Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Division Winner By Default

Mid-Season Report

Even though the All-Star Break isn’t until next week, Major League Baseball reached its statistical midway point last week. There have been a fair many surprises this season, more than I probably have the space to delve into here, but I’ll get to what I can.

-The Tampa Bay Rays are a no-brainer surprise; while many experts came into the season thinking the young Rays would be improved – possibly even a .500 club – who honestly thought Tampa Bay would be sitting with the best record in the bigs on July 9? The Rays are one of just eight teams in the majors with at least 50 wins and hold a three-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. And all this without a starter on the All-Star Team. I’m not sure if Tampa Bay can turn this into a division title or playoff berth, but it’s fun to watch, isn’t it?

-I wrote before the start of the season how I hoped the Baltimore Orioles wouldn’t lose 100 games this season. The team’s rebuilding process is in full swing, with the team dumping both Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada in the offseason. Couple that with a roster that I couldn’t pinpoint for the most part, and things weren’t looking good in Charm City. But as of July 9, the Orioles sit at .500, 44-44. Sure, the O’s are in 4th place in the AL East, but the fact that Baltimore has been competitive for this long in the season is a positive sign. Luke Scott, who came over in the Tejada deal with Houston, has produced, as have Adam Jones and closer George Sherrill, who came over in the Bedard trade. Sherrill even made the All-Star Team this year. Baltimore is still a good two or three years away from competing for a playoff spot – particularly in that division – but things aren’t nearly as gloomy in Baltimore as I thought they were.

-I’m not sure which is more surprising: the fact that the Detroit Tigers struggled the way they have in the first half, or the fact that the White Sox are in first place. Everyone was ready to give the Tigers the World Series title after they picked up Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera in the offseason, while the only question surrounding Chicago was when Ozzie Guillen would get fired. But with the Tigers struggling offensively and Willis stuck in A-ball, the White Sox (and the Twins, who are in second) have taken advantage. Perhaps the real surprise of the division, though, is how bad Cleveland’s been – the Indians are worse than the Royals at this point in the season.

-The trade deadline is still a few weeks away, but that didn’t stop Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs from making moves. The Brewers picked up reigning American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia for four prospects, two days before the Cubs responded by picking up Rich Harden from the Oakland A’s. Some might call the Cubs’ move nothing more than a response to the Brewers, but indications are the Harden deal had been in the works for weeks. Trades don’t normally go down this soon before the deadline, and I can’t honestly provide any reason for it. I guess this is the true meaning of the phrase "It is what it is."

-If the Yankees don’t make the playoffs this year, will Joe Torre laugh his butt off? Probably not publicly, but I bet behind the scenes he’d give a little chuckle. Granted, Torre’s Dodgers are below .500 (though only one game out of the division lead at 44-46), but considering Torre took the Yankees to the postseason all 12 seasons he was there, how poetic would it be for New York to miss the playoffs in its first year sans Torre? He might not laugh, but I will.

-For all the blustering about how the Mets are junk and not worth anything – before and after the haphazard firing of Willie Randolph – the team is still in the thick of it, one game behind Philadelphia in the NL East. The Mets have won four in a row, while the Phillies have lost four in a row – and I’m willing to bet New York will make the playoffs, at least as the wild card. Let’s face it, the National League just isn’t that good (need proof? The NL West-leading Diamondbacks needed a 2-0 win over the Nationals on Tuesday to get back to .500). They’ll have to deal with the Cardinals and the Brewers in the NL Central, but I’m not ready to write off the Mets yet.

There’s No Place Like … Philly?

Oh, to be the Los Angeles Clippers right now.

Last week, the Clippers signed Baron Davis to a free-agent contract, hoping to pair him with Elton Brand and make a run at the Western Conference. Brand had opted out of his deal, but said repeatedly he hoped to stay with the Clippers – and play with Davis, who opted out of the final year of his deal with Golden State.

Rather than take the $18.7 million owed to him at Golden State, Davis decided to return to his native L.A. and play with Brand. Only Brand didn’t keep his word, taking a free-agent deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

On top of that, the Clippers lost Corey Maggette to the Warriors, as if Golden State had been looking for a Clipper to take as retribution for Davis.

Ignore for now the public hit Brand will take for allegedly backing out on his word. Every indication was he wanted to stay and play with Davis – at least, that was what all the NBA insiders reported he’d been saying. So for Brand to turn around and take $52 million from an Eastern Conference team that’s almost a playoff team by default – it’s a bit odd.

And if I’m Davis, I’m more than a little ticked. All indications were that Davis signed with Los Angeles with the express purpose of playing with Brand (and possibly Maggette, though it looked as if the Clippers were going to lose him regardless). Davis will have Chris Kaman to give the ball to, but considering he thought he’d also be teaming up with Brand?

Maybe you really can’t go back home after all.

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