The first thing is that they all were picked by a foolish columnist named Rob Neyer to finish this season in first place.
The second thing is that they all, at this moment, would have trouble seeing first place on a crystal-clear day. The Athletics are seven games behind the Mariners, the White Sox are seven-and-a-half games behind the White Sox, and the Phillies are 10 games behind the Braves.
Oh, and these teams all have a third thing in common: their pitching's been fine (or better), but they've not been able to hit their way out of a wet paper sack.
Let's start with the Phillies, because I consider them even more inexplicable than the others. With the addition of Jim Thome to a lineup that finished eighth in the National League in run production last season, I expected the Phillies to outscore every National League team but the Rockies this season. Why? Because Thome's an awesome hitter, because rookie Marlon Byrd figured to be a significant upgrade over Doug Glanville, and because Pat Burrell looked like a perennial All-Star.
Instead, they're currently eighth in the league (again), and a lot closer to 15th than first.
So what's wrong with the Phillies? They've got a couple of guys who are playing just below their abilities (Bobby Abreu, Thome), they've got a couple of players who are playing well below their abilities (Burrell, David Bell), and meanwhile nobody is doing much better than we might have expected.
Actually, Burrell and Bell have been disasters. Burrell's hitting .198 and Bell's hitting .206, and there aren't really any silver linings inside those dark clouds. Burrell does have 35 walks and a team-high 28 extra-base hits, but that batting average leaves him with a 732 OPS that really isn't acceptable for a left "fielder." Still, most of Burrell's numbers are consistent with his past performance, leaving us to surmise that eventually the hits will start falling in, and he'll get back to where he was. Bell, on the other hand, is just all-around awful.
The White Sox were supposed to be better this year. To a potent roster that finished third in the American League with 856 runs, the Sox added Bartolo Colon, one of the best pitchers around. Colon's been fine, Esteban Loiaza's been finer, and now the Sox have the sixth-best ERA in the league, which is a decent improvement over their No. 8 ranking last season. Unfortunately, the lineup went in the toilet. This season, only the Tigers (209) have scored fewer runs than the White Sox (270).
It's easy (and fun!) to blame general manager Kenny Williams, but two of his three off-season moves to bolster the pitching staff worked (Colon and Loaiza; Billy Koch has been just fair, and Williams should have just kept Keith Foulke). Is it Williams' fault that Paul Konerko and Joe Crede have simply stopped hitting?
The Athletics' attack has been torpedoed by three players who aren't even reaching base 30 percent of the time:
M Tejada .281 .330
T Long .295 .323
J Dye .246 .340
Remember, this is an offense that's supposedly predicated on the notion that on-base percentage is the single most important statistic in baseball, because if you get on base every time, you'll never make an out, and if you never make an out, you'll score an infinite number of runs. True, none of the three players listed above have exactly been on-base machines, but they've been at least adequate, and have generally compensated by doing some other things well. Not this year, though. At least not yet.
What's more, second baseman Mark Ellis and first baseman Scott "Pickin' Machine" Hatteberg are both off last year's numbers, too. The result of all this is that the A's, who ranked fifth in the American League in OBP and eighth in runs scored last season, are just 10th and 10th this year.
Prescription for the Phillies?
Send David Bell to the bench, shift Placido Polanco from second base to third base, and call up Chase Utley from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After skipping Double-A and posting solid numbers in Triple-A last year, Utley was ranked by Baseball America as the Phillies' No. 2 prospect for this season. And in 59 games with Scranton, he's batting .336 with 15 doubles and eight home runs. There are questions about Utley's defense, but it's pretty obvious that he should be playing every day for the Phillies, whether at second base or third.
And Bell should not. Get him out of the lineup, and everything else should take care of itself. The Phillies aren't going to catch the Braves, but the wild card remains a distinct possibility.
Prescription for the White Sox?
Prayer. There's no reason to expect help from anybody in Triple-A Charlotte, and Williams hasn't shown any great propensity for making helpful trades. The Sox just have to hope that the aliens currently inhabiting the bodies of Konerko and Crede get sick of this planet and head back to Proxima Centauri or wherever they came from. Because without something like the real Konerko and the real Crede, the White Sox simply can't compete.
Prescription for the Athletics? Well, getting Terrence Long the heck out of left field would certainly help. He's well on his way to a third straight crummy season, and signing him for four years and $11.6 million probably ranks as the biggest miscalculation of Billy Beane's tenure as A's general manager; Long is signed through 2005, and right now there's little indication he even belongs in the major leagues, let alone playing left field for a postseason contender. Moving out of center field was supposed to help his hitting, but the numbers tell a different story.
The A's need a shake up, just like the one they got last year. And it's already started. Catcher Adam Melhuse has been summoned from Triple-A Sacramento, and so has veteran outfielder Billy McMillon. The A's have to live with Miguel Tejada, but they don't have to live with Long, they don't have to live with Ellis (Esteban German has a .389 OBP with Sacramento, though it's true that he can't match Ellis' glove), and for that matter they don't have to live with first baseman Scott Hatteberg. Yes, Hatteberg's one of the more vivid co-stars Moneyball ... but that's just a book. The A's are a baseball team, and right now they could use Jason Grabowski's .531 slugging percentage (granted, that's with Sacramento) rather than Hatteberg's .379.
Beane will do something. It's just a question of what, and when. The odds are against the A's coming back to win the West, of course ... but the odds are against them every year in June, and every year they figure out a way to win 95 or 100 games.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.