First-Half Questions Make Second-Half Answers
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
I can’t be alone in wishing the All-Star break took place at the dead midpoint of the schedule; the event is such a natural dividing point that there being less baseball to come in this season than has already been played just doesn’t feel right.
With that caveat, it’s still fair to think of there being a half-season left to play, and that’s a lot of baseball. There’s time enough for the White Sox or Tigers to collapse,opening the possibility of both the Yankees and Red Sox making the postseason and time enough for the Mets to fade and another team to rise, turning the NL East into a race.There’s also time enough for players to entirely change the regard in which they’re held; for failures to redeem themselves and breakout seasons to turn into hot three-month stretches. It’s still early, and there are on-field stories that are about to become a lot more important, and quickly.
The top player to watch after the break, I’d say, is Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur. Granting that there are eight teams ahead of them and that they’re nine games under .500, the Braves are just six games out of the wild-card spot, and in an incredibly weak league they have about as good a chance as anyone of seeing October.
That’s where their young right fielder comes in. Superficially he’s doing fine, with a .260 average, 16 home runs, and 62 RBI, but there’s more disconnect between his triple crown numbers and his offensive performance than there is for any other player in the game. Francouer’s .441 slugging percentage is passable, but his .282 onbase average is horrific, a product of his complete inability to draw a walk.
As we’ve seen with Jose Reyes, though, a young player with enough talent can improve enormously in no time at all provided he’s in the right situation, and there can be few better ones than learning at the knee of legendary manager Bobby Cox. Francoeur isn’t all raw talent, and there are reasons to be encouraged by how he’s played this year: He’s a much better hitter in key situations, and his on-base average at home is .328, which is fine given his youth, power, and defense. If he can start hitting on the road nearly as well as he does in Atlanta, his awesome power could be enough to make everyone look like fools for counting out the Braves — yet again.
In Detroit, meanwhile, manager Jim Leyland faces a classic dilemma. Justin Verlander is probably his best pitcher, and the Tigers are just 2.5 games up on the White Sox in the AL Central. He’s also just 23 years old, and about three starts away from surpassing his previous professional high in innings pitched.
Verlander has an easy delivery, a strong arm, and he doesn’t rack up huge pitch totals, as he uses his 97+ mph fastball to induce easy grounders rather than going for strikeouts; it’s all reason to think he can handle an ace pitcher’s workload. And while the Tigers have a lot of young talent, they also rely heavily on veterans like Pudge Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers, and play in what’s stunningly become the toughest division in the game; they can’t assume they’ll be in this position again any time soon.
So how hard should Leyland push Verlander, and equally young though more proven no. 2 starter Jeremy Bonderman? It’s an unanswerable question, and he’s going to be second-guessed either way. The Florida Marlins rode Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett hard to a championship in 2003, with no ill effect on either young pitcher; the Chicago Cubs rode Mark Prior and Kerry Wood even harder that year, got nothing out of it, and seem to have ruined the careers of their irreplaceable aces in so doing. Leyland’s done a masterful job so far this year, but his toughest decisions are yet to come.
Past these two stories, you have one of the more interesting happenings in baseball,which is the complete collapse of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the wake of the revelation of pitcher Jason Grimsley’s cooperation with federal investigations into the baseball’s drug culture. Among the embarrassing consequences were their complete disintegration on the field (a month ago they were nine games over .500, now they’re two games under) and a feud between management and star outfielder Luis Gonzalez over rumors that the outfielder was fueled by steroids when he hit 57 home runs in 2001.
As soon as next year, though, this may be seen as one of the best things that ever happened to the team. Diamondbacks culture has always been to keep veteran players around out of loyalty,regardless of their performance on the field. New general manger Josh Byrnes, formerly a top executive with the Red Sox, was faced at the beginning of the year with the dilemma of how to work around that culture to create spots for the team’s stellar crop of star prospects without alienating himself from the organization, fans, and press corps the way Paul DePodesta did in Los Angeles. There is a perspective from which a pennant this season could be seen, in fact, as not in the long-term interests of the club.
Now, though, Byrnes’s approach seems to have more currency. The Diamondbacks set a record by eating $22 million worth of salary when they released pitcher Russ Ortiz, an ill-advised signing of the previous regime. There is almost no chance Gonzalez will have his $13 million option picked up. And the collapse will create pressure to play for the future by creating spots for prospects like Chris Young. Good teams turn failure into advantage; in a weak division, the last three months of this season could see the foundations of a powerhouse being laid in the desert. Or not — it’s still early to tell.