Many looked at the Astros at the end of last season as a rebuilding situation. The Astros had gone 73-89 with a veteran-laden team, their most losses since 2000, as they finished fifth in the National League Central. Furthermore, general manager Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner were fired in late August.

However, rebuild isn’t part of owner Drayton McLane’s vocabulary, which is why former GM Ed Wade was brought in as Purpura’s replacement last September. “There is nothing like being a general manager, especially if you are a competitive person,” said Wade, who was fired by Phillies in 2005 after eight years as their GM. “I’m thankful to have a chance to do this job again and I couldn’t have asked to come into a better situation than a place where the owner wants to be competitive.”

Wade felt he had the nucleus of a competitive club with a pair of middle-of-the-order sluggers in first baseman Lance Berkman and left fielder Carlos Lee, a promising young right fielder in Hunter Pence, a solid third baseman with power in Ty Wigginton, a staff ace in right-hander Roy Oswalt, and a formidable late-inning bullpen combination in closer Brad Lidge and set-up man Chad Qualls. Throw in the fact that the Astros’ farm system is the most fallow in the game, and Wade felt that the course the Astros needed to take for 2008 was clear. “If you’re going to go into a rebuilding, you have to have the pieces to rebuild, and frankly we don’t have those types of players yet,” Wade said. “We’re trying to rebuild our farm system. We felt we still had the core of a very competitive team and we could be a contending team by filling in the right pieces around those players.”

Wade drew some criticism for how he decided to fill those slots, as he traded Lidge to the Phillies for a package featuring speedy center fielder Michael Bourn, dealt Qualls to the Diamondbacks for closer Jose Valverde, and then pulled off a really big trade by shipping five players to the Orioles for shortstop Miguel Tejada. So far, the big off-season acquisitions haven’t come through, though. Tejada’s EqA has fallen off to .262 after a hot start, while Bourn’s is a miserable .216. Valverde has 22 saves but only a 0.959 WXRL.

Many observers felt the 33-year-old Tejada was nearing the end of the line, even before he admitted in an ambush interview by ESPN earlier this season that he was actually two years older than he claimed when he signed as an amateur with the Athletics from the Dominican Republic in 1993. That he was named as a steroid user in the Mitchell Report a day after the trade compounded matters. It also seemed odd that the Astros’ biggest acquisition would be a hitter when they needed pitching to fill in behind Oswalt and also replenish the bullpen after trading away two top relievers.

However, Wade had his reasons for going Tejada and offense. “I had scouted a lot of games in Baltimore the last two years, and saw Miguel play a lot,” Wade said. “In my mind, he was a classic change-of-scenery guy. He just needed a new situation and we felt if we brought him in here where he could move into the middle of the lineup with Berkman and Lee that he wouldn’t feel like he had to carry the whole offensive load and just relax. Ideally, you would like to build your team around pitching. However, with the market the way it was, there wasn’t quality pitching available in either the free-agent market or trade market. So, we decided to build our team with offense.”

The Astros aren’t looking like contenders at this point, as they are last in the NL Central with a 41-50 record, and 13½ games behind the first-place Cubs. Putting the Astros even further out of the picture, the Cubs bolstered their pennant hopes Tuesday by acquiring right-hander Rich Harden from the Athletics, a move that came a day after the Brewers showed they are serious about their hopes of getting to the postseason by acquiring left-hander CC Sabathia, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, from the Indians.

However, the Astros are not running up the white flag even though they are 10 games behind the wild card-leading Cardinals. “We really believe we’re going to be in contention before it’s all over,” Wade said. “We have a good club. At the times this season, we’ve been as good as any team in baseball. I have no doubt we haven’t our played our best baseball yet.”

Whether Wade is right remains to be seen, but the Astros have been consistently inconsistent. They stumbled out the gate with 12 losses in their first 18 games then bounced back with a 23-10 stretch that put them six games above .500 at 29-23 and just one game behind the Cubs on May 24. However, The Astros have followed that streak up with 29 losses in their last 41 games to drop into the NL Central cellar.

“The only disappointing part for me is that we really haven’t played that badly at all lately but our record doesn’t show it,” said manager Cecil Cooper, who was promoted from bench coach to replace Garner last season. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out or beating ourselves very often. We’re in every game. We’re a hit here or a big pitch there from having a lot more wins.”

The Astros, though, do not stand out in any particular category. They are 20th in the major leagues in run scored a game with 4.4, 24th in runs allowed a game with 4.8, and 16th a .694 defensive efficiency.

Yet Cooper remains optimistic, saying, “It just seems like when we’re pitching well, we’re not hitting or when we’re hitting, we’re not getting the good pitching and then our defense has been up and down, too. I think we’re very capable in all three areas and when we put it together that we’re going to have a chance to go on a really long hot streak. I’ve got to think the law of averages is eventually going to work in our favor, and we’ll start hitting on all cylinders.”

The Brewers felt they made a statement by acquiring Sabathia in a trade that sent top hitting prospect Matt LaPorta to the Indians along with three other minor-leaguers. The Cubs insist that they weren’t answering back by acquiring Harden, and that the timing of their trade was just a coincidence. Even so, the Brewers’ message was simple–after 26 years since their last post-season berth, they are pulling out all the stops to get to the playoffs. They are willing to watch both Sheets and Sabathia possibly leave as free agents at the end of the season if it means a chance to play in October.

“We’re going for it,” Brewers GM Doug Melvin said during the press conference announcing the trade. “There will be teams out there who will say we gave up a lot for a player who may be for a player who may be here for only half a season, but I talked to a couple of GMs who said we got a heck of a pitcher and it looks like we’re going for it. That’s the mentality we want.”

The addition of Sabathia swells the Brewers’ payroll to $90 million, a big bottom line for a team that plays in one of the game’s smallest markets. However, owner Mark Attanasio did not hesitate to sign off on the trade, even though it means the Brewers will likely fail to turn a profit this season. The Brewers could make up part of the deficit at the gate, however. While they are already 12th in the majors with an average attendance of 35,298, making a pennant push should help sell more tickets.

“This trade is a huge boost to the fans who have had a long drought here,” Melvin said. “Maybe they thought this kind of thing couldn’t happen but we felt we needed to go for it. This is a year that gives us a chance.”

Cubs GM Jim Hendry said he had been targeting Harden for weeks and that the trade with the Athletics was not a rebuttal to Melvin’s move. “We’ve been working on Mr. Harden for a few weeks,” Hendry said. “He’s obviously has world-class stuff. He has made nine consecutive starts throwing the ball very, very well. It certainly wasn’t a reaction to the Brewers. We gladly would have had Rich two or three weeks ago, but we couldn’t get him at that point.”

The Cubs needed only 87 wins to capture the NL Central last season, the fewest of any division champion. Thus, it was generally assumed that the NL Central would again be the weakest of the major leagues’ six divisions this season.
However, the six NL Central teams are a combined 20 games over .500, certainly not Comedy Central material, especially with Sabathia and Harden thrown into the mix.

“If we played this well last year, we probably would have clinched already,” Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s funny how it goes. It’s that old adage: we’re not running the race looking over our shoulders. At the same time, we know St. Louis and Milwaukee aren’t going anywhere.”

While the events of the last few days make it seems like the Cubs and Brewers will have a two-team battle for the division title, the Cardinals are actually ahead of Milwaukee in the standings, 3½ games behind the Cubs where the Brewers trail them by four.

“I think there’s no question that the Cardinals have been the surprise team of our division,” Wade said. “I think everyone thought this might be a down year for them coming in but they have a very good club. I don’t see them going away. I can’t imagine they won’t be in the race until the end.”

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak certainly feels his team, with eight players on the disabled list including top starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, is in it to win it even if they don’t appear ready to counter the big moves of the Cubs and Brewers. “I think this division will continue to be very competitive,” Mozeliak said. “There’s a lot of baseball left and we’d like the chance to see the kind of team we have once we get healthy. I think others feel the same way. We have a chance to get well but we’re also looking on where we can improve. It’s a strong division and it just got stronger.”

While Major League Baseball’s newly-formed safety and health advisory committee has yet to make any recommendations on how to solve the problem of maple bats breaking at a frequent rate-projectiles have caused injuries to Pirates hitting coach Don Long, umpire Brian O’Nora, and a number of fans-there seems to be a noteworthy number of major league hitters who have been switching to bats made of white ash in recent weeks. While no firm numbers are available, an unscientific survey of equipment managers indicates the ratio of hitters who use maple and ash is now about 50-50. It was generally estimated earlier in the season that 60 percent were using maple.

“None of know what’s going to happen but I think you’ve got to be prepared in case they do ban the maple bats,” said Pirates left fielder Jason Bay, who switched to ash last month. “There is so much uncertainty right now that I think you have to try to stay ahead of the curve.”

Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios has a simpler reason for using ash. “They feel better,” he said. “I know people say the maple bats are more solid, but the ash bats just feel better in my hands.”

AL Rumors and Rumblings:
The Indians are done with major trades after dealing Sabathia, but are willing to part with Casey Blake, who is eligible for free agency and would make a potentially good four-corner reserve for a contender. … The Yankees reportedly made a strong late push for Sabathia over the weekend, including offering right-hander Phil Hughes in a potential deal, and are expected to be at the front of the line when the big lefty becomes a free agent in November. … The Red Sox and Yankees both have interest in Pirates left-handed reliever Damaso Marte, and the Rays are also expected to join that hunt if they aren’t able to pry lefty Brian Fuentes from the Rockies.

NL Rumors and Rumblings:
The Dodgers would like to trade for Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson now that Rafael Furcal is out until at least September and maybe the remainder of the season after undergoing back surgery. However, the Pirates have set a high asking price, reportedly center fielder Matt Kemp, because they have no ready-made replacement for Wilson. … While the Giants aren’t ready to hold a fire sale, they are willing to trade second baseman Ray Durham, shortstop Omar Vizquel, and infielder Rich Aurilia. … The Brewers have interest in Durham as a reserve along with Giants left-handed reliever Jack Taschner. … The Marlins have resumed their search for a catcher now that Matt Treanor is on the disabled list, and their primary target is the RedsDavid Ross, though they also have some interest in reacquiring Miguel Olivo from the Royals.

Scouts’ views on various major leaguers:

  • Giants closer Brian Wilson: “He is really growing into the role. He’s got great stuff but he has also become fearless. He wants to be on the mound in the ninth inning.”
  • Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir: “He’s winning, but he just hasn’t been pitching the way he usually does lately. He seems a little bit tentative. He’s not attacking the hitters as much as he should and I’m not sure why.”
  • Red Sox designated hitter Manny Ramirez: “You still fear him every time he steps in the box, but he’s not quite the same old Manny. You can get the inside fastball by him now at times. Maybe age is finally starting to catch up to him.”
  • Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs: “He is having a good year, but I still don’t think he’s a star-type player. He strikes out a ton and he’s really bad defensively. I think he would best served to go to the American League where he DH and concentrate on trying to hit 30 home runs a year.”
  • Padres shortstop Khalil Greene: “His bat looks like it’s in slow motion, he’s slow getting the barrel through the zone. He looks confused at the plate, too, like he’s not sure what he wants to do.”
  • Dodgers center fielder Andruw Jones: “I know he’s only been off the disabled list for a few games but he still looks the same to me as did earlier in the season, like he’s never faced a major league pitcher before. Talk about a guy losing it overnight.”
  • Twins designated hitter Jason Kubel: “Patience has paid out for the Twins because this guy is really becoming a dangerous major league hitter. It’s taken him a while and he had the bad knee injury to overcome, but this kid is really a threat now.”
  • Royals right-hander Brian Bannister: “He’s a smart pitcher and he makes the most of the talent he has, but his fastball just isn’t good enough to challenge major league hitters, and that’s always going to make it an uphill battle for him.”
  • Pirates center fielder Nate McLouth: “He has cooled off since that hot start and the problem is that he’s become a little too pull happy and he’s trying too hard to hit home runs. His strength is hitting the ball to all fields and he needs to get back to that approach.”
  • Brewers reliever Eric Gagne: “He’s been a lot better since he came off the disabled list. He’s not trying to muscle up on every pitch and throw it 100 mph, and his changeup has a lot more movement.”
  • Tigers shortstop Edgar Renteria: “It’s like he’s gotten old overnight. His bat is slow and he has definitely lost a step in the field. He’s almost a shadow of himself.”
  • Royals center fielder David DeJesus: “He is blossoming into a nice player this year. He gets on base and has some pop. I used to think the Royals had overrated him a bit, but I’ve changed my mind.”

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