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Tom Verducci's View

Aug. 30, 2004
Aug. 30, 2004

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Aug. 30, 2004

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Tom Verducci's View

MAKE A MOVE, BUD

This is an article from the Aug. 30, 2004 issue Original Layout

Baseball owners don't want an independent-thinking commissioner, so their decision last week to extend the contract of Bud Selig (right) for three more years, through 2009, should come as a surprise only to those who still believe in the tooth fairy. While taking bows, however, Selig still had no answer for his most vexing current problem: where to move the Montreal Expos.

The Expos, who are owned by the league, have been up for sale for three years. Having blown every self-imposed deadline for deciding their fate, Selig wants us to believe the bidding cities still "have a lot of work to do. [It's] ongoing." What the delays really mean is that Selig still has no easy answer for what to do next. He can put the team in Washington, D.C., but that could hurt the Orioles financially and infuriate his friend Peter Angelos, Baltimore's owner. He can put the team in Loudoun County, Va., but that suburban setting would be an unprecedented gamble for a commissioner who has pushed urban ballparks as a means of reviving the game. Norfolk and Las Vegas, the other remaining contenders, are long shots.

THE PIRATES' BOOTY

Pittsburgh, a franchise without a homegrown 15game winner since John Smiley won 20 in 1991, is grooming its best group of young starters in years. Former first-round picks Sean Burnett, 21, and John Van Benschoten, 24, (left) and sleeper Ian Snell, 22, all have made their major league debuts this year while another first-round pick, Bobby Bradley, 23, is finally healthy at Double A Altoona after three injury-riddled seasons. Pittsburgh already has a young ace in Oliver Perez, 23, who was obtained last year from San Diego in the Brian Giles deal. Through Sunday, Perez led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (11.0) and was seventh in ERA (2.90). He also needs just 25 strikeouts to become only the second pitcher in the franchise's 118-year history to strike out 200 batters. The other, Bob Veale, last did it in 1969.

"We don't have the number of [upcoming] position players we'd like," says Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, "but we think we have high-quality starting pitching, and that's where you need numbers. You can't hang your hat on one or two pitchers, because injuries or circumstances can knock guys off track. We feel good about our numbers."

HOPELESS IN HOUSTON

Astros lefthander Andy Pettitte (left elbow surgery) is finished for the year, and so are the high hopes in Houston. Forget about the wild card--the Astros were 6 1/2 games out at week's end. No team in the nine-year history of the wild-card era has ever made it to the postseason after starting September more than 2 1/2 games out of playoff position.

Houston owner Drayton McLane ponied up to sign Pettitte (right) and Roger Clemens in the off-season and added centerfielder Carlos Beltran on June 24 but was left with an old, mediocre team. Like Seattle, Houston needs an overhaul after it aged quickly, relying too much on stalwarts such as Craig Biggio, 38; Jeff Bagwell, 36; Jeff Kent, 36; and Brad Ausmus, 35.

THREE STRIKES

1. The Cubs may be getting healthier after a rash of injuries, but they still don't have their act together. Said one opposing G.M., "You think they should win the wild card, but for a team with veteran players and a veteran manager, they make way too many mistakes on the bases and in the field."

2. Oakland's Big Three has been recast. Rich Harden, who has looked better each time out, has now joined Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, making Barry Zito look more expendable this winter, especially as the A's hunt for money to re-sign Hudson.

3. The Padres made a mistake giving centerfielder Jay Payton a two-year deal after his Coors Field--inflated season in Colorado, but give them credit for admitting the error and turning his job over to fleet rookie Freddy Guzman. Spacious Petco Park demands an elite fly chaser, especially with Ryan Klesko and Brian Giles playing the corner spots.

COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (SELIG)COLOR PHOTOPAUL CONNORS/AP (VAN BENSCHOTEN)COLOR PHOTOJOHN IACONO (PETTITTE)