Monday, April 1, 2002

2002 NL Central Preview

One doesn't normally associate the Midwest with Zen Buddhism, but the NL Central seems to embody the Asian principles of balance and symmetry better than any of the other divisions. Home to two teams on the cusp of reaching baseball Nirvana, two teams well along the path to Enlightenment, and two teams floundering in the wake of Karma, the NL Central has enough equipoise to satisfy the Dalai Lama with some left over for Richard Gere. If a tree falls in St. Louis, and there is no one there to hear it . . .

Houston Astros:

Averting what some have characterized as a public relations nightmare, last month the Houston Astros bought their way out of a contract that would have had them playing their entire season in "Enron Field." In truth, the Enron folks ought to be just as happy as the Astros to see the naming rights deal in the rear view mirror. The last thing Enron needs is to be associated with the good people behind Major League Baseball. When it comes to cooking the books, these guys are every bit as creative as Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Arthur Anderson put together.

Last winter, as Bud Selig prepared to testify before Congress about baseball's antitrust exemption, the owners released what was purportedly the most detailed summary of team finances ever compiled. According to that report and Selig's testimony, baseball somehow managed to lose $519 million last year, despite bringing in record revenues of more than $3.5 billion. This claim was met with disbelief from practically all independent observers, and as fellow lawyer and writer Doug Pappas has pointed out in an indispensable series of columns on the business of baseball, the owners' numbers, if not unadulterated bunk, are misleading in the extreme.

Misleading because despite owners' cries of poverty, franchise values continue to soar (the owners of the teams that were allegedly the worst off financially -- the Expos and Marlins -- scrambled to purchase other teams last winter). Misleading because owners often pay themselves exorbitant "consulting fees" which are generically lumped under "expenses," raising costs and lowering profits. Misleading because media conglomerates that own teams like the Cubs, Braves, and Dodgers, often arrange things so that their television subsidiaries pay their baseball subsidiaries far less than market value for broadcasting rights, costing teams tens of millions a year.

Particularly Enronesque are the off-book transactions involving related but distinct corporations which appear to have no other purpose than to siphon off earnings from the club. In 1997, for example, Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga attributed $38 million of luxury suite, club seat, parking, concessions, advertising, and naming-rights revenues to his stadium rather than the team, making a profitable venture appear to be hemorrhaging money. There are countless other examples of these kind of shenanigans. For a more thorough treatment of them, I highly recommend Pappas's series.

But are these all just harmless accounting tricks? Hardly. Bud Selig's fantasy numbers affect the owners' collective bargaining strategies, drive efforts to garner support for publicly funded stadiums, and provide cover when a seemingly successful team (like Huizenga's 1997 world champion Marlins) insist they have to drastically cut payroll in order to survive. Some have suggested that Bud Selig's recent Congressional testimony about baseball's finances constituted perjury. At the very least, the owners' repeated lies outside of Congress constitute a breach of trust with the fans, cities, and taxpayers that support their franchises.

Oh yeah, the Astros. They're loaded. Great young arms, the best first baseman in the National League, and a bunch of young sluggers make them my choice in the Central.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Last year, the Cardinals had a first baseman who posted an on base percentage of .316, a slugging percentage of .492, and hit 29 home runs. His name was Mark McGwire, and his performance led him to conclude that he could no longer justify drawing the remaining $22 million salary he was owed by the Cardinals. He retired at the end of the season.

Last year, another first baseman had an on base percentage of .329, a slugging percentage of .501 and hit 34 home runs. Rather than be embarrassed into retirement by his performance, this first baseman signed a three-year $21 million free agent contract with the Cardinals. This man's name is Tino Martinez. The funny thing is that despite the two players’ nearly identical numbers and salary requirements, the Cardinals think they're a lot better off at first base with Martinez than they were with McGwire.

The Cardinals aren't alone; sports writers of every stripe have anointed them the team to beat in the National League. But just as Martinez doesn't seem much of an improvement over last year's hobbled Mark McGwire, I can't see how this year's Cardinals are going to be much better than last year’s very good, but by no means dominant club.

The Cardinals suffered some nagging injuries last year, but for the most part, anything that could go right did. Following a spring training injury to expected starter Bobby Bonilla, rookie Albert Pujols came from out of nowhere and had one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of baseball. Coming off serious elbow surgery and a long year of rehab, starter Matt Morris turned in one of the best performances in the league. In an August trade intended more to unload disgruntled outfielder Ray Lankford on the Padres than to actually acquire talent, the Cardinals got pitcher Woody Williams, who ended up winning seven of eight decisions down the stretch. In short, St. Louis kept falling in shit in 2001, but each time they got up smelling like a rose.

This is not to say that things will necessarily get worse this year. Albert Pujols looks like the real deal, and Matt Morris has fully recovered from surgery. He should continue to perform at an elite level. Still, it would be unreasonable to expect either of those guys to improve on their 2001 seasons, and the same goes for just about everyone on the Cardinals roster. Sure, outfielder J.D. Drew could stay healthy all year, and newly acquired reliever Jason Isringhausen could help out what was a rather mediocre bullpen, but there is no compelling reason to think that the Cardinals are going to leave Houston in the dust before the All-Star break.

I expect the Astros and the Cardinals to run neck and neck all season. Whichever team doesn't win the division will likely win the wild card.

Chicago Cubs:

Everyone has heard of the the Red Sox’s "Curse of the Bambino";’ fewer people know that the Cubs have a curse of their own -- one that is even more fantastic, and given the Cubs' fifty-six year World Series drought, apparently more effective as well.

In 1934, William "Billy Goat" Sianis opened a bar -- the "Billygoat Tavern", natch -- on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Ever the canny businessman, Sianis tried to bring his bar mascot -- an actual billygoat -- into Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series, but was refused entry by Cubs owner Phil Wrigley. Legend has it that in retaliation, the theatrical Greek immigrant put an Old Country hex on the Cubs.

As with most stories involving hexes and goats, there remains some uncertainty about the exact facts of the matter. Some say that Sianis caused the Cubbies to lose the 1945 World Series. Others say that he cursed the team to lose as long as Phil Wrigley lived. Or as long as the goat lived. Or as long as Sianis himself lived.

The way I heard it, the Cubs would simply lose forever. If that was indeed the case, the hex is in serious danger, because the Cubs look to be really good really soon.

The foundation, of course, is Sammy Sosa. After nearly a decade as a slightly above-average masher, Sosa's production took off in 1998 and shows no signs of coming down from the stratosphere. Roger Maris's old home run record was replaced in the books first by Mark McGwire and then by Barry Bonds, but Sammy has topped the fabled 61 home run mark three out of the last four years. Sosa has become scary good, and he's one of four or five guys in the game right now that you're going to be telling your grandkids about.

But from Ernie Banks, to Ron Santo, to Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs have always seemed to have one Hall of Fame-caliber player on the roster. The Cubs' problem is that management, whether it be the Wrigleys or the Tribune Company, has rarely put a lot of effort into signing or developing the supporting players necessary to bring home a championship. After all, with a gem of a ballpark and super station exposure courtesy of the Tribune's very own WGN, the money and fans have consistently poured in no matter what the quality of the product on the field.

Maybe the bosses recently decided to try to compete, or maybe it's all just a happy accident, but it appears that Sammy won't be the only quality big-leaguer playing in Wrigleyville in the near future. The Cubs have a bunch of good looking prospects, including first baseman Hee Seop Choi, second baseman Bobby Hill, outfielders Rosie Brown and Corey Patterson, and pitchers Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. A lot of these names aren't going to be on the Cubs' opening day roster (manager Don Baylor still seems to prefer grizzled veterans to people who can actually help his club), but they should all see playing time at some point this year. If they all produce at expected levels, the Cubs have a shot at the wild card this year. And if they all develop over the course of the next two or three years, the curse of the billygoat may finally come to an end.

Cincinnati Reds:

Like the Cubs, the Reds have one certified stud (Ken Griffey Jr.) and a lot of hope for the future. Last year, hulking slugger Adam Dunn hit 51 home runs across the major and minor leagues, and is without question one of the brightest young stars in the game. Even more sluggers are poised to start contributing in Cincinnati this year, with young outfielder Austin Kearns and first baseman Ben Broussard close to being viable major leaguers, and catcher Corky Miller and infielder Gookie Dawkins ready to fill holes as needed.

By the way, if the Reds had not traded infielder Pokey Reese, they could have had the an infield consisting of Corky, Pokey, and Gookie this year. Why this wasn't an organizational goal is beyond me. They'd only be a Mookie and a Dummy away from being the best-named team since the dead ball era.

The problem, as it is with so many teams these days, is pitching. The Reds will likely start the season with a rotation consisting of Joey Hamilton, Elmer Dessens, Chris Reitsma, Jose Acevedo, and Jimmy Haynes. I'm sure their mothers all love them, but as a major league rotation, they're more than a little shaky. No doubt over the next few years, a couple of these guys will prove reliable major league starters. But for the Reds to make waves, they are going to have to trade some of what looks like a hitting surplus for pitching talent. Generally speaking, General Manager Jim Bowdon is a pretty shrewd guy, so it will probably happen.

The Reds are at least a year, and probably two years away from seriously threatening Houston and St. Louis, but there is reason to be optimistic in Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh Pirates/Milwaukee Brewers:

Ever since the Cleveland Indians moved into Jacob's Field in 1994 and transformed themselves from a perennial doormat to a dominant force, owners have convinced their fans to fund new stadiums by pointing to the Cleveland "miracle" and claiming that it could happen in their town too. The Brewers and Pirates, both suffering through extended periods of futility, made such promises to their fans, and in 2001, each moved into new stadiums amidst high hopes.

The problem with all this is that there was nothing miraculous about the Indians' ascension. Years before the new park opened, Cleveland laid the groundwork for their winning club by developing talent like Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, and Kenny Lofton. The Indians had a plan, you see, and that plan was to have their young players mature just as their new park opened, giving the taxpayers of Cleveland a feeling that their investment paid off.

The Brewers and the Pirates, however, did very little to develop talent in the years leading up to their stadium openings, and proceeded under the idea that a pretty, new building would cure all their ills. As their 2001 records indicated, however, that wasn’t the case.

Rather than grow from within, both clubs tried their luck on the free agent market. Each failed miserably. The Pirates signed Derek Bell to a $9 million contract despite the fact that he's a well-below average right fielder on the wrong side of 30. They also signed middle infielder Pat Meares to an equally above-market contract, his long track record of mediocrity notwithstanding. Similarly, the Brewers thought it wise to pay outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds over $7 million, even though he has never played a full year due to injuries, and the only season in which he ever posted decent numbers he had while playing in the offense-distorting confines of Coors Field.

Predictably, Bell and Meares played horribly, and Hammonds played horribly, and ended up on the disabled list for the lion's share of the season. The two teams claim to have been hampered by small-market revenues, but bad moves such as these essentially foreclosed the possibility of fielding a competitive team.

I'd like to say that the Pirates and Brewers have learned from their recent mistakes, but so far, reports are mixed at best. Pirates' new GM Dave Littlefield (the Bell and Meares signings got previous GM Cam Bonifay sacked) recently traded pending free agent Jason Schmidt and solid but aging pitcher Todd Ritchie to the Giants and White Sox, respectively, in exchange for several young pitching prospects. Good moves, those, but they were countered by an equally dumb move in insisting on trying to convert 2001 first-round draft pick John VanBenschoten -- an amazing hitting prospect -- into a pitcher.

There's a good news/bad news dynamic in Milwaukee as well. On the one hand, the Brewer's stated confidence in young starters Ben Sheets, Ruben Quevedo, and Nick Neugebauer is encouraging. On the other hand, Milwaukee signed second baseman Eric Young to a two-year contract despite the fact that they already have a younger, cheaper, and better player there in Ronnie Belliard.

The Young signing shows that Milwaukee still values the ever elusive "veteran presence" that guys like Young supposedly provide over the demonstrated production of guys like Belliard. Like Pittsburgh, the Brewers seem to take two steps forward and one step back.

Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are showing signs of organizational improvement, but they need to do more. Unless the Pirates and Brewers get better fast, they risk alienating their fans. Both cities tolerated a loser for years, but that was because the owners had brainwashed them into thinking that they couldn't compete in their old stadiums. As the novelty of the new parks starts to wear off, one can't help but think that that the people who paid for the stadiums' construction in the first place are going to start demanding more.

PROJECTED FINISH: Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.