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August 12, 1999

NL Central Notebook

The division's four unnoticed heroes

by Joe Sheehan

A Couple Days Off

Last month's All-Star break was a high point for baseball, peaking with the pre-game ceremony that honored, among others, Red Sox legend Ted Williams. And while 64 players were appointed to the teams in Boston that night, for many others, the break was a chance to rest, see family and friends, and prepare for the second half.

Since then, a number of players who were not in Boston that night have played well enough to change the arc of their season. In the NL Central alone, there are four men who have played exceptionally well since the second week of July, among the division's best, yet whose performances are going unnoticed. No longer:

  • Rich Becker, Milwaukee: Becker, a favorite among analysts since Rany Jazayerli wore Underoos, has taken advantage of Jeromy Burnitz's injury to squeeze himself back the crowded Milwaukee outfield picture. Since the break, Becker is hitting .278/.422/.500 and is now platooning in right field with Alex Ochoa.

    If he can continue to play well, Burnitz's return could force Phil Garner (or whoever is running the Brewers these days) to platoon Becker in center field with Marquis Grissom. This would be an additional boost to a Brewer offense already among the league's best, and a defensive gain as well. Becker's had a very bumpy career path: it's nice to see him have some success.

  • Russ Johnson, Houston: Ricky Gutierrez may have gotten injured one time too many. Johnson, who complained bitterly when he was left off the Opening Day roster, came back up at the end of April to cover for Ricky Gutierrez's broken hand. He hit .222 with good plate discipline and very little power, primarily as an extra infielder. So when Gutierrez returned in June, it was easy for the 'Stros to decide that Johnson needed to get some more time in New Orleans.

    But Gutierrez's hand wasn't completely healed: three weeks after he returned, he went back on the DL. Johnson was recalled, and has grabbed the third base job with both hands:.327/.364/.564, while playing good defense.

    In a year in which the Astros have been hit by an epidemic of injuries, their depth has saved them. Johnson--who may be ticketed for New Orleans again if Ken Caminiti ever heals--would make a better fifth infielder than Tim Bogar, and could even end up as the starting third baseman next spring. He's been an integral part of the Astros' 20-8 second half, and it will be interesting to see if Larry Dierker recognizes that at roster move time.

  • Darren Oliver, St. Louis: Probably the least-expected hot streak has come from Oliver, who hadn't been notably effective in any role since 1997. Oliver has an ERA of 2.21 in five starts since the break. In those five starts, he's averaged more than seven innings per start--a critical need for the Redbirds--and doubled his strikeout rate.

    Can it last? I'm skeptical that a pitcher with Oliver's track record and stuff can suddenly become great. He is left-handed, and Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, for all their struggles with young pitchers have had a lot of success with veterans (Bob Welch, Mike Moore) and retreads (Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Kent Bottenfield). It won't matter much this year: the Cardinals are 10 1/2 games behind the Mets in the wild-card race.

  • Greg Vaughn, Cincinnati: Jim Bowden gambled that the Reds could contend, and the acquisition of Vaughn was his biggest bet. Despite a low batting average, Vaughn has put runs on the board with his power and walks. His defense, once very good, is now pretty bad, buut he's still a net positive.

    In the second half, Vaughn has turned up the power. Despite losing 30 points off his BA (.233 to .203), the left fielder has jumped from an OBP/SLG of .329/.483 to .375/.514. His plate discipline and power are helping to counter the hit the Reds are taking from Pokey Reese (.203/.288/.328 since the break).

    The Reds aren't going to catch the Astros, but if Vaughn stays healthy and productive at his current level, they're going to stay right with the NL East's second-place team deep into September.

We have to throw out an honorable mention to two guys who attended the party at the Fens. You may have heard of them:

Mark McGwire, since ASB: .329/.444/.976
Sammy Sosa, since ASB: .314/.372/.716

Notes

Warren Morris is making a serious run at Scott Williamson for the NL Rookie of the Year. Given the makeup of the electorate, expect that Morris will emerge as the winner: middle relief value is hard to understand, while double-digit home runs rom a second baseman aren't.... Interleague play has got to go. Because of all the scheduling issues involved, the Astros will play the Reds twice the rest of the season, September 28-29 in the Astrodome. Gee, what a fun race.

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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