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When good teams go bad
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Gerry Hunsicker says, "I need a vacation." While he laughs when he says it he knows he and everyone else around the Astros wishes the season were two weeks shorter. It has been that way for Doug Melvin in Texas. And Jim Bowden in Cincinnati, who spent the week with his scouts preparing for 2001 and the team that will play in a new ballpark two years later.
Bowden's season has hardly been a disaster, and clubs like the Tigers can tell you being four games over .500 on the Ides of September isn't that bad. "We won 96 games last year and we had very high expectations with Junior coming here," says Bowden. "So, of course we're disappointed. We're in double figures trailing St. Louis, and that's all there is to it."
The Astros were coming off three straight playoff seasons, but are spending this stretch run battling the Brewers for third place in a division whose bottom four teams were a combined 89 games below .500 at mid-month. After winning the West three times in four years, the Rangers are last, although likely not to lose 90 games.
"Last year, everything went right," says Bowden. "Were we as good as 96 wins? Probably not. Things broke right. This year, whatever could go wrong went wrong. We don't have the resources to replace parts when they don't perform to their norms."
"We can't sit around and make excuses," says Melvin. "But it seems whatever could go wrong went wrong, from losing Pudge (Rodriguez) to the injury to Ruben Mateo to Justin Thompson. I look back now and wish that when I made the trade of Lee Stevens for Brad Fullmer that we'd held onto Fullmer instead of moving him on for David Segui. But at the time, we thought we would contend. ... We traded Segui for Ricky Ledee and we're beginning to think he's going to develop into a pretty good player."
Even Giants GM Brian Sabean, whose team will have averaged more than 90 wins a year over the last four seasons by playoff time, appreciates that thin line. "Everything that could go right for Arizona went right last season," says Sabean. "And everything that could go right for us this season has gone our way. Last year, Barry Bonds had injuries, Robb Nen needed surgery, all sorts of things happened." This year, Shawn Estes is back, Nen is the league's dominant closer, Bonds and Jeff Kent are having MVP seasons, Ellis Burks is healthy ... and the D-Backs are being lampooned and their manager harpooned despite the team playing some 13 games above .500 in their third season.
What's happened to the Astros, Reds, Rangers and Diamondbacks is a reminder that unless you can invest $80 million to $113 million in personnel and can afford $3 million international signings, you walk the fault line. It is remarkable what Houston and San Francisco have done in the post-strike economic era with payrolls slightly above and below the $50 million plateau, but as Sabean says, "At that level you can't have certain key things go wrong."
The line between being very good and being very mediocre is thinner than those rich cousins think, and even an $80 million payroll team with a lot of adversity like the Red Sox would be down below the Baltimore waterline if Pedro Martinez or Nomar Garciaparra missed two months. These teams are built on certain assumptions that must hold true. Billy Wagner, Jose Lima and Craig Biggio did not hold true to assumed form. Neither did Mateo, Rusty Greer or the Rangers bullpen. Neither did Pokey Reese, Barry Larkin and, early on, Griffey, Sean Casey and several other Reds.
"In those good seasons, you always get significant contributions from players you never counted on," says Melvin. "Like Jeff Zimmerman for us last year. But in the bad years, none of those things happen."
Houston did have just about everything go wrong, but Hunsicker refuses to allow the adjustment from the Astrodome to Enron Field as an excuse. "Our home and away pitching statistics are nowhere near as different as in Colorado, so I don't want to hear excuses," says Hunsicker. "Enron isn't the Dome, but it's not Coors Field, either."
Effectively, the Astros lost their closer, their No. 2 starter in Lima had their All-Star second baseman (Biggio) suffer through a disappointing first half before getting hurt, lost Ken Caminiti midway through the year and had Moises Alou out for a prolonged period early. That's history. They now have to proceed towards 2001. It sounds as if Hunsicker would like to keep Larry Dierker and re-sign Jeff Bagwell, who has one year left on his contract. But those are owner Drayton McLane's decisions. McLane badly wants to keep Bagwell and Bagwell really would like to stay, but there is that small matter known as money, as McLane may have a hard time with the notion that Bagwell is worth the same to Houston as Chipper Jones is worth to Atlanta.
"The complicated part," says Hunsicker, "is that Jeff wants to see if we're going out into the market and trying to improve ourselves before he commits to an extension. But free agents are going to want to see what we do with Bagwell before they're willing to sign with us."
Hunsicker would like another starting pitcher, but realistically looks at this thin market, looks at the free-agent pitching market history and says, "You always have to overpay for pitching." He can trade from his surplus of outfielders. But first he has to go with certain assumptions: that Billy Wagner will be ready to pitch next spring, which the doctors insist he can, and that Lima's 6-3 finish is a better indication of his ability than what went on for the first three-and-a-half months. Hunsicker likens the ability of Wade Miller to that of Scott Elarton, and Olympic right-hander Roy Oswalt was 15-6 between Kissimmee and Round Rock and may not be far away from the big leagues.
But what appears to be a very dangerous offensive team still has some unusual equations. Chris Truby has played very well at third, but a Truby-Bill Spiers platoon won't provide thunder, which means that Hunsicker must get an offensive shortstop and put Adam Everett on hold for another season. The 'Stros are going to keep blossoming star Richard Hidalgo in center, but as they eye the Bagwell negotiations, they also have to figure how to use Alou, Roger Cedeno, Lance Berkman and Daryle Ward; they think Berkman is a .300/40-homer hitting star and that Ward may be the best pure hitter of them all. But they may have to sit on them and wait until Alou is a free agent at the end of next season. If McLane isn't willing to close in on a $60 million payroll, then this offseason will be treacherous, for they're already close to $48 million for 2001 before signing Hidalgo and Cedeno.
In Cincinnati, Bowden is using September to evaluate four areas -- Jason LaRue catching, Rob Bell starting, John Riedling relieving and the Alex Ochoa/Michael Tucker platoon. Here is the good news: even with Griffey and Larkin under contract, because they signed for hometown loyalty discounts, the Reds right now have committed only $22 million for next season, assuming they pick up Pete Harnisch's option. That allows Bowden the option of picking up a hitter and trying to find veteran starting pitching.
With the Denny Neagle and Dante Bichette trades as well as some astute drafting, the Cincinnati system is very deep, and beyond the promise of Adam Dunn, Jackson Melian, Drew Henson and Austin Kearns arriving with the new ballpark in 2003, Bowden has pieces to deal for parts he needs in 2001. "We have a lot of ideas and a lot of ways we think we can go," Bowden says. "When you're in a situation where cost management is important, you have to be prepared for everything." No one will ever doubt Bowden's preparation or intelligence.
And the organization especially appreciates the medical report that Griffey played the entire season with a slight tear in his hamstring, on that cheap turf in Cincinnati.
Melvin is likewise in a position "where we should have the cash to go pick up a couple of more expensive contracts that other teams need to move. That's part of the business today, and if you're prepared for it, you're fine." The Yankees could afford to take advantage when Cleveland had to adjust payroll and acquired David Justice. Boston could afford to take Mike Lansing with Rolando Arrojo, which after Arrojo's arbitration this winter essentially means Dan Duquette traded for a $10 million pitcher.
Melvin is pleased with the development of rookie pitchers Doug Davis and Ryan Glynn, and Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers are solid, proven starters. John Wetteland's status has to be determined, and Melvin isn't sure exactly what to make of his high-ceiling, sometimes erratic setup trio of Zimmerman, Francisco Cordero and Tim Crabtree, so they may try to get another starter and a reliever or three.
The biggest question in the outfield may be whether or not they deal Rusty Greer to get more traditional power, as some in the organization fear that all the times Greer has given his body for the team has slowed him down. "I told Ledee and Gabe Kapler not to be concerned with their power numbers and just worry about learning," says Melvin. "I told them that Rafael Palmeiro was traded (by the Cubs) because he didn't have enough power and that he had 47 homers in his first 2,000 major-league at-bats. Well, he had 47 homers last season, alone. I'm not worried about them." Or Mateo or Rodriguez. Melvin believes Mike Lamb will hit for production. He's not certain whether Carlos Pena will be ready to step in at first base next season or whether second baseman Jason Romano will be ready, so he may have to get a DH bat and a second baseman. "I think we all know that our defense really hurt us this season," says Melvin.
When things go awry, managers are usually fingered. Dierker's future is hazy. Jack McKeon will likely go. John Oates has had solid backing from Melvin, but now there are rumblings that owner Tom Hicks is uncomfortable with Oates, that several pitchers are uncomfortable with pitching coach Dick Bosman and that Oates always backs his coaches.
That's living on the fault line.
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