Building a contender an inexact science

Dierker: Building a contender can be tricky

As the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline nears, the baseball pundits are like brokers on the NYSE. Some will get the inside scoop and some will not. But one thing is certain -- deals will be made.

For the second year in a row here in Houston, the Astros will be sellers. Their problem is that they don't have much to sell. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn have been mentioned -- and rightfully so. Many contenders could use one or both of them.

The problem is that when you rebuild a team, you attempt to fill your needs with young players, and Pence and Bourn are both 28 years old. If they were five years older, they would likely join the pennant race in another city in August. That's what happened to Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last season.

As it is, the Astros' position is dicey. If they deal Pence and Bourn, their rebuilding project would have to include replacing them. If they had logical replacements in Triple-A, the decision would be easy. They do not.

But if the Astros don't improve quickly, Pence and Bourn won't be prime-time players when the team comes together. And in the meantime, the team will have to face the prospect of re-signing them when they become eligible for free agency.

The biggest problem the Astros will face in rebuilding the team is the paucity of Major League-ready prospects. In the Astros' organization, if you are young and ready for the show, you are already in Houston.

Some have suggested that the Astros should trade Pence because he is not the type of player you can build a team around. In basketball, you may be able to rebuild a team by adding one superstar, but you can't in baseball.

A-Rod and I-Rod weren't good enough to build an entire team around. The Giants weren't perennial contenders with Willie Mays in center. The Dodgers didn't always participate in the race with Sandy Koufax in his prime. And the Red Sox often finished down in the standings with the Splendid Splinter in left.

The Babe Ruth Yankees were different because they had a supporting cast that included Lou Gehrig and several other Hall of Fame players. You can't do it with one star and a host of lesser luminaries.

So let's look at what it takes to win championships. First and foremost, you need excellent pitching. That means one dominant starter and at least two, more often three innings-eaters who can win more games than they lose.

Next, you need a reliable closer and three more good relievers. If one of them is left-handed, it helps, but this is not a necessity. One way to solve the pitching problem is to have stellar defense, like the current Rays or the Whitey Herzog Cardinals of the 1980's. A Gold Glove defense makes every pitcher on the staff better.

Speaking of defense, it is almost imperative that you have a great catcher, shortstop and center fielder. When I was managing the Astros, we won our division four times without the shortstop or the center fielder. There are exceptions to every rule, and in our case, we did it with power and speed at the other positions, a good bullpen and a great bench.

Your lineup card should start with a speedy leadoff man who can get on base at least 35 percent of the time. If he can also hit with mid-range power, like Lou Brock, Craig Biggio, Rickey Henderson and Kenny Lofton, you have a trump card. You can get by without a leadoff hitter who is also an RBI man, and most teams have to because there aren't enough guys like that to go around.

Your two-hole man should be a contact hitter and decent bunter. He does not have to be a great hitter, but if he can hit with some power or steal a few bases, it helps. The No. 3 man should be your best all-around hitter. He doesn't have to be a slugger, but he has to have some power and a high on-base percentage.

The three hitters that follow should have power. The guy who gets on base most often should hit fourth. Naturally, it is an advantage if these power hitters can run. If one of them can't, he should hit sixth. On most teams, even the best teams, the seven and eight hitters are relatively weak. In the NL, the faster of the two should hit eighth because it is easier for the pitcher to move him up with a bunt.

In an ideal lineup, the batters should go left-right-left so the opposing manager can't bring in a left- or right-handed pitcher to face three guys in a row who hit on the same side as he pitches.

The bench players are much more important than most people think. First, you have to have shortstop covered by a guy who can play every day for a couple of months. It helps to have a catcher who can play every day, too. These players do not have to be on the big league team, but they do have to be in Triple-A, ready to come up on a moment's notice.

It is often useful to have one or even two positions covered in a platoon arrangement. That way, you have pinch-hitters on the bench who play frequently, and you don't have to use two players to make one move. If you have a left- and a right-handed hitter with home run power, you have the possibility of getting back into a losing game with one swing. These guys don't have to be great hitters -- just powerful. Matt Stairs comes to mind.

Finally, it is a tremendous advantage to have a basestealer on the bench. The 1986 Astros won a handful of games they would have lost by using an aging Davey Lopes in this role. I got the same type of advantage with Glenn Barker. When I pinch-ran with him, I didn't bunt. He was in there to steal, and because most closers are not quick to the plate, he was almost always successful. He was our best defensive outfielder, too. We got Bark in the Rule 5 Draft. He had no chance to hit big league pitching, and we knew it. But he could do the specialty job better than anyone else in the league.

Clearly, it is impossible to build a team that has all of these assets. But the closer you come, the better chance you have.

So where does your favorite team stand? Does it need the other side of a platoon position, a defensive outfielder, an innings-eating pitcher? At the end of July, contending teams need to make this evaluation. If they're lucky, like we were in 1998, they have good Minor League players they can afford to trade, enough payroll power to add a star, and most of the other contingencies covered. Then you can make a Deadline deal designed to get through the playoffs instead of into the playoffs. Then you can trade for a guy like Randy Johnson.

Of course, Kevin Brown can beat Randy in Game 1 and you don't advance. Last year, most folks thought the Yankees and Phillies would meet in the World Series.

Getting the right player before the Deadline is a challenge. Rebuilding the Astros will be even more difficult.

Nobody said it would be easy.

Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.