— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, August 29, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The N.L. Central through August 27th.
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:
Games remaining: 31
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.
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.
Games remaining: 32
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.
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.
Games remaining: 31
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.
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.