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January 27, 2000

NL Central Notebook

Everybody's Chasing Gerry

by Joe Sheehan

It's almost embarrassing, actually, the way Gerry Hunsicker, the general manager of the Houston Astros, has made mincemeat of his competition. This winter, he's traded two players coming off career years and on the brink of being very expensive for three younger talents with significant upside. The trades cleared payroll space to grant contract extensions to a couple of key players, and didn't do any real damage to the Astros' chances in 2000.

He's done all this while watching the other contenders in the division pick up players like Dante Bichette and Eric Young. Right now, at least in the front office, the NL Central is simply a man playing with boys.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs made one of the best offseason moves of any team outside of Texas, picking up Ismael Valdes from the Dodgers for middle reliever Terry Adams. Sure, they had to take the last two years of Eric Young's contract, but they had the payroll flexibility to do so. Valdes teams with Jon Leiber to give the Cubs two high-upside, young-veteran starters, and even Young could be a surprise: he had his best seasons under Don Baylor, albeit at altitude.

Not that it will matter, as Ed Lynch has spent the rest of the winter making a bad offense worse. Adding Damon Buford, Ricky Gutierrez and Joe Girardi--the latter signed to a ridiculous three-year deal--did nothing to make the offense younger or better. Buford is youngest, at 30, and the three combined for a .308 OBP in 1999.

As is usually the case, the Cubs think they're a lot closer to success then they are. Despite one significant master stroke, they're just as far from contention as ever. But take heart, Cubs fans: Mark Grace is just 942 hits away from 3,000!

Cincinnati Reds

The big news is Cincinnati, of course, has been the move that hasn't happened: Ken Griffey Jr. is still a Mariner. GM Jim Bowden's reluctance to meet Seattle's demand that second baseman Pokey Reese be included in the deal has apparently been the sticking point. The other elements--center fielder Mike Cameron, starting pitcher Denny Neagle and reliever Scott Williamson--appear to be in place, more or less.

This is obvious silliness. Even if the Reds are only trading for one year of Griffey, allowing an overrated interchangeable part like Reese to stand in the way is foolish. While Reese is an excellent defensive player, he doesn't get on base enough to hit anywhere but eighth or ninth, and his "big" 1999 wasn't anything special. Even if he was, it wouldn't be worth passing up the chance to get Griffey. As Mark McGwire did in St. Louis, Griffey would make a significant positive impact on the Reds' revenue in 2000. Acquiring him now would give the team seven months to sign him, and as the McGwire situation showed, sometimes it doesn't even take that long for a player to decide he wants to stay.

Bowden needs to make this deal for the Reds' 2000 season to have any chance for success. While they were a great story last year, there is almost no one on the team, save Cameron, who can reasonably be expected to improve on his 1999 performance. While Jack McKeon did a spectacular job with his bullpen, it remains to be seen whetherDanny Graves and Scott Sullivan can come back after 100-inning seasons.

Bowden didn't help himself by trading for Dante Bichette to replace Greg Vaughn. Bichette will push the Padres' Eric Owens as the worst left fielder in the league. This is the biggest move the Reds have made this offseason. If that remains true on Opening Day, it will be a long season in the Queen City.

Houston Astros

As far as I'm concerned, Gerry Hunsicker has already locked up Executive of the Year honors. In just a few weeks, he extended the contracts of Craig Biggio and Jose Lima, and created the payroll space for those moves by trading Carl Everett and Mike Hampton. Everett and Hampton were coming off career seasons, were just one year away from free agency and both were expendable given the organizational depth at their positions.

Hunsicker didn't just make salary dumps, either. For Everett, he added a top-tier prospect from the Red Sox in Adam Everett filling the Astros' one glaring need. For Hampton, he acquired Roger Cedeno, who gives them a leadoff-hitting outfielder, and Octavio Dotel, the kind of live arm the Larry Dierker has worked wonders with. He also got the Mets to take Derek Bell, clearing more payroll and, more importantly, relieving the Astros of a poor player and potential distraction.

A team that went into the winter with a half-dozen dangerous open issues now has just one: re-signing Jeff Bagwell, who won't even be a free agent until after 2001. Hunsicker didn't wait until the problems came to him: he aggressively addressed the organization's needs and for his troubles, has cost certainty and an even deeper talent base as the Astros move into Enron Field. They're the divisional favorites, and just may be on the brink of a Braves-like run in the 2000s.

Milwaukee Brewers

A tremendous amount of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Brewers have been one of the more active teams in baseball this winter, in the middle of a four-team trade, trading three starting infielders and even signing a free agent.

All this activity has left them worse offensively and defensively and with a collection of once- and twice-failed reclamation projects. They have about a dozen candidates for the rotation, an assortment of Jameys and Jameses and Jimmys and even a John, none of whom have been successful for longer than about three months at the major league level. What they don't have is an infield of Jeff Cirillo, Jose Valentin and Fernando Vina. All three are elsewhere, gone in the search for pitching.

The Brewers are an example of what happens when people with good intentions do stupid things. The Brewers have focused on their pitching problems to the point of ignoring the team's strength: a good offensive nucleus. By trading Cirillo and Valentin without addressing the holes in center field or behind the plate, they've made the offense worse and done nothing for the rotation. Given the quality of the pitchers they picked up, they would be about as well off with Cirillo, Valentin and an assortment of non-roster invitees.

Ron Belliard, Jeromy Burnitz and Geoff Jenkins can be the core of a contender, but unless and until the Brewers start thinking beyond a desperate search for starting pitching, those three are just marking time to free agency.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh has become the organziation most likely to cause a spit take. Their signings over the past few years have gotten increasingly ridiculous, as they spend money willy-nilly to give the impression of being serious while doing nothing to make the team better. This winter's monitor-dampener was the signing of Wil Cordero, who had gone hat-in-hand for a job prior to a 194-at-bat season for the Indians, to a three-year, $9 million contract.

This just continues a stretch in which the Pirates have thrown guaranteed money and years at Mike Benjamin, Pat Meares and Kevin Young, players well past the point of having even a chance at greatness. There's absolutely nothing Benjamin or Meares bring to the table that a dozen Triple-A infielders couldn't. Cordero falls into that same category, and will simply take at-bats away from Chad Hermansen or Emil Brown.

Like Milwaukee, the Pirates have a handful of players that make you want to root for them. Jason Kendall, Brian Giles and Warren Morris are excellent players who deserve better teammates. They deserve Hermansen and Aramis Ramirez, not Cordero and Ed Sprague. Cam Bonifay isn't helping anyone with his moves; the Pirates would actually be best-served by a payroll purge that forced him to stop signing people and play the hand he's being dealt by a player-development system that's doing its job.

St. Louis Cardinals

It appears that Walt Jocketty has finally figured out his manager, Tony LaRussa. After watching LaRussa destroy the arms of Alan Benes and Matt Morris, preventing the Cardinals from establishing any kind of rotation the past couple of years, Jocketty has gotten LaRussa three veteran starters. As needs-addressing goes, it was a good winter by the Mississippi.

Jocketty picked up Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen for some squid scraps. OK, pitching prospects. He then took advantage of the down market for pitching by signing Andy Benes to a three-year deal for $18 million. While none of these guys can be expected to approach their best performances, they should provide 100 starts of league-average pitching. That's a big jump over what Jose Jimenez and his ilk gave them in 1999.

Stabilizing the rotation will give LaRussa a chance to establish roles in the bullpen. While his may not be the optimal may to run a pen, it is the one he's had considerable success with, and there's something to be said for letting a manager do what he does well. LaRussa has the pitching staff he likes now; he doesn't have to truck with young starters or worry about little things like "pitch counts."

It's about time, too, because this Cardinal team is about at the point where it needs to win. Mark McGwire is a beast, but a 36-year-old beast. Ray Lankford's knees are twice that age. Even with young studs Fernando Tatis, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew, the lineup still has gaping holes in right field and behind the plate. The Cardinals' chances may yet depend on how well Jocketty can get Eli Marrero some help and find some solution in right field that's better than Thomas Howard. Still, based on what they've done to date, the Cardinals have to be considered the front-runner for the NL wild card.

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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