As I mentioned the other day, 16 teams made moves before the trade deadline
to improve their chances in 2000. Of course, that means 14 others didn’t,
14 teams that haven’t had much success this season.

Still, amidst the wreckage of a 65-97 campaign can often be found the
pieces of next year’s playoff contender. In looking at the teams just
playing out the string, I saw a lot of hope amidst the dark clouds.

In Houston, where you might expect a plague of locusts any minute, an
MLB-worst record hides the development of two great young players. The
first, Scott Elarton, is actually the inspiration for this column.
His season started late as he recovered from rotator-cuff surgery, and the
late beginning led to problems with his command early in the season.

Since mid-June, though, Elarton has looked like the pitcher we were falling
all over ourselves about just a year ago. In his last eight starts, he’s
posted a 2.53 ERA with a 42-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, pitching into
the eighth inning six times. I could live without the 134-pitch outing, but
other than that, he’s been handled well by Larry Dierker and looks like
he’s ready to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Along with Elarton, the Astros have a hitter coming into his own this year.
Lance Berkman has taken advantage of the injury to Roger
to establish himself as the left-handed power bat the Astros
have lacked for years. Berkman is hitting .291/.371/.565, and just so you
don’t think that’s all Enron Field, it’s good for a .300 EqA, seventh among
National League right fielders.

It’s not hard to envision the Astros bouncing back in 2001 to their
familiar spot at the top of the NL Central, but with a completely
different–and much younger–core of Elarton and Berkman.

While the Astros were relatively quiet at the trade deadline, already
possessing the makings of a division titlist, the Phillies made some
aggressive moves to shape the next good Philadelphia team. With two major
chips to play, starters Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby, GM Ed
Wade got as good a return as you’ll find, adding two high-upside starting
pitchers in Bruce Chen and Omar Daal and a high-upside
project left fielder in Travis Lee.

Both left-handers have been effective in their few Phillies’ starts, but
the real excitement comes in looking forward. The team’s 2001 rotation
could consist of Chen, Daal, Randy Wolf and Robert Person, four
accomplished pitchers under 30. The lineup could have a core of Lee,
Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, all capable
of .300 EqAs and higher. If manager Terry Francona can be convinced to take
a lighter hand with his young starters, there may be nothing stopping the
Phils from taking a huge step forward in 2001.

After years as an aging doormat, the Phillies may have, in a few weeks,
positioned themselves to be just as much a factor in future NL East races
as the youth-drenched Expos and Marlins.

Who has the sixth-best rotation in the American League? Nope. Uh-uh. Not
them, either. Give up? It’s the Minnesota Twins, with Brad Radke and
Eric Milton among the league’s top dozen starters and Joe
and Mark Redman providing lots of league-average innings.

While the contributions of Mays and Redman are nice, it’s the top two–tied
to the Twins through 2003–that get Twinkie fans excited. Radke and Milton
have a chance to be the kind of aces that teams trade entire development
programs for, and their presence frees the team to focus on building their
first formidable lineup in years. With a flood of hitting talent either
just getting established or on its way, the Twins’ future looks as good or
better than any AL Central team but the White Sox.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at