Wednesday April 29th, 2009

Earlier this season, Padres closer Heath Bell caused a stir when he said that ESPN "only cares about promoting the Yankees and Red Sox and Mets and nobody else." And after last weekend's Yanks-Sox series, readers were playing a familiar tune.

Has anyone considered that the overhype given to Yankees-Red Sox is actually hurting baseball? I recognize the tradition and rivalry, but with so much attention paid to these two teams is it any wonder why ratings and interest is way down when these teams aren't playing? True baseball fans will pay attention no matter who is playing. --Tim, Washington, D.C.

I certainly hope that last part is true, Tim, but the truth of this matter is that the Red Sox and Yankees are two of the most popular -- if not the two most popular -- teams in baseball. They are two of baseball's national teams (to a lesser degree, I'd say the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets would qualify as teams with sizable followings around the country). I'd also venture to guess that there are more Yankees and Red Sox fans than any other team. And if TV ratings and Web traffic are any indication, they are usually more passionate as a group than any other team's fans, which means that they are more likely to watch or read anything that has to do with their teams. Case in point: either the Yankees or Red Sox has led the major leagues in road attendance each of the past seven seasons (the Yankees four times, the Red Sox three times) and both teams have been in the top five every year this decade, holding down the top two spots from 2005-07.

Still, Tim raises an interesting point. So instead of just answering questions here, I'm going to ask one to all you readers out there: If you're not a fan of the Yankees or Red Sox, do you find yourself watching games that they play and/or reading stories about them anyway? Or do you consider them overhyped and try at all costs to ignore them? I'll try and print some of the responses in next week's Mailbag, so keep them brief and keep them civil.

As for the matter of the two teams on the field ...

It looks like the Rays, Jays and O's have young teams on the rise. Do you see the Yankees and Red Sox becoming less relevant in the East for at least a little while? --Ford, Toronto

I don't think the Yankees and Red Sox will ever be less relevant any time in the near future. Putting aside for a moment the overwhelming popularity both teams enjoy (which we've already touched on above), the Red Sox are not only the most successful franchise of the past five seasons, but they're the hottest team in baseball this year. The Yankees, like any team that is successful, will get plenty of ink, but because of their humongous payroll, their brand new stadium and their immense history, they're almost as big a story when they don't win as when they do.

And let's take a look at the AL East's other three teams for a second. The Rays were the best team -- and best story -- in baseball last season, but their slow start this year has dropped them back to the rest of the pack both in terms of performance and interest. The Orioles and Blue Jays both have enough young talent in the minor leagues to think the future is bright, but neither has done enough to show that they are any kind of long-term threat this year, or beyond, to the stranglehold the Yankees and Red Sox hold over the AL East.

There once was a team that all the sports pundits were talking about having broken into the elite teams in the AL after more than a decade of epic stinking. Then, they suddenly won more than 90 games with great young pitching and players finally developing from a rich farm system. They dethroned a major established power in the AL East during the playoffs, came in favored to win the World Series, but lost 4-1 in a final game that had been delayed by inclement weather. The next year, everyone said they'd be on top again, but they stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. No, it's not Tampa Bay. It's the Detroit Tigers. In '07 people were trying to find the next Tigers while the real Detroit was stinking it up. This year everyone's looking for this year's Tampa Bay. I've got a better question. Why should we believe the '09 Rays won't be this year's 2007 Tigers? -- Anthony Greco, Los Angeles

After 20 games, the Rays are 8-12, three games worse than the Tigers were at a similar point in 2007. Here's a statistical breakdown of those clubs through 20 games:

This year's Rays clearly have a better offense, but they're being doomed by a worse pitching staff. As brutal as the AL East is likely to be this year, the Rays have actually fared better against division foes (4-5) than against the rest of the AL (4-7). And even though it's early, the Rays would be wise not to wait much longer to turn things around. The Tigers won 88 games that year, finishing eight games behind the Indians in the Central and six games behind the Yankees in the Wild Card race. Yet they were in first place as late as mid-August, before a 6-11 swoon dropped them seven games out.

The Rays started almost as poorly last season, getting off to a 9-11 start that left them in last place, 5 1/2 games out. This year, they've been even worse, currently holding an 8-13 mark and sitting 6 1/2 games out. They'd have to play .567 ball the rest of the way to reach 88 wins and .631 ball to match last year's total of 97 wins.

How long do you think the Dodgers' pitching staff will hold this pace they have set so far this season? --Michael Herron, Greensboro, N.C.

They should at least be able to keep it going for a couple more weeks because they only play one team that currently ranks in the top 10 in runs scored in the National League between now and May 12. That team? The woeful Nationals, which sit at ninth with 85 runs, but also have easily the worst record in baseball. In addition to three games with Washington, the Dodgers will also face the Giants five times, Padres four times and Diamondbacks three times. What's more, all of those games -- save the last two of their current set in San Francisco -- will be at home.

Perhaps the biggest key will be getting Clayton Kershaw back on track. The 21-year-old lefty opened eyes with two terrific starts to open the season, including a 13-strikeout, one-walk gem against the Giants on April 15. Since then, however, he's gone 0-2 with an ERA of 15.00 with just seven strikeouts to six walks.

How much will Ryan Doumit's wrist injury derail the Pirates' effort to finish with at least 81 wins this season? --Mark Rupert, Albuquerque, N.M.

What is going on with the Pittsburgh Pirates? Is this year's start a preview that this team has begun to turn around and compete? Or is their recent success just luck and we'll see the same Pirates by the end of the year? --Brian Zarecky, Greensboro, N.C.

Doumit's injury is the first major adversity the Pirates have encountered during a surprising 11-8 start that has them in second place in the NL Central. It's not so much that his .244 average will be missed as his handling of the Pirates pitching staff and his knowledge of opposing hitters. Doumit requested that he still be allowed to travel with the team after surgery, and even though he's out for the next two months, he'll still be sitting in on team meetings and available to go over scouting reports. But that's not the same as having him on the field calling pitches and working with pitchers during the game.

There will surely be other bumps in the road, but the pitching and defense is demonstrably better than it was a year ago, when the Pirates finished last in the National League in runs allowed. This year, the Bucs are first in that same category. Improving run prevention is a critical, if often overlooked, component of success, and so far no team has had a bigger turnaround in that area than the Pirates.

How many catchers are in the Hall of Fame? I thought that position had the fewest? --Patrick Flynn, Amherst, Mass.

There are 16 catchers in the Hall of Fame and 13 third basemen. The catchers are: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roger Bresnahan, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Buck Ewing, Rick Farrell, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Gaby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop and Ray Schalk. Third basemen enshrined include Frank "Home Run" Baker, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jimmy Collins, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, George Kell, Freddie Lindstrom, Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Pie Traynor and Jud Wilson.

Those two positions are likely to remain the most exclusive in Cooperstown. Mike Piazza should have little trouble getting into the Hall of Fame when his name is on the 2013 ballot (and Pudge Rodriguez, currently with the Astros, should be right behind him a few years later). At third base, only Chipper Jones is good enough and near enough to the end of his career to start getting his plaque ready. The position with the next-fewest members is second base, which has 18, but since both Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio can go ahead and start working on their induction speeches, it's unlikely that the number of catchers or third basemen in the Hall of Fame will surpass second basemen anytime soon.

Don't forget Ken Boyer in your list of great third basemen; as good a fielder as Schmidt, Traynor or Brooks Robinson, hit for a higher average than Schmidt and more power than Traynor -- overall, a much better player than Brooks or George Brett. --David Parsons, Salem, Ore.

Graig Nettles, third Baseman, Defensively, arguably in the top two, second only to Brooks? --Bill Remitz, Sacramento, Calif.

George Kell is undoubtedly one of the top five at third, but playing in 154-game seasons and no playoffs makes him look lower. --Jim Wiscome, Fort Worth, Texas

My ranking of the top five third baseman of all-time drew quite a few responses, some saying I'm a complete idiot and some saying I'm a complete idiot who left off a more deserving player. For the record, my list was Schmidt, Brett, Robinson, Jones and Traynor, four Hall of Famers and a fifth (Jones) who's headed there. But in comparing the weakest member of that group -- Traynor -- to some of your other suggestions, two things became clear: 1) I may actually be an idiot for not including Mathews; and 2) Perhaps the ranks of third baseman in Cooperstown should start blossoming. Consider:

The first two players in that table, Traynor and Kell, are Hall of Famers, while the other three are not. But their numbers are awfully similar. I don't think any of those three will be elected to Cooperstown (even Santo, the beloved former Cub who has been turned down by the Veterans Committee the last few years), but it's interesting to see that their numbers are so close to one another.

Looking into the future, where would you project Evan Longoria to wind up? Perhaps a Chipper vs. Longo comparison would be beneficial. --Nathan, Tampa, Fla.

I'm not ready to call Evan Longoria a future Hall of Famer just yet, but I think he has an excellent chance to at least match Chipper's MVP award, his six All-Star Game appearances and two Silver Sluggers and do something Chipper has never done: win a Gold Glove. Entering Tuesday, Longoria had played 140 games in the majors, the same number as Jones played in his 1995 rookie season (he played eight in a cup-of-coffee callup in 1993 before missing all of 1994 with an injury). Here's how they stack up:

When major league teams change minor league associations, what happens to the players that are on those minor league teams? --Richard, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The players under contract would move with the team from one city to the next. It is not at all uncommon for teams to switch minor league affiliates; last year, eight teams swapped Triple-A clubs alone (the Blue Jays, Indians, Mets, Braves, Marlins, Nationals, Dodgers and Diamondbacks).

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