Friday, July 21, 2006

Needs Based Initiative
By Ben Valentine

The clock is ticking. Can you hear it?

That’s right; it’s less than two weeks until baseball’s non waiver trade deadline. This year, as usual, everyone is after pitching. However unlike most years, the biggest names are not likely to be traded. It would be a minor coup if Dontrelle Willis, Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt found new homes on August 1st, since Willis is cheap and under contract while the other two play for contending teams.

But that doesn’t mean the market isn’t devoid of talent for those who search and if you’re a contending team, you leave no stone unturned. However, step one is figuring out what you need and identifying where you can get by.

Today, we’ll be examining the top teams in the National League and what they should be looking for at the July 31st deadline. These are the teams which should be considered the front runners for a playoff spot right now based off record to this point. In the NL, that just means you’re over .500. But for you Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers fans who feel you’re squads with losing records deserve some mention, that will be forthcoming tomorrow. Promise.

Well then, let’s look at the true contenders in the NL, shall we?

(As usual, Hardball Times provides most of the stats here such as runs per game and FIP)

New York Mets (57-38 1st place NL East) - Even if Jose Valentin reverts to a pumpkin and even with Willie Randolph’s overworking of the Mets’ setup men, neither second base nor the pen should be a concern. The offense is good enough and middle relief has lots of depth. The Mets biggest need is in the middle of their rotation. While Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine have durability concerns, the Mets have built a large enough lead in the NL East; it currently stands at 12 games, they will be able to rest the two down the stretch. But heading into the postseason with the four headed monster of Steve Trachsel (5.27 FIP), El Duque (old and mediocre), Mike Pelfrey (untested) and John Maine (untested and not much upside) is a calamity waiting to happen. They can get by the National League with those guys but they’ll be shelled in the World Series.

Just who can the Mets get? They’ve been linked to almost starter, from Livan Hernandez to Barry Zito. However, it appears Mike Pelfrey cannot be dealt since it has yet to be a year since he signed with the Mets. Would the A’s do Zito for Lastings Milledge and Aaron Heilman? I doubt it with them in the race. Look for the Mets to try to get a Nationals pitcher like Hernandez (yeech) or Tony Armas Jr. G.M. Omar Minaya does have some history in dealing with the Indians as well. If the Mets could somehow procure Cliff Lee, it would go a long way to solving their rotation woes.

St. Louis Cardinals (53-41 1st place NL Central) - Most teams will be looking for starting pitching come the deadline and the Cardinals are no exception. They’ve already resorted to a form of desperation, picking Jeff Weaver out of the Angels’ trash and cutting bait with Sidney Ponson. Incredibly, that was an upgrade. Meanwhile they’re starting the worst qualifier for FIP in the National League, Jason Marquis at 5.87. The Cardinals do have some intriguing arms they could deal, not including Anthony Reyes, who is currently the team’s second best starter. It would be interesting if the A’s were willing to do Zito for Reyes and another minor leaguer. One wonders if the Cardinals might a bit gun shy from such a swap after the Mark Mulder debacle. In the pen Jason Isringhausen is a blown save waiting to happen, but it’s unlikely they’ll make a move to replace him.

If the Cards can’t find a pitcher, they could always go with bringing in someone who could help them score more runs per game. Right now outside of a rejuvenated Scott Rolen and some guy name Pujols, their offense is pretty ordinary. Carlos Lee could be an option of the Brew Crew fall out of it, but the Cards always seem to target 3rd/4th veteran outfield types. That screams Reggie Sanders or maybe someone like Luis Gonzalez, whom Arizona would love to dump. One thing is certain; the Cardinals need to do something if they want to keep up their current pace. They’ve played five wins better than their expected total, which is tied with Milwaukee for the greatest positive deviation in the NL. One can’t expect that to last.

San Diego Padres (50-45 1st place NL West)- The Padres currently are in first place in the NL West and have to be considered the favorites to win the division. Even with Chris Young’s injury, the starting rotation should be enough to compete, though Jake Peavy’s continued struggles are a concern. PETCO Park is the real reason for this, but all that matters is that the Padres are number one in baseball in runs allowed per game.

Offense is San Diego’s biggest concern right now. Outside of Mike Piazza, Adrian Gonzalez and Mike Cameron, the Padres are struggling to get decent production from their position players. They would be an interesting fit for Bobby Abreu, since his high on base and solid speed would not be affected by PETCO. The question is whether they’d be willing to take on his enormous contract. It’s unlikely that happens unless the Phillies take another large contract back, like Brian Giles. Other options include Jeromy Burnitz and apparently, Adrian Beltre, should the Mariners fall out of it. But they’ll need more than that if they want to compete with the Mets and Cardinals; they’re not likely to test either’s mediocre pitching staff with their current lineup.

Cincinnati Reds (50- 46 4 games back of Cardinals)- After making one of the worst trades in the last five years, the Reds still have needs. They have filled their pen yes, but to do so have opened up holes on their offense and still have nothing in the rotation behind Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Like other teams in the race, the Reds need starters, but a certain type is desirable since the mediocrity on the market will look even worse at Great American Ballpark. Thus, ground ball pitchers are the most desirable. If Jake Westbrook is on the market, his 3.13 GB/FB would fit in nicely. If the Rockies were interested in dealing, then Aaron Cook and his 3.41 mark and 3.59 ERA could slot in behind the Reds’ top two.

On the positional end, the Reds could use an upgrade at short and in the outfield. The expensive options would be Julio Lugo or Alfonso Soriano. A cheap choice would be Sanders. At short, an option would be the Rockies’ Jamie Carroll. While Carroll isn’t great, he currently has an .818 OPS, will come cheap and is likely to outperform Royce Clayton down the stretch. Jose Vidro is also an option for second (with Brandon Phillips moving to short). With Junior’s contract off the books after this year, the Reds might be willing to take Vidro on. But after getting fleeced by the Nationals once this month, it’s unlikely the Reds will get anything done with them, especially since Vidro would cost them a decent prospect. (Homer Bailey anyone?)

The Reds probably destroyed their chances of doing anything with last week’s trade, since Gary Majewski is already showing he was an RFK creation and their offense is now weakened. But if they could pull in that third starter, they would still have to be considered the favorite for the Wild Card.

San Francisco Giants (49-47, 1.5 back of Padres) - With Barry Bonds near the end and Jason Schmidt a free agent after the season, it looks as if this could be the last chance for this corps of Giants players. The G-Men’s pitching remains near the top of the NL, fourth overall in runs allowed per game with a mark of 4.71. With improvement from Matt Cain in the second half, and their ball park, the Giants can probably survive with their starters. Their pen is unreliable at the back end, so they should be in the market for arms there.

But the Giants biggest need should be on offense. While Moises Alou’s return from injury helps, he cannot be counted upon at the age of forty with his history. Rumors have had the Giants after Vidro to play at first, which seems like a mistake, but this is a team that has played Jose Vizcaino, who’s a light hitting middle infielder, at the position. Thus it can’t be discounted. Along those lines, Todd Walker could be an option. If they actually want a first baseman, Sean Casey could be a guy in the mold of J.T. Snow; below average offense but great defense.

In the NL West, you can’t count anyone out. The Giants are likely the second best team, but with a move or two could make a run at the Padres. Their expiring contracts give them a greater flexibility and let’s be frank, G.M, Brian Sabean never hesitates to deal prospects for established veteran players. History should repeat itself here, especially since this could be their last hurrah.

Arizona Diamondbacks (48-47, 2 back of Padres) - Outside of Brandon Webb, the Arizona rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Like the Reds, a ground ball pitcher would be good for a hitter’s park like the Chase Field. Of course, they are like almost every other team and looking for pitching, so acquiring a bat might be a better and cheaper alternative. Since despite playing in a hitter’s park the D-Backs are still just middle of the pack offensively, they could do themselves a great service in doing getting another offensive player.

Right now, the biggest needs are in left field, shortstop and first base. Both left and short now have been given to youngsters, Carlos Quentin and Stephen Drew respectively, for potential auditions. Connor Jackson remains at first, despite poor power numbers at a position where that is a premium. Would they consider bringing back Shea Hillenbrand, who has worn out his welcome in Toronto?

Stephen Drew’s call up might have been due to injury, but Carlos Quentin taking time away from Luis Gonzalez likely means the D-Backs have begun to look to the future despite being just 2.5 back. Of course, if they’re just a few games back come July 31st, it would be surprising of them not to make some move and take a shot at the division. Just don’t expect them to mortgage the future to do it, and that would preclude anything major from happening on their front.

So that’s a look at the contenders. Tomorrow I’ll look at the NL long shot teams; the guys are still in it but whose current performance suggests they’ve not much of a threat. And have no fear American League fans, your teams are coming up as well.


Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Gil Meche, going once, going twice...

1:18 PM  
Blogger June said...

i can't believe someone besides me has recognized the mark mulder acq as a debacle. inexplicably, nobody ever talks about it!
luis gonzalez! interesting. wd never have thought of that. perhaps luis gonzalez 2006 = larry walker 2004.
izzy's a fucking disaster- i can't even talk about it

10:41 PM  

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