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May 5, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Pitching problems and solutions

by Christina Kahrl

Contrasts in Contingencies

If there's one watchword about pitching, it's Joaquin Andujar's favorite: "youneverknow." The vagaries of who gets hurt and why, and who winds up being ineffective and why, are issues that every major league general manager has to anticipate. Teams have to be prepared to lose a starting pitcher, so today's question is, who in the early going has had to adapt, and who had a plan in place?

Ed Lynch gets plenty of flak, much of it deserved, but he deserves a measure of credit for keeping Terry Mulholland around as the team's contingency starter. Despite losing Kevin Tapani and Jon Lieber to non-pitching injuries, the Cubs will shortly have a rotation built around Steve Trachsel, Tapani, and Lieber. Behind that, the Cubs have a nice situation; they can pick and choose how to use their pitchers, with Mulholland being only the most-publicized option.

If Jeremi Gonzalez is ready to go by June, they can call him up. If Kyle Farnsworth's command of his forkball puts the icing on his assortment, he could be up to stay. Scott Sanders had a nice start on Sunday courtesy of an unreformed Eric Gregg, but there are worse alternatives for the fifth slot. Because of everything that has gone wrong, the Cubs have had to avail themselves of all sorts of alternatives; but other than Brad Woodall, none of them have really turned out that badly. The interesting dilemma will be what to do when Gonzalez is ready, because at that point the Cubs may be able to peddle a starter for something they can use.

Like the Cubs, the Pirates have had to fall back on their alternatives much earlier than they would have liked. Losing two starting pitchers early on created windows of opportunity for Kris Benson and Chris Peters. Benson has badly injured his ankle, and they're already souring on using Peters in the rotation. With Jose Silva's return and the surprising effectiveness of Todd Ritchie in a pair of emergency starts, the Pirates are mulling over their choices.

Francisco Cordova should be back this week, which would jumble the picture even further. It looks like they'll continue to wait and see whether Ritchie can continue surprising people. So once Cordova returns, that should mean Benson will get bumped, even if healthy. In the meantime, they're considering calling up Jimmy Anderson. Given a bad team, no real expectation of contention, the available alternatives and and early evidence that taking a chance with kids and journeymen isn't all bad, the Pirates ought to peddle Pete Schourek before he pitches his way onto the waiver wire.

Better Options

The Astros have an excellent contingency plan. Just in case Sean Bergman starts recalling his glory days in Tiger Stadium, or if Chris Holt can't bounce back, Scott Elarton is still the best pitching prospect wearing a major league uniform. He's still in place for the Astros to call in case anything goes wrong with any starter.

The problem for the Astros is what to do with Elarton if neither Jay Powell nor Doug Henry get their acts together. As long as the team isn't getting good work in the seventh and eigth innings in front of Billy Wagner, Larry Dierker is going to have to wrestle with deciding where Elarton does the team the most good. Which hole does Elarton fill if more than one opens up? If Holt or Bergman struggle while Powell and Henry continue to struggle, Dierker will have a tough choice.

The minor-league alternative is Wade Miller, who's been solid at New Orleans, and who could end up in the rotation to stay by 2000. The Astros have talent to trade for a starter if something of a season-ending variety happened to Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton or Jose Lima, but in that circumstance it's more likely that they'd put Elarton into the rotation and shop for an adequate reliever.

Similarly, the Cardinals haven't had to call on their main contingency starter, Manny Aybar. Although I was surprised that they didn't end up trading him for Fernando Vina, Walt Jocketty correctly anticipated that he could get useful work out of several internal alternatives at second, and that the difference between what he could get out of Vina versus a combo of Placido Polanco, Joe McEwing, and Shawon Dunston wasn't worth coughing up Aybar. It's turned out much better than anyone had any right to expect, but the essential point is that when Donovan Osborne or Darren Oliver get hurt again, or if Kent Mercker continues to toss extra-lively batting practice, Aybar will hopefully have some success as a middle reliever to build on when he's dropped into the rotation. Rick Ankiel's looking good enough to call up shortly. Be afraid: LaRussa and Duncan may not have learned anything from what has happened to Matt Morris and Alan Benes.

And the Other Guys

Alone among the teams in the division, the Reds have had to throw up their hands and rid themselves of a starter for whom there were reasonable expectations. Brett Tomko is better than he looked last week against the Phillies, but maybe the punitive demotion will help him bounce back to where he was in 1997.

Even after calling up Steve Parris, the Reds have a pair of good alternatives in the event of another rotation mishap: Scott Williamson and Dennys Reyes. Although they're "grooming" Williamson for the closer's role, that's a waste of a good arm that may be able to give them 30 starts with an ERA under 4.00. On the other hand, Reyes probably needs a year in the bullpen after being worked hard by the Dodgers, but he could still turn out well. If the Reds finally give up on the Jason Bere experiment, or if Parris breaks down, or if Denny Neagle has to revisit the DL, both Williamson and Reyes will be available to start.

There's actually some danger in letting either remain in the pen. In his stint with the Reds over parts of the last three seasons, Jack McKeon seems to have combined the worst of both worlds: innings-pitched workloads that seem normal for the late '70s and early '80s, with a contemporary obsession with LaRussian tactical chicanery. There isn't a handy tool to calculate the effect of using relievers for lots of innings as well as in lots of games, but I'd describe it as less than ideal if you want your relievers to have long, healthy careers.

The Brewers haven't planned for any contingency whatsoever. They're surprised when Cal Eldred is aching, they're surprised that Jim Abbott still isn't useful and they're surprised that Bill Pulsipher pitches badly. They'll take a spin with Hideo Nomo, hoping something works out. The internal alternatives are so unappetizing that Rafael Roque was able to spring out of anonymity in the Mets' chain to relative adequacy in Milwaukee. Hell, they're counting on him, like they're blind to the possibility that Scott Karl is damaged goods as he continues to lose ground from where he was as a rookie. The Brewers are a dandy illustration of small market mentalities, not actual small market problems.

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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