March 16, 2000
NL Central Notebook
OK, so it's not as sexy a moniker as "Home Run Central," but this division doesn't just have big bats as its calling card. Sure, all the midwinter hype was over the trade of center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati, putting the three most heralded longball artists of the post-strike era in one division. But while the press has touted the power, the pitching in the NL Central has undergone an upgrade as well. If you're looking for a real story, check out the arms who will be making their divisional debuts in 2000.
The biggest new name was acquired by the baseball branch of the Tribune Company. The Cubs stole Ismael Valdes from a Dodger team desperate to rid itself of Eric Young's contract. Valdes has suffered through a rocky couple of years since his great 1997, exacerbated by constant sniping from the Dodgers about his perceived lack of "intangibles," which purportedly led to his poor won-lost records. He never did fire back at the Dodger offense, the real culprit.
Working against Valdes is how he's become more of a flyball pitcher in the past few years. Wrigley Field and an outfield of Henry Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa flanking a mystery guest won't help him. Nevertheless, I expect he'll be much improved over his '98-'99 performance, and might be the best starter in the division.
Part of the re-tooling the Astros did this winter forced them to choose from among a number of 2000 free agents. They elected to keep Craig Biggio and trade center fielder Carl Everett and left-handed starter Mike Hampton. Hampton had a huge 1999; he was the third-best starter in baseball behind the two Cy Young Award winners, and was another notch in the belt of Houston manager Larry Dierker.
The year was by far the best of his career, and GM Gerry Hunsicker took advantage of his success to trade him while his value was high. Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell were sent to the Mets for outfielder Roger Cedeno and starter Octavio Dotel. Labeled in some quarters a salary dump, and in others hailed as the missing piece for the Mets, the trade actually brings the Astros a pitcher with the potential for the kind of growth that Hampton had under Dierker.
Dotel's raw numbers pale in comparison to Hampton's, with an ERA almost three runs higher. But a look at their peripherals shows that the gap between the two wasn't as large as you might think.
From Baseball Prospectus 2000 (all numbers park-adjusted):
H/9 K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 Hampton 7.65 6.44 3.64 1.77 0.42 Dotel 7.11 8.79 5.04 1.74 1.18
Hampton is one of the most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball, which accounts for his effectiveness. His ability to keep the ball down and in the park allows him to keep runs off the board despite unimpressive control and a pedestrian strikeout rate. This isn't meant to detract from his performance--he's a very good pitcher who should be good, if not this good, in 2000. But look at how well Dotel compares to him, particularly in the key areas of strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Dotel is also moving into a good situation, working with a manager and a pitching coach Vern Ruhle who have had tremendous success in developing pitchers by emphasizing control. Dotel has the talent and the opportunity to be to 2000 what Jose Lima was to 1998 or Hampton to 1999.
In addition to acquiring pitchers from other organizations, Central division teams have developed a number of young arms who may be ready to break into rotations. In St. Louis, Rick Ankiel is poised to be the #5 starter. While we have concerns about him throwing too many pitches at his age (20), there is no such doubt about his ability. Ankiel could be the best left-hander in the NL Central this year. The Reds are excited about the comeback of Scott Winchester, who reported to camp healthy for the first time in years and should be in the rotation by midseason. And no discussion of pitchers in this division would be complete without mentioning Kerry Wood, who is expected to be back in the Cubs' rotation a mere 13 months after elbow surgery.
Slammin' Sammy, Big Mac and Junior will be the reason the stands are full all season, but fans of NL Central teams are going to see some pretty good young pitching while they're at the park.