June 22, 2000
NL Central Notebook
Maybe They'll Take Bernie
Maybe They'll Take Bernie?
The Brewers are hovering around the .400 mark, spending a second season in a lame-duck ballpark and a ninth season far, far from contention of any kind.
Even a bad team usually has one or two bright lights that make watching them worthwhile, and the Brewers are no exception. Closer Bob Wickman has an ERA of 1.11 and a strikeout-to-walk ration of nearly 2-to-1. Second baseman Ron Belliard is the team's best player, hitting .289/.384/.443 in his second major-league season. Left fielder Geoff Jenkins is providing power, with a .585 slugging percentage.
The problem for National League All-Star manager Bobby Cox will come in choosing a token Brewer for the July 11th exhibition. While Wickman has been effective, he has just nine saves. A reliever has to be 1999 Jeff Zimmerman to be an All-Star with that kind of save total. Belliard and Jenkins would be legitimate candidates in a normal year, but they play positions at which the National League is stocked:
Not listed above is leading vote-getter and probable starter Craig Biggio. Jeff Kent is a lock and Luis Castillo will probably need to be the Marlins' representative. As it is, one of the two guys hitting .340 and up, Jose Vidro and Edgardo Alfonzo, could be on the outside looking in. I can't see a scenario in which Belliard makes the team.
In left field:
Jenkins wouldn't be a completely brutal pick; only Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield are having clearly better years. But this is a skewed picture: if you look at outfielders as a group, and not just by position--a more legitimate perspective, in my opinion--Jenkins's case looks a lot worse.
It's shame Ken Griffey is having such a terrible year, huh?
Jenkins will probably be the Brewer All-Star, because he's close enough in performance to the guys he'll bump that the pick will be defensible. This isn't like the Twins last year, who had no one even close to a candidate; it's just that the Brewers who could make the team pale in comparison to their positional peers.
Is this an argument for larger rosters? No. The game itself is already a nightmare for the managers, as they try and juggle who can play, who doesn't want to play and who should be held back for the odd chance there are extra innings. More players will just add to that while diluting the honor: you have to draw the line somewhere, and 28 is a good number.
The other idea that gets floated is eliminating the mandatory representation rule. This has merit, especially with the NL at 16 teams. I would like to see that amended to a guideline, so that a team like last year's Twins or this year's Devil Rays can be passed over in favor of honoring a deserving player.
Bad News All Around
We've made a lot of excuses for the Astros this season, but it now looks like at least some of their misfortune was of their own making. Billy Wagner is probably out for the season with a torn elbow tendon. Wagner's struggles, coming off his dominant 1999, have been a factor in the Astros' terrible performance in close games. Of course, Wagner had elbow problems as early as last October, when his inability to pitch contributed to the team's NLDS loss to the Braves. He's been pitching in pain for most of this season, which partially explains his brutal performance.
We can't know what has been going through Wagner's head, but you have to wonder if what happened last October impacted his decision to try and pitch through the pain this season. What we do know is that pitching effectively is hard enough to do at full health; trying to do so with an injury is folly.
The Astros can also take some of the blame. Knowing Wagner had the injury last season, they could have been more aggressive in diagnosing and treating the problem. They certainly could have shut him down earlier, when it became apparent he wasn't pitching at his established level. Now, his ineffectiveness has perhaps crippled their 2000 season and may cost them in 2001, depending on the severity of the injury.
In two months, the Reds may look back at their recent slump and consider it the good old days. While it's great that Danny Graves and Scott Williamson are pitching as effectively as they did last season, what's not great is that they're being worked as hard or harder than they were in 1999.
Graves strikeout-to-walk ratio is 27 to 21 (not counting intentional walks), and his strikeout rate is a barely-acceptable 5.2 per nine innings. Those are foreboding peripherals for a pitcher who has been worked as hard as any in baseball the past two years.
Williamson has more impressive numbers, with a phenomenal strikeout rate of 13.5 per nine innings and just one home run allowed all season. But "all season" is 50 1/3 innings, a pace that would put him in the 120s by the end of the year. He hit the wall at around 80 innings last year, posting an ERA of 6.55 after September 1, so it's optimistic to think he can keep this up into August, much less September.
Joe Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com.