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Interesting second half awaits

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This weekend leading up to the July 4 holiday is the halfway point of a goofy season.

The Mariners may be in a brief slide, but they have played like the only really good team in an American League that has five teams with winning records. The Cubs and Diamondbacks have performed like the best teams in the National League, where only six teams have losing records.

Luis Gonzalez
Luis Gonzalez has already hit a career high 32 home runs.

And while the Phillies, Cubs, Twins and Marlins have been wonderful stories, of the 13 teams with the lowest payrolls, not one has been over .500 in both the 2000 and 2001 seasons. And expectations multiplied by cash flow multiplied by reality equals four managers and two general managers being fired before the end of June, several of each endangered and at least nine clubs either up for sale or for rent to another city.

It's been fun because it's been so unpredictable, and if one starts trying to select the first-half awards, it's evident just how mad it's been. Oh, in the NL, the MVP is Luis Gonzalez vs. Barry Bonds, and if the season were to end today because some Wal-Mart union-busters decided to revisit '94, then it would be Gonzalez, even with the home run record run by the best player of his generation.

In the American League, it comes down to Manny Ramirez vs. Edgar Martinez. Ramirez has slid of late, and so have the injury-tattered Red Sox, but with Nomar Garciaparra out, Carl Everett in and out of the lineup and with the exceptions of the recent production from Dante Bichette and don't discount that Trot Nixon has been on an island.

But Edgar, again, has been incredible (for further proof see the chart below). Granted, both Martinez and Ramirez have performed well while being designated hitter's, although Ramirez recently has played left field and played it well. But Manny adds, "look at the influence Edgar's had on Mike Cameron and Bret Boone, who have had great seasons. Watch their approaches and swings." Yes, Manny watches video of Edgar in his suite at home.

Advantage Manny, but only by a slight edge. Reality bites, because Jason Giambi is the best hitter in the league and Alex Rodriguez is having a great year, but MVPs come from contending teams in the majority of cases because it is not the Best Player Award, it is he who contributes most to a team's success.

The Cy Young Award is extremely close in both leagues. Here are the resumes for the leaders:

Pitcher Team Wins ERA IP QS Runs/Start
Martinez Red Sox 7-2 2.26 103.2 12/15 4.08
Clemens Yankees 11-1 3.59 117.2 10/17 7.34
Schilling D-Backs 12-2 2.99 129.1 14/17 5.43
Johnson D-Backs 10-5 2.70 126.2 14/18 5.04
Morris Cardinals 10-4 2.74 105 13/16 6.34

Clemens is 20-3 since last July 2, which does not include two brilliant October performances. And he has earned the All-Star start for the AL and is more of a physical sure thing in the second half. Yes, Martinez started three times on four-days' rest, but Pedro has pitched better, all things considered, to this point.

And if you asked me to pick Cy Young No. 3 in the AL it would be Angels closer Troy Percival, who has quite an impressive line: 3-1, 0.90, 30 IP, 13 H, 3 ER, 7 BB, 33 K, .126 BA against, .165 slugging against, 19 of 20 in save opportunities.

One thing in this murky season is clear and that is that the major awards will be won in the second half. And you can be sure that Bonds would gladly trade possibly hitting the 71 homers for a pennant and an MVP award.

What we're hearing
The postponement and perhaps death of the Chuck Knoblauch deal to Seattle gives the Yankees a couple of weeks to see if Knoblauch can return to being a productive leadoff hitter again. And it also gives Shane Spencer and David Justice more time to get completely healthy. Al Martin would have been a salary swallow for the Yankees, and while Brett Tomko has a good arm and is a terrific person, his makeup may not be suited for New York.

When Yankees GM Brian Cashman asked a peer what he thought of the Seattle deal on Thursday he replied, "I wouldn't want to see Knoblauch kicking my behind in October, which he might do in back of Ichiro and in front of that middle of the order." Seattle actually wanted to use Knoblauch to get B.J. Surhoff from Atlanta, but Surhoff has a no-trade clause to Seattle. Mariners GM Pat Gillick, in fact, tried to get Surhoff to waive the no-trade last year, as well.

Another major factor is the Red Sox's fall, which was disguised while they played Tampa Bay. Remember, when Boston hit the road on Friday they'd already played the Devil Rays 13 times. The Yankees, on the other hand, had played Tampa Bay just three times (before Friday). While the Red Sox run to the break against Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta, the Yankees play sub-.500 Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the Mets.

It likely will be at least three weeks before the Red Sox get Martinez and/or Nomar Garciaparra back. Their bullpen is also falling apart and while things are much better than they were two months ago in Oakland when their clubhouse anger exploded, the fact remains that this is a team with a lot of simmering Mike Lansing venom as Bostonians find out why no one wanted some of the high priced former players that were dumped on them.

The Yankees still clearly want another power bullpen arm and a big-time bat. Could they get Jason Giambi? Right now, the asking price is Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano and Randy Keisler, which would then enable the A's to retool by sending Soriano and rookie second baseman Jose Ortiz, who has played in just 11 games this season, to Kansas City for Jermaine Dye.

The Royals, naturally, want a lot for Dye. But since this is his fifth year in the majors and he is arbitration eligible (a la Johnny Damon) at the end of the season and their outfield of the future is Dee Brown, Carlos Beltran and Mark Quinn, the Dye speculation will continue. The Mariners, Mets (who claim they could get Dye for Alex Escobar and Glendon Rusch), Yankees, Red Sox and others are very interested in getting Dye. Royals GM Allard Baird has told inquiring GMs that he wants a young middle infielder, pitching and another young player, if possible, for Dye. Baird is also taking inquiries on pitcher Jeff Suppan.

Colorado's Pedro Astacio, meanwhile, has been the buzz name of the week. The Rockies were close to making a deal with Cincinnati, but the Reds wouldn't trade Dmitri Young and Pokey Reese for Astacio unless they also got Neifi Perez, while the Rockies offered Todd Walker. There are still several teams in on Astacio --apparently led by the Phillies, who are offering pitcher Randy Wolf and young outfielder Eric Valent -- but while he would seem to stem Boston's problems, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette did not get back to Colorado concerning his interest in making a deal.

The White Sox are on the cusp of wild-card contention, and showed they are still serious about contending by acquiring lefty reliever Alan Embree from the Giants. Embree has had an off year and had been buried in the bullpen by Giants manager Dusty Baker, but he still throws 92-94 mph and is experienced. David Wells, meanwhile, has told White Sox management that he's happy and enjoys working with the young pitchers on the staff, so James Baldwin may be the only pitcher who may be moved.

Here are a few other rumors floating around:


  • Oakland has had several calls about clubs interested in Jason Isringhausen (Cardinals, Yankees, Rockies, among others) and Johnny Damon (Cubs).

  • Detroit clearly is going to move Todd Jones, with Arizona being a prime target.

  • San Diego does not want to trade Phil Nevin if possible, and is exploring the market for pitchers Woody Williams and Sterling Hitchock, who threw well in a rehab outing on Thursday. Boston and St. Louis are interested in Hitchcock, with Troy O'Leary being trade bait as he would love to go to the Padres.

  • Cincinnati will move Dmitri Young and the Braves are the rumored team interested in him.

  • Early in the season, Albie Lopez was a hot name, but his injures and abysmal performance this year (3-10, 5.64) have dimmed his value to the point where he's barely worth a prospect now. "Frankly, we'd rather take Bryan Rekar," says one GM. For some perspective on how bad Lopez has been, Rekar is presently 1-9 with a 5.25 ERA.

  • The Mets have decided to cool it on trading Glendon Rusch for John Vander Wal given their continued slide, Vander Wal's age and his right to demand a trade at the end of the season.

    The importance of knowing the strike zone
    Ted Williams pounded it home in his great book on hitting. Sabermatricians back to Bill James have harped on it in one way or another. Pitching and hitting coaches now preach it.

    He who controls the strike zone controls the game.

    It's why Shea Hillenbrand may not make it. It's why Sammy Sosa's career is on its remarkable ascent. It's why the Padres think the contrast between D'Angelo Jimenez and Alfonso Soriano is this: Jimenez is the surer thing now that he's healthy, a line drive, gap power 14-20 home run hitter with patience. But if Soriano learns the strike zone, and he's had three times as many walks in June as April and May combined, his lightning batspeed, arm and raw talent could make him a 30-homer, 60-steal star.

    Here are some numbers from Oakland Athletics games the last three years that make some points. First, if a hitter controls the strize zone and swings only at good balls to hit, check the differences in these four Oakland hitters. When MVP Jason Giambi sticks to strikes, he bats .381 and his OPS is 1.153; when he swings at pitches out of the strike zone, check the dip.

    Jason Giambi: (In zone) BA .386, OPS 1.153; (Out of zone) BA .149, OPS .352
    Eric Chavez: (In zone) BA .318, OPS .899; (Out of zone) BA .181, OPS .450
    Frank Menechino: (In zone) BA .311, OPS .881; (Out of zone) BA .165, OPS .406
    Olmedo Saenz: (In zone) BA .318, OPS .869; (Out of zone) BA .163, OPS .413
    Miguel Tejada: (In zone) BA .296, OPS .819; (Out of zone) BA .169, OPS .468

    Then examine hitters' patience. Giambi, for instance, swings at 60 percent of the fastballs and 59 percent of the non-fastballs he gets that are in the strike zone, but swings at only 16 percent of pitches out of the zone. We have a pretty good idea how a guy drafted after a general manager's daughter (Frank Menechino by then White Sox GM Ron Schueler) can win a job, and how good Eric Chavez can be when he learns better plate discipline.

    Then go to some of the great hitters in the league. "With Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, they won't even swing at fastball strikes early in the count unless they're in zoned areas," says one baseball man. "They're unbelievable. Ichiro is the ignitition and Bret Boone the cattle car, but Olerud and, especially, Martinez are the engine that make the Mariners run."

    Manny Ramirez can occasionally swing at breaking balls out of the zone (32 percent), but seldom chases fastballs out. The numbers of great hitters like Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Bernie Williams, et al are self-explanatory. The first chart below are numbers from select players from the A's and the second chart are other select players throughout the majors:

    Player FB (In zone) Non-FB (In zone) FB (Out of zone) Non-FB (Out of zone)
    Ja. Giambi 60% 59% 14% 18%
    Menechino 57% 46% 14% 25%
    Long 62% 63% 20% 31%
    Hernandez 63% 61% 23% 27%
    Tejada 62% 71% 23% 32%
    Saenz 64% 58% 25% 31%
    Chavez 67% 68% 28% 34%

    Player FB (In zone) Non-FB (In zone) FB (Out of zone) Non-FB (Out of zone)
    E. Martinez 55% 58% 11% 15%
    Olerud 49% 71% 13% 22%
    M. Ramirez 71% 63% 11% 22%
    R. Alomar 58% 68% 13% 24%
    Salmon 65% 73% 17% 18%
    Bonds 58% 69% 11% 20%
    Palmeiro 65% 73% 13% 23%
    B. Williams 63% 71% 16% 21%

    This also applies to pitchers. Sure, even with Pedro Martinez's stuff, batters swing at more than 60 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. But he gets hitters out of the zone, getting swings on nearly a third of his pitches that are out of the zone. Ditto Mariano Rivera. Tim Hudson and Freddy Garcia were offered as examples, and are two of the best young top-of-the-rotation starters in the league.

    Pitcher FB (In zone) Non-FB (In zone) FB (Out of zone) Non-FB (Out of zone)
    P. Martinez 63% 59% 22% 41%
    Hudson 64% 75% 15% 36%
    Pettitte 64% 61% 23% 28%
    Garcia 62% 55% 20% 34%
    Rivera 69% 73% 28% 37%

    This and that

  • When the Yankees had worked out the trade for Mark Wohlers, he had the right to veto the deal. But he told his agent Seth Levinson that the Yankees are the one team he wanted to go to, that he wants to prove that he is as healthy, physically and mentally, as he's ever been and that he will stand in front of his locker until midnight, if necessary, to answer any question from his wildness to Jim Leyritz. Wohlers is a man who has been to hell, fought his way back and deserves every ounce of support in all Yankees fans' hearts.

  • When the Yankees were in Detroit in mid-June, manager Joe Torre brought Don Mattingly in to work with Tino Martinez. He's been much better ever since.

  • Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund is recommending that Rafael Furcal give up switch-hitting and exclusively bat right-handed. "He can win a batting title right-handed, so maybe he can do it in winter ball," says Rettenmund. Going into the weekend, Furcal's average was 77 points higher while batting right-handed, his OPS 175 points higher from the right side.


  • Cliff Floyd wishes the whole controversy he's embroiled in with Mets manager Bobby Valentine would just go away. Weeks back, Floyd made some disparaging comments about Valentine after Cliff was drilled with a pitch, prompting Valentine this week to tell writers he would refuse to put Floyd on the All-Star team when, in reality, Floyd would be the third MVP-choice thus far behind Luis Gonzalez and Barry Bonds.

    "It would be a tremendous honor to be picked," says Floyd. "But it's silly to be talking about Valentine and the All-Star Game when we're in a pennant race. What matters is winning the division. But if I do get picked, I'll be honored to go."

  • The good news for the worn Houston rotation is that Shane Reynolds is apparently getting back to normal after his offseason knee surgery.

    "But asking three virtual rookies to carry us is asking a lot," says GM Gerry Hunsicker. Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding were all drafted from the 20th-to-23rd rounds and had a combined 127 days of service going into the season, and now are three-fifths of the rotation.

    "What we have to do is get Scott Elarton back and straightened out," says Hunsicker, but that has been a frustrating wait. Since May 6, Elarton is 0-5, 7.04.

    Incidentally, Hunsicker bristles at suggestions that he might trade Moises Alou. "The man's one of the best hitters in the game, and this is a year in which we're supposed to win and trying to win," says Hunsicker. "I am not trading Moises unless the unthinkable happens and either we fall out of it in July or he asks to go, neither of which I envision happening."

  • The acquisition of John Rocker may make the Indians' bullpen one of the deepest and most varied in the game, but as one Cleveland official says, "if we don't get more consistency out of our starters, we'll wear that bullpen out."

    The two keys are Bartolo Colon, who in his last start finally started working inside thanks to the prodding of catcher Tim Laker and Chuck Finley. The left-handed Finley is back on the disabled list until after the All-Star break, and exactly what and where he is at this stage of his career still may force the Indians to look for an experienced starter for the stretch drive.

  • The Rocker deal leaves the Braves short from the left side in a league where so many good teams are so left-handed at the plate. So they're looking for a left-handed reliever to go with Mike Remlinger. The name being mentioned most to get dealt to the Braves is the Rockies' Gabe White.

  • Devil Rays pitching coach Bill Fischer says rookie left-hander Joe Kennedy "is the best young pitcher in terms of stopper potential that I've had since Roger Clemens in 1985. He's that good."

  • Speaking of the Rays, Fred McGriff would be a great power pickup for a contender. Back in spring training, hitting coach Wade Boggs convinced McGriff that his best days were when he stayed back and thought middle to left-center. McGriff has adopted that philosophy and it's helped him thus far.

  • A week ago, Dan Duquette was leaning towards trying to acquire a hitter, with Jermaine Dye being one of his targets. Now, that may have changed. But if Duquette needs to add power, two NL scouts say he should go ahead and try Cuban Juan Diaz, who while still halfway between his spring training (295) and prescribed playing weight (255) has shown power potential at Triple-A Pawtucket coming off a broken ankle and other injuries.

    "(Juan's) scary" says one NL scout. "He's got tremendous batspeed and can handle the ball (inside). He takes the ball the other way to right-center with power. He's a 40 home run guy in the making."

  • Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd has brought in eight relievers since the beginning of the season, and the Rockies' bullpen still has been awful -- 13 losses, 13 saves, 13 blown saves through Friday.

    Ugueth Urbina continues to be a possibility. He worked in consecutive games this week and hit 97 on the gun on the second night. With that, obviously he isn't hurt.

  • For $75,000, the Orioles have fleeced the Blue Jays for a good young DH (Jay Gibbons) and now third baseman Tony Batista. Cash flow is and likely will be a problem, which is why the Blue Jays placed pitcher Steve Parris and Batista on irrevocable waivers.

    The Jays, meanwhile, are making it clear that they want to make some more trades, and would move Jose Cruz Jr. and/or Shannon Stewart.


  • The Rangers have tried to market Kenny Rogers to a team looking for a six-inning pitcher. Before this week's shelling (he gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in a loss to the Angels), Rogers had pitched into the sixth in every start, but opponents' average against him jumps 180 points after 75 pitches.

  • There are some terrific fielding pitchers in the National League like Greg Maddux and Mike Hampton, but Padres right-hander Adam Eaton might be as good as any of them.

  • You will be glad to know that Carlos Perez, who last pitched for the Dodgers, is relaxing with the money he took back to the Dominican Republic, fishing and preparing to pitch winter ball in an effort to make it back to the bigs.

  • Toe Nash faced Rick Ankiel in Princeton, W. Va. this week in a Class A Appalachian League game and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. In that same game, Ankiel had 14 strikeouts and no walks in six innings. Nash has a homer, five doubles and has thrown out three runners at the plate in the early going. Ankiel, meanwhile, is 4-for-8 with two homers as a DH.

  • Several clubs went in to see Wilson Alvarez pitch for the Rays' Triple-A club in Durham against Pawtucket on Tuesday. "He sat at 82," says one scout. "Unfortunately, he seemed reluctant to let it go."

  • Former Orioles GM Frank Wren, Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle and Houston assistant GM Tim Purpura are among the early leaders to get the Pirates' GM job. Several voices have suggested to Pittsburgh owner Kevin McClatchy that he interview Oakland assistant GM J.P. Ricciardi, who may be the best talent evaluator -- vis a vis constructing a team -- in the entire business.

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  • Apolitical blues:
    June 30

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