Enough bad things have happened to the Astros to give every team an
opportunity to indulge in some wishful thinking, but what should these
teams be doing?
Cincinnati Reds (49-36, division leader)
Most of the risks Jim Bowden has taken in shooting for contention have
worked out, with the most obvious problem being Denny Neagle‘s
continued bad health. The team has should have already endured the worst
work its rotation is capable of: teams won’t get to pound Jason Bere
If Neagle bounces back and Ron Villone continues to wow folks in the
rotation, that’s three solid starters (with Pete Harnisch). Jack
McKeon can then afford to get picky from among Brett Tomko, Steve
Avery and Steve Parris in the fourth and fifth slots. The race
is on to see who solves his problem first: Avery with his control, or Tomko
with his tateriffic tendencies. If they both iron out their problems,
Parris is the man on the bubble when Neagle returns.
The bullpen has been the team’s star so far, and while there’s some danger
than Scott Williamson and Danny Graves are being asked to do
too much, overall there shouldn’t be much reason for concern.
The Reds’ farm system isn’t loaded with good talent to turn to for help or
into a major league starter. If they need help in the rotation down the
stretch, they may finally have to take Dennis Reyes out of the pen,
which would actually be a fairly good solution.
So where can the Reds make some simple upgrades? They’re close to the
bottom of the NL in runs scored, and in the middle of the league in
Equivalent Average, so some offensive help is in order. You might say third
base is a good place to start, but Aaron Boone‘s coming around, and
the guys who might be available (Ed Sprague…Joe
Randa…Sean Berry) aren’t big improvements over Boone
offensively, while he’s a better glove than any of them.
The Reds could really improve in right field. Michael Tucker has
done well enough by his own standards, but that’s still poor for a corner
outfielder. The Reds could help themselves considerably by giving Dmitri
Young more playing time. Young’s .845 OPS in 1998 was not a fluke, and
the Reds shouldn’t forget that just because of his failure to adapt to the
pinch-hitting role he’s currently saddled with. The Reds are a good enough
defensive team to carry one pair of stone hands somewhere, and with the
pitcher hitting, an NL lineup can’t afford to carry too many mediocre bats.
The Reds can pull this off, and with one more starter and some small
improvements to the lineup, they could even surprise some people in the
Houston Astros (50-37, 2nd place, .001 behind)
It’s true, the Astros have suffered a lot of misfortune, bad breaks that go
a long way towards explaining why the team has come back to the pack. Not
just any team can survive losing its starting catcher, left fielder,
shortstop and third baseman for all or much of the season.
But the Astros are deep, and losing a Moises Alou or a Ken
Caminiti or a Rookie of the Year candidate like Mitch Meluskey
doesn’t spell the end of the world when solid replacements like Richard
Hidalgo, Bill Spiers and the platoon of Paul Bako and
Tony Eusebio are available. What’s killing the Astros isn’t simply
these losses, but the failures of some of the guys who are still around.
The biggest problem is Derek Bell, probably the least valuable
outfielder in the major leagues today. And worse yet, he’s been the picture
of health all season long, giving the Astros his usual miserable play
afield to go with pathetic hitting. Screw the Pan Am games, and screw
waiting for Alou to arrive in late August or early September: call up
Lance Berkman now. If not Berkman, bring Darryl Ward back up.
Why else did Ward learn how to play left field last year?
Paving over Bell’s carcass, and adding a healthy Caminiti, might be just
what the Astros need to get out of the middle of the pack offensively.
The other thing that’s hurt the Astros all season has been the back end of
the rotation. Sean Bergman has his uses as a fifth starter, and if
he’s healthy the Astros can keep him there. But like Derek Bell, Chris
Holt has contributed little while maintaining his health. The Astros
already have the solution in place: in Bergman’s absence, Scott
Elarton has been moved into the rotation, after a stretch of cutting
his teeth in the pen. That creates a problem in the bullpen, but Doug
Henry‘s return should help some, and Holt may be useful as a middle
reliever, despite his first-inning woes this year as a starter.
The big issue for the Astros is whether they should pull the trigger on a
deal to make room for a top-flight starter or a primo reliever. There’s
enough talent here to win the division on its own, but looking forward to
the postseason, I’d go shopping. The Braves can be taken this year, and
none of the teams in the West look unstoppable.
Pittsburgh Pirates (43-44, 3rd place, 7 games behind)
They’ve made a game attempt at respectability, and a bunch of things have
worked. Mostly, the Pirates can be pleased with how well some of their
offseason pickups turned out. Brian Giles has been outstanding, and
Ed Sprague may have done enough to make himself useful as a
bargaining chip. The pitching staff has been solid, and it’s a tribute to
the skill of both manager Gene Lamont and pitching coach Pete Vuckovich
that they’ve been able to work through several injuries and struggles.
But now that Jason Kendall‘s gone for the year, the Bucs really
can’t expect much more than to play spoiler, and if things work out as well
as they possibly could, flirt with .500 the rest of the way. Since they
won’t be moving into PNC Park until 2001, there’s no political baggage to
keep them from trading mediocre veterans like Sprague, whose value will
never be higher. Pete Schourek (someone probably values last year’s
playoff start, right?), Mike Williams, a resurrected Al
Martin, or possibly even Kevin Young should all be shopped to
some suitably desperate team on the fringes of the wild-card race down the
If it happens, Bucs fans shouldn’t interpret these trades as a let-down.
Indeed, if you’re really a cynic, you might argue that losing Kendall
lowers expectations, which allows the team to help its future with a few
stretch drive trades while giving Aramis Ramirez and Chad
Hermansen a month or two as the regulars at third base and center
field. I’d settle for trading Sprague, Schourek, and Martin.
St. Louis Cardinals (42-43, 4th place, 7 1/2 games behind)
The real problem with the Cardinals is that their future is still now.
Mark McGwire and Ray Lankford aren’t going to have to watch
another year of their careers go by without winning, are they? This team
has been built to win now, and it isn’t doing so. Because the Astros have
stumbled and the Reds are pretty vincible, all is not yet lost.
The big problem, again, is pitching, which seems inextricably linked to
Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. You can’t hold Donovan Osborne‘s
latest burnout against them; that’s the penalty for signing him to a
multi-year deal in the first place.
In the here and now, Kent Mercker and Juan Acevedo are
struggling to give the team five innings per start, and Darren
Oliver has been his usual batterable self. Maybe Jose Jimenez is
okay from here on out after skunking the D’backs twice, and maybe not.
Maybe Alan Benes really will be able to pitch by mid-August. Matt
Morris won’t. Rick Ankiel looks ready to dominate, but do you
entrust him to the same bloodthirsty LaRussa-Duncan combo that mismanaged
Morris and Benes, and wore out Todd Stottlemyre?
On the offensive side of things, despite good years from McGwire and
Lankford, a huge breakthrough for Fernando Tatis and the
entertaining arrival of Joe McEwing, the team’s offense has been
middle of the pack in both runs scored and EQA. LaRussa insists on stunts
like playing Willie McGee far too often, batting Thomas
Howard cleanup or jerking J.D. Drew around. Eric Davis
seems to have left his power in Camden Yards, and the catching situation is
pathetic, as both Eli Marrero and Alberto Castillo struggle.
So how do you turn all of this around? Simple fixes would involve keeping
Drew in the lineup, going out of your way to get Darryl Kile from
the Rockies and snagging a catcher in a small deal, be it Lenny
Webster or Terry Steinbach or good old Tom Lampkin. But
desperate situations demand desperate solutions.
He’s feeling unappreciated despite getting everything he’s wanted, and his
petulant "Remember ’96" shtick should have worn out its welcome
last year. Let him get a head start on his next job, and hope he goes to a
team with young talent he can happily trade to get some of the old guys you
have right now. Give the masses Whitey Herzog, then give him Ankiel. And
then pray that your team didn’t just waste another year of the
McGwire/Lankford combo because Matt Morris and Alan Benes were asked to do
too much when it mattered very little.
Milwaukee Brewers (42-44, 5th place, 7 1/2 games behind)
The Brewers aren’t so far off from contending in this division. They also
have a bit of political baggage, in that they’d like to finish their last
season in County Stadium on a good note. But should they simply stand pat?
Offensively, they’ve been one of the best teams in the league, hanging with
San Francisco, Arizona and Colorado among the league leaders in runs
scored. Credit can be spread around: to the organization, for getting rid
of one of baseball’s worst hitters (Mike Matheny) and replacing him with
David Nilsson; to the developement of Geoff Jenkins and the
arrival of Ronnie Belliard; and to Marquis Grissom‘s return
to respectability. Jeromy Burnitz, Jeff Cirillo and Mark
Loretta give the team consistency.
Offensively, the hole comes from the easiest place to put a hitter, first
base. Sean Berry‘s a bust, and needs to be peddled to a team that
may be interested in him for third base. Settling for Loretta at first
gives them another good OBP guy and some glovework, but he’s not an optimal
solution.. The dilemma is whether
the Brewers will call up Kevin Barker, or consider renting a slugger
down the stretch. They’ll also have Fernando Vina to peddle, but the
market is loaded with second basemen who do a few things well. Sitting
Grissom against some right-handers to get Rich Becker some playing
time wouldn’t be a bad thing.
If the Brew Crew wants to do more than play spoiler, though, they need to
try to stealthily enter the bidding on any available starting pitcher.
Steve Woodard, Hideo Nomo, Scott Karl and calling up
Kyle Peterson would make for a nice 2-5 group in most rotations. If
they swipe someone like Kile–and with Jim Leyland saying he
wants better speed and defense, maybe he’d want a Vina–they’d
simultaneously give themselves a small opportunity to win the division
while giving their fans some reason to believe that this team would
actually do something to try to win.
The bullpen has been one of the better ones in the league without drawing
much attention to itself, so despite a high team ERA, the Brewers aren’t
really that far from putting a decent pitching staff together. That,
coupled with an offense finally getting some runs out of first base, could
be the best shot at relevance the Brewers have had since 1992.
Chicago Cubs (41-44, 6th place, 8 games behind)
Yesterday’s postseason speed bump is today’s regular season roadkill.
What’s in a half-game, which is what separates the Cubs from the Brewers?
Seems pretty negligible, after all. Yet the difference in what you can
expect from the two teams is dramatic.
Following this Cub team is sort of like being a passenger on the
Hindenberg: the trip isn’t about where you’re going, but the barbecue at
the end of the flight. They’re a mediocre offensive team, an awful
defensive unit, with a bad rotation and an even worse bullpen. (But hey,
it’s better than the Mariners, so perk up you perky people! That’s what
Chip Caray would do!).
How are things going to get better? Is Sammy Sosa going to average
two home runs per game? Is Glenallen Hill going to hit .450? Is
Henry Rodriguez going to have the first good second half of his
career? Is Mark Grace supposed to improve on what’s already going to
be his best season for home runs? So many things have turned out better
than they could have hoped, and they’re still wallowing. Worse yet, guys
like Rodriguez and Hill are free agents with lousy long-term performance
records, so it isn’t like they’re going to garner much in trade unless
somebody makes a big mistake. After the Brant Brown-for-Jon Leiber trade,
how many more of those can the Cubs really expect?
Offensively, the Cubs have to hope they can start peddling some of the
veterans now, while they still have some value. Who could use Mickey
Morandini? Maybe the Phillies, since Marlon Anderson is the only
NL second baseman who has hit worse than Morandini. Send him back along
with whatever else it takes to get Bobby Estalella in return. Send
Rodriguez to the Yankees, and ask for Ed Yarnall. Go straight to
Steinbrenner, because Cashman would know better. Break in Roosevelt
Brown and move Jose Hernandez to second base or center field,
where he won’t fumble away opportunities for the deuce. Give Jose
Nieves a two-month audition for the shortstop job.
As for the pitching staff, the best they can hope for is somebody decides
to make an offer for Steve Trachsel, allowing the Cubs to choose
between other people’s prospects or what they can expect to get with a
draft pick, because Trachsel’s gone after this year. Jim Riggleman has to
stop using his bullpen as if every game was a playoff game, and instead
start thinking about innings as opportunities to give young pitchers
experience, not for him to finagle a tactical advantage like an epic
Ray King–Rico Brogna confrontation. Let Kyle
Farnsworth and Philip Norton pitch in middle relief now, because
chances are they’re going to have to be in next year’s rotation.