Sunday, July 23, 2006

The National League Long Shots
By Ben Valentine

One of the beautiful things about baseball is that playoff spots are hard to come by.

It’s one of the things which separates the game from sports like basketball and hockey, where you have to be truly awful not to have a shot at the playoffs come January. Sure, it can be nice if you’re the fan of the team sitting three games under .500 that has the eight and final seed in the Eastern Conference, but come on, do you really believe you deserve that spot?

That doesn’t fly in baseball. Even with the wild card, just eight of the thirty teams make the playoffs. Those wild card teams usually push ninety wins, if not more. Bottom line, you’ve got to be good to get in. The years of the .500 playoff teams taking divisions are few and far between.

The trade off? The season’s length. Because there is still another two months to go, unless you’re 10 games back, you’ve got a chance to make up ground. Of course, if you’re under .500 at this point, then odds of a turnaround are not high. But while it’s not likely, it has happened before and will happen again. And a key trade, like the Astros’ acquisition Carlos Beltran in 2004, can be the catalyst to that. So today, we look at those floundering squads who sit on the distant edge of contention in the NL; the long shots.

Los Angeles Dodgers (47-51, 4 back of Giants for NL West, 5 Back of Reds for wild card): Despite playing in one of the best pitchers parks in baseball, the Dodgers are fourth in runs per game in the league this year. Maybe that’s because Dodger Stadium hasn’t live up to its rep this year; it’s actually been the seventh best hitter’s yard this season. That and the team’s sub .500 record would lead you to think the pitching has stunk, but it’s actually middle of the pack. So what’s the Dodgers’ problem?

Part of it is luck; they are four wins below their expected win total but the other truth is their back of the rotation has been a mess all year. Odalis Perez, Jae Seo and Brent Tomko have all come and failed, with Seo exiled to Tampa Bay and Perez now begging his way out. The Dodgers need an arm, preferably a middle of the rotation guy, since Brad Penny’s outrageous home rate of .57/9 won’t continue. Mark Hendrickson and Aaron Sele are only stop gaps. As Zach mentioned in response to the first part of this series , Gil Meche could be an option for someone if the Mariners fall out of it. Greg Maddux might also find his way to LA, since they’re one of the three teams he’d accept a trade to. (Padres and Brewers being the others)

The Dodgers should finish the year over .500, but unless they make a move, not much better. Since the Wild Card does usually take 88-90 wins, it makes them a long shot, albeit the best one, to make the postseason. They do get help by playing in the NL West.

Milwaukee Brewers (46-52, 10 back of Cardinals for NL Central, 6 Back of Reds for wild card): The offensive talent is there, but the rotation after Chris Capuano and Dave Bush is pretty much a black hole. Help could come in the form of Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka, but they could use a decent fourth guy to shore up the back end for that inevitable next Sheets injury.

However, unlike some teams, a definite option is out there; Maddux. The future Hall of Famer declared the Brewers one of three teams he’d play for thanks to fact his brother Mike is pitching coach. The Brewers also need help in the pen, since closer Derrick Turnbow has gone into meltdown mode and the rest of that crew don’t inspire much confidence. There is always available help at the deadline, just don’t go to the Nationals for it. They’ll ask for Carlos Lee back.

The Brewers were many people’s sleeper pick this year. The first half was a disappointment, but they can still turn it around with a few moves. On the other hand, they could easily be sellers at the deadline and ship Lee elsewhere for good young talent. Sheets’ next two starts could well determine the Brewers’ fate this year. Should he pitch well and escape healthy, they could take a shot at a playoff run.

Atlanta Braves (45-51, 13.5 back of Mets for NL East, 6 Back of Reds for wild card): Their hot streak has many forgetting about their awful first three months. They aren’t that good and have many holes, but who wants to bet against them?

There’s nothing wrong with the offense, scoring 5.35 runs per game, the second most runs in the NL behind the Mets. It’s all pitching. The pen isn’t great, but not as bad as people think, especially with the acquisition of Bob Wickman. However, the starters outside of John Smoltz have been awful. Did Oakland put something in Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder’s Gatorade that made them so dominant? John Thomson has returned to the fifth starter he was up until 2004. They need a top arm and fast. They usually have the players to deal, but it’s unlikely the Marlins trade within their division and both the A’s and Braves have to be gun shy after the lousy haul both teams got in the Hudson trade.

So the Braves will likely have to settle for the best of the rest. Perhaps they will venture down an old road and make a move for the Indians’ Paul Byrd. Some will suggest Maddux if they really get close to the wild card in the next two weeks, but I don’t think that’s an avenue either side wishes to explore again. They could hypothetically look towards Philadelphia if the Phillies start dealing arms, but one wonders if the Braves have a pitcher that could fit Citizen’s Bank Ballpark. Fly ball inducing Chuck James wouldn’t seem to be much of a match; though if the Braves were willing to give up reliever Joey Devine, perhaps the Phillies would be willing to talk.

Their ten year divisional run is over (sorry, ’94 counts Braves fans), but the playoff run can still continue. If they can get someone for the rotation then they should be looked at as the favorites. If not, consider them near finished.

Philadelphia Phillies (44-50, 13.5 back of Mets for NL East, 6 Back of Reds): Atlanta Braves/Milwaukee Brewers redux; all hitting and no pitching. The Phillies are in an interesting position because they would deal Bobby Abreu and thus would be willing to give up a great talent for an arm.

Before the season there was talk of an Abreu/Mark Prior swap. With the Cubs dead that’s probably off the table but someone, especially in the AL, might be willing to part with a young pitcher in exchange for the right fielder.

Much like I detailed for the Reds, the Phillies need a groundball pitcher for that park and he’d better be an extreme one. Jake Westbrook or even Chien Ming Wang would be great fits, but it’s doubtful the Indians would trade for Abreu and the Yankees have a love affair with Wang. (Since right now the back of their rotation features Sidney Ponson and Jaret Wright, it’s probably the right choice) In the end, the Phillies just might have to acquire a prospect and hope that player pans out down the stretch.

I didn’t call this section the “long shots” for no reason.

Houston Astros (46-52, 10 back of Cardinals for NL Central, 6 Back of Reds): The Astros’ pitching isn’t great, but the real joke is their offense. Somehow, despite playing in one of the best hitters parks in baseball they are third to worst in the league in runs per game. They currently start two of the worst offensive regulars in baseball, Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus. If there was any team screaming out for a hitter, or three, it’s Houston.

There are lots of hitters out there and the ‘Stros never shy away from a big deal. Could Alfonso Soriano be this year’s Carlos Beltran? Maybe freeing Todd Helton from Colorado (with the Rockies picking up a portion of his deal) is an option. Sean Casey? Jeromy Burnitz? There are just loads of mediocre hitters out there who would be upgrades over the Astros’ current crop of position players. Outside of Lance Berkman no one in that lineup scares you.

Houston’s offense is about inept as can be and it’s doubtful even a player of Soriano’s caliber could save them. Still if they did manage to pull of a couple of moves, they’d have a shot at getting the wild card.

Colorado Rockies (45-51, 5 back of Giants, 6 Back of Reds): A great story in the first half, the Rockies have faded of late. Their pitching has been the big surprise so far, with their much maligned arms actually performing quite well, to the tune of 3rd best in runs allowed per game in the National League! However, their bats actually have not been as advertised, as they have averaged below five runs per game.

While I have my doubts as to their pitchers’ ability to maintain their current production, if they want to compete, the Rockies have to bring in another bat. Just getting someone mediocre isn’t going to cut it this season; Coors isn’t playing like the hitter’s park it normally does this year. Their weakest position is centerfield. Perhaps they could send Ryan Shealy and a couple of prospects to the Royals for David DeJesus. There’s a new regime there who may not love the center fielder as much as Allard Baird did. Also in need of an upgrade is shortstop, where Clint Barmes is suffering through a sophomore slump. The pen could use some arms as well.

The Rockies are fading so they might not be around come the deadline in a week and a half. If they are there, the temptation will exist to do something. Heck, does anyone remember the last time this team was respectable?

Florida Marlins (44-52, 14.5 back of Mets, 7 back of Reds): If any team had the ability to reel off a nice long winning streak, it would be this Marlins squad. They’re full of young players who have performed a better than most expected. But remember, many of these kids were excellent prospects; they likely haven’t hit their ceilings yet. Plus they’re expected win total suggests they were unlucky in the first half.

Unfortunately, this team would have had to be in first place for them to actually go out and trade for anyone. Despite probably having more talent than the Astros, Braves and Rockies, (and perhaps even a better record) they will end up being sellers at the deadline. They will look to deal closer Joe Borowski, which is a shame since the pen is their weakest area. You’d love to see what this team could do if they got a piece here and there, but alas, it is not to be. At least they won’t be dealing Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera.

Still, it’s been a good run for these Fish. Maybe they’ll continue to surprise and make a charge no one expects.

A real long shot is the Nationals even with their revamped lineup. They’re improved, and one never knows what Jim Bowden will do but ten games should be too much ground to make up. Plus, their starters aren’t doing them any favors, unlike last year.

And that’s the NL. On Monday, we’ll look at the American League, starting with the long shots over there. Stay tuned.

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