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NL Central: Wade in Review
The Brewers made up some ground on the Cubs with wins over the Cardinals on Tuesday and Monday, but the Brew Crew are still two games out with five to play, and will kick off a season-ending four-game set against the wild-card-leading Padres on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Cubs, who are 4-1 over the last week, are wrapping up against the Marlins and heading to Cincinnati. The Brewers may be clinging to life, but this division race is over. All that's left for the Brewers is to pick up one more win to clinch their first winning season since 1992. That is not a typo.
Rather, the big news in the division is that Houston and Pittsburgh have new general managers. The Astros hired former Phillies GM Ed Wade late last week, and the Pirates just announced Tuesday that they've hired Neal Huntington, who was the special assistant to the Indians' general manager.
Wade is the more familiar of the two, having helmed the Phillies from December 1997 until his October 2005 firing. Indeed, the core of the Phillies team that is currently threatening the Mets and Padres in the NL East and wild card, respectively, was assembled under Wade. Jimmy Rollins is the only current Phillie who predates Wade, while Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson were all drafted, and Carlos Ruiz was signed as an international free agent on Wade's watch. Wade also claimed Shane Victorino from the Dodgers in the 2004 Rule 5 Draft and signed Tom Gordon, Chris Coste, Abraham Nuñez and Clay Condrey.
Wade inherited a Phillies team that had lost 189 games over the two seasons before his hiring and, in three years, turned it into ... well, into a perennial bridesmaid, really. Wade's Phillies averaged 85 wins over his last five years at the wheel, finishing second three times and third the other two. In his final season, the Phillies were unable to catch the Astros for the wild card, falling a game short. That was the final straw for ownership, which fired him just eight days later.
Wade worked in public relations for the Astros from 1977-80, and for the consulting firm of current Astros president Tal Smith from 1986-88. One wonders if the Astros weren't also impressed by the way Wade fleeced them in the Billy Wagner salary dump following the 2003 season, picking up Wagner for three minor league pitchers who have yet to amount to anything in Taylor Buchholz (since flipped to the Rockies in the Jason Jennings deal), Brandon Duckworth and Ezequiel Astacio, none of whom are still in the Astros' system.
Using a method I developed for Baseball Prospectus' It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, I've tallied the value exchange in each of Wade's major trades with the Phillies by crediting him with the remaining career WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) of the players acquired and subtracting the remaining career WARP of the players dealt. By that standard, the Wagner trade (+20 WARP) was Wade's best. Impressively, his next most successful deal was the Scott Rolen trade (+14.1 WARP), as Placido Polanco (32.4) has nearly equaled Rolen's WARP (36.3) due to the latter's inability to stay healthy, and Wade also got Mike Timlin (18.0) in the deal. Wade also nearly broke even on the Curt Schilling trade (-0.9 WARP), impressive work given that he was more or less forced to make both trades.
Then again, the reason he was forced to make those trades was that both players wanted out of Philadelphia due to what they saw as the organization's lack of commitment to winning (Wade's Phillies didn't sign an impact free agent until inking Jim Thome after the 2002 season). Schilling demanded a trade, and Rolen feuded with the fans and manager Larry Bowa (whom Wade had hired, replacing Terry Francona), then refused to sign an extension entering his walk year. Neither of those players have reputations for being easy to deal with, and the source of the Phillies' low payrolls was ownership, not the GM, but having his two best players whine their way out of town doesn't reflect well on Wade.
Wade also undermined his good work on the Rolen trade by letting Timlin walk as a free agent that winter and flipping Polanco for Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramon Martinez three years later (-11.9 WARP). Of course, there were extenuating circumstances in the Polanco trade. Wade couldn't have known that a conviction for attempted murder in his native Venezuela would end Urbina's career that winter. The Urbina trade wasn't Wade's worst, however. His acquisition of Eric Milton from the Twins for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto and minor league reliever Bobby Korecky comes in at -15.3 WARP, while his trade of Paul Byrd to the Royals for reliever Jose Santiago tips the scales toward Kansas City at 21.4 WARP. Still, totaling up 18 of Wade's most significant swaps, he comes out ahead by 21.2 WARP.
Wade has already made one deal as Astros GM, flipping arbitration-eligible outfielder Jason Lane to the Padres, who lost both Milton Bradley and Mike Cameron to injury on Sunday, for a player to be named later or cash. His next move will likely be to make a decision regarding interim manager Cecil Cooper, whom Wade has hinted he might retain as the full-time skipper for 2008.
Ultimately, Wade looks like a lazy choice, a retread GM with existing ties to the Houston front office. The Pirates, however, have done something truly impressive by raiding one of the smartest front offices in baseball, Mark Shapiro's Indians, for a young front-office talent in the 38-year-old Huntington. The early hype on Huntington suggests a true rebuilding process for the Pirates that will focus on the draft and international free agents. It'll be a long haul, but it sounds as though, after a decade and a half of futility, the organization has finally found a meaningful direction. In that sense, the Huntington hiring could do for Pittsburgh what the Dayton Moore hiring has done for the Royals: give a moribund franchise a glimmer of hope for the future. That said, Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? sees both pros and cons to the hire.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Neck and Neck
Although the D'backs and Padres are tied in the loss column atop the NL West, and things are tightening up in the eastern divisions in both leagues, the NL Central remains the closest division in baseball.
With less than two weeks remaining in the season, the Cubs and Brewers are tied for first place entering today's action. The remaining schedule strongly favors Chicago. The Cubs will face the Reds, Pirates, and Marlins, while the Brewers have four games in Atlanta starting tomorrow and will conclude the season with four at home against the Padres. What's more, the Cubs have a pair of off-days (tomorrow and Monday), while the Brewers, who have played two fewer games, have none. Among other things, that will allow the Cubs to put off using a fifth starter until the opening game of their final series in Cincinnati. If things are still tight entering that series, Lou Piniella may be tempted to bring Carlos Zambrano back on three days rest against the Reds. Then again, maybe not, as that's exactly what Piniella did in last night's loss, the first game in Zambrano's major league career in which he started on short rest.
Should the Cubs win the division (NLDS tickets go on sale in Chicago on Sunday), it will be well earned. They went 9-6 against the Brewers, 11-5 against the Cardinals, and came back from being 8.5 games behind in late June. There is hope for the Brewers, however, as the Cubs have a losing record against each of the three patsies remaining on their schedule -- the Cubs are 11-17 against the Reds, Bucs, and Fish, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins at the end of May. Then again, the Brewers are 1-5 against the Braves and Padres this year, and have a losing record against their other remaining opponent, those freefalling Cardinals.
The Cardinals' last hope was their four-game series at home against the Cubs last weekend, but, although none of the games was decided by more than two runs, the Cardinals only managed to take one of them, in large part because they were only able to scratch out 10 runs in the series. Thus the Cards finished the weekend seven games out of first place, and eight games below .500. Their one win in that series, a 4-3 victory in the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader, remains their only win since The Daily News broke the Rick Ankiel HGH allegations on Sept. 7. Ankiel himself has hit .139/.156/.163 with 13 Ks and just one RBI over that stretch. As a result, the minds of Redbird fans have shifted to next year's starting rotation (Mark Mulder is scheduled to meet on Monday with the team doctor, who may recommend another MRI on his sore left shoulder), and the uncertain status of manager Tony La Russa.
The Pirates and Astros, both of whom have been mathematically eliminated, also have their minds on the front office, as both are in the market for new general managers. The Bucs have already interviewed Mets' vice president of development Tony Bernazard and Blue Jays' director of player personnel Tony LaCava, and are expected to seek permission to interview local boy Jack Zduriencik, the Brewers' special assistant to the general manger and director of amateur scouting who oversaw the drafts that brought in Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and J.J. Hardy. Indians' vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and the White Sox's vice president and assistant general manager Rick Hahn have declined to be interviewed.
John Perrotto suggests some other candidates here, while Bones over at Honest Wagner has all the latest on the team's search. The New York Sun's Tim Marchman has a good piece on the man who will be making the decision, new team president Frank Coonelly. Meanwhile, Cory Humes of the Pittsburgh Lumber Co. looks at the sunny side of another loosing season.
The Astros, meanwhile, have completed their initial interviews with 11 candidates and, although they are considering doing some call-backs, could arrive at a decision very soon. The list of eleven can be found toward the bottom of this article by the Houston Chronicle's Jose De Jesus Ortiz.
Finally, the Reds, who staved off elimination last night when Aaron Harang beat Zambrano, have been doing some housecleaning of their own.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Cardinals Crash
A week ago the Cardinals were the feel-good story of the year, having climbed to within a game of first place in the Central, due in part to the storybook comeback of Rick Ankiel. Things have taken an ugly turn, however, as the New York Daily News published allegations on Friday that Rick Ankiel had received a year's worth of human growth hormone shipments from an Orlando-based pharmacy in 2004. That story received even more play after this site reported just hours later that Toronto Blue Jays' third baseman Troy Glaus had received steroid shipments from the same pharmacy around the same time, and the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams tied it all together in a front page story on Saturday.
The Cardinals haven't won a game since the Ankiel allegations broke, getting swept by the Diamondbacks, dropping a crucial make-up game to the Cubs at Wrigley, and losing the opener in Cincinnati last night. Ankiel, who hit two more home runs and drove in seven on Thursday night, has just a single and five strikeouts in his 14 at-bats since. With the Brewers feasting on the bottom three teams in the division (winning eight of their last 11), the Cardinals are suddenly four games behind once again and, given the strength of their remaining schedule (a four-game showdown with the Cubs this weekend followed by three against the Phillies, with three in Milwaukee and a make-up at Shea in the final week), that may be too many.
Adding injury to insult, right fielder Chris Duncan, who hasn't hit a lick since July (.167/.274/.245 since July 27 to be exact), may be done for the season with a hernia (curiously, the same may be true of his brother Shelley on the Yankees).
With the Cardinals fading, the story in the Central once again has become the Brewers, who have first place to themselves once again thanks to Luke Scott's game-winning triple against the Cubs in the 11th inning of last night's matchup in Houston (which broke a five-game losing streak for Cecil Cooper's team). The big story in Milwaukee has been the return of Ben Sheets. The Brewers have won two of Sheets' three starts since Big Ben has returned from the DL, but Sheets has been shaky in the last two, walking six Astros in his penultimate turn and allowing five runs in six innings to the Reds on Sunday. The good news is that Sheets has allowed just 17 hits in his 18 innings since coming off the DL and has struck out 11 in his last 12 frames.
Joining Sheets in the Milwaukee rotation is 23-year-old righty Carlos Villanueva, who returned to the big-league roster as a September call-up. Villanueva was a hard-luck loser when the Crew got shutout by Tony Armas Jr. and company on Monday, but, after a solid showing in six starts last year, has excelled in his three starts for the Brewers this year (two since being recalled and a spot start in mid-June): 16 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 7 BB, 14 K, 2.25 ERA.
On the other side of the ball, Bill Hall, who has hit just .218/.261/.416 since Aug. 1, has been riding pine against right-handers since Aug 26, starting just one game against a righty pitcher since then. Gabe Gross has taken Hall's place in the order against righties, slotting into right field and pushing Cory Hart to center. Gross has hit .255/.342/.482 against righties this year versus Hall's .245/.305/.412 against his own kind. In the nine starts he has made in Hall's place, Gross has hit .266/.405/.400, but Hall is just 4 for 18 since being demoted into the platoon.
Elsewhere in the division, the Pirates and Reds are making the most of the expanded rosters. The Reds are starting first-base prospect Joey Votto and have put Phil Dumatrait into the rotation. Votto, who made his major league debut by striking out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a loss to the Mets on September 4, has gone 7 for 13 since with a pair of homers. Expect him to open next season as the Reds starting gatekeeper. The lefty Dumatrait, however, is making a strong argument that he should not be in the rotation next year. That was Dumatrait who gave up three straight homers to start Sunday's game against the Brewers and got the hook after the next two batters singled.
In Pittsburgh, Brian Bullington, who was the top pick in the 2002 draft but missed all of 2006 following labrum surgery, was the last man to lose to the Cardinals on Thursday, but faired much better in a hard-luck loss to the Brewers yesterday. The Pirates are also starting a pair of call-ups in the outfield with Nyjer Morgan in center and Steven Pearce in right, but Morgan is 26 and not hitting. Pearce, however, hit .320/.366/.557 with Triple-A Indianapolis and is acquitting himself nicely at the plate thus far.
Finally, keep an eye on the rotations in St. Louis and Chicago. The Cubs, who are in the midst of playing 24 games in 23 days with a double header in St. Louis on Saturday, will start Steve Trachsel on three-days rest on Thursday despite his getting bombed by the lowly Pirates in his last outing (though the fact that he only threw 47 pitches in that game is actually part of the reason for the decision). Sean Marshall will then return to the rotation for the doubleheader on Saturday, giving him an opportunity to reclaim his starting job from the newly imported Trachsel.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in the middle of playing 35 games in 34 days and not only have that doubleheader against the Cubs on Saturday, but have no remaining off days this season (the Cubs have two left). Tony La Russa has used seven different starters over the last seven days (including today's starter Anthony Reyes) with Mike Mulder and Mark Maroth coming off the DL and Brad Thompson being called up all since rosters expanded. Maroth got just five outs on Thursday and is back in the pen. Mulder has been awful in two starts including yesterday's loss. Thompson only lasted two innings himself on Sunday. La Russa has said that now that he has an 18-man pitching staff he's willing to use a committee of relievers in place of a fifth starter if Reyes, Kip Wells, and Thompson don't pitch well enough to go deep into games. That assumes a starting four of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, and the struggling Mulder. Like I said, things have gotten ugly in St. Louis.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: The Ankiel Story
The Cubs started the season poorly, but have recovered and worked their way back into contention (they beat the Dodgers last night to remain a half-game ahead of the Brewers). But no team has come back from a worse spot than the defending World Champs, who are just two games out of first place. Yes, the Cards were underdogs last year -- they had the worst regular-season record of any World Series champ. This year, they are taking it too far, led by their poster child of Can-Do, Rick Ankiel, the former pitcher turned slugging outfielder, whose story is right out of a Hollywood movie.
"I don't think he's getting enough credit for what he's doing," Derek Lowe told the L.A. Times recently. "It wouldn't matter if he started out 0 for 16. To be a pitcher and say, OK, I'm going to become a hitter and make it to the major leagues? I'm amazed at what he can do. It's a phenomenal story."
Ankiel was a considerable talent as a pitcher -- he struck out 194 men in 175 innings when he was 20 -- but he famously fell apart in the 2000 playoffs, walking eleven and throwing nine wild pitches in four innings. He pitched 34 more innings and was hurt for the better course of three seasons. He was a victim of Steve Blass syndrome, the sudden inability to perform the most common baseball tasks, and was best profiled by Pat Jordan, himself a failed minor league pitcher, in the New York Times Magazine:
Pitchers who forget how to pitch seem to fear not failure but success. They don't want to face the pressure of the expectations of their success. So they rebel, self-destructing in a way that puts them beyond blame. The reason for their failure, their fear, is so deeply rooted that neither they nor anyone else can ever drag it to the surface to make them confront it. It's all a mystery. But the only way they can ever overcome their apparently inexplicable collapse is to admit that it's no mystery, that it is their fault. They are afraid.
Jordan, who has written extensively about his failures as a pitcher in the memoirs A False Spring and A Nice Tuesday, has also written about other mound failures like Steve Blass himself, Bo Belinsky and Steve Dalkowski. His advice to Ankiel? Don't think. As Crash Davis once told Nuke Laloosh -- a character who, incidentally, was based on Dalkowski: "It can only hurt the team."
Ankiel continued to battle his control problems and was then felled by injuries. In 2005, when he was at the end of his rope as a pitcher, the Cardinals offered him a chance to reinvent himself as an outfielder. And so, the fallen pitcher was able to reemerge as an outfielder.
"I liked Rick, but don't have any interest in him right now," Jordan said recently, "because there is no real story there. If he had overcome the monkey on his back, maybe. He ran away from his problem and was lucky enough to have another talent, which everyone knew about when he was pitching because he used to pinch hit in the minors. It's a nice story but it's not really interesting."
The Cardinals would beg to differ as Ankiel has been at the heart of the Cardinals resurgence. He's got 7 homers and 22 RBI in 22 games this season.
"His emotional contribution to the clubhouse has been at least as important as his on-field contributions," says Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos.
"This is a team that didn't have any fun at all for the first four months of the year. A lot of the veterans were pissed off that the front office didn't do more to improve the club in the off-season. Then La Russa got a DUI during spring training, which personally humiliated him. And then Josh Hancock died while driving drunk in April. It was an old and injured and burned out group, and I think they felt a little (or a lot) sorry for themselves. And then Ankiel came up -- and it just changed the dynamic dramatically for the better. It was the first 'feel-good' story of the whole season. The focus was no longer on 'Why do the Cardinals suck?' Instead it was all about Ankiel living out the Roy Hobbs story.
"Also, a lot of these guys have known him for a long time -- don't forget, he pitched for the Cardinals as recently as 2004, and he spent the last three spring trainings with the team -- and guys like Edmonds and Pujols go all the way back with him to his Steve Blass period. Looper and Kennedy were his minor-league teammates. La Russa has always adored him. So a lot of these guys were personally thrilled to see him get back to The Show at all, much less do so well."
Brian Gunn, a screenwriter who ran the now defunct Redbird Nation, has written about Ankiel on two occasions for The Hardball Times -- in the spring of 05 and again, today. Both pieces are must-reads.
In a recent e-mail, Gunn told me, "For the past few years Rick Ankiel has been, along with John Tudor when I was growing up, my favorite baseball player of all time, probably because he played the game the way I watched it -- all angsty and knotted-up inside. And like Tudor he seemed doomed by unfinished business, which I found attractive in an adolescent/romantic sort of way. But I'm just tickled now to see him playing with so much joy. His story reminds me of the great comebacks we saw from Jim Morris and Josh Hamilton -- seemingly out-of-nowhere, and making us feel, just a little bit, that the dreams we walked away from as kids really do have second chances."
Ankiel did not conquer his pitching problems but he's got enough talent as a hitter to reach the big leagues, proving that sometimes, there are second acts in American lives.
Which team will play the best ball over the next three weeks: the Cubs, Brewers or Cardinals? Or, more to the point, which team will stink the least?
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Redbirds On A Roll
On Tuesday night in Houston, Braden Looper tossed seven shutout innings and the Cardinals smothered the Astros 7-0. St. Louis is .500 for the first time since mid-April. It was the 14th time in 19 games that a St. Louis pitcher posted a quality start -- an astonishing run of success by a rag-tag staff that has miraculously propelled the Redbirds into the NL Central hunt.
Cardinals pitching guru Dave Duncan has done it again, having turned an injury-ravaged, inexperienced rotation into the NL's second-best staff in August. Duncan has found a way to resurrect Joel Pineiro (he of the 6.36 ERA in 2006) and turned two former relievers who have never logged more than 86 innings in a season -- Looper and Adam Wainwright -- into effective starters who have looked terrific down this crucial stretch.
"He doesn’t say much, so when he says something you listen," says Pineiro, who, at the suggestion of Duncan, relaxed his hands during his delivery and took tips on how to stop tipping his off-speed pitches, which Duncan believed he was doing. "He relies so much on charts and numbers, but he has a great eye for things, too. He’ll make the smallest suggestion, and he’ll turn out to be magic."
So exactly how effective is Duncan?
A few years ago J.C. Bradbury, author of The Baseball Economist (a fine read, by the way), did a study on Leo Mazzone that got a fair amount of press. Bradbury set out to prove that Mazzone's success in 15 years in Atlanta was merely anecdotal, so he ran a study of every pitcher who worked with Mazzone in a Brave uniform. He was stunned by his findings: Working with Mazzone shaved .60 points off a pitcher's projected ERA for that season.
Last week I asked Bradbury to do the same for Duncan. Bradbury, who used a similar model to the one used for Mazzone, found that Duncan's presence shaves 0.35 points off a pitcher's ERA. "That estimate is statistically significant," he notes. Bradbury, however, also adds this: "One problem with analyzing Duncan -- similar to the one I had with Mazzone when he was only with the Braves -- is that Duncan has almost always been with La Russa. It's possible that La Russa's in-game management could explain some of this."
Known for his stoic calm (in Three Nights in August author Buzz Bissinger calls him “the man who in the storm at sea would simply lash himself to the mast”) and exhaustive preparation (his scouting reports fill up a different thick three-ringed binder for each team), Duncan has of course long been regarded as one of the game's finest pitching coaches. If St. Louis is still playing in October because of its pitching, his 2007 could turn out to be his masterpiece.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Life without Soriano
Yes, it's been ridiculously hot and humid the last few days in the Windy City -- I went to steamy Wrigley Field on Sunday for Tom Glavine's 300th, and I wondered if I'd instead landed in Laos. The Chi-town faithful, however, need to chill. The loss of Alfonso Soriano for the next month or so is gonna hurt, of course. And yes, that the Northsiders have scored a total of three runs since Soriano pulled up lame on Sunday is not a good start for the offense.
But, Soriano's absence is not going to cost Chicago the NL Central crown. To blame Chicago's immediate struggles to score runs -- as well as the team's overall inevitable cooling off -- on Soriano is pretty ridiculous. The Cubs simply aren't a Sori-centric ballclub -— if they suffer a power outage in the next few weeks, then it will be the fault of Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and the rest of the Cubs hitters, and if the losses do start mounting over the next few weeks, it will probably be because of their leaky bullpen.
"I would be more concerned if the Brewers looked better," says a National League assistant GM, "but they aren't going to run away with this. The Cubs will be there in the end."
Adds a scout, "They having plenty of offense in that lineup. I wouldn't be worried about their offense. I'd be worried about their bullpen. Ryan Dempster has been awful. They need a closer, that's what they need."
The Cubs, who still have the best record in the NL since June 3 and lead the entire league in run differential, will spend the next two weeks playing teams with losing records.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Piece of history
I spent last weekend at Miller Park, not to check in on the first-place Brewers but to be around in case Barry Bonds smacked home runs 754 and 755. A short word about Bonds before we dive into some NL Central news: Some talking heads are saying that he better break the record at home because there's going to be bedlam if he does it on the road. But if the crowd in Milwaukee is any indication, the response may be a lot more tame than people think.
The booing by the Brewers faithful each time Bonds stepped to the plate last weekend seemed more dutiful than vicious. They booed but rose in expectation, with eyes wide open, when Bonds flew out to center on Friday. They booed but snapped photos on nearly every pitch to the old slugger. And when Bonds was intentionally walked for the first (and only) time in the series on Saturday, they booed again.
"It's kind of weird here because everyone doesn't like him but everyone wants to be here for the home run," said Matt Borgo, a 23-year-old med student who sat expectantly in the rightfield seats at Miller Park on Sunday with a glove in hand. "This is still history, and we all want to be part of it."
Still, the would-be home run king, even as the hallowed milestone is at last so near, remains as joyless as ever in his pursuit. He scowled at the media, he never acknowledged the Milwaukee fans that cheered him when he emerged each day for BP. Indeed, as Updike once wrote, "Gods do not answer letters."
Anyway, onto the Brewers: Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio -- whose brother Paul, by the way, penned two all-time great movies, Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show -- says that "there's room in the team's budget" to acquire help before the July 31 trading deadline. I think Milwaukee's going to need help in order to secure this division. The Cubs, who have a superior run differential to the Brewers', are for real, and Milwaukee needs more firepower in the lineup. (Jermaine Dye, perhaps?) Since the All-Star break the Brewers were 12th in the National League in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage. "I think they need a hitter," says an advance scout. "[Yovani] Gallardo has been huge for them, and they'll be fine when Ben Sheets comes back."
If you were Doug Melvin, what would you do? Would you trade Derrick Turnbow for a big bopper? Can the Brewers hang on without making a deal?
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Trade bait
As the July 31 trade deadline nears, a look at some notable players that could be on the move in the NL Central:
With the closer's stock is higher than it's been in a few years, it's a no-brainer for Tim Purpura to deal Lidge, but it's looking increasingly likely that the righthander isn't going anywhere. Don't put all the blame on Purpura, though. Here's Houston owner Drayton McClane on trading Lidge: "I see no reason we should even consider it." According this note to the Red Sox are more interested in Lidge's teammates, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler.
An Astros blogger says that Purpura dealing Wily Taveras and Jason Hirsh for Jason Jennings "could very well be the move that gets him the boot." But with starting pitchers hard to find in the trade market, Jennings could have some good value. A pennant changing player, he is not.
The Big Donkey thinks he's good as gone, and he's probably right. An intriguing destination is San Diego, where GM Kevin Towers is desperate for a big bopper. "San Diego's one big hitter away from running away with the NL West," says an NL GM. By the way, Dunn is on pace to become the eighth player with four consecutive 40-home run seasons all in his 20s. Pujols, A-Rod, Griffey, Kiner, Snider, Banks, and Killebrew are the others.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Griffey shot down a report that said he expected to be traded this summer but GM Wayne Krivsky will have dropped the ball if he doesn't make a move with Junior's stock as high as ever. If you believe the talk, Griffey is only willing to accept a trade to Chicago, Atlanta, or Seattle.
Quietly, Arroyo reverted to his 2006 form over the last month; last week he was dazzling in seven shutout innings against the Braves. (Last year Arroyo led the majors with 3851 pitches thrown.) The Boston Globe wonders if the Red Sox would deal Arroyo to Cincy for Wily Mo Pena.
Stormy has been remarkably effective as Cincy's stopper, but how long can he keep it up? Not much longer; the Reds have gotten as much as they could possibly ask for out of the 37-year-old, plus Eddie Guardado should be back soon.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Midseason Grades
No doubt about it: The Milwaukee Brewers were the story of the division in the first half. But does this budding Brew Crew have staying power? I spoke to several National League general managers for a GM poll for our magazine’s midseason report, and a number of them liked the Brewers to go far … in 2008. “They still might be a year away from making that big jump,” said one GM. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they perform under the pressure of a pennant race.”
Added another, “I’m not convinced they’re going to run away with it. It’s hard to imagine that all their young guys are going to keep doing what they’ve been doing. I think we’re already seeing them come back to earth”
The team to watch? “I’m telling you,” said a G.M., “the Cubs are a sleeping giant.”
So will the Cubs’ summer soap opera end happily? Can the defending champ Cardinals rise from the dead? Will Junior hit 50 bombs? Is this the summer Adam Dunn and Brad Lidge finally get traded? Will Derrick Turnbow finally get a haircut?
Record: 49-39, 1st place
Runs Scored: 430 (2nd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 388 (6th in NL)
What went wrong: Not much to gripe about when a team is off to its best start since the first term of the Reagan Administration. Rickie Weeks, however, failed to make the leap that young teammates Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, and Ryan Braun made. And the rotation aside from Ben Sheets was unspectacular -- Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, and Claudio Vargas all posted ERAs north of 4.50.
What went right: Ask anyone in the Brewers clubhouse, and they’ll tell you: the key to their incendiary start was their mighty pen, anchored by Francisco Cordero and Derrick Turnbow. Hardy, Hart, and Braun were also revelations, and Prince has arrived as a bona fide star.
What's next: The Brewers may fall short of 90 wins but they'll still be tough to topple. They are, however, making a big mistake if they keep phenom Yovani Gallardo, who made three strong starts in June, in the bullpen. He’ll be one of Milwaukee’s key players in the second half. Prince and Hardy need to keep raking, but more importantly, oft-injured Ben Sheets has to stay healthy, and their eighth and ninth inning relief combo -- nicknamed C-squared -- has to continue to shine after showing signs of vulnerability down the stretch.
Record: 44-43, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 396 (9th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 368 (4th in NL)
What went wrong: There were more meltdowns in the North Side than in an episode of Hey, Paula, and yet the Cubs are still alive. Carlos Zambrano was a disaster in April and May, and with Alfonso Soriano looking like a big-time bust over two months, Chicago struggled to score runs. Chicago still has bullpen issues -- will Ryan Dempster be reliable when he makes his return next week? Rich Hill, after a hot start, has been sliced up over the last month.
What went right: Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez are putting together splendid seasons. Most importantly, Zambrano has rediscovered his curve and his swagger.
What's next: The Cubs will make the Brewers earn first place in the division, and they also have a team that seems to be built for October if they can get that far. "The lineup is scary, maybe as good as the Mets' when it gets going," says a GM. "I don't think anyone wants to see them in the playoffs."
St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 40-45, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 368 (13th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 432 (10th in NL)
What went wrong: It’s been disastrous first half for the defending champs. Injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jim Edmonds were devastating. Scott Rolen is hitting .267 and on pace for eight home runs. Dave Duncan hasn’t been able to work his magic on Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright hasn’t had the breakout season many predicted, and Anthony “0-10” Reyes is, well, 0-10.
What went right: Don’t blame Albert Pujols: the MVP is still on pace for another .300, 30 home run, 100 RBI season. Chris Duncan (.288, 16 home runs, 47 RBI) is for real.
What's next: If the Cardinals don’t fall too far out of it in the next two weeks, Walt Jocketty -- who has a brilliant summertime trade record -- could swing a blockbuster deal. But of top concern is the return of their ace. Most likely the only thing worth watching in St. Louis, however, will be the return of Rick Ankiel.
Record: 40-48, fourth place
Runs Scored: 367 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 427 (7th in NL)
What went wrong: Where have you gone, Zach Duke? Where have you gone, Jason Bay? The Pirates’ other big masher, Adam LaRoche, is hitting .239 with a .329 OBP but has shown signs of life in recent weeks.
What went right: Freddy Sanchez wasn’t the best Tony La Russa could do for his obligatory Pirates pick in the All-Star game. Either Tom Gorzelanny or Ian Snell -- and not Sanchez -- should have been in San Francisco. Matt Capps has been a revelation as a closer.
What's next: The Pirates aren’t gonna make a run at first but with their young pitching there is, for the first time in a decade, reason for hope in the Steel City. If their big boppers get going, Pittsburgh has a legit shot at its first winning season since ’92.
Record: 39-50, fourth place
Runs Scored: 402 (7th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 441 (13th in NL)
What went wrong: A few years ago it appeared that Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, and Chris Burke were the future of the Astros. Now none of them deserve a place in the lineup. Dreadful for two months, Lance Berkman has at last awakened.
What went right: Carlos Lee is living up to his $100 million contract. Hunter Pence has arrived as the next great Astro. Brad Lidge has rediscovered his slider. Craig Biggio got his 3,000 hit -- but his OBP is barely .300.
What's next: GM Tim Purpura is an anti-Monty Hall when it comes to making a deal, but even he will realize that trading Brad Lidge makes sense. The Astros have a knack for making miracle runs in the second half, but they don’t have the starting pitching to even break .500 this year.
Record: 36-52, sixth place
Runs Scored: 418 (5th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 454 (14th in NL)
What went wrong: Same old story in Cincy: all hit, no pitch. After a brilliant 2006 in Cincy, Bronson Arroyo has been bombed, and Kyle Lohse hasn’t amounted to much after a promising April.
What went right: Josh Hamilton was one of the best stories of the first half. Brandon Phillips has established himself as one of the league’s top hitting second basemen. And all smiles this summer, Ken Griffey, Jr. continued his rise on the career home run leaderboard.
What's next: Closer Eddie Guardado is scheduled to return soon, but it won’t be enough to save the Reds from a 100-loss season. Now the big question is how aggressively GM Wayne Krivsky shops Dunn and Griffey as the trade deadline nears.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Cubs answer the bell
At the start of the season, hopes were high in the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs had inked Alfonso Soriano to a long-term deal, Derrek Lee was healthy and primed to return to his All-Star form and a winning manager was at the helm.
By the end of April, however, postseason prospects seemed bleak. The team had its first losing April since 2002 and finished the month in last place in the weak NL Central. Soriano drove in only one run the entire month. Staff ace Carlos Zambrano was also struggling. Still, the preseason expectations did not seem unfounded. The Cubs knew they should be winning and were confident they would turn it around.
Now, midway through the season, they finally have. After finishing June with a 17-11 record and winning 10 of 11 games, the Cubs are 42-40 and in second place, 5.5 games back of the division-leading Brewers. One month after a players-only clubhouse meeting, the Cubs have started playing the kind of baseball they expected to play. For Soriano, memories of a horrendous April in which he struggled mightily at the plate and knocked in just one run must seem far away. After moving back to left field from center, he was selected to his sixth-straight All-Star team and named the NL Player of the Month after hitting .336 with an NL-leading 11 home runs in June.
The Cubs helped their cause by sweeping their cross-town rivals June 22-24 and by taking two of three from the Brewers last weekend, but the Brewers will not be easy to catch. And an NL Central wild-card berth is no sure thing this season. The Cubs are only 4.5 games back in the wild-card standings, but they’re behind three very good teams: the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Braves.
"There's a lot of belief that we were capable of being even better than we are now," said starter Ted Lilly, who is 7-4 this season and was one of the few bright spots for the Cubs in April and May. "We're playing some pretty good baseball right now, and I don't think there's any letup. I don't think there can be any letup if we're going to take over this division."
The Cubs have a chance to pad their record a little more before the All-Star break, as they will face Washington two more times and Pittsburgh three. And yet, despite that, their confidence and All-Star seasons from Soriano and Lee (and potentially Zambrano, who is one of five players eligible for the Final Vote spot on the NL roster), the path to the postseason contains some challenges and roadblocks.
Jacque Jones' offensive woes continue, and it is increasingly apparent the Cubs want to end his tenure with the team. But trading Jones, who is hitting .227 and has a shockingly low on-base percentage of .288 this season, has proven difficult. Trades with Minnesota and Florida were both nixed, reportedly due to the large amount of cash the Cubs included in the deal and Bud Selig's ensuing hesitancy to allow the Cubs' next owner to incur any more debt. The Cubs are currently using a shortened 11-man pitching staff because the inability to trade Jones has hurt their roster flexibility. Jones is not the only outfielder slumping at the plate. Fans were excited when top-prospect Felix Pie made his debut on April 17, but he has struggled as much as Jones, hitting .219 in 45 games. Lou Piniella met with Jones and Pie before the team's July 3 game in the hopes of getting the two outfielders back on track offensively.
Despite his early inconsistencies, Zambrano has been the team's most reliable starter. Lilly pitched well early, but he has only three wins in his past eight starts. Jason Marquis also started hot, but has not won since his complete-game victory against the Pirates on May 9. Rich Hill has one win in his past 10 starts. Closer Ryan Dempster is on the disabled list retroactive to June 23, but should be fine after the All-Star break if not sooner.
Still, the team's ERA is nearly a run lower than it was last season (3.94 compared to 4.74). And lately, when there has been slack to pick up, Lee, Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Zambrano have done so. But as Lilly said, the Cubs can't afford to let up, because it isn't likely the teams ahead of them will.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: An embarrassment of riches
Yovani Gallardo is making life difficult for the Brewers. The 21-year-old pitching prospect has done nothing but impress in his two starts since being called up from Triple-A Nashville. What's the problem? Left-hander Chris Capuano's return from the disabled list is imminent and the Brewers find themselves with six qualified, worthy starters for five rotation spots.
Gallardo was dominating this season with Nashville and continued his success after joining the parent club. In his highly-anticipated debut, he allowed three runs and four hits in 6 1/3 innings against the Giants. He followed up that start with a seven-inning gem against the Royals in which he allowed just one run and five hits while striking out eight.
Capuano was scheduled to test his strained left groin in a simulated game this morning and to rejoin the rotation July 2 or 3 in Pittsburgh. When he returns, the Brewers will have five experienced starters in Capuano, Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Claudio Vargas.
Bush was available out of the bullpen early this week and is waiting to hear if he or Vargas will start on Sunday against the Cubs. Bush is 5-6 with a 5.17 ERA this season, but won his last two starts, allowing just three runs in 13.1 innings. He told reporters he is starting to feel like he did last season, when he was 12-11 with a 4.41 ERA, 166 strikeouts and only 38 walks. After his fast start, Suppan is 3-5 with a 6.96 ERA in his last nine starts. And despite the fact that he is 6-1, Vargas has not pitched past the sixth inning in any of his starts this season.
Still, it seems likely Gallardo will move to the bullpen after his next start, which will be against the Cubs on Friday.
"Look across the board: Benny is going to start. 'Cappy' is going to start. 'Soup' is going to start. Claudio is 6-1, and we've won most of his starts [11 of 13]," pitching coach Mike Maddux told reporters earlier this week. "Bush has been throwing the ball excellent the last few times. 'Bushy' is an innings-eater, and he has thrown up more [scoreless innings] than anybody else."
Manager Ned Yost, Maddux and general manager Doug Melvin all spoke on June 25 about the benefits of sending Gallardo to the 'pen.
"There is some conventional wisdom behind the fact that if we go ahead and keep Gallardo up here and use him as a long [reliever], limit his innings through July and August, if anything happens, we've got a quality starter ready to step in that's in great shape," Yost said. "His innings won't be way up, and he'll be strong and ready to pitch until the very end."
The Brewers would also prefer to limit Gallardo's innings to avoid overworking him this season and suffering the consequences next season.
Gallardo could bolster an already strong Brewers bullpen, but pitching him in long relief posses potential problems. Overworking Gallardo is a risk, but so is having him go stale in the bullpen where he may not get enough innings or face enough batters. Getting rusty because of too few innings could be the bigger risk for a player who is still developing and needs regular work. He could get that regular work back in the minors, but it would be borderline criminal to send Gallardo back down if he continues to pitch as well as he has.
It's a problem, but it's one most teams would love to have.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: The Rise of Ankiel
Memphis is home to the best ribs in the universe (Charles Vergos' Rendezvous), Elvis, and one of this summer's great baseball stories: the resurrection of Rick Ankiel. Of course you remember the kid -- the next Koufax, so many proclaimed. Of course you remember the infamous postseason meltdown, the horrific struggles that came after. I was there in Cardinals camp in March 2005 when Ankiel stood in front of reporters in a dark and narrow hallway and made the stunning (and sad) announcement that he was giving up pitching and was going to start all over -- as an outfielder.
Two years later, here he is, in Memphis, reborn as a big-time masher. For the Triple-A Redbirds, Ankiel is hitting .286 with a .608 slugging percentage and 19 home runs in 217 at bats. He recently hit seven home runs over an 11-day span; last Saturday he swatted three home runs in Des Moines. He's the leading the Pacific Coast League All-Star team vote.
Meanwhile, up I-55 in St. Louis, the bumbling big league club is starved for the kind of pop that Ankiel can provide. Only the Giants and Nats have scored fewer runs in the NL than the Cardinals, who rank 11th in the NL in home runs and 12th in slugging. Jim Edmonds hit the DL on Monday, Juan Encarnacion has a dreadful .295 OBP and four homers in 119 at bats. There is room for Ankiel. The complication: once the Cards -- who are out of options on Ankiel -- give the ex-pitching phenom the call, he'd have to pass through waivers to return to the minors.
So what do you do if you're the Cardinals? Tony La Russa to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.: "We talk about Rick a lot. Every day he gets four at-bats he's closer to getting to the majors and staying here."
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Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Hope for Cards
So, how many wins is it gonna take to win the NL Comedy Central? Will 83 -- what the Cardinals needed last year to parlay into a world championship -- do the trick? Or will this putrid division produce the first team to show up at the postseason party with a losing record? "I just don't see any team pulling away from the others," says an NL exec. "I could see the Pirates easily still hanging around in August and September."
How rancid is the NL Central these days? A look how the division's "top" three teams fared on Tuesday night: the first-place Brewers continued their astonishing swoon -– the DiMeo crime family has had a better month -- as they were no-hit by Justin Verlander; the Cardinals were beat around by formidable AL juggernaut Kansas City; and the Cubs lost to the Mariners after 13 agonizing innings at Wrigley, where Sweet Lou has become so glum that he's making it a habit to hide out from reporters after losses.
Walt Jocketty, G.M. of the Cardinals and Midas of the midseason trade, knows his club still has a very realistic shot, even despite how poorly they've played, and he's shopping for a starting pitcher . Will Mark Buehrle, a free agent after this season, make an early arrival in St. Louis? Viva El Birdos tells us that it's rare for a pitcher of his ilk to move at the trade deadline.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Welcome Homer Bailey
The Homer Bailey Era begins in Cincy on Friday. An NL advance scout gives us the scoop on the Reds phenom: "I'd say that his stuff is as good as anyone's in the minors. He's got this real nice, easy motion, it doesn't seem like he's throwing that hard but then you look at the radar gun -- He's throwing 98! His curveball is exceptional; he's got two versions of it -- one is a 12-6 hammer and another that goes 11-5. But some people are making it sound like he's going to get up here and dominate, and I'm not sure that's going to happen. He's been good but hasn't been great in the minors this year. Hasn't struck out a ton of people, and he's had some injuries. His changeup hasn't been there, either. Could be a rocky start for him -- but there's no doubt he’ll be a No.1 for them in a year or two."
Meanwhile, the Free Yovani campaign continues. The Brewers say that they haven't discussed calling Yovani Gallardo up to The Show, but what on earth are they waiting for? Gallardo has only gone 8-1 with a 2.14 ERA and struck out 95 hitters in 67 innings. The Brewers' pitching staff was hit hard during their May swoon, and Gallardo is a logical replacement for Dave Bush, who is 3-6 with a 5.67 ERA.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Don't Forget The Kid
In case you haven't noticed, there's another megastar inching toward a magic home run number -- one that you can root for. Quietly, Ken Griffey, Jr. -- remember him? -- is having a splendid season, and with 600 home runs on the horizon, the Kid last week moved ahead of Harmon Killebrew with his 574th career homer when he stroked his 11th of the year at the Great American Ball Park. Up next: Mark McGwire, ranked seventh on the all-time career home run list, at 583.
"He's 37 and not the same Junior, obviously," says a National League exec, "but he hasn't looked this good in a while. He's got pop and he gets on base [Griffey ranks in the NL top 10 in walks and OBP]. It's still an immense pleasure to watch him."
His Reds are playing dreadful baseball, but Junior could still emerge as one of baseball's most fascinating players in the next few weeks: some baseball execs I've spoken to recently say that the right fielder will likely be made available by Cincy's Wayne Krivsky. Griffey has a no-trade clause, yes, but he'd surely welcome a one-way ticket to a contending team. Let the speculation begin. The Red Sox, perhaps?
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Milwaukee's Brittle Brew
Is it all unraveling? If you're a Brew Crew fan, that's probably the question you're asking right now. A few weeks ago, I was in Milwaukee working on a story for the magazine on Prince Fielder, and the ball club was hotter than Al Gore's worst nightmare. The offense was the highest scoring in the majors, the bullpen was invincible.
Standing in the Brewers clubhouse, though, you were kind of waiting for Jack Nicholson to stumble in and bellow, "Is this is as good as it gets?" It was obvious to anyone with a Brewers schedule magnet that the Beer City Boys would cool off. After a month of beating up on NL softies, an East Coast swing through New York and Philly awaited them, followed by a sojourn out west.
The Brewers are 4-8 since their trip to Gotham began. J.J. Hardy is starting to resemble something closer to human. Derrick Turnbow has looked more like the miserable 2006 version of himself of late. On Tuesday night, Fabergé-fragile Ben Sheets left the game early. And it's not a good thing when your fans say you're starting to look "like the Crew of old."
Is it all unraveling? Bottom line is this: Are the Brewers the best team in the National League? No. The Mets and Braves are better. Even the Cubs have a better run differential, as do the Padres. Milwaukee, however, is good enough to win 85 games (maybe 88 or 89), which still means they could win the NL Central, and win it comfortably. With the team stumbling, you have to wonder if the organization has revised its thinking on prospects Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo and their arrival in The Show.
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Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Brewers in Good Hands
It's a few hours before a recent game at Miller Park, and the giddy Brewers fans are starting to waltz into the ballpark. The grills are being fired up at Gorman's Corner, and in the home dugout, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin is gazing up at the ballpark scoreboard as it flashes through baseball's league leaders. Melvin sees the current home run frontrunners ("Ian Kinsler -- nine home runs, how 'bout that," he says) to the game's K kings ("Aaron Harang is so underrated -- all he does is keep leading the league in strikeouts").
When the list of rookie leaders appears, Melvin takes note of a conspicuous absence. "Alex Gordon, he's really struggling, huh?" says the GM. He turns to me. "You see, that's the thing about calling up [Ryan] Braun," Melvin says, referring to the Brewers' top prospect, who, a day earlier, went 6-for-8 at third base and stroked his eighth homer in a doubleheader at Triple-A Nashville. "You make a trade, call the kid up, and he hits .130. Then what? You just never know with rookies."
The Brewers faithful are clamoring for Braun's promotion, but Melvin made it clear last week that a move isn't imminent, not with the Brew Crew off to their best start in franchise history. Brewers fans, trust Melvin: the man clearly knows what he's doing. Here's a glimpse at how one of the most underrated GMs in the game has masterfully put together this year's Milwaukee Brewers:
According to Clay Davenport over at Baseball Prospectus, the Brewers' playoff odds are at 64 percent -- second in the National League only to the Mets (68 percent). On Tuesday night, Milwaukee beat the Nats for a second straight day, and the folks at Brew Crew Ball came to this realization: the defense is as good as it's been in a long time . Part of the reason has been the vast improvement of Rickie Weeks' glove work, which the second baseman has been working hard to change.
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Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Progess Report
With May here, it's time to dish out grades in the NL Central for the month of April.
Ben Sheets has been so-so. Dave Bush has a 6.23 ERA. Prince Fielder and Bill Hall haven't warmed up. And yet on Wednesday, Milwaukee had the best record in baseball? According to the folks at Cardinals blog "Viva El Birdos": "The Brewers won’t be easy to catch." Indeed: in a mediocre division, don't be shocked if the Brew Crew run away with first place -- they're for real. Stud prospects Yovani Gallardo (2.42 ERA, 42 Ks in 30 innings) and Ryan Braun (.342 average, .694 slugging at third base) are dominating at Triple-A Nashville and will soon be starring at Miller Park. The Brewers are looking like this year's Tigers. Scout's take: "Their late inning combo of [Derrick] Turnbow and [Francisco] Cordero has been devastating. That's been the key. These two guys looked horrendous during parts of last year but now Turnbow looks like he did a few years back when he was unhittable and Cordero is the dominating guy he was in Texas."
True, their injured ace logged just half a dozen April innings, but the once mighty offense has scored more runs than only the Nats. In fact St. Louis has been outscored 123-84 -- only Washington has a worse run differential. Most disheartening to the Red Bird faithful has been the lack of progress from young hurlers Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright. The good news? Albert Pujols probably isn't going to hit .260 for the rest of the year. Scout's take: "Bottom line: they're not going to finish .500 without a healthy Jim Edmonds [.211 with a .294 OBP]. It's pretty clear that his shoulder is still bothering him. His swing isn't right. I know they're hoping he can play himself into shape but that may not be realistic. This team is toast without him."
It's a deal the folks in the Crawfish Boxes are gonna be bellyaching over for years: On Dec. 12 GM Tim Purpura dealt away prized pitching prospect Jason Hirsh and three other players for Jason Jennings. The pitcher of the year in the Double-A Texas League in 2005 and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2006, Hirsh has a 3.41 ERA and 25 Ks in five starts for the Rockies and Jennings, a 28-year-old with a 4.71 career ERA, is out with an elbow injury. Meanwhile, the offense -- still punchless with $100 million addition Carlos Lee -- can't score runs. Scout's take: "The offense looks awful but they're not this bad. Lance Berkman is going to hit. Carlos Lee is going to hit. But why isn't Mark Loretta playing more often? The guy is an All-Star and is hitting [.375] but [Craig] Biggio is in there every day hitting .250. I'm worried about the starting pitching: they've got [Roy] Oswalt and no one else that's a No. 2 or even a No. 3 starter."
The Northsiders finished the month in last place and posted their first losing April since 2002 but the Cubbies aren't even close to 2002 bad. Their luck should change: Chicago outscored their opponents by 20 runs and were 0-6 in one-run games. The pitching staff ranks sixth in the majors and take away two bad innings and Carlos Zambrano's unsightly ERA is south of 3.50. Despite a slow start Chicago should be playing meaningful games in September. Scout's take: "Moving [Alfonso] Soriano back to left field is going to help him. I think adjusting to center field was the cause of some of his struggles at the plate. He's going to turn it around. The hamstring injury isn't a big issue. When it's all said and done this lineup is the best in the National League."
Before this year most people didn't know Ian Snell from Ian McKellan even though the left-handed control artist was a 14-game winner. In 34 innings this year he's allowed six runs and one home run and K'd 28 hitters and emerged as the ace of a very promising young starting pitching staff. Once Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche get going, the Pirates could start to win more consistently. Scout's take: "Salomon Torres is awful. They should give Matt Capps a look at closer. I really like Ryan Doumit. He's been injured a lot but he's got big upside and hopefully he'll get a chance to show what he can do. With their starting pitching this team has a lot more promise than they've had in a long time."
Last year GM Wayne Krivsky came in and made more deals than Howie Mandel, most notably the notorious Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez trade that netted them a group of relievers. Less than a year later the Reds' biggest headache remains their 'pen -- none of the relievers they received in the trade has pitched for them this year. Look for Krivsky to go out and get more help for a surprisingly strong starting rotation. Is there a more underrated pitcher than Aaron Harang? Scout's take: "I like Matt Belisle. He may be ready to take the step that Harang did when he was 27. Krisvky knew Kyle Lohse from Minnesota and he looks like he's made a great deal in bringing the kid in. This isn't a great team, but it's a team that's going to be competitive in this division. They'll score runs -- they always score runs. But I think they'll surprise people with their pitching."
Around the division
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: It's Time to Bench Biggio
Everyone's waiting. Prized outfield prospect Hunter Pence -- arguably the Astros' finest hitting prospect since Lance Berkman -- is waiting. So are second baseman-turned-outfielder Chris Burke, All-Star second baseman Mark Loretta and the entire city of Houston. Everyone's waiting for Craig Biggio to reach 3,000 hits. The march to the milestone has become an agonizing waddle.
Biggio is Houston's leadoff hitter and everyday second baseman, and he is hitting .237 with a .284 on-base percentage. This is not simply the case of a slow start; last year, the 41-year-old hit .264/.325/.468, and only .178/.253/.388 on the road. His speed is fading, and his defense is now subpar. The time has come: On the cusp of the 3,000 hits, Craig Biggio must sit. Biggio should no longer be an everyday player. The punchless Astros rank 22nd in the majors in runs scored and have scored two runs or fewer in five of their first 19 games, and Biggio isn't helping.
The Astros, however, look committed to playing their icon daily until he joins the 3K-hit club, and even more perplexing, Phil Garner is committed to having Biggio bat leadoff. Meanwhile, Pence, who hit .571 with eight extra base hits in 28 spring training at-bats last month, is slicing up pitchers at Triple-A Round Rock -- he doubled three times on Tuesday to raise his average to .342 -- and has scouts saying he's a young Dale Murphy ready to rake in The Show. (His fate is tied to the seven-time All-Star because Burke has been pushed to center field by Biggio.)
Meanwhile, Houston is fading fast in the NL Central -- not to mention in the Roger Clemens sweepstakes.
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Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Has Pie Arrived?
The Felix Pie Era in Chicago has begun.
Or has it?
On Tuesday afternoon at wind-swept Wrigley Field, phenom Felix Pie, a sinewy 21-year-old Dominican who wears a wood and lace bracelet inscribed with the words Divino Nino (Divine Child), took the field for the first time in a Cubs uniform and spared no time in showcasing why scouts have been drooling over his potential for years. Filling in for injured (and badly struggling) Alfonso Soriano, Chicago's most prized prospect notched his first major-league hit -- an opposite-field double to the gap in left -- off Greg Maddux in the fifth inning to drive in the Cubs' second run of the game. One out later, he scored the tying run. In the 10th he gunned down the potential go-ahead run at the plate with a spectacular throw from medium shallow depth. Bleed Cubbie Blue says that if you happened to tune into the game on Tax Day, you witnessed something pretty special .
So what happens to Pie -- Baseball America's top ranked Cubs prospect the past two years -- when Chicago's $136 million center fielder is healed? The Cubs won't yet say, but they'd be making a mistake if they send Pie back down to Triple-A Iowa, where he's shown vast improvement in the only kink in his game: his plate discipline. Pie is a maestro with the glove, and Chicago is below average defensively in all three of its outfield positions.
The Cubs have been admirably patient in their handling of this ridiculously talented youngster. They're understandably cautious, unwilling to rush him to The Show as they did with Corey Patterson, who arrived at Wrigley prematurely, at 21. But Patterson had only 230 games in the minors under his belt and Pie has played 498. His time has come.
Phil Rogers agrees, saying that Chicago should move Soriano back to left when his hamstring heals. He says that Jacque Jones must probably go, and that Jim Hendry's signing of the outfielder to a three-year deal last year was one of the worst moves he's ever made.
The Cubs, meanwhile, keep losing, and already Sweet Lou is starting to sour, though Ken Griffey Jr. says the Northsiders haven't seen anything yet.
A rival NL general manager says the Cubs, despite their lackluster start, will contend. "They're going to score runs all year with that lineup," he says, "and once [Carlos] Zambrano settles down, the rotation should be fine. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill already look like they're going to have pretty nice years."
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Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Redbirds in Trouble
I'll admit it: when it comes to the oft-overachieving St. Louis Cardinals, my prognostications are about as spot-on as my American Idol picks. (I've been predicting Phil Stacey's demise for weeks now -- tonight's the night, right?) So when I say that the Cardinals have no shot to win the division if Chris Carpenter is shelved for most of this season, take it with a grain of salt. But I'll say it anyway: The Cardinals have no shot to win the division if Chris Carpenter is out for a significant period of time, which, according to Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus, very possibly could be the case. Kip Wells and Braden Looper were lights-out in their first starts, Adam Wainwright is going to have a breakout season, and Anthony Reyes has star potential, but as pointed out by Viva El Birdos, there aren't many teams that are as reliant on their No. 1 starter as are the Redbirds.
"I would say Carpenter's the most important pitcher in our league," says a rival NL executive. "I think he's the most consistent, the most proven, the best out there [in the NL]. While [pitching coach Dave] Duncan will get the most out of his starters, they're just not nearly the same team without Carpenter because, as we've seen already, I think they're going to have some trouble scoring runs. [Jim] Edmonds looks like he shouldn't be out there playing right now with all his injuries, and everyone else besides [Albert] Pujols and [Scott] Rolen doesn't scare anyone. They always seem to find ways to win games, but this is definitely their weakest team in a while, especially without their ace."
St. Louis' Bernie Miklasz says that while the team is struggling, Tony La Russa is "badly shaken by his arrest on suspicion of DUI" and "feeling his way through a difficult personal period."
The move will only intensify trade rumors surrounding Lidge. Teams most desperate for a closer? The Devil Rays, Marlins, Reds and Phillies.
Labels: NL Central
NL Central: Break up the Bucs!
I'm not ready to say that the Pittsburgh Pirates will be crowned 2007 NL Central champs six months from now. Not quite yet, anyway. I'll say this, though: Nowhere else in baseball is it as wide open as the NL Central, where even the Sanjaya Malakars of the division have a legit shot at first place. That is especially true if the Astros continue to roll out Brad Lidge -— eminently hittable for over two years now -— in save situations (the right-hander threw 26 pitches in his blown save against Pittsburgh on Opening Day and the Pirates swung and missed just five times and if Chris Carpenter, who's averaged 215 innings a season since returning from multiple shoulder surgeries in 2004, is indeed DL-bound (the Cards ace will miss at least one start because of elbow stiffness.
While the Astros and Cardinals, the giants of the NL Central over the last few years, both fell to 0-2 last night with losses to the Pirates and Mets, respectively, the Brewers -— my preseason pick to win the division -— improved to 2-0 thanks to two guys GM Doug Melvin netted in return for free agent-to-be Carlos Lee last July.
After posting a .500 record for the first time since 1992 in 2005, the Brew Crew took a step back last season, finishing fourth, but I agree with the NL exec I recently talked to who thinks the Brew Crew could own the division this year -— and beyond. "I like Carpenter as much as the next guy but when he's healthy Ben Sheets is the best pitcher in the league," said the exec. "If he makes 30 starts, he's going to win a Cy Young and [the Brewers] will be the team to beat in the Central. And you know what? It could be the first of many first-place finishes. With Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and now Ryan Braun on the way, they have a pretty impressive young infield that could be the best out there in a few years."
When the Brewers go for the sweep against the Dodgers tonight, Milwaukee will get its first look at $42 million free-agent acquisition Jeff Suppan, who last year had a 5.36 ERA away from the new Busch Stadium and in his Brewer debut faces his hometown team.
Labels: NL Central
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