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June 27, 2003

Prospectus Today

Fumbling in the Darko

by Joe Sheehan

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While wondering exactly when I stopped caring about the NBA draft, I wrote these notes down:

  • Rany Jazayerli is going to hate me for this, but has anyone noticed that the Royals didn't fold up and die? After an 8-17 stretch that dropped them into second place and had them bouncing off of .500 for a week, they've moved back into the AL Central lead by winning nine of 11, including three of four from the Twins last weekend. And just as they did to start the season, the Royals made their move by beating up on the Indians, sweeping them in Cleveland this week and allowing just three runs in three games.

    The Royals appear to be a classic tweener team: good enough to beat bad teams, not good enough to hang with better ones. The Royals are 21-6 against teams .500 or worse, and just 20-28 against everyone else. The stratification of the American League--five good teams and everyone else--means that this characteristic manifests itself as streakiness.

    After taking on the Cardinals this weekend, the Royals won't play another .500 team until after the All-Star break, giving them time to put some distance between them and the Twins. As yesterday's Prospectus Triple Play noted, the Royals and Twins play nearly identical schedules the rest of the way, with neither having much of an advantage.

    I think the Royals' season is going to come down to a two-week stretch in August when they play home-and-home series with the Twins and Yankees. If they come out of that anywhere near first place, they will make the end of their season interesting. Unfortunately, I think it's more likely that a 3-10 or 4-9 stretch in that time will be the death knell for their playoff aspirations. Even if that happens, they'll be motivated to win the 81 games that would tie Mike Sweeney to them beyond 2004.

  • The Royals are just one of a handful of teams hanging around after it looked like they were done. The Diamondbacks are another; they've won eight in a row and are 16-6 this month despite having just one of their top four Opening Day starters in the rotation. The offense finally showed up in June: the Snakes are averaging 5.5 runs a game this month, a 25% bump from their April/May average, as guys like Lyle Overbay and Steve Finley bounce back from so-so starts. Alex Cintron has chipped in with the month of his life (.357/.395/.657) in the absence of the injured Shea Hillenbrand and Junior Spivey.

    An even bigger factor is the performance of the pitching staff. While only Miguel Batista and Brandon Webb have done much in the rotation, Bob Brenly has squeezed out a great month from a bunch of no-names in his bullpen; Steven Randolph, Eddie Oropesa, and Jose Valverde have combined for 31 1/3 innings of 2.01 ERA ball, with 36 strikeouts. Overall, Brenly has the fourth-best bullpen in the game.

    It's a patchwork staff, but it won't be for long. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling should be back after the All-Star break to provide 30 good starts the rest of the way, providing the D'backs the equivalent of two big trade-deadline acquisitions. If the two are even close to their established level, the Diamondbacks are going to be a serious threat in both the wild-card and NL West races.

    We could do this kind of analysis with most of the National League. In fact, 11 of 16 NL teams are at or above .500. The league's good work in interleague play (115-92) is a big part of that. The Braves have the NL's best record at 49-27, but the next 10 teams are separated by just 7 1/2 games, which is a recipe for a very interesting summer. Teams like the Reds, Rockies, Marlins and Expos are going to spend the next six weeks trying to figure out whether they're for real and which side of the July trade frenzy they should end up on.

  • Dontrelle Willis went to 8-1 last night by beating the Mets. He's been a tremendous story, but I can't help but be a little pessimistic about his future. While his fastball is explosive, he has an extremely funky delivery, one that makes me think he's going to have trouble staying healthy and effective in the long run.

    More important to me, though, is that his impressive run has come against a pretty lousy distribution of teams. Just one of Willis' 10 starts has come against an offense in the top half of the game in EqA, and that was against the Rockies at Pro Player Stadium. The Rockies hit .242/.323/.379 on the road, so it's fair to say that Willis has yet to face a good hitting team. I want to see him pitch well against at least one good lineup before jumping on the bandwagon.

  • Does it say more about the state of music or my taste that one of my favorite songs is that "Wingman" one from the beer commercial?

    "But she's towing an anchor/A junior investment banker..."

  • Chuck Knoblauch, Craig Biggio and John Olerud have made runs at the all-time doubles record in the last decade, but no one is expected to make a run at the triples record. Chief Wilson holds that one with 36 in 1912.

    Nomar Garciaparra won't reach that number, but he is in line to post one of the higher totals in recent memory. Just four players have cracked 20 triples since 1960, and the high in that time is 21 by Lance Johnson in 1996 and Willie Wilson in 1985. With a dozen triples so far, Garciaparra could become the first player with 25 three-baggers since Kiki Cuyler had 26 for the Cubs in 1925.

  • Carlos Beltran gets most of his press for being a popular trade target, but he's also one of the best players in baseball. After starting the season late due to an oblique injury, he's hitting .297/.402/.488, with 11 home runs and 36 walks. He's again a phenomenal base-stealer: 18-for-19, after seasons of 35-for-42 and 31-for-32. With career numbers of 127-for-144, it may be time to talk about Beltran in the same category as guys like Eric Davis, Tim Raines and Barry Larkin as one of the best percentage base-stealers in the game's history.

    There aren't many players on the market worth breaking the bank to acquire. Beltran may be the only one, but he's the real deal, an unknown star who can not only push a team to October this year, but be signed for the next five and be worth the eight-figure salaries he'll command.

  • Free Lew Ford! A team looking to make a huge difference in their lineup would be better off ignoring the veterans out there and trying to acquire Ford, who can hit leadoff for 20 teams right now. Terry Ryan can't play all his outfielders, anyway, and he badly needs help in the rotation--don't get me (or Gary Huckabay, or Chris Kahrl for that matter) started on Johan Santana--and middle infield.

    (Hmmm...there's a column: trades that should be made...)

  • I think it's just another sign of Barry Bonds' greatness that people want to make a huge deal out of Albert Pujols' big three months and give him the MVP, when he's just matching what Bonds is doing in what is pretty much an off-year for Bonds.

    No knock on Pujols, who is an immensely talented hitter, but it's just another indication of how far off the charts Bonds is. He slumps, he's still the best player in the league for the second-best team in the league, and no one really notices.

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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