Monday, August 01, 2005

« NL West is NL's Worst »

By Suss
Let's read the following all together, slowly and carefully, so we all believe the madness: The D-Backs are in first place.

(Checks date) Yep, it's August. And the Ari-freakin-zona Diamondbacks are first in the National League West. And yet they're three games below .500 (52-55).

By percentage points they lead the San Diego Padres, who are no games behind but have lost 13 of 16 since the All-Star break.

“ ... A Giants-Rockies or Dodgers-Pirates series still has playoff implications.”
Have the Padres played anybody good? Only the Cardinals, which one of their wins have come against.

Swept by the Mets. Swept by the Phillies. Swept by Cincinnati. Split a series against Arizona.

Going into the second half they were 7 games above .500. Now they're three below.

Have they sustained injuries? No more than the next team. The only crucial player currently hurt is pitcher Adam Eaton. In fact, on July 18 they returned two position players from the DL -- second baseman Mark Loretta and first baseman Phil Nevin -- and on July 11 Ramon Hernandez returned from injury. Also before the break they traded for former Yankee reliever Paul Quantrill and signed journeyman pitcher Pedro Astacio.

In fact, during a relatively quiet trading deadline the Fathers may have been one of the most active. After receiving Quantrill at the beginning of July, they traded for Reds third baseman Joe Randa to replace the slumping Sean Burroughs. And on July 31 they traded away Nevin to the Rangers for pitcher Chan Ho Park, after Nevin vetoed a trade that would have shipped him to Baltimore for Aruban knight/pitcher Sidney Ponson.

All they had to do was probably play .500 baseball for the rest of the season. But now they've taken a turn for the worse and now they're in a tight pennant race.

I still think the Padres have the tools, above any other team, to win that division. But it's not just the D-Backs they have to worry about.

How bad is this division?

The Dodgers and the Giants are 4 and 5.5 games behind, respectively. In fact, when everyone was talking about tightly-packed East division races, the 45-59 Giants are currently the fourth-place closest to first place.

Need more proof of how bad this division is, if the fact that all teams are at least 3-below .500? If the Mets, Blue Jays, Phillies, Rangers, Marlins, Orioles, Brewers or Cubs played in the NL West, they would be in first place, and the Tigers would be half a game back. Of those hypothetical first-place teams, none are more than 4 games over .500. And the next "worst" division leader is 14 games above .500 -- the Boston Red Sox (59-45).

Obviously the NL East deserves two or three berths to the playoffs because all teams have winning records, and nobody in the NL West, including my D-Backs, merit any worth in October. But these are the rules as laid down by Selig and commish before him, and someone in that division has to come out the winner.

The winner will not have a losing record. Division play heats up in September, and someone will probably win that division with somewhere between 85 and 87 wins. If history is any comfort to this division, the last team to win the World Series with 87 wins were the 2000 Yankees, and the last team to make it to the World Series with 86 wins were the 1997 Indians -- and they were one inning from winning it.

I'm not one to ever rule out teams -- I never counted out the Yankees, even when they were in fourth as late as June -- but it will be difficult to call an upset against St. Louis, Atlanta or current Wild Card leader Houston. But if there was a chance to steal a series against somebody in a 5-game series, it would be San Diego against Atlanta, whom they swept earlier in the year.

In fact, Atlanta is the only team, except for the Brewers and Rockies, to have a losing record against the NL West. Given how well they are playing it's probably an aberration, but who knows? The Braves are known for postseason collapses.

Bigger perspective

The horrible records in the NL West at least makes for a close race. While two teams already have commanding leads in their divisions (although Houston is creeping up in the NL Central, cutting St. Louis's lead to 9.5 games), the Padres pulling away as a good-but-not-great team would have made for less interesting intradivision games, and interdivisional play for the other teams. In other words, a Giants-Rockies or Dodgers-Pirates series still has playoff implications.

So while the race for the NL West is more like the NL Worst, it still stands as the undercard on a schedule of several highly-contested races, such as the AL East (Sox vs. Yankees -- again), AL West (Angels and A's -- again) and both Wild Cards (each race has 6 teams within 5 games of each other).

And now that the July 31 trading deadline has passed, the waiver wire deadline is still very much alive. Teams can place players on waivers, and if anyone claims the player, they get him and his contract. If no one claims the player, the team can keep the player or trade them. If more than one team claims the player, then preference is given first within the league, then to the team with the worst record. Trading isn't done by all means. Sometimes hidden gems slip through the headlines onto competing ballclubs.

Just another nuance of the game to keep an eye on. It's all sexy.