Assessing the Contenders  (06/27/01)

The season is almost half over.  Very soon GMs around the league will decide whether or not their teams are still in the race and try to make trades accordingly.  At this point, any team that is within 10 games back of the leader still has a very good chance of getting a playoff spot, so without further adieu, here are the contenders and what/who they should/will be looking for:

AL East

Everything depends on Pedro right now.  If his recent physical problems are no more serious than a short stint on the DL, they could survive without making a move.  Nomar Garciaparra is due to return to shortstop in a month.  Chris Stynes and John Valentin should provide competent help at third and they have plenty of outfield depth.  They still have Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford waiting in the wings for the rotation and rumor has it that Bret Saberhagen is set to return as well.  Ideally, they'd like to get a solid hitting first baseman.  Erubial Durazo would be a nice fit, and judging from D-back GMs Joe Garagiola's trading history, wouldn't cost that much in terms of talent.  A good second baseman would help, too, so they can play Jose Offerman more at DH and spot start at first.

New York
The Yanks need offense.  They recently helped out their bullpen depth by acquiring Jay Witasick from the Padres, but their biggest concern going into this season has still not been addressed.  As of today they are getting below average production form 4 positions - right field, left field, first base and second base.  Should Scott Brosius cool down to his career norm, add third base to that mix.  With a new local television deal that could be worth around $500 million a year - which, by the way, is more than any three teams' local deals combined - the Yanks are probably the only team that can afford to buy a new team mid season.  Don't be surprised if they try to do it.  First base prospect Nick Johnson might not be able to help them this year any more than Tino Martinez, but he could certainly bring big time help in trade.  Unfortunately, he's about the only player the Yanks have that could bring a lot in return and they'd still need to fix 3 or 4 spots.  Newly acquired Enrique Wilson might be able to help in the infield or in trade.  My guess is that they'll hope that some combination of Martinez/Johnson can provide decent production at first, trade some magic beans to Kansas City for outfielder Jermaine Dye and try somehow to make a run for Barry Bonds in July.  Jason Giambi is also a possibility but either he or Bonds would require a decent amount in return and the Yanks don't have much quality in the way of prospects to offer.  Perhaps they could offer a percentage of their local TV revenue.  (just kidding)

The Jays offense is in the top 5 in run scoring and they have some depth at several positions from which to trade.  They need starting pitching as only 2 of their starters have been above average this season.  They will need at least one more quality starter if they hope to stay with the top 2 in the division.  I wouldn't be surprised to see them try to trade for Woody Williams, a guy they sent packing a few years ago in order to get Joey Hamilton.  The irony is that if it weren't for Steve Parris pitching so poorly, it would be Hamilton that Williams would likely replace in the rotation.  Oh, and they're gonna need a third baseman too, now that that released Tony Batista.  Why can't this guy get any respect?  No, he's not the best player in the game, but a guy who slugs over .500 the past three years doesn't deserve to be traded for a middle releiver (how he came to Toronto) or be put on waivers (how he is now an Oriole).  Ouch.

AL Central

With the trade for John Rocker, the Indians sacrificed some of their depth in the bullpen for quality.  Rocker is a very talented pitcher who desperately needed a change of scenery.  Besides, what's more fitting than a pitcher named Rocker playing in the city that is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The only downside of this deal, which sent Steve Karsay and Steve Reed to the Braves, is that it did not address the Indians only real issue: starting pitching.  Outside of Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia, the Indians rotation has been pretty bad: the other 5 guys who have started games for them this year have a combined ERA of 6.10.  This is another team that could be calling San Diego for either Woody Williams or Sterling Hitchcock once he's shown that he's healthy.

The Twins need some more hitting but they have the answer to that problem when David Ortiz returns from the DL.  Matt LeCoy could also fill that role capably as a DH.  One can only guess why the Twins haven't called him up from AAA Salt Lake yet.  Perhaps Tom Kelly's penchant for playing only those players who play good defense, regardless of how well they can hit, has kept LeCoy from a regular job in the bigs.  While the Twins are not as desperate for starters as the Indians, they do need some help in the rotation.  Todd Ritchie would be a nice fit for them and a nice story, as he was drafted by the Twins in the first round of the 1990 draft.  He probably wouldn't cost much either in terms of salary or in terms of talent returned to the Pirates.

The White Sox young pitching has buoyed their hopes for a run at the wild card and will be the key to the White Sox chances.  Kip Wells and Mark Beuhrle have been the Sox two best starters so far this year.  Their offense has struggled to score runs without Frank Thomas but presumably hot prospect Joe Crede will help.  Even if Crede lives up to his billing, they could use better production in center and at short.  Jose Valentin's return to short would make the search for a productive bat much easier as good hitting outfielders are much easier to find than good hitting shortstops.  However, the Sox front office seems determined to stick with Royce Clayton at short, despite the fact that Valentin has as much range.  Owner Jerry Reinsdorf has shown a willingness to give up prematurely, so the Sox may yet trade David Wells and James Baldwin to another contender.  It's unlikely that the Sox would give up any of their prized pitching prospects to upgrade the offense, so they probably won't make any significant deals to improve, regardless of their position in the wild card race.

AL West

It would be one of the ultimate ironies if David Bell is voted the starting third baseman for the AL and then gets replaced the next week.  Bell ranks near the bottom in production among AL third basemen, yet is the leading vote getter for the AL third base spot.  In fact, of the 24 regular major league third basemen, Bell ranks 21st in production.  So despite the chance that he'll be an All-Star, Bell really does need to have his position re-organized, to use a corporate term.  The talk is that the Mariners want Phil Nevin, but if the Pads stay in the race (more on that to follow), it's unlikely that the Mariners could offer enough to get him, especially since San Diego no longer needs a shortstop.  More likely candidates are Vinny Castilla or Dmitri Young.  Young would be a decent fit in that the Mariners could use him at either third or left field, another Seattle hole.  Jeff Conine is another possibility who has similar versatility.

The A's seem to be a team just waiting to catch fire.  They have a ton of talent that simply hasn't performed up to expectation this year.  The interesting thing is that they have more on the way in AAA.  Jose Ortiz, Eric Hinske and Andy Abad look like they could help on offense and Erik Hiljus and Luis Vizcaino could help on the pitching side.  So conceivably they could trade Gil Heredia, Jason Isringhausen and John Jaha (each of whom is among the highest paid on the team), and be better for it.  Look for the A's to among the dealers rather than one of the buyers in this trading season.

The Angels just need their hitters to hit like they've shown to be capable.  Their starting rotation has 4 decent-to-good starters and their bullpen is both deep and talented.  What's held them back is the slow starts by guys like Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus.  The Angels have little help off the bench so trading for some depth there will be a necessity if they hope to stay in the hunt for the wild card.

NL East

The Phillies starting pitching is starting to show cracks.  While their peripheral numbers - K/IP, K/BB - are OK, the number of home runs they are surrendering is undoing most of their good work.  A power righty like Sidney Ponson or Jason Johnson would be a nice complement to lefties Chen, Wolf and Daal.  Eric Valent, who can play any of the 4 corner positions but will have a tough time displacing any of their current players at those positions, would seem to be a good fit for an Orioles team devoid of power and power prospects.  The bullpen is still decent but they could probably use a boost there too.  Help might be on the way from the farm as Rigo Beltran, Brandon Duckworth and Jason Boyd all look solid at AAA Scranton.

Many questioned why the Braves signed Rico Brogna to replace Andres Galarraga.  With good reason apparently as the Braves are now forced to consider trading for a productive first basemen to replace him.  The Braves are also getting poor production from left field and pretty mediocre numbers from right.  In 1993, the Braves offense struggled through the first half of the year.  They traded for Fred McGriff, the offense caught fire and the Braves wound up in the World Series.  A trade for Jason Giambi or Tony Clark might have a similar effect.  The one problem is that the Braves farm system doesn't have nearly as many ready-for-the-majors prospects as they did then.  In fact, only Marcus Giles and Damian Moss qualify as such and both will be needed in the near future to shore up two other problem spots - second base and starting pitching.  With Tom Glavine struggling, and Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz on the shelf, the only thing that has kept the Braves as close as they are in the standings is the pitching of Greg Maddux and John Burkett.  Should Burkett realize that he's actually John Burkett, not Christy Mathewson, the Braves could be in serious trouble.  Although the Braves do have some talent in the low minors, they might not have enough to trade to correct all that ails this team.

The Marlins' young starting staff is paving the way for a possible run for the division crown.  However, they'll probably need better production out of their right field and first base spots to legitimize their chances.  Obviously, a guy like Jason Giambi would be a huge boon, but would probably come at a very high cost.  Another possibility that would come at a much lower cost is John VanderWal, who plays both positions.  They might be able to get by with a first base platoon of Derrek Lee and Kevin Millar, especially if Lee hits as well as he did last year.  But at some point, they will have to find more production out of right field than Eric Owens currently offers.

NL Central

The Cubs are in better shape than people give them credit for.  Everyone talks about them needing a center fielder, but Gary Matthews Jr has been pretty solid.  After a horrid start, he's hit a little better than .260 the past two months and has gotten on base better than 36% of the time.  While his slugging leaves a lot to be desired, a hitter with his skills can be very useful at the top of the order or at the bottom.  He also provides excellent defense.  There's also talk that they need a new third baseman, but Bill Mueller should be back from his knee injury in by the end of July or the first part of August.  He offers many of the same attributes as Matthews - good defense, solid on base.  In the meantime, Miguel Cairo should provide an acceptable substitute.  Once Eric Young, Matt Stairs and Todd Hundley get going, this team could be a decent offensive squad.  Should any of their pitching start to falter, the Cubs have Ruben Quevedo, Joey Nation, Phil Norton and Carlos Zambrano at AAA.  The Cubs will certainly entertain offers to improve their club, but it's highly doubtful that they will part with any of their young pitchers.  This club is good enough as is to win the Central.

St. Louis
Other than Matt Morris and Daryl Kile, the Cards have not gotten much consistency out of their rotation.  Mike Matthews has looked promising but even should he pan out, the Cards could use another consistent starter.  The Cards might not have to go outside their organization, though, to solve the problem.  Rookie Bud Smith fared well in his first start and should be able to bridge the gap until either Andy Benes, Dustin Hermanson or Rick Ankiel get straightened out.

Interestingly, the guys who never pitched in the Astrodome seem to be faring much better than the ones who did.  Perhaps the guys who enjoyed pitching in the artificial expanse of the 8th wonder of the world are still recovering from the move to Enron Field.  Like the Cards, the Astros have gotten relatively consistent performances from 2 pitchers (Wade Miller and Shane Reynolds) and a third (Roy Oswalt) looks promising.  Tim Redding will try to play the Bud Smith role and either be a long term solution or at least a stop gap until the Astros find someone who is.  The Astros problem is that they have only one other possibility on the major league roster (Scott Elarton) and he's been consistently awful all year.  The Astros have made a number of trades with San Diego in the past 5 or 6 years.  Look for another one this summer, most likely for Bobby Jones.

The Brewers remind me of the Dodger teams of the past decade - lots of power, lots of strikeouts, not a lot of guys getting on base.  The Brewers starting pitching has been decent, but not good enough to make up for the inconsistencies of the offense over the long haul.  In order for the Brewers to seriously contend for the division, they will probably need 2 more quality starters, and 2 more hitters who get on base; a tall order for a team that doesn't have much in the farm system and little leeway with their payroll.

NL West

After Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the D-backs have some serious issues with the rotation.  With the loss of Matt Mantei for the season, they are now also thin in the bullpen.  Should Luis Gonzales finally realize that he is Luis Gonzales and not Lou Gehrig, the D-backs offense will probably sputter as they are getting little production from anyone outside of Gonzales, Mark Grace and and Jay Bell.  With that many holes and a salary structure that is bursting at the seams, it seems unlikely that the D-backs will make any major moves.  Erubial Durazo is a fine hitter but is relegated to a bench role with Mark Grace playing first.  His salary is too low to trade for anything but a low cost, highly effective pitcher.  But just about any team that has one of those is unlikely to part with him.  The Mark Grace signing might end up costing Arizona a playoff spot as it has not only prevented a good player from playing everyday, but also froze up so much salary that the Diamondbacks don't have any maneuvering room to deal.

Los Angeles
The Dodgers have offensive problems at short, centerfield and first base.  In order to solve those problems, the Dodgers are going to have to spend more money, something they are not looking to do with the third highest payroll in baseball already.  Shortstop Alex Cora could help matters if he would start to hit like he did this past winter in the Caribbean Leagues.  What bodes ill for the Dodgers is that catcher Paul LoDuca, who has shared time at first with Eric Karros struggling, is playing way over any established level he showed in the minors these last 8 years.  On the pitching side, Luke Prokopec and Chan Ho Park have been their only consistent starters.  Without Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort pitching effectively every fifth day, this team isn't long for the playoff run regardless of any mid-season patches on offense.

For whatever reason, the Rockies are looking to deal their best pitcher over the past 3 years.  Pedro Astacio has actually been a pretty good pitcher, even at Coors, despite the ugly ERA.  And yet, the Rockies are looking to deal away the one commodity they badly need.  Shawn Chacon has been solid in his rookie season, offering a nice compliment to free agent signings Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.  But without Astacio, the Rockies would have to rely on either Brian Bohanon or Ron Villone, which is not a particularly good idea.  Perhaps they intend on moving newly acquired Mac Suzuki into the rotation.  Regardless, should they deal Astacio, they should be able to get some bullpen help and a couple of pitching prospects, both of which they need.

(Note: Villone was traded to the Astros the next day)

San Francisco
The Giants don't have much of a realistic shot of getting back to the playoffs this year.  Their starting pitching simply isn't as good as it looked last year and without Bill Mueller and Ellis Burks, this team's offense depends far too heavily on Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent to provide offense.  While both guys are excellent hitters, two guys can not carry a team.  As soon as GM Brian Sabean realizes this, the sooner he'll also realize that he has one of the biggest trading chits in major league history: Bonds.  Bonds is a free agent at the end of the year who's gonna demand big bucks after the season he is having.  That's the downside.  The upside is that Bonds is a first ballot Hall of Famer who is still putting up prime time numbers.  He's also passing some historic figures right now, which is something that most fans love to see... in person.  So whoever gets Bonds will immediately have not only a very productive player, but one who is an attendance draw.  When the Giants signed him in 1993, attendance went up at Candlestick by 1.1 million.  Sabean probably knows this and should be able to fill the Giants' need for a third baseman and pitching by emphasizing this fact in his trade talks.

San Diego
The Padres might be in the most enviable position of all the contenders.  When they traded Jay Witasick to the Yankees for D'Angelo Jimenez, they not only shored up their only glaring weakness, but they gave themselves an above average player at every position.  Jimenez is a good defensive shortstop with above average offensive skills.  Now they can keep Damian Jackson at second and use Cesar Crespo and Santiago Perez as super utilitymen, playing every position on the diamond except catcher.  While their starting rotation isn't very exciting right now, it is so deep that they could trade several starters and still not be hurt.  The Witasick trade does hurt them in the bullpen as they now only have 2 hard throwers - Tom Davey and Kevin Walker - in relief.  However, getting a good reliever for the stretch is something that isn't hard to do, even after the July 31st trade deadline.  Unless the other teams in the division make some notable upgrades, the Pads could very well come back and win this division and provide some indigestion in the playoffs for the rest of the league.

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