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July 9, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

National League, First-Half Edition

by Steven Goldman

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As always, the grades reflect the entertainment value, user satisfaction, and baseball intelligence brought to bear by each team, though this week's marks are representative of the first half as a whole.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Winners of five straight at this writing, the Dodgers hit the halfway point in a much better position than even they could have expected. They acquired a new GM in the spring, too late for him to do much except decorate his office. Said GM immediately begins talking up Juan Encarnacion, redolent of either The Manchurian Candidate or a message directed at Kenny Williams (who else?). No trade happens, so the boys in blue are stuck with Encarnacion, who you can order al carbon or con tocino. They also have to make do with no first baseman, Cesar Izturis, Adrian Beltre, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there's the starting rotation, which may be the worst in the Los Angeles history of the franchise.

What went right? More things than one franchise deserves, more than can be addressed here. Milton Bradley was sent west express delivery. The bullpen bailed out the rotation. Izturis hit over his head in April and May, while Beltre was possessed by deceased circus aerialist Boston Brand, who used Beltre to pursue his killer, the assassin known as The Hook, while boosting his slugging percentage into the .600s. Some guys have all the luck. Some of these ringers are starting to revert to form, and now attention turns to the manager and general manager, the former to see how he can hide his team's flaws with mixing and matching, the latter to see if he can bring anything worth a match or a mix. Regardless, If this is only the high-water mark, they've done very well for themselves. GRADE: A

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Tied for first place at this writing, but the loss of Phil Nevin is a big deal indeed for an offense that can't light a match let alone start a fire. Ryan Klesko's power has been eaten by whatever succubus consumed Gary Gaetti's power in 1984, while Terrence Long and Jay Payton are doing what you would expect them to, minus something for Petco's hungry fences. Obvious solutions include giving another shot to Professor Xavier Nady, while letting Jon Knott have more than three at-bats to prove he might be able to play first base. As for Klesko, proposed solutions include benching, trading, and flensing, where after strips of his flesh will be tattooed with the words, "Surrender now!" and dropped on Iraqi insurgents. GRADE: B+

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

The Giants page at ESPN.com currently features the headline, "Alou Still Believes in Tomko." Alou also believes in the lone gunman theory, that the Beatles reunited to record "My Sharona," and that "Joe Sheehan" is just another one of Joyce Carol Oates' pen names. He may even be right about one or two of these things but not about Tomko, who has pitched in 212 career games and has seen more balls get whacked than the kid who got held back twice at the boys' school. At this point, waiting for a turnaround is an act of blind faith equivalent to eating McSushi. Despite (or perhaps because of) the name on the label, you know that things can't turn out well. Tomko is symbolic of the problems with the Alou/Giants approach this year: on both sides of the ball they've wasted precious resources on automatic non-contributors. Perhaps at times they didn't have any other options, but that's the whole point of team-building: what you don't have, you try to find, as opposed to pretending that your Tomkos will somehow learn to be Marichals. GRADE: C+

COLORADO ROCKIES

The Rockies are going nowhere fast, but it's hard to get very upset about it because my town is finally getting a Papa John's. Consuming a Domino's pizza is akin to chewing a very salty tire, so we've stuck with the local product for years, most of it of variable quality. "Variable quality" also describes the Rockies, who in the first half have gotten Matt Holliday and Aaron Miles off to major league careers--for what that's worth given the former's lack of real production and the latter's age and lack of plate discipline--as well as salvaged Joe Kennedy, probably the most impressive stroke of all.

As for the second half, perhaps Ian Stewart will get a shot at Visalia, or--dare we hope!--Double-A. For the mnemonically impaired: Ian Stewart is the Rockies' third base prospect. Ian Anderson was the singer-flautist in Jethro Tull, while Dave Stewart was the male half of the Eurythmics. Golly, why didn't those two guys ever record together? GRADE: D

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Bob Brenly paid the price for his own ring, decapitated by the big financial contraction that was the inevitable equal-and-opposite reaction to the veteran largesse that allowed him to get to the big finish line in the first place. Tactically, Brenly was a bit of a nightmare, and his victory in the 2001 World Series despite bunting everything but the concession stands is a monument to the kind of luck that Casey Stengel said Yogi Berra had--"He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch," said the Ol' Professor--the kind of luck that lets you do everything wrong and come out right.

The identity of Brenly's permanent successor is less interesting than what happens in the next few weeks--who the team gets in trade for Steve Finley (you might want to veto that move to San Diego if you still want to be thought of as a slugging 40ish center fielder, boyo), Roberto Alomar (Roger Daltrey-autographed copy of "Who's Next," with all nine tracks replaced by "Won't Get Fooled Again"), and perhaps Randy Johnson ($120,000 plus the mortgage on Yankee Stadium). Regardless, the rebuilding promises to be long and hard, and the next manager might not be here by the time the team slithers its way back into competition. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Winners of six straight at this writing, after being swept at Pittsburgh. Tony La Russa presently ranks sixth on the all-time list of managerial victories, and the 2004 Cardinals are his 25th team, not counting the 1979 White Sox, which he commanded for just 54 games, and the 1986 A's, his for 79 contests.

As David Byrne suggested, Tony may ask himself: "How did I get here?" "How did I develop the peculiar obsessions which make me at once highly successful, obtuse, and perverse?" The day was October 8, 1983. Through nine innings, the AL West-champion White Sox and the AL East-champion Orioles had thrown zeroes at each other. The O's had switched from Storm Davis to lefty Tippy Martinez in the seventh. But La Russa, afraid to entrust a win-or-go-home game to Dennis Lamp or Salome Barojas, stuck with lefty Britt Burns into the 10th. The second batter that inning was Tito Landrum, whose home run off Burns unlocked the scoreboard. Going to the pen only added to the misery; the Orioles went off to the World Series, La Russa went to PETA. The next year, Ron Reed was brought in to close; he saved just 12 games, blew five, and lost six, and the White Sox failed to repeat as division champs. Grief-stricken, writhing with rage, LaRussa vowed he would never again have fewer than 86 pitchers in his bullpen, 92 of them lefties. With this mutant southpaw octopus, he would be...indestructible. GRADE: A

CHICAGO CUBS

Closing out the first-half with three against the Cardinals. If everything possible goes wrong, the Cubs could head into the mid-season festivities looking at a nine-game deficit. The Cubs have had bad luck--not Blue Jays bad luck, but whatever scab-picking, crotch-rotting bad luck is just better than "Jobian." By this we mean having just a total of 14 starts out of Kerry Prior and Sammy Sosa's sloppy sneezes.

On the other hand, a lot of things have gone right--LaTroy Hawkins, Todd Walker, the return of Corey Patterson, Michael Barrett finding a bat, at least until recently, and the ad hoc pitching staff has still been quite good. What is left, then, is an offense that's not what it's cracked up to be, an impatient crew that doesn't get on base quite enough for the ballpark. It's your guess how they rectify this, but ball four has been a missing element in just about every post-war Cubs team. You'd think they might have gotten the hint by now. GRADE: B

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

There is no way to rate Milwaukee's first half as anything but an A. The only thing that's missing, and thereby holding them back from making a real run at the division and/or the Wild Card (which they presently trail by just one game) is home-run power. You can judge the level of commitment on the part of ownership by how aggressively they try to go out and get it. Where they might get it from is a whole other question; somehow borrowing Magglio Ordonez from the White Sox seems unlikely given the realities of regional sports rivalries. GRADE: A+

CINCINNATI REDS

Just 12-14 in June, 2-5 in July, a trend that needs arresting worse than Kenny-boy Lay. Despite their strong early showing, this franchise, one of baseball's most historic, needs to get a new plan, financial, tactical, medical, or sell out and move. Right now they exist only to provide employment to Todd Van Poppel and a sinecure to Barry Larkin. GRADE: C+

HOUSTON ASTROS

Just one game over .500 at this writing after a 13-14 June and waiting for the starting pitching picture to coalesce into something recognizable like "Nude Descending a Staircase" or maybe one of those Emerson, Lake & Palmer album covers, just so long as we know what it is. The Astros needed a pitcher more than they needed Carlos Beltran, at the very least so Tim Redding can take a break and try to figure out how not to get annihilated, a key skill for most pitchers, non-masochist division.

It's fascinating how in baseball a team will make a decision on playing assignments and then march hand in hand, lockstep, over a cliff with a non-performing player. Perhaps with pitching it is easy to project minor league performances and say, "All of our little pals at New Orleans are getting their heads handed to 'em, so they can't help us up here," but the great thing about baseball is that the season is long and any failed experiment can only set you back one game. "The country needs...the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." --Franklin Roosevelt, May 22, 1932, arguing that the Giants should accept that Dolf Luque just couldn't pitch anymore. GRADE: C+

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

A half-season of ups and downs and more downs. At .500 on May 30, the 'Rates followed with a 9-19 June which was salvaged, if you can call it that, only by the kickoff of a 10-game winning streak which evenly straddled the turn of the month. The pitching staff was the key to the turnaround, with Kris Benson and Josh Fogg finally finding themselves and the wonderful Sean Burnett given a chance to contribute. With Oliver Perez, who had been good all along, Pittsburgh finally has what looks like a starting rotation. In the long-term, it all means nothing, because what's left is complacency. There is no excuse for perpetuating Tike Redman and his .273 OBP, Randall Simon and the rest of the non-Wilson first base cadre, the random deployment of second basemen, and so on. No one trade is going to remedy a lack of talent or mental intransigence. Yawn. GRADE: D-

NATIONAL LEAUGE EAST

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Treading water as the division collapses in on itself like a dying dwarf star... Off-the-wall trade proposal, cogitated with no input from anyone, not even myself: the Phillies send 1B Ryan Howard (33 home runs at Double-A Reading) and a generic reliever in exchange for Mark Kotsay (Oakland then takes its chances with Nick Swisher). The Phillies need another bat so as to broaden their offensive show--currently it's Mr. Thome, Mr. Abreu, Mr. Burrell, and head for the bathroom. The pitching also is not what anyone thought it would be, Gavin Floyd dwells at Reading in da castle of his faddah, which doesn't help anyone except Brett Myers in his role of fifth columnist/connoisseur of Franklinania. Outside intervention seems unlikely, Steve Carlton is retired, so as Franklin says, once again God waits to help those who help themselves. The Phillies are agnostic on all of the above. GRADE: B-

NEW YORK METS

The biggest tease since that light-bulb shaped Junior I dated my senior year of high school. "Just keep driving. Don't talk. No, I don't want to go to a movie. No, I don't want to eat. If I wanted to be touched I'd touch myself." I saw her marriage announcement in the paper the other day. Lucky guy. If I was so blessed I'd kill myself.

This state of being, suspended between the purgatory of not having a girl at all and the Hell of having one who can suck the oxygen out of a room just by entering it perfectly encapsulates what it is to be a Mets fan. No other team would let John Franco lose five games out of sentimentality or try to justify Art Howe's generalship. This guy couldn't defend Pickett's charge. What other team would make Victor Diaz an outfielder and move Jose Reyes and sign Kazuo Matsui and forget to hire a first baseman and still win? I have no idea what's coming next and neither do they. They'll probably tell you it's a plan. GRADE: B

ATLANTA BRAVES

At .500 on the last day of May, they went 12-15 during June, and now, having whipped the Expos and the reeling Red Sox, they're supposed to be contenders. With all due respect for the Dumbledore-like powers of Bobby Cox, please. But even with Marcus Giles coming back there's just not enough here. That could change with the application of another starting pitcher--pulling Juan Cruz out of the pen/putting Mike Hampton in sales would be an obvious way to go. No money for a first baseman, but will barter food. GRADE: C

FLORIDA MARLINS

Just 13-21 since June 1, having suffered neither a total offensive nor pitching breakdown, but just enough of each to severely damage their efforts. Catcher is not their worst problem, but at year's end everyone will point to the loss of Pudge-Rod as the reason they couldn't defend their title. Actually, the title is the reason they couldn't defend their title: when you win, all of your decisions are retroactively justified, even the bad ones. The Sushi needed to replace about half their lineup, but damn it, they're champions, so leave us alone. OK, we'll leave you alone. GRADE: C-

MONTREAL EXPOS

Last lost 100 games in 1976. Finally, the curse will be broken. Actually, this franchise's refusal to cave over the years is a testament to creative management and a player development system that didn't give out until just recently. The Expos never won big, but they will deserve, and earn, more appreciation in retrospect than they ever did when they were a going concern... Kind of like "Star Trek" and Bill Clinton. GRADE: N/A

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

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