As good (and bad) as it gets
Handing out the first-half hardware to Cy Youngs and Yuks, MVPs and LVPs, rookies and managers in each league.
Hard to believe we're halfway down the highway of another baseball season. But in case you hadn't noticed, it sure has been a great year to be an old guy with a uniform, a great year to be a former 119-game loser and a great year to have your wife give birth before a twi-nighter in Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, it's been a lousy year to have a warehouse full of Fred McGriff 500th-Homer T-shirts, a lousy year to hold tickets to an August game in Kansas City and a really lousy year to find your name on a BALCO mailing list.
But it's definitely another never-a-dull-moment season. So Vanna, the envelopes please ...
VLADIMIR GUERRERO, ANGELS -- It's always a beautiful thing to see a guy who thinks he's actually supposed to earn his 70 million bucks. And Guerrero sure has done that. On a team that has had enough injuries to support an entire season of "E.R." plots, Guerrero has been everything he got paid to be. He's threatening to lead the league in slugging, extra-base hits, runs scored, assists and all three triple-crown categories. And if he keeps this up, he'd finish with a .346 average, 38 home runs, 145 RBI, 136 runs scored, 45 doubles, and 13 steals (in 13 tries). So how many American Leaguers have ever had a season like that? How 'bout one -- Babe Ruth (in 1920 and '21). APOLOGIES TO: Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Hank Blalock.
NL MVP of the Half-Year
SCOTT ROLEN, CARDINALS -- It's almost impossible to make the argument that any player is more valuable to any team than Barry Bonds is to the Giants. But we'll make an exception in Rolen's case. We did one recent survey in which he was voted the best defensive player at his, or any other, position. He plays every game with the ferocity of Dick Butkus. And that's before you add in his amazing offensive numbers. He was the first third baseman to drive in 80 runs in his team's first 80 games since George Brett in 1980. And if he can stay on this relentless 151-RBI pace, he'll break Al Rosen's 51-year-old record for RBI by a third baseman. Yeah, Rolen plays in a lineup that churns out a never-ending series of RBI opportunities. But he's also hitting .420 with runners in scoring position. So sorry, Barry. It's been Rolen's half-season. APOLOGIES TO: Bonds, Jim Thome, Sean Casey, Adrian Beltre.
AL Least Valuable Player (LVP) of the Half-Year
JUAN GONZALEZ, ROYALS -- Gonzalez spent the winter working out wearing a shirt that read "162" on the front. That was supposed to represent the number of games he planned to play. Of course, he never promised he'd play them all this year. He was last seen pulling up with a tight back while running to first base after a ground ball May 21. He was described, at the time, as being day-to-day. It's now seven weeks -- and zero at-bats -- later. And still no sign of him. You'd like to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, since he is a two-time MVP. But after 11 trips to the disabled list and countless episodes just like this one, even his own teammates have been grumbling to friends about him. If this guy can't get inspired to play for Tony Pena, you have to wonder if he's about to run out of teams to employ him. SIGHS OF RELIEF FOR: Pick a Mariner. Any Mariner.
NL LVP of the Half-Year
RYAN KLESKO, PADRES -- If you were awake really late on the evening of April 18, you might have seen Klesko pump a walkoff homer to beat Arizona. Bet you never figured that he'd still be looking for his second homer of the year nearly three months (and 156 at-bats) later. But he was entering Sunday's game, with a slight assist from the lovely and expansive Petco Park. Klesko arrived at the previous five All-Star breaks with an average of 17 home runs and 54 RBI. And as recently as 2001, he pulled into the break with 75 RBI. He has 28 this year -- fewer than a guy who hasn't played since May 12 (Troy Glaus). But the really bad news is that he's tied in homers with our Cy Young pick, Jason Schmidt (2-2). SIGHS OF RELIEF FOR: Raul Mondesi, Randall Simon, Shawn Green.
MARK MULDER, A'S -- He doesn't dazzle you with his unhittability, like Randy Johnson. He isn't a strikeout machine, like Kerry Wood. He may not have Pedro's changeup or Roger Clemens' splitter or even Barry Zito's hook. But for sheer, inning-eating dependability, it doesn't get any better these days than Mulder. He's pitched into the seventh inning in every start but three. He's thrown more complete games (four) than 22 entire rotations. But he does it with such relentless efficiency that he averages fewer pitches per inning (14.3) than any starter in the American League. And it doesn't exactly hurt his Cy Young campaign that he hasn't lost since April (and his team is 13-1 in his last 14 starts). APOLOGIES TO: Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson, Kenny Rogers, Mariano Rivera.
NL Cy Young of the Half-Year
JASON SCHMIDT, GIANTS -- It's been a sensational year for starting pitchers in the National League. Which is why, in most years, we would be handing this imaginary trophy to Roger Clemens, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Johnson or Ben Sheets without having to crunch anyone else's numbers. But not this year. One of these days, America will wake up and realize Jason Schmidt doesn't just deserve to be in the best-pitcher-alive debate. He deserves to win that debate. As they headed into their last start before the break, Schmidt's stat line (10-2, 2.53) and Clemens' (10-2, 2.54) looked almost indistinguishable. Except that those guys with the bats have hit a puny .175 against Schmidt -- 40 points lower than Clemens' opponents. But that's not all. Since the first All-Star Game in 1933, according to the Elias Sports Bureau's Ken Hirdt, Schmidt is the first pitcher in NL history to give up one hit or none in three different starts (of seven innings or more) before the break. Oh, and one more tidbit: He hasn't left a game with the other team ahead since April 21 (14 starts ago). APOLOGIES TO: Clemens, Johnson, Zambrano, Sheets.
AL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year
SIDNEY PONSON, ORIOLES -- When general managers wake up in the middle of the night screaming, it's because they're having nightmares that they could be the next guy to hand out $22.5 million to a guy like Ponson. He actually started the year 2-0. Since then he's 1-12 and leads the major leagues in losses, hits allowed, runs allowed and earned runs allowed. If his second half matches his first, he'll be the first AL non-knuckleballer to allow 300 hits in a season since Jim Kaat did it in 1975 (except in 100 fewer innings). SIGH OF RELIEF FOR: Bartolo Colon, Brian Anderson, Derek Lowe, Jose Jimenez.
NL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year
HIDEO NOMO, DODGERS -- In Nomo's defense, he did stagger out there for 14 starts despite a sore shoulder and a torn fingernail. But even a note from his doctor won't to get his numbers erased from the baseball encyclopedia. Which means that, if he's done for the year, he'll finish with the worst ERA (8.06) by any Dodger in history who pitched 50 innings in a season. And his other numbers are just as scary: a 3-10 record, 117 baserunners in 67 innings, a .560 opponent slugging percentage and an opponent batting average (.308) that's actually higher than the on-base percentage he allowed last year (.305). SIGH OF RELIEF FOR: Mike Hampton, Rocky Biddle, Casey Fossum, Ryan Vogelsong.
Special Bi-Leagual of the Half-Year
SCOTT ELARTON, ROCKIES-INDIANS -- Released by the Rockies in May, then signed by the Indians, Elarton is 0-8, with an 8.33 ERA. And his teams have gone 2-12 in his 14 starts -- with one of the wins coming over (how perfect is this?) the Rockies (who didn't win any of his eight starts for them). Even more bad news: Unless Elarton seriously picks up the pace, he's going to become the first pitcher in history to rack up an ERA over 6.00 in three straight seasons (minimum: 50 IP).
AL Rookie of the Half-Year
BOBBY CROSBY, A'S -- Crosby is on the way to a terrific little 20-homer, 70-RBI season. And, after a rocky start, he looks better every day with the bat and glove. But that sound he hears behind him is the Joe Mauer Express. Because of knee surgery, Mauer has barely gotten 100 at-bats for the Twins. But his .311 batting average, .372 on-base percentage and .575 slugging percentage tell you why half the planet (translation: us) picked Mauer to win this award. And he still might by year's end. APOLOGIES TO: Mauer, Nate Robertson, Daniel Cabrera, Shingo Takatsu.
NL Rookie of the Half-Year
JASON BAY, PIRATES -- Bay is turning into this year's Miguel Cabrera -- except it was shoulder surgery, not teenage-hood, that kept him out of the big leagues until May. But even though he has fewer than 150 at-bats, Bay leads all NL rookies in homers (12) and RBI (39). He's hitting .410 with men is scoring position, .304 overall, slugging .642 and doing a spectacular job of helping Oliver Perez make the Pirates' Brian Giles trade last summer look like one of the best of the year. Bay's place in trivia annals: Just in the first 200 at-bats of his big-league career (which began last September), Bay has already joined Nomar Garciaparra as the only two active players with two games of eight or more RBI. APOLOGIES TO: Ryan Madson, Chad Cordero, Akinori Otsuka, Kazuo Matsui, Khalil Greene.
Managers of the Half-Year
LOU PINIELLA, DEVIL RAYS, AND NED YOST, BREWERS -- Once, the Devil Rays were 18 games under .500. Now, they're only 6 ½ games out in the wild-card race. If you don't think the credit for that Lazarus act begins with their turbo-driven manager, you need to go check out the pre-Lou history of the franchise. Meanwhile, the Brewers might be an even more amazing story. Their entire roster makes less money than the left side of the Yankees' infield. But when the All-Star break hit, they'd been at .500 or above for 61 days in a row. And it's not a coincidence that their manager took enough notes from his days in Atlanta that one scout recently called him, "Bobby Cox Jr." APOLOGIES TO: Buck Showalter, Ozzie Guillen, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa.