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MLB - National League Contenders

By Sean McDonald
Saturday, July 27th, 2002

NL East

Contenders: Atlanta, N.Y. Mets, Montreal

Atlanta is the class of the division and of the National League at the moment. They have the best record in baseball, but their team is not complete. While the Franco's (Matt and Julio) have performed admirably at first base for the Braves, one more big bat is needed to fill out the lineup.

The obvious choice is the Indians' Jim Thome, but he still holds his no-trade clause. A two-month rental isn't out of the question, but it may cost the Braves a top prospect (infielder Kelly Johnson seems to be the fashionable choice, and he would fit into the Indians' future plans.)

The New York Mets are in the dreaded limbo of trying to figure out if they are contenders or if it is time to pack it in for next year. They are most likely out of the divisional race, but are still in the wild card hunt. GM Steve Phillips is an aggressive person who knows that Mets' ownership and its fans want to win now.

Their major moves over the offseason to bolster their lineup have failed, but like the St. Louis Cardinals of last year, they have the talent to put together a good closing run. Their problems lie in the fact that they have only a couple of major prospects who they should not trade and very few prospects behind them. Finding a taker for Jeromy Burnitz would be nice, but it's hard considering his salary.

Look for the Mets to stay put, perhaps making a move for an innings eater like Paul Wilson, but their hopes rest on catching lightning in a bottle over the season's last two months.

The Montreal Expos have probably made all the moves that Bud Selig will allow and while their trades have been good moves for the present, they have damaged whatever future lies ahead for their team. It is hard to blame GM Omar Minaya for trying to win at all costs now (whether his intentions are genuine remains to be seen), however, he has put together a team that lacks quality depth behind the rotation's top three starters and lineup regulars.

It doesn't seem possible for Montreal to make any other moves, so they will have to hope, along with the Mets, that their new core of players gels quickly over the next two months in order to contend for a Wild Card birth.

NL Central

Contenders: Cardinals, Reds, Astros

St. Louis currently holds the lead in the division, but is treading on thin ice as far as being a viable World Series candidate. Even with the addition of Chuck Finley, the pitching staff remains thin behind Matt Morris. Ace pitchers are always hard to find, and there doesn't seem to be one that will available come deadline time. This fact, combined with the fact that the Cardinals may sport the game's most bankrupt minor league system, make it hard to predict any bold moves for St. Louis at the trading deadline.

A Scott Rolen trade seems unlikely, so look for another innings eater to come aboard, like Baltimore's Scott Erickson or possibly Chicago's Todd Ritchie, but Cardinal fans looking for a big move will most likely be disappointed.

The Cincinnati Reds look like they could be the big movers at this year's deadline. As of this writing, Kenny Rogers had rejected a possible trade, but the Reds did acquire Detroit's Brian Moehler. They have bolstered a rotation that was a Walmart of AA pitchers and hangers on with these additions, but could still use one more arm. They are also thought to be in the Scott Rolen sweepstakes, but guessing what Philadelphia may do is a crapshoot at this point.

Adding one more arm would be a big boost to a rotation that needs innings due to Bob Boone's infatuation with visiting the mound. This is a dangerous offensive team that could get a boost from Ken Griffey, Jr.'s return (they will probably get another hamstring pull, but let Reds' fans dream for a while) and another pitcher could be enough to push the Reds past the Cardinals for the division title.

Meanwhile, the Houston Astros are perhaps the most underachieving team in the National League this year. However, they are still in the race due to the fact that neither the Reds nor the Cardinals are strong enough to pull away from them. The Astros, however, are in a position that does not allow them a lot of flexibility at the deadline. They have two players who are having horrendous years by their standards in Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell who are taking up a lot of payroll space.

The supporting cast around these players has been filled with disappointments (Darryl Ward and Richard Hidalgo), the exception being Lance Berkman. The Astros probably have enough prospects to dangle to a team looking to move a couple of players, but the question for the Astros becomes what hole do you fill and is it enough to push them past the Reds or the Cardinals?

I don't think they will push past either team and wouldn't be surprised to see them move Hidalgo (a player who hit 44 HR's two years ago, but hasn't looked the same since).

NL West

Contenders: Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Arizona Diamondbacks need a pitcher to follow Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. As I stated before, there doesn't seem to be an ace out there, but someone who looks a bit like Curt Schilling, Baltimore's Sidney Ponson is available. While I don't believe that Ponson will become another Curt Schilling, he is a fairly young pitcher who has had his work ethic questioned, much like Schilling's work ethic was questioned when he was in Baltimore over 10 year ago. Maybe Schilling's and Johnson's diligence could rub off on him and turn him around.

The Diamondbacks are like the Cardinals in the fact that their farm system is thin in top prospects and while I wouldn't advocate the deal, Erubiel Durazo for Ponson would make sense, since Durazo can't seem to stay healthy for a long enough time for Bob Brenly to yank him in and out of the lineup.

Repeat after me, the Los Angeles Dodgers are winning with smoke and mirrors. This is a team who is offensively inept for days on end until Shawn Green goes nuts for a week. They have survived with solid starting pitching, a great season by Eric Gagne, and stretched of unbelievable offense from Green. That being said, they still need another bat to contend in the NL West.

The San Francisco Giants are once again in the race and barring some sort of freak recliner injury to Barry Bonds, they should be in the race until the end. That being said, the Giants have flaws like the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. Scott Rolen is in the equation, but another solution would involve Ellis Burks returning to San Francisco. Ellis has a great history with Dusty Baker and his acquisition would allow the Giants to move Reggie Sanders to center.

The added bat would extend the lineup and give Bonds some more protection and Burks wouldn't cost the Giants much in terms of prospects. Look for the Giants to repeat last year's formula and try to grab a struggling pitcher from a bad team (Paul Wilson could be this year's Jason Schmidt) to improve their rotation.

Well, that's my two cents worth on the trading deadline. It is one of my favorite times of the baseball season, as the balance of power in a division or wild card race can turn in a moment. Here's hoping that the trading deadline does not turn into an absolute salary dump as it seems to be turning into, but rather, a time when teams examine where they are in a success cycle and make moves accordingly.

As long as your team seems to have a grasp of where it is headed, this can be a good time to be a fan, by either renewing hope for your team to win it all, or allowing you to look ahead to next year with a sense that your team is moving in the right direction.

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