Beisbol first marker

If the baseball season were a horse race, Memorial Day weekend would be the far turn; that point at which the bloody thing just begins to come dimly into focus. In the 2008 sweepstakes we get all kinds of signals at this first major marker, most of them mixed.

With a little less than a third of the regular season over here’s some handicapping updates for those of you still paying more attention to basketball and hockey while anxiously fretting over “Spygate”. The envelopes please!

Best teams: (and those most likely to make it to the post-season)

Your Red Sox in the American League. Everyone’s Cubs in the National. This is the October match-up half of America yearns for but I don’t want to go there until it actually happens. Watch for too much to be said about it in the meantime. The Angels also make the cut, as do the utterly anonymous Diamondbacks who must be doing it with mirrors.

Best players: (and MVP’s thus far)

Chipper Jones of the Braves in the NL. At the holiday, he is hitting .417 and that’s late to be messing with such numbers. It’s the most serious flirtation with the gold standard of baseball achievements since Georgie Brett and Rod Carew mounted serious threats some 30 years ago. But Jones has a history of being streaky mainly because he has a habit of getting hurt. It will happen again. Tigers don’t change their stripes. He’ll be lucky to finish as high as .330. In the meantime, the Astros’ Lance Berkman may be the true MVP. He’s leading in both homers and ribbies while hitting a mere .387. Albert Pujols is also tearing up the league again.

In the AL, it’s Josh Hamilton of the Rangers in a story equally inspiring and bizarre. He’s leading the league in hits, homers, ribbies, and is second in batting average. Two years ago his personal demons had him on the verge of being banned from baseball. In the long run, the Tigers’ Magglio Ordonez is probably a better bet.

Surprise teams: (exceeding expectations)

1) Tampa Bay Rays. They are for real and could they be the ’67 Red Sox revisited?

2) Florida Marlins. They probably are not for real but how can you be in first place on Memorial Day when you are paying your entire team a million dollars less this season than the Yankees are paying Jason Giambi?

3) Oakland A’s. They were supposed to be the AL’s worst team but they have league’s 4th best record.

4) Houston Astros. Only a game behind the Cubs, they’re baseball’s best kept secret.

Most disappointing teams: (Going south fast)

In the AL, there are many contenders led by the Tigers. Off-season moves had pundits conceding them the championship. They hit the marker with the league’s 2nd worst record. The Indians are only marginally better and less likely to turn it around. The Mariners, a trendy pre-season pick to win the AL West, have baseball’s worst record. And yes, the Yankees. Though around .500 and getting hot at the marker, a team with a $209 million payroll can never descend into last place and escape rebuke.

In the NL, the Mets are looking more and more dispirited. It’s their manager who is melting down this season. Ignore the votes of confidence, Willie Randolph will be unemployed by the All Star break. The Colorado Rockies are back where they belong, 12 games under .500. They’d be in last place were it not for the inscrutable Padres. How did this alleged contender become so bad so fast?

Early Cy Young Choices: (can change any minute)

In the AL, the Angels’ Joe Saunders, the Indians’ Cliff Lee, and local hero Daisuke Matsuzaka all project to at least 25 wins at their present pace, although the Twins’ Livian Hernandez, who any team could have signed for peanuts two months ago, may win the most in the end. Relievers are contenders too. The Yank’s Mariano Rivera, who has never won a “Cy”, may be having his best season and the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez has been even better. Lee has the early edge in what shapes up as a great race.

In the NL, the Cubs Carlos Zambrano has good numbers and Reds phenom Edinson Volquez even better. But the Diamondbacks Brandon Webb owns this bauble. At the marker, he projects to a 30-win season. Highly unlikely, of course, in that it’s been accomplished only once in the last 75 seasons. But if anyone in modern baseball annals has a chance it’s this rubber-armed, power sinker-baller from the desert.

Top Rookie: (Tentative possibilities only)

Keep in mind that Joba Chamberlain, who debuted last year, qualifies this year. The same goes for local hotshot, Jacoby Ellsbury. The Twins Carlos Gomez, key piece in their Johan Santana caper, gets better by the week. The Orioles have two nice looking kid-outfielders, Masters Scott and Jones and a stylish lefty in Garrett Olson. But my money is on the Rays’ stylish, 22-year old 3rd sacker, Evan Langoria. He started slow but had six RBI in a game the other day then produced a game winning walk-off double the next day. He has regal bearing, rather like the Mets’ David Wright.

In the NL, the Reds’ aforementioned Edinson Volquez is an early runaway. He’s 7-1 with a 1.34 ERA for a plodding, last place team. The Cubs high-priced import from Japan, Kosuke Fukudome, is actually exceeding lofty expectations. But if Hideki Matsui was not eligible for rookie honors because he was not deemed a ‘true rookie’, than why is this guy eligible? The same double standard was at play last year in the case of Matsuzaka. “Double-standards” are an abomination.

The Anti-Cy Young: (and LVP ...i.e. ‘least valuable players’)

Always a heavily contested distinction, this year’s race looks torrid. For the Anti-Cy in the AL, nominees include the Indians’ C.C. Sabathia who is having a hellish walk-year, the Yanks’ Phil Hughes, which is unfair because he’s only a kid, and the Tigers’ entire starting rotation, led by prized acquisition Dontrelle Willis. In the NL, it’s no contest as long as we have Barry Zito to kick around. For 150 million, the Giants got eight straight losses from Zito and an ERA just under 6.00.

The AL chase for the LVP is equally spirited. The Tigers’ Gary Sheffield has less to say these days because he’s hitting .202. The Indians Travis Haffner is at .217. The Mariners Richie Sexson is at .199. In the NL, the Phils’ Ryan Howard, all-world two years ago, is hitting .202 . But the pacesetter is Andruw Jones. The Dodgers paid him almost $20 million to patrol centerfield. He was hitting .165, some 65 pounds less than his weight, when knee problems leveled him. Joe Torre discovers you don’t dump such problems when you depart the Bronx. Live and learn, Joe.

“Rising” Hall of fame Stock (or “falling”, as the case may be)

Every time Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, or Mariano Rivera add a win or a save, they become more of a lock. The same can be said of Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Manny Ramirez and Frank Thomas when they add to their stats with their bats. Chipper Jones’ banner year boosts him considerably. Randy Johnson’s revival in Arizona only solidifies his case. On the other hand, Gary Sheffield’s last act isn’t going well and he’s borderline, while health issues are intruding on the cause of John Smoltz, who may not need to worry. If David Ortiz is to make a run, he can’t afford an off year.

Most intriguing are the cases of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who remain in some sort of self-appointed twilight zone from which they may never emerge. The de facto banishment of the foremost pitcher and hitter of their times is the story of the season, at least in historical terms.

It should amuse Mike Piazza, who has just retired after belatedly concluding there's no more demand for his aging services. Piazza will debut on the Hall of Fame ballot with Bonds and Clemens five years from now and he alone will make it. Amazing!