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Trade frenzy skips Johnson

Aug 3, 2004 5:35 AM

The dust has settled as the baseball trading deadline passed last Saturday with only one really big name changing uniforms.

It was not Arizona’s Randy Johnson, although the Diamondbacks did part with a quality player, sending Steve Finley to the Dodgers. The Boston Red Sox were able to part with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra as one of a series of trades involving four teams. The ultimate impact on Boston was to strengthen its porous defense by acquiring a pair of Gold Glove infielders, Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. Garciaparra adds another offensive weapon to the Chicago Cubs.

The New York Mets were surprising buyers of talent despite falling to the bottom of National League wild card contenders since the All Star break. Perhaps the Mets feel they can sign pitchers Kris Benson (from Pittsburgh) and Vic Zambrano (from Tampa Bay) but the moves are curious for a team with very little realistic chance of making the playoffs this season.

Perhaps the most bizarre moves were made by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bizarre in the sense that most astute observers believe the Dodgers made a huge trade with Florida with the expectation that they were going to get pitcher Randy Johnson from Arizona and catcher Charles Johnson from Colorado.

Neither happened and the Dodgers are left without Paul LoDuca, whose solid on the field accomplishments are equaled by the value of his intangibles. Los Angeles also parted with a pair of key relief pitchers and although they ended up with a promising starting pitcher in Brad Penny, most in the baseball world are puzzled by the moves.

With the trading deadline in the rear view mirror the focus intensifies on the divisional and wild card races in each league. Less than 60 games remain for the contending teams.

St. Louis continues to have the best record in baseball and a double digit lead in the NL Central while the New York Yankees are just a game weaker and a half game shy of a double digit margin in the AL East. Both appear headed to the postseason and shall be the favorites to meet in the World Series.

Races that were tight a week ago have opened up over the past seven days. Atlanta is now 5½ games ahead of Philadelphia and six in front of Florida in the NL East. Minnesota has opened up a five game cushion over the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central with Cleveland 1½ further back. And after taking two of three in San Diego over the weekend, the Dodgers are 3½ up on the Padres. San Francisco is 5½ back.

The tightest divisional race is in the AL West where Oakland has overtaken Texas for the lead with the Rangers 1½ behind. Anaheim is just 2½ out.

Both wild card races are quite competitive. In the AL, five games separate current leader Texas from the fifth place team Cleveland. Anaheim and Boston are each a game behind the Rangers and the White Sox are 3½ out.

The NL wild card chase is slightly more contentious with several teams in good position a week or so ago now below .500 and realistically non-contenders. These teams would include the Mets, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Milwaukee is the closest, trailing leader San Diego by 6½ games. Defending World Series champion Florida is 5½ out. The Cubs are San Diego’s closest pursuer, trailing by just one game. San Francisco is two back, with Houston and Philadelphia each five games out.

The most dangerous team might be the Cubs. With their starting rotation healthy and the offense strengthened by the Garciaparra trade, the Cubs have the right balance to make a charge late in the season. All of the Cubs starters are capable of going six or seven innings, which could make the bullpen the freshest down the stretch.

If the Cubs do make the playoffs as a wild card, that rotation makes them a formidable obstacle for St. Louis or any other challenger. The Cubs and Red Sox should be favorites to win the wild cards and again torture their fans in the postseason. However, recent history shows wild cards reps have won each of the last two Fall Classics.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Phillies at Dodgers: The Phils are considered to have the better offense while Los Angeles has the superior pitching, especially with Eric Gagne as the closer. The Dodgers are likely to be favored throughout the series and playable when favored at -125 with one exception. The best chance for the Phils will be in Kevin Millwood’s start provided the line is even money.

Philadelphia won all three prior meetings this season at home back in mid May. Two of the three went "over" the total in a hitter friendly stadium. The "over" is playable 7 or less, while the "under" is preferred 9 or higher.

Cubs at Giants: The teams have played just three games this season with the Giants winning twice at Wrigley in mid May. All three went "under" the total and there were just 16 runs scored. The "under" should again be the play in this series, especially with the matchup of the Cubs starting pitching against the rather ordinary Giants offense aside from Barry Bonds. It will be interesting to see what strategy ex-Giants manager Dusty Baker uses against Bonds.

The smart strategy would be to issue walks almost every time. The "under" may be played at 8. When Jason Schmidt pitches, lower it down to 7. The Cubs are playable as underdogs in any game or even if favored by no more than -120. Against Schmidt, the Cubs must be at least +110. The Cubs are the better balanced team and should be able to win at least twice.

Indians at White Sox: Chicago has been hampered by the losses of Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez from the offense. The Sox are 7-4 against Cleveland this year, including a pair of shutout wins by Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia when the teams met at Jacobs Field two weeks ago. Chicago does have the edge in starting pitching, even with the substitution of Jose Contreras for Esteban Loaiza following their trade with the Yankees.

As currently constructed the White Sox’ roster resembles that of the old Dodgers — heavy on pitching and light on hitting. The "under" is preferred at 9 or higher, while the "over" should be played at 8 or lower. Cleveland’s best chances for wins will be as dogs against pitchers other than Buehrle or Garcia.

A’s at Twins: Oakland has momentum in this four-game set, having overtaken Texas for the lead in the AL West over this past weekend. Starting pitching has been the Oakland strength, but the offense has been improving recently. The Athletics have scored at least four runs in all but one of their last nine games, averaging nearly seven runs in this stretch. Play Oakland as an underdog against any Twins’ starter except Johan Santana.

Similarly Minnesota is playable as an underdog against any Oakland starter not named Mark Mulder. Barring a midweek rainout we won’t get to see a Mulder vs. Santana matchup. If that does occur, play the "under" at 7. Otherwise the "over" at 9 is our choice in games started by pitchers other than Santana or Mulder. In games started by Mulder or Santana, the "under" is playable at 8 or higher.