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May 2, 2000

NL Central Notebook

Where's the Race?

by Rany Jazayerli

Well, so much for baseball's tightest division. The NL Central was supposed to be a three-team race with the Reds, Cardinals and Astros all closer than Angelina Jolie and her brother. Instead, the Cardinals have shot out of the gate like Secretariat, while the Reds and Astros are desperately trying to right their ships while they can still see the Cardinals' wake.

What do those two teams need to do to give St. Louis some competition? In Houston, the Astros are actually third in the National League with 5.96 runs per game, which of course is still light years behind the Cardinals' mark of 7.20 R/G. That they rank 15th with an average of 6.26 runs allowed per game would make the finger-pointing easy if everyone weren't utterly convinced that Enron Field is the best sea-level-elevation hitters' park since the Baker Bowl. We'll wait a little longer--like until they've actually played 20 games in their new home--before we analyze just how Tenrun Field plays, but I don't think we're going out on a ledge by saying that it's more hitter-friendly than the Eighth Wonder of the World was.

As well run as the Astros have been over the last five years, the decision to build Homerun Field with such short power alleys, especially in right field, appears to have been a gross miscalculation. In an era of hitters' ballparks, the spacious dimensions of the Astrodome allowed the team to employ a breed of pitcher that was unappreciated anywhere else. Witness Jose Lima, whose flyball act in Detroit never let him post his ERA below 5.70. With the help of the Astrodome (where his career ERA was 2.90), Lima blossomed into one of the NL's best right-handers. So far this year, while Lima's strikeout-to-walk ratio is still very good at 25/10, he's given up 46 hits and 10 home runs in 31 innings, leading to an 8.42 ERA.

Lima is good enough to eventually adjust; the same may not be true for Chris Holt (7.98 ERA, 29 1/3 IP, 37 H, 7 HR, 11 BB), who may be the worst starting pitcher in baseball not named Jamie Navarro, and who has single-handedly dropped BP's entry in the LABR Rotisserie League into sixth place. At least Shane Reynolds (who we tabbed in Baseball Prospectus 2000 to be the Astros' most likely 20-game winner this year) has a 3.35 ERA.

The Astros may have solved one hole in their rotation, jettisoning Dwight Gooden to the Tropicana Retirement Home, and bringing back a rehabbed Scott Elarton, who has been promising if not actually effective in his first two starts. But the Astros really have few options to replace Holt, unless they want to gamble with Wade Miller (4.32 ERA for Triple-A New Orleans) or rush someone from the Double-A Round Rock rotation, like Eric Ireland or Tony McKnight. Making either move would be out of character for a team as deliberate as the Astros are with their pitching prospects, so for better or for worse, Holt is going to get a chance to work things out. His one-hitter against the Brewers on Friday might have saved his rotation slot.

In our previous notebook, we noted that Jose Cabrera was the key to the Astros bullpen. So far, he's opened fewer doors than a high-class debutante (7.15 ERA), forcing Jay Powell (4.63) and Doug Henry (5.17) to fumble with their role as the chivalrous date. The failure of the Astros' middle relief is a big part of why the Astros are 1-7 in one- and two-run games. There's not much the Astros need to do--or can do--about their middle relief other than have patience. This is Larry Dierker's greatest strength; he is unlikely to panic while waiting for Vern Ruhle to get Cabrera and Holt and Octavio Dotel pitching up to their capabilities.

But if the Astros are still a starter short on June 1, well, that's when it's time to cash in Lance Berkman.

On offense, the Astros are getting no production from three positions, two of which were expected. At catcher, Mitch Meluskey is still struggling to regain his stroke and push Tony Eusebio back to his accustomed role of second-stringer. Meluskey is just 9-for-39, but six of his hits are for extra bases, and with Paul Bako no longer around to take playing time, Meluskey can be expected to pick up the pace as the season goes on.

The same can not be said for Tim Bogar, who is 10-for-63 with a 552 OPS. It looks like the Astros have crapped out on their gamble to get by with him until one of their top prospects is ready. Julio Lugo is already on the roster, and while the Astros seem determined to mold him into a utility player, they really need to get him in the lineup until Adam Everett (just .208 in New Orleans, but leading the minors with 20 walks) is ready.

The unexpected problem is with Roger Cedeno (.172/.302/.275), who has taken his role as a slap-hitter a little too far, with more than three ground balls for every fly ball, territory best reserved for Marlin middle infielders. He's too good to not turn it around, but on a team with three other quality outfielders in Moises Alou, Richard Hidalgo and Daryle Ward, he may not get the benefit of regular playing time to work things out.

In Cincinnati, the Reds are proving another axiom of sabermetrics: he who lives by the bullpen dies with the bullpen. Last season the Reds buried their opponents in the late innings with a fire-breather (Scott Williamson), a sidewinder (Scott Sullivan) and a wormkiller (Danny Graves). This season, Graves has a 1.93 ERA but a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8/8; Williamson has walked 15 batters in 13 innings and Sullivan has a 4.80 ERA as he tries to shake off the effects of three straight 90+ inning seasons. And that's the good part of the bullpen.

Dennis Reyes, pitching as well as you would expect a starting pitcher used as a lefty specialist to pitch, has allowed more baserunners (16) than outs recorded (15). Gabe White, at least, has a 2.95 ERA...for the Rockies, who gave the Reds Manny Aybar (5.02 ERA) in return. The failures of Reyes and Hector Mercado opened up an opportunity for baseball's answer to Jason, Norm Charlton, who has already been released after giving up nine runs in three innings.

Without a strong bullpen behind it, the Reds' starting pitching is being exposed for what it is: really, really bad. Pete Harnisch and Steve Parris both have ERAs above 6.00, and only one starter has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of even 1.5: the rookie, Rob Bell. Harnisch can be expected to fire off some quality starts soon, assuming he isn't hiding an injury of some sort, and Denny Neagle probably has a little upside.

But it's become clear that the Reds aren't going to win anything with both Parris and Ron Villone (11 strikeouts, 10 walks) in the rotation. While everyone assumes Jim Bowden will work his magic and pick up a starting pitcher down the stretch, what guarantees do the Reds have that they'll still be in contention on July 31? In the meantime, the Reds' best option on the farm is already in their rotation; what's left in Triple-A includes journeymen like Larry Luebbers and overhyped Cuban defectors like Osvaldo Fernandez.

The Reds' offense is certainly not picking up the slack, ranking just 11th in the NL with 5.08 runs per game, and feeling the loss of Barry Larkin, who was hitting .359/.455/.548 before hitting the DL with torn webbing between his fingers. Travis Dawkins is a nice backup option to have, but he's no Larkin, and Pokey Reese isn't going to hit .394 all season long.

The decline in the production of the Reds' middle infield, along with the continued presence of Dante Bichette and his 674 OPS in left field, is going to mitigate whatever improvements the Reds can expect from Ken Griffey and Dmitri Young.

So in short: the Astros still have a shot. The Reds probably don't. And then there were two.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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