225-pound hurler just hours before the August 15 deadline.
9. Kenji's Golden Glove. Although this award is far from predictable, Johjima should be a shoe-in for the Gold Glove. The Mariners' backstop has committed just two errors all season and boasts more than a 40 percent success rate in nailing potential base stealers (29-of-70).
8. Mariner Moose still has a job. Red Sox Nation wasn't too happy after Mariner Moose's hit-and-run on Coco Crisp, but the team quickly announced that the mascot's reckless driving would go unpunished.
7. The Guillen gamble paid off. Before this season, Bill Bavasi signed Jose Guillen to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, even though the outfielder was fresh off the surgeon's table. Guillen took on a big leadership role and rewarded the Mariners with a productive season (.287, 19 homers, 84 RBIs)
6. Adrian Beltre's career has a pulse again. At this point, it's safe to say that Beltre's unbelievable 2004 season was an aberration, but at least he's starting to partially earn his $64 million contract.
5. Brandon Morrow's rookie year. As the Mariners' top pick from the 2006 draft, Morrow wasn't expected to make an impact this soon. But the hard-throwing right-hander has been a key cog in Seattle's above-average bullpen. This season is a solid stepping stone for Morrow, who could fill a spot in the starting rotation in 2008.
4. King Felix displayed notable progress. OK, so consistency was still a major issue, but let's all remember one thing -- this kid's still just 21. Hernandez looked downright dominant during stretches this season, and he could finish the season with a sub-4.00 ERA.
3. Ichiro's staying put. Seattle locked up its 200-hit machine through 2012 with a five-year, $90 million deal. Although Marlins president David Samson would disagree, I think this is market value.
2. J.J. Putz's meteoric rise. Putz quietly enjoyed a spectacular 2006 campaign, but he garnered national attention during his sophomore stint as Seattle's closer. Putz converted his first 29 save opportunities of the season and ranks second in the AL with 37 total. He'll receive a fair amount of Cy Young votes.
1. Valuable games into September. Let's be honest ... If I had told Mariners fans back in March that they would care about this team going into the season's last month, they would have laughed in my face.
Labels: AL West
NL East: The Wright Choice for MVP
I won a hotly contested race for seventh grade student council vice president thanks not only to a bogus promise to install a soda machine in the cafeteria, but to a campaign slogan which at that point in my life was the cleverest thing I’d ever thought up (and remains so, some of my readers would argue). “The Reiter choice is the right choice!” my supporters chanted, Donna Martin Graduates-style, as they carried me through the halls. Or so I prefer to remember.
The point of all this is, if David Wright wants to borrow my winning slogan for his NL MVP candidacy, I’ll gladly let him have it, even though there’s something tautological about "The Wright choice is the right choice." At this point we know that the league’s MVP will come from the NL East. It's a mortal lock; no fewer than five of the top ten vote-getters—in Wright, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Fungoes fave Hanley Ramirez -- should come from the offensively-loaded division (and I would also throw Jose Reyes and Chipper Jones, who is quietly second in the NL with a 1.003 OPS, into the mix). But even J-Roll, who still has a good chance to finish the season hitting .300 with 30 home runs, 30 steals, 200 hits, 100 RBI, 40 doubles, 20 triples, and 140 runs scored and was the subject of this colorful profile by Michael Bamberger in this week’s SI (love the detail that he uses Ryan Howard’s bat when facing off-speed pitchers), has done less for his team when it matters most than Mr. Wright.
In a second half in which the Mets struggled with a multitude of slumps and injuries, Wright elevated his game and is the biggest reason why New York has been able to hold off the surging Phillies, whom they currently lead by five games even though they were swept in a four-game series in Philly last week. Since the All-Star break, Wright has an NL-best .359 average; the second best OPS in the NL (1.057), better than Albert Pujols; 12 stolen bases, more than noted speedsters Dave Roberts, Willie Taveras and Brandon Phillips; 40 RBI, more than Adam Dunn and Miguel Cabrera; and 45 runs scored, second behind only the (mostly) leadoff-hitting Rollins and three more than his teammate Reyes.
As much as Rollins has done, Wright projects to finish with an average that’s 20 points higher, an OBP that’s more than 60 points higher, six more homers, 10 more RBI, and -- most surprisingly -- two more steals. Plus he’s doing it surrounded by a lineup that this season has been weaker than Rollins’.
I don’t mean to take anything away from what J-Roll has accomplished in 2007. He’s had a historic season, and has been a consistent force on a team that, like the Mets, has seen more than its share of slumps (Howard early on) and injuries (Utley, Shane Victorino). At this point, however, the MVP race comes down to this (and say it with me now): the Wright choice is the right choice.
Labels: NL East
NL Central: The Ankiel Story
The Cubs started the season poorly, but have recovered and worked their way back into contention (they beat the Dodgers last night to remain a half-game ahead of the Brewers). But no team has come back from a worse spot than the defending World Champs, who are just two games out of first place. Yes, the Cards were underdogs last year -- they had the worst regular-season record of any World Series champ. This year, they are taking it too far, led by their poster child of Can-Do, Rick Ankiel, the former pitcher turned slugging outfielder, whose story is right out of a Hollywood movie.
"I don't think he's getting enough credit for what he's doing," Derek Lowe told the L.A. Times recently. "It wouldn't matter if he started out 0 for 16. To be a pitcher and say, OK, I'm going to become a hitter and make it to the major leagues? I'm amazed at what he can do. It's a phenomenal story."
Ankiel was a considerable talent as a pitcher -- he struck out 194 men in 175 innings when he was 20 -- but he famously fell apart in the 2000 playoffs, walking eleven and throwing nine wild pitches in four innings. He pitched 34 more innings and was hurt for the better course of three seasons. He was a victim of Steve Blass syndrome, the sudden inability to perform the most common baseball tasks, and was best profiled by Pat Jordan, himself a failed minor league pitcher, in the New York Times Magazine:
Pitchers who forget how to pitch seem to fear not failure but success. They don't want to face the pressure of the expectations of their success. So they rebel, self-destructing in a way that puts them beyond blame. The reason for their failure, their fear, is so deeply rooted that neither they nor anyone else can ever drag it to the surface to make them confront it. It's all a mystery. But the only way they can ever overcome their apparently inexplicable collapse is to admit that it's no mystery, that it is their fault. They are afraid.
Jordan, who has written extensively about his failures as a pitcher in the memoirs A False Spring and A Nice Tuesday, has also written about other mound failures like Steve Blass himself, Bo Belinsky and Steve Dalkowski. His advice to Ankiel? Don't think. As Crash Davis once told Nuke Laloosh -- a character who, incidentally, was based on Dalkowski: "It can only hurt the team."
Ankiel continued to battle his control problems and was then felled by injuries. In 2005, when he was at the end of his rope as a pitcher, the Cardinals offered him a chance to reinvent himself as an outfielder. And so, the fallen pitcher was able to reemerge as an outfielder.
"I liked Rick, but don't have any interest in him right now," Jordan said recently, "because there is no real story there. If he had overcome the monkey on his back, maybe. He ran away from his problem and was lucky enough to have another talent, which everyone knew about when he was pitching because he used to pinch hit in the minors. It's a nice story but it's not really interesting."
The Cardinals would beg to differ as Ankiel has been at the heart of the Cardinals resurgence. He's got 7 homers and 22 RBI in 22 games this season.
"His emotional contribution to the clubhouse has been at least as important as his on-field contributions," says Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos.
"This is a team that didn't have any fun at all for the first four months of the year. A lot of the veterans were pissed off that the front office didn't do more to improve the club in the off-season. Then La Russa got a DUI during spring training, which personally humiliated him. And then Josh Hancock died while driving drunk in April. It was an old and injured and burned out group, and I think they felt a little (or a lot) sorry for themselves. And then Ankiel came up -- and it just changed the dynamic dramatically for the better. It was the first 'feel-good' story of the whole season. The focus was no longer on 'Why do the Cardinals suck?' Instead it was all about Ankiel living out the Roy Hobbs story.
"Also, a lot of these guys have known him for a long time -- don't forget, he pitched for the Cardinals as recently as 2004, and he spent the last three spring trainings with the team -- and guys like Edmonds and Pujols go all the way back with him to his Steve Blass period. Looper and Kennedy were his minor-league teammates. La Russa has always adored him. So a lot of these guys were personally thrilled to see him get back to The Show at all, much less do so well."
Brian Gunn, a screenwriter who ran the now defunct Redbird Nation, has written about Ankiel on two occasions for The Hardball Times -- in the spring of 05 and again, today. Both pieces are must-reads.
In a recent e-mail, Gunn told me, "For the past few years Rick Ankiel has been, along with John Tudor when I was growing up, my favorite baseball player of all time, probably because he played the game the way I watched it -- all angsty and knotted-up inside. And like Tudor he seemed doomed by unfinished business, which I found attractive in an adolescent/romantic sort of way. But I'm just tickled now to see him playing with so much joy. His story reminds me of the great comebacks we saw from Jim Morris and Josh Hamilton -- seemingly out-of-nowhere, and making us feel, just a little bit, that the dreams we walked away from as kids really do have second chances."
Ankiel did not conquer his pitching problems but he's got enough talent as a hitter to reach the big leagues, proving that sometimes, there are second acts in American lives.
Which team will play the best ball over the next three weeks: the Cubs, Brewers or Cardinals? Or, more to the point, which team will stink the least?
Labels: NL Central
AL East: Inconsistent Yankees
This is how the story has changed. The Red Sox were swept by the Yankees last week, cutting their lead over New York to five games and it didn't really even matter. It didn't matter because after the sweep, the Yankees dropped three out of the next four games. Meanwhile, in only his second big league start, Clay Buchholz tossed a no-hitter at Fenway Park against the Orioles last Saturday night. Now, the lead is back to seven and only a complete catastrophe would prevent the Red Sox from not only making the playoffs but unseating the Yankees as division champs.
The Yanks have won the East for nine straight years and have a clear path to a wild-card birth -- they play the likes of the Royals, Orioles, Blue Jays and Devil Rays down the stretch, with only a three-game set in Boston as a match-up against a winning team. But the Yankees are a confounding team. When they are on as they were last night, pounding the Mariners, 12-3, they look like the best team in the majors. Chien-Ming Wang is tied with Josh Beckett for the major-league lead in wins with 17. After playing miserably for the first half of the year, Bobby Abreu has already scored 100 runs. Derek Jeter has lost some power but he's still hitting .321. Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada are having great individual seasons. The Yankees have star power, but what they lack is consistency. They don't beat up on mediocre teams like the Yankee teams of the late '90s did. And when they are bad, it's replete, all of a piece. It's the starting pitching and the relievers and the hitting, never mind the fielding.
The Joe Torre era can be split into two parts: 96-01, when they seemingly won every big game, and 02-present, where they've lost in the playoffs to the Angels twice, the Tigers and Marlins once, and, of course, famously to the Red Sox in '04. Other than two playoff series wins against the Twins, and another against Boston in '03, the Yankees have not been able to close out teams for the past six years and there is nothing to suggest that they'll suddenly be able to do it this year.
Then again, who wants to face the Yankees in the playoffs? OK, maybe the Angels do. But for New York, it doesn't much matter if they are the wild card instead of the division winners. Being the wild card didn't hurt the Angels much in '02 or the Red Sox much in '04. New York has shown that they can beat Boston in a short series. The question is, will the Yankees be able to maintain their focus, not to mention their health, against the Royals, Blue Jays and Devil Rays and reach October?
Labels: AL East
AL Central: All Hail The Tribe
May I introduce to you the 2007 American League Central division champion Cleveland Indians?
While others always preface the following comment with "I hate to say ...," I'm not going to follow suit. I love to say "I told you so."
Just so we're all clear: Yes, I am aware that there are 25 games left in the season and, no, the Tigers are not going to catch the Indians. The magic number is 20, and it's a mere formality at this point.
Why am I so confident? Because my name's not Mark Shapiro or Eric Wedge or any of the players. It's easier for an armchair blogger to make bold predictions. That said, we are undoubtedly dealing with a team of some destiny when Cleveland beats Johan Santana for the fifth this year. Wait, that bears repeating in its own paragraph:
THE INDIANS ARE 5-0 AGAINST JOHAN SANTANA.
Sorry, I'll stop shouting now. But that's an historically bad record for one season, especially for a two-time Cy Young winner. Sure, Santana is "only" 14-11 this year but his ERA is still 3.15. He's made six starts against the Tribe, receiving a no decision once, and actually had decent numbers: Cleveland is batting .242 with a .288 on-base percentage. Those are neither dominant nor terrible numbers. That's why Ryan Garko, who did homer Monday, remains quick to point out that he'd still rather avoid Santana whenever possible:
"It's never a fun at-bat," Garko said to MLB.com. "We see the schedule coming up and roll our eyes like, 'Here he comes again.' But I think we're starting to pick up his changeup a little bit better. We're not swinging at his changeup in the dirt."
Sixteen games ago, Detroit and Cleveland were tied atop the standings. The Tigers, however, have gone 6-10 in that stretch while Cleveland has posted a 12-4 mark, including an eight-game winning streak, to build the current 6-game divisional lead. Cleveland has certainly not enjoyed exceptional pitching over the past two weeks. Over the course of the win streak, the Indians allowed at least three runs in every win, save one. But only twice did they not score at least six runs, winning those two games 4-3 and 5-3.
The offense -- which was spectacular in the first half, scoring the second-most runs in the AL -- has been merely consistent in the second half. The run-scoring pace has trailed off, as Cleveland is now just fifth in the league. What's remarkable is how much the Tribe have done with Travis Hafner playing below his standards. I still think he'll be worth every penny of the large contract extension he received this season; after all, he does still get on base, drawing 86 walks so far, and his presence still affects the rest of the lineup. An off-year or not, he's still The Pronk.
Around him, Grady Sizemore continues to develop into a star, but his numbers (.277/.386/.470 with 23 HR and 70 RBI) aren't quite there yet. The real boon for the Indians has been the steady bat of the underappreciated Victor Martinez (.303/.373/.506, 21 HR, 97 RBI), a solid bounce-back year from Jhonny Peralta (.271/.335/.427, 18 HR, 65 RBI) and better-than-expected years from Casey Blake and Garko, with other spot contributions from a host of other players (really? Asdrubal Cabrera? Really?). Just not so much from Trot Nixon these days, says Terry Pluto, who in his first week back as a columnist at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer wonders why Nixon ever starts these days.
And the pitching is more than good enough. The Tribe have a bonafide ace in C.C. Sabathia, a revelation of a No. 2 starter in Fausto Carmona and a pair of veterans, Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook, who are more than capable. Byrd's been solid all season, peaking with a 7-1 record in his last eight decisions. Westbrook -- a pitiful 1-6 with a 6.20 ERA as of July 23 -- is somewhat miraculously 4-2 in last six decisions, lowering his ERA by 1.42 during that span. (Is it a coincidence that Westbrook started surging about the time he became commissioner of an RBI Baseball tournament? Um, yes.)
And Cliff Lee? Well, he's still pretty terrible. In his first relief outing, he yielded two hits, a walk and a run in one inning.
But the Indians aren't really going to rely on Lee in the bullpen. Who needs him when you have Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez? My primary reason for picking the Indians to win the division at the All-Star break was their superior -- or at least healthier -- bullpen. As long as those two keep churning out scoreless appearance after scoreless appearance, and Joe Borowski doesn't get any worse (it'd be hard to do), Cleveland should be fine.
Incidentally, I really enjoyed this note on JoBo (scroll down halfway), about he could become the first pitcher to record 45 saves with a 5-plus ERA. It's always an adventure, but games still seem to be getting saved.
Have I made a hasty proclamation to crown the Indians? Of course I have. But it's not a wrong one.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: League's Best Division
The NL West was far from the league's doormat this year. NL East teams are 69-93 against the NL West, with only Atlanta (19-14) having a winning record. NL Central teams are 85-97 against the NL West, with only St. Louis (15-14) having a winning record.
That will be of little consolation if the relative weakness of the other two NL divisions makes it easier for one of their teams -- most likely Philadelphia -- to grab the wild card. As the season heads into its final four weeks, here are the schedule challenges facing the four NL West playoff contenders:
San Diego: Monday, the Padres played (and won) the first of nine consecutive road games against their three closest divisional pursuers. After handling that stretch, they earn the relative reward of seven home games against two last-place teams, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. San Diego wraps up its home schedule this season with three against Colorado, then finishes on the road against the Giants and Milwaukee.
Arizona: The Diamondbacks, who have lost 10 of their past 15 games immediately after dropping only 10 of their previous 33, will also finish their season on the road, at Pittsburgh and Colorado. Arizona gets its last direct shot against the Padres today and Wednesday (ace Jake Peavy might take that start on three days' rest for San Diego, according to Corey Brock of MLB.com, but the Diamondbacks play the Dodgers six more times.
Los Angeles: After finishing their current four-game series in Chicago on Thursday, the Dodgers will stay in the NL West for the remainder of the regular season. A three-game series in Los Angeles against the Padres on Sept. 11-13 potentially looms large, but if San Diego starts to run away with the division, the Dodgers certainly will have a chance to make or break their wild-card destiny with 13 consecutive games against Arizona and Colorado. Los Angeles finishes at home against their weak but oft-vexing rivals, the Giants.
Colorado: Enjoy San Francisco, Rockies fans. After the Giants leave Wednesday, it's seven games in a row against the Padres and Phillies, the latter four in Philadelphia. After a three-game detour with Florida, Colorado will have an extended shot against its NL West rivals, finishing the season with 13 games with the Dodgers, Padres and Diamondbacks.
Any team that aspires to take the NL wild card might want to make their move early. Seven of Philadelphia's final 10 games are against the struggling Washington Nationals.
When the two teams played four games in San Diego last week, the most tickets sold for any contest was 29,021, Timmermann added. Stadium capacity at Petco Park is approximately 46,000.
Keystone-mate Ray Durham (.302 on-base percentage -- .267 since the All-Star Break) is also struggling, and Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News wrote that Kevin Frandsen will grab much of the 35-year-old Durham's playing time down the stretch.
"Let the kid play," Durham said with what Baggarly called "a bit of emotion in his voice."
Unlike Vizquel, Durham is due $7 million from San Francisco in 2008, Baggarly noted.
What players would belong on the NL West's all-glove team? Leave your answers in the comments below.
Labels: NL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)