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May 31, 2005
NL Teams in Transition
With two months in the books, many teams are evaluating where they stand and what changes they need to make. Last week we looked at the possible moves certain AL teams might make; this week we'll do the same for the NL. While our focus is on the teams at the bottom half of the standings, note that teams in contention are also taking stock and reacting accordingly. The Braves have already made one such move, benching Raul Mondesi and promoting Kelly Johnson to play an outfield corner on a semi-regular basis.
There's no more obvious seller in the NL than the Rockies, who have made it pretty clear that they'd be willing to trade Preston Wilson and even take on some of his remaining salary in doing so. The Nationals and Orioles are two teams that have been mentioned as possible suitors. Don't be surprised if other AL teams get in the mix; Wilson could fit in quite well in a situation where he can DH occasionally to rest his balky knee. Cory Sullivan would be the immediate beneficiary should Wilson get dealt. Looking deeper, Jorge Piedra and Choo Freeman are alternatives currently playing at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Both are hitting for average, and Piedra is hitting for some power, but beware: the Sky Sox play in the one U.S. park that might have a greater park factor than Coors Field.
After Wilson, the team has precious few trading chits. Perhaps they'll find a suitor for Jason Jennings, Shawn Chacon or Joe Kennedy, but their organizational plan is to build around young pitching, not trade it off. All three are in their arbitration years, although Jennings is signed through 2006 with a club option for 2007. They tried to deal Chacon in the offseason, aiming high for the likes of Ian Kinsler without much success. Now Chacon has been their best starter (apologies to Jeff Francis) and is probably off the market.
It's one thing to be a bad team. It's an entirely different problem to be a bad team that happens to be aging and expensive as well. The Astros have all the trappings of starting an ugly multi-year decline--perhaps former GM Gerry Hunsicker saw the writing on the wall before he resigned. Jeff Bagwell is on the shelf, at least symbolically ending the Astros' chances of competing this year. They have one big tradeable asset in Roger Clemens, but they have the dual problems of getting someone to take on at least some of his contract while getting his approval to do so. That realistically leaves the Yankees as the only possible trade partner. The question is, what can the Yankees offer besides taking on his salary, or will that be sufficient enough? Some have suggested third-base prospect and 2003 first-round pick Eric Duncan as possible compensation.
What other changes might be in store? The Astros only have one position prospect at the upper levels ready for a promotion, second baseman Chris Burke. Craig Biggio might be having a decent year at the plate, but he's doing it at the expense of Burke, while providing inferior defense at second base to boot. So far the Astros have shown no inclination to move Biggio off second base, but it's a move they should consider.
The Reds were the original inspiration for this article. All the tea leaves pointed towards them dumping D'Angelo Jimenez, but the speed with which they dumped him and Danny Graves caught many off guard. Ryan Freel and Felipe Lopez have already earned everyday jobs. Brandon Claussen is starting to find his way in the rotation. What's next, now that the axe has already fallen on some of the failing veterans and the young players have taken over?
Well, not all of the failing veterans are out of the picture. Unfortunately for the Reds, it's going to be hard for them to move Eric Milton and Paul Wilson and their bloated contracts. Luke Hudson might be back within a month, but at whose expense? If Wilson is back from the DL by then, neither he nor Milton will get bumped. Aaron Harang is the Reds' best starter. Ramon Ortiz probably isn't going anywhere, despite a career track record of being far more effective in the bullpen than in the rotation. That leaves Claussen, who almost lost his spot already before Wilson went on the DL. The Reds can scarcely afford to be in a situation where a future cog of the rotation loses development time to a failing veteran, but that's what is going to happen.
Wily Mo Pena is due back from the DL by the end of the week. When he returns, the team will be in the same four players-for-three spots dilemma that they've had in the past in the outfield. GM Dan O'Brien isn't quick to pull the trigger, so look for more of the same.
The Pirates blew an opportunity earlier this season to trade Jose Mesa when he got off to a great start while so many other teams were having troubles with their own closers. Now that he's starting to turn from Cinderella's coach back into a pumpkin, the demand for him has to have diminished. He's not going to be part of their next winning team, so if there's any market for his services at the trade deadline, the Pirates need to jump at the best offer. If Mesa does get traded, Mike Gonzalez is the most likely option to take over as the closer.
The other player likely to get dealt is Matt Lawton; in fact, it's almost a sure thing, given that his contract runs out at the end of this season. Michael Restovich would likely get an extended trial in right field in the event of a Lawton trade.
Look for three Pirates prospects to eventually get the call. C Ryan Doumit is hitting .327/.401/.620 at Triple-A Indianapolis and might be on the cusp of a call-up. His defense needed some development prior to the season, so that might also account for the delay in calling him up. 1B Brad Eldred had 13 homers in 84 Double-A at-bats before the Pirates moved him up to Triple-A, where he's off to a slow start and now has a sprained wrist. Daryle Ward can rest a little easier for the short-term. P Ian Snell recently pitched a no-hitter for Indy, and manager Lloyd McClendon is already talking about how he can get Snell up to the majors and how he's going to use him.
You'll note that nobody from the NL East is listed here. There's not one team in the division that's going to run away and hide from the rest, nor is there one team that's bereft enough of hope to win the division, although the Nationals have an uphill climb given their key injuries and more limited resources. They, the Brewers and the Giants might fall under the seller's umbrella in another month.