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September 8, 2000

NL Central Notebook

A Month's Work

by Christina Kahrl

In keeping with a previous theme, what can the teams in the NL Central accomplish in the time remaining to them?

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have the next four weeks to sort out a few mission-critical issues if they want to help themselves going into the playoffs. First, they have to use the time they have to make a choice between Andy Benes and Pat Hentgen as their fourth starter in the playoffs. Against the three teams that ought to be their opponents in the postseason (the Braves, Mets and Giants), Hentgen has started six games and Benes five. Hentgen produced three quality starts, Benes two. Hentgen got drubbed twice by the Giants, but had a good start against the Braves, while Benes hasn't really had a good start against any of them other than one early in the season against the Giants. I'd be half inclined to use Hentgen against the Braves or Mets and Benes against the Giants, but you can split these hairs over and over again. Don't envy Tony LaRussa for having to make this choice.

Second, they must evaluate how ready Eli Marrero is to catch and play regularly. The alternative is to continue letting Carlos Hernandez and Mike Matheny make outs, something that could assume Rey Ordonez-like significance in the playoffs. If the Cardinals have to depend on Matheny or Hernandez, followed by Craig Paquette or Shawon Dunston pinch-hitting for the pitcher, they'll suffer for it.

Lastly, they can sort out who would be their 11th pitcher, or whether they'll even carry one. Alan Benes hasn't earned a slot, so they might carry all three catchers instead.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds' flirtation with making the Cardinals sweat is over, especially with Barry Larkin's season ending early. The bullpen is basically sound, and next year's rotation should be built on the contributions of Steve Parris and Pete Harnisch, reclamation project Elmer Dessens and a healthy Scott Williamson and Rob Bell.

That doesn't leave a whole lot of room for Denny Reyes to finally move out of the bullpen. While "Daal" is currently a four-letter word in some grumpy circles, Reyes is a quality left-handed pitcher with a good assortment who cannot be relegated to relief permanently, just like Omar once was. He has the talent to be a jumbo-sized, Daal-style success as a starter. The Reds should use the final weeks to give him three or four turns in the rotation to see whether they should go into camp with Reyes in the mix for one of the rotation slots.

The Reds' more basic problem is their offense, which is only 12th in the NL in Equivalent Average. Some things cannot be addressed, but just accepted: Sean Casey is going to continue to regroup from a lost first half of the season, while any reasonable person would have expected Pokey Reese to come down from last year, given his track record.

One of the basic problems is deciding if Dmitri Young is ever going to turn the corner, or whether he's just another Fonzie Bichette-sized slice of adequacy. Because he doesn't have any value on defense, Jim Bowden will have to sort out whether he's a chit in trade or someone to keep around.

Another problem is Eddie Taubensee's calamitous first half before going down with an injury. Benito Santiago may be a nice defensive replacement and caddy, but the Reds need to play Jason LaRue regularly down the stretch to give themselves a chance to see if he can share the job with Taubensee next season. If LaRue works out, the Reds will no longer need to carry a Santiago, and will be better off in case Taubensee does not bounce back.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers are in third for at least the next couple of hours, so they're next. While everyone's saying all sorts of appropriately nice things about Davey Lopes--and not enough appropriately nice things about pitching coach Bob Apodaca--the Brewers need to accept that they come out of the 2000 season with only two starting pitchers worth counting on, Jeff D'Amico and Jamey Wright. Jimmy Haynes might make a worthwhile fifth starter, while neither John Snyder nor Paul Rigdon has done enough to earn his keep.

Top prospect Ben Sheets is off at the Olympics, but should enter next year's camp as a top candidate to win a rotation slot. They should take the time to look at Horacio Estrada and possibly even rehab projects Travis Smith and Kyle Peterson, while keeping Allen Levrault as a middle reliever next year.

Offensively, the Brewers have some of the same basic problems they've had for two years. They need to find a way to make Marquis Grissom disappear and they need to decide if Ronnie Belliard can be pushed into a better offseason conditioning program so he can avoid getting as run down as he has in the second half. Finding a third baseman would be progress, but Jeff Deardorff struggled while repeating the California League and Santiago Perez isn't a good enough hitter to give the Brewers the option of moving Mark Loretta to third.

Considering how much money they have tied up in Jose Hernandez, they ought to spend the last few weeks seeing if Hernandez could at least take over for Grissom in center field, because there is nobody in the minors even remotely ready to step in at that spot.

Pittsburgh Pirates

For the Pirates, there isn't a whole lot of hope. The most they could achieve in the last few weeks would be to devote playing time to people like Aramis Ramirez and Chad Hermansen, and that isn't going to happen with Ramirez hurt and Hermansen in the organizational doghouse.

On a basic level, the Pirates need to re-evaluate their entire organization instead of holding Gene Lamont responsible. In particular, hitting instruction in the minors deserves to come under fire. Cam Bonifay isn't the kind of general manager to take decisive steps unless he's boxed into a corner, so I do not expect progress. With the Red Sox going over a cliff with every mediocre old player they could find, Bonifay wasted a good opportunity to unload Kevin Young's contract.

In the outfield, they'd do well to let Adrian Brown and Alex Ramirez play every day. They already know that John Vander Wal is a useful player who will play semi-regularly next year, but in the meantime they need to see if Ramirez can be his platoon partner and if Brown can handle the everyday job in center field.

The most the Bucs can realistically hope to achieve is to try to end the seasons of pitchers like Jimmy Anderson, Jose Silva and Bronson Arroyo on high notes.

Chicago Cubs

While other teams are focused on issues of improvement or contention, the Cubs call evolution into question. If dodos had been able to charge hungry sailors admission to their island, would they have been able to collect enough money to buy themselves a continued sunny existence, protected from the realities of a harsh, competitive world?

Several nice things have happened to the Cubs. The offense turned out to be better than expected, and not nearly good enough to fuel a run at contention in Wrigley. The defense was awful, and will be again next year with almost everybody certain to be invited back. Corey Patterson will get a look in center field, which ought to force Damon Buford onto the trade market over the winter. Rondell White will be back next season, which means this September's auditions for Roosevelt Brown and Ross Gload aren't for the starting job in left field.

This season's real accomplishment was the eventual assembly of a reasonably effective bullpen, courtesy of Todd Van Poppel, Steve Rain and Kyle Farnsworth. The Cubs are talking about re-signing Tim Worrell and making him a closer, and as long as he's reserved for the ninth inning and not allowed to pitch with other people's runners on base, that might work out reasonably well.

On a more basic level, the Cubs need to stop screwing around at third base with people like Jeff Huson and Jose Nieves, and can Don Baylor the moment he fires up his "Get Vinny Castilla" campaign rolling.

Houston Astros

On a certain level, the Astros are just playing out the string, and need to await developments off of the field. How well Billy Wagner, Craig Biggio, Shane Reynolds and Ken Caminiti iron out their various problems will be important, but for the most part unknown until February.

They're already in the business of deciding whether or not Julio Lugo should be their starting shortstop next year, and with Adam Everett not exactly setting the PCL afire, Lugo may be able to win the job next spring. In the meantime, they should consider giving Moises Alou most of the last few weeks off, so that they can showcase Daryle Ward as much as possible, and Lance Berkman needs to be playing every day in one corner or the other. Chris Truby looks like he'll join Bill Spiers to create an effective replacement platoon at third in case Caminiti can't bounce back.

On the pitching side of the equation, the Astros can accomplish a few straightforward goals: they need to start stretching Octavio Dotel's outings back into multi-inning appearances, because they cannot afford to get too comfortable with wasting him in the closer's role. They need to evaluate Wade Miller and Tony McKnight for next year's rotation, because one of the two rookies is likely to be in next year's rotation, even if Dotel moves back and Reynolds is fine.

Lastly, the Astros will have to decide what they want to do about Larry Dierker. While I'd leave him alone, the amount of enmity he draws from the players isn't something the Astros are ignoring. Generally speaking, I've taken the stance that when there's an issue between the manager and the players, you can always go out and find a new manager.

I don't think you can blame this year's collapse on Dierker, but while Mike Hampton's war of words continues to froth on from a distance, there's a real chance that Dierker's reputation may become a problem with future free-agent recruiting drives. Gerry Hunsicker and Dierker need to think long and hard about what there is to be learned from this season. The paralyzing aspect is that a players' revolt is so destructive that management can neither afford to give in to it nor pretend the problem isn't there.

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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