First Half Surprises...
Three days with nothing but minor league games, exhibitions, and an all-star contest. It rivals only February for the worst time of the year for baseball fans. The little good it does provide, however, is time for reflection. With one half in the books and the second already underway, Rich and I went out looking for the clubs that have left our jaws dropped through almost 90 games.
Rich: The biggest surprises of the first half were unquestionably the Chicago White Sox and the Washington Nationals. Although both teams have played over their heads, they have performed much better than I ever imagined. At 57-29, the White Sox have the best record in baseball. I have to tip my hat to Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Williams, Ozzie Guillen, and all the players. I mean, these guys have been nothing short of sensational. I thought they were no better than a .500 team in the spring and didn't even give them proper respect after they got off to such a great start, thinking the Sox would revert to winning one out of every two games the rest of the way and finish with somewhere around 88-92 victories.
To show you just how good Chicago has been thus far, they can play .500 ball from here on out and still finish with 95 wins. The Minnesota Twins would have to go 47-29 in the second half to catch the White Sox. That's not impossible but it's highly improbable. The Twins are on a 90-win pace as is--which is exactly where I had them last March--but I had no clue that there was a ballclub in the AL Central that could exceed that victory total.
Bryan: Yes, I think it's safe to say that anyone who made a preseason White Sox bet might as well cash in now. And for those of us that bet in the other direction (we'll call this group, "Cub fans"), well, just try to avoid the Sox fan. Simply put, this team is not getting caught this year...until the playoffs, that is.
What's interesting to me is just how polarized this lineup is. I went to a game recently in which a third of the starting lineup(Thomas, Dye, Konerko) was responsible for almost half of the club's home run total. Another 30-35% (Crede, Pierzynski, Everett) was sitting on the bench. Ozzie's lineup had six players that cumulatively had 18 homers for the season! And worse...they won! As I said earlier in the season, no manager can have that kind of a midas touch forever.
I just ain't betting against it.
Rich: If anything, I thought the Cleveland Indians would be the surprise team in that division. I was looking equally silly with my prediction prior to the Tribe taking 12 out of 13 in the middle of June. They've since cooled off, losing five of their last six games going into the All-Star break. Losing the first game of the second half by a score of 1-0 to the White Sox has gotta hurt. It's also sure to bring back some memories as Chicago beat Cleveland by the same score in the first contest of the year.
Bryan: You think you looked bad early because of the Indians? I picked them to win the division, making me the only one of Rich, Aaron Gleeman and Brian Borawski. I really liked this offense, which must not have received the memo about the season starting in April, not June. Conversely, I didn't get the memo that the Indians big season will be 2006, not this year.
It's a good team, but I think Mark Shapiro needs one more year of patience from the Cleveland fans. He has proven to be very adept at building depth, but has received horrid luck in the output of players like Alex Cora and Aaron Boone. Also, to turn what was once a disastrous pitching staff into the contending one the Indians currently have was a bit of mastery from the John Hart understudy.
Is there anything more exciting for 2006 than to see what this offense is going to turn into? Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez are legit stars already, and should have one more All-Star Game under their belt, as Hafner's merits easily trumped those of Konerko and Shea Hillenbrand. Furthermore, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta are very close to reaching stardom. Add in solid players in the rest of the slots, and at some point, this offense is going to breakout in a big, big way. I can't wait.
But enough already about the American League! Let's move on to door number two...
Rich: With respect to the Washington Nationals, I still don't think they are going to win the NL East. I know they are tied with the third most wins in baseball, but -- so help me, Preston Wilson -- I'm not buying whatever it is they are selling in the nation's capitol. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I'm not a comedian. Instead, I just look at what the Nationals are doing and report the facts. And the facts are this: Washington miraculously went 52-36 in the first half while getting outscored by four runs. C'mon now. Something is out of whack there, and I'm betting that it is the team's record and not the number of runs scored and allowed.
The Nationals are 24-8 in one-run games. That's a record they should be proud of, but it's also one that makes me highly skeptical of their ability to sustain their place atop the standings in the NL East. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say the only way the Nationals finish in first place is if the players go on strike like they did in 1994, which ironically is the last time the franchise had the best record in its division.
Bryan: With apologies to Lance Armstrong and the entire town of Boston, this is the feel good sports story of the year. While critics will constantly complain about how this is two years too late -- blah, blah, blah -- we need to step back and enjoy the Nationals for what they are. Overachievers that, in half a season, have created a fan base that is envied in more than a few places around the Majors.
The winning isn't going to last, you're right. If only Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson never got hurt. If only Jim Bowden hadn't signed Cristian Guzman, and instead spent on one more pitcher. If only so many things, this Cinderella story might go past August. But it won't. Even with Bowden making nice reactive moves in acquiring Junior Spivey and Preston Wilson, this isn't a good enough team to fend off the getting-healthy Braves.
Also, am I the only one who thinks the Marlins are giving up way too fast? In baseball's craziest division, in which all teams were over .500 into June, a seven-game deficit isn't too much. If this team is down by a double-digit margin by July 31, I could see trading Burnett, but no one else. It's interesting, but hardly surprising, that the Mets and Marlins have been so candid about heading into complete different directions from a buyers/sellers standpoint, despite having the same record.
Rich: Elsewhere in the National League, I actually picked the San Francisco Giants to win the West. (Boy, that sure feels good coming clean with that one. I already feel about ten pounds lighter. Gosh, maybe I should start another new fad diet. I'll call it Long Beach. Yeah, that's the ticket.)
Let's face it, despite Alan Greenspan's efforts to push up interest rates this year, the yield on Bonds has been pretty low thus far. OK, it's been zero. The guy hasn't played a single game. No VORP. No WARP. No nothing. He's had more palimony suits than home runs. At $22 million per year, the four-time reigning MVP is the highest-paid blogger around. Maybe Barry is using the time off to work on building up the muscles in his arms.
Is Bonds going to make a comeback in the second half? If so, will he return in time to hit enough home runs to catch the Babe this year? Don't look at me. When it comes to the Giants, my crystal ball is worthless.
Bryan: With the AL Central finally showing up on our radars again, the division now most likely to be completely forgotten becomes the NL West. This division just isn't good, and would be looking even worse if the Padres hadn't had a 20-game stretch of looking like World Series contenders. They aren't, and if they hang onto this division, will be given very long odds to win a series.
As for the other teams, we see a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. The Dodgers were the best team on paper before the season, but have been hit so hard by the injury bug that in July, they had a lineup with no player making $400,000. Does anyone else get the feeling that soon Los Angeles will become embarassed of the lineup, and ask the Dodgers to use "Anaheim"?
And your Giants, Rich, are just not really worth watching. It's too bad that they won't trade Jason Schmidt, because it was pretty much a guarantee to have them find their way into a national baseball story. Besides Barry, those kind of offers are few and far between these days.
I'll take Arizona at this point, but nothing would surprise me. Not even ESPN pulling the plug on Pedro Gomez' year-long assignment. What did Pedro ever do to get that gig, anyway?
Rich: Across the Bay, I get a kick out of watching the ups and downs not of the Oakland A's but the spinmeisters who abhor Billy Beane and that bestseller
I wonder what Joe Morg...err, they think now that the A's are 45-43 (with 28 wins in their last 39 games)? Hey, I admitted my mistakes. Why can't these guys? You and I both know why. It's because they have an axe to grind. They can't stand the fact that Billy looks at things a bit differently and does it so well. Including this year--you know, the one in which the A's have finally met their match--Oakland has won more regular-season games since 1999 than any team in baseball not named the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees. Contrast the A's $50-$60 million payroll with the $200 million payroll of the Yankees. Make no mistake about it, Oakland has been Money the past seven years. Here says the A's are going to win more games per payroll dollar than any other team over the next seven years as well.
Bryan: So quick to pile on, and so quick to shut up. And it always seems that Beane's naysayers are gone when the A's are winning, and when Billy is trading. Personally, I wish we could all just forget Moneyball and appreciate Beane for what he is: the best multi-team trader alive. In any sport. If three or four teams are involved, Billy's getting the best end of the deal, every time.
Of course, there was no exception this week, when the Red Sox, Rockies, Nats and A's kind of had a four-team trade. While every team improved on paper, I think you have to give Beane the best grade. The Red Sox and Nats simply filled holes by dealing disgruntled surplus players. The Rockies found a Coors-improvement on Joe Kennedy (in Day), a cost-effective replacement to Preston (Byrnes) and Clint Barmes' future double-play partner (Quintanilla). Still, if you told me before the season that the Rockies were going to trade an innings-eater and .800+ OPS centerfielder and just land those three players, I would have called bluff.
As for Beane, he essentially landed that innings-eater for an average-dependent AA second baseman. Kennedy could post very similar numbers to Mark Redman playing in Oakland, which will be much more friendly on the southpaw's flyball tendencies. Despite Juan Cruz pitching wonderfully in Sacramento, this team needed a sure-fire answer in the fifth spot. Besides improving there, it's certainly possible that Payton and Witasick will be better than the players they are replacing. And for all that touching up, all Beane had to give up was Quintanilla, who quite honestly, didn't have a future in this organization.
In one direction, Omar was stacked up against Mark Ellis, a much better defender with pretty similar offensive skills. In the other, 2005 first-rounder Cliff Pennington should close fast after showing better contact, defense, speed and patience in college.
So, with the dust settling, it looks like things might be clearing up a bit. It seems the White Sox might really be playoff caliber, but the Nats certainly aren't. The NL West is a division in shambles, and Billy Beane can't be knocked down for too long before getting up.
And if you're wondering why the AL East and NL Central got no mention, it's because simply, the Cardinals and Red Sox don't shock us, and we didn't want to talk about the Yankees. Some surprises are better left unanalyzed.
Predictions for the second half and beyond?