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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.