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July 16, 1999

NL East Notebook

Second-Half Prospectus

by Joe Sheehan

Second-Half Prospectus

At midseason, the 1999 NL East looks a lot like the 1998 version. The Braves have a comfortable cushion over the Mets, the Phillies are hanging around with no real chance of winning the division, and the Expos and Marlins are...uh...anybody know what the Expos and Marlins are doing?

A look at what the second half could bring:

Atlanta Braves (55-34, division leader)

After scuffling for most of the first half, the Braves pulled it together before the break, going 8-3 in July behind a resurgent Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. As has been the case since 1991, if their rotation pitches well, the Braves can survive all manner of disasters elsewhere and win the division.

But if the goal is to win a title, this team is going to have to score more runs. Their offense is hovering in the middle of the pack, thanks to a top of the lineup that has ranged from putrid--Otis Nixon's .487 OPS--to merely poor--Bret Boone's .319 OBP. Behind these out machines, the heart of the lineup is pretty good, so adding an OBP guy who can play left field will have an enormous impact. If he can play defense, all the better, as the gain over Ryan Klesko would be significant.

George Lombard has stumbled badly at Triple-A, and while Randall Simon has played well enough at first base to move Klesko back into the pasture, his performance is below-average for a first baseman. The solution will have to come from outside the organization. John Scheurholz has always been willing to add overrated relievers for the stretch drive: this time, his bullpen is a strength, so he'll have to put those skills towards picking up a bat. If the Braves can add a Brady Anderson, Tony Phillips or even steal a Dmitri Young, their chances in October become much better.

The other thing to watch for is the handling of John Smoltz. The Braves run their franchise as if they have a bye into the first round, and it's nice to see that kind of confidence. Smoltz has already changed his pitching style--pretty much dropping his slider--and made two trips to the DL. Making sure he's healthy on October 1 needs to be the team's priority, even if it may cost them the league's best record.

New York Mets (50-39, 2nd place, 5 games behind)

The interesting thing about the Mets is how they've stayed in the thick of the wild-card race despite the near-collapse of their starting pitching. No Met starting pitcher has an ERA under 4.79, the Mets have no complete games in 1999, and only Al Leiter is averaging six innings per start.

The bullpen, though...the bullpen has been absolutely stellar. Only Cincinnati can match the left/right combination of Armando Benitez and Dennis Cook, while Turk Wendell, Rigo Beltran, John Franco and even erstwhile JackPACers Allen Watson--before his trade--and Pat Mahomes have contributed quality innings. And these guys haven't carried the workload of Scott Williamson or Danny Graves; only Wendell is on pace to throw 100 innings.

There is reason to believe this level of performance can continue; Benitez, Cook and Wendell have all performed at this level before. If Jason Isringhausen's teaser outing last week was for real, the pen acquires another weapon.

Leiter showed some improvement as the temperature rose (a 2.98 ERA since June 1), as did Rick Reed. A return to 1998 form by those two would ease some of the pressure on the pen. With Bobby Jones probably out for the year, the Mets are going to need another starter. The outside options (Tim Belcher, Darryl Kile, Livan Hernandez) are not particularly good, so the team needs to give Octavio Dotel a real chance. His first start against the Braves was a disaster, but he was better against the Marlins and excellent against the Expos. He looms as a key player down the stretch.

What's surprising is that a team with great OBP in slots 1-4 is only in the middle of the league in runs scored. Some of that is park effect, but more of it is Brian McRae and Rey Ordonez. With St. Rey hovering in the .270s, it's unlikely the Mets will be doing anything with him. But giving Roger Cedeno the center field job, playing Benny Agbayani in right and making McRae the fourth outfielder would solve part of the problem. Calling up Andy Tomberlin to platoon with Agbayani would be the imaginative, cheap and never-gonna-happen solution.

Philadelphia Phillies (46-40, 3rd place, 7 1/2 games behind)

Looks familiar: in the wild-card hunt, short a couple of pieces, riding the right arm of an overworked Curt Schilling. The rest of the season will probably follow the pattern set last year as well.

The Phillies simply can't expect to get the kind of performances over a full season that have been crucial to their first half. Paul Byrd, Mike Lieberthal and Doug Glanville have been evry good, but all will begin to decline. Byrd--whose strikeout rate never did match the rest of his first-half numbers--already has. Only Scott Rolen has underperformed to date, and while he should bounce back and have a better second half, it won't be enough to overcome the rest of the team's slippage.

The Phillies need to pay careful attention and not do damage to their chances in 2000--when Pat Burrell will be up--in an effort to win this year. They cannot afford to burn out Schilling or abuse Randy Wolf for the right to extend their season by a week and one home game.

The best thing that could happen to them would be an extended losing streak in late July, one that frees them to trade Rico Brogna and capitalize on Lieberthal's inflated value to acquire some middle infield help. One that lets them give Amaury Telemaco or Anthony Shumakeran extended rotation look. Really, whether it happens in July or August, the Phillie phade is inevitable. If they handle it properly, it won't be a bad thing at all.

Montreal Expos (33-51, 4th place, 19 1/2 games behind)

The Alou mystique has taken quite a hit in the past few months, as the Expo starters who generated such excitement late in 1998 have been battered like Aunt Emma's fried chicken. Dustin Hermanson, Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez--exiled to Ottawa--have all been disappointing. On a team that's last in the league in runs by a wide margin, that's a recipe for disaster.

With nothing to play for this year but pride, the Expos need to make a couple of moves immediately. First, get Vazquez and Ted Lilly back up. Giving their starts to Dan Smith and Mike Thurman is a waste of everyone's time. The next good Expo team has a rotation of Pavano, Lilly, Vazquez and Tony Armas, and a ticket office of Thurman, Smith and Miguel Batista. Moving in the direction of that alignment will accelerate the process.

Note the absence of Hermanson from the above. He's still relatively cheap, but may not get back to his 1998 level for a while. Use him to get something resembling an infielder with on-base skills and a decent glove. In fact, use anything to acquire players with on-base skills.

The Expos are last in the league in OBP and runs, and if you think there's no correlation there, you're wrong. Only Rondell White and Vladimir Guerrero can be expected to have above-average OBPs, and White is another guy who the Expos need to move. He's older than you think, and has the health record of your great-grandfather.

Trade White for another young infielder and call up Peter Bergeron, who, like Vazquez and Lilly, is wasting his time at Triple-A while Manny Martinez gets his ABs. Bergeron is going to be the center fielder and leadoff hitter on the 2002 playoff team, when Martinez is two organizations down the road.

Whether the Expos win 55, 65 or 75 games this year is irrelevant. They can, however, start to do the things that will enable them to play .500 ball in 2000, and be a force again in 2001. There is no reason--none--for them to waste time pursuing any other goals.

Florida Marlins (32-56, 5th place, 22 1/2 games behind)

After appearing a bit lost in the course of redevelopment--the Mike Lowell acquisition--Dave Dombrowski righted the ship with the acquisition of Brad Penny and Vladimir Nunez in exchange for Matt Mantei. This season, and probably next season, are irrelevant to the Marlins, who are building towards 2001, and all moves need to be judged in that context.

To that end, Florida needs to sort through its options and determine which Fish are keepers and which need to be thrown back. Final decisions need to be made on Todd Dunwoody and Derrek Lee, who poorly in the year and a half preceding their demotions. It may also be time to put some heat on Mark Kotsay, who has been a disappointment offensively.

At this point, it might not be a bad idea to put them all in the lineup--and call up Ramon Castro, for good measure--for three months to find out if they're players to build around or dump.

Of the current Marlins, only Alex Gonzalez is young enough and good enough to consider his job safe. Minor league vets Kevin Millar and Bruce Aven are nice stories, but their resumes aren't much shorter than Mantei's, and if the right deal comes along you have to move them. Same for Preston Wilson, who is way over his head. Any or all of these players should be traded if someone dangles a B or B+ catching prospect.

The organization has done a fantastic job nursing Alex Fernandez back to health, and now that he's shown the ability to pitch past the fifth inning, they need to spark a bidding war among contenders and pretenders. If available, he's by far the best pitcher on the market; I like Dombrowski's chances to turn that into a lot of cheap young talent.

If Cliff Floyd ever plays in consecutive weeks, the Fish should pursue a similar course with him. Like Rondell White, he's older than you think, and it now looks like his peak will be in the .280/.360/.500 range. Beyond that, they simply need to be patient. Don't rush A.J. Burnett. Don't rush Brad Penny. Keep taking advantage of the desperation of other teams.

And get a really good marketing director.

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

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