The Washington Times - July 15, 2008, 02:23AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
July 15, 2008


The long week is finally over. If you read as much sports as I do, you are definitely over the bombardment of snub columns, complaints about the home-field advantage and selection process of the All-Star Game by now. If your loyalties reside in the National League you’re even more tired of hearing about how you’ve been turned away in defeat more times in a row than I have at the local Hooters. So, since the boys at the networks had those angles covered in a New York minute, I’m just going to kick back, enjoy the show and reserve my words for the games that count in the standings - right after you allow me a quick thought on tonight.

It’s hard to shed a tear for the New York Yankees. In fact, it’s darn near impossible to feel even a microscopic twinge of sorrow for the winningest franchise in sports. If you had asked me if there was a greater possibility in my lifetime that I would relocate to Utah to have six wives and 25 children or that I would ever feel an ounce of compassion for the Yankees, I would have taken the former. But when the lights go on in the Bronx tonight I suspect even I will feel some empathy for the host team and their fans. Not because Jason Giambi and his Village People ‘stache won’t be present, but because of the impending destruction of “the House that Ruth Built” that will be on everyone’s minds throughout the game.
 
Yankee Stadium is in its final year of operation and will be torn down after the season to make way for a gagillion-dollar state-of-the-art superstadium. Sure, the seats might be bigger, the locker-rooms assuredly ritzier and the smell cleaner, but the true character of a stadium comes from its history. How about this roll call: Ruth, Gehrig, The Beatles, Ali, Knute Rockne, Unitas, Mr. October, Mantle and Maris, Bono, Pele, Joe Louis, Pink Floyd, DiMaggio, Yogi, three Popes and many more graced the hollowed grounds, representing almost a century of American culture. Soon it will be gone. It’s tough, and it’s sad. It’s fun to reminisce about the great times, but things will never be the same; it’s almost like losing a family member. I shed a tear at the disappearance of the Boston Garden and almost had a horribly premature death upon hearing talks of tearing down Fenway, so for one night - and one night only - I feel for ya, New York.

So far, the 2008 season has been nuttier than squirrel droppings. Teams that were never supposed to win, are. Teams that were, aren’t. The competition is tight, as four division races are within 1 1/2 games and no second-place team is further out than six games. Opinions on the favorites are scattered and there appears to be parity near the top. So the question becomes, What happens next? Who steps up? What events or players can shape the outcome of this banner year for baseball? The first half ended with a flurry of activity in the trade market so that is where we’ll start. Please enjoy the musical stylings of My Five’s …(Danny Carey drum roll) X-Factors!

No. 5: The arms race

The temperature in the N.L. Central skyrocketed last week after the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs were dealt a pair of aces in CC Sabathia and Rich Harden, respectively (we’ll get to them in a minute). The starters left in the display case aren’t “in” the case at all, actually. They’re the ones beyond the lock and key and on top of the case, which has been left wide open for theft. Of course, this means the items might be somewhat lacking in aesthetic beauty, but many teams can help themselves here.

The N.L. East is a pile of flawed teams that could each use a starter, and the one that gambles wins this hand. Strangely enough, the team that can benefit the most is the one least likely to act. The Blue Jays seem mighty interested in moving A.J. Burnett before he can opt out during the next offseason, and a return to Florida could work nicely for the Marlins. I saw them firsthand last week without Dan Uggla, and their offense if for real - they’re currently sixth in runs scored. Adding Burnett would give them a rotation of Ricky Nolasco (8-1 his last 13 starts), Scott Olsen (3.77 ERA), Burnett, Andrew Miller and Chris Volstad, the team’s top prospect who came one out away from a complete game victory in his first start last week. I’d give them a fair shot to do some damage with that staff.

The Phillies need a pitcher too. After the Brett Myers experience, however, they don’t need a high-profile guy like Burnett or even Erik Bedard. Randy Wolf is no ace, but he could get back to where he once belonged and come cheap from hapless San Diego. He’s a pending free agent, and the Pads are going nowhere and could use some prospects. When 72-year-old Jamie Moyer is your second best starter and somehow you’re still in first place, you may want to consider yourself lucky and be proactive.

The aforementioned Bedard is a hot name, but he is on the DL and projects to be the most expensive potential acquisition. The only squads I think are desperate enough for pitching to ante up for the former Oriole and current Mariner are the Yankees and now the Cardinals. Lastly, I just think it would be cool to see Greg Maddux alongside Pedro Martinez and maybe “El Duque” Hernandez, going for it one last time with a vaunted Mets offense at their disposal.

No. 4: The hitting market

Trade talks are always wild. Regardless of the sport, when the talking heads get, well, talking, there are always ridiculous names and proposals thrown around. So when I heard Matt Holliday’s name last week I casually chuckled it off. Then I heard it again, and again. Who knows what the price would be for the N.L. All-Star starter, but my dream would be for him to land in Minnesota right between the M&M boys - now that would cause some waves. More than likely he won’t go anywhere, and ditto for Mark Teixeira, whose poor soul has been muddled in trade speculation for two years straight. Don’t feel too bad, as he should be a hundred-millionaire by January. Not being totally out of it yet and a high price tag will probably force Atlanta to retain Tex through the year and take the compensatory picks after he departs this winter.  

Adam Dunn tops my list of bats I think will move in the coming weeks, and could have a big impact. His name hasn’t been bandied about in talks as often as his teammate Ken Griffey Jr., but his value is greater and his pending free agency makes it plausible. The emergence of wonder kids Jay Bruce and Edinson Volquez as the Reds’ new pillars buys them time to get younger. The prospect-rich Arizona Diamondbacks are so desperate for a bat - and justifiably so - that Barry Bonds was thrown around as a possibility. I think I’ll take Dunn’s 20 second-half homers and leave Barry and his lawyers at home.

Another team that could be in the mix is the Cardinals, who might find themselves hard-pressed to match the pitching additions made by their divisional rivals but could surely use some more protection for Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel. In addition to Dunn, another very viable option is the Mariners’ Raul Ibanez. Annually overlooked and underappreciated, Ibanez is a steady player that could bolster just about any lineup in baseball and again, as goes the theme, he’s in the final year of his contract. As you can see I’m hoping for a whirlwind of trade activity as we approach the July 31 deadline, and depending on who goes where, I’ve detailed at least a few scenarios that could shake up the second half.

No. 3: Staying power-boosts

For the rest of this column I’ll be discussing guys staying put on their respective rosters to avoid wasting words on speculation. The country has been smitten with one Cinderella team this year, but two have stolen my heart. The Tampa Bay Rays in first place rings of Ali “shocking the world,” but many fail to notice that the Minnesota Twins are 12 games over .500 themselves, just months after trading away the game’s best pitcher.

Ironically, the Rays and the Twins not only have employed similar tactics but even helped each other reach their current levels of success. Both organizations have moved up the ladder with young talent and last year the teams swapped prospects - outfielder Delmon Young and starting pitcher Matt Garza. Garza, like his team, has been lauded for his first-half work after going 7-5 with a 3.96 ERA for the A.L. East-leading Rays, while Young has been mostly forgotten despite hitting .321 in June and holding steady so far in July. Just last year he was considered the best prospect in baseball, so if he can fill the void between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau - eliminating the need for the Twin Cities to sell their souls to acquire Holliday - the Twins could stick around.

There is talk abound in Tampa about adding some bullpen help, and that would go a long way toward shoring up their biggest weakness. Brian Fuentes is the most common name, but I would suggest also Jon Rauch of Washington, Damaso Marte of Pittsburgh and even Trevor Hoffman of San Diego. Division rival Boston could be lurking in the same pond, so it should be interesting to see who catches the fish. More critical will be continued production from Garza and rookie All-Star phenom Evan Longoria.

The Twins have a phenom of their own we haven’t seen in a while, but when Francisco Liriano returns I’m guessing we’ll all know about it. “The next Santana” has been lighting up triple-A ball as of late and his starts in the second half could propel Minny past their biggest weakness, starters with limited past workloads projected for very high innings totals. The national media continues to push the Yankees and Tigers as impending threats but both the Twins and the Rays are more formidable teams in 2008, especially if they can add a piece or two.

No. 2: Classic confrontation

No conversation of the X-factors to this season could be complete without some noise from the big boys. As much as I love the parity and the small market success, the Red Sox and Yankees will be there all summer. They will make moves and get help and they will be knocking down the door of the playoffs in September. So, who tilts the scale and wins the race? Like many barroom arguments and past MVP discussions, it comes down to Papi versus A-Rod. I have little doubt that one or both of these guys will chariot significant winning streaks in the coming months.

The Sox have managed to stay on the Rays’ heels without David Ortiz, but they only have a real shot at repeating with him. He’s been out of the lineup since the last day of May due to a wrist injury but is on the verge of rejoining the team after the break. My prediction is that the time off to heal his wrist also allowed him to rest his knee that was keeping him out of games early and he’ll return with a vengeance, just like NYPD Officer John McClane.

Alex Rodriguez had an early battle with injury of his own this year. A quadriceps ailment put him on the disabled list for the first time since 2000 at the end of April. Upon his return, he has gone right back to doing his thing and just this weekend ARod passed “The Mick,” Mickey Mantle, on the all-time home run list with No. 537. It would be a smart bet at the moment to take Rodriguez as the more productive guy going forward, but Ortiz could have the bigger impact with less tangible numbers. Let’s not forget the Madonna/divorce fiasco and the giant elephant in the room, that being Jose Canseco’s next best-seller.

No. 1: Mark O’Neal, Roger Caplinger and Barry Weinberg

I know, I know - you’ve never heard of these guys. And no, they aren’t sleeper prospects under the radar, they’re trainers; the head trainers for the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals to be exact. That’s right, my top honors for second-half X-factors aren’t even ballplayers. It seems realistic that the N.L. could produce the World Series favorite this year, but it can only happen with the success of these gentlemen.

You’re probably thinking that the Cardinals don’t belong in this conversation since they are 4 1/2 games back of the Cubs and only a half-game ahead of the Brew Crew, who just added Sabathia, last year’s A.L. Cy Young Award winner. If, however, they were able to land Dunn as I suggested or long-shot Jason Bay from Pittsburgh, and Mr. Weinberg can work some magic to get starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter back to form while keeping Pujols’ elbow attached to the rest of his arm, the Cards making the playoffs isn’t that far of a stretch. They are also the only one of these three teams to win a title in say … forever, pretty much.

Mr. Caplinger in Milwaukee has his work cut out for him too. He’s already done a tremendous job (jinx alert) getting Ben Sheets through half a season but his challenges just got a lot bigger - literally. Stamina concerns about Sabathia were already out there after he logged 256 total innings in 2007. Now he has to tote his 300-pound frame around the bases and step in the box each time out. Keeping Sheets and Sabathia healthy for the playoffs will be a tall task, so this trainer is uber-important.

Lastly, we have those cursed Cubs. Something always seems to go wrong when you’re looking for it, so I hope the North-Side brass will hand out blind-folders on their next sell-out because they just traded for Harden. He’s got nasty stuff alright, and he’s made 14 starts so far this season but he spends more time on the DL than we have days in the year it seems. With the way Ryan Dempster has pitched this year, combined with Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano, a healthy Harden could produce a Curt Schilling-to-Boston moment. It won’t happen without an impeccable second half from trainer Mark O’Neal to be sure, who has to keep Big Z’s arm in shape, get Alfonso Soriano back and keep Kerry Wood on his amnesia medication.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa@gmail.com.

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Photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys, MLB’s Best Bullpens, The Table Setters, Young Guns, Burgeoning Bats, Favorite first-half storylines.