There are very few absolutes in life. This is a position I’ve come to realize slowly, and if that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should take 33 years to learn, well, suffice to say I’d love to be able to go back slap around the 22-year-old version of Joe Sheehan myself.

I think we can all agree, however, on one particular absolute: baseball players shouldn’t throw furniture at baseball fans.

Last night in Oakland, Rangers’ reliever Frank Francisco took a bullpen chair and flung it into the right-field seats in the midst of an altercation between fans in that section and the Rangers’ bullpen. The chair struck two fans, one of whom suffered a broken nose.

The only recent parallel of this severity is Albert Belle‘s decision to fire a baseball at a fan who was taunting him in 1991. Belle was suspended for six games, a laughably light punishment that’s comparable to what a player gets for charging the mound or brushing an umpire.

This is neither of those things. This is an assault with intent to injure, and it’s one aimed not at a participant but at a group of fans, some of whom may not have even been involved in the verbal abuse.

I have no idea what the fans in the area around the Rangers bullpen said to provoke the pitchers. (Doug Brocail, for one, was trying to get into the stands, but managed to keep from channeling his inner professional wrestler.) I think there’s blame enough here for the people who may have crossed the line from enthusiasm to something less suitable, and for the ballpark security that may have allowed the situation to get out of control.

None of this warrants taking a chair and throwing it, with intent to harm, into a crowd of people.

Francisco should be suspended immediately, and that suspension should last for the rest of the season. While I know appeals are de rigeur in this situation, I would encourage the MLBPA to stand aside in this case. There’s no mitigating what Francisco did, and I can’t imagine a reasonable punishment that wouldn’t be warranted. Francisco should face criminal and civil charges as well; the former will amount to a misdemeanor, but the latter, I hope, will take a big chunk out of whatever money he earned in his rookie season.

There are few absolutes in life. Francisco’s behavior being wrong is one of them. MLB needs to address this swiftly and with no reservations.

On to more pleasant topics…

Yesterday, I kicked around the AL’s playoff race with 21 days left in the season. The National League has an even wilder situation than the AL does, with more teams fighting for fewer slots. The Cardinals have locked up the NL Central, and the Braves have pretty much done the same in the East. The Dodgers’ lead is down to 4.5 games over the Giants in the West, and five over the #2 team in the wild-card race, and while I would have considered them “in” a few days ago, there’s just enough shakiness in their pitching for me to not do that. That means we have two races:

Dodgers   83-60  --     SD (3H, 3A), COL (4H, 3A), SF (3H, 3A)
Giants    79-65  4 1/2  @MIL (3), SD (3H, 3A), HOU (3), LA (3H, 3A)
Padres    77-67  6 1/2  LA (3H, 3A), SF (3H, 3A), ARZ (3H, 3A)

The NL West race, like the AL West race, is basically an intramural thing at this point. The Dodgers, Padres and Giants will play each other six times apiece down the stretch, and on all but two of the season’s last 20 days, two of the three will be squaring off against each other. That’s the main reason why the Dodgers haven’t locked up anything yet.

Realistically, though, they should win the division. A five-game lead in the loss column is huge at this point, and with the Giants and Padres having to face each other for six games, the chance that one will be able to close 16-4 or something is lessened. (The Padres having six games with the Tucson Sidewinders makes them the more likely candidate for that kind of finish, however.) I expect the Dodgers to reach 92-94 wins, clinching the division some time during the season’s final week.

That leaves a six-team scramble for the wild card, with some of those six looking better than others:

Giants     79-65  --    @MIL (3), SD (3H, 3A), HOU (3), LA (3H, 3A)
Cubs       77-64  1/2   PIT (2H, 3A), CIN (4H, 4A), @NYM (3), ATL (3)*
Astros     78-66   1    STL (3H, 3A), MIL (3H, 3A), @SF (3), COL (3)
Marlins    75-65   2    MON (4H, 3A), ATL (3H, 3A), PHI (3H, 4A)*
Padres     77-67   2    LA (3H, 3A), SF (3H, 3A), ARZ (3H, 3A)
Phillies   74-70   5    @CIN (2), MON (3H, 3A), FLA (4H, 3A), PIT (3)

*plus a makeup doubleheader at Florida on Sept. 20

I’ll leave the Phillies in there, although they really can’t afford to lose many more games to the likes of the Reds. They need to close at least 14-4 to have a shot, and I don’t think they’re wired that way, especially since seven of their last 18 games are against their lords and masters from Miami.

Just for snicks, let’s look at these seven teams based on their third-order records from Clay Davenport’s Adjusted Standings Report (all rounded to the nearest full game):

Cubs       81-60   --
Dodgers    81-63  1 1/2
Astros     79-65  3 1/2
Giants     76-68  6 1/2
Marlins    73-67  7 1/2
Padres     74-70  8 1/2
Phillies   73-71  9 1/2

It’s no surprise that the Cubs and Dodgers, probably the best of this bunch objectively, rise to the top. The Phillies look even less likely to make a run, while the Giants, Marlins and Padres all slip from their places in the actual standings.

This reinforces my sense that the Dodgers, the best team and holding a solid lead, will win the West. It should reinforce my sense that the Cubs locked up a playoff spot when they acquired Nomar Garciaparra, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Taking each of the wild-card contenders…

The Giants have managed to put enough hitters around Barry Bonds to give them the second-best offense in the NL. I’m reasonably sure you can make a lot of money by betting people whether J.T. Snow is the ninth-best hitter in the National League. Snow has a .329 EqA, with a line of .333/.433/.525, which might be the most surprising single performance in baseball this year, even accounting for the smaller sample size stemming from the significant time he missed due to injury. When the Giants aren’t playing Pedro Feliz, they have pretty good OBP from six lineup spots.

Still, it’s virtually impossible to overestimate the value of having Barry Bonds. It’s not just a statistical thing. Within a game, having him means that the Giants are never more than two innings from a rally. It means that late in close games they’re going to have a baserunner, and that can make all the difference in winning a one-run game or adding on, as they did Sunday against the Diamondbacks, when Bonds homered to turn a 3-2 game to 4-2.

They need that kind of offense, because there’s not as much good news on the pitching side. With Jason Schmidt scuffling since coming off the DL, not one Giants pitcher has an ERA below 3.00. Just two, Schmidt and Jim Brower, are below 4.00. Dustin Hermanson has pitched well out of the bullpen, striking out a man an inning and allowing just five walks in 18 frames.

There are a couple of ways to build a pitching staff. You can have a great rotation and a shaky bullpen, and just make sure you shuffle as many innings as possible to the starters. You can have a great pen and a rotation built to go five or six innings, just enough to get a lead to the monsters.

The Giants have neither. They have exactly one pitcher you want throwing in any kind of high-leverage situation, unless you think Dustin Hermanson’s change is permanent. That would give them two. I can’t see them keeping the Dodgers, Padres and Astros off the board enough to stay at the top of the wild-card race.

The Cubs have the most talent and the best underlying stats of all the teams. They also have a persistent problem scoring runs when not hitting home runs. I think it’s partially a balance thing; so many slow right-handed hitters together leads to double plays (last in the NL in GIDP, but above average per runner on first base) as well as matchup problems against good right-handed starters–look at what Carl Pavano did to them last Friday–and tactical problems late in games against power right-handed relievers.

The real frustration for the Cubs is that they haven’t gotten the expected performance from their rotation as a whole. Carlos Zambrano is their only starter who has been both healthy and effective all year. Even now, with Zambrano and Greg Maddux pitching well, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have been up and down, and Matt Clement is hurt.

Look at that schedule, though. The Cubs are going to play their next 16 games against three bad baseball teams, ones whose overall numbers don’t reflect how poor the current roster looks. No team has as much opportunity to play .700 ball these last few weeks as the Cubs do, and they could make the playoffs without fixing their flaws.

The Astros have the same problem the Giants do: They only have about three pitchers who can be relied upon. Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Brad Lidge comprise a great core, and if they’d take Dayn Perry’s advice and go to a four-man rotation, I’d like their chances a bit more. As it stands, having to play six games against the Cardinals hurts them, meaning their shot at the wild card probably hinges on sweeping the Giants next week in San Francisco. Problem: They’ll catch Jason Schmidt, and as things stand, won’t be using Oswalt or Clemens in the series.

The Marlins are more or less where they were a year ago–not regarded as much of a threat. This year’s team lacks the punch, both in the rotation and lineup, that last year’s did. You can’t downgrade from Derrek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez to Jeff Conine and Paul Lo Duca and not feel that. The vaunted young rotation hasn’t been that good, save Pavano. Their chances hinge on getting Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo on base a lot over the next three weeks, and A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett pitching to expectations. Seven wins over the Phillies wouldn’t hurt, but their season may come down to the makeup doubleheader against the Cubs next Monday. If either team sweeps, the race looks a lot different.

The Padres have the best balance among the wild-card teams, as well as the best bullpen. Of the teams in this list, they come the closest to controlling their own destiny, with six winnable games against the Diamondbacks and six with the wild-card-leading Giants. Freddy Guzman didn’t work out, though, leaving them without the center fielder they’ve lacked all year. On days when Jake Peavy doesn’t pitch, they really need the extra defense a real center fielder provides.

The Playoff Odds Report puts these teams in the following order:

Dodgers    95.6%
Cubs       50.1%
Giants     23.2%
Astros     14.8%
Padres      8.4%
Marlins     6.9%
Phillies    0.8%

I can’t say I disagree. The Dodgers are going to win the West, and the core talent combined with the schedule puts the Cubs in the driver’s seat for the wild card. The Astros and Giants will play to eliminate one team next week, and the Marlins and Cubs might do the same on Monday.

Virtually every day between now and Oct. 3 is going to feature at least one matchup with wild-card implications, and many days will feature two or three. It’s not how I’d design a September, and it may cost us just as much drama in the AL if the Red Sox close on the Yankees. But in the National League of 2004, the wild card is making for an interesting stretch drive.

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