— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, June 29, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. East
The N.L. East through June 27th.
It is becoming difficult to make the bi-weekly recap for the NL East interesting. That?s because the division itself is getting dangerously close to being less than interesting. Not that I?m getting all cocky, with my huge Braves-fan head sucking up all of the oxygen in the room or anything, but you know, some time around June 15 it?s like "Ho hum, another year, another 5+ game cushion by the All-Star break." I mean, yes, the Expos and Phillies are both still with "make a run" distance, but it?s getting really hot outside where I live, and that means the summer is about to swing from "what could be" to "what was," and all of this on top of the new Harry Potter book? I?m just saying it would be easier to write up the AL East, that?s all. There are only so many ways to say, "Gosh, Gary Sheffield sure can hit," and even fewer variants of "Wow, Placido Palanco can?t."
Honesty compels me to admit that the first paragraph up there was written Tuesday night (What?s that you say Dan? Speak up; I can?t hear you! We must have a dead line or something?) While the Braves beat the Phillies in the opening game, the Phils regrouped and took the last two games of the series, marking the second time in two weeks that they took two of three from the Braves. In so doing, they?ve cut their deficit from 10 games to 7.5 and overtaken Montreal for second place in the division. Phillie fans are obviously hoping this is just the beginning of a midseason charge, while Braves fans collectively arch an uber-brow over the dust jacket and wonder if they?re going to have to start paying attention again.
The Braves are, in point of fact, in a little mini-slump offensively, with only Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, and the alien masquerading as Javy Lopez really hitting. (Hitting doesn?t really do justice to what the Lopez clone is doing this year, but we are confined by the limitations of language.) Robert Fick hasn?t been not hitting either, maintaining a decent if unspectacular production line, but everyone else in the lineup, including Rafeal Furcal, Marcus Giles and Gary Sheffield are struggling at the plate.
The sudden cooling of the offense has lifted the cover on the team?s continuing pitching mediocrity, a situation John Schuerholz really ought to address in the next month. Greg Maddux, after a couple of stellar starts that elicited premature sighs from Atlanta faithful, was hammered again in his last start and continues to be on the 37-year-old performance yo-yo. Mike Hampton mimicked said yo-yo last time out, posting an equally poor performance, and Shane Reynolds, bless his veteran-moxie filled heart, simply can?t pitch at the major league level any more. Without the 8 runs per game the offense was spotting him earlier this year, he?s a loss waiting to happen every time out. The team?s continued devotion to Reynolds as a starter is beginning to challenge "Vinny Castilla, starting third baseman" for the most inexplicable thing on the planet.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, sleeping dogs continue to stir, but do not arise. Jim Thome posted a Jim Thome May, but has slipped back into a Travis Lee June. While not completely disregarding his dramatics in recent games, he?s still had a poor month by his standards. Pat Burrell on the other hand, has had a poor everything by most anyone?s standard, and continues to do so.
The team?s recent push into second place is a result of crazy production out of bit players more so than return to form by the expected boppers. Tomas Perez and Nick Punto have been mad havoc while splitting time at second. Marlon Byrd has been outstanding in CF (just like I said he would?) Bobby Abreu rediscovered his stroke. And Todd Pratt homered at a convenient time.
Also, Vicente Padilla apparently bought a lot of AOL/TW stock, because he absolutely owns the Braves. Kevin Millwood, not so much.
What will be interesting down the stretch, aside from whatever run Philly makes for the division, will be how things shake out in the wild card hunt. The Phils currently stand two games behind Los Angeles for the final playoff spot. It is very, very early to be talking about wild card standings, I know, but should the Phils not have the gas to overtake the Braves in the division but still manage to make the playoffs, there is a very real 1997 vibe to things then. With Padilla playing the role of Kevin Brown and Thome replacing Gary Sheffield, there?s a lot about the Phillies that recalls the ?97 Marlins. Right down to the "maybe not over the complete season, but in head-to-head we?ll beat you" set up so far.
Montreal is still owned by the other 29 teams. They sit only a half game behind the Phillies, which might suggest that they?re deserving of equal treatment with regard to catching the Braves and/or the wild card berth, but the fact of the matter is they?ve been sitting right there, 8-10 games back, since May, and until they start moving one way or the other they are, on the field, much like they are in the owners box; lame ducks, sitting around doing much of nothing. They made a half-hearted swipe at acquiring Juan Gonzalez, though no one is sure where they were planning on playing him, and of course, MLB knew very well the unlikelihood of Gonzalez accepting that trade in the first place. Maybe I?m just being pessimistic and cynical, but the entire exchange smells. Certainly, should the Expos have actually acquired Gonzalez, put him in LF and moved Brad Wilkerson to CF, their offense would have been much improved (though they?d likely have been down Javier Vasquez, who seems to me to be the only reasonable return-value for the Rangers in that deal.)
Still, until something noticeably interesting happens, one way or the other (and "trades in principal" are not particularly interesting until they actually happen "in fact") Montreal seems less and less like a player in the division, and more like a placeholder.
In Florida they have the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year in Dontrelle Willis. In that he is an apparently talented young man, with charisma and energy to spare, he is a great story. Willis is compared, most often (that I see) to Fernando Valenzuela, for both is odd mechanics as well as his on-field behaviors. That?s not a bad comparison, and it?s clear that sportswriters are trying to paint the kid in the good light with it. Nevertheless, being the contrarian that I am, I see a little bit of another animated, odd-delivery left-hander in him. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Which brings us, finally, to the Mets. I have considered of late becoming a Mets fan. I find that the aspect about baseball that I enjoy the most is the hot-stove leagues, where possible free agent acquisitions fly and how-to-get-better trades soar, where deep knowledge of a team?s system allows you to project possible future stars (or just future stop-gaps) while building a competitive team around them, and there?s always some tantalizing what-if lurking just over the horizon. As a Mets fan, I would be able to enjoy this activity 10 months per year, as there is only ever a 2 month window where I?d be concerned about the play of the current model.
The downside of becoming a Mets fan, of course, would be the requirement of having to occasionally watch the Mets play baseball.
Jose Reyes is up. This is, in short, the extent of the good news for Mets fans. When a guy hitting 226/231/355 is the good news, you need to start looking at the 2004 free agent lists. Okay, okay, Aaron Heilman had a very good debut too, and Cliff Floyd is pretty much worth the money they?re paying him. And Ty Wigginton looks like a decent three-year player at 3B, and Jae Weong Seo, until Dontrelle Willis popped up, was having a ROY contention season. So there is hope for the believers. But it is at least a year or two away.