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MLB Races Points

NL East The Mets have turned it on the last two weeks (9-4) and have all but sewn up a second consecutive NL East title. Carlos Beltran has been the catalyst of the recent Mets-surge (5 home runs, 19 RBIs). With Beltran back, the Mets lineup is at last starting to resemble the one that abused NL pitching staffs all of last year. The difference this year being that the Mets pitching staff is vastly superior to that of a year ago. John Maine and Oliver Perez have suffered setbacks (Maine the physical rigor of throwing 150+ innings and Perez battling health issues) but both are still on pace to start 30 games, win 15 and have ERAs under four. Tom Glavine has continued to be what he is: the last true old-school, non-power throwing workhorse (and possibly the final 300-game winner of all-time).

Then there’s Orlando Hernandez. El Duque has quietly been one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the entire NL. He’s 9-4 with a 3.07 ERA and has submitted 17 quality starts in 22 outings. You may not see his name on the top of the Cy Young balloting come October, but you will assuredly see him winning in October. Like Glavine, El Duque is a rare breed and an invaluable asset on a championship-contending team. And don’t forget about Pedro. Slowly but surely (and fairly quietly) Pedro has been working his way back. Each start he’s made in Class-A ball he’s shown improvement. Whereas at this time last year the news about Pedro was worsening with each day, this season it’s the exact opposite. Expect the wiry-Dominican to be making his return to Shea against either the Astros or Braves the second week of September.

AL East Unless the Yankees can find a way to squeeze a five-game sweep out of a three-game set with the Red Sox this week, the perennial AL East champs from the Bronx are cooked. At seven games back in the loss column with about 30 to play, the Yanks are not only cooked, they’re filleted and about to be served on a silver platter to the Sox starting Tuesday. Now whether the Red Sox opt to devour the meal or not will determine if the Bombers can even continue to contend for a wild card berth. The Yankees are wrapping up a painful road trip Monday in Detroit, needing to salvage a split with the Tigers to pull back within seven of the Red Sox and stay within two of Seattle for the wild card. Currently 2-4 on the swing, the Yankees started in Anaheim where they lost two of three, which included a 18-9 thumping in the second game. Then they headed to Detroit for a game that was delayed four hours by rain. The game itself ended up lasting 11 innings and another four hours and change before Carlos Guillen hit a walkoff three-run home run at 3:30 in the morning.

To say the Yankees will be returning a disheveled and demoralized team to the Bronx would be a severe understatement (then again, a picture does tell a thousand words). Beginning Tuesday it will be time for Jeter et al to man up or tap out, because the nine-game homestand they begin against the Red Sox will ultimatley decide their season. After Boston, Tampa Bay comes in for three. If the Yankees can take one or two from the Sox and sweep the Devil Rays, they’ll be primed to assume control of the the wild card race with Seattle coming to the Stadium for three games. As for the Red Sox, one win in New York this week will finish off the Yankees, and the Sox can set their sights on 100 wins with heavy September-doses of the Orioles and Devil Dogs.

Other NL Races It’s sad to imagine the Cardinals have a realistic chance of defending their crown with something similar to the 83 wins that enabled them to win the World Series last year. The NL Central has just become that mediocre. That said, even though the Cardinals have put together a nice stretch of baseball (13 of 19) and closed to within two games of the Cubs, I don’t see either the Brewers or St. Louis thwarting Chicago down the stretch. The Cubbies managed to take over the division lead without the services of Alfonso Soriano. Now Soriano’s back, the starting staff has been stabilized by Carlos Zambrano (with Ted Lilly and Rich Hill rounding out a quality top three), and their September schedule is very manageable. Oh yeah, and have I mentioned that Lou Piniella is calling the shots on a playoff-contending team for the first time since his beard turned gray?

Out in the wiki-wild NL West the division will likely again come down to the final week of the season (probably the final weekend). The Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Padres will all be playing multiple series against one another in September, with each having to tangle with the hard-hitting Rockies a few times as well. Watch out for the Dodgers. Their offense has been anemic in August, scoring two runs or less nine times, including being shut out four times. However, this team showed last year that September is winning time, as Los Angeles won 17 games in the final month to tie San Diego with 88 wins and snag the NL wild card. The division is the Dbacks to lose at this point, but out west who knows what to expect.

Other AL Races Many feel that the Indians rigorous schedule over the last leg of the season will be enough to do them in and pave the way for the Tigers to back into the AL Central crown. I would have been inclined to agree with that line of thinking until I found out that Gary Sheffield could be sidelined for the rest of the season. Coupled with the fact that it seems any of Detroit’s “aces” can be tuned up on any given night I think the Tigers are going find it difficult to string together a sufficient stretch of consistent baseball. Cleveland’s lineup is good enough to win on a nightly basis, and with the viable tag team of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona starting twice every five days I think that should be enough for the Tribe to win 87 games and take the division.

I’ll be the first to admit I had no reason to believe the Mariners would be even close to contending for a playoff berth come the last week of August, let alone occupying one. Nonetheless, the Angels have watched Seattle trim their AL West lead down to two games, as well as take control of the wild card chase. Felix Hernandez is undoubtedly the ace of what is the weakest starting staff of contending AL teams, and he has only thrown 11 quality starts in 23 appearances. With the likes of Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, and Jeff Weaver rounding out the Mariners staff, there’s no way this team wins the 90 games necessary to overtake either the Angels for the division or the Yankees for the wild card.

Sox/Yanks Race Points

Walking to the hardware store in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn this afternoon, I had the luck of running into one of my pinstripe-loving neighbors. He wore a sly grin as he approached from the opposite direction with his toddler. Guiding his son’s stroller with his left hand he raised his right hand and gave me a deliberate and flamboyant four-fingered wave. (You gotta love the subtle simplicities of Yankee fans.)

“Four games back!!” he yelped, just in case the rest of Church Avenue couldn’t decipher the hidden meaning behind his gestural greeting.

“Now what I wanna know is this,” he said as he neared. “You go on the Yankees website and it says four games. You go on the Red Sox site and it’s four and a half. What the f— is that? When are they gonna they change it?”

Alas, it appears that balance has been restored: Yankee fans are once again only concerned with the accuracy of the documentation of their winning. As opposed to the first three and a half months of the season when they were so un-Yankee-like it actually creeped me out.

What exactly constituted un-Yankee-like? In public in manifested itself in the form of consistently bewildered/angered expressions. For instance, imagine you ran into your high school bully when you were 22. After a brief moment of disbelief you’d want to pounce on the guy. This is how Yankee fans walked around for the first half of the season; toeing the line between confused and enraged. This foreign and conflicted state of mind that Yankee fans were stuck in was a direct result of the realization that had gripped them all: the fact that A-Rod, the poster boy of Yankee-failure since October of 2004, was himself the single reason the Bombers weren’t totally buried by July 1st. His Herculean effort the first three months of the year kept the Yanks at least fighting for air, and gave Yankee-faithful the slightest justification to keep monitoring the (gasp!) wild card race in dark corners and most discreet fashion.

In 2007, A-Rod has been the enabler. He’s enabled Bobby Abreu to start bashing; enabled Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui to start mashing. He’s enabled Joe Torre to keep managing. Because of A-Rod, the Yankees token-late summer run is not being staged in vain. Accordingly, order has been restored throughout Yankee fandom. Like always it began in the Bronx and trickled down the avenues of Manhattan; crossed over the bridges into the other boroughs before permeating the entire Tri-State area. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard some variation of “Yanks are back!!! Watch out Sox!!!” in the last few days, I’d have, well a nice stack of nickels. Each of which I’d probably want to hurl back at the taunting Yankee fan of the moment. But that’s the thing. I’m happy with that; happy to be finally having those kinds of exchanges again.

So, you might be wondering, why the bleep are you not pressing the panic button when the walls are crashing down around Red Sox nation? Well first off, if you’ve been monitoring my baseball writing this year I’ve been trying to brace the Nation for a pennant race, little as anybody desired to hear the words. Well here it is folks. The good news is we’re still “the chased”. The better news is that one player is responsible for the Red Sox losing an unacceptable two games in the standings on a weekend when they were in Baltimore and the Yanks were in Cleveland. He is Eric Gagne (and for illustrative purposes you may pronounce his name phonetically).

Much is made of the “closer mentality” and the need to be in a closing situation in order to perform ably. There is no doubt that Gagne has shown this year that he still has the stuff to be a very good closer. Not on the Red Sox, though. He knows Jonathan Papelbon does the closing for the Boston Red Sox. He knew it when he removed the Sox from his no-trade list. He knew it when Theo Epstein agreed to pay him his closing bonuses to become one of the Red Sox setup men. Granted, transitioning from a closer to a setup role is a process, and evidently requires a change of psyche. To say the least, that process has been rocky for Gagne thus far. He gave up multiple hits and single runs in two of his first three appearances out of the Boston bullpen. That was promptly followed by a total implosion on Friday night in Baltimore, when he entered in the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead and left one out later, having giving up four runs and (basically) the game.

Friday night is on Gagne. He needs to get his ducks in a row, and I’d rather see him suffer through the growing (or diverging) pains of becoming a setup guy sooner than later. Sunday was a totally different story. Sunday afternoon in Baltimore marked the last game (as well as the rubber game) of the Sox nine-game road trip, their toughest of the second half. With a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning Terry Francona opted to use setup man Hideki Okajima as a matchup reliever, and go back to Gagne to face Miguel Tejada, who represented the tying run. Tejada deposited a 3-2 pitch ten rows deep in the left-center field bleachers to tie the game.

Whether this was an act of appeasement to Gagne (a fulfillment of some unstated clause in his contract) or mere micro-managing by Tito, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox manager. The Red Sox have now blown four games this year when leading after seven innings, and two of them have been courtesy of Francona and Gagne this past weekend. Going forward it needs to be communicated to Gagne that on this team he must earn the right to be a setup man, even if he’s being compensated as a closer. Until then (and possibly beyond) Okajima will precede Papelbon because he’s been doing it all year, with near flawless results. I doubt that Gagne will become a $6 million mistake, but if he does Francona and/or Theo better pull the plug and cut their losses because they already have a very good thing going without the guy.

So here we are in mid-August, in a pennant race. Today the Yankees sit four games behind the Red Sox, with three on tap at the Stadium in two weeks. How the teams fare over their next respective 14 games will say a lot about the gravity of that pending series. The Yankees start a seven game home stand Monday night before embarking on a seven game road trip that will lead them back to the Bronx for the Sox series. After three with Baltimore the Bombers will have eight games with Detroit sandwiched around a trio against the Angels. That’s 11 games versus the two teams that have disposed of the Yankees the last two Octobers. The .742 baseball New York has been playing since the All-Star break is sure to cease. The Red Sox, meanwhile, get a few of the teams the Yanks have been torching of late. That includes Tampa Bay six times and the White Sox four, which should set the stage for all this recent bad news to be safely in the rear view come August 28th.

However, as any Yanks fan will gladly (though uncharacteristically) assert, all objects in the rear view are indeed closer than they appear.

MLB Deadline/Fantasy Points

As I laid out in my April Fantasy Points most big-name player movement takes place on or around the July 31st non-waiver trading deadline. That was the case again this year, as the two biggest fish on the block, Mark Teixeira and Eric Gagne, changed uniforms mere hours before the deadline passed. Braves general manager John Schuerholz decided that two years out of NL East contention was unacceptable, and got aggressive, landing the ex-Rangers slugger. Theo Epstein of the Red Sox, meanwhile, who was skewered for standing pat at the deadline last year just a few weeks before the eventual “Boston Massacre”, also showed some fangs at the deadline, acquiring from Texas the former great-Dodgers closer, Gagne.

The goal of every general manager in April is to be a prospective buyer at the end of July. Being in that position is the most obvious indicator that the team a GM has built is a contender. However, contenders want to improve, which is why they become buyers. GMs who are looking to add talent fall into two categories. The first is for those like Schuerholz, who have assessed the landscape of their division and league, in addition to the weaknesses of their own team, and determine that one big piece can be the difference between a second place finish and a spot in the postseason. Suffice to say Schuerholz believes Teixeira will solidify the middle of the Braves lineup and give his offense the kick it needs to run with the the likes of the Mets and Phillies down the stretch. The second category is reserved for GMs of the top couple of teams in baseball, who conclude that one major addition can put their already-playoff bound teams over the top. Epstein’s rationale was that with a deep lineup and consistent rotation, sticking a guy like Gagne in between Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon would officially vault the Red Sox into “team to beat” status.

For each Schuerholz and Epstein at the end of July, there are a few GM-counterparts that find themselves either unwilling to part with prospects or unable to present a viable package to suitors, and are forced to begin the month of August with a bit of an empty feeling, reflecting and vexing about missed opportunities. Brian Cashman of the Yankees and David Dombrowski of the Tigers have assumed those roles this summer, as Cashman wanted to get a deal done for Teixeira and Dombrowski made it no secret that he coveted Gagne, given the injuries to Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. Of the Tigers and Yankees, probably only one will make the playoffs this year, which means come October one of the those GMs will have to be answering some tough questions about his lack of deadline-activity (and if it’s Cashman, will probably have to be finding a new day job).

In case you opted not to take a look my original fantasy points, the gist of my argument was that like real GMs, we fantasy owners should look to emulate the modus operandi of the guys getting paid the big bucks to wheel and deal. Which is to say making a blockbuster trade early in the season is careless, because you have no bead on the vibe of your league or even your own team. By now, however, you do have that clarifying knowledge. You know the top teams in your league, and have analyzed the depth and caliber of their rosters; you see what kind of fluctuation has occurred in the standings, which is a good indicator of the prevalence of parity within a given league. And you’ve had ample time to see what your own squad has to offer. So now, with most fantasy trade-deadlines on the horizon, it’s time to start critically evaluating the big picture for your team.

Ideally you find yourself in either Schuerholz’s or Epstein’s shoes (which is a nicer way of saying hopefully your squad doesn’t stink). At this juncture a fantasy owner’s strategy is two-tiered, depending on if the league is rotisserie or head to head. If you’re part of a rotisserie league with no playoffs and only a league champion at the end, your work is waiting for you within the individual league standings. If your team has been middle to top-third of the pack throughout, chances are there is a marked imbalance between the statistical output of your offense in relation to your pitching staff. Injuries and off-years are the prime culprits for such an imbalance. Any fantasy GM of a mediocre team should be hoping for this, because it means you have a surplus of marketable commodities on one side and an underachieving/overly injured contingent on the other. If not, then you just have a very mediocre team.

I reiterate; if your team has been languishing in the middle of the standings you are in much better position if you have either a dominant offense or pitching staff as opposed to decent versions of both. Why? Because now you can afford to package one of your best players and be in line to get in return two very good players to supplant your weakness. For example, if your staff has been exemplary, say with the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren as your top three, while your offense has been woefully unproductive you can afford to trade one or even two of those big guns for some big-time offense back (guys like Carlos Lee or Ichiro or Ryan Howard). Since only about thirty percent of the season remains, the categories that you’ve been at the top of the league in shouldn’t fluctuate too much, because of the hundred games over which you’ve had that production. On the flip side you’re now positioning yourself to make a run at the categories that have held you’re team back, and if you can find a way to acquire any of those handful of late-season performers, well then, you just might be in position to make a league-leader start sweating.

As for fantasy owners who are in head to head leagues, the strategy is far more authentic. As opposed to rotisserie leagues, where the sole objective is to finish in first place, for head to head you want to finish in the top four to six of your league and gain a playoff spot. Playoff position doesn’t matter so much as building a team that is capable of winning three consecutive head to head showdowns in September. Divisional races can greatly alter strategy; that is if a team is running away with its division in September (like the Mets and Yankees last year), managers will look to rest their players over the insignificant stretch run to gear up for October. This is the double edged sword that characterizes head to head leagues; the fact that a championship-caliber fantasy team can be derailed because its players are on real teams that are contending for a World Series and care far less about September than fantasy junkies.

The good news is that it doesn’t appear there will be any team shutting it down early this season, as all divisional races are tight (no more than four games), with the exception of the AL East (Sox up seven), which will likely become closer as the season winds down. In other words this is a good year to be in a head to head league. So how does a fantasy owner’s strategy differ? First and foremost what’s happened to this point doesn’t mean a whole lot. If your team is in playoff position you have to be projecting towards September. Check out the September track records of your players and relevant competition. Who’s likely to heat up? Who’s likely to cool off? Who’s shown a tendency of going down with an injury late in the season? When making a significant deal at this stage of a head to head league, the fantasy owner who can most thoroughly answers those three questions should get the better of the deal nine times out of ten.

For the record, I’m participating in one head to head league and one rotisserie league. I’m currently in second and sixth place respectively. So naysayers, my claims are not unfounded…

Now go deal!!!!!  And enjoy all those pennant races in cyberspace.

(Prepare for a few in reality as well.)