Ten issues to consider in the final days of the regular season:
1. Crawling from the wreckage.
Mets ownership thinks it needs to hire Lou Piniella as its new manager in order to get good public relations, for the battle of the back pages and Mike and the Mad Dog on the radio and the perception that the Mets really are doing things the right way.
The real reason the Mets need Piniella is that he is one person who will come in and tell Jeff Wilpon to keep his nose out of the business on the field, that they need to do what's right, not what's popular. Not that Jeff Wilpon is evil or stupid; he's absolutely not either. But he doesn't understand how to run a baseball business, and his leadership by choir -- where the general manager has no more voice than pro scouts, players, a pitching coach or PR maven Stu Sucherman -- has turned the Mets into a $100 million tenement compared to the team on the good side of the tracks.
The Mets totally botched the firing of manager Art Howe.
Piniella badly wants out of Tampa Bay, especially now that he knows owner Vince Naimoli is going to be in charge until 2007, in which time Naimoli's idea of adding payroll is $2 million, which will cover the cost of a Rocky Biddle-type player. But to lose Piniella would severely undermine any credibility the Devil Rays carry in western Florida, so odds are that Naimoli will agree to go from $29 million to $35 million and the Mets will have to hire an alternative, perhaps a proven winner like Jim Fregosi. Two years ago, when the Mets wanted Piniella while he was under contract to Seattle, the Mariners felt that there was tampering, demanded compensation and were bound and determined not to allow him to go to New York, settling on Randy Winn from the Devil Rays.
There is nothing wrong about wanting to be in on some of the decisions, but GM Jim Duquette should be in charge. Players should not be involved. They don't need the PR guy, who once tried to tell Bobby Valentine how to answer questions. By being in the middle of this choir, does Wilpon realize that baseball executives in other cities tell stories of how one of your scouts boasts that he has more power than the general manager (without the hard work) and how many times some of us have been told by scouts and executives all around the game that that scout is "doing a number" on the GM?
Do you realize that by leaking the Art Howe firing story that you lost respect across the industry because of the humiliation of a very good man and because you allowed someone to think that it was a good PR notion?
It is as if the Mets post ideas on their Web site -- Should Art Howe be fired? Should Mike Piazza catch? Should Al Leiter's option be exercised? -- and wait to see how the vote turns out before making decisions. For instance, they would never have made the Nomar Garciaparra-Orlando Cabrera-Dave Roberts-Doug Mientkiewicz deal because it wouldn't have been initially popular.
If Fregosi gets the opportunity, he will be more than willing to give his opinion. But since the Mets are not desperate for him, he may not have the power that Piniella would have. But it might be fun to see video of a PR guy telling Fregosi how to answer questions.
2. The reason the Dodgers are being pushed to hold on is the reason they had to make the July 30 trade with the Marlins.
GM Paul DePodesta knew he didn't have enough starting pitching, and he was right. Since dealing Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota and Juan Encarnacion for Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi and Steve Finley, the bullpen ERA and inherited runners numbers are better, their runs per game is up, but until Odalis Perez pitched well Friday night their starters' ERA was 6.80 over 29 games. Now, DePodesta might have been wrong not to give up Penny, Edwin Jackson and Jayson Werth for Randy Johnson, but Jackson is a huge part of their future, Werth a significant part of their present and future.
To hold on with an injured Jose Lima, Kaz Ishii and Jackson in the rotation will not be easy. But if they hadn't done anything and Finley was playing for the Padres, they likely would have finished behind San Francisco and San Diego.
3. It's hard to believe that with a week to play, the Angels are having trouble scoring runs and the A's are having trouble getting anyone out.
Darin Erstad is playing with a bad back, Garret Anderson with a blood disease and a bad knee, Troy Glaus could not be expected to be at full tilt, Vladimir Guerrero has been good but not great (.893 OPS) in the second half and there have been some indications that the pulse of this team isn't the way it was in 2002. On Saturday, Mike Scioscia called a clubhouse meeting to call out Jose Guillen, who threw a public temper tantrum when the manager pinch-ran for him. The Angels then suspended Guillen on Sunday for the rest of the season and the playoffs if they happen to make it.
The only Oakland pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 since the break is Rich Harden. Tim Hudson has been coming around, albeit with some command difficulties, but Barry Zito too often loses confidence in his fastball and Mark Mulder -- who after suffering the loss in Sunday's game has a 5.87 ERA since starting the All-Star Game -- continues to pitch as if he's hurt, with serious command issues that he never demonstrated going back to his amateur days. GM Billy Beane insists that Mulder is not hurt, and some have theorized that this most natural of pitchers has started thinking about making the ball sink instead of just throwing.
4. The loss of Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte caught up to the Astros in September.
Since Sept. 6, Houston starters other than Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens were 0-5, 5.40 with one quality start (by Carlos Hernandez) in 17 games going into Sunday's game. With the bullpen already stressed after trading Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel, they have too many innings being throwm by too many pitchers who weren't supposed to be in important roles in September.
5. Teammate Dave Roberts says Orlando Cabrera is one of those players who is not particularly good playing on bad teams where the only things that count are sabermetrics, but is much better playing for a good team where little things can make the difference between winning and losing.
Cabrera is a dashing, 78 rpm defender who sometimes almost plays too fast. But he gives himself up when necessary, pounds high fastballs and clearly loves playing on a Red Sox team that is in contention and sold out every game all season. "Orlando is one of my favorite players of all time," Expos GM Omar Minaya said. "He lives to win. We offered him a contract comparable to what we gave Jose Vidro [$30 million for four years], but he told me he didn't care about the money, he wanted to go somewhere where he'd be in a pennant race." Roberts is right about Cabrera, and the same thing can be said about Derek Jeter -- who the statheads will insist from their garages isn't an exceptional shortstop -- and Brian Roberts. On the other hand, there are some star-type players that are not as good on a pennant contender.
6. On that subject, last winter the Yankee baseball people -- who have a very successful history -- wanted Vladimir Guerrero. Problem was, George Steinbrenner wanted Gary Sheffield and we know who wins those battles. But Steinbrenner was right -- not only has Sheffield had an exceptional offensive year, but he has fit that team as a slugger in the three hole that doesn't strike out that much and will adjust his game to situations.
Watch the Yankees and one gets the feeling that Sheffield has been there since the run began in 1996. "There's a lot of Paul O'Neill in Sheff," hitting coach Don Mattingly said. "He fits here like Paul or Scott Brosius or all those guys."
"He gives himself up for his teammates," Joe Torre said of Sheffield. "He doesn't care about numbers, he only cares about winning, and he is one very tough man."
But there are a lot of players who believe that Mariano Rivera is their most valuable player. "We wouldn't be close to where we are without him," Alex Rodriguez said. Remember, the Yankee staff ERA is over 5.00 since the All-Star break, the bullpen ERA is over 5.50 ... and they never relinquished the lead in the AL East. Speaking of players' perception of MVP, it's interesting how many have expressed that Michael Young should be near the top of the balloting.
7. Anyone who doesn't think the Orioles franchise won't be impacted by the Washington Lobbyists -- or whatever they'll be called -- doesn't understand that Edward Bennett Williams changed the market when he Washingtonized them.
Sure, Peter Angelos has devalued the Orioles by his unique form of muckraking. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's nowhere else to put the Expos. But Mike Flanagan's assertion that 30 percent of their revenues come from the D.C. area is right, which may or may not force them to hold off trying to sign a top starting pitcher or third baseman (to allow Melvin Mora to return to the outfield). Any loss of revenues is a serious issue when you're in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. It's hard for anyone to play in their leagues; the Angels are expected to cut back $20 million from their $112 million payroll, and the Dodgers are expected to have some rollback, as well.
8. Six players who are not free agents whom most would be surprised to see in the same uniform next season.
Alfonso Soriano, Phil Nevin, Jacque Jones, Mike Sweeney, Cliff Floyd and Shawn Chacon.
9. Four books I enjoyed immensely this summer.
Leigh Montville's "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero" is the best baseball biography since Richard Ben Cramer's book on Joe DiMaggio. Buster Olney's "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty" is a brilliant study of one of the game's memorable teams. And two original ideas that worked: Rob Bradford's "Chasing Steinbrenner," a look at Theo Epstein and J.P. Ricciardi, and Steve Kettmann's "One Day at Fenway," a novel, creative approach to one game.
For those who missed Will Carroll's "Saving the Pitcher" and "The Neyer/James Book of Pitchers," shame on you.
10. Randy Johnson complained that ESPN did not list him among three top contenders for the NL Cy Young Award.
Johnson has a legitimate beef, because he has been the best starting pitcher in the National League. But he's not going to win because of his low win total, which isn't fair and a function of pitiable support.
Around the game
It's hard on future Hall of Famer Rafael Palmeiro to be sat down so he can't trigger a clause that will guarantee his contract with the Orioles for 2005, but he won't admit it. "Hey," Palmeiro said, "someone will want me. I'll get a job."
Going into Monday, Palmeiro was 85 hits from 3,000, to go along with 549 career home runs. Another option that may not get picked up is Craig Biggio's $3 million deal for 2005. He was 0-for-20 in the first five games of this current Astros road trip.
Alex Rodriguez said, "there's no way that anyone but Buck Showalter can be manager of the year. I'd tip my hat to him."
New Englanders are paranoid about Pedro Martinez going to the Yankees, but unless the Yanks get knocked out quickly and Steinbrenner insists on getting Pedro, they are expected to go after Carl Pavano. Some of the players have made it known their dislike for Martinez, New York is 19-11 in his starts in a Boston uniform and the price will be very high. They will, however, make public moves to drive the price up on Boston, which if it drags out may make a run to quickly sign Brad Radke.
If you are old enough to have seen Frank Tanana pitch when he was 21, 22 and 23, before he blew out his arm completing 14 consecutive starts, you remember the best comparable in style and substance to Johan Santana.
How far have the Diamondbacks have fallen? They sold out four games this season, the season-opener and the three-game series they played against the Yankees in mid-June.