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April 15, 1999

AL West Notebook

Tony Phillips, Rangers pitching, and all those injuries

by Jeff Bower

Just over a week into the season and the division has already morphed into its anticipated form, with all the teams bunched within a couple games of .500. Good performances by starting pitchers are as rare as coherent thoughts on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. And the injury bug is biting hard.

ANAHEIM ANGELS

In Anaheim, shrieks of "Curse of the Angels" could be heard immediately after Mo Vaughn sprained his ankle falling into the visitor's dugout at Edison Field. Vaughn joined Jim Edmonds, Gary Disarcina and a cast of thousands on an already teeming Angels' disabled list. The most surprising part is that despite the nasty tumble, Vaughn emerged with only a sprained ankle. He'll be out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks, but in his absence the Angels will still field an everyday lineup better than last year's model that stayed in contention until late September.

As for Edmonds, he should be back in a few days, which will have the doubly intoxicating effect of moving Orlando Palmeiro back to his valuable role as fourth outfielder and getting Garret Anderson the heck out of center field. As we mentioned in BP 1998, Edmonds is an update of Eric Davis circa 1988--an exciting, talented player whose reckless style won't allow him to play in more than 140 games most seasons. The fortuitous pickup of Andy Sheets a day before Disarcina was declared out until at least the All-Star break means that the Angels aren't any worse off at shortstop during his absence.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

For the first few days of the season, most of the rumbling in the East Bay was about the lack of offense from a lineup that is supposed to score a lot of runs. It's funny how often a team-wide batting slump coincides with a visit from the Bronx Bombers. The concerns about the Athletics' hitting disappeared soon after their arrival in the Pacific Northwest.

More perplexing are Art Howe's suddenly peculiar personnel and lineup decisions. Sometime between when the team left the desert and arrived in Oakland for opening night, six weeks of player evaluation went out the window in a storm of indecision over whether to keep Jason McDonald or John Jaha.

Howe's concerns about the A's defense also contributed to having more than half of the position players' roles redefined. Neither McDonald nor Jaha were cut, as Howe postponed the decision and opted to open the season with only ten pitchers. Essentially, the spring training evaluation period was extended for Jaha, McDonald and Olmedo Saenz. McDonald went from being the odd man out to getting the majority of the playing time in a center field platoon with a dazed Ryan Christenson. With Jaha primarily occupying the DH slot, at-bats for Saenz come at the expense of Eric Chavez. Chavez is not happy about the situation, prompting Coach Ron Washington to do his best Lou Piniella imitation by stating, "Good. Now we'll see what he's all about".

Howe is further confusing the situation with his inability to differentiate between Tony Phillips' bark and bite. Phillips has been in the starting lineup every game, taking valuable playing time away from Scott Spezio and Ben Grieve, and still-useful Tim Raines. Grieve's situation has been further muddled by his surprise move to left field, despite working out there only occasionally in spring training. Overall, it's a very unsettled situation for the Green and Gold. Sometimes it's just simpler to hand the twenty-fifth roster spot to a scrub like Alex Diaz.

SEATTLE MARINERS

That hush you hear in the upper left corner of the country is the stunned silence of Mariner fans. In three days, Seattle lost their starting middle infield of shortstop Alex Rodriguez and rookie second baseman Carlos Guillen to knee injuries.

Rodriguez' injury, though less serious, may have the bigger immediate impact. Mariner fans, meet Giomar Guevara and Domingo Cedeno, players who define the term "replacement level". A-Rod will be out for up to six weeks with a torn medial meniscus, which works out to about two less wins for the '99 Mariners, a team that doesn't have any margin with which to work.

Guillen is out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, thanks to plastic grass and a questionable play by Tony Phillips. While David Bell's improvement as a hitter will help negate its impact, Guillen's injury could have long-term career repercussions. The 23-year-old has now suffered two serious knee injuries in 15 major league games. He has had only one relatively healthy campaign in five professional seasons. Guillen needs to play regularly to reach his potential, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that he may never be able to.

The Mariners' other main concern has to be southpaw Jeff Fassero. Including spring training games, Fassero has been absolutely shelled in his last four outings. Though Fassero says he feels fine and is throwing as hard as ever, Northwest fans are taking little solace: Norm Charlton was the last Mariner pitcher who spoke those words so frequently. If Fassero is unable to return to form, Piniella will foist an even heavier workload on frail Butch Henry and young Freddy Garcia.

TEXAS RANGERS

While the rest of the division has suffered from injuries and confusion, the Rangers have stumbled out of the blocks primarily because of frightful starting pitching. Only Aaron Sele has managed to survive past the fifth inning (he has done it twice), while the rest of the rotation has been beaten like egg whites in Emeril's kitchen.

Texas is now considering expanding to a twelve-man staff because the bullpen has worked as many innings as the starters. Last year's comet, Rick Helling, hasn't made it out of the fourth inning in either of his two starts. Helling works up in the strike zone and toes a fine line between success and failure, especially at the Ballpark. While he may never live up to the expectations that come with being a Twenty-Game Winner, Helling should rebound and put up 200+ quality innings.

One or both of Mark Clark and John Burkett needs to regroup quickly or the Rangers' management may act with reckless disregard for the future. If Texas starts to fade from the pack, Owner Tom Hicks could step up his efforts to obtain a #1 starter. It will take a package of a couple of top prospects to seal the deal, and while catcher Cesar King and first baseman Carlos Pena certainly qualify, neither is ready to step in and help another club right away. That leaves Ruben Mateo as the primary bait to land a big fish. Stay tuned.

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