07/10/08 10:00 AM ET
Inside Pitch: Cubs, Brewers aren't locks
Acquiring aces may not be enough to boost NL Central clubs
By Jim Molony / MLB.com
"You're still talking about guys who are going to be on the field once every five days," an AL scout said. "They're both outstanding pitchers, and they're going to make their teams better, no question, but that doesn't mean either team is a lock [to reach the playoffs]. [Oakland GM] Billy Beane is as smart as they come. I don't think he moves Harden now unless he sees him as a health risk."
Sabathia struggled earlier this year, and may face an adjustment period in a new league. Harden has had health issues throughout his big league career. There are enough concerns with both aces to convince some scouts that both getting through the next 2 1/2 months without a setback is unlikely.
"Harden's worked 150 innings one time [in 2004], he hasn't pitched much in September and when he has, he hasn't been all that great," the scout said, referring to the right-hander's 4-3 record and 4.90 ERA in 17 career September appearances. "Sabathia's always been better in the second half, but you have to wonder after all the innings he threw last year."
The big lefty made 34 regular season starts and pitched 241 innings last year, both career highs, then worked another 15 1/3 innings in three postseason starts.
Both will have to bat and run the bases in the National League, and while Sabathia has demonstrated he's no slouch with the stick, it's an added dimension that means more risk than either pitcher faced when they were employed by American League teams. The Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang, for example, was injured running the bases in an Interleague game at Houston last month.
Even if both stay healthy, there's no guarantee Harden or Sabathia will provide their respective team with more of a boost than the Cardinals might get next month if, as expected, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter return from the disabled list.
More often than not, the midsummer addition of an ace has helped a team nail down a playoff berth, such as Don Sutton with Milwaukee and Tommy John with the Angels in 1982, Randy Johnson with Houston in 1998 and Greg Maddux with the Dodgers in 2006.
Other times, the tactic hasn't worked as hoped.
Cincinnati, seeking a third straight World Series title in 1977, trailed the Dodgers by seven games in the NL West when the Reds sent four players to New York for Mets right-hander Tom Seaver on June 15, 1977. Seaver went 14-3 with a 2.34 ERA for the Reds the rest of the way, but Cincinnati finished in second place, 10 games back. Seaver, though, did help the Reds win a division title two years later.
The Diamondbacks were percentage points behind the Giants in the NL West race when they sent four players to the Phillies for Curt Schilling on July 26, 2000. Schilling went 5-6 with a 3.69 ERA in 13 starts as Arizona missed the playoffs, but the Diamondbacks, with Schilling and Johnson leading the way, won the World Series a year later.
Montreal, trailing Atlanta by 6 1/2 games in the NL East in late June 2002, sent Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens to Cleveland for right-hander Bartolo Colon. Colon went 10-4 with four complete games for the Expos, same as he did for the Indians that year, but Montreal finished second, 19 games behind the Braves. Colon moved on to the White Sox after his 17 games with Montreal.
According to a scout who recently saw Rays top prospect David Price: "His fastball is low 90s to 96, and it's never straight. He has a lot of late life and movement."
Price, the first overall pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, will likely be promoted in the second half and could provide a major impact starter to an already impressive team.
The Rays, also-rans in the CC Sabathia chase, have scouts looking at relievers, with Ron Mahay and Brian Fuentes among the pitchers they are considering.
A few contending teams have contacted Houston regarding infielder Mark Loretta and outfielder-first baseman Darin Erstad in case the Astros, currently in last place in the NL Central, decide to become sellers.
Loretta, who started the 2006 All-Star Game for the American League at second base, can handle a number of positions and is a very good pinch-hitter. Erstad, a Gold Glove-winner who can play all three outfield spots, is batting .301.
The Rangers are open to dealing Frank Catalanotto, who has been hitting for average but not much power. Signed through next year for $4 million with a performance-based option for 2010, the Rangers have been using the left-handed-hitting Catalanotto against right-handers.
The Nationals are trying to sign shortstop Cristian Guzman to an extension, but with several teams looking for shortstop help recently, the Nats will see if there's any increased interest in the shortstop.
An NL scout believes opposing pitchers are figuring out how to pitch Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. After batting .327 the first month of the season, Fukudome hit .293 in May, .264 in June and .200 through the first eight games of July. His walks, on-base percentage and extra-base hits have also declined each month.
"He's going to have to adjust, because it's clear [the pitchers] have already adjusted to him," the scout said. "Nobody knew much about him when he got here, and now they're learning. The next move is his."
While not giving out specifics, the scout said pitchers are being more aggressive with Fukudome.
"I think he's just struggling," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He's coming off the ball. He's not staying on the ball like he was earlier in the year."
Piniella believes a little rest will help Fukudome get going.
Losing Matt Capps to injury makes it less likely the Pirates will be willing to deal Damaso Marte before the deadline, though the Pirates aren't expected to pick up Marte's $6 million option for 2009.
With Josh Johnson's return, the Marlins are expected to make Mark Hendrickson available. Hendrickson is making $1.5 million this year.
Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki has 37 consecutive singles and has gone a career-high 116 consecutive at-bats without an extra-base hit. Between Ichiro and platoon center fielder Willie Bloomquist, the two are singles kings. Bloomquist is 25-for-101 this season -- all singles.
An AL scout believes Sidney Ponson will help the Yankees in the second half.
"His fastball has more sink on it than it did before," the scout said. "He's getting a lot of ground balls and keeping his pitch counts down. I think he'll give them a lot of good innings."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.