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July 5, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Passing a Marker

by Joe Sheehan

Rob Neyer and David Schoenfield of ESPN.com both do a better job of picking through the All-Star selections than I could, so I'll direct you to their work for commentary on Cliff Floyd, et al.

My only note is to say that the omission of Greg Maddux is one of the all-time bad jokes of the process, and a really good argument for ignoring "All-Star appearances" when we get around to evaluating the careers of late-20th- and early-21st-century players. Yes, I know Maddux isn't all that bothered, and even encouraged Bobby Valentine to take John Burkett. So what? Maddux deserved to be on the team as well, and if Valentine hadn't been so busy taking lots of undeserving relievers, maybe he would have seen that.

OK, on to other matters. One of the hoary sayings in baseball is that if you're on first place on July 4, you'll be there at the end of the year. Of course, this dates from the days of eight-team leagues and train travel and only first-place teams making the postseason. Nevertheless, Independence Day is a marker along the season's path, so let's look at the standings with one question: which division leaders will be there when the season is done?

AL East: There are essentially co-leaders here, as the Yankees hold a half-game lead on the Red Sox. Of course, the Sox have played the entire first half without their best player, Nomar Garciaparra, and have had other key members of the roster miss significant time.

Predicting whether this July 4 leader is going to make it to the finish line in first place is complicated by the gaping unknowns the Red Sox face. If they get Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez healthy, and the two players play at their established level, they will win the division. If they don't, the Yankees will.

Yes, that's a weasel analysis, but the health of the two players is the determining factor in the race, and we just don't know what Martinez and Garciaparra will contribute down the stretch. The two players combined are worth around seven wins over the course of a half-season, and no trade-deadline pickups are going to have that kind of impact.

Gun at my head, I think the Sox will get enough from their two wounded soldiers to win the division, leaving the Yankees to battle the AL Central runner-up for the wild card.

AL Central: The Twins hold a three-game lead over the Indians, which, it's fair to say, is not a sentence I expected to be typing in the year 2001.

The Twins aren't just a neat story anymore; they're a contender, and they need to be evaluated as such. They have an average offense with far too many OBP sinks, a situation that will be helped in part by the return of David Ortiz this month. They have a good rotation and a deep bullpen, although the strikeout rates of their top three starters are cause for concern.

The advantage the Twins have is that their biggest need is for a bat to stick in left field, and that kind of player is easier to acquire than a top starting pitcher or an up-the-middle solution. If they can get Ortiz back and dip into their revenue-sharing money for a Greg Vaughn, they would improve their offense tremendously.

The Indians have the opposite problem. Their offense is the second-best in the league, but their rotation hasn't given them anything, especially over the last month. With a deep and talented bullpen, all the Tribe really needs is a rotation that avoids losing a game in the first five innings. The Indians only need Chuck Finley and Dave Burba to even approach their 2000 performances to put the Twins away.

This doesn't look good for the July 4 believers. The Indians have the talent on hand to beat the Twins, and I just can't see Minnesota playing .600 ball for another half. I'd love to be wrong, but I think the Tribe gets their last hurrah.

AL West: Um...yeah.

NL East: As I mentioned Monday, the Phillies have done a great job of bouncing back from a down stretch, winning six of seven and forcing their way back to first place. I still think they're a year early, and while the 2002-2005 period should yield a few division titles, this team is going to come up a little short.

Like the Red Sox, the Braves have been playing short-handed for most of the first half, down two starting pitchers in John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood. They've also suffered self-inflicted wounds at first base and both outfield corners, and shuffled through more bad relievers than my old Strat teams. The Steve Karsay/Steve Reed trade was the first move to address the problems, and I think we'll see more.

Despite everything going wrong for them for three months, the Braves look like the most likely candidate to win the NL East. July 4 loses another one.

NL Central: Like the Twins, the Cubs have ceased to be a story and started being a real threat. Unlike the Twins, they don't have to hold off a particularly strong team, just three flawed ones, and that's going to make all the difference. The Cubs, with their Strikeouts 'n' Sammy team, will hold on and win the NL Central.

NL West: This division is really weird, in that other than the Diamondbacks at the top, the teams aren't lining up anywhere close to their runs scored/runs allowed. The D'backs have been the best team here by any measure, thanks to a great bench and good work from the replacement starters they've plugged in behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Since they seem committed to Craig Counsell in the leadoff spot, and none of the other four teams in the West is all that impressive, they should be able to hold on and win the division.

So the "July 4" standard looks good in three divisions, less likely to hold in two, and is an unknown in the AL East.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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