Commentary

The record chasers

Five players worth watching closely over the season's final two months

Updated: August 5, 2011, 4:41 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

There's an old saying in baseball. Goes kinda like this:

When the trading deadline ends, the pennant races begin.

But those eight tickets to Octoberfest aren't all that are at stake, now that we no longer have to spend every waking second wondering where Koji Uehara would be toiling on Labor Day.

Right down there on the field, while we were all busy eating trade rumors for breakfast, some amazing stories have been unfolding. If August and September go anything like April through July, those stories could unfold right into the history books.

So we redirect your attention away from Rumor Central to five tales every baseball fan should be following over these final two months -- if only because they strike us as way more momentous than Section 18, Paragraph B of the NFL labor deal.

Oh say can you CC

According to estimates we've compiled from Alan Greenspan, Goldman Sachs and Kei Igawa Corporate Headquarters, the Yankees have spent about $93 billion on free agents over the years. But have any of them earned their billions more than CC Sabathia?

Sheez, is this guy a winning machine, or what? He won 19 games in his first season in New York, went 21-7 last year and cashed in 16 more wins this season before he even flipped the calendar to August.

Now "wins" may not be the most revealing stat on modern-day earth in telling us how pitchers are actually pitching. But it tells us something in this case. If CC just wins three more games this season, here's what it would tell us about him:

• He'd be the first pitcher to win 19 games or more in three straight seasons since Randy Johnson did it for the 2000-02 Diamondbacks.

• And the first to do it in the AL since Dave Stewart ripped off four 20-win seasons in a row for the 1987-90 A's.

• And just the fifth to do it in the free-agent era, joining only Stewart, the Unit, Tom Glavine (1991-93) and Jim Palmer (1976-78).

• Shockingly, CC would be only the fourth Yankees pitcher ever to win 19 or more in three straight seasons -- and no, Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry and Andy Pettitte never did it. The three who did (Jack Chesbro, Red Ruffing and Vic Raschi) pulled it off between 1903 and 1951.

• Here's the proof the Yankees have gotten their $69 million worth: CC would be the first free-agent starter ever to do this in his first three seasons after signing with a new team. Which means, apparently, Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park fell just a little bit short.

What's up, Doc?

As long as we're pounding on this "wins" topic, here's another guy whose win total isn't exactly misleading: Roy Halladay.

Until Halladay showed up in Philadelphia last year, the Phillies hadn't had a 20-game winner in almost 30 years (since Steve Carlton, 1982) and hadn't had a right-hander win 20 in more than 50 years (since Robin Roberts, 1955).

But now, unless the Phillies get shut out in every one of his last dozen starts, Halladay is on pace to win 20 back-to-back -- in his first two seasons with a new team.

So how rare is that? Thanks for asking.

• In the free-agent era, just two other pitchers (rookies not included) have won 20 in their first two seasons after changing employers: Roger Clemens (1997-98 Blue Jays) and Tommy John (1979-80 Yankees). (Technicality alert: Curt Schilling and Stewart did it in their first FULL seasons with the Diamondbacks and A's, but the judges have ruled them ineligible. Sorry.)

• Last pitcher to do it after changing LEAGUES: John (after leaving the Dodgers to join the Yankees).

• Who's the last pitcher to win 20 in his first two seasons with the Phillies? Who else but Rubber-Winged Gus Weyhing, in 1892-93? If you're getting the impression this doesn't happen EVERY century, you've caught our drift.

Yo Adrian

Boy, that Adrian Gonzalez sure is having a rough time adjusting to life in the American League, isn't he? The poor guy is only hitting .356/.416/.568 -- and leading the league in hitting by 21 points, in his first year with the Red Sox.

So suppose he winds up winning a batting title after spending his whole career in the National League. If you're thinking that hasn't happened much, you're exceptionally perceptive.

In the live-ball era, only four players have spent at least the first four seasons of their careers in one league then switched leagues for the first time and led that league in hitting. Here's that distinguished list: Frank Robinson (1966 Orioles), Alex Johnson (1970 Angels), Gary Sheffield (1992 Padres) and Bill Mueller (2003 Red Sox).

If he wins this batting title, Gonzalez would make that one of the funkiest groups of historic figures ever assembled in one sentence. But that's just one more reason to stay riveted to that AL batting race in August and September. Don't you think?

Grandiosity

Curtis Granderson is officially having One of Those Years -- and not just by Yankees standards. Here are two feats he's working on that jumped off the stat sheets at us:

This man is on pace to score 144 runs. Want to know how many times that number has been reached in the American League since the AL went to a 162-game schedule a HALF-CENTURY AGO? That would be once -- by Rickey Henderson (146) in 1985. The only NL players to get there in the era: Jeff Bagwell (152) in 2000, Sammy Sosa (146) in 2000 and Craig Biggio (146) in 1997. That's it.

But here's an even more fun feat Granderson has a shot at: He leads the league in triples. And he's third in the league in homers (five behind Jose Bautista).

So how many hitters in the live-ball era have led their league in triples AND homers in the same season? Exactly three: Jim Rice in 1978, Willie Mays in 1955 and Jim Bottomley in 1928. And only Rice led the league outright in both categories. This one's more of a long shot -- but quite a cool group, huh?

Dunn deal

Finally, there's one thing we've noticed over the years about making history: Not all of that history is good.

On that note, we're pretty sure if Adam Dunn makes the kind of history he's in line for, it isn't going to land him a cover shot for ESPN the Magazine. Nevertheless …

The Big Donkey currently owns a batting average of .167. So unless he contracts a serious case of Line-drive-itis, he's on pace for this prestigious honor:

Lowest batting average in modern history!

Now that may not be what you've heard this week from that noted baseball historian, Stephen Colbert. But we're here to set you straight.

Colbert reported Thursday that one-time Brooklyn Superbas catcher Bill Bergen (aka the Worst Hitter Who Ever Lived) holds that lowest-average-in-history record at .139. And that's not quite accurate.

Bergen did, in fact, hit .139 in 1909. But (for reasons we can't fathom) he only made it to home plate 372 times that year. So that means he was 109 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title -- not that he would have been a major threat to win it.

So if we're just counting "qualifiers," here's the number Dunn has to shoot for:

.179.

That's the average the legendary Rob Deer finished with in 1991. And that, in fact, is the official lowest batting average in modern history. Want to size up where Dunn and Deer stand on the leaderboard for lowest average since 1900? Here goes, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia:

OK, but here's the good news: If we go back into the 19th century and count all seasons of 500 plate appearances or more, Dunn has just pulled ahead of the record-holder. That's a fellow named Joltin' Jim Canavan, who hit .166 for those 1892 Chicago Colts (who later morphed into the Cubs).

So since Dunn is one of our favorite people in baseball, we're hereby dragging Canavan into this mess, which gives Dunn a one-point lead in this dramatic 19th century versus 21st century tussle.

And if that isn't a reason to pore through those box scores every single day for the next two months, we can't imagine what is.

Ready to Rumble

• Despite all the talk about how much Nationals GM Mike Rizzo wanted B.J. Upton, it's now clear the young center fielder he most coveted was Denard Span. But what are the odds Washington can rekindle that deal with the Twins next winter? Not good.

"The only reason they even thought about trading him now was they thought they had a chance to win, and bullpen was the one thing they thought they really needed," an executive of one club said of the Twins. "So when they had a chance to get [Drew] Storen, they thought he was by far the best closer out there. But once that deal fell through, they'll be dealing with a different set of circumstances [next offseason]. That same sense of urgency won't be there in the winter."

In the end, according to clubs that have spoken with both teams, the Span deal didn't even blow up over Storen, much as some folks in Washington were agonizing over whether to trade him. What killed the deal was that the teams could never settle on a second player in the trade.

Twins

The Twins have long had their eyes on Washington's Triple-A second baseman, Stephen Lombardozzi, the son of former Twins infielder Steve Lombardozzi. But teams that have asked about the younger Lombardozzi say the Nationals have shown no interest in moving him.

• Speaking of the Twins, one potential trade chip we hear they decided they were willing to listen on, right before the deadline, was Francisco (No-Hit) Liriano. But he was only available for a massive prospect return. And obviously, they never lined up a club willing to pay it.

• Clubs that have spoken with the Tigers and Red Sox report each of them was closing in on a deal with the Dodgers for Hiroki Kuroda last week. But Kuroda never did specifically say no to either deal because, before they got that far, he decided he wasn't ready to leave L.A., the team he'd specifically left Japan to pitch for. So it wouldn't be a surprise now if he re-signs with the Dodgers this winter instead of heading back to Japan.

• We're also hearing the Red Sox made a bigger run at Ubaldo Jimenez than most people realized late last week. But they had trouble matching up with Colorado because the Rockies preferred the sort of trade they made with Cleveland, fronted by high-ceiling pitching prospects. So at one point, we've heard, the two teams tried to work around that hang-up by discussing an expanded deal that could have included a swap of Josh Reddick for Seth Smith. But that deal, from all accounts, was essentially dead by Saturday.

Domonic Brown
Brown

• After the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence without including Domonic Brown in the package, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told the Philadelphia media, unequivocally, "I got 400,000 calls asking me about Domonic Brown and he was not available. Other people can think whatever they want, but he was not available."

But Rumblings was told by officials of three different clubs the Phillies WERE willing to talk about Brown in the "right" deal -- namely, in the words of one of those officials, "for the right guy, for a certain length of time, [as in] not just for this year." An executive of another one of those clubs said, flatly, "They would have been open to trading him. In fact, I still think they would rather have traded Brown than the kid they traded [Jonathan Singleton]."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Astros were under the impression they could have substituted Brown for Singleton in the Pence trade. So if this guy wasn't available, the teams on the other end of the phone didn't get that memo.

• Teams that have spoken with the Phillies since the deadline don't expect them to be very active on the waiver-deal front this month. The biggest reason: They're so close to the luxury-tax threshold, they can't afford to claim any player who is owed more than a few hundred thousand bucks.

Astros

• We've heard all the cracks about Astros GM Ed Wade after he made his third big deal with his old team, the Phillies. But we've also found a lot of people in the industry who have leaped to Wade's defense this week.

One scout who covers the Phillies' system said Wade made "a great trade" for Pence, getting two potential stars in Singleton and Jarred Cosart and adding a third prospect (Josh Zeid) who "could pitch in the big leagues, as a reliever, right now."

Another scout, who has been through the Astros' system, called shortstop prospect Jonathan Villar -- a big piece in last July's Roy Oswalt deal -- "maybe the best position player in the whole organization." (We should note that Villar is hitting a disappointing .227/.294/.415 in the Texas League, but he's also doing it as a 20-year-old at Double-A.)

An executive of yet another team went out of his way to say, "I feel for Ed. I really do. He was caught between two owners [Drayton McLane and the soon-to-be-approved new boss, Jim Crane]. Now he's got to sit there and take the brunt of this. And nobody above him has stood up and said, 'We mandated this. He was just following orders.' But that's all he was doing -- following orders. And he made two pretty good deals under the circumstances."

Rangers

• One AL exec on the Rangers, in the wake of their trades for Koji Uehara and Mike Adams: "Texas might be the best team in the league. Even if they're not, they're probably the most balanced team in the league."

• An official of one team that talked to the Yankees on several potential trades: "They wouldn't trade [Manny] Banuelos in any deal. They would have traded [Dellin] Betances in a big deal. And I still think at some point they'll wind up trading [Jesus] Montero. Right now, they're overvaluing him -- but they have to, to keep the perception of his value as high as they'd like it to be."

• In other news, loyal reader Chris Isidore checked in with a tidbit that perfectly exemplifies the surreal U-turn this sport has taken on the labor frontier:

Active NFL players who have been through a work stoppage: 100 percent.

Active NBA players who have been through a work stoppage: 100 percent.

Active MLB players who have been through a work stoppage: 6. And that's not 6 percent. That's six PLAYERS: Omar Vizquel, Ivan Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Tim Wakefield, Chipper Jones and Darren Oliver.

Now Arthur Rhodes and Matt Stairs were on this list until just a few days ago. Miguel Batista would rejoin it if the Mets call him up. And then there's A-Rod, who had made his big league debut a month before the strike hit in 1994 but was sent out a week before the world ended, in part so he could keep playing.

But even if we count all of them, that's a mere 10 players remaining who are still scarred by the ghosts of 1994-95. Back then, this was the sport in which the work stoppages felt inevitable. Now it feels like the only sport in which they're virtually unthinkable.

• Finally, those unwritten rules of baseball were back in vogue this week -- and it was great to have them back.

Is it a violation of those rules to bunt in the eighth inning of a no-hitter? Who the heck knows? So Rumblings checked in with our favorite baseball humorist, longtime third-base coach/witticist Rich Donnelly, currently managing the Brooklyn Cyclones in the New York-Penn League.

"I can't believe you asked me that question," Donnelly told us. "I'm in Barnes & Noble right now, and I just asked the woman if they had a copy of that Unwritten Rule Book. She said, 'I'm not sure. Who's the author?' I started rattling off every manager in baseball history. When I got to John McGraw, she stopped me and said, 'I don't think we have it.'"

Five Astounding Facts (Friday Edition)

1) Michael Bourn is leading the National League in stolen bases -- and he just got traded. So how many players in history have ever led their league in steals in a year they got traded? Just three: Minnie Minoso (Indians/White Sox) in 1951, Brian Hunter (Tigers/Mariners) in 1999 and, of course, Rickey Henderson (Yankees/A's) in 1989. Hard to believe Rickey only did that once, isn't it?

2) Edwin Jackson and his former teammate, Gavin Floyd, each gave up 10 runs in a game Wednesday. Incredibly, it was the third time this year two pitchers allowed at least 10 runs on the same day. And you want to know the last season THAT happened? Would you believe 1937, when it happened SIX times. Box score watching sure was action-packed in those days.

3) Speaking of Jackson, he gave up all three bombs in Casey McGehee's three-homer game Wednesday. That makes him just the fifth active pitcher to serve up all three jacks in somebody's three-homer game. The others, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, David Vincent: Tim Hudson (to Ryan Howard on Sept. 3, 2006), Jake Peavy (to Geoff Jenkins on May 21, 2003), Bartolo Colon (to A-Rod on April 26, 2005) and Tim Wakefield (to Frank Thomas on Sept. 15, 1996).

4) In the midst of his increasingly historic 0-for-45 funk, Craig Counsell went 0-for-July -- as in 0-for-31. Our favorite streak guru, Trent McCotter, reports that was the biggest 0-fer in any calendar month since at least 1918. Previous record in the live-ball era: an 0-for-30, by Richie Scheinblum in April 1969.

5) And anybody out there remember Edgar Renteria hitting two huge home runs in the World Series last year (in a mere 17 at-bats)? Thought so. Well, it took him until Aug. 2 to hit two home runs in the regular season. Finally bopped No. 2 on Tuesday -- in his 205th trip to the plate of the year. Just more proof that crazy stuff happens EVERY October.

Tweets of the Week

• From always-entertaining "Late Show" genius @EricStangel:

Obama's "Super Committee" should also try to figure out what the hell the Houston Astros are doing...

• And now this nostalgic trade-deadline "reminiscence," from 19th-century pitching legend @OldHossRadbourn, whose memory is remarkably sharp for a guy who's now been dead for 114 consecutive years:

I remember one trade dead-line when the Yankees sent malaria and smallpox to the Indians in exchange for acres and acres of land.

Headliner of the Week

This just in, from the hilarious headline-parody site, ironictimes.com:

NFL Signing Frenzy, Baseball Trading Deadline Arrive
Packers trade backup quarterback to Cubs for relief pitcher.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com