Friday July 9th, 2010

Kansas City manager Ned Yost got a little carried away this week when he talked about the Royals making a run for first place in the AL Central. "Why can't we make a run?" he said.

Glad you asked. The short answer is that no team in the wild-card era has ever made the playoffs after reaching the All-Star break with a record as bad as the Royals have today (seven games under .500, eight games out). But hey, Kansas City is 27-23 under Yost and maybe it can steal two or three more games before the break to keep the dream alive.

The point is that optimism is great and we all love comebacks, but if you clip and save the standings from Monday morning and compare them to the day after the season ends, you won't find much difference. A study of the 14 full seasons of the wild-card era (1996-2009) shows that the standings at the All-Star break this year means good news for the Rangers and Yankees and bad news for the Royals, Athletics, Marlins, Brewers and Cubs (advice to those five clubs: Don't kid yourselves. Sell.)

Here's what 14 full years of Wild-Card Baseball have taught us:

• First-place teams should start printing playoff tickets. Teams with an outright division lead of any length at the All-Star break go to the playoffs 73 percent of the time (61 of 83).

• Any team with a lead of more than five games is a virtual postseason lock. Only one team led its division at the break by more than five games and didn't make the playoffs: the 2003 Royals, who blew a seven-game lead. Texas holds a 5 1/2-game lead today.

• Teams with losing records this deep into the season are toast. Only two sub-.500 teams at the break made the playoffs: the 1997 Astros (43-45) and the 2003 Twins (44-49), who had the luxury of "chasing" the Pirates and Royals, respectively. No team more than five games under .500 at the break has made the postseason.

• The AL East may have a tough reputation, but the reality is it doesn't have much drama when it comes to races. The division leader at the break has gone to the playoffs 13 out of 14 times, including 8-for-8 for the Yankees. (Though the Yankees have not led the AL East at the break since 2004.)

• The Reds likely will hold first place heading into the break for the first time in the wild-card era. That would leave only four franchises that have never reached the break atop their division in this format: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida and Colorado.

Many of the trade rumors involving Seattle pitcher Cliff Lee have a premium catcher prospect going back to the Mariners, a team with catchers who have combined to hit .205 with five home runs. The most-mentioned names are the Twins' Wilson Ramos and the Yankees' Jesus Montero. Ramos turns 23 next month, has a career .328 OBP in the minors and is hitting .202 this year. Montero is only 20, is hitting .253 in Triple-A and, because of shortcomings defensively, profiles as a 100-game catcher in the big leagues, with the rest of his time spent elsewhere, such as DH, to keep his bat in the lineup.

But the Mariners are too smart to lock in on finding a catcher, or filling any one position. According to a source familiar with their thinking, the Mariners are prioritizing offensive skill above any particular position on their wish list for Lee. GM Jack Zduriencik held a similar view in his scouting director background with the Brewers: take the best player available rather than try to fill a positional need. If Montero becomes the centerpiece to a deal with New York, it means that Zduriencik believes he is the best bat available, not necessarily the best catcher.

There are only two teams left in baseball that play their home games on artificial surface, the Rays and Blue Jays. But Toronto, the only one without a dirt infield, forfeits any advantage of the surface with a style of baseball that is decidedly old-school American League ball.

Toronto is next to last in the AL in batting average, last in OBP, last in sacrifice hits and next to last in stolen bases. Its batting average (.240) and OBP (.305) are on track to be the worst in franchise history over a 162-game season. Toronto batters hit more balls in the air and more infield pop-ups than any other team and have a greater percentage of plate appearances end with a strikeout than all others.

What the Jays do well is ambush fastballs, jumping on pitches early in the count while hunting for home runs. They have hit 28 home runs off the first pitch (by comparison, the Yankees have only 11), including seven by Vernon Wells. But it is a one-dimensional game that doesn't hold up well over a season. The Jays have won only six games all year without a home run, including just one since May 24.

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