July 13, 1999
NL Central Notebook
Enough bad things have happened to the Astros to give every team an opportunity to indulge in some wishful thinking, but what should these teams be doing?
Cincinnati Reds (49-36, division leader)
Most of the risks Jim Bowden has taken in shooting for contention have worked out, with the most obvious problem being Denny Neagle's continued bad health. The team has should have already endured the worst work its rotation is capable of: teams won't get to pound Jason Bere anymore.
If Neagle bounces back and Ron Villone continues to wow folks in the rotation, that's three solid starters (with Pete Harnisch). Jack McKeon can then afford to get picky from among Brett Tomko, Steve Avery and Steve Parris in the fourth and fifth slots. The race is on to see who solves his problem first: Avery with his control, or Tomko with his tateriffic tendencies. If they both iron out their problems, Parris is the man on the bubble when Neagle returns.
The bullpen has been the team's star so far, and while there's some danger than Scott Williamson and Danny Graves are being asked to do too much, overall there shouldn't be much reason for concern.
The Reds' farm system isn't loaded with good talent to turn to for help or into a major league starter. If they need help in the rotation down the stretch, they may finally have to take Dennis Reyes out of the pen, which would actually be a fairly good solution.
So where can the Reds make some simple upgrades? They're close to the bottom of the NL in runs scored, and in the middle of the league in Equivalent Average, so some offensive help is in order. You might say third base is a good place to start, but Aaron Boone's coming around, and the guys who might be available (Ed Sprague...Joe Randa...Sean Berry) aren't big improvements over Boone offensively, while he's a better glove than any of them.
The Reds could really improve in right field. Michael Tucker has done well enough by his own standards, but that's still poor for a corner outfielder. The Reds could help themselves considerably by giving Dmitri Young more playing time. Young's .845 OPS in 1998 was not a fluke, and the Reds shouldn't forget that just because of his failure to adapt to the pinch-hitting role he's currently saddled with. The Reds are a good enough defensive team to carry one pair of stone hands somewhere, and with the pitcher hitting, an NL lineup can't afford to carry too many mediocre bats.
The Reds can pull this off, and with one more starter and some small improvements to the lineup, they could even surprise some people in the postseason.
Houston Astros (50-37, 2nd place, .001 behind)
It's true, the Astros have suffered a lot of misfortune, bad breaks that go a long way towards explaining why the team has come back to the pack. Not just any team can survive losing its starting catcher, left fielder, shortstop and third baseman for all or much of the season.
But the Astros are deep, and losing a Moises Alou or a Ken Caminiti or a Rookie of the Year candidate like Mitch Meluskey doesn't spell the end of the world when solid replacements like Richard Hidalgo, Bill Spiers and the platoon of Paul Bako and Tony Eusebio are available. What's killing the Astros isn't simply these losses, but the failures of some of the guys who are still around.
The biggest problem is Derek Bell, probably the least valuable outfielder in the major leagues today. And worse yet, he's been the picture of health all season long, giving the Astros his usual miserable play afield to go with pathetic hitting. Screw the Pan Am games, and screw waiting for Alou to arrive in late August or early September: call up Lance Berkman now. If not Berkman, bring Darryl Ward back up. Why else did Ward learn how to play left field last year?
Paving over Bell's carcass, and adding a healthy Caminiti, might be just what the Astros need to get out of the middle of the pack offensively.
The other thing that's hurt the Astros all season has been the back end of the rotation. Sean Bergman has his uses as a fifth starter, and if he's healthy the Astros can keep him there. But like Derek Bell, Chris Holt has contributed little while maintaining his health. The Astros already have the solution in place: in Bergman's absence, Scott Elarton has been moved into the rotation, after a stretch of cutting his teeth in the pen. That creates a problem in the bullpen, but Doug Henry's return should help some, and Holt may be useful as a middle reliever, despite his first-inning woes this year as a starter.
The big issue for the Astros is whether they should pull the trigger on a deal to make room for a top-flight starter or a primo reliever. There's enough talent here to win the division on its own, but looking forward to the postseason, I'd go shopping. The Braves can be taken this year, and none of the teams in the West look unstoppable.
Pittsburgh Pirates (43-44, 3rd place, 7 games behind)
They've made a game attempt at respectability, and a bunch of things have worked. Mostly, the Pirates can be pleased with how well some of their offseason pickups turned out. Brian Giles has been outstanding, and Ed Sprague may have done enough to make himself useful as a bargaining chip. The pitching staff has been solid, and it's a tribute to the skill of both manager Gene Lamont and pitching coach Pete Vuckovich that they've been able to work through several injuries and struggles.
But now that Jason Kendall's gone for the year, the Bucs really can't expect much more than to play spoiler, and if things work out as well as they possibly could, flirt with .500 the rest of the way. Since they won't be moving into PNC Park until 2001, there's no political baggage to keep them from trading mediocre veterans like Sprague, whose value will never be higher. Pete Schourek (someone probably values last year's playoff start, right?), Mike Williams, a resurrected Al Martin, or possibly even Kevin Young should all be shopped to some suitably desperate team on the fringes of the wild-card race down the stretch.
If it happens, Bucs fans shouldn't interpret these trades as a let-down. Indeed, if you're really a cynic, you might argue that losing Kendall lowers expectations, which allows the team to help its future with a few stretch drive trades while giving Aramis Ramirez and Chad Hermansen a month or two as the regulars at third base and center field. I'd settle for trading Sprague, Schourek, and Martin.
St. Louis Cardinals (42-43, 4th place, 7 1/2 games behind)
The real problem with the Cardinals is that their future is still now. Mark McGwire and Ray Lankford aren't going to have to watch another year of their careers go by without winning, are they? This team has been built to win now, and it isn't doing so. Because the Astros have stumbled and the Reds are pretty vincible, all is not yet lost.
The big problem, again, is pitching, which seems inextricably linked to Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. You can't hold Donovan Osborne's latest burnout against them; that's the penalty for signing him to a multi-year deal in the first place.
In the here and now, Kent Mercker and Juan Acevedo are struggling to give the team five innings per start, and Darren Oliver has been his usual batterable self. Maybe Jose Jimenez is okay from here on out after skunking the D'backs twice, and maybe not. Maybe Alan Benes really will be able to pitch by mid-August. Matt Morris won't. Rick Ankiel looks ready to dominate, but do you entrust him to the same bloodthirsty LaRussa-Duncan combo that mismanaged Morris and Benes, and wore out Todd Stottlemyre?
On the offensive side of things, despite good years from McGwire and Lankford, a huge breakthrough for Fernando Tatis and the entertaining arrival of Joe McEwing, the team's offense has been middle of the pack in both runs scored and EQA. LaRussa insists on stunts like playing Willie McGee far too often, batting Thomas Howard cleanup or jerking J.D. Drew around. Eric Davis seems to have left his power in Camden Yards, and the catching situation is pathetic, as both Eli Marrero and Alberto Castillo struggle.
So how do you turn all of this around? Simple fixes would involve keeping Drew in the lineup, going out of your way to get Darryl Kile from the Rockies and snagging a catcher in a small deal, be it Lenny Webster or Terry Steinbach or good old Tom Lampkin. But desperate situations demand desperate solutions.
He's feeling unappreciated despite getting everything he's wanted, and his petulant "Remember '96" shtick should have worn out its welcome last year. Let him get a head start on his next job, and hope he goes to a team with young talent he can happily trade to get some of the old guys you have right now. Give the masses Whitey Herzog, then give him Ankiel. And then pray that your team didn't just waste another year of the McGwire/Lankford combo because Matt Morris and Alan Benes were asked to do too much when it mattered very little.
Milwaukee Brewers (42-44, 5th place, 7 1/2 games behind)
The Brewers aren't so far off from contending in this division. They also have a bit of political baggage, in that they'd like to finish their last season in County Stadium on a good note. But should they simply stand pat?
Offensively, they've been one of the best teams in the league, hanging with San Francisco, Arizona and Colorado among the league leaders in runs scored. Credit can be spread around: to the organization, for getting rid of one of baseball's worst hitters (Mike Matheny) and replacing him with David Nilsson; to the developement of Geoff Jenkins and the arrival of Ronnie Belliard; and to Marquis Grissom's return to respectability. Jeromy Burnitz, Jeff Cirillo and Mark Loretta give the team consistency.
Offensively, the hole comes from the easiest place to put a hitter, first base. Sean Berry's a bust, and needs to be peddled to a team that may be interested in him for third base. Settling for Loretta at first gives them another good OBP guy and some glovework, but he's not an optimal solution.. The dilemma is whether the Brewers will call up Kevin Barker, or consider renting a slugger down the stretch. They'll also have Fernando Vina to peddle, but the market is loaded with second basemen who do a few things well. Sitting Grissom against some right-handers to get Rich Becker some playing time wouldn't be a bad thing.
If the Brew Crew wants to do more than play spoiler, though, they need to try to stealthily enter the bidding on any available starting pitcher. Steve Woodard, Hideo Nomo, Scott Karl and calling up Kyle Peterson would make for a nice 2-5 group in most rotations. If they swipe someone like Kile--and with Jim Leyland saying he wants better speed and defense, maybe he'd want a Vina--they'd simultaneously give themselves a small opportunity to win the division while giving their fans some reason to believe that this team would actually do something to try to win.
The bullpen has been one of the better ones in the league without drawing much attention to itself, so despite a high team ERA, the Brewers aren't really that far from putting a decent pitching staff together. That, coupled with an offense finally getting some runs out of first base, could be the best shot at relevance the Brewers have had since 1992.
Chicago Cubs (41-44, 6th place, 8 games behind)
Yesterday's postseason speed bump is today's regular season roadkill.
What's in a half-game, which is what separates the Cubs from the Brewers? Seems pretty negligible, after all. Yet the difference in what you can expect from the two teams is dramatic.
Following this Cub team is sort of like being a passenger on the Hindenberg: the trip isn't about where you're going, but the barbecue at the end of the flight. They're a mediocre offensive team, an awful defensive unit, with a bad rotation and an even worse bullpen. (But hey, it's better than the Mariners, so perk up you perky people! That's what Chip Caray would do!).
How are things going to get better? Is Sammy Sosa going to average two home runs per game? Is Glenallen Hill going to hit .450? Is Henry Rodriguez going to have the first good second half of his career? Is Mark Grace supposed to improve on what's already going to be his best season for home runs? So many things have turned out better than they could have hoped, and they're still wallowing. Worse yet, guys like Rodriguez and Hill are free agents with lousy long-term performance records, so it isn't like they're going to garner much in trade unless somebody makes a big mistake. After the Brant Brown-for-Jon Leiber trade, how many more of those can the Cubs really expect?
Offensively, the Cubs have to hope they can start peddling some of the veterans now, while they still have some value. Who could use Mickey Morandini? Maybe the Phillies, since Marlon Anderson is the only NL second baseman who has hit worse than Morandini. Send him back along with whatever else it takes to get Bobby Estalella in return. Send Rodriguez to the Yankees, and ask for Ed Yarnall. Go straight to Steinbrenner, because Cashman would know better. Break in Roosevelt Brown and move Jose Hernandez to second base or center field, where he won't fumble away opportunities for the deuce. Give Jose Nieves a two-month audition for the shortstop job.
As for the pitching staff, the best they can hope for is somebody decides to make an offer for Steve Trachsel, allowing the Cubs to choose between other people's prospects or what they can expect to get with a draft pick, because Trachsel's gone after this year. Jim Riggleman has to stop using his bullpen as if every game was a playoff game, and instead start thinking about innings as opportunities to give young pitchers experience, not for him to finagle a tactical advantage like an epic Ray King-Rico Brogna confrontation. Let Kyle Farnsworth and Philip Norton pitch in middle relief now, because chances are they're going to have to be in next year's rotation.