With baseball's playoffs merely two weeks away, here are a few thoughts from an eventful 2006 season:
- What in the name of Roy Hobbs has caught hold of Dan Uggla?! Is there anyone out there who saw this former University of Memphis infielder making the All-Star Game and setting a home-run record (for rookie second basemen) this season? Uggla had a fine 2005 season at Double-A Tennessee (in the Diamondbacks' system), hitting .297 with 21 dingers. A year later, having leapfrogged the Triple-A level, Uggla has hit .293 with 25 home runs and 102 runs scored through Sunday and is a viable candidate for the National League's Rookie of the Year award. Better yet, Uggla is a major reason the Marlins became the first team in history to start a season 20 games under .500 and manage to reach the break-even mark. Look out if this club reaches the postseason.
- It's a shame Germantown's Matt Cain is becoming a star as a San Francisco Giant, since most of his heroics are taking place after Memphians are tucked away for a good night's sleep. With 13 wins -- including his last four starts -- Cain has been every bit as valuable as one Barry Bonds in the Giants' late-season return to playoff contention. Like Uggla, he'll receive some Rookie of the Year votes.
- It's been a confounding year in Cardinal Nation, and one school of thought has it that Tony LaRussa's time has come and gone. But if you consider the roster LaRussa's been dealt, this may turn into one of the future Hall of Famer's finest managerial jobs. Among the players lost from LaRussa's lineup card are his number-two starting pitcher (Mark Mulder), his Gold Glove centerfielder (Jim Edmonds), the franchise's alltime saves leader (Jason Isringhausen) and his shortstop/leadoff hitter (David Eckstein). Take the same elements away from another contender -- and put them in the American League to make matters worse -- and you've got the Boston Red Sox. Barring a collapse, LaRussa's Cardinals will play October baseball for the sixth time in seven years.
- What about the season Philadelphia's Ryan Howard has had? (For those in Cardinal Nation pining for a return of the St. Louis native, until the National League adopts the DH, there's no room for Howard on a team with Albert Pujols playing first base.) Should the Phillies' sophomore slugger drill his 62nd homer of the season, there will be cries for a new kind of asterisk in the record book, one to indicate the "juice-free home-run king." And you know what? Those cries should be heard.
- The watered-down National League is going to be an ugly footnote to every postseason broadcast you watch next month. While a team 20 games over .500 will be sitting home (only two clubs among Detroit, Minnesota, and the White Sox can qualify from the American League Central), you'll see a team barely over .500 play as the NL wild card, with no greater penalty than an extra road game should a series go the distance. Thank goodness the AL rallied for that All-Star Game victory and home-field advantage in the World Series. For the NL pennant winner to have such a luxury this season would compound the insult of their playing in the first place.
- David Ortiz, Johan Santana, and Manny Ramirez will get their share of MVP votes in the American League, but this is the season the honor has to go to Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. Beyond his stellar numbers (.341, 93 RBIs, 107 runs through Sunday), Jeter is a season closer to gaining that hallowed ground only Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle occupy among the pantheon of Bronx Bombers. Jeter's been a winner since the day he took the field at Yankee Stadium -- 10 years ago! -- and he happens to play one of the two hardest positions on the diamond. Most valuable, indeed.
-Here are two names -- from Cardinal days gone by -- I'd love to see on the search list for the Redbirds' new managerial vacancy: Tom Herr and Terry Pendleton. It's time for the St. Louis brass to consider grooming LaRussa's successor.