The MLB 2009 Division Race Debate – Balance Equals Excitement in the NL Central

July 13, 2009

Read Loyal Homer’s argument that the best divisional race in MLB’s second half is the NL East, and Bleacher Fan’s argument that it’s the AL Central.

While my colleges have largely concentrated on defining the best divisional race of the MLB’s second-half of quality alone, studying the NL Central proves that both quality and quantity are possible. The division leading St. Louis Cardinals are just 2.5 games up on the second place Milwaukee Brewers. The ever-dangerous and to date disappointing Chicago Cubs – as badly as they’ve played this injury-riddled season – are just 3.5 games back of the leader. They’re tied with the Houston Astros who started poorly but have rebounded thanks to consistent offense and a good bullpen. The Cincinnati Reds have gotten some bad injury news of late, but still factor in to the race with an always aggressive Walt Jocketty serving as the team’s general manager.

Like Bleacher Fan pointed out about the AL Central, the NL Central falls victim to the same curse of balance – the division’s winner will be their lone representative in the post-season give how good the NL East has been this season. The NL Central is the only division in Major League Baseball with four teams at or above the .500 mark. The top five teams in the division are separated by just five games, with a few early season rain outs back-loading the schedule of a few teams, including the Cubs who have played the fewest games in baseball at 86.

Why is the division so close? Four of the league’s top seven best pitching staffs reside in the NL Central. And that does NOT include the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals and the Cubs both have ERAs under 3.84. The Cardinals have walked the fewest opponents in the majors with only 265 while the Cubs are within striking distance of the most strike outs in the league with 662. The pitching is outstanding, and good pitching always leads to close games.

The Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs all have winning records against their interdivision rivals, too. Unlike the AL Central, there is not one team that struggles against the division, or dominates – they’re as close to even as a division can be at this stage of the season.

Trades are exciting. The NL Central promises to be one of the most active divisions this season with trades. Because the teams are so bunched up, they must make some moves to set themselves apart.

Talk about a Hollywood script! The Cardinals routinely make a joke of the “odds” and the prognosticators, basically winning consistently with very little consistent hitting (besides that “Al” guy). The Cubs have the fourth worst on-base percentage in the NL, the second worst batting average and the second worst RBI – but still have managed to win 43 games. The Brewers have the fourth worst pitching staff in baseball, but sit 2.5 games back. The NL Central is truly defying the baseball odds this season.

Movies need stars, and the NL Central has plenty. The Cardinals have the biggest star in the game right now, first baseman Albert Pujols. The Cubs have third baseman Aramis Ramirez who just returned from injury, plus starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano. The Brewers have right fielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder (who is the subject of some of the best sports satire I’ve ever read).

With each team in the mood to buy at the trading deadline, it’s impossible to forecast how the next chapter in the division’s season will unfold. Unpredictability is part of what makes for a great race to the post-season. The NL Central has all of the ingredients to be the most exciting division race in baseball.

The 16-Year-Old Baseball Player Debate – Age Is a State of Mind

June 25, 2009

Read the debate intro and Bleacher Fan’s opinions.

Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough. – Groucho Marx

Sports Geek loves these types of debates because Sports Geek loves history and research. The fact that Bryce Harper has made the decision to enter the MLB draft in 2010 is no surprise. Baseball players, regardless of era, get signed or drafted very early and develop, as Mr. Doots suggested in the comments. Let’s review the history (are you as excited as I am?).

The youngest player to ever make their major league debut is a matter of some dispute. Some believe that it is pitcher Fred Chapman who was born November 24, 1872, and made his professional baseball debut with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association League on July 22, 1887 – at the tender age of 14. Now THAT’s young. Not only was it young, it was the only game he pitched, and probably why some do not recognize him as the youngest professional baseball player ever.

Others give that distinction to southpaw pitcher Joe Nuxhall. Nuxhall, born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1928, made his professional debut with the local club, the 1944 Cincinnati Reds, where he pitched 2/3 of an inning, walked five batters and allowed five earned runs on just two hits. He was 15-years-old. Apparently the experience was so devastating he gave up baseball for eight year, returning to the Reds in 1952 as a more mature pitcher where he went 1-4, but had a much improved ERA of 3.22. He played 14 more seasons after that, earning an All-Star appearance twice, once in 1955 (though he only won 17 games in 55 appearances that year) and again in 1956.

Now, you may be saying, “Sports Geek, don’t be dense – I’m sure they would’ve let a 5-year-old play back in the day if they could swing a bat.” That may be true. Those examples prove precedent for early major league debuts. However Loyal Homer has only questioned a young player being signed. So, let’s fast-forward an era or two.

For modern era players, I can give two quick examples. Former Chicago Cubs hot center field prospect Felix Pie was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 when was, yep, you guessed it – 16! After a few highly anticipated turns in the minor league system and a gruesome injury (guys, don’t click… don’t do it, you’ll cringe) he was finally traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

The second example is current Chicago Cub, and former Pittsburgh Pirate prospect, third baseman Aramis Ramirez. He signed with the Pirates at 16. Of course, what 16-year-old would turn down $170,000? Ramierz wasn’t even drafted, he was signed as an amateur free agent.

This brings us to young Mr. Harper. If scouts and coaches are telling him he has a legitimate shot to be a fairly high draft pick, why not do what he can to put himself in a position to make some money and maximize his years of earning potential? If I am a MLB general manager, I absolutely take a chance on a kid with this much raw talent. Drafting or signing players in MLB is all about raw talent and potential. Harper likely has the most raw talent and potential in the draft, so he’s perfect high draft choice. It’s a no-brainer.

There is enormous precedent for this move. Young players get signed every day. In fact, I don’t understand why this story has received so much media attention. Harper is one in a long, long line of promising youngsters that are making their run at playing big league baseball. But, buyer beware. Just because a kid has raw talent, doesn’t mean it’s a limitless potential. In the end, I hope things work out for Harper. It’s a gutsy move. I respect gutsy moves.


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