Change-UpSeptember 10, 2009
Keys to the Pennant Races & Beyond
By Patrick Sullivan

To be sure, there are better players than those included below on the rosters of Major League contenders. Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, Albert Pujols, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Cain - you know about all of them. What follows is a list of those players (and one unit for that matter) that figure to skew pennant races or the post-season one way or another who haven't factored like they are now all season long. A season is a process, and it is often the best playoff-qualifying team on October 1st that wins the World Series and not the team that has been the best all season long. These players, many not factors at all for their current clubs for much of the season, will impact their teams' chances for better or worse from here on out. In the case of the Dodgers offense, of course they have been "factors" all season long. I include it because it has been such an enigma of late. I include it because it seemed like it could be counted on for much of the year. It's not a specific player like every other entrant, but its performance is just as uncertain and critical as the other players listed.

National League

Madison Bumgarner

Bumgarner made his debut for San Francisco last night, an event that should have been met with great anticipation and zeal by Giants fans. In his 19 year-old season (he turned 20 on August 1), Bumgarner is a career 27-5 Minor League pitcher and boasts a 4.65 K/BB ratio. Problem is, the Giants only gave the kid the Big League nod because baseball's best pitcher was scratched with back problems.

Back problems could mean just one start but there is also the possibility that it could be something much worse. Should Tim Lincecum miss an extended period of time, it will be up to Bumgarner to take his turn in the rotation. With a lineup as inept as San Francisco's, a Lincecum gem is more of a necessity than a luxury. The Giants lost 4-3 last night, a respectable run prevention showing by any measure. But the Giants had only yielded as many as four runs in six of Lincecum's previous 20 starts. In other words, a typical Lincecum start last night wins. Lincecum's injury and Bumgarner's adaptability will play critical roles in the National League Wild Card race.

Brad Penny

Penny's peripherals have been respectable all season long, and in two starts with the Giants so far he has been terrific. If Penny can maintain his effectiveness, he will give San Francisco one of the more solid one-through-five rotations in baseball, with Lincecum (Bumgarner), Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez filling out the remaining spots.

As Red Sox fans can attest, Penny's mistakes seem to be hit as hard as any pitcher's in baseball. But when he limits the mistakes, or when the competition is less fierce (sorry, but let's be honest), he can definitely take a turn in a championship-aspirant rotation.

The Dodgers offense

Prior to the All-Star Game, even without Manny Ramirez for much of that time, this was an offense firing on all cylinders. Since the All-Star break, things have gone south. An offense that, despite playing home games in one of the more favorable pitcher's parks in baseball, was 2nd in the league in OPS heading into the break has ranked just 9th since then.

             Pre ASB             Post ASB
         AVG   OBP   SLG      AVG   OBP   SLG
Manny   .355  .487  .669     .264  .373  .466
Pierre  .328  .387  .417     .282  .345  .321
Kemp    .320  .384  .495     .308  .333  .538
Blake   .285  .364  .486     .252  .333  .409
Ethier  .250  .338  .475     .333  .410  .612

James Loney and Rafael Furcal never quite found their strokes this season. In Loney's case, help may be on the way in the form of Jim Thome, though the veteran's defensive limitations will preclude him from playing regularly. Thank heavens for Andre Ethier.

Carlos Gonzalez

To kick off the month, Gonzalez is chasing a .371/.432/.714 August with a .357/.455/.679 September. With apologies to Seth Smith, Tulo and Dexter Fowler, it has been Gonzalez's emergence that have transitioned the Rockies from pesky Wild Card contender to a legitimate World Series-caliber force.

To the Rockies credit, they do not sit tight when they think they have a superior performer hanging around somewhere, whether it be on the dugout, the Minor Leagues or the waiver wire. Ask Garrett Atkins and Ryan Spilborghs. You'd better perform if you want to hang onto your job in Denver.

Rafael Betancourt & Franklin Morales

The Colorado bullpen is rounding into form thanks to these two. After injuries and struggles as a starter relegated Morales to the Minor Leagues after playing such a key role on the 2007 NL Champions, he has come back late in 2009 as a force out of the bullpen. Add Betancourt to the fold, whom the Rox acquired from the Cleveland Indians at the trade deadline, and all of a sudden it appears Colorado has the makings of a shut-down late inning 1-2 punch. In just under 40 combined innings since the All-Star Break for Colorado, the two have combined for 43 strikeouts, 14 walks and just 27 hits.

John Smoltz

Look, the Red Sox couldn't wait around to see if Smoltz would turn this corner. They saw his stuff and liked it. They saw his peripherals and took note. If it were April when he made his first start, you can bet they would have kept running him out there through May, through June, etc to see if he would turn the corner he seems to have.

You might have come across this David Cameron piece about Smoltz after the Red Sox designated him. To me it wasn't controversial because of the key point it was making - that Smoltz still appeared to have good innings left in him. It was the ease with which he dismissed the Red Sox evaluative process.

Cardinal fans just picked up a pretty good pitcher for the league minimum, thanks to the continued overestimation of the usefulness of ERA. The sooner people realize that it’s an obsolete pitching statistic, the better off baseball will be.

Indeed. The Red Sox brass could learn a thing or two about how there is more to pitching than ERA. It was this dig that stood out for me; the presumption that Boston's front office - Theo Epstein and Tom Tippett and Bill James - overvalue ERA and worse, hold baseball back as a result. Boston was in the thick of a race and didn't have the luxury of finding out if Smoltz's strong peripherals and his complete ineptitude versus left handed batters would correct itself. With a comfortable lead in its division, St. Louis did have that luxury and has benefited.

Either way, Cameron looks pretty smart these days with Smoltz and Penny performing the way they are, the former with a ridiculous 28 strikeouts against just one walk in four starts with St. Louis.

Pedro Martinez

Speaking of strong K/BB ratios, in four starts with the Phillies, Pedro is now at 27 strikeouts and four walks. He is still getting hit pretty hard at times but it looks as though Philadelphia has found themselves some options when it comes playoff time. Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ have also been great lately, and Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are, well, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Pedro may yet find himself on the outside looking in when October rolls around, but if he continues to pitch the way he has, Charlie Manuel won't have a choice.

J.C. Romero & Brett Myers

Like Colorado, Philadelphia's bullpen stands to benefit from two late additions. Romero and Myers have returned from injuries and not a moment too soon with Brad Lidge struggling as badly as he has. These two will be worth watching down the stretch as the Phillies try and figure out optimal post-season deployment of their pitching talent. All of a sudden they have remarkable starting pitching depth and if Romero or Myers struggles, it may be worth considering converting one or more of their starters into relievers.

American League

Brandon McCarthy

After his second consecutive season spending extended time on the Disabled List, McCarthy returns to the Rangers rotation in the thick of a playoff chase. If not for Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton, it's almost as if McCarthy would be best known for occupying the short end of a bad Jon Daniels trade.

But here he is, the #49 prospect on Baseball America's 2005 Top 100 list, and he still has that wiry frame that has served so many other pitchers well. He has won his first two decisions since coming back, but with shaky peripherals in the process. He will need a couple more good starts to stick through September because the player whose rotation slot he took, Dustin Nippert, had been throwing pretty nicely.

Julio Borbon

Since being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on August 7th, all Borbon has done is hit .329/.397/.486 with 13 steals against just one caught stealing. Marlon Byrd hasn't been so bad either (.287/.328/.486). Now Ron Washington is going to have some decisions to make. Josh Hamilton (.270/.318/.426) and Andruw Jones (.217/.329/.482) are set to return from injury but each game is crucial to the Rangers' hopes. If playing time is to be doled out on a meritocratic basis, Borbon and Byrd should not be sitting much down the stretch.

Howie Kendrick

Since returning to the Big Leagues on the 4th of July, Kendrick is hitting .361/.397/.511. Since the All-Star break, it's .373/.405/.545. Who knows if Kendrick has finally arrived or if this is some sort of short-term blip - my guess is the former for what it's worth - but let's put this in perspective. An excellent fielding second baseman OPS'ing .900+ is more commonly known as an MVP candidate. Or Chase Utley. Or Joe Morgan.

You get the point. On a team with a lot of excellent players, Kendrick might be the Halos' very best at the moment.

Scott Kazmir

I have heard some friends in baseball circles refer to "change of scenery" guys and to be candid, it made little sense to me. The concept is that the player, for whatever reason, is unable to perform up to his ability because of external factors specific to a given team or city. That makes enough sense, that a player's environment can impact their performance, but how could you know that any other environment would suit him better? Well in light of Smoltz, Penny, Julio Lugo, Matt Holliday and now Kazmir, I am becoming more of a believer. The southpaw is flashing a 1.35 ERA in his first 13.1 innings with the Halos.

Edwin Jackson

On a team badly lacking pitching pitching depth, Detroit's World Series road-map consists of little more than two or three shut-down performances from Jackson and Justin Verlander per series, and then figure it out from there. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, Jackson is looking like he may no longer be capable of filling such a role.

      April 7 to June 6    June 7 to Sept 9
          ERA   K/BB          ERA   K/BB
Jackson   2.16  3.26          3.88  1.88

He has still been good, but the Tigers need the dominant Jackson back to make a run in the post-season. Unless their bats get a big boost...

Carlos Guillen

...which brings me to Guillen. Miguel Cabrera is the only Tiger OPS'ing over .800 on the season, a problem for a team with thin starting pitching and a bullpen that can look shaky. But since the All-Star Break Guillen has been terrific, raking at a .276/.374/.530 clip. Magglio Ordonez has come on and the addition of Ryan Raburn has helped, too. It looks like the new road map for the Tigers might be simply to outslug teams. It would have seemed unlikely a few months ago, but their lineup may yet round together.

Clay Buchholz, anyone who can get them to October

Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are known commodities, even if the former has struggled of late. The Red Sox #4 and #5 starters, with Penny and Smoltz long gone, Tim Wakefield's back a major question, Daisuke Matsuzaka's return unclear, Junichi Tazawa struggling and Paul Byrd even in the mix to begin with, could be considered, um, uncertain. Which leaves Buchholz.

He has been inconsistent to date in 2009 but seems like he might - might - have turned a corner. In 21.1 innings in his last three starts he has yielded just 16 baserunners and posted a 4.25 K/BB ratio. If this, or even some loose variant of this, is the Buchholz Boston gets for the rest of the year and they manage to qualify for the post-season, they're contenders.

Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain

I won't belabor this one because Rob Neyer already did such a nice job with it. The Yankees are the best team in baseball, but if you could undergo any tinkering at all with their squad, what would you do? In a piece titled "How to make the Yankees perfect" Neyer writes:

Which is where Hughes comes in. Chamberlain is the Yankees' No. 4 starter. Sergio Mitre is the Yankees' No. 5 starter. Which means the Yankees, as things stand now, have only three reliable starters. And again, you need four of them when the leaves are turning in New England.

I know, I know ... Phil Hughes has been so good in the bullpen: 1.11 ERA with an overpowering strikeout-to-walk ratio. Make him a starter again and he's not going to post numbers anything like those. But to help the Yankees, he doesn't have to be anywhere near that good; he just has to be measurably better than Chamberlain and Mitre. Particularly if -- and I know this is highly speculative -- Chamberlain regains his dominant stuff upon returning to a relief role.

Perhaps I'm overreacting to Chamberlain's recent struggles, and the Yankees are good enough to win the World Series even without a decent fourth starter. But the other day somebody asked me what could keep the Yankees from winning. I didn't have a good answer, because this is essentially a team without a weakness.

Except one. And with a little creativity, they could probably make it zero.

Will the Yankees shift personnel around this late in the season as Neyer is proposing? It might be the key to them nailing down their first title since 2000.


FYI, Lincecum said that he had these back problems when he was younger, and had this one happened sooner between his starts, he would have been able to make his start. He did not make it to be any big deal, and expects to make his next start, which is Monday against Colorado.

He says he can start earlier but that is up to the Giants trainers (and probably management as well). But between him starting two games against the Dodgers or starting against Colorado, I think we have to go with Colorado, particularly since it is Brad Penny that he would be bumping out. The rotation as it currently stands, would have Penny pitching two games against the Dodgers and Lincecum the first game against Colorado, followed by Zito and Cain, which is pretty idea.

Yeah, Bumgarner's debut should have (I know I was), but there were some fans who were upset over starting his arbitration clock and others who were upset because they think something is physically wrong since his velocity went down, and thus he should be shut down instead.

Tangentially, but relatedly, some fans were upset that Osirus Matos was DFAed to bring Bumgarner up instead of Brian Bocock. I wasn't happy about it and wondered what happened to Matos's star that led him to this, he seemed like he could be a good reliever (end game) given more development prior to the season. I only take faith that the Giants (i.e. Sabean) have not missed very often in releasing or trading away pitching prospects.

I'd like to think there's a giant vending machine in the Red Sox clubhouse. You know the kind with the glass where you can see all the m&m's, peanut butter cups, chips, etc., but this one is much bigger, huge in fact, and instead of candy there are rows and rows of mediocre pitchers. And every 5th day Francona walks up to it, puts his money, close his eyes, presses some button and out comes "tonight's starting pitcher." Then, and only then would i feel better when Paul Byrd or Junichi Tazawa doesn't make it past the 3rd inning.

Speaking of pitchers who don't make it past the 3rd inning. How long are the Yankees gonna baby Joba Chamberlain? I got two boys, 6 and 3, and i don't baby them as much as the Yanks baby Joba. Of course, my kids don't have a vagina. I could see Joba in a vending machine. In the ladies room next to the tampons.

Good post, Sully, though I don't think you need to tip-toe around the difference between the AL and the NL so much, especially when it comes to Penny and Smoltz. I think it's pretty clear why these guys have turned the corner, and I doubt even fans of NL teams would dispute it.

And to theSnydes3000, what a weird, stupid comment. You may want to give up on the attempts at comedy. I used to work at The Onion, and we would get unsolicited job applications from high school kids that read a lot like that.

Sorry, didn't mean to offend. Just venting as I watch my Sox stumble and struggle trying to make the playoffs and the Yankees steamroll the rest of the league. Besides, everyone has a different sense of humor. That's probably why The Onion movie went straight to DVD (after sitting on a shelf for 5 years).