The National League has had two surprise teams this season in the Reds and Padres. The Reds clinched the NL Central title on Tuesday night and will make their first post-season appearance since 1995 while the Padres are two games game behind both the Giants in the NL West and Braves in the wild-card standings.
Though the 2010 season isn't over, one team would like to stake an early claim for being the NL surprise team of 2011.
"I think we can contend next year," Astros right fielder Hunter Pence said. "I think we can be right there at this time next year."
The Astros will finish under .500 for the second straight season as they are 74-83. This marks the first time they have suffered back-to-back losing seasons since 1990 and 1991.
However, Pence sees what the Astros have achieved in the final two-thirds of the season and can't help but be encouraged. Since falling to 17-34 on the final day of May, the Astros have gone 57-49. Furthermore, they are 21-14 in their last 35 games.
The strong finish is reminiscent of the way both the Reds and Padres ended 2009. The Reds won 27 of their final 40 games to finish 78-84, and the Padres went 37-25 in their last 62 games to wind up with a 75-87 record.
Ironically, the Astros' late-season charge came after franchise icons Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were dealt in late July. Oswalt and Berkman were two of just three holdovers, along with left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, from the 2005 team that made the only World Series appearance in team history. While none of the current Astros will publicly knock Oswalt or Berkman, those around the club say that it was as if a cloud lifted when they were traded.
"They were great players who meant a lot to the franchise, but we kind of have our own identity now," Pence said. "And there is no doubt we have built some momentum here in the last couple of months. I really believe that momentum is going to carry over to next season. We believe we can win now. We know what we're capable of doing."
The NL Central is certainly not the strongest of divisions, but for the Astros to get into contention next season they will need to rely on a pitching staff that is just 11th in the league in runs allowed with an average of 4.53 per game. That staff also gets little help from its fielders, as the Astros' Defensive Efficiency is 13th in the NL with a .680 mark.
However, the Astros will have a resurgent Brett Myers (6.0 SNLVAR) and Rodriguez (3.8) at the top of the rotation and lefty J.A. Happ has a 2.5 mark in 12 starts since being acquired from the Phillies in the Oswalt trade. Brandon Lyon has also had a fine season in relief, posting a 5.3 WXRL and taking over as the closer for a disappointing Matt Lindstrom (-0.7).
"We'll be putting a starting pitcher on the mound every night that is going to give us a chance to win," Pence said. "That makes a big difference."
The Astros, though, will definitely need to upgrade the offense this winter, as their 3.84 runs a game average is 15th in the 16-team NL. Rookie third baseman Chris Johnson, with a .307 True Average in 340 plate appearances, is the only Astros' hitter having a significantly good season and many scouts believe his ceiling is limited. Left fielder Carlos Lee has started making the transition to first base, opening a corner outfield spot so the Astros can pursue a trade or free-agent.
"We're not going to overpower anybody," second baseman Jeff Keppinger said. "What we've done a better job at as the season has gone on is making the most of what we have. When we get runners on base, we find a way to get them over and get them in. That's the type of game we have to play."
If their Pythaganport record is any indication, the Astros have overachieved in Brad Mills' first season as manager. They have won 7.8 more games than their run differential suggests, the most of any team in the major leagues. However, Mills isn't ready to write off his team's late surge as a fluke.
"The one thing our guys have done since the first day of spring training is give everything they have," Mills said. "We got off to a bad start and it would have been easy for guys to get down but they didn't and they same thing happened after we traded Roy and Lance. It's a good group of people who play hard. It's been an enjoyable season and I'm already looking forward to next season."
The Red Sox pitching coach believes WHIP is the truest way to measure a pitcher's performance. Thus, Farrell falls in line with most of the sabermetric crowd that believes the Mariners' Felix Hernandez should win the AL Cy Young based on him ranking second in the league in WHIP with a 1.06 behind the Rangers' Cliff Lee (1.02) and leading the AL in SNLVAR (8.3) and ERA (2.31) rather than his 13-12 record that is largely the result of playing for the team that has scored the least runs in the major leagues.
"I think, if you were given one (statistic) to surmise what a guy's performance has been, WHIP probably sums it up the best," Farrell told the Boston Herald. "But it's hard to say one is more important than others. There's a lot to be said for innings pitched, and yet our starters are never going to be in the league lead because we don't skip our fifth starter. So, a lot of that is out of their control."
Farrell does believe that Cy Young voters should consider strength of schedule. He believes pitchers like Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, Rays left-hander David Price, and the Red Sox duo of left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buchholz should get extra credit for pitching in the American League East. The three highest-scoring teams in the league—the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox—play in the division along with the Blue Jays, who lead the major leagues in home runs.
"This is all a sliding scale," Farrell said. "If you're making a case for Jon and Clay, they have to face Tampa Bay, New York, Toronto 10-14 times a year. You can't take away the competition."
At Baseball Prospectus, we measure pitcher's quality of opposition. Sure enough, using OPS as the measure, nine of the top 12 in that category in the AL comes from the East. Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz leads the league as the average batter he has faced this season has a .746 mark. Hernandez ranks 30th in that metric with a .728 average.
The Ricketts family's first season as owners of the Cubs has not exactly been a smashing success. The Cubs are 72-85 and fifth in the NL Central.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed in the record," said Tom Ricketts, whose family bought the club from the Tribune Co. last October. "The players are disappointed. The fans are disappointed. Obviously, the family is disappointed. There's that, first and foremost. But behind that, I think there are some really encouraging things going on. Obviously, we're playing up to our potential now, or at least closer to our potential, and that's been very encouraging."
Ricketts is particularly pleased with the number of rookies who have made an impact, notably shortstop Starlin Castro, outfielder Tyler Colvin, and set-up reliever Andrew Cashner. Ricketts also believes the Cubs' farm system will continue to produce talent.
Though owning a major league club is new to the family, Ricketts said nothing happened this season that caught him or his kin off guard.
"Obviously, there were a lot of things that happened this year that no one could have predicted in terms of things that happened on the field or with some players or with the manager (Lou Piniella resigning)," Ricketts said. "But away from that, no, it wasn't all that surprising."
As far as finding a permanent replacement for Piniella, Ricketts said that process is still in the hands of general manager Jim Hendry at this point.
"It's obviously an extremely important decision to make," Ricketts said. "We've got the process in place, keep talking to folks, we'll narrow it down and I'll talk to them then. Just looking forward to (getting) the process behind us."
When the Phillies returned to the clubhouse after clinching their fourth straight NL East title on Monday night with a win over the Nationals at Washington, first baseman Ryan Howard immediately took the floor during the post-game celebration. He called for right-hander Roy Halladay, backup catcher Brian Schneider, backup first baseman Mike Sweeney to step to the center of the room. Howard then directed the three veterans who had played a combined 37 seasons prior to this year without reaching the postseason to open the first three bottles of champagne.
"We popped the corks, let it rip," Schneider said. "The rest is history."
Fittingly, Halladay pitched the clincher, tossing a two-hit shutout and punctuating it with a game-ending strikeout of Danny Espinosa.
"It means a lot," Halladay said. "Hopefully we get to do it again."
Sweeney, in his 16th season, is the active player with the most amount of service time who has not appeared in the postseason. He is hopeful of being part of a run that goes deep into October and maybe a few days longer.
"The champagne stung a lot more than I thought it would, but it was an exciting emotion to share," Sweeney said. "But with this group of guys, it's not a feeling of contentment because we feel like we still have three more stages to go. As much as we enjoyed it today, we still have work to do and 11 wins ahead of us once the playoffs begin."
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Brewers GM Doug Melvin's refusal to say whether Ken Macha will return next season is seen as a sure sign that the manager will be fired. … Padres bench coach Ted Simmons will likely be the Mariners' next manager if GM Jack Zduriencik makes the decision, but White Sox bench coach Joey Cora becomes the favorite if club president Chuck Armstrong has the final say. After hiring a manager, the Mariners' next order of business will be trying to unload second baseman Chone Figgins and the final three years on his contract. … The Angels' primary trade chip this winter will be catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli. … The White Sox will most likely re-sign first baseman Paul Konerko. … Shortstop Jason Bartlett is expected to be a casualty of the Rays' off-season payroll reduction, as they can slide second baseman Reid Brignac over to shortstop and play utility man Sean Rodriguez at second. … The Royals' primary off-season objective will be to find a right-hander power hitter and their top free agent target is expected to be Rangers outfielder Jeff Francoeur. … The Rangers' chances of re-signing Lee greatly improved when they reached a deal with Fox Sports Net Southwest that will pay them $3 billion over the next 20 years, an average of $150 million a season. … While bench coach Nick Leyva is the favorite to replace retiring Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, former Indians manager Eric Wedge and Mets scout and former major league manager Bob Melvin are also candidates.
Scouts' views on various major leaguers:
Twins left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes: "He's in a perfect spot with Minnesota because he won't get exposed as the closer, and he can just come in and get left-handed hitters out in the playoffs. He could get some big outs for them in October."
Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes: "You've got to give the Reds credit on this guy because they've really resurrected his career and got a lot of production out of him. He murders balls out over the plate, and he doesn't get fooled by off-speed stuff nearly as much as he used to. He's not a good defensive outfielder, but you can live with that when he hits like he has."
Braves catcher Brian McCann: "Everyone always seems to overlook this kid. He's one of the best hitters in the game, especially his position. I feel for him, though. You can tell down the stretch he's felt like he has had to carry that entire lineup on his shoulders. He's been pressing."
Mets closer Hisanori Takahashi: "He's going to be an interesting free agent. He's done a good job as a closer, but he wants to be a starter. He'd probably get more money as a reliever based on his track record in the United States, but I'd sign him as a starter because he much more of a corner painter than a blow-'em-away kind of guy."
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern);