What we've learned from May

Originally Published: May 31, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's almost June. So is all this really happening?

Do the Yankees really have the same record as the Devil Rays? Are the Cardinals really eight games under .500?

Does J.J. Hardy really have more home runs than Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano combined? Does Mariano Rivera really have four frigging saves (and only six save opportunities) all year?

Are Bobby Abreu, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko really hitting under .230? Are Jason Kendall and Alex Gordon really batting under .190?

YANKEE RUMBLINGS
New York Yankees Are Joe Torre and Brian Cashman about to get fired? We'd bet no. Of course, if the Yankees continue plunging toward the bottom of the AL East canyon, anything is possible. But here's what our crystal ball predicts: that Torre finishes out the year but doesn't return for season No. 13. And that Cashman is muscled by Boss Steinbrenner into surrendering at least part of the total control he fought so hard for two years ago.

The only way Torre comes back is if the Yankees win the World Series. And right now, Torre's best shot of being at the Series is as an ESPN guest analyst.

And if the Yankees don't make the playoffs, that would make zero postseason series won in two seasons of doing it Cashman's way. So with Steinbrenner's Tampa buddies already in five-alarm second-guess frenzy, you can already see the Boss laying the groundwork to demand that Cashman go back to the way it used to be, with the Tampa operation regaining at least some input. The GM has done a great job of setting up the Yankees for the future. Too bad he works for a guy whose idea of the future is "two innings from now."

• It's astounding how many people in baseball use expressions like "looks like he's done" to describe Bobby Abreu. But we have a tough time accepting that. On the other hand, Abreu's stroke has never looked so fouled up mechanically, and he has never looked as confused as he seems now. "He's stepping so far in the bucket, and leaking down and away so much, he's lost," one scout said. "The way he's set up, there are pitches he just can't reach right now."

• At least Abreu's old team was able to trade him at the deadline last year. That's more than the Orioles were able to do with Miguel Tejada. And scouts who have followed the Orioles this year are unanimously reporting that this team will regret that missed opportunity for the final two-plus years of Tejada's contract. Not that Tejada is "done." He's hitting .317, with a .381 on-base percentage. But his .423 slugging percentage is down more than 100 points from his first season in Baltimore. "He's played every day for a long time, and he's worn down," one scout said. "His weight is an issue. His range has declined. He has trouble pulling the hard stuff now. His bat speed looks slower. And he doesn't have a great supporting cast, so it's easy to pitch around him."

Oh, it's all reality, all right. But what are we to make of it? That's where Rumblings and Grumblings steps in -- to analyze what the fascinating month of May has really told us:

ARE THE CARDINALS DONE?
This is a dangerous question, of course -- especially as this team plays in a division in which nobody has a winning record in May. But history tells us that, at 21-29 and 6½ games out of first, the Cardinals have a better chance of winning the World Series of Cod Fishing this year than they do of winning that other World Series.

Of the 96 playoff teams in the wild-card era, only one -- the 2005 Astros (19-32) -- headed into June as many games under .500 as the Cardinals are now.

Of the 103 teams that went on to win a World Series, just three -- the 1914 "Miracle" Braves (20-30), the 2003 Marlins (21-29) and 1924 Senators (24-26) -- were even one game below .500 after 50 games.

And no team ever has been outscored by more than 60 runs through its first 51 games -- the Cardinals were at minus-62 through Wednesday -- and gone on to play a postseason game. So this team is clearly in biiiiiggg trouble.

ARE THE YANKEES DEAD?
This is another dangerous question, considering the Yankees are "only" 7½ out in the wild-card race. Of the 24 wild-card playoff teams since the invention of wild-card playoff teams in 1995, three of them -- the 2005 Astros (-10½), the 2003 Marlins (-8) and the 2001 A's (-8) were at least eight games out in that race by the end of May.

But just one of those teams (Houston) also had as lousy a record as the Yankees have now. And that doesn't even factor in ugliness such as the Yankees' 3-10 record in one-run games. Or the fact that, until Wednesday, they hadn't won one (0-7) road game against an AL East team.

Or that, after scoring more runs than any team in baseball in April, they went through a 19-day stretch in May in which they scored the fewest runs in their league. Or that they're 11-24 when Alex Rodriguez doesn't homer.

One thing we know, however, is this: They're not catching the Red Sox. No team in history ever has been 14½ games out before June and come back to finish first. And only the Miracle Braves were that far back at any point and wound up playing in October.

IS THE AL PLAYOFF FIELD ALREADY SET?
If the season ended now, the Red Sox, Angels, Indians and Tigers would make up your AL playoff foursome. So is there any reason to think any of them will be caught?

Well, the Red Sox are in. Sorry to terrify the population of New England, but you can write that down with a permanent marker. Only one team in the division-play era has gotten off to a 36-15 start, as the Red Sox did, and not made the playoffs. OK, so that one team was the Red Sox (2002 edition). But there's no indication whatsoever that this team will join them.

Meanwhile, the Tigers, Indians and Angels rank second, third and fourth in the AL in run differential. They've all played at least .560 baseball two straight months. And coolstandings.com projects that Cleveland has an 81.1 percent chance to make the playoffs, with the Angels at 74.2 and the Tigers at 51.6.

But our exit polls tell us that the A's (31.4 percent chance) and Twins (23.0) have too much upside and too much history of furious second-half runs to declare those other races over -- yet. And the White Sox (1.9) have to start hitting sometime. Don't they?

CAN THE METS START SELLING PLAYOFF TICKETS?
We're not big on living dangerously. But the Mets look as good as any team in baseball right now. And history is on their side, too.

After 50 games, the Mets were 33-17 and leading the East by five games. In the wild-card era, nine other teams had that big a lead and that good a record after 50 games. All nine of them finished first. This team doesn't shape up as the kind of club that could screw up that trend.

TRIVIALITY
Ichiro Suzuki just amassed the sixth 20-game hitting streak of his American career. Only three other active players -- two in the AL, one in the NL -- have even half that many (or more). Can you name them? (Answer later).

CAN ANYBODY FIGURE OUT THE NL CENTRAL AND WEST?
The Brewers still look like the team to beat in the Central. But they just went 5-14 in their 19-game stretch against clubs at .500 or better. They actually have a worse run differential (plus-7) than the Cubs (plus-11). And the big story, says one scout, is that "the last couple of weeks have introduced self-doubt into the minds of that team. They left home when they were 24-10, thinking they were that good. Now they're not so sure."

The West looks like a three-team free-for-all. But watch out for the Padres. They have gone 17-9 in May. Their team ERA for the month (2.23) was more than a run better than anyone else's in either league. And only the Mets and Red Sox have a better run differential than the Padres (plus-49).

PIVOTAL INJURIES OF THE MONTH
Joel Zumaya and Mike Gonzalez. Is it any coincidence the Tigers' bullpen has a 6.42 ERA since the last time Zumaya pitched? This relief corps now has the second-worst ERA in the big leagues (5.30). And that, said one front-office man, "is absolutely amazing, when you think about what came out of their pen last year and how they looked in spring training."

But Gonzalez's trip to visit his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon is just as big because "that injury throws everything into flux in the National League," one scout said. "It gives the second- and third-place teams in the West a chance. And it gives the Phillies a chance. That [Braves] team has to win with pitching, and this throws their pieces out of place."

AWARDS WATCH
Our major-award votes if the season ended now:

• AL MVP -- Magglio Ordonez (runner-up: Vladimir Guerrero).
• NL MVP -- Jose Reyes (runner-up: Prince Fielder).
• AL CY YOUNG -- Dan Haren (runner-up: Josh Beckett).
• NL CY YOUNG -- Jake Peavy (runner-up: Brad Penny).
• AL ROOKIE -- Hideki Okajima (runner-up: Reggie Willits).
• NL ROOKIE -- Hunter Pence (runner-up: Josh Hamilton).

MORE RUMBLINGS

Dukes
• We're hearing the Devil Rays have been floating the name of troubled Elijah Dukes to see whether a trade can (A) get Dukes a fresh start away from his hometown and (B) bring them a decent, badly needed bullpen arm. But clubs are understandably reluctant to deal any known quantities for a player who, despite his massive talent, is still the ultimate unknown quantity. If the Rays ever ended up releasing Dukes, "then 29 teams would line up to sign him -- or at least 20 would," one GM said. "But to trade for him, that's different." The funny thing is, from all accounts, Dukes has behaved great at the park and around the club. And when you consider the upside of trading a set-up arm for a position player with his skills, it wouldn't be a shock if some team actually made that deal at some point.

• Incidentally, all those people who want the Rays to release or suspend Dukes are forgetting one thing: This isn't the NFL, where the commissioner rules like an emperor. The players' union would fight any discipline in a case in which Dukes' estranged wife hasn't even filed charges. So the Devil Rays haven't even been able to get him to more counseling, let alone suspend him.

• The hottest free-agent position player on the market this winter won't necessarily be A-Rod. Or Andruw Jones. One front-office man predicts it will be 30-year-old Chunichi Dragons center fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who will be an unrestricted free agent (meaning there will be no posting fees): "He'll be a big name all winter. There may be more teams on him than were in on Hideki Matsui, because it was nearly a foregone conclusion Matsui was going to the Yankees. I don't have any sense there's a favorite team with this guy."

• Scouts who have followed Barry Bonds say his May power outage was no mere slump. Bonds has worn down physically as the season has lurched along. "There are only certain balls he can hit right now," one scout said. "They've been throwing fastballs by him, and I can't remember seeing that in a long time. He looks restricted to me. He can't extend down and away at all."

• Speaking of home run droughts, Alfonso Soriano had an 18-game homerless drought through the Cubs' game with Florida on Wednesday. "He's obviously putting a lot of pressure on himself," one scout said. "His frustration is mounting. He's expanding the strike zone. And he's not having real good swings on breaking balls. He's always been a high-strikeout guy. But when he's got four homers and 12 RBIs, those strikeouts get a little more imposing."

• The upcoming draft will provide a whole new chapter in Scott Boras watching, thanks to a rule in the new labor deal that forces all draft picks who aren't college seniors to sign by Aug. 15. "I can't wait to see what new loophole Scott dreams up to get around this rule," one scouting director said.

DEBUT OF THE MONTH
How much fun has it been watching Giants call-up Tim Lincecum (opponent batting average after five starts: .186).

"He has a radio curveball," quipped Phillies scout Gordon Lakey. "You can hear it spinning. But you can't hit it."

THE MAY TWILIGHT ZONE
Did anybody see this coming in May?

• Kevin Youkilis just erupted for nine straight multihit games. Just so you know how amazing that is, the list of men who never had a multihit streak that long includes Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and Pete Rose.

• The Reds hit 46 home runs in May -- and still went 9-20.

• Mariano Rivera had saved two games all month before Wednesday -- both on the same day (a May 3 day-nighter in Texas).

• Rocco Baldelli went 3-for-50.

• Victor Zambrano gave up almost as many homers (5) as singles (6).

• And Barry Bonds went so long (14 straight games, 18 straight days) without a home run or an RBI that all the other hitters in baseball combined to hit 505 home runs while Bonds was hitting zero, and Jack Cust drove in 18 runs while Barry was driving in none.

Still Rumbling

• The Phillies seem to have concluded they'll have no choice but to at least dangle center fielder Aaron Rowand before the trading deadline if they're still looking for late-inning bullpen upgrades. But one NL scout who is a longtime Rowand admirer says that would be a big mistake. "You're talking about a guy who has a Philadelphia-type mentality," the scout said. "And that's hard to find. Plus, this guy is a big force in that clubhouse, and you have to be really careful about trading a player like that. Sometimes, the intangibles that guy offers under the surface don't become apparent until after he's gone." By the way, Rowand's tangibles aren't too shabby, either. He's sixth among all NL outfielders in OPS. And he hasn't gone two straight games without a hit all season.

• In Atlanta, multitalented rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has started taking ground balls at first base as the Braves try to figure out his future with the trading deadline approaching. "We have our franchise catcher [Brian McCann]," GM John Schuerholz said. "So who knows what will happen? We could find another place for Salty to play. Or somebody else could want him and make us an offer where we say to ourselves, 'This is a deal that makes sense for us and for him and for everybody.'"

• Here's a nomination for another player who will show up in Rumor Central in July but whose team seems more reluctant than ever to trade him: Tampa Bay's electrifying Carl Crawford. "We'd be first in line," another NL executive says. "But I don't see how they could bring themselves to do it. That guy's a franchise player. If they trade him, they'd be out of their mind. He may bring back what they need, or what they think they need. But why? He's a good guy. He's the face of the franchise. He plays hard every day. He gets better every year. And you just don't find guys like that. Even if they get four or five for one, there's no guarantee that any of the four or five will give them what Carl Crawford gives them." Crawford's latest feat: He's the first player in 70 years (since Arky Vaughn) to hit his 70th triple before turning 26.

• There have been rumblings in Florida that the Marlins have targeted Crawford if they decide to trade Dontrelle Willis. But Tampa Bay wouldn't be likely to deal Crawford for a package headed by any prominent player it couldn't keep away from free agency for at least the next three years -- the length of time it can control Crawford. Unless the Rays don't pick up Crawford's two affordable options, he can't be a free agent until after the 2010 season. Willis, on the other hand, can hit the marker after 2009.

• As indications mount that the Marlins at least will listen to offers on Willis, other GMs quietly are starting to (A) lobby for them to finally do that and (B) try to nudge down Willis' price tag so he's at least slightly more obtainable. "They'd be shortsighted not to look at [dealing him] now," one GM said. "Take a look. His stuff has gone backward every year. He's still a good pitcher, but he isn't what he was a couple of years ago." So does that mean this GM wouldn't be interested? "Oh," he laughed, "we definitely would."

TRIVIA ANSWER
Nomar Garciaparra (five), Vladimir Guerrero (three) and Manny Ramirez (three).

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in, from the sports parody site, thebrushback.com:

LeBron James
Becomes True Yankee
After Clutch Performance

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com