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August 24, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Dirty Dozen

by Joe Sheehan

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A mid-August piece analyzing the wild-card race really shouldn't include 75% of a league. However, praise be to Pete Rozelle, that's what we have in the NL this year. There are ten teams who have to be considered part of that race, in part because it seems like any five-game winning streak vaults a team to the top half of the pile, in part because the so-called leaders have shown all the leadership qualities of an incumbent congressman in an election year.

The Phillies, Diamondbacks and Brewers--who hold down three of the top seven slots--have all traded veterans for youth in "for next year" trades, only to find themselves within shouting distance of a playoff spot. In the case of the D'backs, to be fair, they're probably a better team for having dealt away Shawn Green, who is a defensive albatross and was in the way of two very good outfielders in Chris Young and Carlos Quentin. The player they acquired, B- prospect Evan MacLane, could actually be a valuable lefty out of the bullpen for them down the stretch.

It's actually even more complicated than this. Because the Cardinals and Dodgers have played so poorly of late, they're actually closer to the pack than to a division title. When you put everyone on one chart, you see that after the Mets, the next 12 teams in the National League are separated by just 7½ games, from the Cardinals at 66-59 to the Rockies at 59-67. With everyone so close together and no obvious break as you work through the group, it's virtually impossible to cull the list. After all, how can you include the team that's five games in arrears but not that one at six? Repeat the process, and you end up with a "race breakdown" that's virtually indistinguishable from your second-half preview and more than a day past schedule.

By the way, how bad are the Cubs, from upper management down, that they couldn't make themselves part of this? That's a terrible organization right now, and will be for some time to come.

The Dirty Dozen are fighting for three playoff spots-all but the NL East crown. Which of the 12 have realistic chances at October, and which are only in this article because of parity run amok? All 12 are listed here, with their record, run differential and PECOTA-adjusted odds of reaching the postseason as of this morning.

St. Louis Cardinals (66-59, +9, 70.7% (59.5% division; 11.2% WC)): Injuries and age have turned the best team in the NL the last two seasons into…um, the second-best team in the NL. Hey, that's what outscoring your opponents by two runs a month gets you in 2006. Mark Mulder's rushed return went about as expected, and the team has trolled the waiver wire in the last six weeks for players not wanted by the Angels, Astros and Giants. That's what having an old roster and a so-so farm system pushes you to do.

And yet…who's better than they are? They have the best player in baseball and a legitimate #1 starter, plus a likely Hall of Famer having one of his better years. The other 22 guys don't have to be that good to push those three into the postseason. Their biggest real problem at the moment is the bullpen, which doesn't have a single right-hander who's both healthy and pitching well. The interesting thing about Jason Isringhausen's latest blown save wasn't that he did it; it was how completely unsurprising it was when he did.

They'll win the Central. Someone has to. Unless they locate and deploy two good righties in the pen, though, it'll be by the skin of their teeth.

Los Angeles Dodgers (66-61, +47, 70.0% (57.5% NL West; 12.5% WC)): They've looked like a legitimate second contender in the National League, and they've looked like a longshot to even reach the postseason, often in the same week. The guys picked up at the deadline haven't done much (Wilson Betemit and Julio Lugo both have OPSs well below 750), veteran stars J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent aren't hitting, and Russell Martin looks very tired (.242/.324/.333 in August). None of these things are as scary as Brad Penny's slide (six homers, 5.70 ERA this month).

The punchless sweep in San Diego notwithstanding, this is still probably the second-best team in the NL right now. They were never as good as they looked while winning 16 of 17, but they don't have to be that good. 20-15 down the stretch will be more than enough. Your NL West champions.

Cincinnati Reds (66-61, -8, 49.6% (33.6% NLC; 16.0% WC)): Honestly, can you be a contending team if Kyle Lohse and Chris Michalak started your last two games? I'm wondering who's next if Aaron Harang misses a start or something; is this where we find out what happened to Nate Cornejo? Is one of the Jeff Robinsons due for a comeback? For that matter, aren't we due for another new left-handed reliever?

The offense went through an ugly stretch after the Austin Kearns/Felipe Lopez deal, but hot streaks by randoms like Rich Aurilia and Scott Hatteberg have made it dangerous once again. Even at that, they're living off their 23-14 record in one-run games and a host of ninth-inning wins. If Bronson Arroyo's slide continues, they'll finish well out of this race. Even if it doesn't, they're an underdog to the field with this rotation, Odds Report be damned.

San Diego Padres (65-62, +11, 47.8% (31.8% NLW, 16.0% WC)): The park provides some cover for the fact that the Padres' rotation is pretty lousy. Chris Young has aped last year's feat of disappearing in the second half, canceling out the return of Woody Williams. You have to beat them in the first six innings, and the rotation makes that possible; if you don't, it's very hard to win a close game from behind against what has been a shutdown bullpen.

The Padres have the Astros' problem of too many low-OBP guys in the lineup. Khalil Greene is basically the ACC's version of Bobby Crosby, and Josh Barfield is almost the exact same player. The high OBP in the infield is Adrian Gonzalez's .345, which is why Todd Walker looks like a savior. Well, that and the beard.

Other than Josh Bard and perhaps Gonzalez, the Padres haven't had anyone perform well above expectations. They are what they are, a .530 team hoping that'll be good enough. For the second season in a row, it just might be. Of the various contenders, the Padres have the smallest range of possible outcomes; they're going to finish between 80 and 85 wins, and the high end of that will probably be enough. All the other teams carry a much greater chance of collapse.

This is where the first break should probably come in, although you'll find that I'm stubborn about one of the teams to follow. At least two, and possibly all three, playoff teams are likely to come from the above pool of four. They've shown themselves to be .500 or better teams and they have the personnel that will allow them to play well down the stretch. Moreover, they don't have to climb over half the league to get to a playoff spot.

From here on out, it's teams that have to play much better than they have to reach the postseason.

Philadelphia Phillies (64-62, +23, 27.1%): The NL East teams all have some longshot statistical chance of winning the division, which we'll ignore for our purposes. In the real world, their doing so would have to involve some degenerate scenario in which the Mets disband or get poisoned or collectively try and take Frescas through airport security.

The Phillies looked a lot more dangerous before losing Aaron Rowand, who's not a star but who provided right-handed balance and good defense in center field. Like the Cardinals, the Phils aren't exactly swimming in major-league ready position players, and remember that they traded away two starters a few weeks ago. Now they have to have Abraham Nunez and a Chris Roberson or Shane Victorino in the lineup most days. Adding Jamie Moyer allows them to hold their ground in the absence of Tom Gordon.

The Phillies have taken advantage of a soft spot in the schedule to move over .500. If they're still there when they leave Shea Stadium Sunday afternoon, it will be both something of a surprise and a reason to consider them in the conversation with the teams above.

Arizona Diamondbacks (62-65, -15, 6.7% (4.0% NLW, 2.7% WC)): I've ridden them this far, and the Green trade isn't a reason to get off the bandwagon. Their brutal week-four one-run losses, three of them tied games in the seventh inning or later-took a massive chunk out of their statistical profile. Pitching, especially relief pitching, is still the problem; Evan MacLane could actually make an impact in this bullpen over the last five weeks, and two days ago no one knew who he was.

My persistence on the point of the Diamondbacks' chances could be seen as stubbornness. However, I can't find the third team currently ahead of them-conceding the Cardinals and Dodgers, both of whom should win division titles--whose profile causes me to change my mind. The Diamondbacks have finally turned over their roster to the products of their development system, and are better right now than they were on May 15. That may not be enough--the pitching staff isn't actually playoff-caliber--but give Josh Byrnes credit for getting the right guys on the field for the stretch drive.

The Diamondbacks' situation should be more clear a week from now, after six games at home with the Dodgers and Padres. A split keeps them alive, barely, anything less pushes them towards the brink. They really need to go 4-2 at minimum. On the other hand, they spend the last two weeks in the division, with a nine-game tour of California followed by a four-game series at home against the Padres. Those games mean that the Diamondbacks will probably control their destiny deep into September. They're still my pick to win the wild card.

San Francisco Giants (62-65, -2, 9.7% (4.8% NLW, 4.8% WC)): The Giants are playing the best baseball of this group right now, thanks to a terrific performance by the front of the rotation in August. It's almost enough to make you forget that some of these guys used to babysit for Julio Franco.

On the other hand, no other team in this mix has a player who might hit .550/.600 for a month. Well, unless he gets hot. The Barry Bonds factor, the possibility of having a guy who buries the league for a month, forces you to take the Giants seriously as long as they're close. No, it's not likely that Bonds has another September 1993 in him, but an approximation of same would mean a lot in the race to 84 wins.

Something to watch: the Giants' bullpen has been going in the opposite direction of the rotation. With a rotation that doesn't provide innings even at its best, they'll need to arrest that decline. This week notwithstanding, I'd take the Diamondbacks over them, although it's close.

Past the Giants, you're left with five teams that aren't playoff contenders in any sense other than "close enough that you include them to stave off e-mails." I might consider the five, as an entry, to have as much chance of winning the wild card as the Giants or Phillies. We're talking about teams that haven't played .500 ball to this point, have to leapfrog half the league, and don't have the rosters to support the idea that they could play .625 ball for six weeks.

Milwaukee Brewers (61-65, -73, 7.1% (4.5% NLC, 2.5% WC)): The Brewers traded away their best player and have been outscored by a half a run a game. To make the postseason, they'd have to go at least 23-13 the rest of the way. Ben Sheets is good, but he's not that good.

Florida Marlins (60-66, -18, 2.3%): I love the story, but it's more likely that the Marlins don't win 70 games than that they do win 80. The young position-player core has been ridden very hard, and most of these guys have never played past the first week of September. Add in the so-so peripheral stats of many pitchers, and it's easy to envision a late-season collapse. That shouldn't take away from what these guys have done in a difficult transitional year, nor be a mark against Joe Girardi.

If the abominable ownership of this franchise doesn't spend some money in the offseason on a center fielder, some OBP and maybe an innings sponge, the team should be taken away from them. I have a credit rating somewhere south of David Wells' weight, but even I could pay the freight on this team's operations under the current MLB revenue-sharing rules. Spend some money, you cheap, lying extortionists.

Houston Astros (60-67, -20, 3.6% (2.4% NLC, 1.3% WC)): The poster children for the idea that you can't write anybody off are being written off. The idea, widely disseminated, that the Astros are among the most dangerous of the wild-card contenders is a mistaken application of the idea that pitching is somewhere north of 70% of the game. The 2005 Astros were a fluke, a horrible offense buoyed by a ridiculous five-man pitching staff that ranks among the best quintets since the advent of leveraged relief pitching.

(Commence 12-game winning streak in 3…2…1…)

Atlanta Braves (59-67, +13, 2.3%): Being one of seven NL teams with a positive run differential should get them a bit more respect. They've been a better team with Chipper Jones in the lineup than without, and the bullpen is improved from the depths of June, enough that they're not losing late leads every other night.

And just when you think they might be the frisky team ($1, Bill Simmons), they lose two of three at home to the Pirates.

Colorado Rockies (59-67, +7, 3.0% (1.8% NLW, 1.2% WC): It's hard to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses given the changes to the baseballs and the effect on the way the game is played-not just the run environment, but everything-at Coors Field. For all the talk about how the humidor gives them a better chance of success, this is just another in a long line of sub-.500 teams in Denver.

By the way, the Rockies are 32-42 since this story ran. Does God hate hubris as much as he hates baseballs with a creamy nougat center? Or is it just that talent, rather than character, is what makes teams good?

If you're angry right now, maybe about to send me an e-mail, just remember who put this out there. From Bob Nightengale's excellent piece:

While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team's improvement.

"You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

I didn't start the fire.

To bring this back to baseball, one final point. The humidor came into use in 2002, by all accounts. In the five seasons it's been employed, the Rockies are 341-433 (.441), with a top record of 74-88 and a high finish in the NL West of fourth.

In the horrible, terrible era prior to the humidor, the Rockies--starting as an expansion team, mind you-were 667-728 (.478), with four seasons above .500 and their only postseason appearance.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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