September's significant for baseball's bottom nine

Revenue sharing and the wild-card system are a major boon for competitive balance, "hope and faith" and all that other good stuff, but every gimmick in the world can't save an organization from years of mismanagement and bad decisions.

Feel free to take a bow, Orioles and Pirates.

While the media obsesses over Alfonso Soriano's quadriceps, Willie Randolph's bullpen management skills, the "Joba rules" and other pennant-race issues, baseball's afterthought franchises have already faded from contention and begun focusing on more long-term concerns.

Maybe that means checking out a September call-up, showcasing a veteran for a winter trade or deciding whether to exercise a player's 2008 contract option. Just because a postseason berth is out of the question, it doesn't mean the final 30 games are meaningless.

This week's "Starting 9" is devoted to the nine teams with the worst records in Major League Baseball and what's at stake for them in the final month. Cincinnati and San Francisco have both played well enough recently to avoid the list. Fans of those clubs should consider that a good thing.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (53-80)

1 First came Scott Kazmir, then James Shields. Now the Devil Rays have reason to hope that Edwin Jackson has turned the corner to become a reliable big league starter. He's 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in five August starts.

The Rays have considered summoning former No. 1 pick Jeff Niemann from Triple-A Durham. But Niemann has already thrown 125 innings -- the most in his pro career -- and recently missed three weeks with a tired shoulder, so the Rays might opt not to push him.

While Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young make up a terrific young outfield, the sad saga of Rocco Baldelli continues. He injured his hamstring in May, and the Rays responded by altering his running style, a la the Mets with Jose Reyes. Baldelli was supposed to begin a rehab assignment shortly, but shut it down because of "general soreness."

So what now? Baldelli is 26 years old with a medical dossier to rival Carl Pavano's. Even if he returns in September looking remotely close to his old self, it's hard to envision general manager Andrew Friedman getting more than 50 cents on the dollar for him this winter.

One potential lineup change will have to wait. The Rays want Akinori Iwamura to do some work at second base to give them an option in case third-base prospect Evan Longoria is ready in spring training. But Iwamura's transition won't begin to take place until the offseason, at the earliest.

Chicago White Sox (57-76)

1 The White Sox did a lot of heavy lifting earlier this season, signing Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye to multiyear deals. Now that club chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has pronounced himself "shocked" by the team's implosion, the Sox are free to wade through the rubble of a lost season.

General manager Kenny Williams freed up second base for rookie Danny Richar by trading Tadahito Iguchi to Philadelphia, and the Sox are giving Jerry Owens a crack at center field and the leadoff spot.

Owens and Richar give Chicago some speed, defense and much-needed energy, but Owens has eight extra-base hits in 252 at-bats and Richar is hitting .190 in 27 games. That's not going to cut it.

Another item on the agenda: Checking out Josh Fields in left field to give the team some flexibility when Joe Crede returns from back surgery. The White Sox also brought in Mike Myers for a late audition, but he has not impressed.

Washington Nationals (58-76)

1 If the Nationals play well enough to win, say, 75 games, they'll assure Manny Acta of some National League Manager of the Year votes. But he's certainly not thinking about that.

"Our main concern is to stay competitive in September," Acta said. "We don't want to waste 6½ months of work in one month."

The Nationals want to look at Wily Mo Pena as a middle-of-the-order option for 2008. Pena hit four homers in his first 10 games in Washington, played disaster-free defense in the outfield, then missed two starts with a bruised foot. Say this for the guy: He's always entertaining.

The Nats continue to run out Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann and Tim Redding in the hope they'll make up a competitive rotation for 2008. There's also been speculation that they'll bring up No. 1 draft pick Ross Detwiler, who is pitching well for Class A Potomac.

Florida Marlins (58-76)

1 Jason Johnson and Anibal Sanchez are down for the year with arm problems, Dontrelle Willis is 1-11 since June, Scott Olsen drove his way to the police blotter, and Sergio Mitre just plain ran out of gas. Short of bringing back Charlie Hough or releasing Byung-Hyun Kim and reacquiring him a third time, the Marlins couldn't sink much lower.

Florida has used seven center fielders this season, and the Marlins rank 28th in the majors at the position with a .676 OPS (ahead of only the Dodgers and White Sox). The Marlins hope that young Alejandro De Aza can assert himself in September.

Miguel Cabrera has become such a defensive liability, with 20 errors at third base, the Marlins might have to start entertaining the possibility of moving him across the diamond to first.

One bright spot in an otherwise grim season is the performance of outfielder Jeremy Hermida, who has recovered from a tough 2006 season and some injury issues to re-establish himself as a potential cornerstone player for the franchise.

Houston Astros (59-74)

1 If Cecil Cooper can get the Astros to play hard and be competitive in September, he'll go a long way toward removing that "interim" designation. The search for a general manager to replace Tim Purpura could be a more complicated process.

While Seattle scout Dan Evans and Oakland assistant GM David Forst were among the first names to come up in speculation, don't be surprised if Astros president Tal Smith makes a call to former Phillies GM Ed Wade, now a Padres scout. The two go back a long way. Cleveland assistant GM Chris Antonetti, one of baseball's up-and-comers at age 32, is another name the Astros are likely to consider.

One name to scratch off your list: Jeff Bagwell. That's not going to happen.

Roy Oswalt needs help in the rotation, and the Astros will spend September looking at Troy Patton, Juan Gutierrez, Matt Albers and Brandon Backe, who is about to return from Tommy John surgery.

With his next double, Craig Biggio will pass George Brett and move into fifth place on the all-time list behind Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Stan Musial and Ty Cobb. In the nondescript record category, lefty Trever Miller (0-0 in 69 games) has a chance to surpass Scott Aldred of the 1998 Devil Rays (0-0 in 48 outings) for the most appearances in a season without a decision. Miller needs to avoid getting a decision for the rest of the season to get the record.

Baltimore Orioles (58-73)

1 The longer the season drags on, the worse the Orioles play. Dan Connolly and Roch Kubatko of The Baltimore Sun went back a decade and found that Baltimore has a 227-311 record in August and September going back to 1997. That's a .422 winning percentage.

So what should we expect next month? The Orioles will plug hot prospect Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson into the rotation and hold open closer's auditions while Chris Ray recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Danys Baez has been a disaster, and young Jim Hoey won't pitch in pressure situations anytime soon after telling reporters he felt "nervous" on the mound while being lit up by Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Only the Orioles could spend $42 million to revamp their bullpen and wind up with no one to pitch the ninth.

Kevin Millar is approaching the 475 at-bats required for a $2.75 million option to vest, so he'll be back in 2008. But what about Miguel Tejada? After missing five weeks with a broken wrist, he's hitting .295 since his return and has nine homers in August.

Tejada has two years and $26 million left on his contract. If the O's are going to shop him, they might want to do it now rather than wait until next winter when his contract situation will make him less appealing to potential suitors.

Pittsburgh Pirates (59-73)

1 Everything is secondary to the search for a new CEO. Among the names being batted around in speculation: Dan Duquette, Gerry Hunsicker and Major League Baseball executive Joe Garagiola Jr., who's received a positive endorsement from commissioner Bud Selig.

The new boss will have to make a decision on GM Dave Littlefield, who has become a target for fan unrest, and manager Jim Tracy. They're both signed through 2008. But with the Pirates on the way to a 15th straight losing season, it's getting tougher to sell the status quo to the fan base.

With Chris Duffy on the shelf again, Nate McLouth has an opportunity to make an impression in center field. Pitcher Zach Duke, who's had a season to forget, hopes to finish strong when he returns from elbow tendinitis.

The Pirates have to make a determination soon on whether Jack Wilson or Cesar Izturis will be their shortstop next year. The minor leaguer most deserving of a call-up is first baseman Steven Pearce, who has hit .339 with 31 homers and 113 RBIs in three stops this season.

Kansas City Royals (59-72)

1 General manager Dayton Moore has done a wonderful job of reconfiguring the roster and changing the mind-set in Kansas City. Even if the Royals go 4-27 the rest of the way, they'll still finish with their best record since 2003.

With Gil Meche Brian Bannister, Kyle Davies and Zack Greinke, the Royals have a nucleus of four starters age 23 to 29. Rookie Joakim Soria has seized the closer's job, but the Royals haven't ruled out moving him to the rotation in 2008.

Billy Butler lacks the speed to play left field, so the Royals are giving him a whirl at first base. There's also some jockeying in center field, where the fleet Joey Gathright is showing signs of embracing the nuances of the leadoff spot at age 26.

If the Royals buy into Gathright as a long-term solution, they could entertain trade offers for David DeJesus over the winter or go to spring training with Gathright in center field and DeJesus in left.

Texas Rangers (60-72)

1 Rangers general manager Jon Daniels began looking ahead at the trade deadline when he sent Eric Gagne to Boston, paving the way for C.J. Wilson to close, and created an opening for Marlon Byrd in center field by dealing Kenny Lofton to Cleveland.

The Rangers love what they've seen from outfielder David Murphy, who's hitting .433 since his arrival from Boston. "I like everything about him," Texas manager Ron Washington told The Dallas Morning News. "The guy just plays the game hard. He plays the game right."

Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Gerald Laird will split the catching duties in September. If Saltalamacchia is as good as advertised, it could allow Daniels to move Laird for pitching or outfield help in the offseason.

The most notable September call-up is former hotshot prospect Edinson Volquez, who flopped when Texas rushed him to the majors two years ago. Volquez struck out 166 batters in 144 2/3 minor league innings this season, and appears more ready this time.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.