Wednesday April 22nd, 2009

In the nation's capital these days there's plenty of impatience and lots of talk about when things will finally turn around. The economy? Oh yeah, that too. The state of the area's two major league teams is almost as sad as the state of the economy. In Baltimore, the Orioles started well but have fallen back to a more familiar fourth place in the AL East. Meanwhile in D.C., the Nationals have the worst record in the majors (3-10).

What do the Orioles have to do to contend in the AL East? -- John Blue, Chapel Hill, N.C.

When will the Orioles make the postseason and will the Nationals ever stop being a laughingstock? -- Joseph Biederman, Alexandria, Va.

There is no postseason in the Orioles' immediate future, and as long as the Nationals are sending their teams on the field in misspelled jerseys, it's safe to say they'll be a laughingstock for some time. On the other hand, both teams got impressive major league debuts from highly touted pitching prospects this week. The Nats' Jordan Zimmermann, a 22-year-old righty, beat the Braves on Monday with six strong innings in which he allowed six hits and two runs while striking out three. The next night, 23-year-old Brad Bergesen made his first start for the Orioles, beating the White Sox after surrendering just one earned run in 5 2/3 innings.

What's even more heartening for Baltimore fans is that Bergesen may not even be the third-best pitching prospect in the organization. Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, each of whom impressed Orioles management in camp this spring, are ticketed for the majors, perhaps as early as the end of this season. Whether that's enough to allow the Orioles to compete in the AL East remains to be seen, but building their organization around young pitching is certainly the right approach. The Nats don't have nearly that much talent in the pipeline, but do own the No. 1 pick in June's draft, which is widely expected to be hard-throwing right-hander Stephen Strasburg. If the Nats take him -- and are able to sign him -- they'll have the pitcher who's hailed as the best young arm since Roger Clemens.

Can we start including Chipper Jones' name in the discussion of the greatest third basemen? I mean, he doesn't come close to Mike Schmidt's power numbers or glove, he doesn't have the glove of Brooks Robinson (but a much better bat). Compare him to George Brett and he stacks up as good or much better (more 100-RBI, 100-run seasons, more HRs, higher career BA/OBP/OPS, and he is a better defender). So is he a top-five all-time third baseman or should I wait a couple more years to throw it out there? -- Brent Reiser, Salt Lake City, UT

The position with the fewest Hall of Famers is third base. Only 13 have been enshrined in Cooperstown, so picking the five best ever at that position is easier than it would be at any other spot. I think the case can be made that Jones, a slam-dunk Hall of Fame choice, is already in the top five. Among players whose primary career position was third base, Jones, who turns 37 this week, ranks in the top 10 all-time in runs (sixth), hits (eighth), doubles (fifth), home runs (fourth), RBIs (fourth) and walks (sixth). All of those are categories in which he will only improve. He also ranks in the top 10 in the key hitting averages (seventh in batting, fifth in on-base percentage and first in slugging percentage). If Jones keeps that up, he would have a very good chance to pass Brett, who leads all-time among third basemen in runs, hits, doubles and RBIs and ranks second in games, at-bats and triples.

Right now I'd rank the top five as follows: Schmidt, Brett, Robinson (hard to ignore 16 Gold Gloves when Chipper hasn't won any), Jones and former Pittsburgh Pirates great Pie Traynor.

Which major league team has the best farm system? -- Adam, Hong Kong

There's no real way to determine which team has the absolute best system, and it's worth pointing out that as often as not top prospects don't translate into top big league players. That said, the Rangers, A's, Rays, Marlins and Braves are consistently regarded as having the best systems right now. The trick will be maintaining those rankings once the players who are so highly touted right now head to the major leagues, either this season or next. Having top-to-bottom organizational depth is a true sign of a team on the rise, so it's interesting to see that a team such as the Rays, that has already promoted a lot of great young talent to the majors (B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, etc.), has even more premium talent on the farm, most notably shortstop Tim Beckham and starting pitcher David Price, the two most recent overall No. 1 draft picks.

Despite the slow start, do my Cleveland Indians have hope of contending this year? -- Kenny Kraly, Jr., Elyria

Yes, they do, if for no other reason than they play in the AL Central, which has started the season as the most congested division in baseball (three teams tied for first entering Wednesday and a fourth team a half-game out) and could finish it that way, too. There are no elite teams in the Central this year, which means there are a lot of wins to be had. It would be a mistake to write off any team that's good enough to go into Yankee Stadium and open a can on the Bronx Bombers not once but twice, as the Tribe did in 10-2 and 22-4 routs last weekend. Once Cliff Lee starts consistently pitching like he did a year ago, they'll have the ace they need to stay in contention.

I hate to continue the discussion on Pete Rose, but I think the point needs to be made that all the betting that he was found guilty of was after he was a player. The almighty cardinal rule that he broke happened when he was the Cincinnati Reds manager. This being said, he should go into the Hall of Fame as a player and be banned from managing again. -- Jared Dinnessen, Cincinnati

I'd argue that the fact that Rose broke that rule as a manager is even worse than if he had done so as a player. For one, he'd already been in the major leagues for more than two decades, so he was more than familiar with the game's ban on gambling of any kind. For another, managers can influence the game in more direct ways, with greater consistency than any single player can. From which players are in the lineup every day, to which pitchers to use, to what pitches to call and what plays to put on, managers can subtly -- or not so subtly -- influence what happens before, during and after every pitch of a game. The fact that he lied about it for 15 years until he had a book to sell isn't helping him. I'd be shocked if he ever got into the Hall of Fame at this point.

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