Commentary

Mets, Phillies and Brewers battling for two spots in NL

Originally Published: September 18, 2008
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Is it too early for second-guessing the National League contenders?

Yeah, sort of. A great deal of the serious second-guessing will be moot in 10 days, when many of the second-guessees will have qualified for the playoffs. That doesn't mean it's not fun, though. And if we wait until next month, we'll be too wrapped up in all the drama to remember what we felt like all the way back in September …

GAMES TO WATCH
Milwaukee at Chi. Cubs, 2:20 ET Talk about it
Chi. White Sox at N.Y. Yankees, 7:05 ET Talk about it
Minnesota at Tampa Bay, 7:10 ET Talk about it
Philadelphia at Atlanta, 7:10 ET Talk about it
N.Y. Mets at Washington, 7:10 ET Talk about it
Still, if we really want to second-guess them, it's not hard to come up with a whopper for the Diamondbacks. In August 2007, they signed left fielder Eric Byrnes to a three-year, $30 million contract extension. In December, the D-backs traded outfielder Carlos Quentin to the White Sox for a minor league first baseman (who was later sent to the A's in the Dan Haren trade).

Byrnes has been a zero this season. Quentin, before breaking his wrist earlier this month, was a leading contender for MVP honors in the American League. It's hard to escape the conclusion that if the D-backs had kept Quentin and let Byrnes walk, they would have saved $30 million and been neck-and-neck with the Dodgers right now.

Most of the best second-guessing this season, though, involves three teams -- the Mets, Phillies and Brewers -- fighting for two playoff spots. And the loser is going to look back and wonder what might have been.

The Brewers certainly might wonder what could have been if they hadn't signed Eric Gagne last winter to serve as their closer. Before going on the DL in late May, Gagne did record 10 saves, but he also pitched poorly in three Milwaukee losses. Since returning in early July, Gagne has played a big role in just one loss, but that's mostly because he hasn't been allowed to pitch in many games that weren't already decided. And then there's the money; the Brewers have received very little for their $10 million investment in Gagne, and presumably could have received more if they'd spent that $10 million almost any other way.

NL EAST
TEAMWLPCTGBEx W-LPOFF
Philadelphia (11)8567.559--91-7186.6%
New York8467.5560.590-7263.7%
For more on the races, see Hunt for October

The Phillies? Oh, this one's easy. Especially after Wednesday night, when rookie J.A. Happ pitched six scoreless innings to beat the Braves, preserving the Phillies' slim lead over the Mets and earning his first major league victory.

His first victory, you say?

Yes, his first. While Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton were combining for 15 wins, 17 losses and a sparkling 5.59 ERA, Happ was spending his second straight summer in Triple-A and posting a solid 3.60 ERA with excellent peripheral stats. Granted, when the season began, the Phillies couldn't have known that James Anthony Happ was the fourth-best starter in the organization. But couldn't they have figured as much on the 9th of May, when he struck out 13 Columbus Clippers in seven innings? Or on the 5th of June, when he struck out 10 Indianapolis Indians without a walk?

NL WILD CARD
TEAMWLPCTGBPOFF
NY Mets (11)8467.556-63.7%
Milwaukee 8468.553.547.3%
Houston 8071.53041.5%
For more on the races, see Hunt for October
The Mets? It's hard to pinpoint any one thing. Sure, it now looks like foolishness to have entered the season relying on 41-year-old Moises Alou in left field. But who could have guessed that Alou would manage to play in only 15 games all season? Anyway, the position hasn't been a complete disaster, thanks to surprising performances from Fernando Tatis and (lately) Daniel Murphy. We might also quibble with the signing of Luis Castillo, but (1) he hasn't been terrible when healthy enough to play, and (2) his replacements haven't been any better.

No, the Mets' big mistake this season wasn't player-related; it was manager-related (which, come to think of it, might be the Brewers' biggest mistake this season, too). Under Willie Randolph, the Mets were 34-35. Under Jerry Manuel, they're 50-32. If the Mets had fired Randolph and promoted Manuel when the seams first started showing in May, might not the Mets today be a hair ahead of the Phillies instead of a hair behind?

Again, some of these items will be forgotten in two weeks. But at least two of them -- Byrnes instead of Quentin, and one other -- will be remembered by fans for a long, long time.

Win-lose situation for Brewers

Talk about your good news, bad news sort of deals. The Brewers finally win, but in the process they might have lost Ben Sheets to an elbow soreness.

[+] EnlargeBen Sheets
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastBen Sheets (13-8, 2.98) left Wednesday's start against the Cubs after only two innings because of right elbow pain.
Before the entire Badger State engages in collective hand-wringing, it's worth nothing that few teams are better-equipped than the Brewers to cope with the loss of a starting pitcher. Carlos Villanueva is homer-prone, but he has a 4.19 ERA this season (including nine starts). But instead of Villanueva, it's Manny Parra who probably gets the call. Granted, Parra hasn't pitched well lately and just recently lost his rotation spot (if just temporarily). If he's healthy, though, he's a league-average starting pitcher who will generally keep the Brewers in the game for six innings.

In the end, we're talking about two games, or perhaps just one. Sheets is (or was) slated to start next Tuesday against the woeful Pirates, and then on the season's final Sunday against the Cubs in a game that might matter, but might not.

What happens between now and the end of the season will be largely about breaks. Sheets' injury, if it keeps him out of action, is a tough break for the Brewers. But there will be plenty of other breaks, both good and bad, for all the contenders. This one probably won't, by itself, keep Milwaukee out of the playoffs.

Can Twins make up any ground in AL Central?

At this point in the season, if you're trying to catch up, every day is a big day. But for the Twins it feels like a particularly big day.

AL CENTRAL
TEAMWLPCTGBEx W-LPOFF
Chicago (9)8467.556--90-7272.0%
Minnesota8270.5392.588-7428.0%
For more on the races, see Hunt for October
They're 2½ games behind the White Sox with only 10 to play (11 for the White Sox). The Sox have to play in New York this afternoon, and face 17-game winner Mike Mussina. This weekend, the White Sox visit Kansas City, and their scheduled starters are 39-26 this season; the Royals' three starters are 18-23.

You can't blame the Twins for figuring the White Sox will win two games in Kansas City. If not three. Meanwhile, tonight the Twins begin a four-game series in St. Petersburg, where the Rays lead the majors with a 55-22 home record. It's going to be particularly difficult for the Twins to make up any ground this weekend; perhaps the best they can do is make up one game in the standings, then take two of three from the White Sox when the contenders face off in Minneapolis next week. That would leave the Twins with a fighting chance heading into the last weekend …

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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