Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 12 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: The NL Central is tight right now. Which of those two teams — Reds and Cardinals — have enough to finish?
— Bob, Denver
A: I think they both do, Bob. I see the Central race going down to the last week, and both teams staying in the wild-card chase all the way. In fact, the Reds and Cardinals have an advantage schedule-wise over the NL West contenders in the wild-card race. The reason is the disparity in intradivisional opposition.
The Reds will play 31 of their remaining games against teams that currently have losing records: Milwaukee (9), Arizona (7), Houston (6), Chicago (3), Pittsburgh (3), Florida (3). The Cards' total is 30: Pittsburgh (9), Chicago (9), Milwaukee (5), Washington (4), Houston (3).
Compare those to the totals of the other six NL playoff contenders: Atlanta (34), Philadelphia (32) — although both have several games against the near-.500 Mets and Marlins — San Diego (20), San Francisco (18), Colorado (15), Los Angeles (13). That tells you the wild card probably will come from the East or Central.
As for the Central race, the Reds aren't going away. They lead the NL in batting average, runs and OPS, and have a legitimate MVP candidate in Joey Votto. The big question is will their young rotation members hold up. They have received a late boost from Edinson Volquez, and look for Aroldis Chapman in September.
The Cards are seventh in the NL in runs, but they and the Reds have almost the exact same run differential — Cincinnati +86, St. Louis +84 — through Monday. Another thing to watch is their schizophrenic home-road performance — 38-18 at Busch, 25-31 on the road. Their remaining schedule is split almost evenly — 25 at home, 26 away.
The teams are in the midst of a three-game series this week in Cincinnati, and will meet for the last time over Labor Day weekend in St. Louis. I'll stick with my pre-season pick of the Cardinals, due mostly to their veteran star leaders. But it won't surprise me if both teams reach the playoffs.
Q: With the sub-par showing the Cubs are having this season, will they clean house in the off-season and rebuild?
— Brian Schmiege, Oshkosh, Wis.
A: You can count on that, Brian. It's already under way, with the trade deadline deal that sent free-agent-to-be Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot to the Dodgers for prospects.
It's no secret who else the Cubs would like to deal: Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Kosuke Fukudome. Derrek Lee also will be moving on in free agency.
The big if here, of course, are the huge financial obligations to those first three on the list: Soriano: $72 million through 2014, Zambrano: $36 million through 2012 with $19.25 million vesting option in 2013, Fukudome: $13.5 million in 2011 (thanks to Cots Baseball Contracts).
You always hear that huge contracts such as Soriano's are basically untradeable, but the way out is by taking back some money in return. The best example was Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd's dealing away Mike Hampton when he had almost $60 million left on that ill-fated mega-deal.
So look for Cubs general manager Jim Hendry to be creative, and find ways to retool the roster this winter. He got rid of Milton Bradley last winter by taking back Carlos Silva, and that deal turned out to be a pleasant surprise, so anything is possible. And you can bet somebody will take a chance on Zambrano if he finishes up this season strong back in the rotation.
Throw in a new manager — very possibly Ryne Sandberg — and the Cubs are going to have a much different look next spring in Mesa.
Q: Billy Beane did well with young pitchers, speed and fielding, but not so much with hitters. But the Padres have the same thing, and they are a first-place team. Why don't the A's win more?
— Wilfredo Naranca, Linda Vista, Calif.
A: That's a very good comparison, Wilfredo. The Padres and A's are remarkably similar statistically. Through Monday, the Padres were 11th in the NL in runs, and anywhere from 11th to 15th in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Meanwhile, the A's were 11th in the AL in runs, and anywhere from 11th to 13th in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Pitching-wise, the A's have the AL's lowest rotation ERA, and are tied for the lowest staff ERA, while the Padres have the NL's lowest bullpen ERA, and third-lowest staff ERA.
So why does there seem to be such a big difference between the two in the standings? It's not as big as you might think. The Padres are 64-46, while the A's are 56-55 — so four games either way over the first 110, and they could have identical records. Also, the Padres do face slightly easier competition as a whole in the NL as the A's do in the AL, which includes arguably the game's three best teams.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Two things stand out: The Padres have had an uncanny knack of delivering late-inning clutch hits, and making the most of their limited offensive opportunities. They also have played better defense than the A's — fourth in the majors in errors and fielding percentage, compared to the A's 12th in errors and tied for 11th in fielding percentage through Monday.
Those things show up in the run differentials, where there is a significant difference — the Padres are +98, while the A's are +18 through Monday.
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