- Star Performer: The biggest news from the Marlins this past winter was the signing of Ivan Rodriguez to a one-year, $10 million contract. We have not written much about Pudge in this space–he started slowly and was overtaken by some pretty big stories on his own team: major injuries, controversies regarding pitcher usage, a managerial change, great performances by some teammates, and the Dontrelle Willis phenomenon. On the other hand, Rodriguez is a future Hall of Famer who is leading a surprise team to playoff contention, so it’s about time he got some love. Take a look at his monthly splits:
BA OBP SLG April .300 .417 .444 May .169 .250 .308 June .367 .426 .633 July .376 .439 .612 August .323 .389 .462 Total .313 .391 .510
Other than a brutal six weeks (May 1 through mid-June), Rodriguez has hit as well as at any time in his career. Although he hit for more power in his later Arlington campaigns, Rodriguez has compensated in Miami by already drawing a career high 49 walks (his previous best was 38), leading to his highest ever on-base percentage. His .311 EqA would also be a new best for a full season.
Rodriguez has received a lot of criticism over the years for his inability to handle a pitching staff, specifically that he called too many fastballs in order to help him control the running game. Given the way the Marlins’ pitchers have performed, it would be difficult to make the argument that Pudge has been a detriment. His pitchers and coaches have raved about him. Having battled injuries the past few years, Rodriguez has already caught 107 games (and hit in seven others), his highest total behind the plate since 1999.
Where Rodriguez will be catching next year is anyone’s guess. He spent most of this past off-season looking for a big long-term contract, finally settling for one year and vowing to go through the process again. He is a heck of a player, but he will be a 32-year old catcher with an awful lot of games behind him at year’s end. Despite a season to be proud of, expect clubs to again be reluctant to give him a long-term deal. On the other hand, he just needs to convince one team, so we’ll see.
- Pennant Race: Although the Marlins are getting a bit of a bump every time Willis takes the mound, the fans of South Florida are otherwise uninterested in the Wild Card race. During their recent seven-game home stand with Los Angeles and San Diego, they drew 12,000 (and change) in four of the seven games. The three exceptions included Willis’ two starts (20,000 and 26,000) and a Brad Penny start that somehow coaxed 18,000 through the turnstiles.
Nonetheless, here they sit one-half game behind the Phillies and the Wild Card spot. The coming fortnight is their best remaining opportunity to put together a sustained hot streak, with a series at Pittsburgh, a homestand with the Expos and Pirates, and a road trip to San Juan and Flushing Meadow on the horizon. Sixteen games that they need to make some hay with, since the Braves and Phillies (two series each) follow.
Although most analysts assume that the Phillies are the better team and are bound to rise up and claim what is rightfully theirs, the Marlins have a deep and talented pitching staff and a lineup with no real holes. It should surprise no one, at this point, if they are playing in October.
- Outstanding Performer: If you run into Jorge Posada in your travels, make sure you’re wearing that authentic asbestos Yanks jersey–he’s positively en fuego. Already having one of the best seasons of his career, Posada has kicked it up a notch, going 24 for his last 53. He’s hiked his season line to a decidedly uncatcher-like .280/.408/.516.
Pick your metric and Posada’s at or near the top of the heap: he leads all major league catchers in Runs Above Replacement Player at 46.7. His .321 EqA is second among all full-time major league receivers. He’s second among all MLB catchers with 24 homers, first with a .408 on-base percentage. He’s on pace for a career high in homers and the second-best total of his career in walks.
As amazing as it is to think of a Yankee as underrated, Posada’s had to toil in the shadow of Ivan Rodriguez through most of his career, even when he’s topped Rodriguez’s offensive production. Like fellow underrated on-base machine Bernie Williams, Posada continues to play a pivotal role on a team full of other headline grabbers. Who knows how much scarier his career numbers would look if the Yankees didn’t shackle him to the bench early on in favor of punchless Joe Girardi.
- Early Returns: As Michael Wolverton’s Reliever Evaluation report shows, the Yankees dealt for the inferior 2003 performer when they nabbed Jeff Nelson from Seattle for Armando Benitez. You can debate the various and sundry motivations for the deal until Ruben Sierra starts to look almost useful–Joe Torre wanted one of “his guys” back to set up Mo, Benitez was paralyzed by fear playing in New York (presumably he would have been spotted singing show tunes while wolfing down dozens of cans of beans had he been forced to endure the Blackout of ’03), etc.
The bottom line is this: Nelson’s done a tidy job since coming back to the Bronx to reprise his righty-killer, set-up role. The M’s cuffed him around for two runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning Aug. 10. Other than that, Nelson’s held opponents scoreless through eight appearances spanning 7.1 innings. He’s struck out 10, walked two and allowed just four hits during that span. With Rivera looking a bit more human lately, and the departure of Sterling Hitchcock to St. Louis sure to devastate Yankee fans who’d just started getting used to the whiplash induced from Hitchcock-fueled screaming liners, Bronx boosters would be thrilled to see Nelson return to his old self down the stretch.
- Upcoming Schedule: The Bombers’ recent hot streak came at an opportune time. They’ve won eight of their last 10 to extend their AL East lead to five games over Boston. After finishing their four-game set with Baltimore tonight and playing three at home against the White Sox, the Yanks hit the road for a challenging six-game swing, locking up with the rival Red Sox for three before heading north to play the pesky Blue Jays. They’ll then return home for an 11-game homestand, kicked off with another three-game series with the Sox.
If the Yankees can hold their own or better against Boston during this stretch, the eyes of Red Sox Nation will shift to Oakland for the stretch run, where the Mulder-less A’s will try and grab the AL Wild Card slot. The two teams stand dead even at 75-55 at this writing. BP’s Postseason Odds Report gives the Sox a 59.8% chance of winning the Wild Card, vs. Oakland’s 23.3% chance. If things hold to form, remember that the Wild Card winner can’t play the winner from its own division until the League Championship Series. Tuck that away if you’re daydreaming about a potentially epic Yanks-Sox LCS this year.
- Second-Half Performers: Several Pirates have caught fire since the All-Star break. Among the streakers:
- Reggie Sanders – He’s slugging a Bondsian .784 since the break and getting on base at a .383 clip. And Sanders is quietly toting around a .593 SLG for the year.
- Jason Kendall – Kendall’s hitting for average in the second half and his post-break OBP is a robust .430. However, he’s slugging less than .400, as his extra-base power has evaporated.
- Brian Giles – Only disappointing by Brian Giles standards. His OBP is .400, but he still hasn’t recouped his power this season; since the break his SLG is .533–darn good, but still a notable drop-off from 2002.
- Matt Stairs – Although he’s logged only 67 ABs since the break, Stairs’ 16 walks and six homers have helped him to a .471 OBP and .731 SLG in the second half.
- Pat Mahomes – Sample size, schmample size. Props to Mahomes for his 1.000 post-break OPS. Number of plate appearances? Don’t worry about it.
- Kip Wells – A problem for the Pirates’ staff as a whole has been their underwhelming strikeout numbers. Wells, however, has been a modest exception in the second half; he’s posting a strong K/9 of 7.57 since the break.
- New Faces: It’s to GM Dave Littlefield’s credit that he got anything at all in return for Randall Simon (forgetting for the moment that he bothered to acquire Simon in the first place). He’s now part of Dusty Baker’s “creative destruction infield” in Chicago. Going the Pirates’ way was minor league outfielder Ray Sadler. The Cubs snagged Sadler in 1999 as a 30th-round selection out of a Texas junior college. His minor league numbers to date smack unmistakably of adequacy. Prior to this season, he’d hit .308/.357/.451 in parts of three seasons. In ’03, prior to the trade, he hit .291/.352/.434 for Double-A West Tennessee, a notoriously tough venue for right-handed hitters testing the fences. His plate discipline is lacking, and his gap power looks merely decent, though again, home park could have played a role there. Sadler will probably wind up as a solid fourth outfielder at the highest level, a decent return for a first baseman with minimal power and on-base ability who’s also a lousy fielder.
Second baseman Bobby Hill also comes the Pirates’ way to complete the Aramis Ramirez–Kenny Lofton trade with the Cubs. Among prospects, Hill has name recognition, and he’s shown fine on-base skills at all levels. But he’s not young. At 25, his time to contribute is nigh. In 190 major league ABs to date, his performance has been disappointing. The Cubs resisted calling him up this season, but he’s soldiered on at Triple-A Iowa and put up another solid season. Because of his age and lack of power, his ceiling is limited. But Hill plays a key position and could put up an OBP of .350-.360 in the majors. That has value in the right lineup.
- Rumor Mill: The much ballyhooed near deal with the Padres is still alive. The Padres will have first waiver claim should the two sides decide to pull the trigger on the Jason Kendall-Brian Giles deal before season’s end. However, it’s likely that discussions will carry into the off-season. The players in the deal look to be Giles and Kendall going to San Diego, with outfielder Xavier Nady, lefty Oliver Perez and minor league lefty Cory Stewart going to Pittsburgh. What’s still subject to haggling is whether or not the Padres will part with Perez, and how much of Kendall’s contract the Bucs will pick up. Presently, they’ve agreed to pay roughly half of the remaining $50 million.