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In 2004, the Astros rode to the wildcard on the strength of three big bats–Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent, and Carlos Beltran. Last year, it was the same story: Berkman kept producing, and Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane joined him with slugging averages near .500. In 2006, Berkman is still one of the best hitters in the league, but Kent and Beltran are gone, Ensberg is on the DL after a season-long slump, and Jason Lane has played his way back down to Triple-A Round Rock.

There’s no question that by hitting .321/.406/.605, Berkman is living up to his end of the bargain. He hasn’t gotten any help from the usual suspects, though the ‘Stros have gotten a couple of surprising contributions from Mike Lamb and Chris Burke. Last year, on the strength of a historically strong pitching staff, the Astros managed a playoff berth with a team slugging percentage in the bottom half of the NL (.408). This season, the OBP is up a notch, the slugging is down, and the pitching staff isn’t going to make history.

It doesn’t take a sharp-eyed analyst to recognize the problem. As they did with Carlos Beltran in 2004, the Astros had to make a move. In acquiring Aubrey Huff a week ago, Tim Purpura sought to wishcast his way out of the power shortage. Like so many quasi-sluggers, Huff will maintain a reputation slightly better than the one he deserves on the basis of one or two great seasons. In Huff’s case, that peak centered on 2002 and 2003, when he OPS’d in the 900 range and topped 100 RBI for the first time. If 2005 was the aberration and it’s just a matter of waiting for him to be fully healthy, maybe the Huff deal can be a low-rent version of the 2004 Beltran trade. More likely, Huff is a marginal upgrade that won’t make an impact on this year’s wildcard race.

For one thing, at most Huff can solve only one of Houston’s problems. In their present condition, Ensberg, Lane, and Preston Wilson are all liabilities if allowed to play every day for a contender. For the moment, Huff “solves” the third-base problem, hitting just a bit better than Ensberg. Mike Lamb’s emergence has conveniently filled another one of those gaps.In the meantime, Preston Wilson (he of the 1.4 VORP in 2006) mans left field on a near-daily basis. If Ensberg comes back healthy and hitting in the vicinity of his five-win weighted-mean PECOTA projection and Phil Garner stops writing Wilson into the lineup and Huff performs like the impact slugger the Astros would like to think they acquired, the Astros might have a chance.

As it is, the numbers should encourage skepticism. The Astros’ postseason chances have fallen below eight percent, behind those of the Brewers, Reds, and Braves, not to mention the entire NL West. Huff will help, as will the return of Brandon Backe, but it would take a best-case scenario from nearly everyone on the roster to generate another Cinderella story in Houston.

Jeff Sackmann

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After three near misses of the playoffs in the last five seasons, there
were hopes in Philadelphia that maybe this year the Phillies could take
that extra step and make the postseason. After a promising start
that had the team 22-15 and one game out of first in the NL East on May
15th, they’ve gone 21-35 since, and any thought of the playoffs
this year is likely a pipe dream. While some might point out that the
Phillies have been known to overcome six-game deficits before, the wild card is not a realistic option for the
team this year, since they’d have to climb over eight other teams to get
there. At this point they should be playing for next year, not this year.

Recognizing that would make for several subsequent implications. If Pat Gillick wants to clean house among the staff, he should go ahead and do so now. If he’s convinced Charlie Manuel is not the right manager for the team, he should see if Marc Bombard, Gary Varsho, or some other interim manager might do a better
job. Playing time should be based on whether players can help the team
in 2007, not for what they could contribute this year. In particular it
means younger pitchers such as Cole Hamels and Ryan Madson should stay
in the rotation for now. Hamels has some adjustments to make, but he
also has outstanding stuff. As long as he’s healthy, he should be
allowed to work things out this year so that he’ll be better prepared
for the next. The Phillies already know Madson can be a solid reliever,
but they need to see if he can learn how to effectively use his curve to
be a quality starter. Likewise they should see whether Carlos Ruiz can be a viable stopgap at catcher for a couple years, even if that means sitting veteran Mike Lieberthal and cutting or trading Sal Fasano.

Additionally, the Phillies need to make effective use of the trading
deadline. They have some top-notch talent on the major league team, but
for a variety of reasons, their minor league system is extremely empty,
especially when it comes to position players. Some shrewd trades
could be the key to giving the Phillies a chance in the next couple of
years. While last week’s insanity
in Cincinnati
is not likely to be repeated, it’s clear that there is
a fairly strong demand for pitching out there and Rheal Cormier is a perfect example of a pitcher who should be dealt. He’s quietly having an excellent season, but he could be a free agent at the end of the year (assuming his option is not picked up), and at 39 may very well
retire at that point. While he does have the right to veto a trade as a
10-and-5 guy, indications are that he would waive that to go to a
contender. What value he has is for this season, and if he’s still with
the Phillies on August 1st it will represent a gigantic missed opportunity.

While not as likely to yield as much talent as Cormier, relievers such as Aaron Fultz and Arthur Rhodes are going to be free agents at the
end of the year, and are worth dangling on the market. There are fewer options among the starting pitching, but Cory Lidle is signed for a relatively small amount and might catch the attention of a desperate team. He’s not having the sort of season that you would expect to get much in return, but the same could have been said of Victor Zambrano a couple seasons ago.

On the position player side, most of the trade rumors surrounding the Phillies involve Bobby Abreu. If they do wind up trading Abreu it’s likely to be a collossal mistake, especially if the reports that they’re merely trying to dump salary regardless of who they get in return are true. The outfielder they should be trying to trade is Aaron Rowand.

To anticipate some of the outraged complaints that statement is likely to generate, I’m well aware that he made that spectacular catch when smashing into the fence earlier this year. I know he’s a gritty player and a hustler and all that. But he’s also not that good a player. Offensively, his 2004 performance is looking like his career year, and outside of that year his offense has been below average, with an on-base percentage in the low 300s and a slugging percentage in the low 400s. Additionally, Rowand’s strength has been touted as his defense, but that is also shaky this year with Rowand frequently getting poor jumps on the ball off the bat. According to his Davenport Translations, Rowand is actually a below-average center fielder this year.

Since he does have the reputation as a gritty, aggressive player, Rowand
could bring a fairly strong return on the trade market. The Phillies have a reasonable replacement in Shane Victorino>/player> who should be able to at least provide the same offense and better defense while also demonstrating the same reckless abandon in the field that has made Rowand so popular with Philadelphia fans. The Phillies are unlikely to get fair value by trading Abreu, but could get it for Rowand. With depth as thin as the Phillies have right now, they can’t afford to undercut themselves on a trade.

This trade deadline period represents a major test for Pat Gillick. He needs to leverage what little spare talent he has into the parts he needs to make the Phillies competitive next year. It’s certainly possible, and not even as difficult as trading a
paperclip for a house
, but he cannot afford many missteps. Considering the state of the Phillies farm system, if opportunities are missed now, the near future for the team will continue the recent trend of not quite enough.

Jeff Hildebrand

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