— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, July 10, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The N.L. Central through July 8th.
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The NL Central Division teams remain on the treadmill, with only the Pirates winning more than they lost. The Astros, with by far the easiest schedule of the three top teams during the two-week period, failed to take advantage, splitting six games with the Rangers and Brewers before being swept in a three-game series in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals dropped five of six to the Giants as San Francisco’s underrated pitchers shut down the division’s best offense. The Cubs’ offense continued to sputter, as the team averaged just 3.85 RPG over the two-week stretch, and the bullpen started to show signs of strain (6.83 ERA in the 13 games), leaving the starters to go it alone. The Pirates and Reds continue to hang around the fringes of the race, waiting for a miracle. The Brewers are the Brewers - capable of stretches that give the fans hope, like the 13-1 hammering of Kyle Lohse and the 9-2 pounding of Kip Wells, but never being able to sustain that level of play for more than a game or two.
Houston gambled in spring training by releasing Shane Reynolds and going with youngster Jeriome Robertson in the rotation. Robertson struggled out of the gate, with an 8.36 ERA in his first six starts, but since then has fully justified the decision to keep him over Reynolds. Jeriome has gone 6-0, 3.43 in his 10 starts since mid-May, and has won each of his last three efforts, allowing 4 runs in 18 2/3 IP. Wade Miller has also pitched well since mid-May, at least until his last outing in Pittsburgh, and Ron Villone has given the ‘Stros 4 good outings (24 IP, 7 ER) since his return to the team. Roy Oswalt made his return from the DL on Monday and tossed six good innings against the Reds. The rotation looks to be as strong as it has been all year, particularly since Jimy Williams has done a pretty good job limiting the workload for Robertson and Tim Redding. The Astros haven’t been getting the offense to which they have been accustomed, with red-hot Geoff Blum (.410/.711 OBP/SLG filling in for the injured Jeff Kent), Morgan Ensberg, and Richard Hidalgo having to carry the offensive burden while the “killer B’s” continue to search for answers to their plate woes.
Schedule: 7/9 - 7/10 vs Cincinnati, 7/11 - 7/13 vs Pittsburgh, 7/17-7/20 at Cincinnati. The Astros have owned the Pirates at Minute Maid Park, so once again there appears to be an opportunity for Houston to put some room between themselves and their NL Central rivals.
St. Louis ran into the Giants at the wrong time. The Cardinals scored 60 runs in seven games against the Reds, Royals, and Cubs, just 16 in six games against the Giants (of which nine came in their lone win). Matt Morris’s condition has to be of concern to the Cardinals; he’s started just one game in the last two weeks, and he’s been knocked around in his last five starts, allowing 25 runs in 21 2/3 innings. Morris reportedly had a good bullpen session on Tuesday, with little pain, so the Cards are hoping that he’ll regain his staff ace form. It’s been a rough two weeks for the rotation as a whole; the starters had a 5.95 ERA and were lit up for a .505 SLG during that period. Garrett Stephenson, the one starter who did pitch fairly well, had the misfortune of facing the Giants twice, losing both times despite creditable outings (3 ER in 7 IP and 3 ER in 6 IP). Offensively, the Cardinals continue to get production despite injuries that have limited J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen. Jim Edmonds has 7 home runs and an .827 SLG over the past two weeks, Tino Martinez has been hitting well (.460 OBP/.571 SLG), and part-time Eduardo Perez has chipped in with a .469 OBP/.480 SLG off the bench. Albert Pujols has been in a mini-slump that has seen his numbers fall to their lowest point since the first of June (.368/.429/.689).
Schedule: 7/9 - 7/10 vs LA, 7/11 - 7/13 vs SD, 7/17 - 7/20 at LA. The Dodgers have been in a slump, losing 9 of 10 dropping 8 1/2 games behind San Francisco, while the Padres have won 8 of 10 (mostly against LA) but are still just 34-57. There’s a chance for the Cardinals to open up some room here as well.
Chicago suffered a huge blow when Corey Patterson was lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Patterson had been the Cubs’ most consistent hitter, and the replacements (Tom Goodwin and Trenidad Hubbard) aren’t likely to produce at anywhere near that level. The Cubs have been trying prospect Dave Kelton - who is, at best, defensively challenged - in CF in the minors, which should be an indication of exactly how much they’ll miss Patterson’s offensive production. The Cubs are also rumored to be interested in Pittsburgh’s Kenny Lofton. Patterson’s loss places more of the burden on the three-man core of Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, and the 1B platoon of Choi/Karros. I’d be tempted to put Sosa in CF - he has played the position before - and see whether Kelton can handle RF, possibly in a semi or full platoon with Troy O’Leary, with Goodwin available as a late-inning defensive replacement. That’s got to be better than Goodwin/Hubbard full time. As for the pitchers - Kerry Wood had a rare poor outing against the Cardinals when he was unable to find the strike zone consistently, but Wood and Mark Prior continue to be the best one-two punch in the division. Prior had three starts in which he pitched well enough to win each time, fanning 34 hitters over 21 2/3 innings, but spotty bullpen work and the struggling offense gave him one loss and two no-decisions. Matt Clement also pitched well in three starts, but got one win and two no-decisions for his trouble. The Cubs still appear to have the best rotation in the division, arguably in the league, but need to get the starters some offensive help.
Schedule: 7/9 vs Florida, 7/10 - 7/13 vs Atlanta, 7/18 - 7/20 at Florida. This is the toughest stretch of games among the top three teams, and the Cubs follow it up with games against the Phillies, Astros, and Giants. If Chicago is still hanging around the top of the division at the end of July, they’ll have done very well.
Cincinnati‘s offense went south, as the Reds averaged just 3.50 runs per game over the two-week period. The bullpen was without two very important cogs, Gabe White and Kent Mercker, both of whom were DL’d and both of whom should be back shortly. The starting pitching wasn’t any better than it has been all season. The Reds lost nine of 12 on merit, and had they not performed their season-long specialty and converted two late-inning deficits into victories in Pittsburgh, they would be staring up at the Bucs as well as at the top three teams. However, the situation really is not all that bad. Danny Graves and Jimmy Haynes have actually been doing fairly well as starters, both posting ERAs under 4.00 in three starts each although they were a combined 1-5 in those efforts. Adam Dunn has started to perform a little more like Adam Dunn and a little less like Rob Deer; he hit .308/.438/.641 and fanned just 6 times in 48 PAs. Jose Guillen continues to force Bob Boone to give him playing time, now at the expense of Austin Kearns (who was just 3-24 and was benched for three games). Russ Branyan has been productive in limited playing time. The Reds took a flyer on D’Angelo Jimenez in hopes he’ll give them something more at 2B than Ray Olmedo (he of the .300 BA with no power and no walks) and Juan Castro.
Schedule: 7/9 - 7/10 at Houston, 7/11 - 7/13 at Milwaukee, 7/17 - 7/20 vs Houston. The Reds are 1-4 against the Astros so far this season, and 3-3 against the Brewers. Cincy has a chance to make up some ground afterward, with games against the Pirates, Mets, and Rockies.
Pittsburgh was the only NL Central team to post a winning record, thanks to a relatively soft schedule at home and a three-game sweep of the Astros. It could have been better, but closer Mike “All-Star” Williams blew a couple of late leads enroute to allowing 7 runs in 5 2/3 innings. The top three hitters in the Bucco lineup - Kenny Lofton, Brian Giles, and Jason Kendall - combined to hit .375/.444/.600 over the two-week stretch, and Matt Stairs was just unconscious, hitting .406/.472/.1.031 (no, the SLG is not a misprint) with 6 HRs in 10 games. Reggie Sanders chipped in with 3 dingers and a .600 SLG. The Bucs got complete-game victories from Jeff Suppan and Jeff D’Amico (a shutout) and an encouraging outing from Kris Benson, as the starters posted a 2.90 ERA. Trade rumors are still in the air, with Giles rumored to be going to Oakland or Minnesota (Giles was quoted in a Pittsburgh paper as saying that he would exercise his no-trade clause in the event of a deal to the Twins), Kendall possibly heading to Texas, and Lofton reportedly a target of the Cubs.
Schedule: 7/9 - 7/10 at Milwaukee, 7/11 - 7/13 at Houston, 7/17 - 7/20 vs Milwaukee. The schedule toughens up a bit after that, with the Pirates seeing a lot of St. Louis in late July and August, but the Bucs also have games against the Reds, Padres, and Rockies to balance that. The Bucs have a much tougher road later in August and in the early part of September, so if they have any illusions about getting back into the race they need to do it now.
It continues to be really, really hard to write about Milwaukee. The Brewers do have two All-Stars, as Geoff Jenkins was voted onto the NL team as the 32nd man to join Richie Sexson. But what else is there to write about this team? Sexson and Jenkins are good players, but their performances don’t really jump out as “star” level performances - low .500s SLG, .360-.370 range OBP. The rest of the team has a lot of players who are OK at what they do, maybe a bit better than OK - Wes Helms, Eddie Perez, Scott Podsednik, Eric Young, John VanderWal. But it’s players like those who actually hinder a team like Milwaukee, because you need better players than that to compete, but they’re not a real weakness, so it’s hard to look at any of them and say that we “have” to get better there, and hard to justify taking playing time away from them in order to give to a younger player who might not be quite as good now but who has the chance to be much better later. The Brewers are building a semblance of a pitching staff, and have two solid players who would probably be among the best players on a pennant winning team, although not the anchors - but that’s about all they have. As far as recent highlights go: Matt Kinney pitched a complete game in the 13-1 thrashing of the Twins, and Wayne Franklin took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Pirates. Ben Sheets had two solid outings (a win and a no-decision). Scott Podsednik got on base at a .481 clip and scored 14 runs, and Richie Sexson drove in 17 runs in 12 games.
Schedule: 7/9 - 7/10 vs Pittsburgh, 7/11 - 7/13 vs Cincinnati, 7/17 - 7/20 at Pittsburgh. The Brewers are about to enter a stretch where they play 16 of 18 games on the road, but since they’ve actually done better away from Miller Field this year, that might not be a bad thing. The road games are also against many of the lesser teams in the NL, which could give the Brew Crew yet another chance to move out of last place.