September 2005

The End of the Season…Exciting, but Also the End!

I did something I rarely do this morning — I put on my Yankees hat. The last time I did this was after Game 3 of the ALCS last year. It seemed to have the intended effect that time. I only have a Yankees hat for completeness’s sake (although the introduction this year of a hideous "alternate" Orioles lid has wrecked my formerly completed set of fitted MLB game caps) and for express jinxing purposes. I would switch now to my White Sox gamer to help Cleveland get in, but I don’t want to press my luck here. It’s the New York cap all weekend. I may even sleep in it. Forgive me, Mom and Dad. So far, so good at least.

Meanwhile in a game watched by nobody, the Mets beat the Rockies. Matt Holliday needs one more homer for twenty on the year. Florida and Washington each need one more win to keep the whole NL East above .500 (they’ve already along with New York guaranteed that no one will finish below that mark). I will admit that I did peek in on the Brewers a few times, and they rewarded me by beating Pittsburgh. One more win guarantees them a winning record as well. It would also keep them ahead of the Cubs for third in the NL Central, which is very funny to me. (Chicago for their part narrowly beat Houston tonight to keep Philadelphia in the postseason mix for one more day at least.)

OK, I must turn my attention back to the Cleveland-Chicago game. Go, pennant races!

Awards

Rob Neyer says that Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols are going to split the "sophisticated" vote for the NL MVP and hand it to the undeserving Andruw Jones, which makes me unhappy. I doubt very many (if any) BWAA members are going to come here to make up their minds before filling out their awards ballots, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least try.

NL MVP: Derrek Lee (.339/.422/.668, 45 homers, 104.1 VORP) has been the best hitter in the majors this year by a wide margin. But they have an award for best hitter. Pujols (.330/.428/.606, 39, 96.9) has been nearly Lee’s equal while carrying a St. Louis offense that’s not nearly as loaded as people think (Scott Rolen and Larry Walker have been hurt, Jim Edmonds is having a slightly down year for him). Pujols would have won multiple MVP’s in the past few years were it not for the otherworldliness of Barry Bonds. He deserves to win this year as his Cards have the best record in baseball and Lee’s Cubs are an uninspiring 77-80. Why Jones (.264/.347/.579, 51, 61.4) is even in the discussion is a mystery to me. His OBP is good only for 42nd in the NL. And, if you care about "complete players," he only has four steals to Pujols’ 16 and Lee’s 15. Just say no to Andruw Jones.

AL MVP: Another two-man race, but in this case both players are on teams in contention: Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. If you leave out the fact that A-Rod plays Gold Glove defense at third and Ortiz is primarily a DH, Rodriguez still gets over on his hitting numbers alone. Rodriguez (.320/.422/.607, 46, 98.0) is second in the majors in VORP (which includes defense) and Ortiz is fifth. (Lee and Pujols are first and third.) Who’s #4, you ask? Why, it’s Pittsburgh’s Jason Bay. Who knew? Travis Hafner missed a little time this season with a concussion but he’s had an amazing year, look out for him in 2006.

NL Cy Young: I can’t stand Alex Rodriguez, and I can’t stand Roger Clemens, but a full-season ERA of 1.89 in the modern era is completely ridiculous. His won-loss record is unimpressive but people who think a starter’s win total is his most important stat are likely people who think Andruw Jones is a slam-dunk MVP. Chris Carpenter and Dontrelle Willis have had fine years but Clemens is just on another planet. One day I’m going to have to tell The Next Generation that yes, I saw Roger Clemens and yes, I saw Barry Bonds and they were both huge jerks.

AL Cy Young: What’s both good and bad about the major leagues’ top awards is that there’s really no rules. In the absence of an obvious, slam-dunk best pitcher or position player for a year, you can let all sorts of things color your thinking — his team’s record, his historical importance, whether or not he’s won a bunch of times before. The AL doesn’t have a starter with perfect credentials. Kevin Millwood is the ERA leader but has a losing record. Johan Santana (and, significantly, his team) was better last year, when he won it. The White Sox duo of Jon Garland and Mark Buehrle has faded badly down the stretch. Bartolo Colon has 20 wins but he’s not even in the majors’ top 10 in VORP. So where do you turn? Easy: Mariano Rivera. He’s the greatest closer who ever lived and at age 35 he’s had a career year: 1.41 ERA, 42 saves, 0.88 WHIP, .178 BAA, 9.31 K/9. I have the end of the Baltimore-New York game on as I’m writing this and I know I don’t even have to look up, even with the Yankees having but a one-run lead. Rivera is as sure a sure thing as there ever was in the game. Except against the Red Sox. He deserves to win a Cy Young, just as he deserves to one day enter the Hall of Fame.

NL Rookie of the Year: Tight, tight race between Ryan Howard (Philadelphia) and Jeff Francoeur (Atlanta). Francouer has the average (.306 to .284) but eschews the walk (.343 OBP to Howard’s .348). Francoeur’s got 14 homers to Howard’s 20. Jeff has a slight edge in slugging (.565 to .547). The Braves have sewn up yet another division title (ho, hum) and the Phillies will at least be in it into the final days. They’re 1-2 in the NL for VORP among rookie position players (Howard at 24.1, Francoeur at 23.5). I’m tempted to call it a tie but I’ve grown sick of draws watching Liverpool the last few weeks so I will give it to Howard seeing as he has played slightly more. (Also, it will make it all that much more hysterical when Philadelphia has to trade Howard due to the foolish contract they signed Jim Thome to.) If Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke had spent the whole year with the big club, this title would be his.

AL Rookie of the Year: Way more candidates over in the Junior Circuit. Two rookies arguably saved the Yankees’ season (Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang). Joe Mauer arrived at last for the Twins and was everything they said he would be (.302/.378/.422). Unheralded guys Jonny Gomes and Chris Shelton were revelations for the Tigers and Devil Rays. Tadahito Iguchi quickly became a linchpin for the White Sox after arriving from Japan. Counting on rookies in a pennant drive is becoming more and more common in the current economic climate, but Oakland abused the privilege with Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, and Joe Blanton. It seems fair that an Athletic should get the award, and I’m throwing my support behind Huston Street, who at age 22 assumed the closer’s mantle in Oakland and thrived — in fact, he was practically Rivera-like. How does a 1.63 ERA, 22 saves, a .193 BAA, 0.98 WHIP, and 8.26 K/9 strike you? Strikes me like a Rookie of the Year winner.

There’s games left to be played, of course, so I reserve the right to change my mind. Big Papi might go insane at Fenway Park this weekend, and so might Rivera (for the wrong reasons). Ryan Howard could slug the Phillies past the Astros, maybe. But this is how I see things as of right now. If I impress anything upon you at all, please, let it be that Andruw Jones is a pretender as an NL MVP candidate. .347!

The String

Nights like yesterday’s are what they make the MLB Extra Innings package for — pivotal games being played from coast to coast. The Braves and Angels clinch. The White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians all lose. Feel the excitement.

With the Braves safely in the postseason, tonight might have been a good night for Clint Hurdle to pull his cavalcade-of-rookies stunt, but Helton, Holliday, and Ardoin are in the lineup. The final series of the year against the Mets will be sort of interesting for those of us who take baseball far too seriously, as the Rockies are trying to beat their franchise-low win total (67) and New York is trying to assure that every team in the NL East will finish above .500 (Florida and Washington also have to win two games apiece for this to work).

A sign that I’m one of those nutty baseball people mentioned above: on "Pardon the Interruption" this afternoon, neither Mike Wilbon nor Tony Kornheiser was able to name 4 current Anaheim Angels. Off the top of my head, I was able to list 21, and I forgot Orlando Cabrera and Chone Figgins whom I’m sure I would have remembered eventually if I’d taken more than two minutes. I’m pretty sure I can name at least ten people on every current major league team. I might cut it kind of close with Tampa Bay and Toronto, but I feel confident. I suppose this is not normal.

Rookie Fever

Something I forgot to mention earlier: Clint Hurdle is toying with the idea of starting nine rookies in one of the remaining games this year, logically one started by Mike Esposito or Jeff Francis. It won’t be tonight. This hasn’t happened in the major leagues since 1963. Kind of a cheap bid for some national press, but then again, many of the rookies the Rockies have are better than their "veteran" alternatives — Omar Quintanilla is better than Aaron Miles, J.D. Closser is better than Danny Ardoin, and Choo Freeman is at least equivalent to Dustan Mohr. (Ryan Shealy isn’t better than Todd Helton, but he is vastly more cost-effective — if the Rockies have a poor start next season, this could become an issue.) I don’t know why exactly Colorado would want to draw attention to the fact that they’re racing to the bottom in payroll but it’s not my team to run.

I like the Chiefs tonight, although my interest in the game is somewhat diminished due to the fact that thanks to Shaun Alexander my fantasy victory for the week is already secure. Trent Green hasn’t done anything for me so far this year but seeing as his backups are Chad Pennington and Gus Frerotte, he’s not getting benched any time soon. Show me something, Trent! After watching the Broncos get called for too many men on the field last week when a bunch of idiots ran out to celebrate a punt return touchdown before the returner got into the end zone, I will be surprised each and every time Denver wins a football game the rest of this season. You’re a bum, Shanahan. What is it about this state and horrible coaching? Thank goodness for Fisher DeBerry.

Last Week

The Rockies lose 2 of 3 to the Giants and finish 40-41 at home on the year. Not bad considering their talent level. They’ll play out the string in Atlanta and New York this week needing a bit of a run — four of seven — to avoid matching the franchise-worst 67-95 mark of ’93. Thirteen years of Denver baseball and we’re barely a win better than we were as an expansion team. Meanwhile, the Marlins bought a World Series, completely disassembled, and came back and won another World Series. The D-Backs have three division titles and one world championship. At least Tampa Bay is still awful. And if you want to go back a few expansions, the Padres and Astros haven’t done too much in their existence thus far. Of course both of those teams will probably be in the playoffs this year, and had all of those Hall of Famers, but do they have solid purple alternate jerseys? No.

The A’s couldn’t take care of business against Minnesota and Texas so the series they begin with Anaheim tonight is practically meaningless. Instead, the big story of the final week will (again) be Boston and New York. Boy, I’m sick of these pricey, flawed teams. Since the White Sox are going to get whaled on in the first round of the playoffs by whomever, I am rooting for a Cleveland-St. Louis World Series — two balanced, well-managed teams with a variety of unexpected potential heroes. Travis Hafner and Albert Pujols might be the two most fun guys to watch hit in the majors. And can you imagine Bob Wickman closing one-run games in the playoffs? He sure has the numbers this year but…Bob Wickman? It sure beats another championship appearance by either of the East Coast Glimmer Twins, a surprise run by the punchless Astros, or an encore by the Braves, whose hometown fans are even now studiously not buying playoff tickets.

I don’t see the Angels winning it all, but I have to give them their proper ‘spect — they stared the A’s down down the stretch and won eight in a row. Good for them. I still have zero faith in Bartolo Colon and to whomever faces off against them in the wild card round, here’s a tip: just keep walking #27 and you’ll be fine. Unless you’re the White Sox, in which case, tread mark city.

I doubt I’ll be very much (if any) attention to the hometown club this week. Mike Esposito will get a road start against Horacio Ramirez tonight, then it’ll be Aaron Cook and Tim Hudson (nice matchup) on Tuesday, and Jeff Francis and John Smoltz on Wednesday. If I slack off with the Rockies news, I will be back in time for an in-depth playoff preview when the matchups are set. Here’s a free sneak preview: the White Sox are toast.

The Benevolent Crüe

The Brewers — a third-place team who quietly have a better record this year than the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, or D-Backs — are giving away all the tickets to their season finale. This is the team who resigned their young ace, Ben Sheets, to a long-term deal earlier this year. The team who traded two cheap role players for Carlos Lee in the offseason. A team unquestionably on the rise (who have drawn 2.2 million paying fans this year).

The Rockies would never do something like this. In the midst of a campaign that will go right down to the wire with regards to breaking the franchise’s all-time mark for futility, it’ll be full price to see Barry Bonds and the Giants this weekend. Wouldn’t it be great, even if it is a total gimmick, to see Coors Field full in September? I don’t even know why I’m talking about this. This is the team that traded Shawn Chacon for chattel because they were terrified of the arbitration reward a 1-7 starter might command. This is a team that held up a Preston Wilson deal for weeks not because they wanted to make sure they got the best prospects possible in return (ha!) but because they wanted to pay as little of his remaining salary as possible. But give the long-suffering fans a bargain comparable with the ones they themselves seek in players? Yeah, right.

But back to the positives: Aaron Cook is awesome. 6-1, 3.23 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, only three homers allowed in 69 2/3 IP. And people are talking about Jason Giambi for Comeback Player of the Year. Ha! Cook’s life-threatening situation wasn’t self-inflicted. To the best of my knowledge.

So this is it: last home series of the year. Having safely fended off 100 losses Colorado will next try to finish better than the 67-95 mark of the 1993 team. They need five wins in ten games to do it. Against San Francisco the pitching matchups will be Francis-Matt Kinney, Sunny Kim-Lowry, and Wright-Cain. If you are planning to go out and see the home team one more time, you might want to go Saturday instead of Sunday because Bonds will (probably) not play in the day game after a night game. Also, do you really want your last Rockies game of the season to be a Jamey Wright start? No, you don’t. Go, team.

Padres 5, Rockies 2

Well, so much for the momentum theory. I would love to see what the Rockies’ record is historically the day after they score more than 10 and win by more than 5. It seems to me as if they tend to lose more often than not, but I have absolutely no evidence to back that up. This season they’re 4-4 but the sample size is pretty small. If you drop the "scoring 10" requirement they are 8-9 after wins of five or more. I have no idea whether this is significant or not, I just felt a sudden urge to give myself a migraine peering at the season results pages.

Mike Esposito certainly didn’t embarrass himself in his major league debut but his numbers don’t bode particularly well for the future: 10 baserunners (seven hits, three walks) in five innings, only one strikeout (of Ramon Hernandez). There’s a reason why John Sickels faint-praised this guy as a "utility pitcher." In any case J.D. Closser’s wasted season reached perhaps its nadir when Clint Hurdle elected to use him as a pinch runner. Despite the fact that Danny Ardoin hit his fifth homer for the Rockies, the fact that he continues to get the bulk of the starts at catcher baffles me. Ardoin will still be a .240 hitter next year. Closser could be much more, but the Rockies have basically punted a year of his service time away because as a last-place team they’re worried about basestealers. At Coors Field.

You’d think Closser would at least get a start when Jamey Wright, one of the best righthanders when it comes to holding runners on in the majors, goes for Colorado, but no, Ardoin started yesterday. You’d think the one good thing to come of the Monferts’ inexplicable confidence in Clint Hurdle would be the guy managing with the team’s long-term growth in mind, but no. Hurdle’s driving motivation as a leader seems to be not making himself look bad. This is not the attitude for the field general of a young team to have.

Look at guys like Ozzie Guillen or Ken Macha. Ozzie challenges people to tell him he’s wrong. He’s named Bobby Jenks the closer and has stuck with Joe Crede at third even though the "safe" thing to do would be to go with vets Dustin Hermanson and Geoff Blum. Macha benched Scott Hatteberg in favor of Dan Johnson and bravely threw rookie Huston Street right on the fire. (On the other hand, Macha has fallen victim to the worst sort of "proven veteran syndrome" when it comes to Jason Kendall, who is playing nearly every day and having a career-worst season while the capable switch-hitting Adam Melhuse has seen less action than Yankees backup John Flaherty. Nobody’s perfect.)

Today’s big news, outside of the pennant races, was that Lou Piniella is jumping his contract in St. Petersburg. This should come as a surprise to no one. There are some managers out there who are just constitutionally unsuited to helm rebuilding projects. (Dusty Baker springs immediately to mind, although I would be very interested to see what Joe Torre could do with a team like Kansas City, not that that would ever happen.) If you’re going to fly into an uncontrollable rage every time a rookie misses a sign, airmails a cutoff man, or slides headfirst into first base (this last one maybe not so much, it personally drives me nuts), maybe you would be better off working for ESPN. Think of your blood pressure.

Rockies 20, Padres 1

This is amazing: with the Angels and A’s locked in a death struggle for the AL West and the Indians and White Sox in extra innings, my eyes were locked on one bad team beating another bad team 17-1. Why? Because a position player was pitching. I love when position players pitch. Does anybody else remember Mark Grace on the mound doing a Mike Fetters impression? One of my favorite regular-season baseball memories ever. Sean Burroughs showed slightly better stuff than Grace, but allowed Matt Holliday’s sixth, seventh, and eighth RBIs in the form of a big fly off the leftfield foul pole. What a game!

Seriously, you have to read the box score to this game. It’s a work of art. The Padres used 21 players! Every position player on the Rockies except J.D. Closser scored at least one run! The Rockies (in addition to the club record-tying eight from Holliday) got 4 RBIs from Luis Gonzalez and 3 from pitchers! Colorado scored 15 runs in the first three innings! Jamey Wright allowed only one run in six innings pitched! Insanity!

It’s games like this that make me shake my head (further) at those who think the Rockies "can’t win at altitude." Indeed, in addition to the simple statistical record, Colorado ought to have a huge psychological advantage at home. They don’t need to overpay for "sluggers" to blow people out. The Rockies had 23 hits, but "only" four home runs. They won in both of my beloved categories, but not by much (three walks to the Padres’ two, six strikeouts to San Diego’s seven). But mostly, they put the ball in play and let the field do the work. Meanwhile Jamey Wright didn’t hurt himself needlessly (two walks and no home runs allowed) and by pitching effectively for the first three innings, he received the reward of a cartoonishly huge lead which let him cruise for the rest of the start.

Colorado only had to use three pitchers in a 21-run Coors game. While winning games 15-14 may ultimately be more trouble than it’s worth, watching both sides of the equation work the way they’re supposed to ought to carry over for longer than one victory. Or maybe they’ll get hammered tonight, who knows. In any case, last night was solid theater. Who needs the humidor?

Thanks for nothing, Joe Kennedy.

I Told My Dad, “The White Sox Need Shingo Back,” and He Hung Up On Me

Two quick things: First of all there’s a story on the Post site regarding the Rockies’ master plan for next season. Depending on how you are inclined you could choose to read it as an early excuse for another noncompetitive team or a reasonable read on the state of the market. I for one don’t see any particular reason for the Rockies to raise their payroll dramatically, but seeing the number of bad veteran contracts that come off the books after this year, it would be pretty disingenuous of them to let it flat-out plummet. If they spend their discretionary money on longer deals for the likes of Brian Fuentes, Mike DeJean, and Byung-Hyun Kim, that would be acceptable. It’s not likely that the NL West will be this poor again in 2006, but Colorado should spend at least a little money on pitching just in case.

Also: although I’m not a fan of his music Billy Corgan’s guest column on the Cubs over at the Chicago Tribune site is very readable and interesting. Corgan has a lot more insight than some of the regular Chicago press does on the subject of the Northsiders, who have had another exhausting season. I don’t see how it would kill Billy to use capital letters, though.

Hey!

Rockies lose, 8-7, on the strength of two homers from the unlikely source of Khalil Greene. The Rockies had 15 hits, 14 singles. That’s not very good. They did outwalk the Padres and tied them in strikeouts, so there’s that. Two more wins needed still to guarantee a loss total in double digits.

I just wanted to post real quickly at this late hour to register my displeasure over ESPN Radio’s firing of overnight host Todd Wright. I’ve listened to Wright since I was in high school and found him to be one of the few distinctive personalities in the bland world of national sports radio. Some of Wright’s bits were tiresome (his interviews with various starlets, Maxim models, and beauty pageant winners were excruciating) but he had a good sense for finding athletes to bring on as regulars, from Joe Randa to Barry Zito to the Colts’ Larry Tripplett, who were bright guys and good speakers with interests outside of their chosen games besides huntin’ and fishin’.

Wright’s real talent was for finding a way to incorporate listeners into the show while not fielding cold calls, always death for sports radio. He read e-mails, ran contests, and let a few trusted callers whom he knew wouldn’t embarrass him or his audience on the air. He also forced ESPN personalities out of their comfort zones and enticed them to show a little, well, personality. His signature segments were usually a little oddball, but always entertaining — my favorite being "Know Your Major Leaguers," where he’d comb through the box scores looking for obscure injury replacement callups and and intersperse their names with another random sampling (often arena football rosters), usually befuddling callers and listeners alike.

I guess one fringe benefit of Wright’s being ousted for the utterly inoffensive Jason Smith is I’ll be getting a lot more sleep. Still, I imagine that I will be referring to Tennessee’s NFL franchise with the accent on the second syllable (ti-TANS) until my dying day. Thanks for that, Todd.

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