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It’s almost embarrassing, actually, the way Gerry Hunsicker, the general
manager of the Houston Astros, has made mincemeat of his competition. This
winter, he’s traded two players coming off career years and on the brink of
being very expensive for three younger talents with significant upside. The
trades cleared payroll space to grant contract extensions to a couple of
key players, and didn’t do any real damage to the Astros’ chances in 2000.

He’s done all this while watching the other contenders in the division pick
up players like Dante Bichette and Eric Young. Right now, at least in the
front office, the NL Central is simply a man playing with boys.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs made one of the best offseason moves of any team outside of Texas,
picking up Ismael Valdes from the Dodgers for middle reliever
Terry Adams. Sure, they had to take the last two years of Eric
Young
‘s contract, but they had the payroll flexibility to do so. Valdes
teams with Jon Leiber to give the Cubs two high-upside,
young-veteran starters, and even Young could be a surprise: he had his best
seasons under Don Baylor, albeit at altitude.

Not that it will matter, as Ed Lynch has spent the rest of the winter
making a bad offense worse. Adding Damon Buford, Ricky
Gutierrez
and Joe Girardi–the latter signed to a ridiculous
three-year deal–did nothing to make the offense younger or better. Buford
is youngest, at 30, and the three combined for a .308 OBP in 1999.

As is usually the case, the Cubs think they’re a lot closer to success then
they are. Despite one significant master stroke, they’re just as far from
contention as ever. But take heart, Cubs fans: Mark Grace is just
942 hits away from 3,000!

Cincinnati Reds

The big news is Cincinnati, of course, has been the move that hasn’t
happened: Ken Griffey Jr. is still a Mariner. GM Jim Bowden’s
reluctance to meet Seattle’s demand that second baseman Pokey Reese
be included in the deal has apparently been the sticking point. The other
elements–center fielder Mike Cameron, starting pitcher Denny
Neagle
and reliever Scott Williamson–appear to be in place,
more or less.

This is obvious silliness. Even if the Reds are only trading for one year
of Griffey, allowing an overrated interchangeable part like Reese to stand
in the way is foolish. While Reese is an excellent defensive player, he
doesn’t get on base enough to hit anywhere but eighth or ninth, and his
"big" 1999 wasn’t anything special. Even if he was, it
wouldn’t be worth passing up the chance to get Griffey. As Mark
McGwire
did in St. Louis, Griffey would make a significant positive
impact on the Reds’ revenue in 2000. Acquiring him now would give the team
seven months to sign him, and as the McGwire situation showed, sometimes it
doesn’t even take that long for a player to decide he wants to stay.

Bowden needs to make this deal for the Reds’ 2000 season to have any chance
for success. While they were a great story last year, there is almost no
one on the team, save Cameron, who can reasonably be expected to improve on
his 1999 performance. While Jack McKeon did a spectacular job with his
bullpen, it remains to be seen whetherDanny Graves and Scott
Sullivan can come back after 100-inning seasons.

Bowden didn’t help himself by trading for Dante Bichette to replace
Greg Vaughn. Bichette will push the Padres’ Eric Owens as the
worst left fielder in the league. This is the biggest move the Reds have
made this offseason. If that remains true on Opening Day, it will be a long
season in the Queen City.

Houston Astros

As far as I’m concerned, Gerry Hunsicker has already locked up Executive of
the Year honors. In just a few weeks, he extended the contracts of Craig
Biggio
and Jose Lima, and created the payroll space for those
moves by trading Carl Everett and Mike Hampton. Everett and
Hampton were coming off career seasons, were just one year away from free
agency and both were expendable given the organizational depth at their
positions.

Hunsicker didn’t just make salary dumps, either. For Everett, he added a
top-tier prospect from the Red Sox in Adam Everett filling the
Astros’ one glaring need. For Hampton, he acquired Roger Cedeno, who
gives them a leadoff-hitting outfielder, and Octavio Dotel, the kind
of live arm the Larry Dierker has worked wonders with. He also got the Mets
to take Derek Bell, clearing more payroll and, more importantly,
relieving the Astros of a poor player and potential distraction.

A team that went into the winter with a half-dozen dangerous open issues
now has just one: re-signing Jeff Bagwell, who won’t even be a free
agent until after 2001. Hunsicker didn’t wait until the problems came to
him: he aggressively addressed the organization’s needs and for his
troubles, has cost certainty and an even deeper talent base as the Astros
move into Enron Field. They’re the divisional favorites, and just may be on
the brink of a Braves-like run in the 2000s.

Milwaukee Brewers

A tremendous amount of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Brewers have
been one of the more active teams in baseball this winter, in the middle of
a four-team trade, trading three starting infielders and even signing a
free agent.

All this activity has left them worse offensively and defensively and with
a collection of once- and twice-failed reclamation projects. They have
about a dozen candidates for the rotation, an assortment of Jameys and
Jameses and Jimmys and even a John, none of whom have been successful for
longer than about three months at the major league level. What they don’t
have is an infield of Jeff Cirillo, Jose Valentin and
Fernando Vina. All three are elsewhere, gone in the search for
pitching.

The Brewers are an example of what happens when people with good intentions
do stupid things. The Brewers have focused on their pitching problems to
the point of ignoring the team’s strength: a good offensive nucleus. By
trading Cirillo and Valentin without addressing the holes in center field
or behind the plate, they’ve made the offense worse and done nothing for
the rotation. Given the quality of the pitchers they picked up, they would
be about as well off with Cirillo, Valentin and an assortment of non-roster
invitees.

Ron Belliard, Jeromy Burnitz and Geoff Jenkins can be
the core of a contender, but unless and until the Brewers start thinking
beyond a desperate search for starting pitching, those three are just
marking time to free agency.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh has become the organziation most likely to cause a spit take.
Their signings over the past few years have gotten increasingly ridiculous,
as they spend money willy-nilly to give the impression of being serious
while doing nothing to make the team better. This winter’s monitor-dampener
was the signing of Wil Cordero, who had gone hat-in-hand for a job
prior to a 194-at-bat season for the Indians, to a three-year, $9 million
contract.

This just continues a stretch in which the Pirates have thrown guaranteed
money and years at Mike Benjamin, Pat Meares and Kevin
Young
, players well past the point of having even a chance at
greatness. There’s absolutely nothing Benjamin or Meares bring to the table
that a dozen Triple-A infielders couldn’t. Cordero falls into that same
category, and will simply take at-bats away from Chad Hermansen or Emil Brown.

Like Milwaukee, the Pirates have a handful of players that make you want to
root for them. Jason Kendall, Brian Giles and Warren
Morris
are excellent players who deserve better teammates. They deserve
Hermansen and Aramis Ramirez, not Cordero and Ed Sprague. Cam
Bonifay isn’t helping anyone with his moves; the Pirates would actually be
best-served by a payroll purge that forced him to stop signing people and
play the hand he’s being dealt by a player-development system that’s doing
its job.

St. Louis Cardinals

It appears that Walt Jocketty has finally figured out his manager, Tony
LaRussa. After watching LaRussa destroy the arms of Alan Benes and
Matt Morris, preventing the Cardinals from establishing any kind of
rotation the past couple of years, Jocketty has gotten LaRussa three
veteran starters. As needs-addressing goes, it was a good winter by the
Mississippi.

Jocketty picked up Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen for some squid
scraps. OK, pitching prospects. He then took advantage of the down market
for pitching by signing Andy Benes to a three-year deal for $18
million. While none of these guys can be expected to approach their best
performances, they should provide 100 starts of league-average pitching.
That’s a big jump over what Jose Jimenez and his ilk gave them in 1999.

Stabilizing the rotation will give LaRussa a chance to establish roles in
the bullpen. While his may not be the optimal may to run a pen, it is the
one he’s had considerable success with, and there’s something to be said
for letting a manager do what he does well. LaRussa has the pitching staff
he likes now; he doesn’t have to truck with young starters or worry about
little things like "pitch counts."

It’s about time, too, because this Cardinal team is about at the point
where it needs to win. Mark McGwire is a beast, but a 36-year-old
beast. Ray Lankford‘s knees are twice that age. Even with young
studs Fernando Tatis, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew,
the lineup still has gaping holes in right field and behind the plate. The
Cardinals’ chances may yet depend on how well Jocketty can get Eli
Marrero
some help and find some solution in right field that’s better
than Thomas Howard. Still, based on what they’ve done to date, the
Cardinals have to be considered the front-runner for the NL wild card.