Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Baseball View: 2/3 Re-, 1/3 Pre-

Major league baseball teams reach the two-thirds mark of the season (108 of 162 regular-season games) this week, and the principal trade deadline just passed. This is a good time to review the season so far and what remains.


In my preseason picks, I had a few things right (besides the obvious ones), but there have been some big surprises, as well. Here are the top five unexpected team performances for me, thus far:

1) San Diego Padres--I had them dead last; I was not alone in this. They are over the hump in terms of believing they can win, but that doesn't mean they're in. It looks as though they will have a tough battle down the stretch with the Giants (whom I did see coming; I picked them to win the Wild Card, and if the season ended today, they'd have it).
2) Colorado Rockies--The offsetting error, the team that I picked to win the NL West, is now in fourth place, despite the performance of the most outstanding NL player of the year thus far, pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. It's not surprising that their pitching, other than Jimenez, has been spotty (or downright poor); the surprising thing has been a relative lack of hitting.
3) Cincinnati Reds--I thought they were a year away from what they have been able to achieve so far this year. They are a great example of the sudden surge in pitching depth; seems like they have a new, young flamethrower emerging every three months (with the flamiest thrower of all, Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, about ready to emerge). Like the Padres, though, they haven't won anything yet, and they are up against the wiliest veteran team in the league, the Cardinals.
4) Tampa Bay Rays--I am thrilled by their resurgence this year. I had hoped for this; a lot of misfortune to the Botox has contributed to that result.
5) Atlanta Braves--Like the Reds, they came up faster than expected; like Tampa Bay, they've been helped by the ineptness of a key divisional rivals, the Phillies.

Next on the list would be the degree of collapse of the Orioles, which I had thought may be an improving team (it may yet be, but not meaningfully for this year), and the continuing rise of the late-starting Chicago White Sox.

On an individual performance level, there are several surprises, but generally the positive ones (like, for example, Jose Bautista on the Blue Jays, or Rickie Weeks on the Brewers) have not translated into major team success. The one exception I would note is the combo of Vladimir Guerrero, who has had a great season so far for the Texas Rangers (moderately surprising, as he seemed to be in decline the past couple years), and Josh Hamilton; their hitting has been a key component in their developing a large lead in the AL West.

Yet to Come

American League
There are really two races remaining in the AL regular season: 1) the AL Central rematch between Minnesota and Chicago; and 2) the three-way race in the AL East (and for the Wild Card) with New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston. The latter race could realistically be down to two after this weekend, if Boston doesn't hurt the Yanks in their series in New York.

One might say that it doesn't matter whether New York or Tampa Bay wins the division, but I would disagree with that. If the likely scenario unfolds with one winning the AL East--with the best record in the league--and the other the Wild Card, the rules would set the WC against the second best of the division winners, which I would expect to be Texas. Although I picked the Yanks to win the pennant (not much of a stretch, I admit), I would look to a possible first-round matchup with the Rangers as a likely route to getting the Yanks out of the way in the postseason, before they build up a head of steam. So, I do care, and I want TB to take the division. I won't be happy with anything but a Tampa Bay-Texas AL Championship series, in which I now like the Rangers (due to their acquisition of Cliff Lee).

The conventional wisdom is that the ChiSox' surge will continue and push them well past the Twins, but I'm not buying that. I see some weak spots in Chicago's pitching, which I think will lead to a cold streak before long and keep the race close until the end. Still, they are probably the better bet, and I'm willing to pull for them for our President's sake (he's a White Sox backer).

National League
In the National League, every postseason spot is seriously contested, with no sign that the tension will end soon. Late trading moves by most of the contenders will have significant effect on the pennant races, too.

In the East, the Phillies' pickup of Roy Oswalt gives them a reasonable facsimile of last year's postseason star, Cliff Lee, whom they should've kept. That failure still rankles me, and I'm actively rooting against them, for the division and, more critically for me, for the Wild Card. Josh Howard's injury gives me hope for that outcome. The Braves have emerged as a team with a good mix of youths and veterans, with a sense of purpose to win now (Bobby Cox's last year, seems like it's likely to be Chipper Jones' last, and also closer Billy Wagner's, at least according to him, and he should know). I'm moderately confident of the Bravos' ability to hold off Philly, as long as they have no more setbacks to their pitching rotation (the recent loss of Kris Medlen hurts, but another loss would be fatal).

In the NL West, San Francisco has slightly better pitching than San Diego, with similarly anemic team offense. This looks to be a tight race, possibly coming down to a key failure in the Padres' pitching (most likely, on a road trip), or a key hitter on one team or the other (Adrian Gonzalez, say, or Pablo Sandoval or newcomer Pat Burrell on the Giants) either getting real hot, real cold, or injured. The Dodgers and the Rockies have fallen out of the race, but will be playing key games down the stretch against the contenders and are likely spoilers.

In the NL Central, the Cardinals have shored up their pitching with Jake Westbrook, which should help both down the stretch and in the postseason, if they make it. And I would have to say I expect them to get in, and to do well. The Reds' emergence--a good blend of young hitters, young starting pitching arms, and good defense, is the most exciting development in recent years (at least since Tampa Bay's emergence). I fear they might be overmatched (because of lack of experience) in a head-to-head for the divisional title, but I'm hoping they can stay with the Cards until the end, and that that will be good enough for a Wild Card berth (over the East and West's second-placers--so, another reason to root against the Phils).

I will stick with my preseason pick of the Cards to win the NL pennant, and the World Series, though of course I hope I will be wrong here, too.

Historical Notes
My preseason World Series pairing of the Yanks and Cards features the two teams with the most World Series wins (the Cards' 10 slightly ahead of the Athletics' franchise--we won't discuss the 27 titles the Yankees have), and they have played many times in the World Series in the past (I didn't check to see if it is the most frequent matchup, but it's certainly one of them). Somewhat surprisingly, though, they haven't opposed each other in the Fall Classic since 1964. Of course, I am hoping my prediction is wrong and that, in fact, neither team makes it, but I'd still say it is the most probable single matchup.

If the Phillies overcome my moral resistance and make it to the NL Championship Series, they will be gunning to make history, as the first NL team to three-peat for league pennants since...the 1942-44 Cardinals. Eight teams have won twice and come up short in the third try since then, from most recently:
1995-96 Braves (lost in '97 NLCS to the Florida Marlins, who won the Series;
1991-92 Braves (lost in the '93 NLDS to the Phils, who lost the Series)
1977-78 Dodgers (were beaten out in the NL West in '79 by the Reds, who lost to the eventual Series winner, the Pirates);
1975-76 Reds (in '77, despite George Foster's breakout 52-HR year and the midyear trade for Tom Seaver, the Reds finished a distant second in the NL West, the loss of mojo blamed by us Reds' fans on the preseason trade of Tony Perez);
1967-68 Cards (lost in '69 to the Mets' team of destiny);
1965-66 Dodgers (lost to the aforementioned Cards);
1955-56 Dodgers (lost out to the Atlanta Braves);
1952-53 Dodgers (lost out in '54 to the Giants, who actually won the Series).

Before the Cards' wartime threepeat, there had been in the modern era three consecutive NL pennants for the New York Giants (1911-1913) and the 1906-08 Cubs. The alltime NL record of four consecutive pennants is held by the New York Giants, from 1921-24.

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