It doesn't take a genius to figure out who's going to win the Cy Young Award in the American League. Pedro Martinez returned from a midsummer injury with plenty of time to embellish his impressive 1999 statistics. But it isn't quite so clear who is the most deserving pitcher in the National League.
Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson may be the hardest-working man in show business, leading the league in ERA, innings pitched, games started and complete games while making a run at the single-season strikeout record, but what do you do if Houston's Mike Hampton wins three or four more games and ends up with a 22-3 record? Or Astros teammate Jose Lima finishes with 23 victories?
For that matter, you can't rule out perennial Cy Young candidate Greg Maddux, who could finish strong and end up with 20 or more victories and another impressive ERA.
The Diamondbacks' offense abandoned Johnson for a lengthy stretch, which is reflected in his 15-9 record, but there is no question that he has been the most dominant pitcher in the league. He deserves the plaque, but a lot can happen over the final three weeks of the season.
Johnson tied Sandy Koufax's National League record with his 21st double-digit strikeout performance last Sunday, and he still has time to take aim at Nolan Ryan's major-league record of 23.
Of course, the big question is whether he can dial it up long enough to challenge Ryan's single-season major-league record (383). After Friday night's seven-strikeout performance he has 335 strikeouts, which means that he needs to average 12 per game over his final four starts.
His chances of breaking the record would probably be better if the Diamondbacks were not on the fast track to their first postseason appearance. If they were just an also-ran, he would likely face thinner lineups and probably could squeeze in an extra start at the end of the regular season if necessary to reach 384 K's.
Instead, the Diamondbacks will align their rotation so that he starts the first game of the postseason, ruling out a final regular-season start on three days' rest.
If Maddux gets to 20 victories -- and it looks like he will -- the Braves will gain the rare distinction of having four different pitchers win 20 or more games in consecutive seasons.
Quick review: John Smoltz won 24 games in 1996; Denny Neagle won 20 in '97 and Tom Glavine recorded his fourth 20-win season last year.
It has happened before. The Orioles had four different starters win 20 from 1969 to '72 -- Mike Cuellar (23 victories in '69); Dave McNally (24 in '70), Pat Dobson (20 in '71) and Jim Palmer (21 in '72). Of course, the Orioles went the Braves one better, putting together four 20-game winners in the same season when those four pitchers all got 20 or more in 1971.
Talk about an ill-advised deal coming back to haunt you. The Boston Red Sox rallied to defeat the Seattle Mariners last week on a two-homer performance by catcher Jason Varitek and a strong relief appearance by Derek Lowe.
Those were the two young players that the Mariners traded to the Red Sox for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb midway through the 1997 season.
"It just so happened that they were in a pennant race," Varitek said of the Mariners afterward. "They had to give up something to get something."
Slocumb didn't exactly solidify the Mariners' bullpen. He went 0-4 with 10 saves in the second half of 1997 and was 2-5 with a 5.32 ERA as a setup man last season before signing with the Orioles over the winter.
Hammonds steps up
The Cincinnati Reds set a major-league record when they hit a total of 14 home runs over two games last weekend, and they couldn't have done it without three big swings from former Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds.
"The offense is sticking out like a green thumb," said Hammonds, who must feel fortunate that he only fractured a cliche this time.
The Reds also matched a major-league record with 21 home runs over a five-game span, which included a three-homer performance by slugger Greg Vaughn.
'You can't explain it," Vaughn said. 'We're just trying to be aggressive."
Leyland means it
Colorado Rockies manager Jim Leyland says he has no intention of managing again after he retires at the end of the season, but his name figures to be a staple of managerial speculation for years to come.
He's the caliber of manager that Orioles owner Peter Angelos has always coveted, but Leyland would have to change his mind about managing again and also get released from the remainder of his three-year contract with the Rockies to join another club.
More likely, he's dead serious about walking away after suffering through the downsizing of the Florida Marlins last season and the disappointing performance of the Rockies this year. Serious enough to give up the $4.5 million in guaranteed salary that he would have gotten for managing in Colorado through 2001.
Now the Rockies have to hire both a manager and a general manager in the next few months. They already are interviewing candidates to replace departed GM Bob Gebhard and figure to begin a managerial search in the next few weeks.
The front-runner for the GM position appears to be player personnel vice president Gary Hughes, but the club also appears to be interested in former Indians assistant GM Dan O'Dowd. No strong speculation yet on a managerial replacement, but the Rockies figure to round up the usual suspects, beginning with former Brewers manager Phil Garner.
Next big deal
The next mega-contract may go to Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez, who will be eligible for free agency after next season. The club has an option for the 2000 season at a bargain price of $4.25 million, but will have to start serious negotiations on an extension this winter if they don't want to compete for him with the other big-market clubs in the free-agent market next year.
What will he command? Probably about $85 million for six years if he signs before reaching free-agent eligibility.
Rogers on a roll
Left-hander Kenny Rogers has shaken off any doubts that he can excel in New York. He always maintained that it was more injury than intimidation that limited his effectiveness when he played for the Yankees, and now he is proving it with the Mets.
Since he was acquired from the Oakland Athletics, Rogers is 4-0 and the Mets are 7-1 in the games he has started.
If he continues to pitch well, he'll be a hot property when he enters the free-agent market this November, but it appears that he's headed back to Texas -- just like his good friend Rafael Palmeiro last winter.