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August 23, 2012

On the Beat

The Difference-Makers

by John Perrotto

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Bud Selig's goal when adding a second wild card to each league this season was to get more teams involved in the pennant race. After all, more teams in contention means more interest in more markets, and that means more tickets sold and more revenue generated.

The Commissioner should be happy that more than half of Major League Baseball's 30 teams have at least a 10-percent chance of reaching the postseason according to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report (going into Wednesday's play). A total of 16 teams had double-digit hopes, and four of them are near locks to play beyond the regular season—the Nationals (100 percent), Yankees (99.7 percent), Rangers (99.6) and Reds (98.9 percent).

Last year's Red Sox and Braves will tell you that the odds can change dramatically, and Yogi Berra will say that it's never over until it's over. However, it's over for those four teams. They can start printing playoff tickets now.

That leaves a dozen teams with at least a somewhat realistic chance of gaining the other six playoff berths. We talked to scouts and front-office types about each of those teams and who they thought was the key player for each heading down the stretch. Here is what they had to say:

Braves (84.5 percent)-2B Dan Uggla: "He's never been a high average guy and he's always struck out a lot, but he's having an awful season. He looks tentative at the point. He is getting caught in between on pitches, and he can't hit off-speed stuff. I think the Braves can get to the postseason without him hitting, but they are going to need him in October."

White Sox (83.5 percent)-RHP Addison Reed: "He's done a good job, but he's still a rookie, and you never how young guys will react when they are in a pennant race for the first time. There was a reason Kenny Williams traded for Brett Myers, and it wasn't just to pitch as a set-up man. He's the safety net in that bullpen."

Rays (79.3 percent)-LF Desmond Jennings: "He's coming on strong here in the later portion of the season and making things happen at the top of the order. The Rays still don't have a good offense, but if he keeps hitting, then he'll give them a chance to score enough runs to get to the postseason and make them a threat to win it all."

Giants (72.7 percent)-3B Pablo Sandoval: "They need him to stay healthy the rest of the season because he has been put up good numbers when he's been in the lineup. It's too bad he let himself get out of shape this year, or else the Giants would likely have an even bigger lead over the Dodgers in the NL West."

Tigers (70.4 percent)-RHP Rick Porcello: "He has been in the big leagues for four seasons, and I still don't know what he is. Sometimes, he looks like a future No. 1. Other times, he looks like a solid No. 3. Then there are times when he looks like a No. 5. The Tigers are going to be in a dogfight to the end with the White Sox in the AL Central and need to win every game they can. Porcello getting hot and running off some wins would help a lot."

Cardinals (62.4 percent)-LHP Jaime Garcia: "He looked strong in his first start back from the DL last Sunday against Pittsburgh, and that was a good sign for the Cardinals. I thought they were too short in the rotation to have a serious shot at defending their title, but if he pitches like he did Sunday, then they might be able to win it all again."

Dodgers (35.8 percent)-SS Hanley Ramirez: "He'll eventually wear out his welcome in LA, but not this year. He looks like a different player since getting traded. He's motivated and playing with energy. He's a helluva player when he wants to be, and he can be a real difference-maker for them all the way through October."

Pirates (34.8 percent)-3B Pedro Alvarez: "Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones are having great years, but this guy has more power than anyone in their lineup, and they need him to be productive to have a shot to get to the playoffs. He's just so hard to figure, though, because he runs so hot and cold."

Athletics (27.9 percent)-1B Chris Carter: "They need him to keep hitting for power in the middle of that lineup. They're not going to score many runs, and they need him to produce."

Angels (24.0 percent)-RHP Dan Haren: "He has to start pitching like a No. 2 again behind Jered Weaver if they're going to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. I suspect his back is still bothering him, though. He really hasn't looked like himself all season."

Diamondbacks (10.7 percent)-LHP Joe Saunders: "They are relying heavily on young guys in that rotation, and they need him to step up and steady things. He's pitched in big games and knows what it takes."

Orioles (10.3 percent)-RHP Miguel Gonzalez: "He has come out of nowhere, but I like what I see of him. I'm not so sure he's a long-term solution, but to get to the playoffs, you usually need that someone who unexpectedly makes an impact. He and Nate McLouth look likes those guys on this club."

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A few minutes with Dodgers manager Don Mattingly

On carrying the momentum of a good second half of last season into this season: "I felt our guys worked hard all year long last year and got rewarded at the end. At one point, we were 14 games under .500. To go from there to finishing three games over .500 at the end the season let us go home on a positive note and feel good about coming back this season and building on it. Of course, it would have gotten washed away if we didn't play well at the start of the season, but we really built on what we did last season and played good baseball."

On the change in ownership from Frank McCourt to a group fronted by basketball legend Magic Johnson: "It's been good from a couple of different angles. It was good from a fan standpoint because it really created a lot of energy for the fan base. They were able to put all the stuff that's happened in the last couple of years with our franchise behind and concentrate on enjoying baseball again. From a team standpoint, the new owners came in and said they wanted to restore the luster to the Dodgers franchise by building up the farm system and the scouting, everything this organization has been built upon throughout its history. They've done that, and they've also taken steps in making the major-league club more competitive. We were able to add three really good players right around the (non-waiver) trade deadline in Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton. I don't know what will happen with Shane and Joe because they are free agents at the end of the season but we have Hanley for two more years beyond this one, and I couldn't be more excited about that. We were able to get Matt Kemp under contract long-term, then Andre Ethier signed long-term, and now you put Hanley with Matt and Andre and you have a really good nucleus to build a lineup around for at least two more years."

On the potential long-term impact on the National League West race with Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera out for the rest of the season: "We'll just keep doing what we've been doing. I don't worry about other clubs. I just worry about our club. We've got to win every day. We can't look at the schedule or somebody to help us. That's silly stuff. We've just got to be ready to play every day and win that day. I look at it like we need to win every game we can between now and the end of the season regardless of what other clubs are doing."

On the need for even more comprehensive drug testing: "I'm a little bummed out when I see somebody like Melky get suspended. I know him well from our time together with the Yankees, and he's a good kid. I honestly like him a lot. It just shows we need better testing—better, better, better, better, better testing. You hope the testing gets go good that guys can't get away with anything. We've done a lot of work in this game with drug testing, but not enough. Guys still think they can do it, and I'm sure guys are getting away with it.

For me, it's about protecting the players from themselves, the fans, and the organizations. You've got to protect guys from each other because if one guy gets away with it, then other guys will be tempted to get away it. The fans want to see greatness every night from guys, and they want to know that the greatness is real because it came from hard work and no other reason. The organizations need to be protected because you don't want to pay someone for something that he really can't do under normal circumstances and it's not valid."

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Scouts' takes

Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin: "He looks healthy again. He's commanding his fastball, and he's consistently throwing strikes. If he stays healthy, I think he has a chance to be an above-average major-league pitcher."

Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish: "I don't care how talented a pitcher is; it's a difficult transition going from the Japanese leagues to the big leagues, and Darvish is finding that out. You're facing bigger and stronger hitters and pitching every fifth day instead of once a week. I'm not saying he won't have a good career here, but I'm also not surprised he isn't going to win 20 games this year like so many people thought."

Brewers right-hander Mike Fiers: "He kind of grows on you. He doesn't have great stuff, but he knows how to get people out. He'll never be a No. 1, but he can be a serviceable big-league starter and have a decent career, maybe even do better than that.

Astros infielder Tyler Greene: "He looks like a different player than he did in St. Louis. He used to always look timid, like he was afraid to make a mistake. Now, he's just going out and playing free and easy."

Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez: "He's the best in the business. You can talk about Justin Verlander—and he's a helluva pitcher—but for me, King Felix is the best. If pitched on a good team, he'd have more wins than anybody, and there wouldn't be any debate about who is the best."

Indians right-hander Roberto Hernandez: "I wasn't a fan of before he got busted for using a false name (Fausto Carmona) and being three years older than he claimed, and I'm not holding out hope that he's going to anything more than he is now—a guy who will tease with some good games but generally be a below-average starting pitcher on a bad team.

Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar: "I know he can drive you nuts with his inconsistency, but things are starting to click for him. I think he's ready to put it all together next year."

Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee: "He's had a really weird year. There have been times when it looks like he is starting to go into the decline phase, but then he'll turn around and pitch a really good game. I don't which direction he is headed at this point. He's hard for me to evaluate."

Yankees righthander Ivan Nova: "It's getting to the point where I think the Yankees have to seriously wonder if they can trust starting him in the postseason. He's hanging a lot of breaking balls and paying for it."

Blue Jays left-hander Ricky Romero: "It's hard to believe how much he's regressed this season. He goes through spells over the course of a game where he loses the strike zone. It's not quite to the Steve Blass disease level, but it's borderline alarming."

Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton: "It's really pointless from a scouting standpoint to watch batting practice because it's primarily guys swinging at 55-mph fastballs, but I never miss the chance to see this kid taking batting practice. When I have the Marlins, it's one of the highlights of the day."

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Front-office types' takes

Cubs: "I hope nobody judges Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Dale Sveum on the results of this year, because that wouldn't be fair. They've started the process of rebuilding that franchise from top to bottom, and it's going to take time. They've made a lot of progress in areas that don't show up on the win-loss record."

Mets: "It's easy to second-guess Terry Collins for letting Johan Santana throw 134 pitches in his no-hitter, and the truth of the matter is that he hasn't the same pitcher since. Still, it's hard to castigate Terry for doing it. That franchise has never had a no-hitter, and he would have been absolutely lambasted by the media and the fans there if he had taken out Santana. It was a no-win situation on his part. and it shouldn't be held against him. Managing in New York is a totally different animal."

Nationals: "If I were the Nationals, I'd scale Stephen Strasburg back now, so I could have him for the postseason. The way I see it, they could win the NL East even if he didn't throw a pitch for the remainder of the regular season. I'm not so sure they can win the World Series without him, though. Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, and Steve McCatty—and I'm sure Scott Boras will have a say in this, too—are all smart guys. I think you'll see them come up with a plan that will allow them to have their cake and eat it too."

Padres: "I like what they're doing. I think they've got some good young players, a couple of good veterans in Carlos Quentin and Huston Street, and an emerging star in Chase Headley. I'm glad to hear the new ownership isn't going to come in make big changes. Bud Black is the right manager for that franchise, and Josh Byrnes is the right general manager."

Red Sox: "I feel really bad for Bob McClure. He's a good pitching coach and a good guy, and he was set up to fail in Boston because Bobby Valentine wanted Randy Niemann to have the job all along. McClure had some family issues that took him away from the team this year, and let's just say that Bobby V. wasn't exactly sympathetic to his plight."

Reds: "You look at that team, and it's pretty good, but it also doesn't blow you away. Yet they are running away with the NL Central, and some of the credit has to go to Dusty Baker. It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out after the season. Dusty doesn't have a contract beyond next season, and he could be in demand as a free agent if the Reds don't re-sign him. He'd be a good fit with the Angels if Mike Scioscia gets fired and a good fit with the Red Sox if Bobby Valentine gets fired."

Twins: "They are just awful, really hard to watch. If it were just about any other organization, Ron Gardenhire's job would be in jeopardy."

---

This week's Must Read is Wright Thompson's in-depth piece for ESPN.com about two brothers from the Netherlands who grew up loving baseball, and how their divergent fortunes in the sport and mental illness resulted in the death of Mariners outfielder Greg Halman.

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

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