Wednesday September 1st, 2010

It's a bellwether day in the baseball world, the first day of September, the day when the stretch drive begins, summer begins the turn into fall, and a bunch of guys you've never heard of start showing up in box scores. Here's what to watch over the final 33 days of the regular season:

The National League pennant race is easier to grasp if you look at it as seven contending teams for four slots, with at least one team from each division guaranteed a spot. The seven teams, from the Braves and Reds atop the league at 77-55 down to the road-challenged Rockies at 69-62, are separated by just 7-1/2 games in total, so it can be unclear on any given day whether a team's best path to the postseason is through a division title or the wild card.

Things can change in a hurry around here: The Cardinals had taken control of the NL Central after a sweep of the Reds, but now find themselves seven games out and struggling to get runners to third base, much less all the way home. The Padres had the best record in the league just a few days ago, but a six-game losing streak in the wake of Tony Gwynn's injury has dropped them to third and put their NL West lead, down to four games, in jeopardy. Of late, none of these teams is playing all that well; of the seven, only the Rockies are better than 6-4 over their last 10 games, one reason why there's so little separation among the group.

Right now, the best teams in the league are the pitching-rich Braves, the young-talent-laden Reds, and the rebuilt-on-the-fly Giants. The reeling Cards are the worst of the contenders, with the Phillies, Padres and Rockies filling out the group. With so many games among these teams remaining, it's not easy to predict how the postseason field will shake out. Lessons from recent Septembers tell us that the standings on Sept. 1 are written in sand, not stone, so look for change. In order, I'll take the Reds, Giants and Phillies to reach the playoffs, with the Braves edging the Padres for the last spot.

CORCORAN: NL pennant race predictions

GALLERY: Greatest pennant races of all time

MARCHMAN: Beware the September spoilers

Joey Votto leads the National League in batting average by a single point and RBIs by two, and is third in the league in homers, trailing the leader by three. Albert Pujols, slumping of late, is fourth in average by 11 points, leads the league in homers by two and is second in RBIs by two. Having one player with a realistic chance at the Triple Crown heading into September is a rare thing. Having two is unheard of. That, however, is where we are, as the two leading position players in the NL are going head to head, not just in the NL Central race, not just in the MVP voting, but in the three traditional stat categories.

As close as it is right now, Votto has a slight edge down the stretch. As a left-handed batter he hits with the platoon advantage more often than Pujols does, giving him a better shot to sustain a high average. Despite the monster season he's having, teams aren't avoiding him: he has drawn just four intentional walks all year long, to Pujols' 32. That helps his RBI count, as does having better OBP players in front of him. (The Cardinals' slide, and Pujols' slowing RBI tally, can both be traced to wretched performances by the top of the Cards' lineup over the past three weeks.) Home runs will be the challenge for both players, not least because of the presence of Adam Dunn. The Nationals' slugger has 33 homers, second to Pujols, and is more than capable of stealing that title from both players.

One other fly in the ointment is the Braves' Omar Infante, currently batting .341 (to Votto's .327) but without the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboard (he's 39 short entering Wednesday). He could steal the batting title either by getting to 502 PAs and outhitting Votto, or falling short of 502 PAs but qualifying under a technicality in which a player's batting average is calculated after adding hitless at-bats to his record to get to 502 PAs. These at-bats don't become part of the player's record, but if he still leads the league in batting after this math is done, he is awarded the title.

The biggest story as we open the month is the White Sox' acquisition of Manny Ramirez from the Dodgers. Ramirez, whose aging legs limited him to 66 games this season, was among the NL's best hitters when he was healthy enough to play. The White Sox, who have gotten wretched work from their DH slot, mostly Mark Kotsay, are counting on Ramirez not only being a huge upgrade, but on being able to stay in the lineup thanks to the DH rule. It's a good gamble by Kenny Williams, who got Ramirez just for taking on the four million bucks or so left on his contract, much of it deferred, and stands to cash in a lot more if Ramirez helps get the White Sox back to the playoffs.

They stand four games out as of Wednesday morning, their comeback win in Cleveland having been matched by the Twins' at home against the Tigers on Tuesday night. Ramirez should be worth one of those: Adding his bat to the lineup projects to about an 11-run improvement over having Kotsay get those at-bats. If you can make that kind of upgrade with 30 games left, you do it. The AL Central has gone down to the wire two years running, and the Twins came back from a deficit nearly twice a large a year ago, so there's no counting out the Sox.

There's a focus on the off-field ramifications of this transaction, with an undercurrent of "how will these explosive personalities" -- meaning Ramirez and manager Ozzie Guillen -- "combine?" I think that misses the point of Ozzie Guillen. To my mind, Guillen is the perfect manager for Ramirez, because he is a lightning rod for all controversy around the White Sox. You rarely hear about what Paul Konerko or A.J. Pierzynski or Mark Buehrle thinks, because Guillen is the voice and the identity of this team. I have no doubt that that will continue to be the case, that Guillen will do what he does, deflect attention from his players by his own actions, freeing them, Ramirez included, to just play baseball.

The two best teams in baseball are separated by a single game with 30 to play, which should be a recipe for a race like 1951 or 1978 or 1993. Instead, we'll get six-man rotations and September call-ups and a lack of tension.

With the injury-riddled Red Sox unable to hang in, the Yankees and the Rays are in excellent shape for the postseason, and are playing September merely for seeding. Extensive evidence, much of it from past AL East races, shows us that in these situations, managers play September not for September, but for October, wanting to win the division but unwilling to go all out to do so, preferring to ensure that their best 25 guys are healthy and prepared to take the field in the Division Series. It's hard to argue with the approach -- home-field advantage in short series is a small thing to fight over, and wild cards have had a lot of success in October -- but it's hard to not feel a little cheated. MLB, led by Bud Selig, sacrificed September to build October, and there was a lot lost in the deal.

If you're looking for a key factor, consider that the Rays' closing kick is sponsored by Crumbs, the great cupcake chain in New York. They finish against the three worst teams in the league, the Mariners, Orioles and Royals.

LEMIRE: AL pennant race predictions

America was introduced to Reds rookie Aroldis Chapman on Tuesday night, as the Cuban emigre fired a perfect inning in his major league debut against the Brewers, touching 103 mph with his fastball and showing off a slider that Randy Johnson would envy. Chapman is the most famous and probably most impressive of September's call-ups, but there are other players to be on the lookout for:

• The Rays could get a similar bounce by promoting lefty Jake McGee. A starter by trade, McGee has been working out of the bullpen since reaching Triple-A, with ridiculous results: 23 strikeouts and just one walk in 14 2/3 shutout innings. Two years ago the Rays pushed David Price to the majors and turned him into a high-impact, multiple-inning reliever. McGee is on that same path.

• The Royals' future looks brighter in part due to Mike Moustakas, their 2007 first-round pick who has finally emerged as a middle-of-the-order hitter this year. Moustakas recently set a Pacific Coast League record with 11 RBIs in a single game, and is the left-handed average-and-power hitter that the team had hoped Alex Gordon would become. Moustakas, slugging .635 across two levels this year, may get a look in Kansas City when the PCL season ends.

• The Angels' season is over, so it behooves them to get a look at their prospects. The one closest to the majors is powerful first baseman Mark Trumbo, who may serve as 2011 insurance against Kendry Morales not making a return to full health and productivity. Trumbo doesn't have a star upside, but he has shown significant power development in the last year and has earned a shot at a major league job.

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