Countdown Week

added 7/25/2005 by Scott Barzilla

We’ve hashed and rehashed the Astros’ situation. Suffice it to say, I realized how unusual this road trip was when I re-read my column and Willie’s column. Winning seven out of eight games will do that. So, what I wanted to do was take a look at the other wild card competitors and assess what they might do and what they need in lieu of overanalyzing the Astros.

Washington Nationals: 55-44 (388 RS, 408 RA)

Our good Pythagoras doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about the Nationals. The club should be 48-51 at this point given their runs scored and runs allowed. That would put them out of the wild card chase. So, I don’t consider the Nationals to be serious contenders. Their best hitter is on the shelf (Nick Johnson) and their two big free agent signings (Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman) have predictably been busts.

It’s quite likely that Jim Bowden hasn’t stopped patting himself on the back for “getting the team to this point”. The team needs offense and more offense, but it’s likely that the Preston Wilson deal was the extent of their deals. If this team finishes the season at .500 or above it will be a miracle. Wilson will likely have the same Coors Field hangover as Vinny Castilla and with the current flap over Livan Hernandez hitting the news, it looks like Frank Robinson might not have the kind of hold on this team that everyone thought.

Philadelphia Philles: 52-47 (470 RS, 464 RA)

It’s hard to believe we could argue that the Phillies have actually overachieved, but according to their Pythagorean record they have. This offense was built around Jim Thome and he has been virtually worthless this season. Yet, they have Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell to go along with surprising rookie Chase Utley. The bullpen seems solid as well with Billy the Kid and Ugueth Urbina. Yet, the rumors coming out of Philadelphia are unpredictable.

There have been rumors about the Phillies dealing Billy Wagner to a contender. There has even been some mention of them shopping Thome around to anyone that will take him. More importantly, people in Philadelphia aren’t happy about this team scuffling for the third year in a row. Ownership will not be willing to foot the bill much longer. If they have a bad week they could end up selling a bunch of their parts. GM Wade might not make it out alive.

New York Mets: 51-47 (442 RS, 405 RA)

As you can see, the Mets should be comfortably in second place in the NL East, but they have been underachieving. Some people think a shaky bullpen could be responsible for an underachieving team. Braden Looper has never been what we might call a shut down closer. Roberto Hernandez has been effective in middle relief and their rotation has been solid. A closer on the level of Billy Wagner would make them a very dangerous club.

On the other hand, the club doesn’t have the offensive fire power that they thought they would have. Carlos Beltran hasn’t produced as they hoped and Mike Piazza is not the dominant hitter he once was. This leaves Cliff Floyd, David Wright, and a bunch of mediocre hitters. At the same time, replacing any of those hitters will be a daunting task. As long as they have Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Kris Benson, and Victor Zambrano pitching well they have a fighting chance.

Florida Marlins: 49-47 (455 RS, 432 RA)

Who knows what in the heck is going on with this club? Just last week it looked like they were ready to unload A.J. Burnett and Mike Lowell. Supposedly, Jeff Loria has to cut 24 million dollars by next season or he is going to lose some serious money. Trading those two would save two thirds of it (Burnett is expected to make in the neighborhood of 8 million in free agency). Yet, ESPN’s Buster Olney says they will be buyers if they can trade those two? Huh?

The problem with the Marlins is that they have too many guys underachieving. Ironically, Burnett and Lowell are chief among those. The Al Leiter experiment didn’t work out and that is still costing the Marlins a pretty penny. The crime of it is that they could stem the tide with their impressive group of starting pitchers if they had a downtown ballpark on the horizon. Loria has to concentrate on either getting Florida to pony up or finding a new home. Acquiring another hitter or relief pitcher is the last thing on his or Larry Beinfest’s mind.

Chicago Cubs: 49-48 (450 RS, 433 RA)

Sooner or later, the Dusty Baker mystique is going to end. Yet, someone needs to hit Cubs management aside the head. They need the same thing today as they needed this off-season and last year: a closer. A closer isn’t going to solve all of their problems, but this where Baker comes in. When he was with the Giants he let his starters go 120 and 130 pitches routinely. Yet, they were veteran starters. All of the sudden, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood can’t seem to stay healthy. Coincidence? Perhaps, but can the Cubs afford to let Baker continually burn their young starters. Carlos Zambrano is next.

The Cubs offense is also anemic outside of Derrek Lee (the likely NL MVP), Jeromy Burnitz, and Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs could be buyers, but what they will buy is anyone’s best guess. They could get a starter to supplant Wood, they could get a closer to replace Ryan Dempster, or they could get another bat in the lineup. They have the look of a team wanting to add, so I’d expect them to make some kind of deal.

A Game of Chicken

The one thing to look for this week will be the game of chicken between the Reds and Astros. The Reds have set their price for Adam Dunn (Jason Lane, Brandon Backe, and two top pitching prospects). The two prospects will likely be Fernando Nieve and Ezekiel Astacio, but that hasn’t been confirmed. The question is how badly the Reds want to deal Dunn. Dunn has already said he will give the Astros a good opportunity to sign him when he becomes a free agent after the 2006 season.

What’s interesting is that this is almost a reverse rental possibility. How much are we willing to pay to have him for an extra season and a third? If you wait until the off-season how much are you willing to pay for an extra season of Adam Dunn? Of course, we don’t have a guarantee that he would sign, but if he were here we wouldn’t have that guarantee either. Will the Reds lower their price before the end of the week? Stay tuned.

Pitcher(s) of the Week

It would be easy to say Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, or Roy Oswalt, but this award has to go to the rookies: Wandy Rodriguez and Ezekiel Astacio. Yeah, two runs in six innings might not be much for Astacio, but how many of you saw us sweeping that double header with those two going up. Rodriguez seconded the motion with his seven inning performance today.

Hitter of the Week

Again, Lance Berkman deserves all the credit in the world, but here’s to Chris Burke for getting to the high water mark of .261. He is hitting nearly .300 since his second call up. The averaged dipped back down into the .250s in the Nats series, but Burke is here and he has arrived.

Coming Up

Obviously, there is going to be a lot of moving and shaking this week. I will ignore all of it until next week when the dust has settled. I will analyze what the Astros did or didn’t do. Either way, it should be an exciting week.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”