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March 25, 1999

AL West Notebook

Divisional defensive outlook for 1999

by Jeff Bower

ANAHEIM ANGELS (1998: 783 runs allowed, 6th in AL)

Chuck Finley, L
Tim Belcher, R
Steve Sparks, R
Ken Hill, R
Omar Olivares, R

Troy Percival, R
Rich DeLucia, R
Shigetoshi Hasegawa, R
Mark Petkovsek, R
Mike Magnante, L
Mike Holtz, L

Scott Schoeneweis, L
Jarrod Washburn, L

The Angels have a solid group of veteran starters, decent long or middle relief, and a top-shelf closer. Superficially, that may appear adequate in the pitching-poor AL West. However, the bullpen is relatively shallow, so manager Terry Collins may ride his aging starters even harder this year, an unsavory recipe for disaster that he has served many times before. Don't look for an antacid in the Angels minor league medicine cabinet--it's virtually empty.

While 36-year-old Chuck Finley has annually survived the Collins' gauntlet, he will be late getting to the starting line this year. Finley's back spasms will prevent him from taking the mound on Opening Day, an ominous sign for the long season. Tim Belcher will consume plenty of innings, but with the recent announcement that Edison Field's center and left-center field fences are being shortened, they won't be as tasty as he had hoped. The fate of the Angels' season may lie in Ken Hill's right elbow, from which bone chips were removed last year. Hill has looked sharp this spring and a return to his 1996 form is not out entirely of the question. Knuckleballer Steve Sparks will be a solid fourth starter as long as he avoids motivational tapes and thick phone books. If Collins doesn't try to expand his role, Omar Olivares should be an adequate fifth starter. Either Scott Schoeneweis or Jarrod Washburn would have been a better choice, but both project to start the season in Edmonton.

The real trouble spot for the Halos staff is with their injury-wracked bullpen. Their DL has the makings of a nice little unit, as Jason Dickson recently joined Pep Harris and Mike James. All three figure to miss all or most of the '99 season. Mark Petkovsek and Mike Magnante were below league-average toiling in pitcher's parks in the Senior Circuit last year. Both figure to get lit up in aptly-named Edison International Field. As a result, Rich DeLucia and Shigetoshi Hasegawa will likely shoulder more of the load than they should carry. Finally, there is Troy Percival, who is adding a change-up to his previous smoke-only collection. The results have been devastating this spring, and Percival's season could replicate Trevor Hoffman's of last year.

Defensively, the Angels will be strong in the outfield with the return of Darin Erstad from first and Tim Salmon from injuries. Troy Glaus replaces Dave Hollins at third base, and looks to have future gold in his glove. The Angels middle infield could be suspect, as Gary Disarcina has lost a step at shortstop and 2B Randy Velarde has average range and a balky arm. 1B Mo Vaughn has limited range but soft hands, and is fairly nimble around the bag. Opposing teams will test catcher Todd Greene's surgically repaired shoulder on the days that he is able to catch. While Glaus and Jim Edmonds make the highlight reel plays, count on the rest of the team to not beat itself defensively.

Projected runs allowed rank in AL West: second

OAKLAND ATHLETICS (1998: 866 runs allowed, 11th in AL)

Kenny Rogers, L
Tom Candiotti, R
Jimmy Haynes, R
Gil Heredia, R
Brad Rigby, R

Billy Taylor, R
T.J. Mathews, R
Doug Jones, R
Buddy Groom, L
Mark Holzemer, L

Jay Witasick, R
Mark Mulder, L
Eric DuBose, L
Luis Vizcaino, R
Chad Harville, R
Tim Worrell, R

The Athletics' pitching staff finished eleventh in the American League in runs allowed in 1998, despite working half of their games in still-pitcher-friendly Al Davis Playfield. With off-season moves that amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, there is little hope for immediate improvement entering the season. The rescue ship may actually be on the horizon in the form of Mark Mulder, Luis Vizcaino, and Eric DuBose, but by the time it arrives the 1999 A's will have sunk.

Kenny Rogers celebrated his escape from New York by returning to his front-line starter form. If his current elbow problems disappear, Rogers could have an encore performance in Oakland, perhaps for as long as four months. Rogers is a free agent after the season, and the A's hope to swap his left arm for more young pitching prospects. Tom Candiotti remains the innings-munching knuckleballer that he has been for more than a decade, with just a tinge more gray in his game-day stubble. Candiotti is a fine hurler for the back end of a rotation, but he is not what teams crave in a number two starter. Jimmy Haynes and Gil Heredia have done nothing this spring to erase the skepticism that arises whenever they are penciled into the rotation. It appears that Brad Rigby has recaptured his 1997 fifth starter spot with a good Cactus League performance. The A's will be ecstatic if he also recaptures that season's 4.37 ERA.

While the Oakland bullpen isn't as weak as the starting staff, it isn't a good fit for the team. T.J. Mathews is only effective against right-handed batters. Ditto for Buddy Groom and Mark Holzemer against left-handed hitters. Unfortunately, that leaves about 300 relief innings for Doug Jones, Billy Taylor and whoever emerges from camp with the long relief slot--either Tim Worrell or Kevin Jarvis, but preferably a clone of kinesiologist/pitcher Mike Marshall, circa 1974. While Jones and Taylor can still dip their petrified limbs into their bag of tricks and get a few batters out, the A's need more quality innings out of their bullpen. The only alternative available to Art Howe is the occasional human sacrifice, best exemplified by Mike Oquist's fourteen-run bloodbath against the Yankees last August.

Oakland led the league in errors last year, in large part because of the team's inexperience. Increased maturity and experience playing together should help alleviate that, but the A's will still be below-average defensively. Manned by Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, the infield will be erratically brilliant on the left side, while the right side will have the limited range of Scott Spezio and Jason Giambi. Ryan Christenson can go fetch 'em with the best in centerfield, and he'll have to with Tony Phillips and the surprisingly immobile Ben Grieve flanking him. A.J. Hinch should continue to improve, and should be more than adequate behind the plate.

Projected runs allowed rank in AL West: fourth

SEATTLE MARINERS (1998: 855 runs allowed, 9th in AL)

Jeff Fassero, L
Jamie Moyer, L
Freddy Garcia, R
Butch Henry, L
Ken Cloude, R

Jose Mesa, R
Mark Leiter, R
Mac Suzuki, R
Bobby Ayala, R
Jose Paniagua, R
John Halama, L

Billy Swift, R
Brett Hinchliffe, R
Eric Weaver, R

It's amazing how five months of rain, a few dozen pints of microbrew, and two weeks of unexpectedly bang-up spring pitching induces unfounded optimism in Pacific Northwest baseball fans. While the Mariners have the raw talent to have an above average pitching staff, the main barrier to success still sits in the dugout next to the lineup card.

Southpaws Jeff Fassero and Jamie Moyer enter their third full seasons with Seattle, and have demonstrated the ability to thrive in the shadow of Mt. Piniella. Both are 36 years old, but should provide as strong a 1-2 punch as anybody in the division. Heading into Camp Lou, the other three spots were up for grabs. At various times, seven different hurlers had tenuous holds on the positions. After much hand wringing, Piniella seems to have settled on Freddy Garcia, Butch Henry and Ken Cloude. Garcia made the team the old-fashioned way--he earned it. Blessed with the nastiest stuff on the staff at the tender age of 22, "Fast Freddy" will get to experience the "nurturing" for which Piniella is famous. Henry played his trump card (a contract clause making him a free agent if he doesn't open the season as a starter) to guarantee his spot in the rotation. Henry should be effective on those rare occasions when his musculoskeletal system actually allows him to pitch. Cloude continues on his merry trek down the Bob Wolcott career path. Since the Mariners don't need a fifth starter until the second week of the season, he will open the season in Tacoma. By July he will know every truckstop on the I-5 corridor.

During the off-season, Woody Woodward scrounged around and unearthed a couple more gas-soaked rags for the bullpen. Mark Leiter and Jose Mesa will practice their late-inning hijinks to the delight of souvenir-hungry patrons in the right field bleachers. Free for the taking, if only because no other club did so, longtime crowd favorite Bobby Ayala is back for a return engagement at the Kingdome. If ever a player needed to change area codes, it's Ayala. He still has the potential to be effective given the right situation. Mac Suzuki and lefty John Halama will earn passing grades in long and middle relief if well-liked pitching coach Stan Williams can insulate them from the noxious fumes and molten lava that stream down from the heights of Mt. Piniella. Piniella should not try to use Halama as a left-handed specialist, since he has no significant platoon split. Jose Paniagua dug himself a solid foothold in the bullpen with an excellent performance after being recalled last August. He will open the season as the setup man, and should be first in line for the closer role if and when Mesa crumbles.

Defensively, the Mariners were laughable during the Great Collapse of '98. Although the only improvements for 1999 will be at second and third base, they could be substantial, enabling the Mariners to become league-average. Third baseman Russ Davis appears to have his confidence back and should avoid a rerun of last year's horror show. At second, Carlos Guillen replaces the execrable Joey Cora. Guillen has proven to be a quick study converting from shortstop, and brings tremendous range and the tools to turn the tough deuce. The right side of the infield should be where balls go to die, as silky-smooth David Segui is back at first base after far too much needless off-season anxiety about moving to left field. Last year the Mariners' promotional department ran a television commercial in which Ken Griffey Jr. played every position on the field. Griffey will feel deja vu trying to cover for lead-foot corner outfielders Jay Buhner and Butch Huskey. Fully recovered from last year's ankle injury, Dan Wilson will be solid when wearing the tools of ignorance.

Projected runs allowed rank in AL West: third

TEXAS RANGERS (1998: 871 runs allowed, 12th in AL)

Rick Helling, R
Aaron Sele, R
Mark Clark, R
John Burkett, R
Esteban Loiaza, R

John Wetteland, R
Tim Crabtree, R
Danny Patterson, R
Mike Morgan, R
Eric Gunderson, L
Mike Munoz, L

Jeff Zimmerman, R
Jonathan Johnson, R

The Texas Rangers' front office spent the bulk of the off-season stalking the elusive number one starter. Despite a huge monetary cache supplied by owner Tom Hicks, their efforts to bag the slippery beast came up empty, so the Rangers open the 1999 season with essentially the same pitching corps that finished last year. The primary goal for the staff this year is to keep the team in the AL West race until hunting season reopens in late-July.

Is it possible to mention either Rick Helling or Aaron Sele without referring to the other? Both posted unexpectedly gaudy won-lost records last year, in large part to due to outstanding run support. Although both should remain above-average starters, they are likely to regress, at least record-wise. Sele stands the better chance of falling further, as inconsistency (and concerns about past injuries) continue to plague his outings. Free agent Mark Clark arrives from the Cubs, where wretched bullpen support led to seven blown quality starts and a deceiving 9-14 record. With the Rangers' potent offense and solid bullpen, he very well could reverse those numbers. John Burkett should improve his command enough to return to his pre-1998 form. While that's no great shakes, it's acceptable from a fourth starter. Have fun watching Manager Johnny Oates squirm when Burkett gives up multiple base hits and wriggles off of the hook. Estaban Loaiza could emerge as this year's Aaron Sele or degenerate into Bobby Witt. Flip a coin, because with pitchers, sometimes you just never know.

The Texas bullpen was quietly effective last year. However, that could change dramatically in 1999 if John Wetteland's ankle doesn't heal posthaste. While the other Ranger relievers don't have good track records in save situations, a more real problem is that none have demonstrated Wetteland's ability to pitch well in consecutive games. The Rangers may need to slip the ultra-competitive Wetteland a bogus game schedule to prevent him from doing more serious harm to himself. He altered his delivery in two Grapefruit League outings trying to pitch on his bad ankle and suffered back spasms. If Wetteland isn't ready for Opening Day, Tim Crabtree will inherit the role of stopper. Crabtree certainly has the necessary repertoire, but may lack the durability. Another option is Jeff Zimmerman, currently slated to open the season in Oklahoma City. Zimmerman is being groomed as the future closer, but the future could be now. Danny Patterson and portsider Eric Gunderson are reliable enough set-up men, but would be ill suited in the role of closer. It looks like Mike Munoz has made the club on the basis of six decent innings of work this spring, further evidence of the fascination with washed-up lefthanders. Grizzled old Mike Morgan will get plenty of press when he makes the Rangers his major league record eleventh team. He should also prove valuable as a spot starter and long reliever, a la Terry Mulholland.

Defensive prowess isn't what pushed the Rangers into the playoffs two of the last three years. However, with the addition of two-time Gold Glove winner Rafael Palmeiro at first base and a full season of slick-fielding Royce Clayton at short, their defense will be much less of a liability. Third baseman Todd Zeile has more range than most 33-year-old ex-catchers, but too often botches the routine play. Second baseman Mark McLemore's trick of playing deeper to try to offset his diminishing range should soon will have him positioned in shallow right field. Of course, that may not be such a bad idea since Juan Gonzalez is incapable of making anything other than the routine play. Rusty Greer rarely returns to the clubhouse without blood or grass stains on his uniform, but is only slightly above average in left field. Center fielder Tom Goodwin is fortunate to have blazing speed to compensate for the poor jump he gets on most balls, but it can't obscure his poor throwing arm. Assuming that his spring elbow problems are transient, Ivan Rodriguez will continue to intimidate every runner in the league now that Rickey Henderson is with the Mets. As for Rodriguez' ability to call a game, I'll leave that for smart guys like Keith Woolner to figure out.

Projected runs allowed rank in AL West: first

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