John Smoltz, who posted an 8.32 ERA for the Red Sox, has turned his game around since getting to St. Louis and has a 2.65 ERA for the Cardinals. Rafael Betancourt, who was an average reliever for the Indians, didn't allow a run his first 14 outings for the Rockies. Cliff Lee, who pitched well but lost more games than he won with the Indians this year, transformed into an almost-unhittable hurler in his first five starts for the Phillies.
Then, in perhaps the biggest league-switching eye-opener of all, Brad Penny, who was released by the Red Sox after appearing to run out of steam in Boston, threw eight shutout innings in his first start back in the National League for the Giants after never getting past seven for Boston. And that start came against the Phillies, who are described as the NL team that's most like an AL team.
"Going from the AL to the NL, it's like oxygen," one AL general manager said.
"If I'm an NL GM," said another AL GM, "I'm taking every scrap heap player from the American League."
That actually does appear to be a strategy for some opportunistic NL GMs. Whether or not they intentionally focused on the AL-to-NL switch, the Cardinals, Rockies and Dodgers especially appear to have benefited by mining the superior league for talent. Not coincidentally, those three teams are in playoff positions as of today.
The Cardinals, whose rescue of Matt Holliday from the A's was maybe the best midyear move (along with Lee), have used the Red Sox in particular as a source of talent, acquiring Smoltz and Julio Lugo this year after importing Joel Pineiro two years ago. The Dodgers, who last year transformed their season by acquiring Casey Blake and especially Manny Ramirez from the Indians and Red Sox, respectively, went so far as to take a DH, Jim Thome, from the White Sox this summer.
The Man-child became otherworldly when he went to the Dodgers in 2008 (although part of that could have been because of increased effort, as well), and so did CC Sabathia when he went to the Brewers (though to be fair, he's having that sort of second half with the Yankees, too).
Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has done very well by importing Huston Street and Betancourt, and within the past several days took flyers on struggling former stars Jason Giambi and Jose Contreras. Giambi, who had been horrendous with the A's this season, already helped win a game. As for Contreras, well, Rockies people privately will tell you they took him because they had few other options. But Contreras could be the best test case of all. Since he was absolutely putrid on the White Sox this season, if he thrives in Colorado he has a chance to become the greatest turnaround example of all.
When O'Dowd was asked whether he considers a change of leagues in making deals, he answered honestly. "I do," he said, before adding that sometimes he also considers a change of scenery, as was the case with Jason Marquis, who was mediocre for the Cubs in recent years before becoming an All-Star for the Rockies this year.
O'Dowd said the difference in leagues has been obvious for a decade. He cited Randy Johnson's trade from Seattle to Houston way back in 1997 as the first case of an incredible transformation. "He was OK in Seattle [that year], but he went on a roll that was phenomenal in Houston," O'Dowd recalled. Johnson was known as a terrific talent with the Mariners but wound up winning his four straight Cy Young Awards with the NL's Diamondbacks.
The AL has won 11 straight All-Star decisions (assuming each team has a 50-50 chance in All-Star Games, the chances for the AL to win 11 straight would be 1 in 2,048), and has also won the interleague battle six straight years, with that tally being slightly more lopsided over the past four years. (The AL has won 55 percent of interleague games over the last six years but the percentage rises to 57 percent over the last four.)
However, it's still the individual examples that are most glaring. Holliday, a superstar with both the Rockies and now again with the Cardinals, had a rough three months with the A's before happily escaping a bad situation for one of baseball's better environments. Hitting .286 and slugging .454 with the A's, Holliday has gone on a tear since getting to St. Louis, where his batting average has jumped to .375 and his slugging percentage to .691 as he has helped to lead the Cardinals' surge that has all but wrapped up the NL Central Division.
LaTroy Hawkins is yet another example of a complete turnaround. Released by the Yankees last year, he has been lights out with the Astros this year. His ERA in New York was 5.71; with Houston it was 0.43 last year and 2.05 this year.
Since the leagues draw talent from the same amateur and professional pools, it seems odd that one league would be so dominant. Theories abound, ranging from the DH in the American League to differing styles (the sac bunt is all but dead in the AL) to the high payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox to increased competition based on trying to keep up with the teams at the top (usually those two juggernauts in the AL East).
"You can do nothing like the Houston Astros and still compete every season in the NL," one AL executive pointed out. (The Astros aren't exactly in the mix this year, though.) Another executive said he believed that the White Sox and Blue Jays, two AL teams with losing records this year, would contend in the NL.
Many baseball people believe that there is a psychological element as well, especially for pitchers who don't have to deal with a DH and thus face shorter, generally less-dangerous lineups. No team in the National League has a hitter as talented as Robinson Cano bating seventh or J.D. Drew hitting eighth. "I am flabbergasted at how different it is," one AL executive said. "In the National League, a pitcher can pitch around the No. 6 hitter to get to 7, 8 and 9."
Patient lineups such as those for the Yankees and Red Sox wear down pitchers. And bigger ballparks provide a comfort zone for pitchers in the NL.
But many folks in the American League think the difference between the leagues is about something much more obvious.
"All the talent's here," one AL GM said. "It's a pretty [crummy] league over there."
• It's believed that the Yankees will treat Derek Jeter like all their iconic players and mainstays and let him go into his walk year next year unsigned. In this case, they also know that negotiating off an MVP-caliber season would favor Jeter. That's the way they handled Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and Jeter's best friend, Jorge Posada.
• Amazingly, in their mid-30s, Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Andy Pettitte all are having much better seasons this year than last year. With his home run on Thursday, Posada became the sixth catcher to have eight 20-homer seasons. Courtesy of Steve Lombardi of the famed waswatching.com, the others are Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza (11), Yogi Berra (10), Gary Carter (9) and Carlton Fisk (8). All but Piazza are in the Hall of Fame, and Piazza's overall numbers are obviously better than all the others.
• Speaking of amazing, Albert Pujols now has 361 home runs to tie Joe DiMaggio. Pujols' career start is often compared to DiMaggio's for the power without many punchouts. Pujols has 561 K's compared to DiMaggio's 369. But as for the power, let's not forget Pujols is still only 29, meaning he might only be halfway through his career.
• Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett appear to have hit a slump simultaneously. It's probably just coincidence, but both slumps have come after they hooked up in a scoreless duel eventually won by the Yankees 2-0 in 15 innings. Since that game five starts ago, Burnett has a 7.12 ERA, Beckett 7.46.
• According to scout scuttlebutt, Holliday isn't automatic to stay in St. Louis. While he's thriving there, he could be pursued by the deeper-pocketed Yankees, Mets and maybe even the Red Sox (especially if Boston fails to sign Jason Bay). The Cardinals are going to try hard to keep him, though.
• One other possible explanation for some of the pitching turnarounds in St. Louis is pitching coach Dave Duncan. He was upset by the treatment his son Chris received there, but one competing GM said, "They better not let him get away." Both Duncan and manager Tony La Russa -- who was also upset that Chris Duncan wasn't treated as he could have been (Chris is said to be like a nephew to La Russa) -- are free agents after the year.
• The Rockies plan to keep Huston Street out through the weekend. His biceps tendinitis is something that came on suddenly.
• The Yankees don't seem too worried about Rivera's groin issue. It was recently revealed to have been bothering him off-and-on all year.
• Billy Wagner expressed some concern about his control in an article in the Boston Globe. His fastball looks pretty healthy, though, as he hit 97 on Thursday night. As promised, Boston is being cautious with him.
• Alex Gonzalez has done a nice job at shortstop for Boston. They could bring him back, or perhaps try an upgrade with Marco Scutaro, who's a free agent after this season. However, they don't seem anxious to bring back Orlando Cabrera, who's also a free agent.
• Pedro Martinez has been as good as the Phillies could have hoped. To think, only the Phillies and Rangers showed real interest. The Cubs actually were interested, but their unsettled ownership situation appeared to be an issue at the time. The Brewers had some interest, but a scout missed the workout because Pedro arrived late (maybe he should have stayed around).
• One competing GM said he could see the Cubs seeking to pay about half the $21 million remaining on Milton Bradley's contract in order to trade him. Another GM said he felt, considering Bradley's issues, they'd have to pay nearly all of the money to be rid of the temperamental slugger.
• Curt Schilling said he has some interest in replacing Ted Kennedy as a Massachusetts senator. But the only real applicable experience he has is all his filibustering.
• Author Erin Arvedlund seemed to back away from her public claim that the Wilpons would have to sell the Mets in a year or two. (She said that in an interview with me and co-host Adam the Bull on WFAN.) Mets lawyer David Howard had beaten down Arvedlund a couple days earlier on Fox, and by the WFAN interview she conceded that she wasn't absolutely sure that the Wilpons would have to sell, or even take a partner. She also said that she didn't know anything about the Wilpons' other holdings. The Wilpons and Howard both say that they have no plans to sell. Arvedlund said a spokesman for Bud Selig also told her that she was wrong with her prediction.
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