Florida Marlins

  • Wild, Wild Card: While traditionalists may rail against it to their graves, the Wild Card has spawned an intriguing race heading down the stretch into the season’s final two months. Perhaps no team’s as happy for the format this year as the Fightin’ Fish.

    On May 22 ex-Marlin Livan Hernandez stymied the reeling Marlins, sending the Fish to a three-game sweep at the hands of the Expos, their sixth loss in a row. The red-hot Braves and surging Expos pulled way ahead of the Marlins in the NL East race. Even at that early date, the Wild Card was starting to look like a faint, distant hope as well.

    The Fish worked their way back toward the .500 mark. But an 11-7 loss in Boston dropped Florida back below .500, to 41-42. At that point they stood 12 games behind the division-leading Braves, 5.5 games behind the Wild Card-leading Phillies, and five behind the third-place Expos.

    Since then the Marlins have caught fire, rolling up a 14-7 record in their last 21 games. While the Braves remain all but uncatchable–they’ve actually built their lead to 12.5 games ahead of Florida despite the Marlins’ hot play–the Fish have pulled ahead of Montreal for third place in the division. More importantly, a sweep of a crucial three-game series with the Phillies has drawn the Marlins to within two games of second place in the division–and of the Wild Card.

    Florida’s now tied with Arizona for second in the Wild Card race behind Philadelphia. No fewer than eight teams are now bunched within 5.5 games of the Wild Card lead: the Phillies, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Dodgers, Expos, Rockies, and Cubs. Who’ll be the team to get in? With three days to go until the July 31 trade deadline, a key acquisition or two could turn the tide for any of the contenders.

  • Fishing for a Deal?: The Marlins have been mentioned in trade talks with Pittsburgh for Reggie Sanders (.276 Equivalent Average) and with San Diego for Rondell White (.268 EqA). It’s debatable either represents an upgrade over precocious left fielder Miguel Cabrera (.270 EqA). If they insist on making a deal anyway, Sanders would seem a doable get, given the Pirates have already cleared out several veterans, getting little in return for many of them.

    White reportedly would cost more, as the Padres are said to be pushing for third-string catcher Ramon Castro instead of the Marlins’ offer of pitching prospects such as Justin Wayne and Blaine Neal. While we’re always in favor of any move that may Free Ramon Castro! as soon as possible, you have to give the Marlins credit for understanding the value of a cheap catcher who’s shown he can hit at every level before being blocked in the bigs–even if he’s waited so long he’s now 27 years old. Well, sorta: the Fish seem to know enough not to trade him–especially with Ivan Rodriguez a free agent after this season–but we’ve been calling for Castro to get a shot at an everyday job behind the plate forever now, and it still hasn’t happened.

    That aside, with the best starting infield in the National League (total Runs Above Replacement Player, including Rodriguez: 134.9), the third-best starting rotation in the NL, the streaking Cabrera (.270 EqA) upgrading a previously awful outfield, and new trade acquisition Ugueth Urbina bolstering the club’s biggest weakness, the bullpen, the Fish may be the one team without a clear weakness they’d need to address in the trade market–certainly not at the expense of any blue-chip young players at any rate.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. The Marlins have been the third-worst defensive team in the NL according to Keith Woolner’s Defensive Efficiency Report. They may have to simply take extra fielding practice to remedy that problem though. The odds that Florida will acquire a position player who’ll be both an offensive and defensive upgrade without paying through the nose are slim to none. Those players simply aren’t out there to be had.

New York Yankees

  • The Rivalry: The Red Sox took two of three games from the Yankees over the weekend, slicing New York’s lead in the season series to 7-6 and their edge to 1.5 games over their long-time rival in the AL East race.

    Every one of the last five seasons has ended with the Yankees in first place and the Sox in second. The Yankees lead the overall series from 1998-2002 with a 41-33 mark, and won four of the five season series in that time. However, in no season did the head-to-head result cover the difference in the standings:

    Year     Head to Head      Final Gap
    1998     Yankees, 7-5      22 games
    1999     Red Sox, 8-4      4 games
    2000     Yankees, 7-6      2.5 games
    2001     Yankees, 13-5     13.5 games
    2002     Yankees, 10-9     10.5 games

    The 2000 season was the one in which the Yankees had a huge lead going in mid-September, but finished the season by losing 13 of their last 15 games, so the 2.5-game final gap is misleading. The best example of head-to-head games impacting the race is 2001; the Sox dropped six games to the Yankees in a 10-day span, scoring eight runs total and falling from six games back to 13 back, effectively ending their season.

    While Yankee/Red Sox games make for a great spectacle, the division will be won by the team that plays the best in the other 143 games.

  • The Gang’s All Here: With the return of Nick Johnson Friday night, the Yankees had their Opening Day starting lineup available for the first time since…Opening Day. Actually, since Mariano Rivera wasn’t available then, it’s fair to say that the Yankees are at full strength for the first time all season.

    Johnson’s return is a huge boost to the bottom of the Yankee lineup, which has been suffering through the slow deaths of Robin Ventura and Raul Mondesi, and frees Garcia for use in a right-field platoon with Mondesi. Any time Johnson and his excellent glove get occupy first base instead of Jason Giambi just adds to Johnson’s value.

  • The Bully: With Rivera healthy and effective, Brian Cashman made what he hopes will be the last moves to shore up the bullpen, trading a bunch of C prospects to the Mets and Padres in exchange for Armando Benitez and Jesse Orosco.

    The Benitez acquisition brought out the highly-trained psychoanalysts in the baseball media, all of whom took the opportunity to dredge up Benitez’s failures in high-profile games and draw conclusions about his psyche. What was lost in that rush to judgment was Benitez’s overall performance record, which is superb: 5.5 Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), 3.10 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings with the Mets this year, a career ERA of 3.05 with 739 strikeouts in 560.2 innings at the time of the trade. He can be homer-prone, although he’s even losing that tendency as he gets older.

    Benitez can pitch. He’s an excellent fit for a Yankees bullpen that lacked a true right-handed set-up man in the absence of Steve Karsay, and a much better option than Antonio Osuna, Dan Miceli, Steve Farr or any the other guys tried in that role this year. Getting him without trading away a top prospect is an indication that Cashman learned from the D’Angelo Jimenez/Jay Witasick deal of 2001, and shows just how significant a buyer’s market it is for pitching right now.

    Getting Orosco is just fun. Good heavens, it’s Jesse Orosco! He pitched to Willie Stargell, for crying out loud! More importantly, Orosco still gets lefties out (.220/.281/.339 this year) and is perhaps the one pitcher on the planet Barry Bonds hates to face (.143/.200/.357). That’s advance planning.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • New Faces: The Buccos have been the most active team in the trade market thus far. Putting aside concerns about mistaking motion for progress, let’s give the once-over to those talents gleaned from recent deals with the Phillies, Cubs and Red Sox…
    • From the Phillies for Mike Williams

      LHP Frank Brooks: Brooks is 24 and until last season had worked in the minors as both a starter and reliever; now, he’s strictly working out of the pen. Prior to the trade, he’d put together an excellent season for Double-A Reading–a modestly hostile environment for pitchers–in the Eastern League (58.2 IP, 5.5 K/BB, 10.9 K/9). Heretofore, however, his performance had been a mixed bag. Since converting to relief in 2001, Brooks struggled with his control, but that appears to have been corrected this season. The Pirates have dispatched him to Nashville of the PCL. If the progress he’s made this season is for real, he could be a serviceable LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) at the highest level. In any event, color Chris Kahrl unimpressed.

    • From the Cubs for Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton

      RHP Matt Bruback: Bruback, 24, is a starter of modest promise. Early in his career, he struggled with his control, but he broke through in 2001 with a strong showing in the Florida State League. He’s been solid, if unspectacular, in the high minors. This season, he’s pitched reasonably well at Triple-A Iowa (125.0 IP, 3.96 ERA, 2.7 K/BB, 6.5 K/9). That he’s made such progress with his control is commendable, but there’s not much to recommend him as a future front-of-the-rotation type.

      The Pirates also received Jose Hernandez and a player to be named from the Cubs. The PTBN, it’s rumored, will come from a list of Cub prospects that includes INF Bobby Hill and pitchers Steve Smyth and Francis Beltran, all of whom are toiling for Triple-A Iowa.

    • From the Red Sox for Scott Sauerbeck and minor-league pitcher Mike Gonzalez

      RHP Anastacio Martinez: Martinez is also 24 and had, prior to 2003, worked exclusively as a starter. This year, he’s been used out of the pen at Double-A Portland. His career numbers are decent but nothing that portends of greatness. In 2003, he’s sporting a nifty ERA, but that’s obscuring the control problems he’s had coming out of the pen. Minor league relievers who put up vanilla numbers don’t often meet with much notoriety. His addition is probably a wash given the loss of Gonzalez in the deal.

      Erstwhile Boston closer Brandon Lyon was also supposed to come to Pittsburgh in the deal, but he’s since been discovered to have a possibly serious elbow injury. Whether that’s chicanery on the Red Sox’s part or a lack of due diligence on the part of Pittsburgh remains to be seen. Either way, additional or proxy compensation could be headed their way.

  • Power Vacuum: Brian Giles is justifiably one of the most coveted hitters on the trade block. But he’s suffering through a relative power drought this season. His SLG of .507 is his lowest mark since becoming a Pirate prior to the 1999 season. Same for his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .205. Giles’ projected homer total of 18 would be his worst since becoming a full-time player, and his road SLG of .497 is easily his worst since coming to Pittsburgh. But despite the power dip, he’s still third among NL left fielders in EqA.