As we get on into late August, you can feel the stirring in the air as fans of upwards of eight or ten teams all begin obsessively following every game, checking every boxscore, every evening pumping their fists in the air or drooping their shoulders in disappointment. All the buzz around the watercooler is centered around the race. It's true that one team has separated itself from the pack and the odds are against the rest of the contenders; but that doesn't stop their fans from hoping for the best.
That's right: The race for the #1 draft pick (this year a really good teenager named Pedro Alvarez, unless the Pirates get it, in which case it's some college pitcher you've never heard of but may rest assured will blow out his arm within three months) is on. Let's size up the contenders.
First, the favorite:
1. TAMPA BAY ANGEL RAYS
Are they still insisting on not being called the “Devil Rays?” We all agreed to ignore them when they tried to change their name to “Rays.” That would make them have to change their logo to this or this.
CURRENT RECORD: 47-76.
POSITIVES: They've already opened up a big lead ... Long track record of hideous incompetence; they definitely have staying power ... The unbalanced schedule works very hard to ensure Tampa gets a high pick every year. Toronto and Baltimore have rarely been bad teams—in fact, Toronto's been good enough to win in the NL the last few years—and with New York and Boston along, the D-Rays just get a hopeless slate of games against strong opponents ... Their pitching is truly abominable, and their offense is not as good as advertised ... Brad Ausmus Award candidate Dioner Navarro is doing everything he can to help the Romanos secure Pedro Alvarez' services.
NEGATIVES: The team is very young, quite talented, and might improve enough in these last six weeks to win a few too many games and drag themselves back to the pack ... B.J. Upton is really good ... the Wigginton-for-Wheeler trade doesn't really hel them win the #1 pick.
VERDICT: Big, big favorites, in no small part because of their division, but they're fully deserving of the #1 slot. Don't believe the next guy who tells you “the Rays are an OK team, it's just the division,” OK? They're bad.
This is only a race if the Devil Rays screw up and win a bunch of games in September. If they do, though, we'll have one hell of a race, because as you're about to see, there are a whole bunch of bad teams bunched together after them in the standings, all within three games of each other. If the Rays do come back to the pack, this is going to be the most sizzling race in August, and there ain't no sissy wildcard for the runner-up. Girly-men (or, given our topic, is that manly-girls?) need not apply.
2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
The Pirates don't want to win or anything, but they'd rather not have this high a pick. The higher you pick, the more money you're expected the spend on the guy you draft, don't you know? How irritating.
CURRENT RECORD: 52-70; 5.5 games back.
POSITIVES: They're the Pirates, after all ... Not a single impact pitcher in the entire organization; if Tom Gorzelanny is your best pitcher, that means Tom Gorzelanny is your best pitcher ... With Jason Bay taking the year off and Altoona proving a big challenge for Andrew McCutchen, there's not a single impact bat in the organization, either ... Jack Wilson is working really hard to help the Pirates catch the Rays ... they're still gainfully employing John van Benschoten.
NEGATIVES: Their division hands them a lot of games against the Reds and Astros and Cardinals, and they stand a very real chance of winning a fair number of them ... Zach Duke's arm hurts so badly that he's been forced to stop throwing batting practice for opposing teams until next spring ... Bay and LaRoche are both better than this and one of them could heat up ... they could trade Jack Wilson ... Xavier Nady, acquired to be a Pittsburgh Pirate, is looking suspiciously like a major league baseball player.
VERDICT: It's an uphill climb, but if anyone has the Suck Power to mow down the Devil Rays, we can surely all agree it's the Pirates.
3. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
CURRENT RECORD: 54-70, 6.5 games back.
POSITIVES: If you take Barry Bonds out of their lineup, their total package is every bit as bad as the Pirates ... hideous bullpen ... their defense is rated somewhere between 'train wreck' and 'the most hideously ugly thing you've ever seen, times ten' ... still gainfully employing Rich Aurilia ... they're in the NL's strongest division, playing against four contenders ... once again, if Bonds happens to go down, their lineup is easily the worst in baseball.
NEGATIVES: Barry Bonds is still the best offensive player in baseball, and it's hard to be the worst team when you have that going for you ... nothing turns losses into wins like good starting pitchers, and the Giants have a couple of young dandies.
VERDICT: With Bonds, they're a long shot. If Bonds gets significantly hurt or just decides to take most of September off, they're neck-and-neck with the Pirates.
4. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
CURRENT RECORD: 54-69; 7 games back.
POSITIVES: “Smartball” doesn't look so smart now, does it? ... Guillen's loose-cannon antics don't result in such great chemistry when the losses are piling up ... beyond Jenks the bullpen's a train wreck ... with Thome and Dye returning to their regularly scheduled injury problems, there's not much wattage being produced by the offense ... being in a division with three strong teams helps.
NEGATIVES: Kenny Williams didn't do nearly enough to weaken the major-league team at the deadline; why are Dye, Contreras, etc. still around? ... Guillen's best strength is his handling of the pitching staff, so the bullpen performance could improve and cost them a couple losses down the stretch ... Murray Chass says the White Sox couldn't possibly lose 90 games, because that there computer doesn't know what it's talking about.
VERDICT: They're just good enough not to be a serious contender for #1. Right now you'd rather be a Pirates fan. OK, that's not true.
5. TEXAS RANGERS
CURRENT RECORD: 54-69; 7 games back.
POSITIVES: Unloaded their best hitter at the deadline; that's the kind of clutch management performance that wins #1 picks ... pretty strong division and they're in the stronger league ... good Lord, their pitching is horrendous. Orel Hershiser must have been the greatest pitching coach in history to have gotten this team to average-level pitching a few years ago ... it doesn't appear the manager (Ron Washington) has much of an idea what he's doing.
NEGATIVES: Offense is still pretty good, at least on paper. An underachieving offense always has potential to suddenly start achieving and screw you at the worst time.
VERDICT: I actually like them as a dark horse. They have a terrible bullpen, which is critical to your #1 pick success, and it always helps to have a manager best described as a rebel without a clue.
6. CINCINNATI REDS
CURRENT RECORD: 54-69; 7 games back.
POSITIVES: Absent Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Scott Hatteberg on a good day, this team really sucks ... Griffey can't possibly finish the season healthy, can he? ... awful bullpen? Check! ... clueless manager? Check! ... It says here Hatteberg has more bad days than good ones left in the 2007 tank ... the Mediocre American Ballpark does them no favors.
NEGATIVES: Their starting pitching is downright acceptable, with Harang and Arroyo around ... they have to play the Pirates and Astros a few more times; that really hurts.
VERDICT: There's enough star power here that it's going to require an injury or three to make them a real contender.
7. WASHINGTON NATIONALS
CURRENT RECORD: 55-69; 7.5 games back.
POSITIVES: They were by acclimation projected as the worst team in baseball in preseason, and for plenty of good reasons ... can you name eight players on the Nationals roster? I bet you can't, without looking it up ... still a wretched team on paper; you have to have hope they can suddenly collapse if you're a Nationals fan.
NEGATIVES: There's nobody on the roster that even looks like a star, but the problem is, there's lots of mediocrity and very little Jack Wilson-type atrocity ... They fail one of the more important tests: Their manager (Manny Acta) is good at his job ... likewise with the bullpen: It's not good, but it's decent ... the starting pitching, expected to be historically bad, has instead been only kind of bad, in no small part thanks to RFK Stadium, where home runs go to die ... Dmitri Young really screwed them out of their shot at #1 this year; if he'd been Dmitri Young instead of playing Todd Helton on TV this year, they'd have five fewer wins and be right in that thing.
VERDICT: They could yet collapse, but they're well-stocked in mediocrity if nothing else. I wouldn't want bet on them making it into the top five.
8. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
CURRENT RECORD: 55-68; 8 games back.
POSITIVES: They are, after all, the Kansas City Royals ... their manager is as clueless as they come ... they pass the Bad Pitching Test ... after a few good hitters, their lineup contains several black holes ... playing in the AL Central helps a team rack up losses.
NEGATIVES: Too healthy ... Who's that guy pitching for them, and what did he do with Gil Meche? ... they do have more decent position players than most of the teams ranked ahead of them here.
VERDICT: The Royals are plenty bad enough to compete, no doubt, but bad enough to make up a 7 game deficit on the Rays and fend off everybody else on this list? That, I doubt.