The Washington Times - June 3, 2008, 02:24AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
June 3, 2008


Last week I kicked things off by ranking the top starting rotations in baseball, but this week I’m going on the offensive in My Five. Good pitching is the foundation for championship teams, but you can’t win unless you score - just ask the San Francisco Giants, whose promising young staff has to rely on an offense that scores about as often as Urkel did in his “Family Matters” days. Oh, if only they hadn’t canceled their order for XXXL helmets in spring training, preventing them from re-signing a certain slugger. He’s still available, Kansas City, Toronto and San Diego - it’s only a Johnny Cochran phone call away. Anyway, let’s get back to the guys who are playing and scoring at a good clip.

Today’s mission is to find the best 3-4-5 hitting combinations in the bigs. These are the guys who bring home the bacon, bring in the fans and bank the large, “Happy Gilmore”-size checks. The members of a team’s starting rotation can feed off each other from day to day, but the heart of a baseball lineup must work together from inning to inning, at-bat to at-bat and even pitch to pitch. When successful, the middle of a lineup functions as an ever-present black hole for the opponent - something you know you can’t escape even if you skirt around it a few times. All your fears are harnessed in it, your plans carefully designed around it, your focus transfixed on it, and your survival dependant on avoiding the wrath it can inflict.

In order to narrow the league’s preeminent murderer’s rows down to five, I’ve analyzed a bevy of statistical categories including batting average, on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentages, home runs, runs batted in (RBI) and runs scored. Other “clutch” numbers like average with runners in scoring position and slugging in “late and close” situations carry significant weight as well. Lastly, I’ll consider the fear factor: Who are the last guys a pitcher wants to see coming up in the ninth inning of a one-run game? Without further ado, let’s get to this week’s big winners.


No. 5: The Philadelphia Phillies

It is accepted practice to bat the team’s best hitter in the third spot in the lineup, and the Phillies certainly have no deficiencies there. Chase Utley is making his bid to complete a Phillies sweep of the N.L. MVP Award after teammates Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won the last two years. Utley brings one of the game’s prettiest left-handed swings to the park each day. As of yesterday morning he was leading the majors with 20 homers and ranked third in the N.L. in slugging percentage at .665 while batting .312 with 50 RBI and 47 runs scored. The kicker is he contributes all this production from the offensively inept - historically speaking - second base position.


The No. 3 hole may be occupied by the best all-around hitter, but the clean-up guy does the dirty work. He cleans up what the stud in front of him couldn’t and provides him with protection while instilling fear in pitchers and hopefully cranking some bombs. Howard fills this role for the Phils, and judging from his performance so far in 2008, he may want to “pop in” to a few of his own practices. He is currently hitting a paltry .208 with a .324 on-base percentage. Although Howard is the reason Philly almost missed this list, he is also the X-factor who could vault them higher. The fact that he is notoriously a slow starter and one of the younger big-bangers on this list at 28 years old gives him some slack.

SEE RELATED:


While it feels like Pat Burrell has been around since the dead-ball era, the former No. 1 overall pick is surprisingly only 31 years old and finds himself in the National League’s top 11 in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs and on pace for a career year. Ah, glory to the power of cheese, as Burrell is in a contract year and looking to make an Adrian Beltre-like embezzlement. The longball has never been a problem for Burrell, especially in the tee-ball stadium in which he plays his home games. He has belted 20-plus dingers eight straight years but is only a .260 career hitter and tends to strike out at an alarming rate. Burrell does provide much-needed balance to the heart of Philadelphia’s order as its sole right-handed hitter.

 

No. 4: The Atlanta Braves

In fairness, each of these squads are dependent on their No. 3 guy, but none to the extent that Braves are. Chipper Jones is not only the pride of the franchise, he is the franchise right now and without him they are nowhere near achieving recognition on this list. Braves fans just made the tequila-shot face as we all know Chipper has a penchant for pulling and straining muscles. At 36 years of age, it’s inevitable that he’ll miss some time through the course of the 162-game schedule, but hopefully for Atlanta it’ll just be a game here and there. Jones is flirting with history, trying to become the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941, and is currently on the plus side at .405. He isn’t just hitting it often, he’s hitting it hard, slugging .640 with 11 doubles and 12 home runs. The best switch-hitter of his generation and a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Jones is a model of consistency. He’s a .310 career hitter, has driven in 100-plus runs nine times and has launched, 20-plus bombs in every one of his 13 seasons, dating back to 1995 when Coolio was topping the charts, Will Smith was the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Tom Cruise was cool - well, maybe likable is more accurate.

Mark Teixeira was acquired from the Texas Rangers at the deadline last summer to fill Atlanta’s void at clean-up, and to date, he hasn’t produced the same numbers he did in Arlington. He’s batting .271 with 8 home runs and 40 RBI so far in 2008 but is typically a better hitter in the second half. As an uncommon bonus for a No. 4 hitter, Teixeira supplies Gold Glove defense at first base, winning the award in both 2005 and 2006 as an American leaguer. His biggest asset at the dish for Atlanta has been his switch-hitting ability. This provides protection for Jones, especially late in games when managers are trying to manipulate their bullpens. Big Tex has an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.171 in late and close situations, according to si.com.

At 24, Brian McCann is the youngest player mentioned in this column. The stud left-handed hitting catcher has continued his progression as a hitter after being slotted into the No. 5 hole this season. His emergence has been a double bonus for the Braves since his presence allowed the team to include top catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the deal for Teixeira. McCann displays good power and hits for average - qualities that are hard to find at the defense-oriented catcher position. His .318 average, 10 homers and 33 ribbies give him a good shot at making his third consecutive All-Star appearance this summer.

 

No. 3: The Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox come in third on this list, and they should considering their 3-4-5 hitters are making a combined (cue Dr. Evil voice) $45 million in 2008. The core of their lineup consists of great veteran leaders who have been there and done that. The problem is that “veteran” can be synonymous with “aging,” and injuries have already limited this group in 2008. David Ortiz has been battling knee issues since it was discovered last summer he was playing with a torn meniscus. Offseason surgery appears to be the culprit behind Big Papi’s slow start as his average has climbed back to .252 after bottoming out at .111 on April 17. The power is still there as Ortiz’ crazy (batting) eye has him in the top 11 in home runs and RBI, though he’s likely to miss about a month with a wrist injury suffered this past weekend. Widely considered the league’s premier clutch hitter, he is batting .338 with runners in scoring position, and there is no batter opposing hurlers are more terrified to see in the box when trying to protect a late lead. Everyone remembers the absurd performance Ortiz put on in the 2004 postseason, when he carried the Sox with a record three walk-off hits, batted .400 and belted five homers. During last year’s title run, Big Papi hit a mere .370 with a .508 OBP and .696 slugging percentage. Hopefully, for Boston’s sake, he’ll be injury-free by this season’s stretch run.

Manny Ramirez, the newest member of the 500-home run club, serves as the clean-up hitter in Boston and teams with Ortiz to form baseball’s most feared two-punch. Sure, it sometimes seems like he should be carrying a party horn instead of a glove, but anyone who thinks “Manny being Manny” doesn’t include devout dedication to the art of baseball is just plain stupid. Ramirez won’t be ushered into Cooperstown on the strength of his defense or baserunning, but he just may be the best all-around hitter of the last decade or so. In nine of the past 13 seasons, Ramirez has hit over .300 with 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBI, and two of the non-qualifying years were seasons in which he hit .294 with 45 homers 145 RBI and .292 with 45 jacks and 144 ribbies. He’s on the backside of his career, as evidenced by his injury-plagued downer in 2007, but there’s always that chance he could forget he’s not 27 anymore.

Mike Lowell rounds out this trio of boppers. He doesn’t excel in any particular area but has displayed solid skills across the board for the Sox. He’s a tough out who consistently puts the ball in play and his power is aided by Fenway’s famous Green Monster. Once thought of as the second-hand smoke that comes with dating a supermodel, he actually turned out to be the oddly pleasing foreign accent. I’m sure a few team wish they took the “Lowell hit” when the Marlins were begging teams to take him in a Josh Beckett deal three years ago. By all accounts he’s a great teammate, he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at third and he always seems to make the correct play. Lowell really turned the foam finger to his doubters by winning the World Series MVP last fall.

 

No. 2: The Chicago Cubs

Nothing can stop the Cubs this year - wait, what’s that? Crazy man Lou Pinella is their manager and the equally crazy Mark Cuban wants to buy the team and replace the ivy with purple-flowering wisteria? And their fans tweek like Lindsay Lohan five minutes into a jail stay? Yeah, I made up the part about the flowers, but anyway, let’s keep this discussion on the field. The heart of the Cubs’ lineup is fearsome, and it starts with the imposing, 6‘5”, 245 lb. Derrek Lee. It was only three seasons ago that Lee was stirring talk of putting an end to the Triple Crown drought. A freak collision at first base the following year resulted in a broken wrist and temporarily delayed his trek toward greatness. So far in 2008, he’s continued to build upon his nice comeback year of 2007 with a .295 BA, 13 longballs, 37 RBI and 43 runs scored. Lee is also a three-time Gold Glove winner at first, and a solid baserunner to boot.

Whoever said there’s nothing in a name obviously doesn’t follow baseball, because if your name is Ramirez you can absolutely smash the ball - sorry Alexei, I guess su padres should have thought harder about the first one. Aramis Ramirez, much like Manny and now Hanley, fits the rule. In his four full seasons as a Cub he’s averaged .305, 33 homers and 104 RBI per year. At 30 years old he should be at the peak of his development, as displayed by his .429 OBP, which puts him in the top four of a category that was one of the few historically lacking in his game. His “late and close” OPS is mind-boggling at 1.325, and the first-place Cubs can attribute several wins to Ramirez’ Louisville Slugger.

That’s right, time to enter (cue booming reverb loudspeaker voice) “The Fukudome!” Bust out the noise-makers and sake. The media always goes crazy when Japanese players bring their skills stateside and usually portends financial doom on those willing to take the risk, but it’s not like they play with yellow wiffle-bats over there. Kosuke Fukudome won an MVP award in the Japanese Central League for a reason, and much like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui before him, he’s the real deal. His Far East power doesn’t look like it will translate, but he’s batting .303 (.333 with runners in scoring position) and is getting on base at a .405 rate. Cub fans have also been wowed by his impeccable defense in right field. Now we just need to have Dice-K pitching to Kosuke with Ichiro and Matsui playing the outfield on All-Star weekend so the Japanese sports world can spontaneously combust in a hail of flashbulbs to rival the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq.

 

No. 1: The Houston Astros

The top dogs this week have it all - three guys who hit for average, drive in runs, hit in the clutch and hit for power. Well, the first guy is slightly behind in the last category, but we all know why. Speaking of which, I think Miguel Tejada might have gotten some estrogen mixed up in his special cocktail because he’s been going around telling people he’s two years younger than he actually is - we can all thank ESPN’s E:60 for that hard-hitting revelation. I mean seriously, we didn’t know latin players lie about their age? It’s just like the baseball media to make a big stink about something that’s been going on for years and finger one guy. Tejada must have finally decided to tell the truth when he said he was only here to play baseball. His .312 average and .474 slugging percentage so far sure make it seem as if he’s never watched TV or read the paper.

Slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton of the Rangers and Houston’s Lance “Don’t Call Me Fat Elvis (even though that’s exactly how I look and he’s possibly the biggest American icon and ladies’ man ever)” Berkman are providing us with two legitimate Triple Crown threats this season. I love Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon as much as any of you, but does “Five Good Minutes” with them on PTI really rule the world? It’s as if there was an edict passed around ESPN that every Berkman highlight for the next two months must include a “Big Puma” reference. Are we really that down on fat? Anyway, if he was on my team I’d call him Sir Lancelot Lord of Berkshire if he asked, given the way he’s hitting. Here goes (cue Ace Ventura deep breath): .385 batting average, .469 on-base percentage, .750 slugging percentage, 17 home runs, 47 RBIs, 57 runs scored, .333 average with runners in scoring position and 1.545 OPS in “late and close” situations. Ah-huh, ah-huh, can ya feel it? In case that wasn’t enough, the nimble giant hits from both sides of the plate, can play all three outfield positions in addition to his home at first and has 10 stolen bases. It should be a very interesting MVP race in the N.L. this summer between Fat Elvis and Utley.

Carlos Lee will continue seeing a lot of ducks on the pond if Berkman keeps up his current pace, and luckily for the Astros, he knows how to bring ‘em home. As the prototypical number five hitter, Lee is a big reason Houston took top honors in My Five this week. He has a peculiarly low on-base percentage (.303) for such a good hitter, but I can live with that. I want my boy in the box taking his cuts, especially when he’s working on five straight 30 homer, 100 ribbie seasons (well, he did come up one RBI short in 2004, but you get the point). Coming into the week “El Caballo” had 12 home runs and ranked sixth in the National League in RBI, and he’s now proudly basking in the glow of the Astros’ My Five triumph with his buddies Miggy and Lance.


Are you surprised that the trillion-dollar Tigers and the Rocky Mountain-trio came up short? Is it possible that the Rangers deserved a spot in My Five because of Milton Bradley and a former heroin addict? Wondering where the New York love is? Would you have gone with the youth in Tampa Bay, Los Angeles or Milwaukee? Post a comment below and join the discussion.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa33@gmail.com.

All photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five column, Starting Rotations.