1. How good can Felix Hernandez be?
The Mariners tried hard to keep their top prospect in the minor leagues this year. He is 19, after all, and they figured he would be better off working himself slowly through another season in the minors. But Dan Rohn, the manager of Seattle's Class AAA team in Tacoma, threw up his arms about halfway through the summer and told the Mariners, "He needs a new challenge."
Through two major league games, the youngest pitcher to start in 14 years has pitched 13 innings, given up eight hits, one earned run, two walks and has struck out 10. He has a 0.69 ERA. In his most recent start, this week against Minnesota, he pitched eight shutout innings, throwing both his first and last pitches at 97 mph.
Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire compared Hernandez to a young Dwight Gooden, a player with a sizzling fastball and a knee-bending curve. Which appears to be what Hernandez has through his first two games.
2. Is Cleveland a real threat?
Everyone keeps talking about the Astros and A's who have turned dreadful starts into potential playoff spots. But lost in the conversation are the Indians, who have moved past the Yankees to just 21/2 games behind the Angels for the wild-card spot. Tuesday night they stunned Kansas City by scoring 11 runs in the ninth to turn what looked to be a 7-2 loss into a 13-7 victory. They became only the third road team ever to score 11 runs in the ninth inning of a game they were losing.
Now they have swept a six-game road trip to Detroit and Kansas City and are 11 games over .500 on the road -- the second-best road record in the American League behind the White Sox. The Indians do not do any one particular thing very well. They are ninth in the American League in batting average, fifth in ERA and ninth in defense. But they do enough to keep winning, and with a road record like the one they have, they are a serious contender down the stretch.
3. What becomes of Dusty Baker?
His Cubs tenure has not been as glorious as his previous run in San Francisco, where he had the luxury of writing Barry Bonds name in the lineup every day and never had to deal with much of the steroid speculation. In Chicago, he inherited a team with an banged up pitching staff, lives with the legacy of Steve Bartman and drove Sammy Sosa out the door. Now there is speculation he might go after next year as well.
The team has tried to talk about a contract extension after 2006, but the Cubs aren't sure Baker wants to stay. A lot of speculation has him going to Los Angeles, where he starred as a player in the 1970s and early 1980s. But Baker has always resisted returning to the Dodgers as long as his old manager, Tommy Lasorda, was around because of an old feud. Lasorda still works for the team as a vice president.
4. Is Jeff Francoeur another Chipper Jones?
The Braves rookie outfielder is hitting .400 in his first 25 big league games, and there seems no reason to believe he's going to slow down. He has been that dominant. At just 21, Francoeur already has a hitting streak in double figures. More amazingly he has done all this without walking once since being called up from Class AA in early June.
"I knew he was going to be good, but I didn't know when he'd be ready," Jones told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Between spring training and when he got called up, something clicked. He got it.
"He's going to be a superstar. No doubt in my mind. He's going to be the next Dale Murphy in this city. If he continues to hit and play the outfield like he has so far, he may be more than that."
5. Does a good-hitting team ensure success?
The Nationals seem so stymied offensively that their season falls apart a little more by the day. But great hitting teams do not ensure success. Look at the Devil Rays, who are third in the American League with a .275 batting average and yet have the second-worst road record in the majors.
Manager Lou Piniella has said the team is overachieving offensively as evidenced by its lack of great power, just 108 home runs, which is seventh in the league. In a manner typical of the unhappy Piniella of late, he speculated that the Devil Rays offense would be better with one or two more front line hitters.
There are no great power threats in Tampa Bay's lineup. Aubrey Huff has 16 home runs and 72 RBI. Jorge Cantu has 15 homers and 71 RBI. But that's about it. And the Devil Rays are 10th in the league in runs scored -- all of which means a team's batting average can be a very misleading statistic.