July 21, 2009
With 10 days until the non-waivers trading deadline, you can divide Major League Baseball into three categories: the 13 teams that are clearly contending for post-season berths in 2009, nine teams that are clearly focused on a future season or seasons, and eight teams that could go either way.
It's the last group that's the most interesting, because the decision whether to go for it or rebuild is the biggest one a franchise can make. Dump when you have a shot, and you can end up like the 1997 White Sox, killed by fans and pundits for a deal that, while eventually a benefit, was seen as waving a white flag. You can trade your best player too soon, as the 2006 Phillies did, dumping Bobby Abreu just before going on a tear; that team might have made the postseason with Abreu, and got nothing in return for him. The flip side are teams like the early-2000 Orioles and Pirates, which never quite grasped their need to start over, generally overrating their chances at contention and losing opportunities to convert older players into prospects. Present-day Pirates fans may be frustrated by the exodus of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, and others over the past year, but these deals are designed to arrest the 17-year losing streak in a way that keeping those players couldn't have done.
In part because of those deals, the 2009 Pirates are one of the nine teams looking to the future, and they're the only team in the NL Central clearly doing so. The Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers all came into the season trying to win the division, and all have a chance to do so with 70 games remaining. Wedged between the big three and the Pirates are the Astros, who despite my incessant calls for a rebuild have continued to stay in races. They moved into a tie for third in the division and just three games in back of the Cardinals last night by beating St. Louis, 3-2. Just as they did a year ago, the Astros are taking advantage of a soft competitive environment and a front-loaded roster to hang around with a chance to make it back to the postseason.
Fans of NL Central teams won't like the first note, but the division isn't impressive. Per the Adjusted Standings Report, just one NL Central team has an above-.500 third-order record. The Astros themselves, by virtue of being outscored by 23 runs, have a 42-51 third-order mark that rates as the fourth-best in the group. They don't have a great record in close games-their run differential comes as a result of being 0-5 and -53 in run differential in games decided by nine runs or more. Their rotation has been surprisingly effective, as the Clinton Era trio of Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, and Russ Ortiz have all been around league-average, combining with Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez to place the team 12th overall in team Support-Neutral Value. None of the older pitchers have good peripherals, making it likely that the trio will collectively be worse from here on out; replacing at least one of them with a better pitcher has to be a priority for Ed Wade.
Oh, yes, the Astros have to keep pushing to make the playoffs this year. After years of calling for a rebuild as the team repeatedly punted its drafts, invested in aging players and showed itself unable to develop young ones, I'm now on board with Drayton McLane: squeeze one more run out of the Oswalt/Lance Berkman Astros, keep those two players along with Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence-a group that gives the Astros a puncher's chance-and hope that the bar gets low enough for a tournament entry in the right year. There's no farm system here, no wave of young talent being blocked by the likes of Geoff Blum and Darin Erstad. You might as well ride this out, and Wade is the GM to preside over that effort. See if J.R. Towles, now 25 and two years removed from being loved here, can bring back an upgrade in the infield, maybe Jhonny Peralta or Freddy Sanchez. Jordan Lyles might be the organization's best prospect now, but his main value is probably as the centerpiece of an offer for Victor Martinez. Throw a bunch of B- and C-level prospects-the system lacks A-level guys-for Jarrod Washburn. Find out what the industry thinks of Jason Castro.
Wade has the easiest kind of roster to upgrade, a stars-and-scrubs collection that has about seven guys whose jobs should be secure and virtually no untouchable young talent. Heck, if Hunter Pence will get you Matt Holliday and a starting pitcher, that's a deal worth making. All that matters for the Astros is the next 70 games, and earning a few more after that. Once the end of this era comes, there's little to look forward to-the team simply has no farm system. There's a freedom in that for McLane and Wade, so deal away what you do have and live for today. The Astros absolutely have to be a buyer over the next week and a half.
Resting just 2½ games further back, however, it's a different story for the Reds. They've hung around much as the Astros have, being outscored on the season and featuring the next-to-worst third-order record in MLB, one that is even worse than that of the Nationals. They're 44-48 because their veteran bullpen has been unconscionably good, the third-best in baseball this year with a 7.3 WXRL, giving them a 23-20 record in games decided by one or two runs. Predictably, their off-season moves have blown up, with Willy Taveras' .291 OBP helping to cripple an offense that is 14th in the league in runs scored. Jay Bruce's struggle developing hasn't helped-he was hitting .207/.283/.441 when a broken wrist sidelined him. Dusty Baker failed to play his second-best OBP guy, Chris Dickerson, for a long stretch, falling in love with a brief show of power by Laynce Nix and the memory of Jerry Hairston Jr.'s 2008 season. Neither is helping, and while Dickerson is finally garnering more playing time, it's come a bit too late.
The drop in offense was expected, but the poor performance by the rotation wasn't. With two good young arms and two veteran innings guys, the Reds should have been positioned to win lower-scoring games this year. Instead, they've placed 21st in SNLVAR, as only Johnny Cueto has been notably effective. The great bullpen has helped, but all things considered, this team is not good enough to contend, even in a weak division.
Not being the Astros gives the Reds a tougher decision to make. They have a better farm system, though not a top one, and a younger core of talent. Not winning this season wouldn't be the end of the world, and by making the decision to not worry about it, Walt Jocketty could position the team for more success down the road. Were he to heal up in time to be dealt and then deliver something in-season, Ramon Hernandez would be an upgrade behind the plate for a number of teams, and he isn't carrying a big price tag. Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are 32 and 31, young enough to contribute here, but perhaps better fits for contenders' rotations. There's simply no question that the aging anchors of this great bullpen, David Weathers, Arthur Rhodes, and Francisco Cordero, would have more value in the trade market than on the Great American Mound. The Reds have need for help up the middle, every spot. The core of Bruce, Cueto, Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Drew Stubbs is strong enough to be a contender for the next few seasons; Jocketty has to use the support around them now to make the support around them in 2011 much better. The Reds have to start selling, and quickly, taking advantage of the current seller's market for talent.
These were two easy ones. The tougher calls, including some surprising ones, lay ahead.