In the never-ending drama of MLB baseball, September is the annual fourth act. Although the resolution is still unclear and out of reach, the conflicts (big and small, glorious and petty) are all well established, and the combatants are engaged in open battle.
Pennant races, as baseball fans once knew them, are dead. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox do not care whether they win the Wild Card or the AL East, and that's the most ardently contested would-be race right now throughout the league. The wild-card system has robbed fans of a meaningful race this year, yet the league is exploring adding another layer to the postseason next year.
Even so, excitement abounds headed down the stretch of an enjoyable baseball season. Even the most dreadful non-contenders have plenty on their plates these final four weeks. Here are bold predictions for each MLB club from Labor Day to the end of the season.
As the saying goes, the goal of making trades is not to win the trade, but to win games. So went the logic that drove the Diamondbacks to deal Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and John McDonald in August.
Johnson is the best player in that deal, although Hill has looked terrific since coming to Arizona. Both men have a good chance of being somewhere else by next April, and McDonald could very well be right back in the Blue Jays organization. Considering that the Jays also got a likely draft pick from the deal, Alex Anthopoulos did very well for himself in the transaction.
But the Diamondbacks, needing to secure their place atop the NL West, did the right thing by making the move. Hill is a fine hitter, especially relative to NL West competition, and he fields second base about as well as did Johnson. Meanwhile, McDonald gives the D'Backs a huge defensive upgrade over Willie Bloomquist.
Bloomquist is a better hitter (though not by much), and has earned some playing time from Kirk Gibson even since the trade occurred. McDonald, though, helps round out a very strong defensive club, and makes Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson even more valuable. Arizona will win the West, and they'll owe their ability to easily hold off the Giants to their superior defense across the diamond.
It's been a long 2011 for the man who should have won the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year award. Heyward's .220/.304/.393 line has so frustrated manager Fredi Gonzalez that Gonzalez has benched and demoted Heyward more than once this season. If Gonzalez is frustrated, people who care about baseball are downright downtrodden.
Heyward will be great someday, and watching Gonzalez punish a player scarcely old enough to drink for a sophomore slump is as painful as it is laughable.
Heyward will not let it happen much longer, though. He will come alive. Expect the final four weeks to be the J-Hey Kid Show. As games become less important—Atlanta could shrug and bluff its way to the Wild Card—the slugger will put less pressure on himself. Heyward's drop in walk rate and rise in infield pop-ups (to a ridiculous, unsustainable level) demonstrate that he is trying too hard at the plate. Once he calms down and levels his swing, his batting average on balls in play (currently a meager .244) will rise, and he will become a dangerous hitter once again.
Just in time for the playoffs.
Relegated to full-time DH duty the past few years, Guerrero could be very near the end of his great career. Despite being healthy most of the year, Guerrero, 36, has hit just 11 home runs. His OPS has tumbled to .703, the worst of his career, and for the first time, he has been a below-average hitter.
Guerrero entered the final month needing just three homers to reach 450 for his career. He will hit them. He might also drive in the 17 runs he needs in order to reach 1,500, though it's a long shot. After doing so, though, it would come as little surprise if Guerrero announced his retirement.
It's all but over for Guerrero, but don't cry for The Impaler. He fully belongs in the Hall of Fame, with or without the milestones on which he's closing in so quickly. His career batting line of .317/.379/.553 is excellent in any era, in any light. Guerrero surpassed 2,500 hits earlier this season.
He could probably keep going, but given the accumulating injuries and the wariness of teams to spend money on bat-only guys of his age, it makes as much sense to go out gracefully—and with plenty of money in the bank.
In en evenly matched fight, the smart money is always on the guy with more for which to fight. In the duel between the Yankees and Red Sox, that's likely Boston. With J.D. Drew and Clay Buchholz struggling to get healthy, the Sox cannot really count on being at full strength for the start of the ALDS. If they face the Detroit Tigers in that series, they can still win, but beating the Texas Rangers with both John Lackey and Erik Bedard in the rotation is a tall order.
In baseball, it's important to be durable. Playing 150 games a season has value in and of itself, and modern win stats recognize this by making their figures cumulative.
It's easy, though, to confuse volume with value. Counting stats often overrate players who simply get a lot of chances to succeed, and fanbases often overrate players with great counting stats. So it goes for Starlin Castro.
But for a modest power increase, Castro is more or less the same player he was when he entered the big leagues. He hits for average, but runs hot and cold. He hardly ever draws walks because he swings at everything. He is learning to lift the ball but remains a line-drive hitter. His glove has gotten no better at shortstop. His greatest area of improvement so far has been on the bases, where he has stolen 20 bases and been caught just five times all year.
He has, however, led the NL in hits this year with 178. In fact, he's well on his way to a top-three all-time season for total hits at age 21. Therefore, he made the All-Star team, and words like "phenom" get thrown around a lot in discussions of Castro. It's just not true, at least not yet. Still, the man can rack up hits, and since he figures to bat first the rest of the season, there's no reason to think he can't shatter some obscure records of sheer volume.
Things really seem to be coming to a head on Chicago's South Side. The team is out of contention. Adam Dunn, the team's $56 million designated non-hitter, plays only very sparingly. Maybe most importantly, Ozzie Guillen and GM Kenny Williams are seriously on the outs, and Guillen demands a contract extension in order to return in 2012.
It's not coming. Guillen knows it as well as anyone. If things keep going as sour as they have gone lately—witness the team's 18-2 loss to Detroit Sunday night—he may not even stick around to be told as much in official form. Given his mercurial moods and zany history, it would surprise no one if he blew up and had an episode reminiscent of his friend Carlos Zambrano.
I know—bold, right?
It's relevant, though, because with every passing day, it becomes more clear that the best value available on the market for batters this winter will be Yonder Alonso. In 50 at-bats, Alonso has posted a 1.156 OPS with four home runs.
He should have three times that many plate appearances by now, though, and the reason he doesn't is that Joey Votto's stranglehold on first base leaves no place for Alonso in their lineup. Left field didn't work. Third base didn't work. Alonso cannot defend anywhere. It's a problem. The more the Reds try him out around the diamond, the more Reds fans will cringe this September.
It was too late to save the Indians' season when they acquired Thome in late August. It's a good thing, too, because otherwise, Thome's failure since arriving would be a really sour note on which to end his career.
Now that Thome has 600-plus home runs, there's not much reason for him to stick around. He's not going to reach any more substantial milestones. He's very unlikely to sign on with any team that can offer him a real chance to win that elusive World Series. A family man with nothing left to prove, Thome might well decide to hang up the shin-high socks after this season.
Troy Tulowitzki is in the race for best player in baseball right now. In fact, it's a little unclear who else belongs there. Jose Bautista, I guess. But give me Tulowitzki.
He's a premium defender at a premium position. He's going to eclipse both 30 home runs and 100 RBI this season. His OPS is 34 percent better than the league average, even after adjusting for the effects of Coors Field. Yes, the Rockies stink, but Tulowitzki is a dominant talent and he deserves recognition. If history is any guide, Coloradoans are in for an exciting September.
Baseball's best hurler might miss out on a start or two as the season winds down, but having won his last nine starts, he still has a shot at 25 wins. No one has won that many since Bob Welch won an insane 27 games in 1990, but honestly, Verlander has been better than was Welch.
As the schedule stands right now, you could pencil Verlander in for road starts in Cleveland, Chicago and Oakland before winding down the year with home games against Baltimore and (on the final day of the season) the Indians again. Two of those are near-automatic. He needs to win four. Color me optimistic.
The Marlins are a terrible organization. They really are. Their ownership is as irresponsible as it is stingy, as stupid as it is impatient. Still, Morrison was in the wrong for the way he handled both the situation that led to his demotion, and the demotion itself.
He'll stay out of trouble this month, with the Fish playing out the string and not much going right. He still could make waves and be traded this winter, but with Jack McKeon in the manager's chair, Morrison figures to behave himself a bit and keep his head down until some positive vibes get going around the team's new ballpark.
Demoted without an especially good reason in late July, Wallace has been recalled as rosters expanded, but still has not gotten a full-time gig back. He should, and assuming he does, he will hit fairly well down the stretch.
The Astros, who sent Wallace down ostensibly in order to play Carlos Lee more often there, never ought to have done so, and Wallace will have plenty of motivation to drive the ball and show them the error of their ways.
If the Royals wanted Lorenzo Cain to be a big league contributor, he already would be. The team clearly prefers to keep Cabrera, whose .800-plus OPS and cannon arm in center field have made him very valuable this year. If the deal to which the team signed Jeff Francoeur last month is any guide, Cabrera could be in line to receive a two-year deal worth anywhere from $8 to $12 million.
How do you squeeze two batters with sub-.260 OBPs into the same lineup? Easy: Just trade a slugging catcher for one of them, making room for the other (an incumbent) behind the plate.
That, apparently, was GM Tony Reagins' illogic when he decided to trade Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells. By the way, Reagins also accepted four years and about $7.5 million in direct financial responsibility in that deal.
This move alone is cause for termination. It might be the worst trade in the last 25 years. The Angels will not win the AL West almost entirely for that reason.
As bad as things are in LA, some of the recent hubbub over it all has been a bit exaggerated. Ultimately, the team has the presumptive MVP (Matt Kemp), a real Cy Young candidate (Clayton Kershaw) and a 68-70 record with 24 games to play.
It says here they will win 16 of those 24 contests, continuing the tear that has seen them win 11 of their last 12 games.
Too much has been made of Morgan, the hilarious nut job around whom the Brewers seem to be rallying. Not enough has been made of Morgan, the guy who isn't calculating these interview responses and who has a long history of totally irrational and ill-timed temper tantrums.
Morgan is a seriously detached human being—a loon—and if the Brewers are counting on his production down the stretch and into October (they are), they had better hope he can hold himself together for another six to eight weeks.
This is bold mainly because finding someone who is not hurt already will not be easy. Francisco Liriano is likely done for the season. Joe Mauer is skating on thin ice in that regard—so is Justin Morneau. Kyle Gibson, the top pitching prospect in the organization, is headed for Tommy John surgery. Injuries have defined the Twins' season, and there's still some time for that bug to bite again.
This might sound ridiculous. After all, no player acquired after August 31 is eligible to be placed on a postseason roster. In Capuano's case, though, his value would be in providing a spot start and some left-handed relief help down the stretch. Teams who are thin in the pitching department, and who either need to lock down their playoff spot without using a pitcher on three days' rest or who are making a last-ditch run toward contention, might take an interest in the very cheap Capuano.
The Dodgers are another week of wins from making this move.
A.J. Burnett in August is like a fish out of water. Luckily, though, he seems to writhe back into the water each September. He beat the Red Sox on Thursday, and with the rotation struggling to stay healthy, it's no longer a question of whether or not Burnett ought to go immediately to the bullpen.
Instead, the question is whether Burnett ought to start Game 3 or Game 4 of an ALDS. The answer is probably Game 3.
Did you know: Though Oakland's record stands at 63-76, they have been outscored by only 23 runs all season. This team is not all that bad, really. Their defense is exceptional up the middle of the field, but they also have solid offensive contributors in Josh Willingham and (wow, really?) Scott Sizemore.
The pitching staff is deep and talented. Even Guillermo Moscoso has put together 100-plus innings of keeping batters off base. Overall, Billy Beane's bunch might have something to celebrate by the time Moneyball hits theaters, even if the victory is a Pyrrhic one.
Vance Worley strikes out some batters, mostly with deception, and he keeps walks down. But he's an extreme fly-ball pitcher, a guy you would not want to trot out often in a hitter-friendly field like Citizen's Bank Park.
Worse, Worley has tepid stuff, and most of his success has come from a blend of excellent defense and batters trying to adjust to his quirky approach. Expect him to be knocked around the month, and miss the playoff rotation.
Neal Huntington has done a fine job as GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates. That may seem strange, but it's true; the talent and fiscal flexibility to succeed just weren't there yet when he arrived.
The long, difficult process of rebuilding still is not done, but Huntington has proven a smart steward. He did not sell out in pursuit of a division title he would not have won anyway. He deserves more time to work the process, and the Pirates will give it to him.
Anthony Rizzo looked about as big league ready as could be while dominating in Triple-A. Upon his promotion, though, he struggled and the Padres sent him back down for more seasoning. He's back now that rosters expanded on September 1.
Rizzo should have better luck this time around, and although PETCO Park will give him all the trouble it usually gives to left-handed power hitters, the Padres' remaining series in Colorado and Arizona should give their top prospect a chance to shine.
Carlos Beltran notwithstanding, the Giants have no offensive firepower whatsoever. It's really hideous, and the lack of offensive production is not even the worst of it.
Teams like the Mariners and Diamondbacks lack great hitters, but theirs play excellent defense and back up their pitching staffs well. The Giants, by contrast, waste perhaps the best top-to-bottom pitching corps in baseball because their position players neither hit nor field acceptably.
Ichiro has played 10 full seasons in the United States. He has notched 10 Gold Gloves in the outfield, and he has recorded 200 or more hits 10 times. In year 11, though, it looks for all the world as though he will fall short of that milestone.
Ichiro has been terrible this season at the plate, posting a .642 OPS. His outfield defense has been excellent as always, but barring a real hot streak, he will not reach 200 hits.
He needs 40 tallies in the next 23 games in order to get there. For reference, that would be a 280-hit pace for a full season. Ichiro will get something like 100 plate appearances over the span, so unless the Mariners keep hitting well and get him to the plate five times per game, he needs to hit .400 from here on out.
It's been a good ride for Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan in St. Louis. They won a World Series, went to another and have authored a dozen or more great individual success stories over the years.
But it has to be over now. La Russa drove Colby Rasmus, a very talented young player, out of town this summer. Duncan has been a malcontent for years, indignant at what he perceives as lacking appreciation for his skills. Both men will use the window presented to them by this non-competitive season to step aside, and although Duncan will catch on somewhere else and do good things, the Cards will be better off without them both.
With a 2.37 ERA since the All-Star break, Hellickson has set himself apart from other candidates for the award. That the Rays feel comfortable letting him pitch out the string while the Mariners are slowly shutting Michael Pineda down only makes it easier to ensure Hellickson will nail down the award, although if teammate Desmond Jennings does not cool down, he might steal votes from Hellickson.
No team headed for the playoffs in the AL is very deep in the starting rotation. Texas is just one club that struggles in that area. More than any other squad, though, they have a question mark at every slot of the rotation.
C.J. Wilson is not a true ace. Derek Holland is wildly inconsistent. Alexi Ogando's ERA since the All-Star break is 5.29. Colby Lewis is as close to a sure thing as anyone, but when he has a bad night, it's a really bad night. Matt Harrison relies heavily on having a good defense at his back.
None of this is a condemnation; call it an admonition. The Rangers are not invincible, though, so long as their rotation sets up that way.
Alex Anthopoulos does not content himself with merely acquiring other people's malcontent prodigies. After he stole Yunel Escobar from the Atlanta Braves, Anthopoulos sewed him up for four years. Now that Anthopoulos has pulled the same trick on the St. Louis Cardinals in getting Rasmus, he had better move fast to lock down the center fielder.
Rasmus becomes arbitration-eligible after the year, so the Jays need to lock him up on a similar contract this fall.
It must be flattering for Livan Hernandez to be told he will act as a pseudo-coach rather than make his last few starts of the season. It must also wound his competitive pride.
But his season need not be over. The Diamondbacks could use someone to make a spot start or two down the stretch, so as to avoid sending Ian Kennedy or Dan Hudson on unduly short rest. Hernandez can be had cheaply, and he fits well in the desert.