John Donovan
Friday June 15th, 2007

The National League Central, as anyone with a halfway-discerning eye or a recent copy of the latest standings can attest, is awful. Top to bottom, from Milwaukee to Cincinnati, it's the worst division in baseball.

Still, someone has to win the thing. And there's one good way to do that, to take charge of a division in which no one seems to want the wheel.

Trade, anyone?

The NL Central, more than any place in baseball, is ripe for one good swap this trade season, one well-placed whopper of a deal that would turn the division on its earflap. And who better to pull that deal off than Wayne Krivsky, the general manager of the last-place Reds? Krivsky, barely into his second year as a big-league GM, has managed a mega-trade before. He just may be inclined to do it again this season.

As SI.com's Jon Heyman reported earlier this week, Reds slugger Adam Dunn already is out there for the right package. So, probably, is hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr. The Reds, clearly, are willing to deal, if not particularly willing to talk about it.

"We'll take a reading on things as we go along," Krivsky said this week, leaning on the railing next to the Reds' dugout at Great American Ball Park. "I think the biggest thing we need right now is health."

It was just 11 months ago, as you might recall, that Krivsky pulled off the blockbuster of the season, trading two regulars (shortstop Felipe Lopez and outfielder Austin Kearns) to the Nationals for a couple of relievers, a fill-in shortstop and some minor leaguers. Krivsky was ripped far and wide for the swap. Even his buddy, former Mets GM Steve Phillips, let him have it on ESPN.

The deal didn't do either team much immediate good. Neither made it to the postseason last year, and it's very unlikely either will this season. Still, the effort counts for something. And Krivsky isn't about to concede that the trade was anything but a positive for his team.

Neither Lopez nor Kearns have been very good in Washington. (Some, in fact, might call them total busts.) And while Gary Majewski (who may or may not have been injured before the trade, a sticking point now between the Nats and Reds) has been batted about in his first six innings or so since his return to the Cincinnati bullpen, Krivsky still has big hopes for him.

Another piece in the trade, lefty reliever Bill Bray, should be off of Cincinnati's disabled list by the end of the month. And a non-headlined part of the deal, 21-year-old right-hander Daryl Thompson, is pitching well in Class A ball with the Reds. Also, former closer Eddie Guardado is expected back by the end of the month.

If the return of Majewski and Bray solidifies the Reds' bullpen -- however unlikely that may be -- and that leads to an improvement in the slumping rotation (Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, Kyle Lohse, rookie phenom Homer Bailey), Cincinnati still could be a factor in the Central. The Reds score more than 4 1/2 runs a game, fifth in the NL. If their pitching is there, the Reds will improve. One good trade could put them in the running.

But everyone else in the sad, sad Central is thinking about getting better, too.

• During their 24-10 start the Brewers hit .271 with a .790 OPS, scoring 4.97 runs a game. In their 12-20 dive since then they're hitting .250, with a .736 OPS, scoring 3.90 runs a game. They could use a little offensive punchup. Or a big one.

• We've all seen the struggles that the Cubs have endured in the first few weeks of the season. The bullpen's 4.01 ERA is ninth in the league. Jacque Jones' play is hurting them. If guys like reliever Neal Cotts, on rehab, Felix Pie or Matt Murton can't help soon, GM Jim Hendry may go the trade route.

• Yes, the Cardinals are playing better. But is a 6-6 record this month much of a positive indicator? They have the worst pitching staff in the NL (5.27 runs a game), one that is lowlighted by a rotation with a 5.49 ERA. And a trade for a good starter will be almost impossible to make.

• Only the Reds have a worse bullpen ERA than the Pirates, who have given up a league-high 29 home runs. The team has moved Shawn Chacon to the 'pen, but Pittsburgh will need more than that. The Bucs have been traditionally shy at the trade deadline, though.

• Everyone rips on the Astros for their lack of scoring, as they should. Houston averages 4.08 runs a game, better only than Arizona and Washington in the NL. But the rotation could use another arm, too. The easy route: Dip into the bullpen (Brad Lidge?) for a third-base bat or a starter.

Can one earth-shattering trade make the difference in the Central? No, probably not. But a trade can be a start. And if there's anything this division needs, top to bottom, it's a jump-start.

Not that anyone in the division is looking at anyone else.

"We just have to take care of our own business," Krivsky said.

Where we jump into the discussion about the American League starter in the All-Star Game and other things ...

Josh Beckett is worth one short sentence in comparison to C.C. Sabathia? I thought you followed baseball for a living! His stats are better and you are wrong in your view that he is not as important to Boston as C.C. is to Cleveland. Sabathia is good, Beckett is a better pitcher this year. -- Steve Hewins, Portland, Me.

Look, Steve, Beckett has been good (well, until he was hammered on Thursday night by the Rockies). So has Oakland's Dan Haren. And so have several others that I listed in that piece. Any of them, or at least most of them, could start the All-Star Game. All I'm saying about Sabathia is that he's been good all this season, especially lately, and he's been darn near the best pitcher in the league over the past year (including the second half of last season). That matters, or it should. If the Indians' Sabathia goes out and soils the sheets in his next three starts -- forget it. Give it to Beckett or Haren or someone else. But if he keeps this up, he has to be in the discussion. As far as importance to the team: You have to admit, Steve, Boston's staff could hold up without Beckett a lot easier than Cleveland's could without Sabathia.

Your article about the Angels' ability to manufacture runs without a power bat behind Vladimir Guerrero got me thinking: Is there any difference between this team and the Mariners in 2001 that won 116 games without a "big bopper" in the lineup? -- Per Enfield, Portland, Ore.

Well, Per, that Seattle team, as you know, had a much better leadoff hitter (Ichiro). And although the Mariners didn't have a classic big bopper, Bret Boone had a career year, cranking 37 homers and driving in 141 runs. Their cleanup hitter, John Olerud, hit over .300, had better than a .400 on-base percentage and drove in 95 runs. DH Edgar Martinez was awesome. So was Mike Cameron, who started the year in the No. 2 hole, then ended up hitting behind Olerud and Boone. That team scored 30 more runs than any team in baseball, more than 5.7 a game. Are the Angels all that? Nope. Hard to beat 116 wins.

I am so sick of you harping on the Brewers. This is by far the most fun Brewers fans have had since ... well, since 1992. They're a good, young team. This is a great test for them -- slumps like this can sink teams right out of the race. If they can pull out of it, and hang to first place, then they've taken a huge step as an organization. -- Rob Novak, San Diego

You know, Rob, I agree with you. In fact, I think the Brewers have taken a pretty big step as it is, barring a complete collapse. They've shown that they can compete again, and that's huge. I just object to all those early bandwagon jumpers who, after 34 games, anointed this as the next great club. The Brewers are still a long way from that.

I am confused about your statement that Jason Giambi's use of steroids may predate baseball's rule against them. I read in another column that baseball has always banned steroids, which would make sense since they're illegal, but did not test for them until recently because of opposition from the players' union. Which is correct? -- Benny Fontane, New Iberia, La.

Good catch. I shouldn't have said that Giambi's alleged use may have predated any baseball rule against steroids. I should have said that any use may have pre-dated any baseball penalties. Steroids were banned from the game as far back as June of 1991, when then-commissioner Fay Vincent said so in a memo to clubs. That memo had no teeth because there was no provision for testing, so use was impossible to prove and penalties impossible to impose. Baseball had no testing program, and no spelled-out penalties, until the latest drug policy was ratified by the players' union, in 2002. The first so-called "survey" testing first took place in '03.

Another point that you and another reader bring up: Steroids and other performance-enhancers have long been federally controlled substances, so their possession, use and distribution is, first and foremost, against federal law. Still, MLB has no grounds to penalize someone for breaking federal law without proof.

Last point: Some have suggested that, if Bud Selig gets no cooperation from Giambi, he might use his "best interests of baseball" clause to suspend him. It might happen. But in my discussions with people in and around baseball, and after asking Selig about using that power earlier this year, I just don't think it's likely. He needs to be very careful how he uses the "best interests" clause. If he pulls out the big gun and it doesn't do the job, it's not the big gun any longer.

During their nine-game winning streak the Yankees are hitting .323 as a team with a .403 on-base percentage. They've slugged 10 homers (among 33 extra-base hits) and scored 67 runs in those games (7.4 a game) and have averaged more than 11 hits a game. Meanwhile, their pitchers have held the other guys to a .226 average with a 2.63 ERA. That should explain just about everything. ... But, just to point this out: Alex Rodriguez is hitting .438 with a 1.506 OPS during the streak. He's driven in 21 of those 67 runs in the nine games. ... One other Yankee note: Andy Pettitte, in his return to the ever-tough AL East, has a 3.00 ERA in 14 starts. ...Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach? Well, Eddie Murray is out as hitting coach of the Dodgers. ... The Astros will have to make do with Eric Bruntlett and Mark Loretta at shortstop after Adam Everett broke his leg in that collision with left fielder Carlos Lee. The Astros will miss Everett's defense, but they might well pick up a little offense with the other guys. And some scoring is what this team needs more than anything. Well, that and a left fielder who doesn't bowl over shortstops. ... When Dan Wheeler and Chris Sampson clashed in the Houston dugout on Wednesday, that about said it all for the Astros. Sampson: "C'mere, big guy. You look like you need a hug." Wheeler: "Get out of my face. I stink. Leave me alone!" ... Being swept by the Nationals might be the straw that gets Baltimore skipper Sam Perlozzo fired. Then what of his buddy and best man, pitching coach Leo Mazzone? ... The average crowd at beautiful Camden Yards for the Nats-Birds series was a measly 21,234. That's going to hurt those interleague attendance numbers. ... How bad have the Mets been this month? The Braves are 5-9 in June and they've gained two games on New York.

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