Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
The next three weeks or so should be decisive in the pennant races. The close races are decided in September, often in head-to-head games, and to some extent they can turn on freak happenings, bad bounces and the like. But it�s the stretch after the All-Star break that decides which races will be close and who drops out of the pack. Plus, the trading deadline is less than two weeks away.
It�s a tough time of year, if you’re a ballplayer. By late July, many pitchers have been saddled with a bunch of losses, guys who started hot have slumped, a lot of players know that this won’t be a great year for them, and nearly every team has lost some big guys to injury. The three-day vacation is over, the last interleague matchups are gone with the All-Star hype, even if the All-Star Game itself has turned into a cross between the Pro Bowl and the lowest levels of Little League (“But Joe, little Johnny will cry if he doesn’t get to play!”). Days off get few and far between from here to September. Even fans can have it tough if vacations mean being out of radio or TV range of hometown baseball coverage.
With the AL race shaping up, it�s time to rate the contenders. Astonishingly, only two AL teams (the White Sox and Mariners, no less) are on a pace to win 90 games, and only one (love those Devil Rays!) is on track for 95 losses. Baseball�s economic/structural problems haven?t been magically solved in four months, but predictions that the standings would remain static throughout the new millennium, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, seem a bit overwrought at the moment. Things always change.
I ranked the eight contenders in the AL position-by-position. I would have left out the Angels, who I just can’t see as serious contenders with their pitching, but right now they are second in the wild card race and just percentage points behind the Yankees, so I had to include them.
I gave each team points based on the number rankings, but combining a few positions: 1B and DH (most of these teams use a first baseman at DH anyway); the three outfield slots (I�ll give extra credit for good defense in CF, or extra off for bad defense there); 2B-SS-3B (the three positions are more comparable than ever); the top 3 starters (I list the big 3 separately since that�s who will mostly get the call in head-to-head series).
I ranked players solely on the basis of how well I expect them to play the rest of the way, although of course this year�s performance so far is a big factor in that. Anyway, the rankings are subjective and the system is fairly arbitrary, but no matter how you slice it it�s useful way to force yourself to look at how strong these teams really are. As a result, this column is less an argument than an urgument starter.
I’ve been busy at work this week and I’m going on vacation next week (far rom my computer, so there will be a hiatus in this column), so you will forgive me if I skimp on the stats and just go straight through the rankings:
1. Darrin Fletcher, Blue Jays
Steady and underrated. His health is a concern, and even with a big second half his numbers may not match Posada�s, but I expect Fletcher to be the better player from here through September.
2. Jorge Posada, Yankees
Danger sign: only Brad Ausmus and the indestructible Ivan Rodriguez have logged more innings behind the plate than Posada among AL catchers. Given
that Posada�s never had this kind of workload before and has been inconsistent in the past, you do have to wonder if he will fade somewhat down the stretch.
3. Jason Varitek, Red Sox
4. Sandy Alomar/Einar Diaz, Indians
Alomar�s too breakable, but the Indians have a fairly good second option.
5. Ramon Hernandez, A�s
Also very fragile, and the A�s can�t really afford to have Sal Fasano in the everyday lineup.
6. Bengie Molina, Angels
Molina�s numbers are real good so far, and he�s played well in the field, but he�s playing over his head. Rookies who start out overly hot are a good bet to just hit the wall.
7. Brook Fordyce/Mark Johnson, White Sox
Johnson can�t hit, period; he hasn�t even carried over his high walk totals to the majors. Fordyce is the better of the two, but still no star, and he hasn�t hit a lick this season.
8. Dan Wilson/Joe Oliver, Mariners
Wilson�s had it. Oliver was washed up years ago. At least the guys in Chicago can play some defense.
1. Manny Ramirez, DH, Indians
Appears to be settling in at DH for now, at least until he�s 100%.
2. Edgar Martinez, DH, Mariners
3. Carlos Delgado, 1B, Blue Jays
4. Jason Giambi, 1B, A�s
5. Frank Thomas, DH, White Sox
6. Jim Thome, 1B, Indians
7. John Olerud, 1B, Mariners
Has to be the odds-on favorite for the AL Gold Glove.
8. Mo Vaughn, 1B, Angels
9. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
10. David Justice, DH, Yankees
11. Brian Daubach, 1B, Red Sox
12. Brad Fullmer, DH, Blue Jays
13. Tino Martinez, 1B, Yankees
14. Jeremy Giambi/Olmedo Saenz/Adam Piatt/John Jaha, DH, A�s
Giambi and Piatt are real close to being better hitters than Tino, but Art Howe keeps the door revolving
15. Morgan Burkhart, DH, Red Sox
Show me. He could easily eclipse four or five guys ahead of him, but he could also just flame out.
16. Scott Speizio/Orlando Palmiero/Edgard Clemente, Angels
Somebody needs to tell Scioscia that the AL is a DH league.
1. Nomar Garciaparra, SS, Red Sox
The A-Rod injury means I’d rather have Nomar in the second half. By a hair. I’ve been waiting through the offensive explosion of the past 7 years for someone to seriously challenge .400, especially at sea level; Nomar is a worthy candidate.
2. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
3. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees
4. Troy Glaus, 3B, Angels
5. Roberto Alomar, 2B, Indians
6. Tony Batista, 3B, Blue Jays
7. Ray Durham, 2B, White Sox
8. Eric Chavez, 3B, A�s
9. Travis Fryman, 3B, Indians
The injury bug still worries me. Fryman�s hitting over his head, too, but he�s a good veteran player, so it would not be that unreasonable to expect him to keep the pace in the second half.
10. Omar Vizquel, SS, Indians
11. Randy Velarde, 2B, A�s
12. Miguel Tejada, SS, A�s
13. Jose Valentin, SS, White Sox
Fine defender. Bat could head back to .220, but he�s hit well of late
14. Chuck Knoblauch, 2B, Yankees
Can still hit.
15. Adam Kennedy, 2B, Angels
A better bet to keep playing OK than Molina, but still a rookie.
16. Herbert Perry, 3B, White Sox
Can hit .300 from a wheelchair. Often has to.
17. Jose Offerman/Jeff Frye, 2B, Red Sox
One thing that jumps out here is how hard it is to decide who goes in what slot to describe the Red Sox. Every week seems to bring a new alignment.
18. Scott Brosius, 3B, Yankees
19. Ed Sprague, 3B, Red Sox
Duquette had to make sure Gaetti wasn�t available first.
20. Alex Gonzalez, SS, Blue Jays
21. Mark McLemore, 2B, Mariners
22. David Bell, 3B, Mariners
McLemore and Bell may not be as bad as Bush and Gonzalez, but they do an awful lot to drag down Rodriguez and Olerud to just a league-average infield.
23. Benji Gil/Kevin Stocker, SS, Angels
24. Homer Bush, 2B, Blue Jays
Second and short is where Toronto has serious problems. An everyday player with a .260 slugging average? When there are 36 everyday players in the AL over .500? Ugh.
1. Bernie Williams, CF, Yankees
Bernie is 100% right now, and I’m just not sure about Ramirez? hamstrings.
2. Ben Grieve, LF, A�s
3. Magglio Ordonez, RF, White Sox
4. Darrin Erstad, LF, Angels
Erstad is another guy who�s known for fast starts and weak finishes, but he�s also a first rate talent and by far and away the best defensive left fielder in the AL
5. Carl Everett, CF, Red Sox
Well, now Red Sox fans have seen the Carl Everett we know and love in New York. I seem to remember about 10-15 years ago somebody on the Sox —
Clemens? — getting so mad on the field that he had to be carried off horizontally by three or four other guys. I?m knocking Everett a few slots here because the Red Sox will probably be without his services for almost 15% of the remaining games. If I remember correctly, I believe the longest suspension ever handed down to a player for an on-field incident was a month-long vacation given to the normally mild-mannered Bill Dickey for breaking Carl Reynolds’ jaw in a 1931 fight.
6. Shannon Stewart, LF, Blue Jays
Hasn�t done much but hit for average so far this year.
7. Mike Cameron, CF, Mariners
He�s got glove, and away from Safeco he�s a fine hitter, too
8. Tim Salmon, RF, Angels
9. Raul Mondesi, RF, Blue Jays
10. Paul O’Neill, RF, Yankees
I was surprised to see that O’Neill, even at age 37, has the highest range factor of any AL right fielder (although the “zone rating,” a competing measure of fielding efficiency, puts Jermaine Dye at the top of the chart). By the way, you can find range factor and zone rating leaderboards at cnnsi.com. O?Neill is having a fine season, but will he hit .340 against lefthanded pitching the rest of the way?
11. Jay Buhner, RF, Mariners
His health is one of the big question marks, but his bat has come back.
12. Kenny Lofton, CF, Indians
Having an awful year.
13. Carlos Lee, LF, White Sox
Lee�s early-season plate discipline was a mirage
14. Trot Nixon/Darren Lewis/Izzy Alcantara, RF, Red Sox
Obviously who is playing here makes a big difference
15. Garret Anderson, CF, Angels
I was disappointed in Anderson, who I had expected to have his best year this season. I always figured him as a guy who would have one breakout, star-quality year and then sign a huge contract the Angels would regret. I still expect him to rebound somewhat in the second half.
16. Troy O�leary/Bernard Gilkey, LF, Red Sox
Call me an optimist, but I expect O�leary�s revival to hold up.
17. Russell Branyan/Ricky Ledee, RF, Indians
A guy slugging over .650 who has struck out in almost half his at bats . . . you�re kidding, right? I could have listed Ramirez with the outfielders.
18. Jose Cruz jr/Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
Wells will only join the lineup if Cruz gets traded for pitching help
19. Terrence Long, CF, A�s
20. Matt Stairs, RF, A�s
Stairs traditionally turns into a pumpkin in September, which is not a good sign seeing as he�s already hitting around .215. I expect better than that, but Stairs is 32 and not exactly a fitness fanatic; he may be following in the footsteps of other undersized power threats like Howard Johnson, Steve Garvey, and Don Mattingly, who all burned out around that age. Guys who generate all their power with their forearms tend to lose it early, because quick arm reflexes are the first to go.
21. Rickey Henderson, LF, Mariners
Rickey has proved he has some bat left, and he has even put up half-decent defensive numbers. He�s still a pain, though, and not the best bet to perform in the fall.
22. Richie Sexson, LF, Indians
Cory Snyder Part II. Needs to get on base more.
23. Chris Singleton, CF, White Sox
Poor man�s Darren Lewis
24. Ryan Thompson/Felix Jose, LF, Yankees
Will Bob Zupcic be next?
One look at the DH slot tells you they are loaded, and loaded down to the farm system. Other useful bench players like Menechino and Fasano (who�s OK as a #2).
2. Red Sox
Most everyone on the Sox bench can at least do something well. That�s more than you can say for the Yankees.
Usually very deep, but mostly just Ledee and Cabrera these days.
4. White Sox
Stan Javier is a good bench player, but look at the people in the starting lineup and tell me they have good backups.
Clay Bellinger? Wilson Delgado? Vizcaino strengthens the bench, but they are still very thin. Promoting Nick Johnson would help when he gets healthy, but after all that time recuperating he may not be ready this year.
8. Blue Jays
See Seattle, but without Javier.
NUMBER 1-3 STARTERS
1. Pedro Martinez, Red Sox
2. EMPTY. Pedro is that much better than the field.
3. Bartolo Colon, Indians
4. Tim Hudson, A�s
Hudson is the real deal, but I would still rate Colon as a steadier bet for the stretch run.
5. Denny Neagle, Yankees
Neagle turned the corner midway through last season, and is back to his old nasty self.
6. David Wells, Blue Jays
I suspect Wells has pretty much shot his wad for the season. I’d still like him on my staff, but do you think he will win 30 games? I didn�t think so.
7. Jamie Moyer, Mariners
8. Chuck Finley, Indians
Man, the top lefties in the AL are old.
9. Mike Sirotka, White Sox
Sirotka is getting hot at just the right time, when the air is coming out of the rest of the Sox rotation.
10. Freddy Garcia, Mariners
His return is huge for the Mariners, and should help them survive the temporary loss of A-Rod. But only if it�s very temporary.
11. Roger Clemens, Yankees
I still suspect that, like Ted Williams in 1960 or George Brett in 1990, he has one last great run of 2-3 months left, but I could be wrong. May not be this year. But a Clemens hot streak could screw his two ex-teams — what do
you think will happen?
12. Aaron Sele, Mariners
13. James Baldwin, White Sox
See David Wells. Baldwin�s notorious for atrocious first halves and hot
second-halves; if he reverses that this year the White Sox are in big trouble. And the slide has already started.
14. Orlando Hernandez/Dwight Gooden/Ramiro Mendoza, Yankees
Injuries, injuries . . . Gooden taking this slot will weaken the Yanks significantly until El Duque is ready to return.
15. Gil Heredia, A�s
16. Kevin Appier, A�s
17. Jim Parque, White Sox
See James Baldwin, although Parque hasn�t shown signs of caving in yet.
18. Dave Burba, Indians
Steady. Real steady. Should be good for a 4.60 ERA the rest of the way, which is OK these days.
19. Ramon Martinez, Red Sox
I’m still not convinced he will make it through the year.
20. Pete Schourek/Bret Saberhagen, Red Sox
It�s not 1995 anymore, but Schourek had shown signs of holding up until the last few outings. If he continues to falter, Sabes may take his place, leaving the fifth slot open for Duquette and Kerrigan to fart around with.
21. Brian Cooper, Angels
Fairly good young pitcher, but if this is your best pitcher, this is not your year.
22. Kelvim Escobar, Blue Jays
23. Esteban Loaiza, Blue Jays
Chris Carpenter had fallen off so badly in the past month or so that I’m convinced he�s pitching through an injury. Loaiza�s no great shakes but at least he figures to do better than the 13.89 ERA Carpenter�s posted over the past month.
24. Kent Bottenfield, Angels
The Angels keep threatening to bring back Ramon Ortiz
25. Ken Hill, Angels
1. Andy Pettite, Yankees
2. John Halama, Mariners
I’d rather have Halama myself, but Pettite has been underestimated too often, and I’ve probably rated a few of the Yankees too low.
3. Tim Wakefield, Red Sox
4. Mark Mulder, A�s
5. Frank Castillo, Blue Jays
Ranks ahead of Eldred only because Eldred is hurt. Both are highly flammable.
6. Cal Eldred, White Sox
With his history, there�s always the chance he won�t come back.
7. Jarrod Washburn, Angels
8. Jim Brower, Indians
1. Paul Abbott/Gil Meche, Mariners
The Mariners have major league pitchers here, nobody else does. Brett Tomko could fill in well here too. My, how times change.
2. Seth Etherton, Angels
Downgrade this slot significantly if Tim Belcher returns. Belcher would rank about twelfth.
3. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
4. Grab Bag (Ariel Prieto/Omar Oliveras/Barry Zito), A�s
5. Grab Bag (Jeff Fassero/Paxton Crawford/The Asian Mob), Red Sox
6. David Cone, Yankees
Cone was probably one more decent 12-9 year from the Hall of Fame. It doesn�t look so good now. The Yankees should just send him home for a month and see if his arm, his command, and his confidence come back. Just looks finished.
7. Grab Bag (Kip Wells/Jon Garland/Mark Beuhrle), White Sox
The Sox have yet to get any consistency from the rookies, and they will need it if Eldred is really hurt.
8. Grab Bag (Tim Drew/Paul Rigdon), Indians
They tried Jaime Navarro. Nuff said.
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
2. Derek Lowe, Red Sox
I expect him to bounce back soon.
3. Billy Koch, Blue Jays
Better than Lowe, but Lowe works harder so he has a bigger impact. Koch�s surgically repaired elbow wouldn�t survive Lowe�s workload.
4. Keith Foulke/Bobby Howry, White Sox
Hey, two is better than one.
5. Kasuhiro Sasaki, Mariners
Sasaki, after a rough stretch, has been quietly unhittable lately. Given his spectacular track record in Japan, I?m inclined to think he really is as good as he�s been so far.
6. Steve Karsay, Indians
tick … tick … tick . . .
7. Troy Percival, Angels
The Java Man just isn�t what he used to be. Not a good late-season guy,
8. Jason Isringhausen, A�s
1. White Sox
Depth. The Yanks are close.
Jeff Nelson, Grimsley, Mendoza
3. Red Sox
Would be better off if they just sacked Mesa just relied on Rhodes and the underemployed starters, with Paniagua as the number five man.
5. Blue Jays
Now, to add them up. I rated each position by the whole number ranks, but gave just 0.8 credit for fifth starters, who don�t work as much and won�t be seen in crucial head-to-head matchups, and for closers. In Pedro�s case I inserted an extra space to account for a really big gap between two players. Closers probably make an even smaller impact than that, since while they work only in close games, most of them face less than 400 batters a year. Through Monday, Mariano Rivera has faced 686 batters since the 1998 season started; Neifi Perez has batted 1807 times in that stretch, 732 times last season alone. Rivera is as big a factor in the postseason as an everyday player, but in the regular season it�s guys like Perez who put their teams in the playoffs (or in Perez’ case, keep them out).
The totally unscientific result: well, I scored the teams by position and here they are:
1. Yankees 140.6
2. Indians 143.2
3. Mariners 145.8
4. A�s 152.6
5. Red Sox 154.6
6. White Sox 154.8
7. Blue Jays 172.8
8. Angels 196.2
Conclusions? Well, I may be overrating some of the veterans, like Clemens and Vizquel, but the Yanks and Indians are still the strongest teams. In the case of the Yankees, that strength is almost entirely due to balance: except for the leftfielders, Cone and the bench, the Yankees have no severe weaknesses. Seattle also comes out surprisingly strong, by this measure, due to a deep pitching staff.
The White Sox still seem, by this ranking, likely to finish with the best record; after all, they have a big lead. And head-to-head comparisons suggest that the Jays are outclassed and the Angels are lucky to have gotten as far as they did, although as the team with the most obvious weaknesses, Toronto could help itself a lot with even some small trades. Pitching, pitching, pitching. Boston is the hardest team to pin down, unsurprisingly, because who knows what the lineup and rotation will look like a month from now. Will Burkhardt still be mashing the ball? Will Saberhagen be in the rotation?
My prediction? Out of sheer pessimism I would take the Yankees to go to the World Series again. At this point I would say, Yanks in the East, White Sox holding on in the Central, Mariners in the West despite the huge holes in their lineup, and Cleveland to take down Oakland for the wild card. Barring big trades or injuries, that�s the likely ending here. The ball�s in Dan Duquette�s court to change that.
QUOTE: “WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR”
— Boston Herald back page headline the day after Alan Trammell homered off Lee Smith to defeat the Red Sox in extra innings, Opening Day 1988.
TRIVIA QUESTION: What pitcher holds the career record for most intentional walks issued?
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK�s TRIVIA QUESTION: The losing pitchers in Roger Clemens’ two 20-K games were Justin Thompson and Mike Moore.