Spelling out the season’s final two months

Here at 10 Degrees, baseball’s dog days affect us, too. The monotony of the same format week after week can bring out someone’s inner Jack Torrance. And with the trade deadline so fresh and half the teams in baseball harboring legitimate playoff aspirations, 10 points cannot possibly encapsulate all that’s going on right now.

So we’re going back to basics. Forget the 123s. This week is about the ABCs. Without further adieu, the most fun dictionary you’ll see this year: an A-through-Z guide to the last two months of the regular season.

A is for Albert Pujols(notes). Now that Ryan Ludwick(notes) is gone to San Diego, the necessity for Pujols to produce is as great as ever. Except that he isn’t having quite as Pujolsian a year as usual. He’s still among the best hitters in baseball, of course, but never has he finished a season with a batting average below .300. (He’s at .299.) Not since his rookie season has he struck out in more than 11.3 percent of his at-bats. (He’s at 13.2 percent.) And he’s not nearly as nimble around the first-base bag as he has been. (Career fielding balls in his zone: 80.3 percent. This year: 70.3 percent.) Pujols remains great. He’s just got to be greater.

B is for Buster Posey(notes). At least Pujols has Matt Holliday(notes) and Colby Rasmus(notes). Posey finds himself in a lineup with Aubrey Huff(notes) and … Andres Torres(notes)? Pat Burrell(notes)? That fat guy who can’t hit but does a great Pablo Sandoval(notes) imitation? Add all of that to Posey’s reality – he’s a rookie who catches full-time – and the pressure on him is enormous. He proved himself more than capable in July, hitting .420 and slugging .700. Now comes the tough part: keeping it up during a pennant race.

C is for Cliff Lee(notes). Just to remind people the sort of season Lee is having: Through 139 innings, he has seven walks. That’s the fewest of any pitcher with at least 50 innings – and he has thrown almost three times as many. The only better walk rate in history is Carlos Silva’s(notes) crazy 2005 season, in which he gave up nine in 188 1/3 innings. Silva allowed 212 hits that year. Opponents are batting .222 against Lee, and his .231 opponents’ on-base percentage is the fourth best since 1920, behind three historic seasons: Pedro Martinez(notes) in 2000 (.213), Greg Maddux(notes) in 1995 (.224) and Sandy Koufax in 1963 (.230).

D is for Delmon Young(notes). Finally, the breakout. For years, scouts across the game who tabbed Young as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft wondered: What happened to that guy? While Young is as impatient as ever – just 17 walks in 98 games – he’s hitting .335, which more than makes up for his zeal. And the power has joined the party: Young already has a career-high 14 home runs, and his .551 slugging percentage is more than 125 points higher than any of his three full seasons. It’s no fluke, either: Young’s home runs average 405 feet, according to Hit Tracker, after this week’s 458-foot rocket, the longest of his career.

E is for Evan Longoria(notes). Just imagine Young’s bat alongside Longoria’s. Granted, Tampa Bay made plenty of hay in that swap with Matt Garza(notes) and Jason Bartlett(notes), and they’re plenty fine with Longoria anchoring a lineup that ranks third in the majors in runs scored. The Rays are one game back of the New York Yankees and 6½ games up on Minnesota in the wild card, though they shouldn’t rest yet: In August, only three of their 29 games are against teams under .500.

F is for Francisco Liriano(notes). Long the sabermetric crowd’s choice for AL Cy Young, Liriano is validating consideration more and more with each start. While his seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts Sunday came against a Seattle lineup featuring one hitter with an on-base percentage above .334, it marked the third straight start in which Liriano threw seven scoreless. With 150 strikeouts and 38 walks in 138 innings, his numbers are mighty impressive – though none more so than his yielding only two home runs all season.

G is for Gordon Beckham(notes). Ever since his average dipped below .200 on June 23, Beckham has resembled the player the Chicago White Sox imagined they could count on as a lineup linchpin. In the 100 at-bats since, he has 35 hits, 16 for extra bases, and has raised his OPS 135 points. When teams called White Sox GM Kenny Williams to inquire at the trade deadline about Beckham, he said, unequivocally, no. From possible platoon at second base with Omar Vizquel(notes) to untouchable? Not bad for five weeks’ work.

H is for Heath Bell(notes). And, really, might as well include the rest of the Padres’ bullpen. Bell is the star, his 30 saves oh so glitzy, but he doesn’t have the best ERA (Tim Stauffer(notes) at 0.83), nor the highest strikeout percentage (Joe Thatcher(notes) at 12.27 per nine innings). Not the best walk rate (Edward Mujica(notes) at .74 per nine). Home run rate, too (Ryan Webb(notes) at .21 per nine). Can’t forget Mike Adams(notes) and Luke Gregerson(notes), Bell’s two setup men. And that’s why the low-budget Padres still sport the best record in the NL.

I is for Injuries.: Names to keep an eye on in their recovery: Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau(notes) (concussion), Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler(notes) (left groin strain), Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia(notes) (broken left foot) and the triumvirate from the unluckiest team in the world, the Philadelphia Phillies, who miss second baseman Chase Utley(notes) (torn ligament in right thumb), center fielder Shane Victorino(notes) (left oblique strain) and the latest victim, first baseman Ryan Howard(notes) (twisted left ankle).

J is for Josh Hamilton(notes). Among the perpetually injured, Hamilton’s name is familiar. He took a cortisone shot in his chronically nagging right knee Sunday. Not that it has stopped Hamilton from being among the best hitters in baseball this season and front-runner for American League MVP. He leads baseball with a .362 batting average, ranks behind only Miguel Cabrera(notes) with a .636 slugging percentage and needs that knee – and the rest of his body – to hold up if the Rangers want to turn their almost-certain AL West title into something more.

K is for Kenley Jansen(notes). Last year, Jansen was a no-hit, cannon-armed catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system. Now he’s their secret weapon, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound right-hander who throws as hard as Jonathan Broxton(notes) and made his major league debut less than a year after he started pitching. With the struggles of last year’s out-of-nowhere standouts, Ronald Belisario(notes) and Ramon Troncoso(notes), the Dodgers needed another bullpen piece. The just-traded-for Octavio Dotel(notes) should be nice. Jansen could be great.

L is for Lance Berkman(notes). There he is, hitting between Derek Jeter(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes), which is a far more comforting place than between Angel Sanchez(notes) and Hunter Pence(notes). The biggest winner this trade deadline: Not the Rangers, not the Angels and not the Yankees, but Berkman, Kerry Wood(notes) and Austin Kearns(notes), who left baseball doldrums to join the biggest show in the game.

M is for Miguel Cabrera. The only hitter better than Hamilton this year, Cabrera is the AL’s answer to San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez(notes). In an offense-starved year, Cabrera’s 1.088 OPS leads baseball, and his everything else leads the Detroit Tigers. Perhaps most impressive is the direction in which his strikeout rate has gone as he ages: down, to 17.7 percent, while his walk rate is a near-career-high 12 percent. Too bad his teammates can’t help. Otherwise, the Tigers might need less than a miracle.

N is for Nick Swisher(notes). In a lineup of well-paid stars, the only paltry thing about Swisher’s 2010 seasons is his $6.85 million salary. He’s got 20 home runs, one fewer than Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano(notes) and four more than Mr. 599, Alex Rodriguez(notes). His .373 on-base percentage is better than all but Brett Gardner(notes) and Cano. Only Cano’s .575 slugging percentage tops Swisher’s .541. Swisher, as loud and bombastic a Yankee as there is, does nothing quietly – except produce.

O is for Ozzie Guillen. Bemoan his politics. Call him racist. Curse his cursing. Laugh at his histrionics. Think of the man what you will. Just respect his ability to take a team that was dead in the water two months ago and somehow will it back into first place. Sure, no other manager brings half the drama of Guillen. Few other managers could’ve done what he did, either.

P is for Prince Fielder(notes).: Over the next month, the waiver wire will be flooded with names, teams trying to assess the value of their players, see who likes whom and, perhaps, shed a big contract or two. Milwaukee almost certainly will throw Fielder out there procedurally, then yank him back when he’s claimed. Still, it will be a painful reminder for the White Sox and Giants and all the other clubs that needed a bat and couldn’t pull the trigger.

Q is for Quinton McCracken. Sorry. Best we could do. Runner-up was Quilvio Veras.

R is for Roy-squared. Between Halladay and Oswalt, the Phillies sport among the best pitching combinations in the major leagues. Add in Cole Hamels(notes) and it’s even better. Remember, the Phillies won the World Series two years ago without Halladay or Oswalt. And with Atlanta’s recent stumbles, the beat-up Phillies sit just two games back. Also of note: If Halladay continues to average 7.77 innings per start and throws 34 times, he’ll approach his career high of 266 innings – a mark nobody but him has hit since 2000.

S is for Scott Rolen(notes). He was washed up. Cooked. History. And the sentiment was understandable. Over the last three years, Rolen played with three teams, and it was forgettable baseball. So when he bore the look of 25-year-old Rolen instead of 35-year-old Rolen over the first half, it was impossible to ignore. And now that he’s back from a hamstring injury, the big question will be: Was it, like his Cincinnati Reds, too good to be true?

T is for Troy Glaus(notes). Another overripe former St. Louis third baseman, Glaus attempted his renaissance at first base in Atlanta. April was a disaster, May glorious, June fruitful and July miserable. How Glaus managed to sandwich a .907 OPS in between months in which his slugging percentage was worse than his .311 on-base percentage remains a mystery the Braves hope he solves soon. As good as Martin Prado(notes) and Brian McCann(notes) and Jason Heyward(notes) have been, the Braves are a different team when Glaus mashes. They need the May-June version. Now.

U is for Ubaldo Jimenez(notes). What in late May looked like a guaranteed NL Cy Young now is little more than a nice season. Yes, Jimenez’s record is a bright-and-shiny 16-2, which is nice for the Colorado Rockies but does little to reflect his overall performance. His ERA sits at 2.67, nearly two runs higher than two months ago, and since he was at that ridiculous 0.78, his pitching line is as follows: 61 innings, 54 hits, 32 walks, 56 strikeouts, six home runs, 5.16 ERA. The Rockies’ postseason chances are grim already. If Jimenez keeps pitching like that, they won’t exist.

V is for Victor Martinez(notes). He’s healthy enough, and he’s hitting, and he’s among the last hopes for the 2010 Red Sox. And yet barring a big Red Sox comeback and Yankees or Rays collapse, the Martinez era in Boston won’t be remembered fondly: bomb out of the ’09 AL Division Series, miss the playoffs in ’10. Whether he has a chance to right that in 2011 and beyond depends on how other teams view him: as a catcher or first baseman/DH. If it’s the former, he’ll leave via free agency. If it’s the latter, he may be back and hoping to change his legacy.

W is for worth, or if you’d prefer, Werth. As in: How much is Jayson Werth(notes) worth, a question perhaps best answered in Seussian form.

Exactly how much is Jayson Werth worth?
That depends on the girth of his offensive rebirth
Since his big bat fell into a midseason firth
And it bored to the core of his long-bearded earth
It emerged with new power, so long to the dearth
Question is, can it lead to a playoff berth?
If so, that’s exactly what Jayson Werth’s worth

X is for X-factor. And here is one for each of the 15 teams in contention, with a question attached:

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez – Is the power still there?

Tampa Bay Rays: Jeremy Hellickson(notes) – Can the rookie, who makes a spot start Monday, make the Rays’ pitching even more dangerous?

Boston Red Sox: John Lackey(notes) – Why has he given up so many hits this season?

Chicago White Sox: Bobby Jenks(notes) – How much longer is he closer?

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer(notes) – Can his torrid July carry over?

Detroit Tigers: Max Scherzer(notes) – Are his last six weeks (51 2/3 innings, 52 strikeouts, 1.92 ERA) a mirage or a true blossoming?

Texas Rangers: Rich Harden(notes) – How long can he stay healthy?

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward – Will he recapture his early-season magic?

Philadelphia Phillies: Jimmy Rollins(notes) – Where did the MVP go?

St. Louis Cardinals: Ryan Franklin(notes) – Can he avoid a September (and October) like last season’s?

Cincinnati Reds: Aroldis Chapman(notes) – Will the Reds call on his 102-mph fastball for a bullpen reinforcement?

San Diego Padres: Ryan Ludwick – Does he provide enough offense alongside Gonzalez?

San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum(notes) – What happened to his fastball velocity?

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp(notes) – Is it Rihanna’s fault?

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki(notes) – His bat can’t possibly be enough, can it?

Y is for Yunel Escobar(notes). Alex Gonzalez(notes) is homerless in 14 games with Atlanta since being acquired from Toronto for Escobar. He’s getting on base at a .321 clip. In other words, he’s being Alex Gonzalez. Escobar, meanwhile, is hitting .333 and slugging .474 with Toronto and playing the same Gold Glove-caliber shortstop the Braves never appreciated. Escobar’s personality never fit in Atlanta. It’s too bad. The Braves sure could use the rest of him these days.

Z is for Zito. Because Zack Greinke’s(notes) team is nowhere near the playoffs, we went with Barry Zito(notes). Since he signed his $126 million deal three years ago, Zito has caught plenty of flak in this space. And yet his ERA today sits at 3.38, and while his fielding-independent numbers don’t scream ace – he doesn’t strike out enough and walks too many – Zito is perfectly good at what he does: eat innings. Is he an $18 million-a-year pitcher? Of course not. Every staff needs a Pac-Man, and Zito is San Francisco’s. Chomp, chomp. Gobble, gobble. Easy as ABC.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 2, 2010