— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, May 15, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The N.L. Central, through May 12th.
NL Central vs. NL East	25-32
The National League Central is still the weak sister of the league, with a combined losing record against teams from both the West and the East. In the past two weeks, though, that record has improved. The NL Central has gone 10-8 against the East, and 10-8 against the West.
Houston and Cincinnati were a combined nine games under .500 two weeks ago. Since then, they?ve gone 20-7 combined, bolting ahead of the struggling Cardinals. The Pirates and Brewers are still just as bad as they were before.
The Cubs are in first place, despite being a little unlucky. They?re two games behind their Pythagorean record to this point in the season. The Cardinals are making a cottage industry out of losing close games. They?re under-performing their Pythagorean record by a whopping five games already, thanks to their kerosene-powered bullpen.
Chicago continues to get outstanding starting pitching, with only Shawn Estes among the rotation starters struggling, and quality bullpen work from Joe Borowski and Kyle Farnsworth. After a horrendous beaning in Pittsburgh (from which he was saved from serious injury only by his batting helmet), Sammy Sosa has been in a slump that has seen him hit only one home run and drive in just three runs. He hasn?t missed a significant chunk of time since 1996, when he broke a hand and played in only 124 games. In the past six seasons, Sosa has played in an average of 158 games. The bad news for the Cubs is that Sosa?s injury means lots of playing time for Troy O?Leary (motto: Tune In, Turn On, Drop the Ball).
Who needs Sosa, though, with Corey Patterson in the lineup? Patterson has been outstanding, with seven home runs and a .560 slugging pct. Rookie Hee Seop Choi is pretty good, too, in a platoon role. He?s only batting .247, but he?s slugging .558, and he?s getting on base at a .420 clip.
Mark Grudzielanek and Alex Gonzalez have also returned to earth, and the offense has struggled to score runs at times, scoring three runs or fewer in six of eleven games over the last two weeks.
Kerry Wood says he doesn?t feel anything wrong with his arm after throwing 141 pitches against the Cardinals over the weekend. He told reporters he was "less sore" than usual the day after the game, and now says he?s sick of talking about the high pitch count.
It?s easy to focus on the four youngsters in the starting rotation, but Shawn Estes has won his last three decisions. Estes had the bizarre quote of the season so far, when he complained about having to face the Milwaukee Brewers twice in one week. That?s like Dwight Eisenhower bemoaning the fact that he had to run twice against Adlai Stevenson.
If Sammy returns to form and the Cubs get something closer to their previous norms from Moises Alou and Mark Bellhorn, I think they are still the most likely candidate to pull away from this division, with their front-line starting pitching. The next two weeks could tell a lot about this team, as the Cubs have a long road trip that takes them throughout the division, with weekend series in St. Louis and Houston.
All you wacky animal lovers jumped on Cubs prospect Jae Kuk Ryu for throwing a ball at an osprey in Daytona, Florida, killing it. Well, it turns out ol? Ryu was just committing a little humane euthanasia. It seems an autopsy on the bird indicated it would have died within a month from a liver abscess. It was that abscess that ruptured when the bird was hit in the head with the baseball, causing the bird to die from septic shock.
Houston’s over-.500 stretch was largely fueled by a schedule break that gave them seven games against the Marlins and Pirates (who can’t seem to beat the Astros, especially at the Juice Box); they won all seven of those games while losing five of six to the Braves and Phillies.
The big news in Houston was the release of starting shortstop Julio Lugo after Lugo was charged with punching his wife in the face and slamming her head into the hood of a car. While the Astros get credit for doing the right thing, one should note that it’s easier to do the right thing when the player involved has an OPS of .630 and doesn’t have a long-term megabucks contract.
After a slow start, Lance Berkman is starting to hit, with a four-hit, 8 TB, 6 RBI game against the Braves lifting his OPS out of the Lugo zone. The Astros still need to get Craig Biggio back on track, but the offense is now setting up nicely.
The pitching has been up-and-down, with Tim Redding being a nice surprise and the bullpen mostly outstanding, offsetting inconsistent performances from Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. The Astros could be on the verge of putting together a good run. Octavio Dotel is a marvel, with 26 strikeouts in 21 innings, and an opponents? batting average of .129. It?s even lower during the past week.
The Astros played their last game ever in Philadelphia?s Veterans Stadium. The rats baked them a cake and the fans got stinkin? drunk to celebrate.
The Ballad of Julio Lugo
Where have you gone, Julio Lugo?
Cincinnati has improved since jettisoning Brandon Larson and two-fifths of their starting rotation, moving Aaron Boone back to his natural position at 3B, and settling on Jose Guillen to fill in for Ken Griffey Jr. (with Austin Kearns moving to CF). Boone has hit .357/.451/.700 since moving back to 3B, while Guillen has hit .312/.350/624 since his early April recall.
Cincinnati picked an odd time to start pitching well, when the league?s number-one offense, the St. Louis Cardinals, visited the Great American Ballpark. The Cardinals entered the series on a 7-game winning streak. Aaron Boone dismantled the St. Louis pitching staff, going 7-for-14 with five home runs in the series, including three last Thursday. The Reds? first two wins in that series came on game-winning homers in their final at-bat, including one by Barry Larkin in his first plate appearance since returning from the disabled list. Not only is Larkin back in the lineup, but now Ken Griffey Jr. is back, too. Griffey returned from the disabled list this week after suffering a dislocated shoulder early in the season.
Paul Wilson has been generally effective except for a poor effort against the Giants, and Danny Graves’s last two outings have been outstanding. Austin has been adequate. The Reds got one good start from Chris Reitsma, followed by two lesser efforts, and are still struggling to find someone to fill out the rotation.
The bullpen has gotten good performances from closer Scott Williamson (9-9 in save opportunities) and lefties Kent Mercker and Felix Heredia, up-and-down efforts from Gabe White, and little help from anyone else. The offense is good (especially if Griffey and Larkin return to something close to previous form) but likely not good enough to carry this group of pitchers.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals? roster is sort of like one of those time-share vacation resorts you see in the full-color brochures. The brochure features sparkling beaches (Jim Edmonds? .664 slugging pct.), lush tropical vegetation (Scott Rolen?s .419 on-base pct.), and luxurious facilities (Woody Williams? 1.84 ERA). But when you show up in paradise, you find a litter-strewn coastline (Steve Kline?s 5.27 ERA), matted green shag carpet (Cal Eldred?s .315 opponents? batting average), and a clogged, overflown toilet (Jeff Fassero/Russ Springer, with identical 6.57 ERAs).
Through last Wednesday, the bullpen had blown a league-high nine saves and allowed a league-high 18 home runs in a league-low 84 2/3 innings. (The rotation had surrendered 22 home runs in 204 2/3 innings.) Their 60 strikeouts against 41 walks was the league’s second-worst bullpen ratio. Only the Mets and Padres have suffered more relief losses than the Cardinals’ seven.
The RBI Machine, a.k.a. Tino Martinez, is still out of order. Martinez hasn?t driven in more than one run in a game since the first game of the season. Well, that?s not quite fair. He did it again Sunday, when he hit two home runs with the wind blowing out of Wrigley Field at 275 mph, but those were wiped out when the game was called because of rain.
Cardinals? fans are up in arms about rumors that the team might trade Fernando Vina to the Mets, in exchange for Roberto Alomar. Alomar?s been called a "clubhouse cancer" by the New York media. But the last time the Cardinals traded for a "clubhouse cancer," they got centerfielder Jim Edmonds, and nobody in St. Louis has complained since. Alomar is a year older than Vina, but even at age 35, his upside is considerably higher than Vina?s offensively, and Alomar would be hard-pressed to do worse than Vina?s .276 on-base pct.
The Pirates have lost 9 of 10, and they?re in danger of "catching" the Brewers in the race for the basement. Pittsburgh is still struggling to find enough runs to carry the starting pitching, and now the bullpen has been letting the team down as well. The Bucs’ starters rank fourth in the league in starter ERA (behind the Dodgers, Cubs, and Expos), but ninth in overall team ERA. The Bucs blew leads in each of their losses to LA at home, and also blew a big lead in Houston.
Brian Giles is back off the DL and delivered 2 HRs in his fourth game back, and Kenny Lofton’s bat is starting to show some signs of life, but no one else has done much of anything (which is why the Bucs are dead last in the league in OBP and SLG, by good margins in both categories). Put Cincy’s offense with the Pirates’ starters, and you’d have a powerhouse.
Their offense has been anemic all season. The Pirates have hit just 27 home runs in 38 games. They?re last in the league in runs scored (143), last in OBP (.308), and last in batting average (.236). They do steal bases really well, though (28 steals, 5 caught stealing). Not that it matters much, but they do.
How bad is the Pirates? offense? Cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez has 13 RBIs in 39 games. Even Reggie Sanders has been slumping lately, going through a recent 0-for-18 stretch at PNC Park. Help is on the way, though, because Brian Giles has returned to the lineup after a two-week stint on the disabled list.
Right-hander Josh Fogg will be back in the starting rotation soon. He?s scheduled to make one rehabilitation start in the minors before returning to the team.
Some teams, like the Reds and Pirates, make a half-hearted attempt at being bad. But their badness is one-dimensional, like the aging slugger whose knees have robbed him of his speed and agility on the basepaths and in the field.
The Milwaukee Brewers, on the other hand, are bad in every way imaginable. It?s not that their pitching is the absolute worst in the league, or their hitting, or their fielding. But, like all great cellar-dwellers of the past, they do everything equally poorly.
The Brewers are 12th out of 16 NL teams in scoring. They are 14th in ERA, ahead of only Colorado and Cincinnati. And in the field, no other team does a worse job of turning balls in play into outs since the Brewers rank dead last in defensive efficiency.
All this adds up to a pitiful 13-26 record. It?s really a shame the Tigers are hogging all the glory with their historically bad start, because the Brewers deserve our scorn, too. Glendon Rusch fell to 1-7 after giving up 13 hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Cubs in his latest outing. Which leads us to this week?s Brewers ditty:
When you?re stuck a Brewers fan,
Milwaukee recalled Brooks Kieschnick as a pitcher, and the Mets greeted him rather rudely in his pitching debut (3 ER in 2 IP).
Next two weeks:
Chicago: at Milwaukee, at St. Louis, at Pittsburgh, at Houston