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Reds continue push for playoffs
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Can Cincinnati win? Maybe, but probably not. Reliever Scott Sullivan is now on the disabled list, starter Elmer Dessens is hurt and also on the DL, Ken Griffey Jr.'s leg still isn't right and neither is Sean Casey's shoulder, while Barry Larkin continues to play in pain. But GM Jim Bowden won't give up, and the fact that he's trying hard to put his team in the best position to earn a playoff spot is testament to the fact that you can do something on a $40-million budget if you work hard enough.
Bowden had a deal for Kenny Rogers, but Rogers didn't want to leave Texas. He had the deal the Indians wanted for Chuck Finley, but needed cash to make up some of the difference, and while he got $750,000 from Boston for four prospects, he couldn't raise the other $250,000 and Finley instead went to St. Louis.
Undaunted, Bowden has gone out and acquired Brian Moehler from the Tigers, Ryan Dempster from the Marlins and Shawn Estes from the Mets and not added a penny of payroll. Because Bowden has built such a talent pool in his organization -- again, on a small budget -- he was able to essentially sell the prospects to the Tigers and Mets, who paid for the prospects by picking up the salaries or Moehler and Estes, just as the Rangers had agreed to pay Rogers in return for three prospects.
"The important thing is to keep the players in the clubhouse believing we can win this thing," says Bowden. "You have to keep trying."
That said, Bowden was back on the phone this weekend trying to make another deal or two because he needs another infielder. If the Royals will pay the remainder on Neifi Perez's contract or the same thing for the Brewers on Jose Hernandez, maybe a deal can get done. Or perhaps, Bowden will be able to get another reliever.
"Obviously, we can't go get the sure things in most cases because of the money," says Bowden. "But we can take guys with high upsides and try to get them straightened out because of (Reds pitching coach) Don Gullett. That's one of the advantages of having a pitching coach who makes a difference."
Dempster still hasn't smoothed out his delivery to a consistent point, but he likely will. Estes? The ability is there, the confidence often isn't. As for Moehler, the day before the Reds acquired him, Bowden said he needed a pitcher for the next day's noon time game. Two hours later, he had Moehler, and 20 hours later he was pitching for the Reds.
If Dempster and Estes get hot and they can get Griffey and Casey healthy, the Reds may be able to stay within hailing distance of the Cardinals. St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty's acquisition of Finley has turned out to be the second best in-season pitching deal after Montreal's trade for Bartolo Colon, and after dealing for Scott Rolen, Jocketty is still looking for another pitcher, preferably a reliever.
"We hope to have Garrett Stephenson starting on rehab this weekend, and Woody Williams back by the end of the month," says Jocketty. Right now, a savoir for the Cardinals has been Andy Benes, who earlier this spring was talked out of retiring by agent Scott Boras and has come back to the Cardinals to pitch extraordinarily well. What's happened is that while Benes no longer has the power arm he once had, he's pitching in and changing speeds as Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan long preached for him to do, and he's added a splitter he's learned from Professor Finley.
St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati ... if Arizona pulls away in the NL West, it may turn out that the best race for one postseason position is between the three teams in the NL Central. And if it appears that if the lawyers decide to allow the game to be played contrary to their religions, one can be certain that Bowden, Jocketty and Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker will each come up with another move or two before Sept. 1, because they all refuse to give up, in the case of the Reds and Astros, even if their owners refuse to pay one more penny to just smell the playoffs.
Interesting battle going on in AL West
What's disappointing is that Seattle ownership refused to take on any money, despite being one of the top three revenue teams in the game, which prevented the master of the pennant-race deal, Mariners GM Pat Gillick, from giving manager Lou Piniella either a needed extra pitcher or much-needed relief to his thin bench. A's GM Billy Beane has subtracted (Jeremy Giambi) to finance a deep draft that has restocked his farm system, then traded for Ray Durham and Ricardo Rincon. Angels GM Bill Stoneman didn't have the flexibility to add much, although Alex Ochoa is a nice addition.
But the Angels are exactly what Piniella said they'd be in spring training -- dead serious contenders.
"They're not going away, they play the game as hard as any team in the game," says Toronto manager Carlos Tosca. "They hustle all the time, they pitch, and everone feeds off the energy of David Eckstein at the top of the order."
It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think Angels skipper Mike Scioscia is the best young manager in the business, or that Bud Black is one of the best pitching coaches to come along in years. Take how simple they laid it out for Jarrod Washburn: Last Sunday in Toronto he threw 90 percent fastballs, and at one point threw first-pitch strikes to 16 consecutive batters.
"The Angels do a lot of small things very well," says one AL scout. "Now that Pudge Rodriguez is hurt, Bengie Molina is probably the best throwing catcher in the league. Scott Spiezio has improved by leaps and bounds; he used to be an automnatic out (batting) right-handed, but he's made himself a hitter, and he's got energy like Eckstein and Darin Erstad. Black has got that bullpen doing things I never thought possible."
Oh, yes. And Garret Anderson is a baseball metronome. "I'm a great believer in on-base (percentage) and pitch counts, etc.," says one GM. "But there are certain guys who defy those things. Nomar Garciaparra. Derek Jeter. And Anderson is just a helluva player, whether he walks or not. He plays every day, he hits lefties, he's a really good outfielder, he knocks in big runs ... he's one of the best players in our league."
Oakland has some serious offensive issues, especially with Jermaine Dye's leg not completely healed. No AL player may have come up with more important situational hits that kept his team in the race more than Miguel Tejada. Which brings up another issue. Tejada is closing in on the Alex Rodriguez/Garciaparra/Jeter class, is 26, and a free agent at the end of next season. But the A's won't go into full battle array the way the Phillies did with Scott Rolen. "We've been through this before," says Beane, who went through it with Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon last season and still won 102 games.
Incidentally, A's owner Steve Schott's partner Ken Hofman will apparently sell his interest in the team to anyone interested. Next? The issue of whether or not Beane moves to Boston, where owner John Henry has stated that he wants to model the Red Sox organization after the A's ... and he doesn't mean Charlie Finley's A's.
Blue Jays flying high
"What's impressive about the Blue Jays is how hard they play," says Oakland bench coach Ken Macha. "Those guys come to the park early, work hard, then really play the game hard." They played hard for former manager Buck Martinez, but Martinez didn't have the advantage of the coaching staff that is now in place, which is very teaching-oriented. "Brian Butterfield must be the best coach in the world," says rookie second baseman Orlando Hudson. "Work, work, teach. This is great. It's all baseball teaching all the time, and we love it." One visiting clubhouse man says this Toronto team "is the biggest change in attitude I've ever seen."
Tosca and his coaches have created a learning atmosphere. Vernon Wells, who Butterfield believes will be in the Torii Hunter/Mike Cameron class of center fielders, has taken off. Cruz and Shannon Stewart have played better and better. But the highlight has been the young infield of rookie-of-the-year candidate Eric Hinske at third base, Chris Woodward at shortstop and Hudson at second.
"Hinske has Matt Williams feet at third," says Butterfield, who played a big role in the development of Jeter in the Yankees organization. "Hudson is wonderful. What energy. He loves to win. He loves to work and play. He's a joy to be around. And Woodward's just a really good ballplayer. All he needed was a chance to play."
Where Woodward was brought up to the big leagues labeled a utility infielder, now that he's been given the opportunity to play, he's regarded as a Mike Bordick type player with 15-20 home run power.
All of which may allow them to entertain an offer or a prime time young pitcher for Felipe Lopez, who is one of the best shortstop prospects anywhere.
"This is fun because the game is fun and so is work," says Wells, whose confidence has skyrocketed, and with that confidence has come the extraordinary first step takeoff in center field that he demonstrated in the minors.
Just give 'em a chance
"Too many young players are brought to the big leagues then asked to sit and play once or twice a week," says Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "That doesn't work. Sometimes these guys just need to play every day. For instance, when Woodward played every day in the minors, he produced. He's gotten the chance in the big leagues and he's producing again."
Around the majors
"He can be a very good offensive middle infielder for someone," says one AL GM. "He's coming this winter, so it will an interesting bidding situation."
Matsui is hitting .344 with 23 homers and a .903 OPS for the Lions.
History in the making
On Alex Rodriguez: After 75 RCAA/1.026 OPS and 73 RCAA/1.021 OPS the past two years, Rodriguez is having another excellent year as he has a .620 slugging percentage, .400 on-base percentage, 1.035 OPS, 44 RCAA in his first 119 games. He has a .957 career OPS, compared to his league average of .777, and 337 RCAA in 1,071 games.
Most career RCAA while the primary position is shortstop:
Honus Wagner, 850 (1011 total)
On Vladimir Guerrero: After 63 RCAA/1.074 OPS and 22 RCAA/.943 OPS the past two years, Guerrero is having another excellent season as he has a .603 slugging percentage, .412 on-base percentage, 1.015 OPS, 45 RCAA in his first 121 games. He has a .972 career OPS, compared to his league average of .778, and 216 RCAA in 852 games.
Highest career OPS, through the age of 27 (minimum: 3,500 plate appearances):
Lou Gehrig, 1.081
Rodriguez is also 27, so what he does the rest of the year will impact on his spot on the list. Meanwhile, here's the best OPS vs. the league average through the age of 27: