It's easy to maintain a positive frame of mind and play hard every day when your team just held a meeting to divvy up the potential postseason shares, and each September home game comes with the standard perks of contention.
Like seats filled with actual fans.
At the opposite end of the competitive food chain, September can be a long, dispiriting slog to nowhere for the noncontenders. In the name of equal time, we checked out the nine teams with the worst records in baseball and found players who've provided reason for optimism among the game's afterthoughts, no-hopers and dregs. Welcome to our "bright spots for bad teams" edition of Starting 9.
Felix Hernandez, Mariners (leads American League
in innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA)
Hernandez needs three quality starts in his next four appearances to become the sixth pitcher since 1980 to record 30 in a season. The others: Steve Carlton, Dwight Gooden, Mike Scott, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson.
"In our opinion, he is the best pitcher in the American League," said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. "He has been so consistent, dominant, durable. The numbers speak for themselves."
The two big questions remaining: (1) Can Hernandez outlast CC Sabathia for the AL Cy Young Award; and (2) is it worth the risk of trying?
Hernandez was considered a "red flag" guy by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci after throwing 238 innings at age 23, and this year he's been even more of a workhorse. He ranks second to Philadelphia's Roy Halladay with 225 2/3 innings, and he leads the majors with 3,412 pitches thrown.
The Mariners are in a tough spot with Hernandez. He hates to come out of games, and he's generally avoided the laborious, stressful, 30-pitch innings that put so much strain on a pitcher's arm. But Hernandez is such a prized commodity, the Mariners are going to be scrutinized for his workload if he ever comes back to earth or gets injured. Unfairly or not, that's how the world works these days.
"If Felix's shoulder strength is testing out really well after each outing and he's had no symptoms of fatigue or discernible downtick in stuff, then there may not be much of a difference between 200 and 220 innings," said an American League executive. "Still, he's at 225 now, and he's going to be pushing 250 innings unless they skip him or hold him back. Given where they are in the standings, they may be better off saving those bullets for next year."
Good luck telling him that.
Joakim Soria, Royals (37 saves, 1.68 ERA)
Billy Butler is a doubles machine, and Zack Greinke continues to give the Royals a reliable effort every time out. But it's hard to get too excited when Bruce Chen is tied for the team lead with nine wins, and Yuniesky Betancourt ranks second on the club with 15 home runs (behind the recently departed Jose Guillen) and tops the list with 70 RBIs.
At least manager Ned Yost knows the team's late-inning leads are secure. Soria has converted 30 straight save opportunities, and he hasn't allowed a run since July 28. A closer this good seems like a luxury on a team this bad, and Soria's name keeps popping up here and there in trade rumors. But he's only 26 and is signed to a club-friendly deal through 2014, so it's understandable why GM Dayton Moore would want a big haul in return.
While the Royals muddle along at 59-85, help might finally be on the way. Baseball America recently named five Kansas City prospects -- third baseman Mike Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer, catcher Wil Myers, starter John Lamb and reliever Tim Collins -- to its 2010 all-star team. It'll be a little easier for Royals devotees to buy into Moore's "plan" when they look out on the field and start to see prospects rather than place-holders.
Starlin Castro (.312 batting average)
and Tyler Colvin (19 homers), Cubs
Lou Piniella went home to Florida, Derrek Lee left for Atlanta by trade and Carlos Zambrano experienced his annual dugout meltdown. But the Cubs unveiled a pair of rookies who could be prominent pieces for Ryne Sandberg, Bob Melvin, Joe Girardi or whoever is managing the team in 2011.
Colvin's 19 home runs are six short of the Cubs rookie record of 25 set by Billy Williams in 1961. Castro's 41 hits in August were the most by a Cubs rookie in a single month since Ernie Banks recorded 43 in August 1954. His performance is particularly impressive considering that he's 20 years old and only two years removed from the Arizona Rookie League.
Colvin needs to develop better strike zone awareness, and his production has already tailed off since the All-Star break. But he's an athletic kid, and he's sure to benefit from time in the Rudy Jaramillo hitting lab.
Interim manager Mike Quade recently benched Castro for "lapses in concentration," but Castro took the disciplinary measure in stride and used it as motivation to keep learning. Castro has 37 extra-base hits, and he's shown a flair for putting the ball in play. At some point, he's going to become the Cubs' first All-Star shortstop since Shawon Dunston in 1990.
"I can see him having an Edgar Renteria-ish career," said a scout. "He's a doubles guy right now, but he may develop enough power to hit some home runs. Especially at Wrigley."
Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles (10-13, 3.74 ERA)
Luke Scott has hit 26 homers while avoiding the lengthy slumps that characterized his earlier seasons. But Guthrie made an even bigger statement, putting together the type of season that might convince Orioles management that he can be the leader of Baltimore's young staff moving forward.
Guthrie has always had a reputation for overthinking, and he didn't do much to dispel it in the opening month. Yankees manager Joe Girardi expressed frustration when Guthrie plunked Jorge Posada in a game at Camden Yards in late April, and even though the pitch was unintentional, Guthrie stood in front of his locker and apologized.
"I wish I had better command," he told reporters. For want of a better word, the whole scene seemed rather, well, weird.
But just as Kevin Millwood's season unraveled, Guthrie began to assert himself. He's pitched six innings or more in 25 of his 28 starts, and is closing in on his second straight 200-inning season. He's provided some cover for Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen along the way.
It's a thankless job facing New York, Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto every other time out. Guthrie has a 4.08 ERA in 12 starts against AL East clubs, and a 2.80 mark in 13 outings versus the Central and West. In his first six starts, Guthrie faced CC Sabathia twice, Matt Garza twice, Jon Lester and Justin Duchscherer. Throw in a chronic lack of run support, and that 10-13 record starts to look a lot better.
Shin-Soo Choo, Indians (.835 OPS)
Closer Chris Perez has been lights-out since June, and rookie catcher Carlos Santana was living up to the hype before going down with a season-ending knee injury. But in the end, all roads lead back to Choo.
With Grady Sizemore out for the year, Travis Hafner no longer a major power threat, Jhonny Peralta and Austin Kearns gone in trades, and so many of Cleveland's young position players stagnating, opposing teams have little or no incentive to pitch to Choo.
"He's been our only legit threat our whole year due to some of the injuries we've had," Indians manager Manny Acta told Paul Hoynes of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
How bad is the Cleveland offense? With 18 games left in the season, Choo leads the Indians with 16 homers and is the only Cleveland hitter with 100 hits. The last time the Indians failed to produce a 20-homer man was 1983, when Andre Thornton and Gorman Thomas tied for the team lead with 17.
Choo missed 2½ weeks with a sprained thumb, but leads the majors with 12 outfield assists. The Indians will owe him a substantial raise from his $461,000 salary now that he's eligible for salary arbitration in the spring. But it sure beats the alternative.
John Axford, Brewers (2.28 ERA, 64 strikeouts
in 51.1 innings pitched)
Yovani Gallardo ranks second to Tim Lincecum among NL starters with 9.70 strikeouts per nine innings. Third baseman Casey McGehee has more RBIs (94) than David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman. And Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun remain among the top producers at their positions, even if their numbers have slipped from last season.
But Axford provides the most uplifting story on the Brewers' roster. As the heir to Trevor Hoffman's closer role, he's the relief equivalent to Mike Bordick, the unheralded University of Maine product who replaced Cal Ripken Jr. as Baltimore's shortstop in 1997.
The backstory: Axford, a native of Canada, pitched for Notre Dame before an elbow blowout led to Tommy John surgery. He transferred to Canisius, then kicked around the Milwaukee farm system for two years before going 9-1 with a 2.77 ERA in three stops in 2009. The Brewers summoned him last September, and Axford joined Billy Goeckel of the 1899 Phillies as the second Canisius Golden Griffin to reach the majors.
Milwaukee manager Ken Macha turned to Axford after Hoffman got off to a horrific start, and Axford has converted 21 of 23 save opportunities and recorded nine saves of four or more outs this season. That ties him with San Francisco's Brian Wilson for most in the majors.
Axford, young lefty Zach Braddock and veteran Kameron Loe, who has pitched well in his return from Japan, all appear to have benefited from their time with Brewers pitching coach Rick Peterson. A National League scout said Peterson has really "cleaned up" Axford's delivery.
"I think he's for real," the scout said. "He throws hard, he's got a good breaking ball and he has a closer's mentality, too."
Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Barry Enright, Diamondbacks
If someone told you in spring training that Arizona would be playing competitive ball behind three effective starters in September, you might have said, "Sure." And their names would be Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson.
The storyline zigged when Webb's shoulder problems persisted through spring training, and zagged in July when interim GM Jerry DiPoto traded Haren to the Angels and sent Jackson to the White Sox in deadline deals. That created an opportunity for Arizona's young starters, and the kids have capitalized.
Hudson, a righty from Old Dominion, has the highest ceiling of the three. He throws a fastball in the low 90s and complements it with a plus changeup, but needs to develop more consistency with his slider.
As finesse righties with fastballs in the upper 80s, Kennedy and Enright have similar profiles. But Kennedy induces more swings and misses, and has 157 whiffs in 179 innings. Enright, a product of Pepperdine, is a fly ball pitcher who's averaging 4.59 strikeouts per nine innings this season. He has also allowed a whopping 15 home runs in 82 1/3 innings. That's not a long-term recipe for success at Chase Field.
Jarrod Parker, formerly the Diamondbacks' No. 1 prospect, is on his way back from Tommy John surgery, and former Angel Joe Saunders should be able to eat innings in the National League West. These guys aren't Webb and Haren, but the Diamondbacks might have the pieces for a competitive rotation in 2011.
Washington Nationals rookies
Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn put up their numbers, Tyler Clippard pitched every day (or so it seemed), and the Nationals took a major gut punch when Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow. But the organization also began looking toward the future in earnest. The Nats broke in a new shortstop and closer, and might have found a few other useful pieces along the way.
Shortstop Ian Desmond has gotten lost in the NL Rookie of the Year scrum, but he's hitting .314 since the All-Star Game. Desmond has committed a major league-high 33 errors, but he's played a more reliable short after making 21 errors in the first half.
"He's kind of a Troy Tulowitzki type of guy," said an NL scout. "He's got good skills, but he tries to do too much and he gets a little careless. He's got a cannon for an arm. Once he settles down defensively and learns the strike zone offensively, he's going to be a pretty good player. He's very athletic."
Drew Storen is settling in at closer, and scouts are intrigued by Roger Bernadina, a toolsy outfielder with speed, a strong arm and the ability to drive the ball in the gaps. If Bernadina continues to improve, an NL East scout thinks he has a chance to develop into an Angel Pagan or an Andres Torres. "They're pretty good athletes who learned how to play a little later in their careers," the scout said. "I could see Bernadina going down the same path."
The Nats are also taking a look at Wilson Ramos, the young catcher acquired from Minnesota in the Matt Capps deal, and second baseman Danny Espinosa, who followed Bobby Crosby, Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria in the Dirtbag shortstop assembly line at Long Beach State.
Lest we forget, the Nats also signed Bryce Harper to a $9.9 million deal with about 30 seconds to spare before the deadline passed to sign 2010 draft picks in August. If Harper is as good as his billing, he'll be worth the wait.
Neil Walker (.829 OPS) and Jose Tabata
(.304 batting average), Pirates
Pittsburgh's starting pitchers are 28-78 with a 5.45 ERA this season. It's enough to make a Pirates fan yearn for the days of Josh Fogg and Kip Wells.
The bats are more promising. Pedro Alvarez has shown flashes of power between all the strikeouts, and Walker and Tabata recently became Pittsburgh's first 100-hit rookie tandem since Jose Guillen and Tony Womack in 1997. When Andrew McCutchen glances around the clubhouse, he sees some honest-to-goodness help these days.
Tabata is probably the best pure hitter among Pittsburgh's young players, but he's generally regarded as a "tweener." He's getting too thick in the legs to play center field, but lacks the home run power to profile as a corner outfielder.
Walker, a Pittsburgh native, is a nice story of perseverance. It was a big deal when the Pirates drafted him 11th overall in the 2004 first round. But he failed to cut it as a catcher, so the Pirates shifted him to third base. Then his path at third was blocked when Pittsburgh drafted Alvarez. Walker spent more than six years in the minors, and he appeared to be running out of opportunities when he agreed to move to second base. Although the metrics don't necessarily reflect it, he's been better than the Pirates expected at the position.
Walker has only 24 walks in 389 plate appearances, and he'll need to improve his plate discipline to be a consistent threat in the lineup. But don't bet against him.
"He's found his niche," said a scout. "He doesn't do anything spectacular, but he's improved his range and first-step quickness, and he's improved his bat speed some. He's obviously a kid that works hard, and the work is paying off."