Let’s check out baseball at the one-third milestone

By the first weekend of June and the day before D-Day, every MLB team had played at least 54 games, so the one-third marker of another long, intense, and grueling baseball season had been cleared. It’s enough of a sample to allow for some faint divining of the direction of things. Some observations:

On the Races: Three are predictable and probably will remain so. Much as expected, the Phillies — staving off boredom — will likely prevail in the N.L. East as will the Rangers in the A.L. West. That the Red Sox and Yankees are cheek to jowl at this point surprises no one although the Rays’ ingenious knack for hanging around in contention is amazing given their devastating off-season personnel hits. Toronto is slightly better than expected; Baltimore not as good.

On the other hand (and there’s always one), nobody predicted the resurrection of two franchises lately at rock-bottom and giving little signs of a pulse as recently as spring training. The Indians might even hang on to win the mediocre A.L. Central while the Diamondbacks have less chance of surviving atop the N.L. West. When the Cardinals lost 20-game winner Adam Wainwright for the season, they were widely kissed off. But they’re solidly leading the N.L. Central and Albert Pujols (12 homers) is just warming up.

Your Red Sox: Hard to figure. The 2-10 start still obliges explanation. So does the entire $103 million Daisuke Matsuzaka misadventure now grinding to an inglorious conclusion. There are enough holes in the lineup and questions in the rotation to suggest they’ll not run away and hide as battalions of experts gleefully predicted. But if Messrs. Youkilis, Pedroia, Crawford, and Drew all get their acts together, one shudders. How smart does Prof. Theo Epstein now look for having showered some $170 million on Matsuzaka and John Lackey with his 7.60 ERA?

The Bronx Boys: As opposed, that is, to the erstwhile Bronx Bombers. Three weeks ago this space dismissed their pretentions. Since then they’ve gone 12-5. Yet that harsh impression remains firm. This is an old, calcified team afflicted with issues that will neither fade nor shake out over the long haul. Further bad news reveals the alleged hot prospects in the supposedly improved farm system are not ripening as fast as hoped. The trade market is thin; free agent prospects thinner still. Mere muscle memory will keep them hovering in the race but without a major and masterful move their hopes this time are slim.

Surprises (so far): The Jays’ Jose Bautista is for real and a legitimate Triple Crown aspirant. Adrian Gonzalez is about as good as advertised although not quite The Force the Nation envisioned. Kyle Lohse, early favorite for the N.L. Cy Young, is the latest miraculous creation of the Cards’ Dave Duncan, the Dr. Frankenstein of the pitching coaches. Just think, the Yankees might have had Lance Berkman (.354) as their DH instead of Jorge Posada (.168). Meanwhile, a certain Matt Joyce (.348) leads the A.L. and Curtis Granderson achieves stardom. Johnny Damon piles up the stats in a late drive for Cooperstown. Joe Maddon! Nothing the astute and genial Tampa manager accomplishes should anymore surprise us. Bartolo Colon! If MLB’s PED sleuths don’t nail him he’s the comeback player of the decade.

Free Agent Busts (a longer list): In two months, Washington’s Jayson Werth (.255, 19 RBI’s) affirms suspicions he could become the dumbest nine-figure, $20 million plus a year signing in MLB history. Before awakening in mid-May, Boston’s Crawford was gathering support for the same distinction. Ultimately the winner, though, may be Chicago’s Adam Dunn who — for $35 million — is hitting .180. Joaquin Benoit cost the Tigers Dunn Money and is 1-3 & 6.16. Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler have struggled in Boston. Rafael Soriano has imploded in New York. Javier Vazquez is even more of a punching bag in Miami. The estimable Hideki Matsui is hitting .222 and the once invincible Manny Ramirez has exiled himself in shame.

Even Cliff Lee, billed as the second-coming of Warren Spahn during the feverish selling of himself, has been rather ordinary; 4-4 and 3.50 for the dominant Phillies. It’s not too early to conclude the market was more flawed and deceiving than ever last winter. But that doesn’t mean the suckers won’t be back for more punishment next winter.
& Other Disappointments: Florida’s Hanley Ramirez, a perennial MVP candidate, is hitting .210. The Tigers’ Austin Jackson, one of last season’s rookies of the year, is hitting .222. Teammate Magglio Ordonez, a lifetime .312, is hitting .172. The Braves’ Dan Uggla is at .180. The White Sox’ John Danks, winner of 15 last season, is 0-8. Rockies’ 19-game winner Ubaldo Jimenez, a Cy Young nominee, is 0-5 with a 5.86 ERA. Nothing better explains the Twins shocking decline than the batting averages of young stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, now hitting .234 and .246 respectively (that’s when they’re able to play).

No fall from grace has been more heavily chronicled than that of the Yanks’ Posada, at the end of the line. But the slide of 21-year-old Jason Heyward is greatly more inexplicable. Labeled a “can’t miss” wunderkind a year ago, he’s currently hitting .214 and went the entire month of May without an RBI. “Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons; wise men never try.” Thank you, Oscar Hammerstein.

Three batches of phenomena are already noteworthy.

The injury factor. Even with the performance enhancement issue seemingly under control and amphetamines (aka Greenies) abolished, injuries ravage the game to degrees unimaginable in the past. Consider the all-star team you could assemble from the more extended of the fallen so far. The aforementioned Mauer, Morneau, H. Ramirez, Wainwright, Soriano, Matsuzaka, and Ordonez. Add Buster Posey, Chase Utley, Ike Davis, David Wright, Shayne Victorino, Josh Hamilton, Kendry Morales, Evan Longoria, Carols Pena, Rafael Furcal, Scott Downs, Ross Ohlendorf, Brian Matusz, Travis Hafner, Jorge de la Rosa, Zack Greinke, Eric Chavez, Francisco Liriano, Dallas Braden, Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, Ted Lilly, Grady Sizemore, Ryan Zimmerman, Phil Hughes. And there are more; too many more.

The financial factor: You were bored to tears by the Dodgers’ fabulous fiasco orchestrated so skillfully by those star-struck swingers, Frank and Jamie McCourt.

Whereupon along came the Mets meltdown, featuring the wilting Wilpons, favorite customers of Bernie Madoff. Then just as that crisis was easing, thanks to the rousing interventions of a Wall Street whiz kid, it was revealed that seven other major league teams -- including such bellwether franchises as the Tigers, Orioles, Phils, and Cubs -- are also seriously overextended and out of compliance with MLB’s very liberal debt services regulations.

Given the rough economy in an uncertain world at a bad moment in history with labor negotiations just around the corner, is this cause for concern? The fellow in the corner muttering over and over, “Do I look worried?” is Commissioner Bud Selig, who has declared this to be “the Golden Age of Baseball.”

The Case of the Disappearing Offense: By every statistical measure offense is withering; runs, hits, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage are all markedly down while the cumulative batting average of all 30 teams is .252, the lowest it has been in 40 years, and cumulative earned run average is under 4.00 for the first time in 20 years.

So what does it mean? Maybe that pitching is again becoming too dominant. Baseball businessmen have always believed the purist’s game, featuring dazzling pitching and defense, was ultimately a turn-off for the masses. Moreover, Selig has always favored lusty, long-ball frolics as we all too well recall from the ill-fated McGwire-Sosa sideshow of the late ‘90’s. The last time they came to this conclusion -- back in the late ‘60’s -- they reacted by tinkering with the mound, enforcing the ban on doctored pitches, bringing in fences, and juicing the baseball, all of which, of course, they never admitted to.
So, what will they do this time? Something significant? You can bet the ranch on it.