I looked at the standings page of my local sports section for the first time this weekend, having watched games with only a general sense of team success. I was looking to see the Cubs under Baker, the reloaded Phillies, and a couple of other easy stories. My how things have changed.

One of the stathead tenets is that there’s a ton of freely available talent floating around out there: guys you can pick up for minimal cost who will do a servicable job. Granted, these aren’t All-Stars or anything–they’re replacement level, or just good enough to be on a major-league roster. This fact is expressed in all the good player valuation stats, and it’s generally applied as “If you can field the Tigers for $5 million, any money spent over that should make you better than the Tigers.”

That said, the Pirates this season are providing an interesting study in stathead application. Faced with a bad team and declining attendance at PNC Park, the Pirates front office decided to make playing .500 ball an organizational priority to try and attract fans. They brought in free agents on one-year deals fix their worst problems–like Kenny Lofton to play center field–but in the process they’ve pushed back their best young hitter, Craig Wilson, to the point where he’s now fighting for playing time.

It hasn’t paid off. Pittsburgh’s almost 10 games off .500, on pace to finish worse than the 2002 team that had forced the issue, and their players have been complaining that there’s no home-field advantage. They’re only drawing about 19,000 fans a game, which is down from their 2002 numbers as well. They’ve suffered a manager meltdown, and while their pitching and hitting has held up, their bullpen has been awful, matched only by the stinking mass of their offense.

Which makes me think: What if it’s not all that easy to pick up the cheap, available free agents and patch your way to .500? Where did the Pirates go wrong? It would seem that taking a losing team and making them respectable–especially when faced with as many obvious, fixable problems as the 2002 Pirates–would be a simple problem. Dave Littlefield seems like a smart guy, and before the season I thought that he’d have the team righted as he waited for the rebuilding to pay off and make them contenders. Now I’m wondering if perhaps regression to the mean doesn’t take a lot of effort and luck, that it’s only easy to be the Brewers and suck.

And while I’m talking about the drive to attendance, the A’s are drawing 24,000 a home game so far this season, putting them in the middle of the pack. That’s down from last year and 2001’s average of 27,000 a game. At the same time, the A’s have fielded teams that are not only competitive, but teams that are among baseball’s best for the last three years. We’ve frequently made the argument here that winning is what attracts fans, and while the accepted view is that fans start to show up the year after, there are instances where fans have turned out in-season for good teams: the Twins can still draw in the Metrodome, for instance, and even Les Expos saw attendance rise while they were contending last year. But the A’s…where do we assign the blame? The A’s have one of the more astute and intelligent baseball operations going, but their business side is so bad, their stadium so inhospitable, I’m starting to think they can’t win, that Beane’s going to have to somehow draft quality business minds and then push them into ticket sales and promotions, or sell off Eric Chavez for the rights to move the team to Sacramento.

But enough business. In MLB’s two East divisions there has been quite a bit of unexpected excitement. The AL East features a New York team struggling as it faces improved competition (and their slump has been met with wails from the press, as predicted by our own Joe Sheehan), a Red Sox team that’s survived initial bumps to run their record past .600, and a Toronto club playing over most people’s expectations. I’ve been watching a lot of AL East games this year, what with DirecTV and all, and I’m looking forward to watching this develop. I’d love to see the sabermetric mafia combine to knock the Yankees off–with, say, the Blue Jays taking two of three at home against the Yankees at the end of the season to end New York’s playoff hopes, while the Red Sox advance.

And in the NL East, the Braves did everything they could to dissemble their team. I thought their rotation would be kindling, but its managed to be so-so. Their bullpen–the source of so much cobbled-together strength these last years–is stinking up the place. And their offense, traditionally pretty bad, has been stellar–led by unexpected seasons from Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal. Even Vinny Castilla‘s been producing. I don’t see this holding up, but until Philly gets their act together…wait, no, what? The Expos are in second?

Meanwhile, Bud Selig seems unsatisfied with the quality and quantity of toadying being done by Portland and the two DC-area groups for the rights to move the Expos, so he buried an extra knife in his back (“Folks, when you want a knife that stays sharpened, one you can use at home and at the office, buy a high-carbon forged blade from Forschner, the American line of fine kitchen knives from Victorinox. Whether you’re a chef looking to dice chicken or a baseball commissioner looking to betray a city, Forschner is your knife”). Selig’s now trying to get San Juan–where the Expos are playing some of their “home” games this year–to enter the bidding, even though he’s already made the “cut” and the Portland, Northern Virginia, and District of Columbia groups were the selected bidders. If you thought you’d get an open and fair process, perhaps you should take up a cleaner sport. Like boxing.

It’s all good, though. I’ve really been loving this season: the games in the east I can watch early have been interesting, and I’ve even been digging some of the weirder contrasts (opposing batters to Jimy Williams: “Hey, I was hitting against Money Miller here, so if you could just leave between us, let us settle this like men, not bring the bullpen into it, that’d be great, thanks…”). The games in the west feature high-quality teams and great matchups.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I think teams that come out of stronger divisions are even better prepared for post-season success than they might seem. If the Mariners or the A’s come out of the AL West, they’ll have faced three well-managed, top-quality teams all season long. They’ll have seen their weaknesses exploited, and have an idea of what works to patch them. They’ll have a better idea of how to apply their strengths for maximum advantage, and they’ll know where their in-game tactics are weak, and where they’ve seen success. Seeing your pitching staff win against the Rangers tells you a lot more than a win against Tampa Bay, and scratching out a win against the A’s big three starters tells you more about how you’ll play in the post-season than shelling the Reds does.

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