Second-Half Prospectus

At midseason, the 1999 NL East looks a lot like the 1998 version. The
Braves have a comfortable cushion over the Mets, the Phillies are hanging
around with no real chance of winning the division, and the Expos and
Marlins are…uh…anybody know what the Expos and Marlins are doing?

A look at what the second half could bring:

Atlanta Braves (55-34, division leader)

After scuffling for most of the first half, the Braves pulled it together
before the break, going 8-3 in July behind a resurgent Greg Maddux
and Tom Glavine. As has been the case since 1991, if their rotation
pitches well, the Braves can survive all manner of disasters elsewhere and
win the division.

But if the goal is to win a title, this team is going to have to score more
runs. Their offense is hovering in the middle of the pack, thanks to a top
of the lineup that has ranged from putrid–Otis Nixon‘s .487 OPS–to
merely poor–Bret Boone‘s .319 OBP. Behind these out machines, the
heart of the lineup is pretty good, so adding an OBP guy who can play left
field will have an enormous impact. If he can play defense, all the better,
as the gain over Ryan Klesko would be significant.

George Lombard has stumbled badly at Triple-A, and while Randall
has played well enough at first base to move Klesko back into the
pasture, his performance is below-average for a first baseman. The solution
will have to come from outside the organization. John Scheurholz has always
been willing to add overrated relievers for the stretch drive: this time,
his bullpen is a strength, so he’ll have to put those skills towards
picking up a bat. If the Braves can add a Brady Anderson, Tony
or even steal a Dmitri Young, their chances in October
become much better.

The other thing to watch for is the handling of John Smoltz. The
Braves run their franchise as if they have a bye into the first round, and
it’s nice to see that kind of confidence. Smoltz has already changed his
pitching style–pretty much dropping his slider–and made two trips to the
DL. Making sure he’s healthy on October 1 needs to be the team’s priority,
even if it may cost them the league’s best record.

New York Mets (50-39, 2nd place, 5 games behind)

The interesting thing about the Mets is how they’ve stayed in the thick of
the wild-card race despite the near-collapse of their starting pitching. No
Met starting pitcher has an ERA under 4.79, the Mets have no complete games
in 1999, and only Al Leiter is averaging six innings per start.

The bullpen, though…the bullpen has been absolutely stellar. Only
Cincinnati can match the left/right combination of Armando Benitez
and Dennis Cook, while Turk Wendell, Rigo Beltran,
John Franco and even erstwhile JackPACers Allen Watson–before
his trade–and Pat Mahomes have contributed quality innings. And
these guys haven’t carried the workload of Scott Williamson or
Danny Graves; only Wendell is on pace to throw 100 innings.

There is reason to believe this level of performance can continue; Benitez,
Cook and Wendell have all performed at this level before. If Jason
‘s teaser outing last week was for real, the pen acquires
another weapon.

Leiter showed some improvement as the temperature rose (a 2.98 ERA since
June 1), as did Rick Reed. A return to 1998 form by those two would
ease some of the pressure on the pen. With Bobby Jones probably out
for the year, the Mets are going to need another starter. The outside
options (Tim Belcher, Darryl Kile, Livan Hernandez)
are not particularly good, so the team needs to give Octavio Dotel a
real chance. His first start against the Braves was a disaster, but he was
better against the Marlins and excellent against the Expos. He looms as a
key player down the stretch.

What’s surprising is that a team with great OBP in slots 1-4 is only in the
middle of the league in runs scored. Some of that is park effect, but more
of it is Brian McRae and Rey Ordonez. With St. Rey hovering
in the .270s, it’s unlikely the Mets will be doing anything with him. But
giving Roger Cedeno the center field job, playing Benny
in right and making McRae the fourth outfielder would solve
part of the problem. Calling up Andy Tomberlin to platoon with
Agbayani would be the imaginative, cheap and never-gonna-happen solution.

Philadelphia Phillies (46-40, 3rd place, 7 1/2 games behind)

Looks familiar: in the wild-card hunt, short a couple of pieces, riding the
right arm of an overworked Curt Schilling. The rest of the season
will probably follow the pattern set last year as well.

The Phillies simply can’t expect to get the kind of performances over a
full season that have been crucial to their first half. Paul Byrd,
Mike Lieberthal and Doug Glanville have been evry good, but
all will begin to decline. Byrd–whose strikeout rate never did match the
rest of his first-half numbers–already has. Only Scott Rolen has
underperformed to date, and while he should bounce back and have a better
second half, it won’t be enough to overcome the rest of the team’s slippage.

The Phillies need to pay careful attention and not do damage to their
chances in 2000–when Pat Burrell will be up–in an effort to win
this year. They cannot afford to burn out Schilling or abuse Randy
for the right to extend their season by a week and one home game.

The best thing that could happen to them would be an extended losing streak
in late July, one that frees them to trade Rico Brogna and
capitalize on Lieberthal’s inflated value to acquire some middle infield
help. One that lets them give Amaury Telemaco or Anthony
an extended rotation look. Really, whether it happens in July
or August, the Phillie phade is inevitable. If they handle it properly, it
won’t be a bad thing at all.

Montreal Expos (33-51, 4th place, 19 1/2 games behind)

The Alou mystique has taken quite a hit in the past few months, as the Expo
starters who generated such excitement late in 1998 have been battered like
Aunt Emma’s fried chicken. Dustin Hermanson, Carl Pavano and
Javier Vazquez–exiled to Ottawa–have all been disappointing. On a
team that’s last in the league in runs by a wide margin, that’s a recipe
for disaster.

With nothing to play for this year but pride, the Expos need to make a
couple of moves immediately. First, get Vazquez and Ted Lilly back
up. Giving their starts to Dan Smith and Mike Thurman is a
waste of everyone’s time. The next good Expo team has a rotation of Pavano,
Lilly, Vazquez and Tony Armas, and a ticket office of Thurman, Smith
and Miguel Batista. Moving in the direction of that alignment will
accelerate the process.

Note the absence of Hermanson from the above. He’s still relatively cheap,
but may not get back to his 1998 level for a while. Use him to get
something resembling an infielder with on-base skills and a decent glove.
In fact, use anything to acquire players with on-base skills.

The Expos are last in the league in OBP and runs, and if you think there’s
no correlation there, you’re wrong. Only Rondell White and
Vladimir Guerrero can be expected to have above-average OBPs, and
White is another guy who the Expos need to move. He’s older than you think,
and has the health record of your great-grandfather.

Trade White for another young infielder and call up Peter Bergeron,
who, like Vazquez and Lilly, is wasting his time at Triple-A while Manny
gets his ABs. Bergeron is going to be the center fielder and
leadoff hitter on the 2002 playoff team, when Martinez is two organizations
down the road.

Whether the Expos win 55, 65 or 75 games this year is irrelevant. They can,
however, start to do the things that will enable them to play .500 ball in
2000, and be a force again in 2001. There is no reason–none–for them to
waste time pursuing any other goals.

Florida Marlins (32-56, 5th place, 22 1/2 games behind)

After appearing a bit lost in the course of redevelopment–the Mike
acquisition–Dave Dombrowski righted the ship with the
acquisition of Brad Penny and Vladimir Nunez in exchange for
Matt Mantei. This season, and probably next season, are irrelevant
to the Marlins, who are building towards 2001, and all moves need to be
judged in that context.

To that end, Florida needs to sort through its options and determine which
Fish are keepers and which need to be thrown back. Final decisions need to
be made on Todd Dunwoody and Derrek Lee, who poorly in the
year and a half preceding their demotions. It may also be time to put some
heat on Mark Kotsay, who has been a disappointment offensively.

At this point, it might not be a bad idea to put them all in the
lineup–and call up Ramon Castro, for good measure–for three months
to find out if they’re players to build around or dump.

Of the current Marlins, only Alex Gonzalez is young enough and good
enough to consider his job safe. Minor league vets Kevin Millar and
Bruce Aven are nice stories, but their resumes aren’t much shorter
than Mantei’s, and if the right deal comes along you have to move them.
Same for Preston Wilson, who is way over his head. Any or all of
these players should be traded if someone dangles a B or B+ catching prospect.

The organization has done a fantastic job nursing Alex Fernandez
back to health, and now that he’s shown the ability to pitch past the fifth
inning, they need to spark a bidding war among contenders and pretenders.
If available, he’s by far the best pitcher on the market; I like
Dombrowski’s chances to turn that into a lot of cheap young talent.

If Cliff Floyd ever plays in consecutive weeks, the Fish should
pursue a similar course with him. Like Rondell White, he’s older than you
think, and it now looks like his peak will be in the .280/.360/.500 range.
Beyond that, they simply need to be patient. Don’t rush A.J.
. Don’t rush Brad Penny. Keep taking advantage of the
desperation of other teams.

And get a really good marketing director.

Thank you for reading

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