Commentary

Reaching the unreachable could be possible this season

Originally Published: May 29, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Memorial Day is in the rearview mirror. June is closing in. We're one-third of the way through another fascinating baseball season. And so far, it's been about as predictable as the Cricket World Cup.

HIGHEST BATTING AVERAGE
THRU MAY 28 (LAST 50 SEASONS)

(Min.: 165 plate appearances)

AVG PLAYER YEAR
.448 Rod Carew 1983
.432 Rico Carty 1970
.427 Hank Aaron 1959
.418 Chipper Jones 2008
.415 Todd Helton 2000
.409 Larry Walker 1997
.405 Rod Carew 1974
.402 Tony Gwynn 1997
The teams with the two highest payrolls -- the Yankees and Tigers -- emerged from Memorial Day weekend in last place. So naturally, the teams with the two lowest payrolls -- the Marlins and Rays -- emerged from Memorial Day weekend in first place.

Nate McLouth has 12 homers. Delmon Young has none. Joe Saunders has eight wins. Justin Verlander has one. Dan Uggla has mashed 12 homers this month. The entire Royals team has hit 11.

Yeah, it's all unfolded exactly the way everybody suspected, right? Errr, wrong. So let's look at five of the most fascinating questions in baseball, now that the warm-up phase of this nutty season is out of the way:

Chipper Jones

Jones

Can Chipper Jones hit .400?
So when do we start the Chipper .400 Watch? Uh, how about now? Only three times in the past 50 years -- in 1983 (Rod Carew), 1974 (Rico Carty) and 1959 (Hank Aaron) -- have we awakened on May 29 and found any hitter with as high a batting average as the Chipster has now (.418). So why not jump on board this locomotive?

Yeah, sure, we recognize that it's 67 years and counting since Ted Williams hit .400. And it's 28 years since George Brett even became the last man to carry a .400 average into September. But why not Chipper? He's a switch-hitter who's batting .409 left-handed and .431 right-handed. He hit .422 in April. He's been just as scorching in May (.429; a 3-for-10 March brings his average down to its current .418). And over the past year, he has had only one month when he's hit lower than .364.

In fact, if we look back over that year, we find a man who's batting .376 (with a .459 OBP and .622 SLG) -- for a full season. Which means if he'd just gotten one extra hit every two weeks, he'd be a .400 hitter for the equivalent of one complete season. So let's say this one more time: Why not?

"I think he could do it, because I've never seen him so locked in from both sides of the plate as he is this year," said one NL scout. "In the past, there were ways to pitch to Chipper and get him out. This year, even if you make good pitches, he can still get a hit."

Can Lance Berkman or Josh Hamilton win a Triple Crown?
This just in: According to Bodog, the odds of Big Brown winning the horse racing Triple Crown are way better (1 to 3) than the odds of either Berkman (30 to 1) or Hamilton (25 to 1) winning a baseball Triple Crown. And friends, that's one sad state of affairs.

Josh Hamilton

Hamilton

Lance Berkman

Berkman

Not to deny Big Brown his day in the saddle. But it's been so long since anybody in baseball even got close to a Triple Crown, it would be one of the great stories of the millennium if this turned out to be the year. And it just might. Berkman ranks no worse than second in any of the three Triple Crown categories. And as recently as last weekend, Hamilton actually led in all three. So the question is: Can they keep it up?

Berkman is trying to join Mickey Mantle as the second switch-hitter in history to win this trifecta. And we're a little worried about him, now that his batting average for the month has dropped under (gasp) .500. But he sure has been hanging at the top of the leaderboard in all three categories for a long time now.

Scouts say they're not sure Berkman "has enough power" to win the home run title. But he's finished in the top five in homers three times. So why not? The big issue with us is actually the batting race. He has to outhit Chipper, and his average hasn't topped .316 since his first full season in 2001. Here's another worry: Berkman's current .438 average from the right side is 162 points higher than his career average. So while it's tough to put anything past the electrifying Big Puma, his odds are long.

But Hamilton's odds feel even longer. How do you project what a guy with no real track record is capable of, no matter how talented he may be? Hamilton did hit .347 in the Appalachian League once upon a time. But he has never played 100 games in any professional season. So how well will he hold up as he tries to survive his first big-league marathon, let alone trying to win a Triple Crown along the way? Can't say. But it's astounding how many people are pulling for him.

"We all have our doubts, but when I've seen him, he's gotten as many hits going to left and left-center as he has by pulling the ball," said one scout. "And this guy is so strong -- and by that I mean baseball strong. He's hitting balls so hard that he's shooting them through the hole so fast that the infielders are taking one step and the ball's already behind them. And man, that's special. And so is he."

Are the Marlins and Rays this good?
The Yankees' starting infield alone makes more money ($76 million) than these two rosters combined (about $65.6 million). But on the morning after Memorial Day, it was the pride of Palm Tree Land, the Rays and Marlins, that had the best record in their respective leagues. Whaddaya know.

So can they possibly keep rolling? Let's take a look.

Marlins The Marlins: It's hard to show too much faith in a team that has a 5.00 ERA from its rotation, is tied for the most errors (45) in its league and has a worse run differential (plus-12) than a Cleveland team that's five games under .500.

Then again, this lineup can really mash. The Fish have scored at least six runs 22 times in 52 games -- more than any NL team but the Cubs. They've got a higher team slugging percentage (.453) than the Red Sox or Yankees. And there's reason to think the rotation might actually get better as the year goes on, with Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez on the road to second-half returns from surgery and hot prospects Chris Volstad (2.96 ERA in Double-A) and Ryan Tucker (1.38 in Double-A) under active consideration for a call-up.

"I don't think they can hang on," said one NL scout, "because they're depending so much on young pitching. You get to August, and those are guys who don't have the experience of handling the innings and the expectations of a team trying to win."

Well, if we're ever going to find out about the Marlins, this is the time. They just started a stretch in which they play 16 of 20 games against the Mets, Phillies, Braves and Rays -- 13 of them on the road.

Rays The Rays: What we're seeing here is not supposed to be possible. The Rays had the worst record in baseball last year. But they had the best record in baseball on Memorial Day. And they're the first team to make that worst-to-first turnaround, Rays public relations genius Rick Vaughn reports, since the 1903 New York Giants.

So your instinct is to say this can't go on all year. But that's only because of their gruesome history. If you slapped "Yankees" or "Tigers" or "Red Sox" on the front of this team's shirts, would anybody even question whether this outfit is for real? We say no.

The Rays are fourth in the league in runs scored and fifth in ERA. Their bullpen has held opposing hitters to a .215 average, lowest in baseball. And their defense has committed the fewest errors in either league (just 22 in 53 games). So it's no longer crazy to think this team could win 85-88 games. Is it?

"At the start of spring training, I thought they'd be around a .500 club," said one NL executive. "Now I see them at anywhere between 82 and 90 wins. When young guys get that belief in themselves, look out. And they have it. They're playing their butts off defensively. Their pitching is the best it's ever been. [Evan] Longoria has shown he has that knack for getting it done at the right time. And their bullpen has done a hell of a job. The one thing I worry about is that [Troy] Percival, on any given pitch, you know, his shoulder might just fall off."

Nope. Turned out to be his hamstring that popped Wednesday. But the impact is the same. Percival is one player this team can't afford to lose for a month.

Who is positioned to be this year's Rockies?
A year ago this time, four of the eight playoff teams (Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Yankees) were at least 5½ games out of the playoff spots they eventually won. Then the light bulb flicked on. So the question is: Which team this year is most likely to come from even a couple of games back in the pack and show up in October?

Braves We heard nominations for the Indians, Blue Jays and Dodgers. But our pick would be the Braves. They have a better run differential (plus-48) than six of the eight teams that would make the playoffs if the postseason started today. They rank first or second in the league in batting average, ERA and rotation ERA. And the biggest reason for their .500-ish record (28-25) is their 2-14 record in one-run games. But that's a record that figures to improve dramatically once they add John Smoltz, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to their bullpen.

"I'm going to predict this right now," said one NL scout. "I think Atlanta wins that division."

Who does history tell us is in trouble?
The Yankees, Mets, Indians and Brewers ought to be realllll nervous about now. The Tigers, Mariners and Rockies can just about wave goodbye to their seasons.

That's what history tells us, anyway.

There have been 104 playoff teams in the wild-card era. Only 13 of them (or 12.5 percent) had a losing record at the end of May. Just 10 of them (9.6 percent) were five games or more out of a playoff spot at the end of May.

TRIVIALITY

If Chipper Jones wins the batting title, he would become only the third batting champ in history who was once the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. Can you name the other two? (Answer later.)

That seems like an awfully ominous trend for all those teams up there in the first paragraph of this section. Except we've learned something in the last two years: In baseball, history can suddenly turn as irrelevant on us as the Baja Men.

Of those 13 teams that made the playoffs after a sub-.500 first two months, six did it in the last two seasons. Of the 10 teams that came from five games out or more, five did that in the last two seasons (four of those five last year alone).

So it can be done, obviously -- especially if we're talking about a team that doesn't need a telescope to see Mount .500. But to clubs like Detroit, Colorado and Seattle, which have tumbled nine or 13 or 14 games below .500, we say: Don't get your hopes up.

Only one of those 104 playoff teams was more than seven games under .500 after May -- the 2005 Astros (19-32). And that club had to play like a 102-win team over the last four months (going 70-41) just to sneak in with 89 wins.

The odds of that happening again are slimmer than Kristi Yamaguchi. But if it happened once, we might as well play out the season, because if the next four months go remotely like the last two, just about anything is officially possible.

Rumbling through the jungle

Mad Dog for sale?: Greg Maddux to the Braves? Hey, it's a beautiful plot line. It's a rumor that never quite dies. And it sure isn't impossible, if the price is right. But clubs that have spoken with the Braves say they're more focused on trying to find a younger starting pitcher they can hang onto for just the last few months of this season. So think more along the lines of the non-free agents who could pop onto the market (though not necessarily these names in particular) -- Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Bronson Arroyo, Daniel Cabrera, Jeremy Bonderman, etc.

Nate Robertson

Robertson

Catch a Tiger: Here's another pitching name to file away for your pre-deadline rumor mill: Nate Robertson. The Tigers have told clubs they might have a left-hander available in a few weeks. And it certainly wouldn't be Kenny Rogers or Dontrelle Willis. So that leaves Robertson, who won 13 games in 2006 but is only 11-18, with a 5.04 ERA, in the two seasons since.

"I'm not sure what to make of him," said one scout. "Last time I saw him, he cruised through four innings with shutout stuff and command of three pitches. Then he gave up a home run in the fifth, and it looked like the Titanic just sunk. He became totally different. I could still recommend him, but it wouldn't be a strong, this-guy-can-save-our-staff kind of recommendation."

Aceless in Seattle: The buzzards are starting to circle in Seattle, figuring the Mariners could have some starting pitching to unload in a few weeks. Teams that have window-shopped say they expect the Mariners to talk about Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn -- but there's zero chance they'd be willing to trade Erik Bedard.

"They'd have to fire the general manager if they do that," said an official of one team. "When you give up what they gave up -- when you give up Adam Jones and your best pitching prospect and maybe the fireman of the year [George Sherrill] -- you don't turn around and trade that guy a few months later."

Ready to spell relief: Bullpen arms are always in demand in July. So here's a partial shopping list we culled by surveying several potential buyers:

Closers: Brian Fuentes, Huston Street, George Sherrill, Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Eric Gagne (buyer beware).

Set-up: Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, David Weathers, Matt Herges, Guillermo Mota, Tyler Yates, Vinnie Chulk, Jesus Colome, Frankie Francisco, Joaquin Benoit, Alan Embree, Ron Mahay, Jimmy Gobble, Damaso Marte.

But anyone shopping in the bullpen closeout bin should remember one thing: The worst deals made every July are always for relief pitching.

Cristian Guzman

Guzman

Don't sell him short: It's hard to think of a contender he'd be the right fit for. But if there are clubs out there shopping for a shortstop in July, they could do worse than Washington's back-from-oblivion Cristian Guzman.

"He's really playing well," said one scout. "Of course, it's in a contract year. But he's hitting well, and he's running well. He's the best player on that team."

The Kei Market: Kei Igawa isn't quite as buried on that Yankees' depth chart as Carl Pavano, but it's close. And he's already homesick. We've heard from two different baseball men recently that Igawa asked the Yankees over the winter if there was any way he could return to Japan. The Yankees quietly explored their options, got nowhere and gave up. They're still on the hook for nearly $11 million to Igawa through the 2010 season.

Feel a draft?: All indications are that Tampa Bay continues to wrestle with whether to use the No. 1 pick in the draft on Florida State catcher Buster Posey, largely because he would fill a position of need and comes with that always-attractive local angle. But officials of two teams we surveyed were vehement in arguing that Posey doesn't fit the mold of a player who should be taken with the first pick of the entire draft.

"I hope that happens. I hope they do take him," said one of those officials, whose club picks in the top half of the first round. "I mean, the kid's a solid player, and he'll be quick to the major leagues. But if I'm making the first pick, I want more than just an everyday catcher who's never going to hit more than seventh or eighth in your lineup. I've got to have more impact with that pick than that."

The other official's take: "He doesn't have the ceiling I'd want with that pick. He's just a Josh Bard type guy for me."

The speed trap: The grumbling over baseball's new speed-up-the-game onslaught goes beyond the dugouts. You hear similar complaints in front offices everywhere.

"I'm all in favor of doing it. I just don't understand why they expect us [in the front office] to enforce it," said an official of one team. "The umpires are the ones who should enforce it. Instead, they send notices out saying they'll fine the team, fine the player, fine the manager if we don't adhere to their rules. But it's the umpires who don't enforce it consistently. How come they don't fine the umpires?"

Carlos Quentin

Quentin

Right on Q: Another question we could have posed in that opening section was this: Can Carlos Quentin win the home run title?

Scouts we've polled are a little dubious of that, and with reason. So far, 19.2 percent of Quentin's fly balls have left the park -- a higher percentage than David Ortiz, Chase Utley or Manny Ramirez. But Quentin is also a guy who had a .527 career slugging percentage in the minor leagues. So even if some of those balls turn into doubles over the last four months, the White Sox would still have themselves a heck of a player.

"I've heard a number of guys say, 'Man, I sure missed on that guy.' But I don't know why we all did," said one front-office man. "He was an uber-prospect at one time. Then he got banged up and kind of fell by the wayside. But I've seen him hit good pitching and really turn some stuff around. He's proved he can handle the ball middle in, and he can handle the ball down and away, and he can sure as hell handle the ball middle-middle. So I don't know what stops him from being real."

Unhappy Valentin's Day: It may sound crazy, but the ex-Met we keep hearing that his old team misses most is Jose Valentin.

"Not having Jose Valentin might be the biggest difference between this team and the 2006 team," said one baseball man. "He not only played well. He's a tough guy. He kept other players in line. And he added to the toughness and the winning attitude of that team. You look around that clubhouse now, and there's not one guy like that."

THE CUS ZONE

OK, you asked for it. Here it comes -- your CUS leaderboard (through Tuesday).

Just a reminder for those who hadn't caught onto the cool stat we invented last year -- the Criminally Unsupported Start. To qualify for a CUS, a starting pitcher needs to go six innings or more, and his team can score no more than one run for him while he's in the game. Got it? Now here goes:

NL leaders:
Dan Haren, 4
Cole Hamels, 3
Jake Peavy, 3
Ian Snell, 3
Greg Maddux, 3
Jonathan Sanchez, 3
Adam Eaton, 3
Special citation:
Yovani Gallardo, 3 in 3 starts

AL leaders:
Justin Verlander 5
Dustin McGowan, 4
Mark Buehrle, 4
Gil Meche, 4
Greg Smith, 4

NL team leaders:
Padres, 11
Phillies, 10
Nationals, 10
Reds, 9

AL team leaders:
Indians, 14
Orioles, 13
Royals, 13
Blue Jays, 12
Tigers, 11
A's, 11
White Sox, 11

The Delgado Watch: Two different NL scouts told us in the last week that it's time for the Mets to give up on the idea of reviving Carlos Delgado, a fellow who was once one of their favorite players.

One described watching Delgado these days as "sad." The other put it this way: "He can't field. And he can only hit [mistakes]. Anybody who can throw the ball with any velocity at all throws it right by him."

Pitching coach of the year award, part 2: Here's another name to drop into the competition for our nonexistent pitching-coach-of-the-year non-trophy -- the White Sox's Don Cooper. Every pitcher in his rotation this year, with the exception of Mark Buehrle, has taken a big step forward. That's no coincidence.

"He's one of the best, and he might be the best," said one scout. "He doesn't look for the fame or fortune. But he takes each pitcher individually and gets the most out of their ability. He doesn't try to cookie-cutter deliveries. There's no absolute this or absolute that. Just look at that staff. He's got all different types of guys, and they all get better."

The lobby is closed: For all those people wondering why attendance hasn't been higher in Washington in the debut season for Nationals Park, here's a factor almost no one ever talks about:

Congress' tightening of the lobbying rules.

D.C. political figures are no longer allowed to accept gifts or services of $50 or more per year from lobbyists. So the kind of entertaining some people envisioned when the new ballpark was still on the drawing board is no longer an option.

"Tickets can't be used now for congressional lobbying, and you can't imagine how far-reaching [the effect] is," Nationals president Stan Kasten told Rumblings. "But it's not the difference between success and failure."

The Nationals are only 10th in the league in attendance. But they've had awful weather. Their season-ticket base is in the upper tier of the sport. And they're expecting a major attendance upsurge in June, Kasten said.

Ryan's song: After our column last week about the explosion in long-term contracts for young players, one agent told us they can all thank Ryan Howard -- for winning that $10-million arbitration award in only his first year of arbitration eligibility.

"There was a direct cause-effect relationship," the agent said. "Two days later, every club in baseball was going to every good young player in spring training, saying, 'We're ready to talk.' It wasn't by accident."

TRIVIA ANSWER

Joe Mauer (2006 batting champ, 2001 No. 1 pick) and Alex Rodriguez (1996 batting champ, 1993 No. 1 pick).

Ryan's slump: On the other hand, one scouting director believes Howard's slow start was also a direct result of that arbitration award -- because money issues have had an impact on his performance back to his amateur days.

"Knowing what I know of him, it wouldn't surprise me if he won that arbitration hearing and then said, 'Now I've got to show them I'm worth $10 million,'" the scouting director said. "It's just like his draft year. I really think that's why the guy dropped so far [to the fifth round]. He had as bad a draft year as a guy that talented could have. And I think that was in his head the whole year."

Headliner of the week

From the breaking news scroll on the always-amusing sports-parody site, sportspickle.com:

STRIKEOUT MISTAKENLY RULED A HOME RUN

Quote of the week

From Charles Barkley, of all people, on Jon Lester's no-hitter:

"If it was against the Royals, it should only count as half a no-hitter."

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

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com