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July 29, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

One Week at a Time, NL Edition

by Steven Goldman

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As always, the grades represent the entertainment value, user satisfaction, and baseball intelligence brought to bear by each team during the previous week.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Winless on the week, including a three-game series against the Rockies in which they scored a grand total of six runs. The only two players who actually reported to work were the two most likely to be exiled, Randy Johnson (15 IP, 13 H, 2 R, 1 BB 20 K), and Steve Finley (.934 OPS). The rest of them played as if they were Charlie Bucket's dad, screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes for a living... One thing that many observers miss about the Yankees is that they are not the only team that can afford to take on salary at the deadline, but may be the only team willing. The difference is that the Yankees' owner, answerable only to himself, may decide in a given year to take home less money by cutting into his own profit margin (and that of the junior partners, who may take home relatively little as a result). Other teams, particularly those that are components of larger corporations, may fix a profit goal for the year and stick to it at the expense of winning. Most execs of public companies are uncomfortable telling the shareholders that they lost money on the sports operation this year because they decided to gamble on winning a World Series. Thus, if the DBs chose to dump salary and other objects of refuse in New York's general direction, there's nothing unfair about it at all. GRADE: F

ATLANTA BRAVES

Study the history of the Cox era, and one thing that stands out is the Braves' ridiculous second-half records; Cox's Army thinks nothing of posting a .700 winning percentage in August and September, no matter which personnel are on hand each year. Our job here at BP is to debunk superstition, so we're not going to ascribe this to leadership or winning tradition or an angry attitude engendered by the lack of mass transit around Atlanta. Next time you're around Bobby Cox, though, you should ask: What is it you do to prepare your team for this? Do you think that the energy expended in ransacking the league in the dog days leaves them fagged out in the fall? This is a key question that will need to be answered as we look back over the Braves' dynasty--which is showing that reports of its death were premature. Note that despite a 4-2 week, they still don't hit much--Chipper Jones is personally sinking the stats--but the staff turned in a 2.09 ERA with everyone but Antonio Alfonseca pitching well. The Braves are just going to have to accept that, because it would be more dangerous having him loose on the streets. Maybe they can get some synergy going with some of their corporate cousins and get him a show on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim or something. GRADE: A-

CHICAGO CUBS

They slugged .544 on the week and generally hit well, highlighted by Moises Alou's line of .417/.500/1.083 and Derrek Lee's .292/.414/.833, while lowlighted by a .492 OPS week from Alex Gonzalez, who must have sipped something from Rey Ordonez's secret stash of anti-spinach, gold kryptonite, and reverse Gatorade--the enervating drink that tastes great but leaves you feeling like you just spent 10 hours making love to an amorous alligator. Speaking of which, there's a famous Babe Ruth story in which one of his roommates saw the Babe take a girl into his bedroom. There would be 20 minutes of squelching sounds, after which the Babe would come out to the living room and smoke a cigar. When the cigar was done, Ruth would stub it out in an ashtray, go back to the bedroom for another 20 minutes, then come back out and smoke another cigar. This went on for quite awhile, and eventually the roommate went to bed. In the morning Ruth emerged from his bedroom looking much the worse for wear. "Babe," said the roommate, "how many times were you with that girl last night?" Ruth shrugged and gestured towards the ashtray. "Count the cigars," he said. My own brush with the Ruth story came when I was 19. A blind date with a young woman from out-of-town had gone awry: she was friendly enough, but I had been deceived as to her appearance (she looked very much like a pineapple with eyes). After dinner and a movie she invited me back to her hotel room and I didn't know how to refuse. Once there, she invited me to get to know her better and I just couldn't--the old saying is "Do it for Uncle Sam." I was a conscientious objector. For some reason we had purchased a dozen donuts. She beckoned. I said, "Let me have a donut first." I ate the donut. She beckoned again. "One more donut," I said. "I love these Boston cream ones." I chewed. She yawned. Her eyes got heavy. I chewed more slowly. She began to snore. I got up to leave. Her eyes opened. I reached for another donut. How many times did I not get into bed that night? Count the donuts... Similarly, Dusty Baker should chew a few donuts before bringing in LaTroy Hawkins to perpetuate another tie. P.S.: Welcome back, Greg Maddux. GRADE: D

CINCINNATI REDS

Not long ago, some of our more credulous compatriots were calling this club a contender. Codswallop, and here's why: despite Freel-ings, misty watercolor Freel-ings, a journeyman to whom the Reds artisinal qualities, the Reds had a strong offensive week, reaching base 34% of the time and slugging .466 (Jason LaRue (why isn't his nickname "Lash?"), of all people, took a page from the book of Johnny Bench's bigger, meaner, boron-powered brother), yet still lost five of seven games because the pitching staff--and "staff" is really a misnomer, "pitching collection" would be more like it--turned the average hitter they faced, over roughly 280 plate appearances and three teams, into Al Kaline. The only prescription for the Reds is to trade whatever is tradable, ask only for pitching in return, and burn the whole damn thing down to the ground. Sometimes it seems as if they haven't had a good pitcher in there since Mario Soto, and it isn't far from the truth. GRADE: F

COLORADO ROCKIES

Enjoyed a rare winning week thanks to the supine, prostrated, prolapsed Diamondbacks... On a recent episode of "Baseball Tonight," John Kruk wondered aloud why Vinny Castilla's name hadn't been mentioned in trade rumors. The obvious answer, "Maybe 'cause nobody's that dumb," went unspoken. Another possible response, "Maybe 'cause the Rockies haven't made him available," did not occur even to so cynical an observer as your host. GRADE: C-

FLORIDA MARLINS

Their week started promisingly, taking two games from the Mets and splitting two with the Phillies, but then the wheels came off as the Little Orphan Expos vanquished them in three straight. A simple formula for having a pennant-winning season goes something like this: you'll win if you split against the best teams, win the vast majority of games against average teams, and absolutely annihilate the clubs that aren't trying. Now, in losing three to Robbie's Boys, it's possible that the Fish ran into an "every dog has its day" kind of scenario, but the fact is that year after year the teams that go to the postseason never miss an opportunity to send Ol' Yeller to his great reward... Slugged .384 on the week but stole six bases. If they run into the 1910 Highlanders they're all set. Note: Opponents actually stole nine bases, so what phase of the game are we dominating, exactly? GRADE: D

HOUSTON ASTROS

Dropped the first two of the week to the Dodgers, then rebounded strongly thanks to the Diamondbacks and Brewers... Notable changes coinciding with the installation of Phil Garner: Morgan Ensberg is playing a lot more than Mike Lamb (though that change had already begun under reluctant dragon Williams). The "new" Adam Everett reappeared, batting .370/.433/.667 on the week, justifying Garner's decision not to drop him out of the #2 spot. I, Robot hit the top of the box office charts despite being a travesty of Isaac Asimov's pathfinding collection of interrelated stories. Any or all of these may be coincidence, and about the only thing you can definitively say about the Garner revival is that he got his fling with Dan Miceli and David Weathers out of the way and reaped two losses for his flirtations. Hopefully his affections will now find a healthier outlet... History repeats itself, maybe: under Jimy Williams the 1989 Blue Jays lost 24 of their first 36 games. Williams was terminated and replaced with Cito Gaston, who was not exactly John McGraw. The Jays went 77-49 over the balance of the season and won the American League East by two games. So Mr. Hunsicker: What took you so long? GRADE: B

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Last week Cesar Izturis batted .400, Adrian Beltre slugged .880, and even Shawn Green slugged .750. Tommy Lasorda was right: the man upstairs really does bleed Dodger blue. It's a good thing they didn't stick with their 1916-1917 uniforms or the Big Guy would be hemorrhaging Dodger waffles... Had one of their pitchingest weeks of the year, Kaz Ishii aside, posting a 3.29 ERA in 63 innings. Playing the Padres helped. GRADE: A

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

As John Lennon sang on Plastic Ono Band, "The dream is over." Went 1-6, all in-division. "In a word the revolution is of too great magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood--the mortification of the King, the intrigues of the Queen, and the discontents of the Princes, and the Noblesse will foment divisions, if possible, in the national assembly, and avail themselves of every faux pas in the formation of the constitution if they do not give a more open, active opposition." -George Washington, in a letter to Gouverneur Morris, October 13, 1789 [sic]. GRADE: F

MONTREAL EXPOS

The offense remains a project, but the pitching staff held opposing hitters to .232/.303/.317 on the week, a good omen for the franchise's rebirth in RFK. It will be most interesting to see the approach the new ownership, whoever that turns out to be, takes to free agents; we're not used to this franchise improving itself via the retail route, but the new locale will mean new rules. The downside is that MLB is going to take its time letting the caretakers know what's happening, neutering any possible course of action that might involve keeping the pitching staff intact, trading Orlando Cabrera for prospects now, signing Nomar over the winter, and winning the hearts and minds of the District bureau-fans right from the off. Naturally, capital-B Baseball will simply assume their gratitude for getting a team in the first place. Those who repeat the past forget to condemn it, or something like that. GRADE (AS ALWAYS): INC.

NEW YORK METS

Heading backwards at perilously a high speed, and not to punt a deceased equine, but it's all the manager's fault. Once again, John Franco was encouraged to lose two games this week that the Mets might have won merely by paying attention to platoon statistics. Judeo-Christian religion recognizes suicide as a sin, and that goes not only for the self-destroyers but those that enable them. Normally, the manager's exact contribution to a team can be an elusive and difficult to identify. Never, in the history of baseball, has it been so obvious, so clearly deleterious... In other news, one still wonders how Tom Glavine thought that trying to win 300 games and signing with this team were mutually compatible. GRADE: F

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Earlier this season, TEAMS guessed incorrectly on Jimmy Rollins, predicting it would be Byrd, and not he, that found his stroke. TEAMS apologies, Mr. Rollins, and invites you to a conciliatory duck dinner at Joe Sheehan's house (you bring the duck)... Still not pulling in one direction. Some weeks they hit, some weeks they pitch, rarely do they do both. The loss of Ryan Madson makes a felicitous conjoining of offense and defense in time to catch October that much more unlikely. GRADE: C

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

A cusp team, by which it is meant that the future depends on their next few moves. On the verge, but on the verge of what is not yet clear. The conventional wisdom says that the franchise will automatically be better off if they rid themselves of Jason Kendall's brontosaurus-sized contract as soon as the trading deadline. Balderdash and folderol. Money is only valuable if you put it to work; tossed into the old Dave Righetti souvenir cup on your dresser drawer, it's inert, just another object taking up space. Even if put to work, it has to be spent wisely--not, say, Randall Simonized. Finally, Kendall is a valuable player; offensive catchers don't grow on trees, and his production will have to be replaced. Automatic improvement nothing; moving Kendall is as big a gamble as any a building team will take this year. No doubt you've already identified the word in the last sentence that drags the whole thing into the realm of science-fiction. ERA last week: 3.13. GRADE: B

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Slump: Tony Womack went 2-for-25 on the week (.080) with two singles, walked four times, and was caught stealing once... The Cards have pitched very well, especially recently, but are still so light on the pitcher strikeouts that you have to wonder about their ability to keep super-empowered playoff opponents in the park long enough for Pujols et al to take them out. GRADE: B+

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Last week hit like Tris Speaker, pitched like Tris Speaker's sister, and went 5-2 on the road. Whatever it takes. GRADE: B+

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Barry Bonds slumped last week and still had an OPS of .918... At season's end, they may go home with both the MVP and Cy Young winners, but no pennant to fly. If it happens, it will be quite an instructive demonstration of the limits to which one or two stars can give lift to a boatload of plumbers. GRADE: C

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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