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Sizing up the races for the hardware

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There are compelling MVP arguments to be made for at least a half-dozen American League players, starting with Carlos Delgado. His name is at the top of list, especially as the Blue Jays creep back into the race and have the best September schedule of any of the wild-card contenders.

Alex Rodriguez has his case for sure. As does Darin Erstad, who has driven his team harder and farther than any player in baseball. His chances will likely go by the boards, however, as the Angels face a killer schedule (they play 13 of their final 16 games on the road). Frank Thomas, meanwhile, has been a monster. And there are most valuable arguments to be made for Thomas' teammate with the White Sox, Magglio Ordonez, along with Bernie Williams and Nomar Garciaparra.

But here at the end of August, once again there is the Pedro Martinez, pitcher-as-MVP debate lurking. Put aside the Devil Rays' obsession with Pedro and the possibility that other teams may adopt the same strategy of charging the mound when he pitches inside to try to get him out of the game. If he ever pitches Boston into the playoffs this year, will anyone have a greater impact on the pennant race than he?

Martinez is presently 15-4 with a 1.68 ERA. And through Wednesday, Boston's other starters are a combined 32-38 with a 5.39 ERA and have thrown 539.1 innings in 106 starts, just five innings an outing. The Red Sox are fourth in complete games with seven -- and Pedro has all of them. No other Boston pitcher with more than 10 starts has an ERA below 5.00 or that Pedro's ERA is nearly two runs better than any other starter in the league (Albie Lopez at 3.57).

Add in the fact that Red Sox have also scored the third-fewest runs in the league (647), though they do have the lowest staff ERA in the league (4.18), more than a third of a run less than the runner-up Yankees, who have a team ERA of 4.53. The Red Sox are also still in line to be the first team to ever lead a league in ERA and have the fewest innings out of their starters. This all means that the burden on Martinez has been extraordinary. One can even argue that he even further takes the burden off his teammates by disposing of teams so easily, as his 7.4 baserunners per nine innings would be the third-lowest total since 1913.

All of these races -- even the Cy Young, for David Wells has also carried the burden of a revolving-door rotation in Toronto -- will come down to what happens in September. That, however, might hurt Thomas and Ordonez because the White Sox played so hard and so well in their roughest stretch in May and June to earn their huge lead that they don't have a great urgency to go all out in September.

But think of this: If Martinez beats the Yankees, then goes out and twice beats Cleveland and gets Boston into the playoffs for the third straight year, isn't his MVP argument as logical as it was a year ago? Perhaps more, because this year the Red Sox aren't as good as they were last year. The 1999 Red Sox were the first team to make the postseason without an 11-game winner to support a 20-game winner, and it could happen again.

The awards races at the final turn

AL				NL
1. Carlos Delgado, Tor.		1. Mike Piazza, N.Y.
2. Alex Rodriguez, Sea.		2. Jeff Kent, S.F.
3. Darin Erstad, Ana.		3. Todd Helton, Col.
4. Pedro Martinez, Bos.		4. Gary Sheffield, L.A.
5. Frank Thomas, Chi.		5. Andruw Jones, Atl.

Cy Young

AL				NL
1. Pedro Martinez, Bos.		1. Randy Johnson, Ari.
2. David Wells, Tor.		2. Tom Glavine, Atl.
3. Andy Pettitte, N.Y.		3. Kevin Brown, L.A.

The free agent market
Nine players who have improved their bargaining power
1. Alex Rodriguez. Once great, now arguably the best, and just 25.
2. Mike Hampton. Bad April, but dominant since then.
3. Ellis Burks. Aching knees and all, but can still hit.
4. Jeffrey Hammonds. Yeah it's Coors, but he is hitting over .350.
5. Robb Nen. A star, and who else is there?
6. Rick Aguilera. Not done, back throwing 92 mph.
7. Jason Bere. Back to 94 mph.
8. Mike Bordick. Reliability in the public eye.
9. Cal Eldred. Think back to last September.

Nine players whose values have gone down
1. Juan Gonzalez. RBI numbers are at an all-time low.
2. Reggie Sanders. Wow. What a fall off.
3. John Wetteland. He'll retire before being mediocre.
4. Rico Brogna. Only because of injuries.
5. Andy Ashby. It's coming back.
6. Kent Bottenfield. Less than half as many wins this year (8) than last (18).
7. Jeff Nelson. His reliablility is at an all-time low.
8. Kevin Appier. No longer considered a top-level pitcher.
9. Derek Bell. Too hot and cold.

Another September watch
A dozen players whose options may or may not be picked up
1. Omar Daal, $6M
2. Jose Canseco. $4M
3. Pat Hentgen, $6M
4. Bret Boone, $4M
5. Jose Mesa, $4.3M
6. Ken Caminiti, $5.5M
7. Eddie Taubensee, $1.8M
8. Rod Beck, $4.5M
9. Ramon Martinez, $8M
10. Tim Wakefield, $5M
11. Gary DiSarcina, $3.225M
12. Kenny Lofton, $8M

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