We have reached the virtual halfway mark of the season and the reality that July brings these few truths: the Diamondbacks, White Sox and Phillies are contenders (as thought in March) ... the Royals, Expos, Blue Jays and Mariners (to the degree they're better than anyone realized) are surprises ... the Angels and Twins (to some degree) have been disappointments.
Esteban Loaiza's ERA (2.51) this season is two runs lower than his career mark (4.58).
You could retire early if you bet that Carlos Delgado and Esteban Loaiza would be the American League MVP and Cy Young leaders at the halfway mark. Or that the new, big thing would be Dontrelle Willis. Or that Brandon Webb would have thrown a remarkable 11 consecutive quality starts, while New Yorkers are so impressed with Hideki Matsui that the drums are already beating for the 2004 addition of Kaz Matsui, who would play second base with Alfonso Soriano moving to left.
That the Phillies won six out of eight against Atlanta and Boston and got themselves into the middle of the wild-card -- if not the NL East -- race is no huge surprise. Their pitching is second only to the Dodgers in team ERA, and the juxtaposition between the starters and relievers is what Joe Kerrigan calls "the key to what success we've had, because the starters have protected the relievers and allowed us not to overuse them." It was a matter of when, not if, for Pat Burrell and the middle of the lineup to hit.
But with anywhere from nine to 12 players on the disabled list, including two of the great pitchers of their era, for the Diamondbacks to claw their way back is testament to Bob Brenly's unrelenting daily competitiveness, Mike Rizzo's productive farm system, and the leadership of the veterans like Mark Grace and Luis Gonzalez. Consider that they have been 10 games out of first at one point and 9½ out of the wild card at some point. But rookies, including Webb and Jose Valverde (9-for-9 in save opportunities), have produced 17 wins and 10 of their 18 saves, as well as saved the offense with three .300 hitters named Alex Cintron, Matt Kata and Robby Hammock, as well as Lyle Overbay.
Now with Shea Hillenbrand and Matt Mantei back this weekend and Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Craig Counsell and Junior Spivey all due back between the All-Star break and the trading deadline, Brenly and Joe Garagiola Jr. will have to make two decisions: 1) How do they assimilate the rookies into the pennant drive mix and 2) What do they need on the trade market?
So much for an Arizona fire sale, which went the way of the White Sox fire sale and Jerry Manuel firing. Kevin Millar calls Bartolo Colon, Mark Buehrle and Loaiza "the best big three in the league right now," and, indeed, the ChiSox lead the league in quality starts despite the oft-tattered defense. Oh yes. Frank Thomas is not retired. And now GM Kenny Williams is a buyer and can examine the list of available center fielders and second basemen. If the terms can be worked out, don't be surprised if Williams gets Roberto Alomar, which would put D'Angelo Jimenez in a more appropriate role as utilityman.
The Phillies, D-Backs and White Sox are all teams with preseason expectations and pressures that did not implode when they struggled. Which makes them all the more dangerous the rest of the way.
As for some other issues:
The All-Star voting
Watching some players fill out their part of the All-Star ballot ... put it this way: Those guys on the Internet will do the best job.
Anyway, for what it's worth, here's one man's ballot:
What's happened is that the White Sox beat up on the Twins and are back in the race, while the Royals won't go away. Jeremy Affeldt is back, the Royals continue to hit, and while GM Allard Baird tries to see the long view and trade Carlos Beltran, it may not be possiblem -- both because the trades aren't there and because the Kansas City fan base has been so revitalized that to trade Beltran during the season would be a bad message to the fans and the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, the Royals and White Sox are competing with the Expos for Robby Alomar, and a deal could well happen this week. Chicago has a lot of pitching in the organization, and one -- left-hander Neal Cotts, who came over from Oakland in the Billy Koch-Keith Foulke trade -- is so intriguing that when the Yankees and White Sox talked about a Jeff Weaver deal recently, Cotts name was involved.
As for Beltran, "there really isn't anything going on right now," Baird said. The one team that was seriously interested in the last month had been Baltimore, but Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan backed off with the emergence of Luis Matos. Ironically, part of the reason Beltran and Angel Berroa have so improved this season is the same reason Mora and Matos have taken off -- plate discipline.
"That's the whole story with Matos and Mora," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan, whose stress on plate discipline has the Orioles raising their on-base percentage 35 points and raising their projected run total by more than 150 runs. Matos came into the season with a career OBP under .280; he went into Sunday at .382. Mora was .334 last year, .466 this season.
Move over to Kansas City. "The work Jeff Pentland has done with all our hitters is a huge part of our success," Baird said. "He's gotten Beltran (.346 OBP in '02, .396 in '03) and Berroa (.301 OBP to .342) to buy into it, and they're taking off faster than we projected." If you remember, it was Pentland who got Sammy Sosa to buy into the notion, and after four seasons in which his OBP was under .325 (crashing at .300 in '96), he began a climb in which his improved command of the strike zone (.367 OBP in '99 to .437 in '01) the next five seasons correlated with his power surge.
Juan Gonzalez declines Expos trade Juan Gonzalez was not happy with the way the Rangers handled this because it was done publicly, not privately. As much as he reveres his former minor-league manager Omar Minaya and would like to play the 10 games in San Juan, Gonzalez is a man of comfort, and with his mother and sister moved to the Dallas Metroplex area, he did not want to leave them without a contract extension, which Major League Baseball was hardly going to endorse.
Even with the Rangers picking up all of the contract, all they got was one "B" prospect (right-hander Seung Song) and one "C" level prospect (infielder Josh McKinley). That's the price, friends. Cash and young players are kings right now.
The Rangers desperately want to change this lethargic team, but getting rid of Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Chan Ho Park and others (not Carl Everett, if possible) will be extremely difficult. What does this mean for John Hart, and perhaps even Buck Showalter? Not great news, because once again, this franchise is proof of the adage that when a team is at the bottom, there are usually problems at the top. And the top in Texas is Tom Hicks and team president Michael Cramer. Hicks admits Alex Rodriguez has input on player moves and even the draft (gee, a fellow Scott Boras client taken in the second round ... what scouting!). Cramer admits to meeting with A-Rod and Palmeiro. Word all around baseball is that Grady Fuson is preparing furniture for Hart's office, as Hart gets thrown under the bus for signing Park, Todd Van Poppel and so many of A-Rod's other recommended agent contracts.
Minaya won't give up trying to trade to keep the Expos in contention. But other than Seong and first baseman Larry Broadway, there isn't much left in the farm system to trade for Alomar, and they have to trade prospects because they can't take on cash.
Agents in uproar
The Commissioner's Office is doing a boffo job controlling draft signings.
There was one club that only wanted to go $100,000 over the slotted number assigned by the Commissioner's Office, name Frank Coonelly. Permission denied. Now, the Indians got permission to go a tad above the slot to sign first baseman-outfielder Michael Aubrey, but otherwise clubs are toeing the line on what they may or may not give players.
"If they had negotiated this in the basic agreement, the established players would have jumped at it," one agent said. "But they didn't get around to it. So now they're just rigging it."
"This is a thinly veiled attempt to damage the big agents," said one of the big agents. "They're even suggesting some of those small-time agents who need the signing bonus fees to fund their businesses. They're taking all negotiating out, but they're doing it illegally. They've used the pre-draft signings brilliantly, but there's a problem: pre-draft deals (as worked out by the Orioles, Blue Jays, Reds, Angels and others) are, in fact, illegal and in violation of anti-trust regulations." Challenge, we smell thee.
"Frank Coonelly may be the most powerful man in baseball right now," said another agent. "He controls the draft. It's clear that much of the free-agent market is closely monitored in New York. Hmm. Is it coincidence that there are nearly 200 prospective free agents at the end of this season and none of them have signed? Yeah, right."
Tough times in Detroit, Tampa Bay
Life stinks, then you die: The frustrations of a couple of guys with World Series rings named Lou Piniella and Alan Trammell.
When Trammell asked Kirk Gibson to join him as a coach with their Tigers, knowing that Gibson is extremely successful away from the game, Trammell asked, "Who else is going to do this? Someone has to save this franchise. It's ours. We have to do it."
They may be fortunate to avoid comparisons to the '62 Mets, and yet Trammell says, "We had no illusions. We come out each day and play that day, expecting to win. We may not be able to change the talent level right away, but we can change the way they go about things. And that's what we're trying to do. Do I get frustrated? No, not really. But I still hate losing."
Piniella's attack on Ben Grieve this week was an eruption of his frustrations. Grieve was an unfortunate victim, a low-key person in the crossfire. Piniella, like Trammell, is trying to change a losing culture, and when Grieve takes three called strikes to end a game or Dewon Brazelton shows up at Yankee Stadium at 5:30 or Travis Lee shrugs through losing, it is infuriating. Hiring Piniella created a buzz for this franchise, and while Lou is trying, ownership is going to have to come up with $20-$25 million worth of players in the offseason to go with what is a young, developing rotation. Or he won't hang.
Trammell has been successful keeping two young, talented pitchers in Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth focused. While Maroth keeps hearing about Ted Gray and Brian Kingman, he has pitched well enough that several teams have expressed interest in him.
"I have to be very careful with Bonderman," Trammell said. "Eventually, I'd like him to get about 150, 160 innings, so we may back him off a starter or do whatever is necessary to get to that level. He has to remain focused on doing the best he can each start and making improvements, and he's done it. If the won-lost record doesn't coincide, he has to look beyond it."