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Tuesday, June 29, 2004
The final piece of the puzzles

By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine

1. Houston Astros -- reliever.

Brad Lidge
Brad Lidge had 68 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched in the second half.

The 'Stros dealt closer Octavio Dotel in swapping for center fielder Carlos Beltran last week. Now they are left with a first-time closer in Brad Lidge and a manager, Jimy Williams, who is notorious for working his relievers hard. The Astros need a veteran who can help out in some way -- perhaps someone like Pittsburgh's Jose Mesa.

2. Florida Marlins -- RBI man.

The Marlins have some good offensive weapons, a solid closer in Armando Benitez, and assuming their starting pitchers are relatively healthy by September, they could once again be a dangerous October team. But the Marlins need another productive hitter behind Miguel Cabrera and Mike Lowell to give depth to their order. They might already have the solution in Jeff Conine, who has struggled with runners in scoring position the first three months.

3. New York Yankees -- top-flight starting pitcher.

Johnson
Johnson

They should easily pound their way into the playoffs, supported by their strong bullpen. But the Yankees either need one of their current starters to gain consistent greatness -- perhaps Jose Contreras, maybe Kevin Brown. If Contreras' 10-strikeout outing Sunday was an aberration or Brown is hurt, the Yankees will go into October with a rotation inferior to that of maybe three or four other teams. Big target: The Big Unit. George Steinbrenner will pay almost any cost to get Randy Johnson, if the hard-throwing lefty would ever agree to be dealt to the Bronx.

4. San Diego Padres -- Productive outfielder.

Finley
Finley

So far, Ryan Klesko has one home run, and with some good hitters at the top of the Padres' order, there are many RBI chances for those in the No. 5 and No. 6 slots in the order. Magglio Ordonez would be a good fit; Steve Finley, the ex-Padre and current Diamondback, would be perfect.

5. San Francisco Giants -- starting pitcher.

Benson
Benson

It figured the Giants might be dumping players by now, but the best player on the planet (Barry Bonds) and the best starting pitcher in the NL (Jason Schmidt) have held up the Giants in this weak division. They've got an excellent chance to win the NL West, and need to get another starter to aid Schmidt. This could be a good landing place for the Pirates' Kris Benson, who has pitched much better of late.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers -- more runs, of course, but also starting pitching.

It's amazing they held together for this long, but they've got to get somebody to prop up the rotation if they're going to keep pace with Giants and Padres.

7. Mets -- Kaz to be Kaz.

The shortstop has been a bust, offensively and defensively. Unless he plays better, they'll continue to have trouble scoring runs and winning close games.

8. Chicago Cubs -- Healthy pitchers.

Wood
Wood

They need Kerry Wood and Mark Prior back together, firing at full tilt. If they want a shortstop upgrade over Alex Gonzalez, there is Montreal's Orlando Cabrera, who might play better once he goes someplace where the team actually has a home and a chance.

9. St. Louis Cardinals -- something here and there.

There is a very good team that needs a little more, but does not have the glaring need as it did last year, when the pitching staff was so poor. Could use a reliever (Mesa?), maybe another starter, and perhaps a left fielder (Frank Cattalanotto?).

10. Boston Red Sox -- Randy Johnson anywhere but with the Yankees.

So long as Johnson remains in Arizona or gets traded to any team but the Yankees, the Red Sox could/should have an advantage in starting pitching if they meet New York in October; 86 years of pent-up frustration may rest on this edge. If the Big Unit goes to the Yankees, however, that will be a serious problem.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.