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Volume 68, Wednesday, August 6, 2003


Cubs, Cards and 'Stros make Comedy Central

Astros' lack of starting pitching may stall hopes of getting to the playoffs

Mendoza Line

Ed De La Garza

Ordinarily, a tight division race between three teams makes for some exciting late-summer baseball. As of Tuesday night, a mere three games separated Houston, St. Louis and Chicago in the National League Central. But none of the three can be considered among the league's best. For every step forward each team takes, they take another two steps back.

Houston starter Ron Villone's recent meltdown (he gave up six runs in four innings of work against the New York Mets on Tuesday night) left the Astros with the unenviable task of having to come back from a big deficit early in the game. The relievers put the 'Stros in a 10-1 hole they couldn't come back from. After building as much as a three-game lead on St. Louis and a 5.5-game lead on the Cubs two weeks ago, the Astros are back to licking their wounds after going just 4-7 in their last 11 games.

Meanwhile, those Cubs (who went 67-95 last year) are still in the race despite being just over .500. But unlike Houston and St. Louis, the Cubbies are making any deal they think will help them win the pennant. The Astros and Cards may have tried to acquire some help before the non-waiver trading deadline Thursday, but the Cubs were the only team to actually do it.

Chicago traded for Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to bolster its lineup. The Cubs finally have a legitimate third baseman and another proven veteran with postseason experience. And they're probably not done making deals. They attempted to acquire Rafael Palmeiro from the Texas Rangers but he followed Juan Gonzalez' lead and vetoed the deal. If he has any sense, he'll realize that, no matter how loyal he is to a franchise, the Rangers are far from being contenders. Funny as it sounds, the Cubs have a chance of reaching the playoffs.

The Astros have until Aug. 31 to make a deal in the "post-waiver period." In order to trade a player, clubs have to place that player on waivers. If no other team picks him up, he can be traded. Sometimes, division rivals will claim a coveted player to keep another team from getting better. It's happened, but a team has to be able to take on the salary.

While Villone's performance and Roy Oswalt's chronic groin problem only stress how badly the Astros' need starting pitching, there really aren't any available pitchers they should trade for. But they could use some offense for that hitter's park downtown.

Who's available? Well, if the sky's the limit, then the most highly coveted player would be Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez expressed a desire to be traded prior to the deadline but then quickly reneged. But if you think Drayton McLane will ever approve a $25 million-per-year contract, think again.

Same as last week, the Astros should look to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They may not be willing to give up that franchise's lone star (Brian Giles), but they could part with Jason Kendall. He's hitting .301 with four homers and 39 RBIs, a vast improvement from Brad Ausmus (.212, 2 HR, 29 RBIs). Ausmus is one of the league's best defensive catchers, but he routinely struggles at the plate. Kendall's drawback is a $8.5 million salary, although Pittsburgh could be persuaded to pay a portion of it.

In a season where no team seems willing to go on a lengthy hot streak and 85 to 90 wins should be enough to win the pennant, any deal could swing the balance.

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