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Friday, August 29, 2003

Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central

The N.L. Central through August 27th.

Standings through 8-26

Team	 	W 	L 	PCT 	GB 	L10 	STRK

Houston 	69 	62 	.527 	- 	5-5 	W2

Chicago 	68 	62 	.523 	0.5 	5-5 	W2

St. Louis 	68 	63 	.519 	1.0 	4-6 	L1

Pittsburgh 	59 	70 	.457 	9.0 	4-6 	W1

Cincinnati 	58 	73 	.443 	11.0 	4-6 	L3

Milwaukee 	56 	75 	.427 	13.0 	9-1 	W8

Talk about a group of teams that are treading water! Note the records over the last 10 games (except for the Brewers). Fortunately, the entire group of NL wild-card contenders has hit a wall, so this division could yet get two teams into the postseason. The Cubs are just 1.5 games out of the wild card, and the Cardinals just two games out.

Looking at the top three contenders down the stretch:

Houston

Games remaining: 31

Vs teams at or above .500: 14

Home: 15

Away: 16

Weighted schedule strength: .474

Last three series of season: 3 at StL (.519), 3 vs SF (.608), 4 vs Mil (.427)

After this week’s games, the Astros play 16 of their next 19 games on the road (where they have the worst record of the three top teams) before closing with a seven-game home stand. The road teams on the surface do not appear to be all that difficult - LA, SD, Milwaukee, and Colorado before closing the road season at Busch - but the Padres and Brewers have been playing better of late and the Rox are usually tough in Coors, so this stretch of games could easily find the Astros dropping back off the pace.

Strengths:

     

  1. The back end of the bullpen (Lidge/Dotel/Wagner) has been outstanding, although Lidge and Dotel have struggled a bit lately. The ‘Stros have the best relief corps among the contenders.
  2. The “Core 4” - Bagwell, Berkman, Hidalgo, and Kent - are back on track. Kent took about two weeks to get back into the groove after his DL stay, and he’s produced at a .900 OPS clip in August.

 

Weaknesses:

     

  1. The defense is the worst in the division. The Astros convert just 86% of fly balls into outs (partially because of their home ballpark, which makes it tough to get fly ball outs in LF) and just 73% of ground balls into outs. With a fly ball pitching staff (lowest GB% in the division), the outfield defense is particularly costly.
  2. The starting pitching has been inconsistent. With Roy Oswalt MIA, there’s no real staff ace, and youngsters Jeriome Robertson and Tim Redding have been inconsistent. Ron Villone (3.21 ERA in 13 starts) has been a lifesaver, but someone else needs to step it up.

 

To win the division: The Astros need to score enough runs to keep the games close and get them to Lidge/Dotel/Wagner. Houston isn’t getting much offense from anyone other than the “Core 4” and Morgan Ensberg (when he plays), so those guys in the middle have to keep on producing. Getting back the Wade Miller of old, or the good version of Jeriome Robertson, would help immensely.

Chicago Cubs

Games remaining: 32

Vs teams at or above .500: 10

Home: 16

Away: 16

Weighted schedule strength: .467

Last three series of season: 4 at Pit (.457), 3 at Cin (.443), 3 vs Pit (.453)

The Cubs have the easiest schedule of the three contenders. With the exception of their seven games against the Cardinals in the next 10 days, and a series against the Expos in San Juan in early September, they play below .500 teams exclusively in the last month-plus of the season. The Cubs don’t have any extended home stands or road trips, and they should be set up well for the stretch run once they get through the next 10 days.

Strengths:

     

  1. The starting pitching is still the best in the division, although Kerry Wood has been struggling since the All-Star break. Mark Prior has been everything expected of him, and more, and Carlos Zambrano has been almost as good. Matt Clement has been a decent fourth starter. I wouldn’t want to have to face that rotation in the postseason.
  2. Dusty Baker. You can argue his strategy, his fondness for the Ramon Martinezes and Doug Glanvilles, and his (ab)use of his starters, but like Bill James once said of Sparky Anderson, his strong point is that his teams win.

 

Weaknesses:

     

  1. The offense still rides primarily on the shoulders of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, although Randall Simon has chipped in with a couple of key dingers since coming over from the Pirates and Aramis Ramirez’s bat has also been coming around of late.
  2. Finding a reliable reliever to get the game to Joe Borowski is a problem, as Mike Remlinger, Antonio Alfonseca, and Kyle Farnsworth have all been having some tough times after a strong early season run.

 

To win the division: The Cubs need Wood to get back on track; with Wood pitching at the top of his game and Prior and Zambrano, there shouldn’t be any long losing streaks. If Wood can get back on top of his game, the Cubs should be able to generate enough offense to handle the weaker sisters on their schedule down the stretch. Getting through the next 10 days against the Cardinals with no worse than a 4-4 split would help their chances immensely.

St. Louis

Games remaining: 31

Vs teams at or above .500: 16

Home: 15

Away: 16

Weighted schedule strength: .488

Last three series of season: 3 vs Hou (.457), 2 at Mil (.427), 3 at Ari (.523)

The Cardinals have the toughest schedule of the three contenders, and are the only team to play each of the other two - 13 of their remaining 31 are against the Astros and Cubs. Obviously, winning the majority those games could put the Cardinals in the divisional driver’s seat.

Strengths:

     

  1. The Cardinals have the best defense in the division, converting 91% of fly balls and 75% of ground balls into outs.
  2. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen are the best 3-5 lineup combination in the division. Edgar Renteria has complemented them nicely. Like the Astros, the Cardinals rely on the “Core 4” for the bulk of their offense.

 

Weaknesses:

     

  1. Pitching, pitching, pitching. The Cardinals have one healthy reliable starter (Woody Williams) and one reliable reliever (Jason Isringhausen). Matt Morris’s first outing back from the DL was encouraging, and the Cardinals will absolutely need him at 100% to have any shot at all. The Cards got an encouraging outing from Stirling Hitchcock after Garrett Stpehenson was banged out against the Cubs, but those types of outings have been few and far between this year. I can’t figure out why St. Louis let Felix Heredia pass by on waivers.
  2. The bench. Eduardo Perez has been a productive bat off the bench (although due to the injuries he’s probably played a lot more than Tony LaRussa would like), but there’s previous little else there. If anyone gets hurt - and Edmonds hasn’t exactly been 100% - the Cards don’t have anything in reserve.

 

To win the division: The Cardinals need good health and to either (a) come up with another consistent starter from someplace or (b) get enough run production from the middle of the lineup to outslug the opponents. I think LaRussa has actually done a pretty good job keeping this team in the hunt this long, with everything that’s been going on around him this year.

I still see the Cubs having the best shot at this division among the top three teams, largely because of the starting pitching. The Astros probably have a better chance to sustain a late-season flurry than do the Cardinals, largely because their pitching is better overall and their offense not that much below St. Louis, but that 16-of-19 stretch on the road might do them in.

Briefly on the bottom three teams:

The big news in Pittsburgh was the departure of Brian Giles to San Diego for Oliver Perez, Jason Bay, and a PTBNL (reportedly Cory Stewart, although Josh Barfield’s name has also surfaced as a possibility). The Bucs probably got as much as they could have gotten for Giles, given the restrictions imposed by his contract, the obvious desire on Pittsburgh’s part to dump salary, and the fact that the deadline for trades without waivers had passed. If Dave Littlefield uses the savings to go after younger guys who show up on non-tender lists, rather than aging vets such as Todd Zeile, the Pirates could make out quite nicely. Over the short term, this move means that JJ Davis should see a chance to garner some significant playing time, along with Bay. The Bucs’ pitching has crashed and burned recently, except for one nice outing by Jeff D’Amico and a solid five-inning fill-in start by Pat Mahomes. Perez will get a real chance to show that he can anchor this staff.

Cincinnati continues to shuttle out veteran players (Scott Sullivan, Felix Heredia) and try out youngsters. Wily Mo Pena has seen a lot of time in center field recently, and Dernell Stenson and Stephen Smitherman are also seeing time in the OF. Granted, this is due primarily to the injuries to Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and Ken Griffey Jr., but if the younger guys do well, the Reds might be able to make some moves with the marquee players in the offseason to cover the big holes on the pitching staff. Chris Reitsma has taken over as the closer and done a decent job, and Ryan Wagner has also done pretty well as a setup man. The Reds’ starting lineup on Tuesday included only one player (Sean Casey) who was with the team on opening day.

Milwaukee has won eight in a row over the Phillies, Pirates, and Reds. The streak has been fueled mostly by a resurgent offense led by Scott Podsednik and Geoff Jenkins, but the Brew Crew has also gotten decent pitching performances from journeyman lefty Doug Davis. Danny Kolb has taken over as the Milwaukee closer and has done a fine job in that role.

I had a chance to see some of the potential future Brewers over the weekend as the AA affiliate Huntsville team came to town to face off against the Mudcats. Dave Krynzel is fast, and a major-league quality defensive CF right now; he goes back on balls as well as almost anyone I’ve seen. He’s a pretty patient hitter, and seems to know the difference between a ball and a strike, but he’s not especially aggressive when he does swing, and I suspect that he’ll have some adjustment difficulties in the majors. He needs to trust himself at the plate more. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Corey Hart. He has a long swing which I think can be exploited at higher levels, and isn’t likely to be able to stay on the left side of the infield defensively. JJ Hardy didn’t have a particularly good series, and I don’t think he’s going to be able to stay at SS. He does have a good eye at the plate and took some good swings - you have to like that he has more walks than strikeouts with decent power. I think he’ll eventually wind up at 3B or maybe even 2B. The only pitcher of potential note that I saw was Pedro Liriano, who has the build of a more well-known Pedro but neither his stuff nor his command. He works quickly, and on this night was fairly effective because he was getting calls thanks to a plate ump with an extra-large strike zone. I don’t think he’ll fare very well when the strike zone is called normally, though.

 

Mike Emeigh Posted: August 29, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 1 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 29, 2003 at 02:37 AM (#612801)
Hardy didn't show much lateral mobility at all in the two games that I saw, although I'll grant that it's not entirely fair to make a judgment based on two games. Especially in the Saturday game (a very sloppily played 12-6 game), fieldable balls were getting by him on both sides. He's listed at 6-2, 205, but he looks bigger than that - he reminded me a lot of Cal Ripken physically, and I'd bet he's in the 215-220 range about now. I honestly don't know whether it was just a bad weekend or whether he's bulked up to the point where his ability to react to the ball is being affected - I was assuming the latter, but certainly it's possible that he was just having a bad couple of games. Or possibly it's just difficult to pick balls up off the bat at Five County - some of the Huntsville outfielders were having problems as well. Since the Stars and Mudcats are in the postseason, maybe I'll get another chance or two to see him.

In all of the articles that I've written in this series I think I've had more comments on things I've written about the Brewers than anything else. It's fashionable to trash the Brewers, but I do think they are doing a lot of the little things that a low-revenue team needs to do, and are doing them very well. They've identified a fair amount of talent that is going to waste where it is and taken advantage of it - Franklin, Kinney, Clark, Podsednik, Obermueller, Kolb, arguably Kieschnick. They've got what appears to me to be a very good player development team in place in the minors, so that prospects are taking steps forward instead of stagnating. They've cut bait on guys like Leskanic and DeJean and Young, who weren't going to contribute down the road. They've built a respectable pitching staff, albeit one without a true ace (although I suppose Sheets could get there at some point). The issues now are (a) depth and (b) developing another impact hitter or two. Brewer fans do have reason to be optimistic about their future, IMO.

-- MWE

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