Look Who is Contending! And, Notes From the Training Room…

I was looking at the standings and there it was…  Pittsburgh is 7 – 5, and with a win last night the Nationals are 7 – 6.  San Diego matches that – good enough for second in the NL West.  Oakland leads the AL West at 9 – 5.

It’s only been two weeks, sure…  Still – nice to see a couple of surprise teams making a little early noise.

One Cheat Passes Another…

Alex Rodriguez hit home run #584, passing Mark McGwire for eighth on the all-time list.  Somewhere, a chemistry teacher feels rewarded for his or her work in the classroom.  Anyway…  Frank Robinson is next, and in a few months, there should be seven players with at least 600 homers in their career.  [FoxSports]

Fond Farewell…

Eric Gagne, for a few years the most feared reliever in baseball, called it a career.  The Dodgers released Gagne after a few poor outings in Spring Training and Gagne told a Montreal website he had lost his desire to play.  Gagne’s elbow, back, and shoulder have all required surgery, and it was fraying in his rotator cuff a couple of years ago that scared off the Red Sox.  Gagne was also mentioned in the Mitchell report for having received HGH from Kirk Radomski.  [SI]

But He Made The Ten Best Dressed List…

Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon was told by MLB that he can no longer wear his favorite hoodie sweatshirt – one he frequently wears under his jacket to stay warm.  Maddon says he prefers the hoodies to winter coats.

From the Training Room…

Baltimore outfielder Felix Pie will likely miss the next three months recovering from an injury to his left shoulder – he ruptured the latissimus dorsai behind that shoulder.  Fortunately, no surgery is required, but he needs rest and rehab before he can play again.  [MLB]

Meanwhile, other Orioles remain on the mend…  Brian Roberts, already on the DL with abdominal injuries, saw a spinal specialist, Koji Uehara is testing his sore left hamstring, and Miguel Tejada says he’s ready to play after straining a hip adductor muscle.  The guy who may not be on the mend is manager Dave Trembley.  The Orioles are 2 – 11 already and now face New York or Boston for the next dozen games.  [MLB]

The Red Sox can’t buy a win, and now are stuck playing Bill Hall in centerfield with two other outfielders unable to play…  Jacoby Ellsbury collided with Adrian Beltre a week ago and has a severely bruised chest, while Mike Cameron still hasn’t found abdominal relief days after passing a kidney stone.  [MLB/ESPN]

Phillies starter J.A. Happ will miss a turn with a strained elbow.  Is Pedro Martinez still available? [ESPN]

Seattle starter Erik Bedard‘s return from shoulder surgery continues apace with the goal of making the team by Memorial Day.  [MLB]

San Diego starter Chris Young is playing catch, but is still some time away from returning to the Padres.  Young is the new Mike Hampton.  [MLB]

Transaction Wire

The Dodgers sent Russ Ortiz back to AAA (he was actually designated for assignment), and will give a roster spot to Jon Link.  Link was a former Padre and White Sox farmhand who was acquired in the Juan Pierre trade.  A Virginia Commonwealth grad, Link has made steady progress in the minors and looks to have closer stuff – but not quite.  Link has good strikeout numbers but he’s a touch wild, and his ERA hasn’t been around 2.00 – it’s more like 3 to 3.5.  Still – he can take some middle innings and not be too bad.

Arizona placed Conor Jackson on the DL with a right hamstring strain and immediately recalled Esmerling Vasquez – who hadn’t even made it to AAA when he was recalled.

The Mets recalled 1B prospect Ike Davis, the 23-year-old out of Arizona State.  Davis had made progress in the minors and was a stud during spring training.  He looks to have mid-range power, a big swing, and a little patience.  I think he can hit .275 or so in the bigs (but strike out a LOT) – still the Mets might as well give him a shot.  It’s not like Carlos Delgado is coming back any time soon.

Happy Birthday!

1876 – Charlie Hemphill – I think he played with Rube in the California League in 1902
1891 – Dave Bancroft (Hall of Fame shortstop)
1946 – Tommy Hutton – now a Marlins TV commentator and a good one
1950 – Milt Wilcox
1961 – Don Mattingly
1973 – Todd Hollingsworth

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2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73

For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed.  In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored.  In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games.  That can’t keep happening…

Season Recap:

On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009.  Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss.  Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June.  As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games.  This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.

What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo.  A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500.  When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go.  September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.

Were they really that good?  Probably not.  The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768).  Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.

Pitching:

Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up.  Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts.  And that’s where it ends.

Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez.  Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings.  How many of you thought he would make 100 innings?  Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings.  Ouch.  Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts.  Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88.  Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy.  No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.

What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen.  Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings.  LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA.  Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings.  Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…

For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation.  A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average.  Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some.  Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss.  Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.

For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins.  Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement.  Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom.  I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.

Catching:

Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer.  After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.

One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup.  Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills.  Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s call the overall production a wash.

Infield:

Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting.  He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries.  Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here.  If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.

Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going.  At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.

Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles.  He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position.  He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella.  Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada.  He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.

Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least.  He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base.  Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.

On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.

Outfield:

Offensively, this is a strong unit.  Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source.  Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense.  Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.

Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left.  He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip.  Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.

Prospects:

Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson.  He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson.  Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010.  At 25, Johnson has to step up now.  Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010.  Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).

The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season.  He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler.  Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving.  He must be a brutal fielder.  Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count.  He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.

Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out.  Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now.  I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings.  He could be a future closer.  Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.

2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings.  Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough.  2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average.  He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA.  Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.

Forecast:

I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central.  I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs.  There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]

Your Weekend Baseball Update: Comings and Goings of the Stars

Already covered the Scott Kazmir trade – so here’s the rest of what was a pretty interesting weekend of baseball, even if the only races worth watching are the Wild Card races.

Jake Peavy was pushing it – trying to use an elbow that had just been nailed by a liner five days back.  Saturday, he left his start early and now he’s going to have an MRI.  Sheesh – if he’d just waited it out, maybe there’s nothing wrong.  If he misses more than just a turn in the rotation, it’s a much bigger problem.  [ESPN]

Randy Johnson hopes to begin throwing again, but if he returns to the Giants he’s coming back to the bullpen.  I’d love to see him one more time, as even Johnson has no idea if he’s got a 2010 season in him.  [ESPN]

Boston’s Tim Wakefield took a cortisone shot to relieve pain in his back, but it will be a few days before it will be known if he’s going to be able to pitch down the stretch.  Wakefield has been out nearly six weeks now.  Meanwhile, somebody finally signed Paul Byrd; it was Boston and he pitched well enough this weekend to offer hope as a fifth starter option.  [ESPN]

Houston’s Mike Hamption is done for 2009, another season ending in injury.  Hampton is scheduled to have surgery on both knees and his throwing shoulder – knocking off three at once rather than pushing out his career DL trip record with two more trips next year.  Manager Cecil Cooper says Hampton should come back as a pinch hitter.  [SI]

Another Astro who won’t be coming back soon – Chad Qualls.  Qualls was twisting out of the way of a liner hit back up the middle when his left leg buckled, dislocating his knee cap.  He got the save (it was the last pitch of the game), but Qualls called for help immediately after he went down.  [MLB]

The Dodgers got a utility infielder, Ronnie Belliard, from the Nationals for a minor leaguer and a PTNL.  Belliard needs playing time to stay sharp because (if you haven’t seen him lately) he’s not the fittest looking guy and if he doesn’t play his timing goes off quickly.  The Nationals get Luis Garcia, who (if I am correct in guessing WHICH Luis Garcia he is) is a pretty good, albeit very young, reliever throwing for the Great Lakes Loons in the Midwest League.  This Luis Garcia has 55 ks and 15 bbs in 71 innings, is just 22, and hails from the Dominican Republic.   [MLB]

The Twins signed two relievers, acquiring Jon Rauch for a PTNL from Arizona, and signing the waived Ron Mahay away from Kansas City.  These guys may be experienced, but I’m not certain they are going to be players who change the course of the AL Central race.  [MLB]

My old Hoffman High School friend Robb Tavill is worried that Rich Harden may be on his way out of Chicago, and according to FoxSports, he could be a Twin if a deal can be reached.   St. Louis did a lot of damage in July – the Twins are loading up in August.  [FoxSports]

On the other hand, Twins third baseman Joe Crede is back on the DL with a sore back – a back that is so bad that it’s now considered career threatening.  Crede’s had epidural shots to help relieve pain, but at some point he’s going to have to deal with the pain that has linked to his last operation.  [MLB]

Back to the Cubs… Alfonso Soriano is hoping that the MRI done on his ailing knee gives him hope, else the Cubs could be shutting him down for the rest of 2009.  After a rather disappointing 2009, those six remaining years on his contract seem like such a LONG time…  [FoxSports]

Mets third baseman David Wright wants to play in September and is scheduled to come off the DL soon, a stint caused by a beaning two weeks ago.  One gets the impression from the news stories that Jerry Manual likes that Wright isn’t around and I’m not sure why that is.  But then again, I don’t understand those guys running the Mets.  [FoxSports]

Seattle’s Ian Snell was drilled in the right wrist by a liner on Saturday, but he’ll be fine – didn’t even leave the game.  Snell thanks milk for his bone not breaking – he put up his right arm in self-defense.  [MLB]

Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce is finally able to swing with his injured wrist – he hopes to get back to the Reds before the season is out.  Bruce broke his wrist diving for a ball in right field on July 11th and has been out since then.  [MLB]

Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks injured his foot rounding the bases on a home run trot and had to leave Saturday’s game – so the plantar fasciitis that he’s been suffering from (similar to the injury that hobbled Carlos Quentin and my running partner Mike Coe) is rearing its ugly foot.  Now, Blanks is on the DL.  [MLB]

Toronto’s Marco Scutaro was drilled in the head by a Josh Beckett fastball on Friday night, suffering a mild concussion, and remains day-to-day.  Scutaro and Aaron Hill have carried the Jays offense this season.  [MLB]

FoxSports reporter Chris Ballard wonders why teams are hooked on the five man rotation.  I think Ballard is even missing a more important point – and that’s why do teams use a five man rotation and not a five DAY rotation?  A baseball season is essentially 183 days, so if your ace started every fifth DAY rather than every fifth GAME, you’d get 36 or 37 starts out of him, rather than 33.  Why wouldn’t you take 16 starts away from your fifth starter and give them to the first four slots in the rotation?  I am also in favor of having rookie starters work on six days rest rather than five.  One year in long relief, one year as a fifth starter – getting 16 starts and maybe 10 – 15 relief appearances in between those starts – and then moving into the rotation.

There are teams that have a ton of young pitching that could just go with a six man rotation, too.   We digress.

Hurry Back! Chris Snyder, D-Backs catcher, heads to the DL with inflammation in his lower back.  Seattle’s Russell Branyan is having his best season, and now goes to the DL with a herniated disk in his back.  Florida sent Chris Volstad to AAA New Orleans – he needs to find his command.

Welcome Back! The Rays brought back Akinori Iwamura, who had injured his knee in a collision with Marlin outfielder Chris Coghlan in May.

Smoltz For the Birds; Votto’s Struggles Continue

John Smoltz joined the Cardinals yesterday and will open this weekend as the fifth starter against San Diego.  The reason Smoltz is getting a start is to get him some innings and give the team a chance to see what Smoltz has left.  After two or three starts, Smoltz may stay in the rotation or move to the bullpen.  [ESPN]

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto’s 2009 season continues to provide new challenges.  First, it was dizziness caused by inner ear infections, followed by a DL stint to deal with anxiety and depression.  Now, Votto left a game with blurred vision.  He’s day-to-day.  [ESPN]

Cleveland prospect Matt LaPorta will get another shot with the big league club as Trevor Crowe needs a DL stint to deal with an oblique strain.  LaPorta struggled in a previous call up and needs to demonstrate why he was the centerpiece of last year’s C.C. Sabathia deal.  [SI]

Milwaukee sent outfielder Bill Hall to Seattle for minor league reliever Ruben Flores.  Gordon Ash, Brewers GM, admits that this is a cost saving move.  [SI]

Los Angeles signed Vincente Padilla – who now heads to Albuquerque to make a warm up start before taking Hiroki Kuroda’s spot in the rotation.  [SI]

FoxSports reported that D-Backs starter Jon Garland cleared waivers, meaning any team willing to absorb a few million dollars for a six week stretch run can consider adding Garland to their roster.  [FoxSports]

Houston’s Mike Hampton has a partially torn rotator cuff, but isn’t getting another operation and hopes to pitch one more time this season.  [ESPN]

Mets reliever Billy Wagner is ready to make his return from Tommy John surgery, but if he gets a shot with New York, it’s as an audition…  The Mets are looking to move Wagner before the waiver trading deadline (8/31).  Wagner has a lot of money left on his final contract year and becomes a free agent for 2010.  Again – the Marlins could use someone for the stretch run and it would be a gas if he had anything left…  [ESPN]

Braves infielder Martin Prado is suffering from exertional headaches and is hoping that inflammatory medicines help reduce the strain.  [MLB]

Hurry Back! Willy Taveras (CIN) goes to the DL with a strained left quad.  Everyday Eddie Guardado (TEX) heads to the DL with a strained knee.

Pudge Returns to Rangers; Lots of Baseball Briefs…

Ivan Rodriguez, perhaps the greatest Texas Ranger of all, returns to his original home team for the stretch run.  The Astros traded the veteran to Texas for three prospects (one named, two not) so that Taylor Teagarden could have a veteran backup with Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the DL.   Pudge is no longer the offensive threat he was even three years ago, much less in his prime, hitting like a veteran backup catcher.  On the other hand, what does this say about where Houston is heading?  Houston had made an impressive run to get to into the NL Central mix, only to deal away someone who had been helping keep the Astros staff intact and checking the running game.  J. R. Towles gets one more shot to become the starter they envisioned back in 2007, I guess.  [ESPN]

Who did Houston get?  Matt Nevarez has looked solid at Hickory (A), with 50Ks in just 35 innings, and finally appears to be harnessing his control.  Nevarez is 22, signed four years ago after being drafted in the 10th round out of high school.

Look for Dodger starter Hiroki Kuroda to get a DL stint to recover from post-concussion elements.  [ESPN]

John Smoltz might be a Cardinal?  No team has done more in the last four weeks to upgrade the team than St. Louis.  [ESPN/FoxSports]

Meanwhile, FoxSports thinks that the Dodgers, in need of a starter, might consider Vincente Padilla.  [FoxSports]

I haven’t found the article – admitting that I haven’t searched too much – but I read in the Chicago Tribune that Carlos Zambrano admitted that his back problems start with poor conditioning…  So, while he’s on the DL, Big Z is battling the bulge, too.  Meanwhile, another Carlos Cubbie – Carlos Marmol, finally gets a shot at the closer role – despite his on/off season.  I checked this out yesterday – Kevin Gregg was AWESOME in the month of July, only to fall flat in August (for the second year in a row, by the way).  [FoxSports]

Another pitcher with a bad back isn’t ready to return, and that’s Boston’s Tim Wakefield.  Look for him to rehab for at least two or three more starts.  [ESPN]

Stephen Strasburg isn’t going to be ready to pitch for at least a month, so don’t look for him to pitch in Washington in 2009 – and he’ll likely spend a year in the minors after that.  Word on the street is that the Nationals will not unnecessarily race him to the majors, despite his major league paycheck.  [ESPN]

Fun stuff?  Check out Rob Neyer’s blog on ESPN…

Welcome  Back!  Tampa’s Chad Bradford returns from the DL (officially), costing Reid Brignac a roster spot.  KC’s Kyle Farnsworth returns from his DL stint.

Hurry Back!  Houston’s Mike Hampton heads to the DL with a shoulder strain.  Met Alex Cora heads to the DL with sprains in BOTH thumbs.  Wow.  White Sox Hero Dewayne Wise has a strained right shoulder and gets some time off.

Weekend Update: Aaron Boone’s Got Heart – an Amazing Comeback!

In what would be the greatest comeback that I can think of in recent history, Aaron Boone is getting ready to make a run at returning to the Astros.  Boone’s career and life was put on hold to have open heart surgery to repair a defective valve in March.  He’ll play for two weeks in AA Corpus Christi, spend some time at AAA Round Rock, and hopefully return to the Astros by the end of the year.  God Speed, Mr. Boone.  [MLB]

Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano’s back is bad enough to require a DL stint.  He left his start about a week ago after three innings, and didn’t make a run at his last start.  [FoxSports]

Aaron Cook missed his start with a jammed toe, out of fear that it will mess with his mechanics.

There really isn’t a trading deadline – is there?  David Weathers snuck through waivers and was sent from Cincinnati to Milwaukee for a PTNL.  Weathers is just a season away from 1000 lifetime games.  For those of us who saw him in Florida a long time ago, this seems amazing.  For those of us in Florida wondering if we can get an extra arm in the bullpen, this is disappointing that Milwaukee can do this but Florida cannot. [ESPN]

Stop me if you heard this before…  Houston’s Mike Hampton had to leave his start Saturday with a knee injury and is considered day-to-day (start to start?). [MLB]

 Cleveland’s Jake Westbrook can’t recover from his elbow injury because even his rehab starts get halted due to elbow pain.  A visit to Dr. Yokum is forthcoming.  [MLB]

A rested Gil Meche is expected to start for Kansas City on Thursday…  Meche is a very, very good pitcher and the Royals need him.

Welcome Back!  Eric Stults returns to the Dodgers from Albuquerque.  Except for the occasional injury trip, he should have never left.  Ronald Belisario returns to the Dodgers from the DL.  Yorman Bazardo returns to the Astros from AAA.

Hurry Back!  Angel starter Joe Saunders heads to the DL with shoulder soreness.  Boston SS Jed Lowrie has ulnar neuritis in his balky left wrist and heads to the DL.

Bye – and stay out!  Luis Ayala was sent to AAA by the Marlins.  I didn’t like that they signed him.  Good riddance.