Anyone could win brutal NL West
(May 9, 2006) — Observations and opinions on a young baseball season:
The five luckiest teams in the majors reside in the National League West, because it is the only division any of them could win. San Francisco is too old, Los Angeles is too brittle and San Diego can't hit. That leaves two improved teams —– Arizona and Colorado — to contend for the right to be crushed in the postseason.
The best team in baseball is the Chicago White Sox because only they have five above-average starting pitchers (Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland) and another waiting for a chance (Brandon McCarthy). The White Sox can afford to trade a starting pitcher for help elsewhere, but they don't need anything.
The worst team in baseball is Kansas City. The Royals entered this week ranked last in the 14-team American League in batting average (.236), runs (97), HRs (17) and 12th in ERA (5.43). It is difficult for a team to be so lousy at so many things.
The best off-season trade for both teams was Philadelphia swapping slugger Jim Thome to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. Thome is a perfect left-handed complement to right-handed Paul Konerko and the Phillies needed a center fielder. Rowand is hitting .311 with 6 HRs and covers a lot of ground.
The best young slugger in baseball (Albert Pujols now is a veteran) is Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. His emergence allowed the team to trade Thome. Don't be surprised if Howard has better numbers than Thome when this season ends. Their 2006 batting lines so far:
THOME — .307, 13 HRs, 32 RBI.
HOWARD — .306, 8 HRs, 21 RBI.
One of the most interesting themes has been the success of veteran pitchers. Greg Maddux (5-1 record, 2.35 ERA), Pedro Martinez (5-0, 2.72 ERA), Tom Glavine (4-2, 1.94 ERA), Mike Mussina (5-1, 2.35 ERA) and Curt Schilling (5-1, 3.02 ERA). They might all be picked for the All-Star Game. Randy Johnson (5-2, 5.02 ERA) probably won't be. When he has a poor outing, there always is speculation that something is bothering him physically. My hunch is that his only problem is being 42 years old and his stuff isn't nearly as nasty as it used to be.
If 2005 AL Most Valuable Player voters had a do-over, I wonder if Boston DH David Ortiz might outpoll Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Ortiz continues to get clutch hits while A-Rod continues to struggle when the Yankees need a big hit.
The Minnesota Twins are off to a rare poor start and don't figure to recover in what has become a very strong AL Central Division (White Sox, Cleveland and Detroit all are solid teams). It will be interesting to see if, when and to which team soon-to-be free agent center fielder Torii Hunter will be traded to. The Yankees could use him (switch Johnny Damon to left field and have Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield share right field/DH duties) but might not have enough prospects to make a deal.
Baseball's best hitter unquestionably is St. Louis first baseman Pujols. He leads the majors in HRs (16) and RBI (38) but he's a long shot to win the National League batting title for a Triple Crown. He ranks 15th in the NL with a .314 batting average. He'll pass a lot of the pretenders ahead of him (for example Brad Ausmus, Omar Vizquel, Austin Kearns and Brian McCann) but probably not all of them.
One of the oddities of the season is the New York Yankees' 11-0 record in day games and 7-11 record at night. It could be a bad omen because most playoff and World Series games are played under the lights (unfortunately).
One reason the Detroit Tigers are a nice surprise is two former free agents ducked them after the 2004 season — pitcher Carl Pavano (coming off an 18-8, 3.00 ERA season with Florida) and Adrian Beltre (coming off a .334, 48 HRs, 121 RBI season with the Los Angeles Dodgers). Now the Yankees are stuck with Pavano, who never seems to be healthy, and Seattle's Beltre arguably is the biggest bust in baseball (.212, 1 HR, 9 RBI in 33 games). The Tigers used the money they saved to sign more useful players the past two off-seasons, such as Magglio Ordonez (.311, 9 HRs, 23 RBI) and Kenny Rogers (5-2, 3.28 ERA).
It will be very interesting to see how Barry Bonds (.262, 5 HRs, 12 RBI in 65 official at-bats) fares in fan balloting for the All-Star Game. People who jeer him because they believe he was among the steroid cheaters also respect his pre-juice career accomplishments. My guess is that he'll be voted to start for the National League.
The All-Star Game will be in Pittsburgh at PNC (Pirates Not Competitive) Park. Pirates fans are overdue to see a good baseball game.
The hot team most likely to cool off is Cincinnati. The Reds have plenty of power but they won't hit for a high average and the pitching staff has been overachieving.
The Chicago Cubs are battling to stay close to .500 and have the potential to be a very good team if they ever get all of their players healthy at the same time. Slugger Derrek Lee will return soon from a broken wrist and there have even been sightings of recuperating pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
Toronto right fielder Alex Rios (.389, 6 HRs, 22 RBI) might be baseball's most-improved player this season and a big reason why the Blue Jays entered this week with a .300 team batting average.
Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki is hitting only .270 and one wonders if a trade to a contending team might spark a return to form.
San Diego's Mike Piazza is finally hitting like most catchers (.213, 3 HRs, 6 RBI in 75 at-bats). The problem is that he never was a good catcher defensively and now is the worst.
Oakland DH Frank Thomas (.188, 6 HRs and 15 RBI in 96 at-bats) isn't doing much for his marginal Hall of Fame hopes. He still has some pop but his days as a high average hitter appear over.
Boston middle infielders Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez (a combined 1 HR and 20 RBI in 209 at-bats) aren't going to make Red Sox fans forget the glory years of Bobby Doerr and Vern Stephens, who routinely combined for 50-plus HRs and 200-plus RBI. But they do stir unfond memories of Boston DP duos such as Chuck Schilling and Eddie Bressoud, and Doug Griffin and Mario Guerrero.
The Roger Clemens Watch is on and the longer Houston keeps winning, the more likely he'll be returning to the Astros.