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Tables may turn in Interleague Play

Tables may turn in Interleague Play

The guys with rings will tell you that only the World Series really matters. And it's tough to argue with a ring. But by any other measure, the National League is in a serious dry spell.

The American League has won more games in Interleague Play for four straight seasons. The last time the AL lost the All-Star Game was 1996, when Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. made up the left side of its starting infield.

Only the Fall Classic has seen any equity between the leagues, with a slim 4-3 edge for the junior circuit in the 21st century. But if you go back a little further, it's 11-5 in favor of the AL since 1991. The NL dominance of the 1960s and '70s is long gone, and has in fact been turned on its head.

It's not quite like Ohio State versus the Southeastern Conference, or the National Football Conference's Super Bowl run in the 1980s and '90s, but it's enough to get under the skin of old-line NL partisans.

A reading of tea leaves, however, suggests change is in the offing. Through six weeks of the 2008 season, it appears that the National League is the better league -- though of course small-sample-size warnings apply.

MLB.com's weekly "Fab 15" writers' poll ranks seven NL teams in the top 10. Baseball Prospectus' more numbers-based "Hit List" puts National League teams in six of the top nine spots. So as Interleague Play ramps up this weekend, perhaps the tables will turn. The NL at least appears to have a fighting chance.

"The Interleague results will be interesting to follow," said Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes, one of the architects of the ascendant NL. "I do think that there are a high number of impact-type young players in the NL. Maybe the NL is ready to close the competitive gap that has existed the last several years."

In the mountains of baseball writing submitted over the offseason, more than a few analysts suggested something like this. After all, two ace-caliber hurlers, including the best pitcher in the game, moved from junior circuit to senior over the winter. Johan Santana has fortified the Mets, and Dan Haren has given the Diamondbacks a boost.

The case can be made, though, that more established talent moved in the other direction since last year. The best hitter to change leagues was Miguel Cabrera, who was dealt from Florida to Detroit. Milton Bradley, Edgar Renteria, Josh Hamilton and Carlos Quentin all are making an impact on AL teams this year after spending last season in the NL. The offseason's great challenge trade, Troy Glaus for Scott Rolen, favors the American League in the very early going.

Senior Circuit, Young Sluggers
Qualified players with OPS of .850 or above, and age 26 or under, as of the end of Tuesday night:
National Leaguers
Born
OPS
Nate McLouth10/28/81.997
Geovany Soto1/20/83.996
Conor Jackson5/7/82.978
Hanley Ramirez12/23/83.969
Justin Upton8/25/87.942
Brian McCann2/20/84.940
David Wright12/20/82.930
Ryan Braun11/17/83.888
Adrian Gonzalez5/8/82.881
Russell Martin2/25/83.854
American Leaguers
Born
OPS
Carlos Quentin8/28/82.965
Josh Hamilton5/21/81.909
Casey Kotchman2/22/83.853
No, the National League is making its mark in another way -- not with players from the American League, but instead with imports from places like the Pacific Coast League, the International League, the Japanese Central League and even the Southern League. "I think the NL has become younger overall, which helps narrow [the gap]," said a veteran Major League scout who has worked in both leagues. "The better teams in the AL -- teams like the Yankees, Angels, Tigers, Red Sox -- they're mostly veteran clubs.

"I think we've seen more high-ceiling young players, guys like [Stephen] Drew, [Justin] Upton, [Hunter] Pence, [Geovany] Soto and [Ryan] Braun, come into the NL the last few years than we've seen in some time."

Many of those players were in the NL for at least part of last season. But in nearly every case, they either weren't in the bigs all year, or they've taken big steps forward.

A list of NL breakout players just this year goes on and on: Nate McLouth, Conor Jackson, Soto, Yunel Escobar, Upton, Rick Ankiel, Blake DeWitt, and pitchers Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez and Jair Jurrjens (the latter two acquired in Interleague trades, it should be noted). Go back a year for the emergences of Braun, Pence, Matt Kemp and Troy Tulowitzki.

The AL can counter with Casey Kotchman, Evan Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury, perhaps Carlos Gomez, and mound men Zack Greinke and Ervin Santana. But it's a much shorter list.

The key is, the difference isn't coincidental. It's very much by design. Several National League teams have begun building strong bases, aiming for greatness rather than settling for pretty-goodness. They're emulating a model put forth by AL clubs in Boston and Cleveland, and they're doing it well.

"The AL is the stronger league, but in the last couple of years, I think the good Drafts several of the NL teams have had in recent years have started to make an impact on the Major League level," the scout said. "Look at Colorado, Arizona, the Phillies, Dodgers and Brewers -- good teams, young teams, with a lot of homegrown talent.

"They're doing what the Indians did a few years ago, when [general manager Mark] Shapiro took over, developing their own talent, cherry picking free agents [and] keeping a nucleus together. Building through the Draft mainly -- Tampa Bay, Kansas City, same thing -- but I think there are more NL teams going through this process right now."

Whether they be emergent or already arrived, the best teams in the NL are nearly all homegrown. The Phillies' core consists of in-house players Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley. The Cubs are a big-dollar team, but they still lean on farm system products Carlos Zambrano, Soto and Kerry Wood, with Felix Pie on the way.

The AL has the big market teams, and many of them are very smart clubs. The AL has some teams on the rise, most notably a very exciting Rays club. But the junior circuit's grasp on the present is less firm than it's been in a long time, and the future may very well belong to the NL.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Jim Molony and Steve Gilbert contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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