One on One: Hot August Nights
If the regular season can be divided into thirds, it can be said that we are approaching the last leg of the year. The first part is all about who gets out of the gates the quickest, the second is spent jockeying for position, and the third is when the riders go to their proverbial whips (or should we say WHIPs?).
With that in mind, we take a look at how the various races are shaping up. So, without further ado, let's get after it.
Rich: We're heading into what some call the Dog Days of the season. But given how tight four of the division races and both wild cards are, I think this month could be better described as Hot August Nights.
Bryan: Four division races? That's pushing things. I think not only are both Central divisions wrapped up, but pretty soon here we have to start accepting Boston and Atlanta to be playoff teams. It's dangerous to say this -- I mean, I'm a Cubs fan! -- but both these teams are geared for good play the rest of the season. I think the Yankees and the NL East contingent should just be fighting for their Wild Card lives at this point.
Rich: Well, I was just trying to be polite to the folks in and around Washington, D.C. Both you and I saw the writing on the wall at the All-Star break even though Atlanta was trailing the Nationals at that time.
Bryan: Yes, most definitely. We would have both said in May that Washington and Chicago were destined for midsummer collapses. But as they say in the baseball industry, 1-for-2 ain't bad. The Nats have fallen apart for a bevy of reasons, but this can only be explained as luck catching up to them. They are average across the board, and probably no more than a .500 team on paper.
Rich: I don't even know that the Nats are a .500 team. In fact, the team's so-called expected won-loss record was 49-56 (the inverse of its actual totals) going into Tuesday night's play.
Bryan: Yes, meanwhile the Braves have outscored their opponents by nearly 100 runs, despite being decimated by injuries this season. How they continue to do it is astonishing, and we must continually be singing the praises of Bobby Cox, Leo Mazzone and John Schuerholz. This team has also been given loads of support by a farm system that has been well tended to for a long time. It seems this is what the Yankees want to become...maybe that's why Mazzone-to-NY rumors have already surfaced.
Rich: Dollar for dollar, I'll take the Braves over the Yankees. I picked the Marlins to win the NL East this year. I like Florida, but I should have learned by now not to bet against Atlanta.
Bryan: Don't feel bad, we all should have. It also appears we shouldn't have bet against Ozzie, as we were both so quick to do in our early season White Sox two-on-two. Despite the lack of offense, the club has been consistent in their winning ways the entire season. Still, and I do hate to keep betting against Guillen, but will they have any success when only playing non-AL Central teams in October?
Rich: Are you trying to put me on the spot again, Bryan? It took me half a season, but I finally came around on the White Sox last month. They are a lot better than I had given them credit for previously.
Bryan: Of course I'm trying to put you on the spot! If the season ended today, the White Sox would be playing one of your California teams, currently the red-hot A's. How would you preview that series? Whichever club gets some version of consistent offense wins by nullifying the other's pitching and defense, is my take.
Rich: I've got a ticket around here from the MGM that makes me less than objective when it comes to the A's this year. I'm sure glad I didn't tear it up around Memorial Day. Let's put it this way, come October, I know Chicago wants nothing to do with Oakland.
Bryan: Well, I'm not so sure I even have the A's making the playoffs. It seems to me this is a club too reliant on too flaky a rotation. Baseball Prospectus has shown Dan Haren is in danger of being overworked, and I'm worried we'll start to see the same telling signs from the likes of Huston Street, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton down the stretch. Personally, I'd rather have Bartolo Colon-Jarrod Washburn-Francisco Rodriguez or Randy Johnson-Mike Mussina-Mariano Rivera.
Rich: Haren may be over worked but at least he's not over cooked like those Yankee starters. But remember, Bryan, you need at least three good starters in the playoffs. Haren, Harden, and...Barry Zito. Add in Blanton and Kirk Saarloos for a spot start here and there, and I think that is a plenty good enough rotation, especially in view of the team's deep bullpen.
Bryan: Maybe, but I think I'll take the rich organizations in the final two months. The Yankees just have too much offense, and I don't think Torre has worked the front end of the bullpen like years past. In Anaheim, I think they are simply above-average across the board. I can only imagine how much fun an Anaheim-Boston series would play out.
Rich: I don't know if Oakland is so much battling New York as they are Anaheim. You know, Joe Morgan thinks the A's are the best team in baseball now.
Bryan: Personally, I don't really see a facet of the game in which the A's are discernibly better than the Angels. Offensively, it's Los Angeles by a big margin. The rotation probably gives an edge to Oakland, but as I said, I think that will change in the final two months. The Angels have the better bullpen, and I'll say push defensively, though it's probably Los Angeles there, too. Once this hot streak cools off a bit, expect LAAoA to win by a few games.
Rich: Hold on now. Outside of Vladimir Guerrero, which hitter on the Angels causes pitchers to fret? This team can't buy a run. They rank third from last in the league in HR and BB. This is a lineup with more holes in it than the local muni golf course.
Bryan: Holes, they have, but what AL team doesn't? Chicago has about six spots in which the players don't hit home runs, and even Boston is showing weakness at a few positions. The Yankees are the best offensive team, but if they don't make the playoffs, it's an NL-looking American League playoff.
Rich: You brought up defense. I'll grant you that the Angels are better than average when it comes to fielding, but the A's just might be the best in all of baseball.
Bryan: Attacking my claims one-by-one, I see. The Angels are better than the A's at three huge positions (C, 1B, SS), and maybe at second, too. Are there four better positions to have an advantage over?
Rich: I'm not so sure Orlando Cabrera is better than Bobby Crosby at short. In fact, I would be hard pressed to come up with a better glove and arm in the entire majors at that position than Crosby. He has probably been the single most influential player as far as the A's turnaround goes.
Bryan: I can agree with you there. Crosby and Mark Kotsay have been so important to the A's, but are generally underrated by the East-friendly press. I know when Kotsay rumors began in July, I was checking the transaction wire every ten minutes hoping to find him a Cub. Those two California college boys have been great, no doubt.
Rich: Yes, they both can go get it, as they say. Eric Chavez is as good as they come at third and Mark Ellis ain't half bad at second either.
Bryan: OK, ok, I'm going to have to cut you off before this becomes "One on One: All A's." Let's try and pain ourselves for a few minutes and pick a winner in the NL West. Yikes.
Rich: All right, all right. Cut me down at my knees, why don't you? Is it a rule that one of the teams in each division has to make the playoffs? I mean, shouldn't you have to go at least .500 to make the postseason?
Bryan: You would think, but these teams try and prove that theory wrong everyday. I look at the Padres in a similar fashion as I do the A's, a good team that was helped by a ridiculous hot streak. After a big June, this team has proven to be nothing special. I'll take the D-Backs for now, but a late Dodger run isn't out of the question.
Rich: I'm going out on a limb and saying the Rockies have no chance at all. Same thing with the Giants. (By the way, is there a more non-descript team than San Francisco without Barry Bonds?) As far as the other three go, I say "paper, rock, or scissors?"
Bryan: I think the Diamondbacks success could depend on their new plan to play Conor Jackson at first, Chad Tracy in right, and Shawn Green in center. Gutsy move by Bob Melvin, especially for a team that is shockingly playing its way into October. If this move backfires, and Green starts hitting like the Chavez-Ravine version, then watch out as the Dodgers grab hold.
Rich: I guess the Diamondbacks and Padres would be favored over the Dodgers at this point. Arizona actually looks like the best team as far as the Beane Count goes.
Bryan: Well, enough of this. I think we can agree whichever team it is, they will lose in the first round. So, let's move onto the NL Wild Card, which boasts a much more interesting, mega-team race. Any favorites there?
Rich: I think the Astros have all but locked up the Wild Card. In fact, I see Houston as no worse than the third-best team in the NL and one that I wouldn't want to face in the playoffs.
Bryan: "All but locked up," are you kidding? Not sure that's possible when you have two spots in the rotation that are spotty at best, and three key offensive players (Wily Taveras, Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg) due for some big second half regression. Not to mention Andy Pettite, who I'd happily give 10:1 odds will not finish with an ERA under 3.00.
Rich: There isn't a better threesome in baseball than Roger Clemens (10-4, 1.45 ERA), Roy Oswalt (14-8, 2.40), and Pettitte (9-7, 2.58). As far as the latter goes, here's $10 to your $100 that Pettitte finishes below 3.00. I'm telling you, this guy gets no respect. Andy has not only been one of the better pitchers over the past decade, but he has been throwing as well as ever since the middle of June (6-0, 0.80 w/ 56 IP, 44 H, 5 ER, 11 BB, and 45 K). What's not to like?
Bryan: Fine, but the bet's off if Pettitte can't make 6 more starts, because his left pinky toe gets a hangnail. You're in dangerous territory tooting the Astros horn in my direction, Mr. Lederer. Now I'm not so sure my Cubs have it in them to climb over a few teams and catch Houston, but I'm taking Florida in the Wild Card.
Rich: I'll grant you that if Houston doesn't win it, then Florida is as good a choice as any other team. With respect (and I use that word loosely) to the Cubs, I think your motto of "Wait 'Til Next Year" applies once again.
Bryan: Always, Richard, always. I have no doubt my Cubbies will come close, but fade, leaving me to sympathize with fans in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, and yes, even Houston. It's becoming about as annual as the Braves winning.
Rich: Oakland and both Los Angeles teams have won a World Series during most people's lifetime. Show me somebody who was around when the Cubs last won it all? Us Californians own you Illini.
Bryan: And that is one thing we won't argue about, unless your talking about food, but that's for another discussion.
Rich: OK, Bryan, who do see winning each of the divisions and the two Wild Cards?
Bryan: I will say the playoffs will look like this: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. ANA in the AL; STL vs. FLA and ATL vs. ARI in the NL.
Rich: You know, we didn't even mention the Indians but they just might have the easiest path to the Wild Card as any team in the AL. That said, I'm going with OAK over LAA (not sure who you meant by ANA) in the West, BOS over NYY in the East, and, of course, CWS over CLE and MIN in the Central.
Bryan: That's all, old man? Did we forget about the Wild Cards and No-good League?
Rich: I'm getting there, I'm getting there. The Yankees by a game over the Angels for the Wild Card. Thank you, Orlando Cabrera. As a result, I see the AL matchups as follows: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. OAK. I picked BOS to win the AL before the year started but am leaning toward OAK now. For the record, I'm not jumping on the A's bandwagon in August. I picked them to win the West way back in March.
Bryan: Rich, as much as I like the dramatic presentation style for the American League, I'm waiting on a whole 'nother league of picks here.
Rich: OK, OK. HOU wins the Wild Card going away. STL winds up with the best record by far. However, once again, these two teams can't face each other in the first round. As such, I've got STL sweeping ARI and HOU taking ATL in five, just like last year.
Bryan: Well don't get ahead of yourself, Rich. Before you go picking NLDS winners, let's see who makes it through the hot nights left on tap for August.