Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 15 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: Given his lights-out ninth-inning performances, how realistic is it to say that Craig Kimbrel is a serious Cy Young Award contender?
— Lee Ayres, Atlanta
A: It's very realistic to think that Kimbrel's name will be included on most of the 32 BBWAA ballots — which incidentally, now include the top five finishers, rather than the long-standing three. But winning the award figures to be a difficult proposition for him.
Since I happen to have an NL Cy Young Award vote this season, I can't go into any detail at this point on how I will fill out my ballot. But I'll present the questions that voters will have to debate in deciding where to put Kimbrel among a list of standout candidates that includes R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Kyle Lohse, Matt Cain, Aroldis Chapman and possibly a few other potential vote-getters.
First of all, relievers just don't win the award very often. Eric Gagne was the last to do it in 2003, and Dennis Eckersley's MVP/Cy Young season was 20 years ago. It's simple — no matter how dominant a reliever might be, it's hard to have more impact in 60-or-so innings as a starting pitcher does in 200-plus.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and Kimbrel's dominance certainly has been historical and remarkable (as has Chapman's). How about some of these Kimbrel numbers through Monday?:
But the problem is going to be that innings total of only 58.2. Chapman has thrown 10 more despite being shut down for awhile in mid-September, and actually has 13 more strikeouts than Kimbrel.
And are Kimbrel's historically microscopic numbers better in the grand scheme of things than — just to pick two leading candidates:
These are tough calls voters will have to make, and it just may come down to this last week of the regular season for many of them to decide.
Q: Do you think that being pushed by the Orioles will help the Yankees come playoff time? Or does it matter at all?
— Jennifer Chilm, Los Angeles
A: This question arises every late-September for first-place teams, and here's how I see it: I do think it's better for division leaders to be somewhat challenged, and be forced to play at a high level down the stretch. That makes it easier to keep their edge once the playoffs begin — as opposed to clinching too early and losing intensity.
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In almost every postseason, we see a favorite who clinched early and coasted into the playoffs, only to get upset. And most often, it's by a team that had to fight its way into the playoffs, and in effect, had been playing playoff games for the last couple of weeks. Last year's Cardinals are the latest in a long line of teams to fit the latter bill.
But as the first-place team, you don't want to be pushed for too long, or challenged so late that you don't clinch until the last day or two of the regular season. That might not allow you to set your rotation, or rest a regular or two who could use a couple of days off.
So the ideal scenario to me is be pushed a bit, but clinch the division title with a minimum of three games left in the regular season. In the new playoff format, with off days and the wild-card play-in game, that would allow almost a week to adjust and set things just right heading into the LDS round.
In the Yankees' case, the AL race is a bit tighter than they'd like. In fact, it's been so tight for so long that their 1.5-game edge over the Orioles through Monday seems big, doesn't it? I do think they will outlast the Orioles and win the AL East, setting up a first-round series against either the White Sox or Tigers.
And at that point, then it will become more a question of match-ups with either of those two teams, as well as how healthy and effective the Yankees' starting pitchers will be, not to mention Mark Teixeira.
Q: The Padres signed Carlos Quentin and Huston Street to extensions this year, but have not signed Chase Headley, who in my opinion is their best player. Why is that? What do you think will happen in the off-season with him?
— Robert Pyper, Phoenix
A: Oh, there's no doubt about it, Headley is the Padres' best player. Which makes their handling of his situation very interesting and important, to say the least.
In his breakout season, Headley, 28, is making $3.475 million — easily one of the game's best bargains among arbitration-eligible players. His salary for 2013 will more than double in arbitration, and a long-term deal certainly has become the likeliest option with his monster second half (.300, 21 HR, 66 RBI, .372 OBP, .576 slugging through Monday).
While Headley's second half significantly has upped his value, if I were the Padres, I'd lock him up in a multi-year deal that will take away a year or two of free agency. He doesn't complain about the home ballpark, has proven that you can put up numbers despite its pitcher-friendly conditions, and is a solid defender and team leader.
And as you mention, the team's new ownership already has handed out extensions, so it appears as if there's room to expand the payroll — certainly in the case of a cornerstone-type player such as Headley, rather than a chronic injury risk such as Quentin.
But the Padres were listening to offers for Headley around the trade deadline, and could do again this winter. And in fact, they owe it to themselves to at least see if there's an offer out there similar to the great package (Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Brad Boxberger) they received from the Reds last off-season for Matt Latos. If so, they may decide to go that route.
But absent that, Headley likely will get a long-term deal to stay in San Diego.
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