Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Thursday, August 28, 2008
Updated: September 4, 12:41 PM ET
One month … and 10 key questions

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

One month to go.

That's all. There's just one month to the day before this amazing baseball season hits the finish line. It's hard to know where to train your eyes in this 87-ring circus. But Rumblings is here to help, as always, by presenting 10 key questions for the final month:

1. COULD THE YANKEES AND RED SOX BOTH MISS THE PLAYOFFS?

We've done all the research. And just as we all suspected, the last time a postseason arrived minus the Yankees and Red Sox was way back in 1896.

OK, no, it wasn't. It only seems like it. But now an actual fact: There hasn't been a single postseason in the wild-card era that didn't feature at least one of these teams. And seven of those 13 postseasons included both of them. In those 13 Octoberfests, the Yankees and Red Sox have played a combined 163 games, including 17 against each other. Several of them even ended before 3 in the morning.

Derek Jeter
Unless the Yankees get ridiculously hot, Derek Jeter -- Mr. November -- will begin his offseason on Monday, Sept. 29.
So what are the odds that neither of these titans will make it this year, much to the delight of our friends at TBS and Fox? According to coolstandings.com, which furnishes playoff odds for our ESPN.com standings page, there is only a 10.7 percent chance of that. But that's mostly because the Red Sox have an 87.6 percent shot of advancing.

The Yankees, though, are down to just a 2.3 percent chance. And even that seems optimistic, when you consider the Red Sox are on pace to win 94 games, a total the Yankees would have to go 24-6 to match. Just so you know, even the omnipotent Yankees have had precisely one 24-6 finish in their history -- in 1995. And to find their last 24-6 stretch at any point in any season, you have to go back more than 1,700 games, to their incandescent 1998 season. But at this point, it's safe to say the only resemblance between these Yankees and the 1998 Yankees is the pinstripes.

2. CAN THE RAYS FINISH THE MIRACLE?

We've been asking everyone this week to name the one September baseball story that most rivets them. Nearly all of them answered … the Rays.

Hey, good answer. If this team -- with a lower payroll than the left side of the Yankees' infield -- wins the AL East, it will be a story people talk about for decades. But if the Rays supersede that and finish with the best record in baseball -- after 10 straight 90-loss seasons -- we'll announce this now:

This would then, officially, become the most miraculous turnaround ever.

Think about this. According to Rays public relations genius Rick Vaughn, 261 teams in baseball history have lost 95 games or more in a season. (Tampa Bay lost 96 last year.) Only one of them (before this team) ever made it to 30 games over .500 at any point in the next season -- the 1999 Diamondbacks.

Even more incredibly, if the Rays wind up with the best record in the whole sport, they would be the first team to finish with the worst record in baseball one year and the best record the next since Farmer Weaver's 1890 Louisville Colonels. That probably explains why we hear so many people in baseball saying, "If our team doesn't win it, I hope the Rays do." This is turning into one of the most spectacular underdog tales of our lifetime.

3. CAN THE CUBS WIN 100?

There might be something like six living humans left on the planet who can say they remember another season in which, with a month to go, they had absolute assurance the Cubs would be playing baseball in October. But we've arrived at that place in time once again, friends, even though, yes, we're talking about the Cubs.

Lou Piniella
100 wins ... the Cubs? Yes, it's true. Lou Piniella and the Cubs are closing in on the century mark.
Coolstandings.com estimates the chances of the Cubs' not making the playoffs to be a whopping 0.6 percent. So let's ignore history, ignore billy-goat lore, ignore 1969 and take that part for granted, OK? And since this isn't a column about October, that means the big September question is whether these Cubs can win 100 games.

Not that the Cubbies have never done that, you understand. It did happen as recently as 73 years ago. But since then, all the other franchises out there have won 100 exactly 66 times. The Yankees have done it 15 times all by themselves. Even the Diamondbacks -- who forgot to play a game for 63 consecutive years after the Cubs last won 100 -- have done it.

Fortunately, there are two franchises that have a longer 100-win drought than the Cubs -- the Pirates (99 years) and (caution: geographical-symmetry factoid ahead) the White Sox (91 years). But 73 years is still a long, long time.

So to break that 100-win schneid, the Cubs would have to go "only" 17-12. That means they wouldn't even have to match their .624 winning percentage from their first 133 games. Gosh, is it possible that even the goat sorcerers can't stop them now?

4. WILL THE ANGELS LOSE THEIR MOJO?

Scouts who have watched the Angels lately keep reporting they're in "a malaise," or they've lost "that extra edge" that drove them to the biggest division lead in baseball. But if that's true, who could blame them? They could let owner Arte Moreno bat cleanup at this point and still win the West.

What you have to wonder, though, is whether a 15-game lead could actually be dangerous for a team this good. So we decided to take a look.

We found eight teams in the wild-card era that entered September with division leads of 15 games or more. The bad news for the Angels is this: Only one of them -- the 1998 Yankees -- won the World Series. But here's the good news: Half of those teams at least played in the World Series. And all told, those teams played 18 postseason series and won 11 of them.

So if the Angels use these final weeks purposefully -- and Mike Scioscia does everything in life purposefully -- this should be a good thing, not a bad thing. The Angels are the only team in the AL with three starters (Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Jon Garland) in the top 15 in innings pitched. So this is an opportunity for those three, plus K-Rod, to recharge. And that's a scary thought for the rest of the league.

5. CAN THE BREWERS PUT OCTOBER BACK ON THEIR CALENDAR?

Here is how long it's been since the fine, upstanding residents of Milwaukee last witnessed a postseason baseball game (which was back in 1982, if you'd lost track):

The Yankees have played 200 postseason games since then. The Mariners and Blue Jays -- two teams that, at the time, had never even had a winning season -- have played a combined 75 postseason games since then. The Marlins, Rockies and Diamondbacks -- three franchises that didn't even exist back then -- have played 79 of them.

Yet the Brewers have played zero. But that's about to change, unless CC Sabathia's elbow turns to capellini or something. The Brewers might not catch the Cubs. But is a team that has gone 28-16 since Sabathia showed up going to blow a 3½-game wild-card lead with a month to play? The Brewers have 16 games left with the Pirates, Reds and Padres. So it's possible only a spread full of tainted bratwurst could stop this team now.

6. WILL THIS METS-PHILLIES SAGA HAVE A DIFFERENT ENDING?

One thing we know about the NL East, 2008 edition, is that the Mets won't blow any 7½-game leads this September -- because they won't have any 7½-game leads to blow.

But more and more -- as well as the Mets have played (40-25 under Jerry Manuel), and as hard as they've worked to expunge the nightmare of September 2007 -- the Phillies look like the team in better shape to survive this marathon.

Billy Wagner

Wagner

John Maine

Maine

Privately, the Mets don't seem optimistic they'll get any meaningful contribution from John Maine (8-1 lifetime against the Phillies and Marlins). They're not so sure about Billy Wagner, either. There are no impact pitchers they can trade for. And now consider this stat:

Here's the record of these teams in games decided after the sixth inning (meaning the score was tied after six, or the lead changed): Phillies 31-15, Mets 11-22. Nobody we've talked to thinks that stat is an aberration.

"One part of it, obviously, is the difference in bullpens," one scout said. "But the other part of it is heart. I love the Phillies' grit. And now that [Jimmy] Rollins is hitting again, they're the team to beat again."

7. WILL BOTH CHICAGO TEAMS MAKE IT?

We've had a Subway Series. We've had an Earthquake Series. We've had postseasons featuring multiple Southern California teams. But to find the last time both Chicago teams played baseball in October, you have to ride the time machine back to the Teddy Roosevelt administration (in 1906).

So is this the year? As you may recall, we've already penciled in the Cubs. But the White Sox will test their sweat glands if they're to hold off the Twins in a race that's shaping up as maybe the best finish in baseball (with some wild-card intrigue tossed into the blender just for fun).

Coolstandings gives the White Sox a 52.4 percent chance of winning the division. And it won't be easy. The Sox have the tougher remaining schedule. (They'll face opponents with a .518 winning percentage; the Twins will face opponents whose winning percentage is .490). But although we've all been obsessing on the Twins' Republican Convention-induced exit strategy (14 road games in 15 days), we must have missed the fact that between now and the last weekend of the season, the White Sox have just one homestand left themselves (and still have to visit Boston, New York and Minnesota).

So yes, that all-deep-dish postseason is so feasible now, you can almost taste it. But we now have a new rule in life: Never, ever count out the Twins. So we'd bet the three games these teams play in the Metrodome, Sept. 23-25, will decide this division.

8. CAN THE ROCKIES DO IT AGAIN?

It's possible you stopped paying attention to those Colorado Rockies somewhere around Memorial Day. Big mistake.

Guess what? The Rockies are actually closer to first place this year (six games out) than they were on the same date last year (6½).

OK, guess what else? If this season had started on (pick a date) May 1, June 1 or at the All-Star break, the Rockies would be leading the NL West (or at least be tied for first).

So does this team have another mad charge to the finish left in it? Well, it won't go 21-1 again. We know that. But the Rockies are nine games better than .500 since the break. And they do have the second-easiest schedule in baseball remaining. They also have six games left with Arizona and three home games left with the Dodgers to provide head-to-head opportunities. And they're healthier than they've been all season.

In other words, "they're going to make a run," one scout said. "Whether they have enough left to get there, I don't know. But that division is such a mess, you never know."

9. WHICH NONCONTENDER CAN WREAK THE MOST HAVOC?

You know some noncontender will hear the alarm go off on Labor Day and decide to ruin the season for its favorite pennant chaser. It's always somebody. But who? Well, here are some nominations:

The Blue Jays are nine games better than .500 (26-17) since the Fourth of July. They still employ Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan. And they'll play 24 more games against the Rays, Yankees, Twins, White Sox and Red Sox. So watch out for that team.

The Indians, meanwhile, have the same record since the Sabathia trade (28-16) as CC's new team. They've won 10 in a row. They've passed the Tigers in the standings. And boy, could they cause some trouble. In the last two weeks, they play the Twins, Red Sox and White Sox.

And our National League havoc-wreaker nomination goes to the Braves. Yeah, they've been a mess. True, they're 10-20 since Tim Hudson exited. Granted, they haven't won a one-run game on the road all year. But they'll play 15 straight games in September against the Rockies, Mets and Phillies. Why do we have a feeling one of those teams won't enjoy that matchup a whole lot?

It's not a memorable year in the old History Department. There's K-Rod's quest for 60 saves, of course. There's Cliff Lee, who has a shot at going 25-2 for a team with a losing record. There's Ryan Howard's impending founding of the 200-Whiff Club.

10. WILL THE NL BATTING RACE MAKE HISTORY?

Albert Pujols

Pujols

Chipper Jones

Jones

But here's what we'll be watching the next month: The potentially awesome National League batting race between Albert Pujols and Chipper Jones.

In one corner, you have Chipper, who, until Wednesday, had held the highest average in the major leagues for 132 days in a row -- the longest streak in the 48-season expansion era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In the other, you have Pujols, who won the 2003 batting title and is so ridiculously good and so ridiculously consistent, his average hasn't dropped below .340 -- even for a day -- since April 8.

TRIVIALITY

Chipper Jones is trying to win the first batting title of his career, at age 36. Only one player in history has ever won his first batting title at an older age. Can you name him? (Answer later.)

These guys were destined to get mixed up in an epic batting race one of these days, weren't they? Heck, they have the two best averages in the big leagues since Opening Day 2006, Opening Day 2007 and Opening Day 2008. And, amazingly, there is only a one-point difference in their averages over the last three years, a five-point difference over the last two years and a one-point difference this year (.357 for Pujols, .356 for Jones).

If they keep this up, this could be only the third NL batting race since 1900 in which the winner and runner-up each hits better than .350 and the gap between first and second place is three points or closer. The others were won by Phil Cavarretta (.355) over Tommy Holmes (.352) in 1945, and by -- whaddayaknow? -- Pujols himself (.359) over Todd Helton (.358) in 2003.

There has been only one AL race like this since 1930, too (Paul O'Neill over Albert Belle, .354-.351, in 1994). So batting duels this compelling don't exactly come around every September. And that's just one more cool plot line in a final month that promises to be as fun and magnetic as any in a long, long time.

Mark Teixeira

Teixeira

Ready to Rumble

Bronx glue: The best thing that could happen to Mark Teixeira's checking account is the Yankees' missing the playoffs. Even though Jorge Posada's long-term future might well turn out to be at first base/DH, missing the playoffs -- because of an offense that will score nearly 200 fewer runs than last year -- likely would make the Steinbrenner family just desperate enough to put the team in the mix for Teixeira. And it's a good thing for him, because it now seems like virtually a lock that that other team in New York, the Mets, will pick up the $12 million option on Carlos Delgado (who actually leads Teixeira in homers, 30-27).

Boras' auction house: But how much is Teixeira worth? If Scott Boras is serious about establishing a 10-year, $230 million price tag on Teixeira, he won't have many bidders to play the Yankees against. Most teams view him as a five-year, $90 million kind of guy.

"What really stands out, when you've got Vlad and Teixeira back-to-back in the same lineup, is what he isn't," an official of one club said. "Let's put it this way: I know which one I fear, and it isn't him. To me, when you see truly great players, they always have that extra edge, that killer instinct. Well, if this guy has it, he doesn't project it. Hey, he's a good player, obviously. But is he a guy who's going to legitimately carry a club for the money he's asking? I don't see that."

What's free about free agency: Whether Teixeira ends up in the Bronx or not, the Yankees' free-agent hyperactivity figures to make this an expensive market for any team to shop in. The Yankees have about $90 million in expiring contracts (most of it courtesy of Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Pudge Rodriguez/Kyle Farnsworth). Even if they bring back a couple of those guys at reduced rates, that's way too much money for a team like this to have burning a hole in its pocket as it heads into a new ballpark. So other clubs already are hearing that the Yankees plan to put a full-court press on CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets (if Sabathia rejects them) and Teixeira. And that will drive up free-agent prices for everybody, as agents everywhere rejoice.

Stat of the week

Here's our latest brainstorm for illustrating how RBIs are overrated -- a new stat concoction we're calling Runs NOT Batted In (RNBI).

To compute it, you start with number of runners on base when a hitter bats, subtract the number of those runners knocked in and compute how many of those runners each hitter didn't drive in.

The leaderboard, through Aug. 26 (data from baseballprospectus.com):

HITTER RUNNERS DRIVEN IN RNBI
Garrett Atkins 434 64 370
Justin Morneau 439 82 357
Troy Glaus 415 63 352
David Wright 423 75 348
Jeff Francoeur 393 49 344

Brave new world: Another team to watch closely this winter is the Braves, who will wave farewell to more than $56 million in contracts (primarily Teixeira, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton and Mark Kotsay). But the Braves have never been fans of free-agent madness. So there's no reason to think, even with the loss of Tim Hudson for all or most of next season, that they'll chase Sabathia, Sheets or A.J. Burnett.

More likely Braves targets would seem to be starters in the Ryan Dempster/Derek Lowe mold. Or they could check out the Asian market. But they also could take a pass on free agency and trade for a high-priced arm, a la Bronson Arroyo or Aaron Harang. The Braves have signaled that they'll be willing to talk this winter about dealing just about anyone on the roster, except Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar. So they'll have lots to talk about.

One more time: Meanwhile, friends of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine continue to report that both want to return to Atlanta next year for low-guarantee, incentive-packed deals as long as it's even remotely possible for them to pitch. In part, it's because they feel remorse for collecting $22 million this year and contributing just five wins and 18 starts. But in part it's also because these guys are such good friends, they feel as if they were cheated out of one last season of playing with each other. And they'd love a mulligan, in more ways than one. "If they want to come back, and you're the Braves," one NL executive said, "I don't know how you would say no."

Mike Lamb

Lamb

Out like a Lamb: We're hearing that Mike Lamb, just designated for assignment by the Twins, has told his old buddies in Houston he'd love to play in Philadelphia. And with the Phillies still hunting for a left-handed bat off the bench, they clearly would be interested. One big question is whether the Phillies (or anyone else) would try to trade for Lamb or just wait until the Twins release him. He can't be released until next week, meaning he wouldn't be eligible for postseason play. But because he already has cleared trade waivers, he could be dealt at any time.

Raul-less in Seattle: The Mariners took a hard line on trading Raul Ibanez, both before the deadline and in August (after the Tigers claimed him) -- because they appreciate his professionalism and because they figure to get two compensation picks for him if he leaves. But if they think they have a shot at re-signing him as a free agent, one old friend of Ibanez says they'd better think again.

"What's the sales pitch they could possibly make?" his friend asked. "What's his reason to want to go back? He's tired of losing."

A test in the West: It's never too early to look ahead to October, especially if you're a Cubs fan. But you might not enjoy the view. If the Brewers win the wild card, the Cubs would get stuck with a first-round date against the NL West champ. And that's a more terrifying proposition than it might seem in the W-L column.

If it's Arizona, that means a Game 1 date with Brandon Webb (4-1, 2.53 lifetime against the Cubbies), a Game 2 match with Dan Haren (7 IP, two earned runs in his only start against the Cubs as a D-back) and a Game 3 nightmare against Randy Johnson (13-0, 1.84 in his career against the Cubs, the third-best record in history for any pitcher against any team). But even if the Dodgers win the West, we remind you that the Cubs scored only 19 runs in seven games this year against Dodgers pitchers. Some fun, huh?

"You can argue that there's no better chance for an upset [in the first round] than the Cubs face," one scout said, "because pitching can be the great equalizer. And remember, all the pressure will be on the Cubs to get to the World Series."

The Buc stops: Pedro Alvarez's conscientious objection to signing his own contract isn't the Pirates' only issue. Scouts who have followed the Pirates have been buzzing about Andy LaRoche's lethargic play since he arrived from the Dodgers, who traded him because they had the same concerns.

"To see that effort level is really disappointing," one scout said. "I'm stunned that the effort level has been so poor. To see a kid hitting .170 and not running ground balls out, it's hard to fathom. This isn't the kind of player this team needs. They need more dirt balls and fire guys who scratch and claw."

Casey Blake

Blake

Blakes all around: The Dodgers have interest in bringing back Casey Blake. But that wouldn't mean that the guy he deposed at third base, Blake DeWitt, would be consigned to two years in Las Vegas. Scouts report the Dodgers have been playing DeWitt at second base in Triple-A because they believe he might be versatile enough to supplant Jeff Kent there next year.

The hit squad: You've heard of basketball teams that play better defense when they're making shots? Well, Charlie Manuel has an interesting theory about the Phillies -- that they play with more energy when they're hitting than when they're not.

"When things are going good on our team," he said, "our guys really love to play. And I think that carries over to the rest of their game, and they really get into it. When they feel good and things are clicking and guys are having fun, these guys play the game right and play hard. I never would have thought we would have gone so long without consistent hitting. And that definitely took its toll. But I feel us getting back the same kind of energy on offense. And that's what it's going to take for us to win."

TRIVIA ANSWER

Barry Bonds, at age 38, in 2002.

The rush to replay: Here at Rumblings, we're all for using replay. Always have been. And we applaud Bud Selig for finally making it happen. But we keep hearing people in baseball who are privately worried that there's some massive technological glitch over the horizon that will make Selig wish he'd allowed the system to be tested first in some less-pressurized setting.

"The plan is, 'Let's test it out during the pennant race?'" grumbled one longtime baseball man. "I still don't understand why we wouldn't try it first in spring training and work out the kinks. When do you want it perfected? You want it to be perfect right now. But they'll still be testing it during the biggest games of the year. I hope everything works, because it will be a nightmare if it doesn't."

Quote of the week

From the Angels' Torii Hunter, on what he told his trainer after getting nailed in the helmet by a throw during Tuesday's game against Oakland:

"He asked what day it is. Then he asked where I was, and I said, 'Minnesota.'"

Headliner of the week

Loyal reader Wil Shepard alerted us to this blockbuster headline from the new "Fake News" department for weei.com, the Web site for WEEI AM radio in Boston:

"DUSTIN PEDROIA: 'I WILL REPEAT AS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR'"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.