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August 7, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Does Anybody Know What Time It Is in the National League Edition

by Steven Goldman

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ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Their .664 OPS would have been a pretty bad week for the 1906 Cubs, and it's even less impressive in 2004 when registered by players who have access to modern training methods, nutrition, and dentistry... Got a catching body and a pitching prospect for Steve Finley, which is just a step above getting nothing, at least as far as certainty goes. Then again, you probably shouldn't expect to acquire Babe Ruth for a center fielder who is pushing 40. GRADE: C-

ATLANTA BRAVES

Romping and stomping in the patented Bobby Cox second-half manner. This is no last ride of the Magnificent Seven, because there is no seven. Even the Magic Three (which, I will come right out and tell you, is an entirely relevant reference to Chinese castrati) have been scattered, with Greg Maddux hunting #300 and Tom Glavine burning in the circle of Hell reserved for fools and suicides. What there is, again, is a very successful pitching staff, now tied for the league lead in ERA. Last week the team ERA was 2.18. In seven games, they issued eight free passes and gave up just five home runs. The batters hit all of four home runs. J.D. Drew contributed almost nothing--it didn't matter. Where do they find these people? How do they "adjust" them? It's the Stepford Ballplayers, coming to a post-season near you. GRADE: A

CHICAGO CUBS

Winning, but floating just above the league floor for on-base percentage, like some mutant flounder hovering in the aquatic twilight zone. Superb pitching (2.76 ERA on the week) props them up, but it is worth repeating that the last time this offense was optimized a Democrat was president, but it wasn't Clinton--or Carter or Johnson or Kennedy or Truman... The slow, impatient slugger Ernie Banks is "Mr. Cub," but it would have been better for everyone's health if the strategic role model had remained Smiling Stan Hack, the patient, speedy third baseman. Hack's Cubs won more pennants than Banks' Cubs, 4-0, and more than Sosa's Cubs, too. Getting on base is the sine qua non of offense and the Ursines have done without it for too many decades. GRADE: B

CINCINNATI REDS

Outscored 43-24 on the week, won but one game; April's miracles are often August's also-rans. Reserve judgment in all things. Do not marry precipitously. In the cold light of day, your blushing bride may be Barry Larkin, or even Wily Mo Pena, whose persistent lack of plate judgment makes his apotheosis far from a done deal. Many are the Rolando Roomes through which one must pass to arrive at the stately pleasure dome that Sammy Sosa did decree. The offense batted .202 last week, with only Adam Dunn and the formerly at sea Felipe Lopez performing as if they hadn't been unmanned at the Queen City Summer Fair Bull-to-Ox in One Easy "Snikt" Agro-Abattoir Demo. These problems are transient, but the pitching problems are so deeply rooted that it's going to take James Mason and Pat Boone to get to the bottom of them. GRADE: F

COLORADO ROCKIES

Split four with the Dodgers, then swept the Diamondbacks, pitching to a 3.43 ERA despite spending the week at home. You'd have to call that a successful week for this team, though some hangovers linger: Charles Johnson went 1-for-13. Thank you so much for hanging around, Chuck. Someday soon, they're going to hang your jersey on the center field wall, perhaps with you still in it. Hero of the week was Aaron Cook, who pitched 16.1 innings and allowed just three earned runs, including one home run. Then again, he walked five and struck out four, so it's awfully hard to take this as a sign. He even allowed more than one fly ball for every grounder. Previously, he had been better than two-to-one. Stay tuned. GRADE: A

FLORIDA MARLINS

This "speed" team was once again out-stolen on the week, with opponents going five for five in steal attempts while the Mercury-Contaminated Seafood achieved satisfaction on three of five sorties. As they used to say during the World War II gas conservation days, "Is this trip really necessary?" We could use some more of that, actually. There will come a day when ballplayers go from first to third in Cadillac SUVs. It's a promotional thing, doncha know, in keeping with the Spirit of the Game (she said so herself, though even Commissioner Selig admits they haven't been feeding her lately). Even then, one base is not going to equal the four you get from the home run. Fortunately for Florida, they outhomered the opposition 6-4, with new backstop Paul Lo Duca slamming two. Look in the mirror: Sometimes what you think is your best trait is really your worst, and the quality you disdain is the one that keeps the girls interested. Either way, though, as your friend TEAMS is obligated to tell you that wearing a dickey to gym class is not winning you any converts... The loss of Armando Benitez is a minor blow, more than made up for by their new Mota-vation. GRADE: B

HOUSTON ASTROS

The pitching staff had a terrific week, but the offense took a knee, resulting in three close losses to Arizona and Cincinnati, the kind you look back on in October and say, "Ah, yes. Here is where we spit the bit." Though the team slugging percentage was just ..413, they did attempt 11 steals and succeed 10 times, and continued to maintain their league lead in the sacrifice bunts department (Adam Everett's injury will cut into both those categories, and more importantly, the team's up-the-middle defense). Phil Garner is back, baby! Yeah! GRADE: C

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Hee Seop Choi, who is the real prize of the recent swapfest, hit well, but the rest of the last call booty did not add luster to the GM's rep, with Old Man Finley going five-for-24 with just one extra base and the new catching department making just two safeties in 16 tries. Hey, it's just one week, but the Lo Duca separation is going to be the media's scripted story from here on in--Young exec has the hubris to deal the heart, soul, liver, pancreas, superego of the team--so it behooves us to keep tabs on the situation. Keep in mind that no explanation for blowing a pennant race, or winning one, came down to so simple an explanation. HSLT--Heart, Soul, and Liver Tales--are just pabulum for the credulous. The bigger story here, as it has been all year, is a Dodger team winning without Dodger pitching. "Ishii" and "playoff game" is the scariest combination since chocolate and butterfly. GRADE: B-

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Pitched well, didn't hit, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh...the fundamental things apply, as time goes by... Russell Branyan is just the kind of player with which an organization like the Brewers should be experimenting. Devalued, properly considered to be limited yet with at least one useful skill, in his case power, Branyan could be part of a platoon or other job sharing arrangement that nets him 300 plate appearances a year and his team a few sorely needed home runs. Sure, you don't want him playing defense behind certain pitchers, facing most left-handers, or batting with a runner on third and one out in the ninth inning, but these are challenges for the alert manager to cope with. The first step, alert manager, is to reduce the number of redundant relievers running up the water bill on the clubhouse shower. You can't platoon if you don't have room for bench players. GRADE: C-

MONTREAL EXPOS

Went 4-2 and not only hit .311 but took 35 walks for a .412 on-base percentage. Of course, the week's stats were inflated by the 19-10 drubbing of the Mets on July 26, but that just underscores the main question: Who are these guys and what have they done with the Expos? Add in an astute trade that turned Orlando Cabrera--a player who wasn't going to stay and was hurting more than he was helping anyway--into a useful pitcher and infielder and you have the best week the franchise has had in a long time. Now all they need to do is make a major free agent signing or trade this winter, adding someone who will rivet the eyes of Washington upon the new team, an instant marquee name who will be the basis of the franchise's new identity. Only one man fits that description, and his name is...Joe DiMaggio. GRADE: A+

NEW YORK METS

Are the Mets still in the league?... Mike Cameron hit .280/.379/.880, swatting five home runs, continuing the torrid streak he began in July when he slugged .701. Still, as scripture says, "For what is a man profited if he shall gain Mike Cameron and lose every prospect on the farm to pick up a couple of number-four starters?" For the Mets, salvation is always a deal or a player away. It's a delusion under which they've been operating for years, trapping them in a Xeno's paradox where they're always closing half the distance to the pennant and never arriving. In actuality, salvation was just traded all over the major leagues for a last-hurrah shot at glory as wasteful as any "heroic" charge against entrenched positions. As Tennyson might have written in his "Charge of the Light Metropolitans," "Theirs not to reason why/ theirs but to trade and die/ Into the valley of Death/ rode Mike Piazza." GRADE: F

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

It would not be too grandiose to say that they were nuked last week, torpedoed, murderized. The staff ERA was 7.74 and as that number suggests, no one pitched well. That the terror came against divisional and Wild Card opponents made the session even more dire. Returning to scripted stories, it's hard to see how you can blame the manager for an implosion that severe, unless you're so insistent on his culpability that you want to file this one under "P" for "Preparation, Big Games." It's a romantic thought, but probably not a fair one... Bobby Abreu (.393/.433/.893) put in another great week. Only his mom noticed. GRADE: F

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Spent the week playing punching bag, in spite of pitching very well. In dealing Kris Benson they were trading from strength, as they've had some luck acquiring and developing pitching in recent years. Offense remains a bigger problem, with a big home-run bat still eluding them. With just 92 homers on the season they have hit fewer round-trippers than 13 other National League teams, and their .404 slugging percentage is a drag on the league average of .422. They need a big bat to build the offense around, a charismatic presence to sell tickets and score baserunners. There's just one man who fits that description...Joe DiMaggio. They'll have to compete with the Expos. GRADE: D

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Went 3-1 against the Giants, 1-2 against the Dodgers, causing them to be rechristened the San Diego Iceberg... Outscored 30-32 at home; it's not just the park, it's the players. That's not a deep insight, but when a team hits two home runs and steals two bases in a week, it's hard to find excitement beyond the beige. GRADE: C-

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Lost three of five, having been abused by the Padres and the Cardinals. Pitching consisted of Jason Schmidt and a kind of whirlwind that descended on the Giants while leaving opponents unscathed... Is Kirk Rueter the worst pitcher ever to win 125 games? In this case, "Worst" doesn't mean "bad," but "without the markers that would indicate the ability to win." GRADE: D

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Possessors of the best record in baseball at least for the day, this is a team that needs to be in the World Series to cement in baseball history the status of its Hall of Fame trio of Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen. Given the weaknesses of the other division leaders, they should. If only Randy Johnson had been willing to try out the Midwest; the ace of the staff is still a missing element, though Larry Walker should help elsewhere. GRADE: 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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