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Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Who will wear the AL crown?

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Not only has the National League transformed into Quadruple-A, as far as I can tell the Dodgers and Mets are the only two NL teams capable of doing anything in October. And by "anything," I mean not "getting swept in the World Series."

So since our 2006 champion is almost definitely coming from the American League, let's rank the AL teams in order of "least possible chance of winning the World Series" to "best possible chance." In reverse order …

NOT A CHANCE IN HELL

14. Kansas City
We're only six years in, but here's my pick for "Worst Sports Franchise of the 21st Century." You've really accomplished something when you stink every year AND you only have a couple of good prospects. That's almost impossible. At least the Royals finally hired a highly regarded exec (Dayton Moore) and gave him carte blanche to retool the team. Maybe it was Joe Posnanski's upcoming book, "Just Kill Me, Just Bludgeon Me In the Head, I'm Not Kidding: Fifteen Years Covering the Royals" that tipped them off.

Here's what I don't get about the Royals: They have no money and no chance to compete for a title any time soon. We know this. So what's the point of spending 1/9th of your salary cap on Mike Sweeney, or shelling out a few million every year for over-the-hill vets like Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzlenakalaksksak? Why not spend your available funds on your farm system (tough-to-sign draft picks, more scouts and everything else), then build something from the ground up? Forget about the logical move … isn't that the only move? What rational baseball fan would say, "I don't want to watch kids with potential, I'd rather see Sanders going 1-for-4 every day?" Just seems like they're in no-man's land right now, personified by Shane Costa (a young OF who can hit) getting sent down last week for ABs because Sanders was blocking him. And this makes sense … how? Their whole season has played out that way. I'm dumbfounded by them.

(Note: I feel bad for 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Gordon, the savior-in-waiting who's already been saddled with the "Next George Brett" tag, and if that isn't bad enough, Topps screwed up and released a couple of his rookie cards early, making them five-figure collector items for the 20 guys who still collect baseball cards. Now there's a guy with some pressure on him.)

13. Baltimore
Another train wreck, but for a different reason: The Orioles' pitching staff stinks to the point that somebody in the front office actually said the words, "Let's call Russ Ortiz, maybe he can help." On the bright side, it's given us plenty of chances to watch Leo Mazzone staring blankly out to the field, partly in horror, partly in shock, kinda like Richard Gere in "Unfaithful" after he killed the guy with a snow globe.

Leo Mazzone
Leo Mazzone hasn't been able to work much magic with the Baltimore pitching staff.
You can't really blame the O's though. For instance, we now know that it's a really, REALLY bad idea to allow your pitchers to appear in this spring's WBC … and the Orioles had Daniel Cabrera, Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen involved. (By the way, here's reason No. 450 why I missed Gammons this summer -- he predicted that angle in the spring and would have been triumphantly taking it home in mid-June.) We also know that it's a really, REALLY bad idea for an AL team to trade full value for an NL starter because of the adjustment from Quadruple-A to the majors -- there are so many guys that could be mentioned here, I don't have enough words, and this is the Internet -- and yet, the O's gave up Jorge Julio (a quality reliever in an era where everyone's looking for quality relievers) for Kris Benson (currently working on a 4.74 ERA).

So who's left? Erik Bedard (a solid No. 3 starter on the right team), rookie Adam Loewen (1-2 years away) and closer Chris Ray (the one true bright spot). Yikes. The thing is, their offense is pretty good now that everyone's healthy, and they completely lucked out with Corey Patterson (the fantasy baseball version of Larry Johnson this season). To put the Patterson thing in perspective, I was reading "Baseball Between the Numbers" earlier this summer (interesting book about statistics by the guys from Baseball Prospectus) and they described this stat called VORP, which calculates how many runs you would be worth (or not worth) compared to a replacement-level player at your position. Patterson's VORP on the Cubs last season? Minus-10.7. Minus-10.7!!!! Now he's a 50-steal guy who is hitting .279? How does this happen? The poor Cubs fans …

(By the way, I think they need to expand the VORP theory to every profession. Imagine finding out that you had a minus-VORP? Would you be able to go into work the next day? Thank God ESPN.com doesn't evaluate its writers this way, I don't think I could handle having a VORP. Especially if Chad Ford's VORP was higher. All right, I'm babbling.)

12. Tampa Bay
The Devil Rays were hitting their offensive stride in mid-July -- Baldelli and Cantu were healthy again, Lugo had emerged into a true threat at the top of the lineup, Crawford was evolving into a five-tool superstar, the Navarro trade helped, Huff was starting to hit and they were getting one of those fluky fantasy years out of Ty Wigginton (a longtime member of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars). I mean, it reached the point in my AL-only keeper league where co-owner Hench and I specifically targeted Huff as a throw-in for a Felix-Johan trade (we were getting Johan) because we had Baldelli and Cantu and wanted as many D-Rays as possible. They were legitimately frisky.

So what happened? Almost immediately, they traded Huff to Houston and Lugo to the Dodgers … so much for the frisky offense. Then Cantu and Jonny Gomes made the collective decision, "Let's become the first teammates ever to hit .150 for three straight months." Baldelli tweaked his hammy again, which is now becoming the Fred Taylor's Groin of baseball body parts. Star prospect B.J. Upton came up and completely crapped the bed; in retrospect, it would have been 10 times more fun had they brought up Elijah Dukes, who's like a cross between Milton Bradley, Ron Artest and Adebici from "Oz." Crawford watched what was happening and decided, "Screw it, I'm not stealing any more bases, I don't want to get hurt." Now we have six D-Rays (all of whom are playing) hitting .221 or less, as well as an offense that went from "legitimately frisky" to "serviceable" to "completely inept" in the span of six weeks. Personally, I would have kept Huff and Lugo and built some momentum for 2007. But that's just me.

(Note: Can't let the D-Rays go without mentioning their bullpen, which has wreaked havoc not only in Tampa but in fantasy leagues everywhere. In my AL-only league, Dan Miceli went for $9 on draft day. Then the season started and prospective closers Chad Orvella, Tyler Walker, Shawn Camp and Brian Meadows went for $22, $15, $7 and $8, respectively. All in all, 61 bucks were spent on Tampa's closers, only the second-worst team in the league. You have to love fantasy baseball.)

NOT A CHANCE

11. Seattle
Weird team on paper: The Mariners are getting an inspired performance from their bullpen including closer J.J. Putz, who's suddenly throwing 98 mph and poised to strike out as many guys this season as he did in the past two (and yes, he's 29 years old, but nobody finds this fishy at all); their starters aren't terrible (I'd use a word like "mediocre" or "nondescript"); their two young middle infielders came through (Lopez and Betancourt); they made two good summer trades for bats (Perez and Broussard); Raul Ibanez is having one of those quiet years when he's going to end up with 120 RBI and everyone's going to say, "Wait, what?" and there's always Ichiro (enjoying another monster year until a recent slump).

Three problems:

(A) A little too much hype for King Felix. When he stumbled for the first three months, it seemed to take the wind out of their sails. Even I cooled on him since my typically overexcited column last year, mainly because of his body (did he hire Bartolo Colon's chef?) and his bizarre tendency to look great for five out of six innings and completely self-destruct in the other one. I'd put him behind Liriano, Kazmir and Weaver at this point. Disappointing. Should we have nicknamed him Prince Felix? I feel like we failed him in some way.

Mike Hargrove
Mike Hargrove's career record? Not so good.
(B) Mike Hargrove, the homeless man's Bob Brenly. Just look at the way he handled Mark Lowe, who was looming as this season's Chris Ray until Hargrove stupidly had him throw 13.2 innings in 20 games in one stretch, followed by the obligatory "Mark Lowe has been scratched for a few days because of elbow pain" blurb on every roto news wire. Nicely done. He did the same thing to Soriano earlier in the season. This seems like a good time to mention that Hargrove's record in Baltimore and Seattle since the 2000 season is 400-528. How is he still employed? He's like the Herschel Savage of managers.

(C) Their big-money sluggers (Beltre and Sexson) are killing them. Again. And that's not even a surprise. The most common mistake in pro sports? A franchise overpaying a name player who isn't a sure thing, with the reason usually being, "Look, we spent all this money, we're serious, we want to win!" (Just look at what happened in the NBA this summer -- Peja for $64 million, Nene for $60M and whatever Al Harrington ends up getting … this might be the first summer where 90 percent of the teams actually got worse.) You can absorb those mistakes when you're the Yanks or the Red Sox, but for a medium-sized team like the Mariners, it's like playing Russian roulette: Sure, you might win, but do you really want to go there? Probably not. And by the way, I LIKE Beltre, he's playing hard and seems like he gives a crap. But $65 million for someone coming off a fluke statistical season in the Steroid Era for a team that already got killed by Bret Boone? Come on.

10. Cleveland
Not sure what happened with these guys. The Indians would have made a much better roto team.

(Note: Normally I'd have more to say, but I'm tired of Cleveland readers complaining every time I write something even mildly negative about one of their teams, no matter how accurate that assessment might be. Now I'm thinking that Cleveland fans are like women -- if they ask you how they look, just tell them, "You look fine, you look great" or else you're in for 20 minutes of pure hell. So to recap, the Indians look fine, they look great. Let's move on.)

A PUNCHER'S CHANCE

9. Texas
Maybe I somehow missed all the times this was debated and discussed … but why hasn't more been made of the "Alfonso Soriano/Brad Wilkerson" trade? That has to go down as one of the five worst trades of the past 25 years, right? For Rangers fans, the shame has been that their team lucked out with multiple low-risk guys -- Mark DeRosa, Web Gem MVP Gary Matthews Jr., that Otsuka guy, Gerald Laird, even Vicente Padilla until he got shelled Tuesday night -- as well as a truly crummy division, a favorable trade (for Carlos Lee) and Teixeira finally waking up from his three-month slumber. But imagine if they still had Soriano to boot? Yikes.

(On the bright side, they can still look forward to the day when Buck Showalter resigns and they win a World Series 12 months later. Good times.)

8. Toronto
Put it this way: When your manager challenges your third baseman to a fight before a game, it's probably not your year. But I will say three things …

(A) Roy Halladay reminds me of the pitchers I grew up watching (like Catfish Hunter or Jack Morris), one of those rugged guys with a cool name and kick-ass facial hair, someone who seems like he'd welcome any slugger charging the mound, the kind of guy who gets pissed when his manager walks to the mound in the ninth because he wants to finish the game. He's just a horse. Love that guy. Great baseball name as well. Sounds like a new character on "Deadwood" or something.

(B) There's a slim chance that I've seen every one of Vernon Wells' great 2006 games since he's batting something like .950 with 20 homers and 75 RBI against the Red Sox. And it's easy to say, "He's only doing it because it's a contract year." But he isn't. Wells is signed through 2007. I read a USA Today story in mid-March about Wells where he basically said, "At the end of last season, I sat at my locker and knew I didn't do the best I could have done, and I hated that feeling, and I never wanted to feel that way again, so I devoted my entire winter to making myself into a great player." Which he did. You have to hand it to him.

(C) It's highly improbable that the Jays can leapfrog the Yanks and Sox, down by nine in the loss column, with six weeks to play. With that said, I will not feel even remotely safe until they're eliminated. Scary team. Please go away.

WHATEVER

Barry Zito
Zito isn't quite as reliable these days.
7. Oakland
I can't take the A's seriously -- no home-field advantage, not a single dangerous bat, no Rich Harden, a 1-2 punch of starters (Zito and Haren) who seem to get shelled every three weeks (only their statistics don't reflect this for some reason), and a good bullpen that's helmed by the exceedingly hittable Huston Street (trust me, he's on my AL-only team; even when he's shaking hands after the save, you're still waiting for something bad to happen). And did I mention the legacy of playoff losses? They're like the Memphis Grizzlies of the American League. Whatever.

(By the way, I loved "Moneyball," but doesn't it take a hit in the historical sense because there were entire chapters devoted to Billy Beane's genius for coming up with guys like Scott Hatteberg, Jeremy Brown and Chad Bradford? Thank God for Nick Swisher -- he saved the book from retroactively ranking in the 90s on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. And frankly, there's still time.)

THE SLEEPERS

6. Minnesota
Well, unless Liriano doesn't come back. Then the Twins drop into the previous group. But they are built for the playoffs: Santana, Liriano and the rejuvenated Brad Radke as the 1-2-3, great bullpen, great closer (the Rivera-like Joe Nathan), two superstar hitters (Morneau and Mauer) and a bunch of Those Guys having out-of-their-mind seasons (Punto, Tyner, Bartlett, Cuddyer, Neshek … basically, everyone who's driving you crazy if you're in an AL roto league and they aren't on your team). And can you really count out any team that features a starter named Boof Bonser?

Still, it looks like they may have peaked -- Morneau and Mauer are slowing down, Torii Hunter hasn't been the same since breaking his foot and Liriano … I mean, what can you say? The week before his injury, our main competitor in my keeper league traded Liriano and some fodder to get SIX guys back from the tanking third-place team: Teixeira, Glaus, Konerko, BJ Ryan, Lackey and Freddy Garcia. And forget about the fact that news of the trade nearly caused me to commit my first homicide, or that it led to five days of vicious message board posts and e-mails, or that the guy who traded Liriano (my friend Mike, also the commish, and isn't that always fun?) was the same guy who traded Cameron Maybin straight up for Justin Morneau three months ago, or that Hench and I eventually decided that trying to win this league is like trying to win at a blackjack table where three of the six guys at the table keep splitting 10s and hitting on 16 against a six, or that we quietly decided to sign Mike up for 50-100 porn sites if he somehow beats our vastly superior team because of two shady trades. Forget about all of that.

The point is, Liriano is so good, he was traded in my league for SIX LEGITIMATELY GOOD GUYS and the trade was allowed to stand. Sure, it was allowed to stand because the commissioner was the one who made the trade, but it was allowed to stand. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to sit inside my car and scream for the next 30 minutes. Don't go anywhere.

5. The Angels
All right, I'm back. So what do we make of the Angels? Their offense completely bombed thanks to poor Vlad Guerrero being sandwiched around multiple washed-up vets and overhyped rookies (most of whom bombed) … then everything fell into place when my man Howie Kendrick (the future six-time batting champ) was recalled last month. Other than John Lackey, their best starter was Jered Weaver, only they sent him down to Triple-A in the middle of the season for a couple of weeks so his brother Jeff could suck a few more times … now Jered is back and cruising along like nothing ever happened. Bartolo Colon morphed into Andre The Giant to the point that I kept waiting for him to have a bench-clearing brawl against four midgets at once; he lasted 56 innings before shutting it down this season, probably to get stomach-stapling surgery … and they don't really miss him at all.

Vladimir Guerrero
Vlad is a great weapon in the field and at the plate.
It's almost like they've had two seasons in one: The awkward transition season when the old guys make way for the new guys, followed by the feel-good season when the young guys slowly start to emerge, only those things happened simultaneously. But how many AL teams have four quality starters (Escobar, Lackey, Weaver and Santana), a quality bullpen (Shields, Donnelly and K-Rod), a superstar (Vlad), speed on the bases (Figgins, Cabrera and Kendrick), up-and-coming bats (Kendrick and Juan Rivera) and a good manager (Mike Scioscia, having his best season yet).

The big question: Why would I have them ranked ahead of the A's when they're six behind them in the loss column right now? Because I'd love to play the A's in October. The Angels? No way.

(One more note: Remember my bit about how Josh Smith and Andrei Kirilenko are the two NBA players who are 10 times more exciting to see in person than on TV? Vlad is the baseball version of that -- he crushes the living bejeezus out of everything, limps around in the outfield like Redd Foxx and still has that cannon arm. In Monday's Yanks-Angels game, he misjudged a 300-foot sac fly, didn't get his feet set for the throw and somehow still uncorked a laser beam that nearly nailed a mortified Johnny Damon. Seriously, is there anyone quite like Vlad Guerrero? For the third straight year, I'd like to profusely thank George Steinbrenner for overruling his baseball people and signing Sheffield over Vlad. Phew.)

THE THREATENING NON-THREAT

4. Boston
Here's what I like: Big Papi, Manny, Schilling, Papelbon, Youkilis, Lowell and Gonzalez on the left side of the infield; Jon Lester's potential; Wily Mo in any game where the Red Sox are leading or trailing by four runs or more.

Here's what I don't like: Everything else.

Bottom line: They overachieved in the first half because of Papelbon (who was simply out of his mind) and Big Papi (who probably swung 6-7 games in Boston's favor it had no business winning). Now the Sox are underacheiving. It's probably a 92-win team at best. And I could spend the next 3,000 words ranting and raving about the unacceptable performance of the Henry/Theo regime since they won the World Series -- the catastrophic Renteria/Clement signings; lowballing Pedro/Damon, then half-heartedly renewing talks at the last second; overvaluing Beckett (a genuine disappointment) and Crisp (a colossal disappointment); undervaluing their own prospects (Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez) in the Beckett trade; freezing at this year's trading deadline; dealing Arroyo without knowing about the health of Wells and Foulke; allowing 40-year-old Mike Timlin to pitch in the WBC (he's a walking corpse now); letting Roberts and Cabrera go; handing Beckett that unconscionable $30 million extension (I yelped out loud when I saw the headline); and we haven't even mentioned last winter's soap opera with Theo yet -- but I don't want to ruin my chances of getting a key to the office next season. So let's just say that everyone did a swell job and I fully support every moronic decision that was made. Now where's my key?

(Note: Not to keep bringing up my keeper league, because I wouldn't want you to think that I'm obsessed with it, even though I probably am … but Hench and I had Timlin, Delcarmen AND Hansen on our keeper team this season, and we traded all of them in separate moves last month. Why? BECAUSE WE WATCH BASEBALL! BECAUSE ALL OF THEM SUCK! THAT'S WHY! Really, we're going to war with a one-man bullpen for the next 10 weeks? That's the plan? Good God, I can't wait to have Belichick and Brady back in my life. I want everything to make sense again.)

THE CONTENDERS

Jim Thome
Thome has bounced back in a BIG way this season.
3. Chicago
You know how USA Today runs the page every Tuesday with all the team stats? And when you look at the pitching, there's always one or two scrubs at the bottom of each team's staff with a 7.80 ERA? Well, in Chicago's case, 12 pitchers are listed … and the bottom four guys also happen to be the 2 through 5 starters on the team (Garcia, Buehrle, Vazquez and Garland). If that doesn't personify Chicago's season, I don't know what does. And no, I'm not counting the White Sox out. You kidding? With their bullpen and their bats -- you realize Thome, Konerko, Dye and Crede are on pace for a combined 150 HRs, 500 RBI and .950 OPS, right? -- they could emulate the 2002 Angels for three weeks. Entirely conceivable. Sure, the Fox Sports execs are probably referring to this possibility as "DEFCON 1," but it's entirely conceivable.

(By the way, if you were covering the White Sox, wouldn't you make it your goal to keep asking Ozzie Guillen questions that could lead him to possibly giving loony answers? For instance, if I were covering the White Sox for the Sun-Times this summer, I would have repeatedly asked Ozzie for his opinion on the following things: tennis bras, "Brokeback Mountain," vasectomies, UFOs, Barbaro, menstrual cycles, dinosaurs, blogs, Suri Cruise, decaffeinated coffee, "Scarface," Celine Dion, breast-feeding in public, Ugueth Urbina, the plight of homeless people in Chicago, hybrid cars, steroids, movie theaters that still show X-rated movies, NASCAR, pro wrestling and Viagra. I would have worn him down, day after day, and gotten his take on every one of those things. This is probably why I never made it in the newspaper business.)

2. Detroit
I predicted a second-half swoon for the Tigers in last month's chat. Didn't happen. But I'm still not sold on them. I thought Buster Olney nailed it in his blog on Monday: They don't have an October lineup. In other words, they have a bunch of free swingers, not guys who work counts, get on base, extend pitch counts and everything else. You can absolutely, positively pitch to these guys.

Take Wily Mo Pena, for instance: Nice young player, probably headed for a 45-homer season one day, hits the ball harder than any Red Sox player since Rice. The ball jumps off his bat. There's no other way to say it. He hit a homer two weeks ago in which someone sitting in the Monster seats ducked out of the way so they didn't get killed by the ball. I'm not kidding. This happened. But here's the thing about Wily Mo: Any good pitcher can get him out. He swings at everything. Just keep him off balance, hit your spots and he'll be walking back to the dugout within six pitches. Those guys are fine during the season, especially during those stretches when you're playing 12-9 games in Texas and wearing out the 12th-best pitcher in Baltimore's bullpen. But in the playoffs? They kill you. And the Tigers have a bunch of them: Inge, Thames, Monroe, Granderson, Dmitri Young … you can pitch to all of these guys.

On the flip side, they've been winning Those Games all season (you know, those dopey comeback wins that alert your fans that something special is happening); they have all kinds of good karma coming from all the tortured Tigers fans who are so delighted just to have a fun baseball team again; Jim Leyland has been an absolute tour de force all season (couldn't be happier to have him chain-smoking, wincing and swearing under his breath in the American League); they have something special in Bonderman and Verlander (although his innings limit could be a genuine problem in two months). There's something about these guys that makes it difficult to write them off. Would you want to play them in Detroit, in October, in front of a raucous sellout crowd of delirious Tigers fans? Me neither.

(Strangest thing about the Tigers: Joel Zumaya might be the most intimidating reliever in either league, to the point that you can always count on a story in the opposing team's newspaper whenever he pitches against a new team for the first time, replete with quotes from the hitters like, "I saw his first fastball and I was like, DAMN!" and "I'm just glad I'm still alive." I mean, the guy hit 103 on the gun two weeks ago. He's like a sports movie character. Of course, Leyland has him pitching the sixth and seventh innings, which seems crazy because Zumaya would clearly be a top-10 closer and even crazier when you consider that Todd Jones -- Todd Jones!!! -- is blocking his way. And yet, the setup makes perfect sense for them -- somehow, Jones almost always gets the job done, and Zumaya is looming for the playoffs as another 2002 K-Rod. He might hit 105 with the adrenaline. Seriously, I can't wait for the Tigers in the playoffs. How can you love sports and NOT be excited about this? So many subplots, great fans, everything you could ask for. I sound like Frank Gifford. Let's move on.)

(Second-strangest thing about the Tigers: Six years ago, they offered Juan Gonzalez a $150 million contract that would have destroyed them for the rest of the decade if he wasn't dumb enough to turn it down. It's almost like the entire franchise had a near-death experience. Anyway, they took advantage of that second life and now they're headed for 100 wins. … Meanwhile, Juan Gone is playing in the Independent League along with my buddy JackO's pal from home, and after JackO drove to Jersey to catch one of his friend's games, they stopped at a Subway for dinner afterwards, and who walked in but Juan Gonzalez? That's right, the two-time MVP Juan proceeded to sit down at a table and eat a Subway sandwich by himself. These are the things that happen when you turn down a $150 million contract. I feel like you need to know these things.)

1. New York
I hate doing it. Believe me.

Bobby Abreu
He might not be hitting many homers, but Abreu makes a big difference in that lineup.
But Abreu pushed that lineup to another level -- you're looking at an average of 4-5 pitches per guy just to get through the order once. (I was never a huge Abreu fan, but it was a brilliant move to get him -- reminiscent of the Suns picking up Tim Thomas last spring). You can see it working night after night; the Yankees are knocking out starters in the fifth or sixth and scoring waves of runs in the late innings, with Damon and Jeter (a legitimate MVP candidate) leading the way at the top of the order. Well, what do you think will happen in the playoffs? If they can get everyone healthy, this isn't just a great offensive team -- we're talking about one of the deadliest lineups in recent baseball history. It's like a Billy Beane pipe dream sprung to life.

Plus, Randy Johnson is coming around -- slowly, but it's happening -- and Mussina has probably been the single most valuable pitcher in the league this season (only because he kept throwing gems from April to June and saving their bullpen when they had nobody else). Wang and Wright aren't terrible options as your third and fourth starters -- not ideal, but not terrible. And they always have Rivera waiting in the wings, the single most important pitcher of the past 10 years. There's just a lot happening here. These things tend to happen when you have $200 million to work with.

If I had to bet my life on one of these AL teams, I'd pick the Yanks. Begrudgingly.

(And if you think this column was a complicated reverse jinx for the five-game series coming up at Fenway, well, you know me too well.)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.