Tuesday, June 15, 2004
AL dominating interleague play
By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine
The Yankees played Colorado last week, and like an older sibling placing a hand on the forehead of a frustrated little brother, they toyed with the Rockies, holding victory just out of their reach. The Yankees would fall behind, and inevitably, they would come back just when it looked like Colorado might win, and the Yankees swept the Rockies.
The Mariners wiped out the Expos, fanning the last embers of their flickering playoff hopes. The Mets lost three straight to the Twins and two of three to the Royals. The Reds went into interleague play as a front-runner and were wrecked by the Athletics and the Indians. Everywhere, it seemed, an AL team was pummeling an NL team.
The AL won 53 of the 83 games against the NL in the first week of interleague action. Twelve NL teams played five or six interleague games, and only two -- Arizona (4-2) and Philadelphia (3-2) posted winning records. Three NL teams -- Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Colorado -- went 0-6.
It all might feel like some statistical anomaly -- until you consider the player movement of last winter. The American League cleaned up.
The teams that were most aggressive in the offseason are in the American League. The Angels signed four of the best free agents -- Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Kelvim Escobar and Bartolo Colon -- and the play of Guerrero and Guillen, in particular, has held the team together through a barrage of injuries. The Yankees traded for Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown, created the game's best bullpen by adding Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to go along with Mariano Rivera, signed Gary Sheffield -- and that was before they acquired Alex Rodriguez.
The Red Sox dealt for Curt Schilling, signed closer Keith Foulke and improved their defense by adding Pokey Reese.
On the other hand, the defending National League champions cut back, out of financial necessity. The Marlins bid for Ivan Rodriguez but lost him to the Tigers, shed relievers Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina and traded first baseman Derrek Lee, the last a player of subtle but crucial skills to the team.
The Dodgers, in the midst of an ownership change, took a lesser pitcher in Jeff Weaver to dump Brown's salary, and didn't make their first significant augmentation until they acquired Milton Bradley from the Indians. Atlanta lost Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla.
The Giants didn't make major moves -- and that was true for the Reds, Pirates and Rockies, as well. The Expos lost their two best players, in Vazquez and Guerrero -- and both went to the American League. The Mets bid for Guerrero but missed, signing shortstop Kaz Matsui and center fielder Mike Cameron; both newcomers have struggled badly this season.
The Phillies were the most aggressive NL team in the offseason, picking up closer Billy Wagner from Houston and starting pitcher Eric Milton from the Twins, but Wagner's been hurt and the Phillies have been inconsistent. The Astros added Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte -- from the AL -- but moving Wagner was a salary cutback; if not for Clemens' 9-1 record, the Astros might be a .500 team or less.
Right now, you could argue that the four best teams in the AL -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Athletics and Angels -- are the best teams in either league. The NL is muddled: no team has a winning percentage higher than .571 through Monday; three AL teams are higher. At their current pace, the division leaders of the NL East, Central and West would finish with only 93, 90 and 86 victories, respectively.
The AL has more great teams than the NL, just as the NBA's Western Conference has dominated the Eastern Conference in recent years.
Despite the apparent disparity in the regular season, however, the NL could have its own version of the Detroit Pistons in the World Series. If the Marlins or the Cubs, in particular, keep their pitching staffs healthy into October, either team could be favored against the Yankees or the Red Sox or any other team in a short series. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood or Josh Beckett-Brad Penny-Dontrelle Willis would be formidable.
And after taking a thumping in interleague play, the NL might get the last word. There is more to come.
|Scott Hatteberg and the A's swept the Reds and Pirates during the first week of interleague play.|
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.