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February 26, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Potential Breakouts and Flops for 1999

by Christina Kahrl


With so many players coming off of better-than-expected seasons, it isn't hard to come up with a few potential floppers. A good bet is righthander Kevin Tapani, coming off of a 19-win season despite pitching about as well as unlamentedly departed Mark Clark. If lefty Terry Mulholland returns to the rotation, his ERA should head back into the mid-4s, which is basically his established level as a starter, but which will undoubtedly disappoint some people. Third baseman Gary Gaetti basically has no chance of sustaining what he did in a great six weeks for the Cubs.

In talking about which Cubs should break out, we're talking about old men who are bouncing back, not breaking out. For lack of any other candidates, I'll mention SS Jeff Blauser and C Benito Santiago. Both struggled with injuries which significantly affected their performance in 1998. The Cubs will desperately need Blauser's ability to get on-base if they want to finish as high as third in the division. After it becomes obvious that Gaetti's latest comeback won't last, a healthy Blauser will make it easy for rover Jose Hernandez to return to playing third regularly. As for Santiago, if he pops out a 270/320/450 season, even if you discount that for Wrigley and the current levels of offense, that would be the best catcher the Cubs have had since Jody Davis. It may not be great, but it is improvement.


The Reds have already had some good luck in terms of breakouts and bounce-backs in 1998, with righty Pete Harnisch and SS Barry Larkin bouncing back, and Dmitri Young breaking out. In 1999, expect 1B Sean Casey to break out to Olerud levels at the plate. That may still only be good enough to be the third-best first baseman in the division (behind two guys named McGwire and Bagwell), but good enough to give the Reds some sock to go with Greg Vaughn and Dmitri Young in the heart of the lineup. For a bounce-back, I'm optimistic that CF Mike Cameron will get straightened out playing for the Reds, but I thought the same thing about Jon Nunnally before Jack McKeon buried him. On a nastier note, if the Reds are foolish enough to play infielder Pokey Reese regularly, I can guarantee you he'll have his best year ever at the plate, decisively better than Rey Ordonez and most pitchers.

Flops? Well, I guess I won't join the BP consensus on LF Greg Vaughn, in that while I don't expect him to hit 50 HRs, I expect that he'll still be a valuable hitter. There are enough players on the Reds that I'm generally optimistic about that there isn't a great candidate here. If you're a realist, you won't be disappointed by what Aaron Boone is going to do, or that Michael Tucker isn't going to get 500 PAs, or that Nunnally will be lucky to get out of town. I hope Stan Belinda is healthy, but I have no idea how well he can pitch with multiple sclerosis. In terms of serious picks to flop, I'd have to nominate Jason Bere and John Hudek. I'm mentioning Bere on the basis of all of the eager jabbering surrounding him in camp; even if Don Gullett brings him back to near-usefulness, we're talking about a guy with lousy control who wasn't that good when healthy and throwing over 90. As for Hudek, I don't have much faith in wild relievers who have serious problems keeping the ball in the yard.


Keeping in mind that we're only talking about established players this week (as in, we'll talk about Lance Berkman and Mitch Meluskey next week), my top choice for an Astro breakout is CF Richard Hidalgo. Limited by injuries and Carl Everett's breakthrough year last season, Hidalgo should get 500 PA this year, and make a significant impact defensively. Scott Elarton used up his rookie status, so he sort of belongs in this space, and I share in the general expectation that he's going to be something special. Although the Cubs shouldn't be much of a threat to the Astros, matchups between Kerry Wood and Elarton will satisfy even those of us who aren't gas addicts.

As for potential disappointing Astros, don't be surprised in the least if we've seen the best season you're ever going to get out of RF Derek Bell. Although the injury to Moises Alou should cool the trade rumors surrounding Bell during the off-season, if Gerry Hunsicker and Tim Purpura play their cards right, they'll deal Bell right now, while the getting is good. Among the starting pitching, I wouldn't count too strongly on righty Sean Bergman. Even with Larry Dierker and the Astrodome in his favor, he was hittable and homer-prone. Like Bell, I don't think things will get any better, and both have a chance to drop to previously established lows in terms of performance.


I suppose I have to say CF Marquis Grissom will get better, but even if he adds 30 points of OBP and 50 points of slugging, he'll be an offensive sinkhole. Steve Woodard is well-primed for a breakout season; he's very capable of being the token Brewer for the All-Star game, but he'll be good enough to deserve it, assuming dumb luck gives him good run support. Infielder Mark Loretta may get the opportunity to claim the shortstop job on an everyday basis. Although I don't expect his rates to go up, with full-time play he should rack up some good numbers.

The flip side to Loretta getting a shot is that SS Jose Valentin has probably worn out his welcome, and whether or not he gets traded somewhere he'll get to play regularly is unknowable at this point. Second baseman Fernando Vina is a tough call, at least for me, in that he was the player I was most dramatically wrong about in 1998. The chances that he'll play as well as he did in '98 seem doubtful, but then it remains to be seen whether he'll even be a Brewer by Opening Day. Lefty Scott Karl is a good candidate to completely blow up this year; he's lost ground every year since he's come up, and he wouldn't be the first or last pitcher Phil Garner has slagged. Finally, although I've loved watching Jim Abbott pitch over the course of his career, he's going to get smacked around.


I'm already pretty thoroughly disgusted with the Pirates as a team stillborn on the brink of opportunity, so I'm probably blind to some of the good things. Who could break out? Jason Schmidt is probably ready to make the next step and become an ace starter. I guess it's theoretically possible that Jose Guillen will finally become a useful player. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez should have been allowed to build on a rookie season where he was rushed, but Ed Sprague's worthless carcass has been dragged into town.

Calling somebody a flop would imply that they'll fall below current expectations of performance, and in the Pirates' case, there aren't too many players in that boat. Mike Benjamin or Pat Meares or Sprague have all been awful recently, so you can't really be surprised when that continues. I suppose somebody will be disappointed when Brant Brown doesn't slug .500 this year, but in terms of building your expectations on the basis of what's happened before, the miserable truth about the Pirates is that if everyone plays as well as they have before, they're going to be a worse, more expensive team than they have been recently.


The Cardinals are the wildest of dark horses, in the sense that it's possible they could win the division, and it's possible they could finish in fifth place. One of the basic reasons for that is that so much depends on whether or not Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan start using their rotation more sensibly, or if that's impossible, at least getting that big year from the starting pitchers they're abusing. So far, they haven't gotten either, which is what separates LaRussa's petty abuses of a Matt Morris or Alan Benes from Billy Martin's cashing in on Ed Figueroa or Mike Norris. Lefty Donovan Osborne has been touted widely as the big candidate to bust out if he has more than a dozen starts, and I suppose I'll reluctantly subscribe to that line of thinking. The difference between Osborne and the other victims is that Osborne's so fragile LaRussa hasn't had a clean shot at overusing him. Given what happened in '98 to Alan Benes and Todd Stottlemyre, if Osborne's consistently healthy, I expect LaRussa will burn him out by mid-August.

On a more positive note, closer Ricky Bottalico is as good a candidate as any to bounce back. SS Edgar Renteria should have a good year, freed from the heavy Florida air. You'll see improvement from C Eli Marrero, not as much as some hype would have you believe, but he's going to be a solid offensive contributor and good defensive player. Not exactly a breakout, just something that'll be nice to see.

Guys to be pessimistic about? I have little faith in lefties Darren Oliver or Kent Mercker at this stage. Both have been tender-armed when they haven't been pitching poorly. I could be cruel and mention Curtis King, but that's sort of pointless. Second baseman Carlos Baerga should have been primed to be the kind of guy who the Pirates would bring in: dubious or negligible skills in every phase of the game, a basic inability to get on base, and plenty of veteran seasoning ought to have had him in the company of similarly lousy players now in black and gold. Instead, he'll waste the Cardinals' time. He's a great candidate for outright release by August, especially if the Cardinals want to get serious about winning right now, or ever for that matter.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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