Friday, August 14, 2009

Baseball In The Daytime: 14 August 2009

As we reach the home stretch of the baseball season, we can dispense with the hedges and qualified maybes that we've trafficked in all year. You can't say "It's early" or "We'll see" or "If they stay healthy" anymore, those ships have sailed. No, these team photographs are fully developed, and as Bill Parcells once so insightfully observed, "You are what your record says you are."

A few things we have learned, as well as our lone day game (with bonus Most Wanted updates) after the jump...

For quite some time the American league has clearly been the superior of the two in baseball. The AL has bested the Senior Circuit in interleague play six years running, although the split has narrowed since the Americans posted a preposterous 154-98 mark in 2006. We all know about the AL's unbeaten streak in the All-Star Game, which runs back to 1997. And although the results of the World Series have actually been pretty even this decade (the AL holds a 5-4 edge since 2000), three of the Americans' championships have come via sweeps, and two of the Nationals' triumphs have come at the hands of the choketastic Yankees.

All that being said, you could make an argument that the NL has closed most of the gap in quality of baseball, and has surpassed the AL in terms of watchability and interest for the pennant races. The best teams still reside in the Junior Circuit--the Yankees are probably baseball's top club, the Angels are right there as well, and the Rangers, Red Sox, Bay-Rays and Tigers would all be dominant teams if they were moved to the NL.

What the Nationals have as an edge on their siblings is a vastly superior middle class, as well as four real races that should run right to the end of the season. Go beyond your division leaders (the Dodgers, Cards and Phillies) and you find some really good teams--the Cubs are deep and dangerous, the Braves, Marlins and Giants have outstanding starting pitching, and the Rockies have the best balance of any sub-$100 million payroll in the game.

In fact, let's spend a few minutes with these Rockies. It might have been Rob Neyer or some other baseball blogger that said six weeks ago that Colorado was two veteran relievers away from being an excellent team. That stuck with me, because it was entirely true--the Rox had just lost lefty Alan Embree to a broken leg and former closer Manny/Manuel Corpas to season-ending elbow surgery. The pen was a M*A*S*H unit of castoffs, never-weres, kids and Quad-A drifters. No matter how effective the rotation continued to be or how many runs the lineup continued to drive home, there was no way this team could continue to win with such a porous and unreliable bullpen.

Then Dan O'Dowd, who's forcing me believe is actually competent with every passing day, went out and got Rafael Betancourt and Joe Beimel. In neither trade did he yield more than a B-grade prospect, and only Beimel is on the books for next year. These are excellent trades, the kind of deals O'Dowd has never made in the past. He took advantage of a buyer's market and did exactly what he needed to improve his team's (already good) chances to make the postseason without crippling the club long-term.

Unless Jorge De la Rosa or Jason Marquis suddenly start pitching like Jorge De La Rosa or Jason Marquis, this team has the pitching, the bullpen, the defense and the lineup to craft another Rocktober marketing opportunity. Of particular note has been the development of Carlos Gonzalez, a key piece in the Matt Holliday trade. Gonzalez looked overmatched at the plate during spring training, and his call-up looked like a wasted move as he burned at-bat after at-bat with a free-swinging and haphazard approach. Something has clicked in the kid since the All-Star break, however. Gonzalez' July OPS was .860, and in the month of August he's gone .424/.459/.758 while playing every game but one. He's seeing the ball very well, and of course he delivers incredible defense and baserunning speed whether he's hitting or not. Carlos Gonzalez is the kind of X-factor player that playoff teams invariably have on their rosters.

But back to Chicago, where we have allegedly caught the Beer-Throwing Bandit. I don't buy it, seems like a patsy to me. If Jack Ruby shows up at the arraignment and guns down this "John Macchione" then I'm implicating Banky and the Hunt family in a vast right-wing conspiracy. Don't we have a game today?

Pittsburgh @ Chicago Cubs, 12:20 Mountain The Pirates visit the Felonious Confines, as Charlie Morton and Randy Wells lock horns in a game to be witnessed live by forty thousand drunken louts. Outfielders may want to don their Gore-Tex long johns should this game get out of hand. Stay dry out there, and Play Ball!