The Boys of Late Summer

Nineteen teams still think they have playoff plans, but many will fall aside. Those that surprise and thrive in the season's second half will be teams rich in young arms and every-day players--like the Angels and, yes, the Rockies
July 23, 2006

Like a golfer atthe turn, a football team going back on the field at halftime or Ryan Seacrestcoming up for air between gigs, a baseball team coming out of the All-Starbreak is rejuvenated by the possibilities of what seems a fresh start. Over thepast four years no team has played baseball's back nine better than the NewYork Yankees, the only club to play .600 ball or better after the All-Starbreak in each of those seasons. Their captain, shortstop Derek Jeter, did nothesitate to reveal the formula for such second-half success. "You have tohave good pitching," he said last Friday before the Yankees, playing toform, opened another second act by sweeping a three-game series from theChicago White Sox. "If you rely on offense, it's going to come and go. Butif you pitch well, you can find a way to win even when you don'thit."

As Jeter spoke in the New York clubhouse, the Yankees' latest hope forsecond-half pitching reinforcement was on his way there from the airport: anoverweight, recovering alcoholic righthander who had been dumped by two clubsin the last 10 months and owned a 5.88 ERA since the start of the 2004 season.Sidney Ponson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles and most recently the St.Louis Cardinals, declared himself happy to be back in the American League, inpart because "[pitchers] don't have to run the bases."

Fitness aside,Ponson's glorified tryout in the New York rotation--he replaced last July'spotluck pickup, righthander Shawn Chacon--stood as a prime example of thestrange, even desperate days of this second half. Thanks to the wild-cardformat and revenue sharing, pennant races are no longer exclusively for theelite. A record-tying 19 teams stood within five games of a playoff spot at theAll-Star break, matching the total at that time in 2004. "Everybody'slooking for the same thing," says Toronto Blue Jays general manger J.P.Ricciardi, referring to a picked-over pitching market, "and there's nothingout there."

Only the New YorkMets, with a 12-game lead in the NL East at week's end, and the ALCentral--leading Detroit Tigers, the 12th team ever to start a 162-gameschedule 62--30 or better, looked like locks to be playing in October. Somuddled was the rest of the playoff picture that two teams with losing recordsentering the first weekend of the second half, the Los Angeles Angels and theColorado Rockies, still bore the look of second-half success stories waiting tohappen. In addition to playing in forgiving divisions, the Angels and theRockies were fortified by solid pitching, productive farm systems (which enablethem to explore what limited trade possibilities do exist) and every-daylineups stocked with players in or entering their prime--all essential elementsfor second-half success. Says one AL executive, "The Angels are the oneteam that clearly underachieved in the first half and have all the pieces for ahuge second half. Their pitching is scary good, and if they add one bat, lookout."

Meanwhile, SanFrancisco Giants G.M. Brian Sabean identified last-place Colorado, which hasbeen to the playoffs only once in its 14-year history, in 1995, as the mostformidable challenger in the tightly packed NL West. And even as a bullpencollapse contributed to a seven-game losing streak last week, Rockies G.M. DanO'Dowd wasn't inclined to disagree. "I think we're the team [in thedivision] that has the best chance to get better," he said. "We haven'tcome near our ceiling yet. The only thing we don't have is experience. We'restill learning how to win at this level."

If the first halfof a season offers hope to the mediocre, the second half demands excellence.From 2001 through last season 30 teams played .600 ball or better after theAll-Star break, including seven of the past eight World Series teams. Of thoseseven clubs, each had a significantly higher winning percentage in the secondhalf (.070 higher on average). Here, starting with Jeter's prerequisite, iswhat it will take for such a second-half surge.

Pitching,Pitching, Pitching

Of those 30 teamsthat were hot after the All-Star break, 21 finished among the top four in ERAin their respective leagues. That means the Milwaukee Brewers (16th in the NLthrough Sunday), Philadelphia Phillies (12th), Cincinnati Reds (11th), BlueJays (10th in the AL) and Texas Rangers (eighth) appeared to be underfortifiedfor a .600 run in the second half, despite their relative proximity to aplayoff spot at the break. On the other hand, the Angels (second in the AL) andthe Rockies (third in the NL) were contenders on more solid footing. LosAngeles boasted the league's best rotation this side of the scorching Tigers,with Bartolo Colon pitching well since returning from the disabled list, JohnLackey ranking second in the league in ERA (2.69) while holding opponents to a.194 batting average, Ervin Santana (11--3) flourishing in his first fullseason in a big league rotation and Jered Weaver becoming the first rookie towin his first six starts since the Dodgers' Kaz Ishii in 2002.

"Toronto willbe better in the second half if [A.J.] Burnett makes all his starts,"Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman says of the righthander who recently came off atwo-month stay on the DL. "But if the Angels play like they're supposedto--and they will if they keep getting that kind of pitching--I'm sure they'llbe there in the end."

For the first timein his seven years as Colorado G.M., O'Dowd was not searching for startingpitching. His rotation's 4.32 ERA was nearly a full run better than thefranchise record (5.19, in 1995), and the quartet of Jason Jennings, AaronCook, Jeff Francis and Josh Fogg had yet to miss a start. O'Dowd, however, waslooking for an experienced relief pitcher to revive his slumping bullpen.Possibilities included LaTroy Hawkins of the Orioles, Roberto Hernandez of thePittsburgh Pirates and Elmer Dessens of the Kansas City Royals.

Those pedestrianarms aren't likely to create a ripple throughout the division. So scarce isavailable pitching, however, that Cincinnati last week traded two productiveevery-day players, outfielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez, toWashington to essentially obtain two setup men, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray.Unless the Phillies put Tom Gordon on the market, relievers traded this Julymay be as underwhelming as the batch moved a year ago, when Kyle Farnsworth,Ron Villone, Kevin Gryboski, Jay Witasick and Chad Bradford were dealt.

Impact Trades

San Franciscomanager Felipe Alou says the NL West "is going to be determined by trades.Some team that comes up with a big one might turn the tide." The big ones,though, have become increasingly rare. The biggest names to change teams lastJuly, for instance, were B-listers Chacon (from Colorado to the Yankees),Farnsworth (Detroit to Atlanta), Randy Winn (from Seattle to San Francisco) andPreston Wilson (Colorado to Washington).

Any club thatthinks it can bolster its playoff rotation through a trade can just aboutforget it. Over the last three seasons only two pitchers were traded in Julyand made a postseason start that year: Chacon last season and Ponson for the2003 Giants. That track record should not encourage the Mets, who have lookedat Dontrelle Willis of Florida, Barry Zito of Oakland and Javier Vazquez andFreddy Garcia of the White Sox, all of whom were deemed off-limits. Chicagomanager Ozzie Guillen quashed rumors of talks between the White Sox and theMets by saying that his team is not trading a starting pitcher to get bullpenhelp. The best starter traded this year may turn out to be Livan Hernandez ofWashington or Rodrigo Lopez of Baltimore, who had ERAs of 5.87 and 6.44,respectively.

Second-half racesare more likely to swing on the return of injured starters such as BrandonBacke of the Houston Astros (expected back this month), Adam Eaton of theRangers (July 25), Mark Mulder of the Cardinals (perhaps mid-August) and RichHarden of the Oakland A's (late August).

Teams searchingfor a bat, such as the Angels, figure to have a more satisfying shoppingexperience. Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and David Dellucci of Philadelphia andAlfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen of Washington were among the best hitters whocould be moved. Though Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada would seem to be thehitter prospect-rich L.A. covets, a source familiar with Orioles trade talkssays Baltimore owner Peter Angelos has insisted since last winter on gettingproven major league talent in return for Tejada--and even then he killedoff-season talks with the Chicago Cubs (involving starter Mark Prior), theAstros (closer Brad Lidge) and the Minnesota Twins (centerfielder ToriiHunter).

Houston, whichstruck midseason gold in deals for lefty Randy Johnson in 1998 and outfielderCarlos Beltran in 2004, made its move during the All-Star break by trading twoprospects to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for infielder-outfielder Aubrey Huff, whohas proved to be a more productive player in the second half (box, above). Huffresponded with a game-breaking three-run homer in his first game for theAstros. "I can't imagine that playing in Tampa Bay, you can get too firedup," Houston first baseman Lance Berkman says. "Not being in contentioncan wear on a guy mentally, and I think having a change of scenery, where hefeels he can contribute, will give him something to play for. He may turn outto be the steal of the trading season."

Position Playersin Their Primes

The White Sox,Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins won the past three World Series without asingle RBI from a player older than 34. Those teams, as well as the 2002champion Angels, relied almost entirely on position players between 24 and 32years old. Of the five best career second-half hitters among active players(minimum 1,000 at bats through Sunday), according to Stats Inc., all were 32 oryounger: Todd Helton of the Rockies (.349), Albert Pujols of the Cardinals(.340), Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners (.326), Jeter (.322) and VladimirGuerrero of the Angels (.321).

The premium onyoung legs may be even higher this second half, when the dog days will beplayed for the first time under a ban on amphetamines and harsher penalties forusing performance-enhancing drugs. "Have I seen guys dragging at times thisyear and wondered, Hmmm, is that because of the ban? Yes," Yankeesrighthander Mike Mussina says. "But I haven't seen a real noticeabledifference on the field. You would think it would show up in the second half,but who knows? There's no way to measure it."

Says one NL G.M.,"You'll notice the difference in August and September, when guys reallystart to drag and their bats get slow."

Particularlyvulnerable to a slowdown could be the Padres and the Reds (both of whom havefour position players 34 or older), and the Giants, whose every-day lineupincludes four players 39 and older: shortstop Omar Vizquel and outfieldersBarry Bonds, Steve Finley and Moises Alou. San Francisco's old-timers figure tobe tested by a grueling end-of-season schedule. Of their final 31 games, theGiants play 19 on the road, all but three in the Eastern or Central time zones.The Angels' roster, by contrast, includes only five players older than 32, oneof whom (34-year-old Garret Anderson) is a regular. All of the Rockies are 32and younger except relievers Jose Mesa, 40, and Tom Martin, 36.

The Rockies? NLWest favorites? The idea seems as implausible as Jamey Carroll, a 32-year-oldutilityman purchased from the Nationals in February, having a breakout season(.322) and becoming Colorado's catalyst. The Rockies haven't finished fewerthan 15 games out of first place since 1997.

"I'm blessedto be here because I know I could have been fired three or four times,"says O'Dowd. "Now we've been able to take a step in the right direction.And we have a group in Double A that is going to merge with this one andhopefully become an outstanding team [down the road]. Right now we're going tohave fun and see what happens. If we can stay within five or six games, it'sgoing to get real interesting."

The latest trade talk and analysis from Tom Verducci and Jon Heyman

Over the last four seasons the Yankees had the highest winning percentage ingames played after the All-Star break (.634). But which teams had the largestincreases--and decreases--in winning percentage from before the break comparedwith after the break in that four-year period?


Astros .504 .590 +.086
Athletics .551 .622 +.071
Devil Rays .368 .427 +0.59
Twins .532 .582 +.050
Giants .538 .585 +.047


Orioles .480 .410 -.070
Mariners .520 .456 -.064
Tigers .400 .340 -.060
Mets .482 .426 -.056
Reds .480 .428 -.052


Players toWatch
Over the last four years these players had the largest increases--anddecreases--in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) from before the All-Starbreak compared with after it (minimum: 600 at bats before and after the breakfor the four seasons).


Geoff Jenkins, Brewers .789 .962 +.173
Chipper Jones, Braves .849 1.008 +.159
Adrian Beltre, Mariners .732 .870 +.138
Travis Lee, Devil Rays .698 .827 +.129
Carlos Delgado, Mets .914 1.040 +.126
Victor Martinez, Indians .763 .888 +.125
Aubrey Huff, Astros .794 .911 +.117
Joe Crede, White Sox .691 .807 +.116
Craig Monroe, Tigers .716 .832 +.116
Randy Winn, Giants .754 .867 +.113


Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks .841 .659 -.182
Paul Lo Duca, Mets .797 .639 -.158
Robert Fick, Nationals .791 .634 -.157
Mike Lowell, Red Sox .866 .725 -.141
Kevin Mench, Rangers .885 .748 -.137
Carlos Guillen, Tigers .857 .721 -.136
Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks .732 .607 -.125
Hank Blalock, Rangers .862 .740 -.122
Jose Guillen, Nationals .888 .767 -.121
Mike Sweeney, Royals .938 .820 -.118


Pitchers toWatch
Over the last four seasons these pitchers had the largest decreases--andincreases--in earned run average from before the All-Star break compared withafter it (minimum: 200 innings pre- and post-All-Star break over the fouryears).


Andy Pettitte, Astros 4.03 2.57 -1.46
Johan Santana, Twins 3.55 2.16 -1.39
Glendon Rusch, Cubs 5.21 4.11 -1.10
Doug Davis, Brewers 4.25 3.23 -1.02
Greg Maddux, Cubs 4.20 3.20 -1.00
John Thomson, Braves 4.83 3.94 -0.89
Mike Hampton, Braves 4.97 4.08 -0.89
Kevin Millwood, Rangers 4.03 3.18 -0.85
John Lackey, Angels 4.55 3.75 -0.80
Eric Milton, Reds 5.62 4.82 -0.80


Nate Robertson, Tigers 3.74 5.90 +2.16
Woody Williams, Padres 3.38 4.83 +1.45
Cliff Lee, Indians 3.73 5.03 +1.30
Esteban Loaiza, A's 3.82 5.00 +1.18
Mark Redman, Royals 3.87 4.98 +1.11
Tanyon Sturtze, Yankees 4.83 5.93 +1.10
Freddy Garcia, White Sox 3.70 4.75 +1.05
Jeff Suppan, Cardinals 3.92 4.86 +0.94
Dontrelle Willis, Marlins 2.84 3.76 +0.92
Miguel Batista, Diamondbacks 3.81 4.69 +0.88


PHOTOBrad ManginALLRIGHT - Weaver, a 23-year-old rookie who won his first six starts, increasesL.A.'s chances of winning the AL West. PHOTOAl TielemansPLENTYLEFT - By holding opponents to a .230 batting average, Francis, 25, givesColorado a shot in the NL West. PHOTOBRAD MANGINPUTTINGUP PRIME NUMBERS - None of the five best second-half hitters among activeplayers--(from left) Guerrero, Ichiro, Pujols, Jeter and Helton--are older than32. PHOTOLARRY GOREN/ICON SMI [Seecaption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS [Seecaption above] PHOTOANTHONY J. CAUSI/ICON SMI [Seecaption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS [Seecaption above]  PHOTOBRAD MANGIN (ZITO)BARRY ZITO PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (ARROYO)BRONSON ARROYO PHOTORICHARD C. LEWIS/WIREIMAGE.COM (HUFF) PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (LOWELL) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LACKEY)SALVATION ARMS - Through Sunday the Angels' (from left) Lackey, Santana andColon have combined to go 9--1 since June 20. PHOTOTOM DIPACE (SANTANA) [Seecaption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (COLON) [Seecaption above] PHOTORICK SCUTERI-US PRESSWIRE (MADDUX) PHOTOANDY ALTENBURGER/ICON SMI (ROBERTSON) TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (JENNINGS, COOK)HIGH ANDMIGHTY - Denver's thin air hasn't hindered (from left) Jennings, Cook andFogg, who had the Rockies on a record ERA pace. PHOTOOTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (FOGG) [Seecaption above]

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