The St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to be one of the deepest, most balanced teams in baseball when the season began four months ago. Now, with the deadline for making trades without waivers looming just four days away, they have to wonder if there's enough help available to keep them in the hunt for a playoff berth.
They already were looking to make a major pitching acquisition before right-hander Matt Morris was hit by a line drive Monday night and suffered a broken bone in his pitching hand. The club estimated that he'll be lost at least until September, and there is the possibility that he won't be ready to pitch again until next season.
General manager Walt Jocketty has intensified his efforts to find help, but it's going to be more difficult to make a reasonable deal now that opposing clubs know that the Cardinals are desperate.
Team executive Bob Gebhard was in New York for the series between the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays early in the week, apparently to check on Blue Jays pitcher Kelvim Escobar and Yankees left-hander Sterling Hitchcock. The Cardinals also figure to make another run at Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson, who earlier was linked with St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew in trade speculation.
Trouble is, they aren't really in a position to trade a productive offensive player, because top hitter Jim Edmonds continues to complain of soreness in his right shoulder - a problem that he aggravated in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game.
Edmonds has taken a cortisone injection and continues to play, but the Cardinals have to accept the possibility that he may need to sit down for a week or two to allow the inflammation to subside.
So far, the Cardinals have benefited from a slow-developing division race to stay close to the top of the National League Central, but the first-place Houston Astros appear to be gathering momentum for a strong stretch run.
Jocketty is caught in a competitive conundrum. The Cardinals are too good to give up on 2003, but the roster situation has become so problematical that it may not make sense to make a deal in this trade market.
Cubs are set
The Chicago Cubs moved decisively to upgrade their attack with the acquisition of third baseman Aramis Ramirez and speedy outfielder Kenny Lofton, but don't expect another shoe to fall during the final days before the Thursday deadline.
"If our pitching's very, very good the rest of the way, then we have a chance," GM Jim Hendry told reporters. "Hopefully we've filled in a few of the cracks that might have been causing some of our shortcomings some days."
The outlook still isn't very good. The Astros are starting to distance themselves from the other NL Central contenders and the Cubs might have the toughest August schedule in baseball. That schedule includes seven head-to-head games against the Astros in the next 3 1/2 weeks.
For all the talk of the effect that a healthy Curt Schilling and a healthy Randy Johnson may have on the fortunes of the Arizona Diamondbacks down the stretch, here's a stat that should make you wonder.
Through Wednesday, the Diamondbacks are 8-16 this year when both Johnson and Schilling are on the active roster. They are 24-12 when both are on the disabled list. When at least one of them has been on the DL, they are 46-31.
Of course, neither pitcher was 100 percent healthy even when they were active during the first four months of the season, which - along with the club's early-season offensive problems - helps explain the soft performance. They figure to be more effective over the last two months of the season, which should keep Arizona in the wild-card hunt.
The Diamondbacks surged back into the NL West race in spite of a spate of first-half injuries to key players, but their rebound unraveled in a four-game series against the division-leading San Francisco Giants that ended Thursday at Pacific Bell Park.
The Giants won four straight to push them 11 games out of first place.
Arizona has been dominated in the season series (10-2), which accounts for much of the difference between the two clubs in the standings.
"They're better than us," Schilling said. "They've outplayed us, they've outpitched us, they've outhit us, they've out-defended us. And that's the reason we're nine games out [after Tuesday night's loss]. We're not playing well enough to be in first place."
The sense of urgency to improve the Boston Red Sox rotation has subsided, because 38-year-old John Burkett has been on a roll. He has a 5-1 record in his past eight appearances ( seven starts) and has more victories (eight) than anyone in the club's rotation except 11-game winner Derek Lowe. The club has won eight of his past 11 starts.