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August 3, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Silver Linings

by Joe Sheehan

As I mentioned the other day, 16 teams made moves before the trade deadline to improve their chances in 2000. Of course, that means 14 others didn't, 14 teams that haven't had much success this season.

Still, amidst the wreckage of a 65-97 campaign can often be found the pieces of next year's playoff contender. In looking at the teams just playing out the string, I saw a lot of hope amidst the dark clouds.

In Houston, where you might expect a plague of locusts any minute, an MLB-worst record hides the development of two great young players. The first, Scott Elarton, is actually the inspiration for this column. His season started late as he recovered from rotator-cuff surgery, and the late beginning led to problems with his command early in the season.

Since mid-June, though, Elarton has looked like the pitcher we were falling all over ourselves about just a year ago. In his last eight starts, he's posted a 2.53 ERA with a 42-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, pitching into the eighth inning six times. I could live without the 134-pitch outing, but other than that, he's been handled well by Larry Dierker and looks like he's ready to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Along with Elarton, the Astros have a hitter coming into his own this year. Lance Berkman has taken advantage of the injury to Roger Cedeno to establish himself as the left-handed power bat the Astros have lacked for years. Berkman is hitting .291/.371/.565, and just so you don't think that's all Enron Field, it's good for a .300 EqA, seventh among National League right fielders.

It's not hard to envision the Astros bouncing back in 2001 to their familiar spot at the top of the NL Central, but with a completely different--and much younger--core of Elarton and Berkman.

While the Astros were relatively quiet at the trade deadline, already possessing the makings of a division titlist, the Phillies made some aggressive moves to shape the next good Philadelphia team. With two major chips to play, starters Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby, GM Ed Wade got as good a return as you'll find, adding two high-upside starting pitchers in Bruce Chen and Omar Daal and a high-upside project left fielder in Travis Lee.

Both left-handers have been effective in their few Phillies' starts, but the real excitement comes in looking forward. The team's 2001 rotation could consist of Chen, Daal, Randy Wolf and Robert Person, four accomplished pitchers under 30. The lineup could have a core of Lee, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, all capable of .300 EqAs and higher. If manager Terry Francona can be convinced to take a lighter hand with his young starters, there may be nothing stopping the Phils from taking a huge step forward in 2001.

After years as an aging doormat, the Phillies may have, in a few weeks, positioned themselves to be just as much a factor in future NL East races as the youth-drenched Expos and Marlins.

Who has the sixth-best rotation in the American League? Nope. Uh-uh. Not them, either. Give up? It's the Minnesota Twins, with Brad Radke and Eric Milton among the league's top dozen starters and Joe Mays and Mark Redman providing lots of league-average innings.

While the contributions of Mays and Redman are nice, it's the top two--tied to the Twins through 2003--that get Twinkie fans excited. Radke and Milton have a chance to be the kind of aces that teams trade entire development programs for, and their presence frees the team to focus on building their first formidable lineup in years. With a flood of hitting talent either just getting established or on its way, the Twins' future looks as good or better than any AL Central team but the White Sox.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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