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July 17, 1999

AL West Notebook

Second-Half Prospectus

by Jeff Bower

Second-Half Prospectus

The AL West is the tightest race in baseball at the break, with just 6 1/2 games separating the four teams. There's potential here for a great finish, especially since none of the teams is likely to win enough to be a wild-card factor.

Texas Rangers (48-39, division leader)

Texas hasn't made a roster move not forced by injury since the season began, yet Manager Johnny Oates' endurance has been rewarded with a gradually widening lead over the rest of the division. Two major changes may occur over the next four weeks, at which point the club will have essentially set its roster for the remainder of the season.

The Rangers' offense is down from last year, currently tied for fifth in the league in runs scored and in the middle of the pack in Equivalent Average. The descent has coincided with Tom Goodwin's return to his normal, hack-happy self (.241/.319/.311). Fortunately, Ruben Mateo is poised to grab the center field job. Goodwin is hobbling with a hip flexor, which will keep him sidelines until mid-August. A hot streak by Mateo will make the correct decision easy for the Rangers' brass. Should Mateo falter, he likely will be sent back down to Oklahoma City to take out his frustrations on triple-A pitching until September, as the Rangers won't risk rocking the boat with a disenchanted Goodwin.

No other changes among the position players are likely, although the Rangers could atone for a bad utility infielder decision they made in spring training. Scott Sheldon is tearing the cover off the ball at Triple-A (.308/.390/.617) and has even added the catcher position to his resume. If Sheldon replaced Jon Shave, he would provide sock off the bench and be one of the top utilitymen in the game.

Mike Simms will not be back with the big league club anytime soon, even if his Achilles' tendon is healthy. Lee Stevens has shown that he is fully capable of hitting southpaws and Simms' vacant roster spot has enabled Oates to use a twelve-man pitching staff with great success.

The starting pitching is the $64,000 question down in Arlington. Four recent good starts by John Burkett haven't erased the memory of two years of shellings, and the injured Mark Clark has been a bust. The prevailing feeling in the organization is that the Rangers can't advance in the playoffs without adding another frontline starter; scoring more than one run in 27 innings would help, too.

Winning in the playoffs is often luck and the team shouldn't mortgage its future for a couple months of Kenny Rogers or Wilson Alvarez's bloated contract. However, if Texas could package some of their more overrated prospects (e.g., Kelly Dransfeldt, Mike Lamb, Jonathan Johnson) with, say, Goodwin, a deal should be made.

Aside from the question of who will be the long man (probably Estaban Loaiza), no changes are forthcoming in the bullpen. Oates deserves plaudits for mixing three unrecognized pieces--Jeff Zimmerman, Mike Venafro and Mike Munoz--with the solid duo of Tim Crabtree and John Wetteland to create the best relief corps in the American League. His bullpen usage has been impeccable, with only Zimmerman racking up what could be considered a heavy workload. This unit alone practically guarantees the Rangers a spot in the playoffs.

Oakland Athletics (43-44, 2nd place, 5 games behind)

Oakland is in the unique position of being the team most likely to catch Texas in the AL West, yet having no pressure on them to do so. Their youth and the perception that they are a small market team has the local media foolishly conceding that the Athletics are not going to mount a challenge this year. Futility is freedom, or in this case, the Athletics' recent history of futility is freedom. This freedom puts the A's in the enviable position of being able to make moves to insure long-term success for the club without reprisal from their fans, while still competing in a pennant race.

The A's could increase their run output more than any team in the league in the second half. Of the regulars, only Tony Phillips and DH surprise John Jaha have exceeded projections. Significant improvement can be expected from Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Matt Stairs and the Ryan Christenson/Jason McDonald duo. A week after his recall, catcher Ramon Hernandez and his big stick had forced light-hitting A.J. Hinch onto a plane bound for Vancouver. Hernandez should continue to be an improvement over Hinch.

So, besides letting talent take its course, what other moves should the Athletics make? Art Howe--recent contract extension through next year in hand--should take advantage of his new-found security and play Grieve and Chavez full-time. Both have been sitting regularly against left-handers and, as cornerstones of the franchise, should be playing every day. Scott Spiezio has been on fire since his demotion to Triple-A and has earned another shot at second base, which would allow Phillips to return to his super-utility role.

General Manager Billy Beane's first priority for the remainder of the month is prying the most young talent he can from a desperate club in exchange for Rogers. The left-hander has announced that he will not re-sign with Oakland and it's hard to imagine that he won't be traded, regardless of the team's position in the standings. With Tim Hudson already up and torturing hitters with his devastating forkball, Rogers' departure will probably create one final opportunity for Blake Stein to wear the green and gold. Should Stein's arrival produce another hailstorm of baseballs in the Coliseum bleachers, look for last year's number one draft choice, Mark Mulder, to be next in line.

All members of the bullpen, except T.J. Mathews and future closer Chad Harville, may want to ready their suitcases over the next few weeks, as all reasonable bids should be accepted. Since the Athletics have shown that they are one of the few teams that know how to readily assemble a cheap, effective bullpen, losing any of their relievers isn't cause for alarm. Billy Taylor could be especially attractive to a team seeking an established veteran reliever. Where the hell is that Seattle phone book?

The organizational emphasis will continue to be building for the future and adding to their solid farm system base. Oakland already has many of the pieces in place and has the opportunity to put together a club resembling the A's of the late 1980s, all while still giving the Rangers a scare in September. What more could you want?

Seattle Mariners (42-45, 3rd place, 6 games behind)

Thursday, amidst great fanfare, the Seattle Mariners cut the ribbon at their new ballpark, Safeco Field. Superficially joyous, the celebration was tempered by mismanagement from the owners on down to the field coaches, which has resulted in cost overrun shenanigans and disappointing on-field performances. Although the team's finances certainly will play a role in their ability to retain Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez this off-season, the two mega-stars claim that winning is the main prerequisite to their re-signing. Since the main obstacle to success is entrenched in the Mariners' dugout, and will be there until he wants to leave, look for even more roster shuffling as the team continues to confuse movement with progress.

The Mariners won't be tweaking their lineup, as they rank behind only Cleveland in runs scored. However, there is room for improvement; with the Mariners' pitching, they can never have too many runs. The main problems are John Mabry and Brian Hunter . The versatile Mabry is actually a useful player to have on the team, but should be used in a reserve role. Lou Piniella insists on penciling Mabry's name in the lineup despite an OPS that would make Rey Ordonez blush.

An even bigger problem is the perception that Hunter's speed makes for a more potent offense. Since the team either doesn't realize or can't admit that acquiring him was a mistake, they won't cut bait and move on. The most Northwest fans can hope for is that they plant his carcass on the bench and use him as a late-inning pinch runner or defensive replacement. With Jay Buhner returning from another stint on the DL and reclaiming his spot in right field, now is an opportune time to make Butch Huskey the everyday left fielder. Raul Ibanez can spell the two as needed.

Continuing a tradition of the Piniella regime, the Mariners' pitching is in disarray. Piniella continues to plead for more arms to placate his insatiable lust for flesh; however, as usual, key pieces to his four-year pitching puzzle are right under his nose. He can put them together by defining roles for his staff and giving his pitchers a real opportunity to succeed. The Mariners' top three starters--Jamie Moyer, John Halama and Freddy Garcia--are the best in the division. Gil Meche, though foolishly rushed to Seattle, can immediately be a league-average fourth starter if handled properly (stifle those guffaws). This includes large doses of confidence-building and limiting his pitch count, both weak spots in Piniella's game.

Jeff Fassero has had far too many chances to show that he can still be an effective starter and should embark on his future career in the bullpen posthaste. Paul Abbott, a serviceable spot starter/long reliever, can step into his spot.

An extended sabbatical in Tacoma would be in Ken Cloude's best interests. M's pitching coach Stan Williams has screwed up his mechanics by changing his delivery and Piniella has worked his interpersonal "magic". In the knowledgeable, patient care of Rainiers' pitching coach Jim Slaton, perhaps Cloude could resurrect his career.

Seattle's short relief is in decent shape with Jose Paniagua and Jose Mesa, though Paniagua's outings need to be limited to one inning. Since nearly all of the relievers at Triple-A have already been victimized by Piniella this season, look for the Mariners to trade for bullpen help. This isn't a bad thing if they give up roster chaff or ditch Brian Hunter. The fear is that another GM will entice Woody Woodward with a mediocre situational left-hander and a box of shiny objects; then, in a Piniella-induced trance, Woodward will part with Ryan Anderson. Anderson's had an inconsistent year at Double-A New Haven, after all....

Anaheim Angels (41-45, 4th place, 6 1/2 games behind)

It hasn't been the enchanting, feel-good season in Anaheim that The Walt Disney Corporation visualized. It has, however, been amusing, with internal bickering about manager Terry Collins' intensity and stories that the team's rash of injuries is due to Edison Field being located on an Indian burial ground. The Angels entered the All-Star break only 6 1/2 games out of first place, but with a depleted farm system, there isn't much help available for recall or to act as trade bait. So, unless Claude Brochu pulls a Charlie Finley and starts auctioning off players in mid-season, the Angels are going to have to make due with what they have.

Offensively, the Angels are at the bottom of the league in runs scored and trump only Minnesota in Equivalent Average. Tim Salmon could return to the lineup by the end of July, though wrist injuries are always dicey propositions. Jim Edmonds probably won't be back crashing into fences until mid-August.

Since Terry Collins still considers the Angels to be in the pennant chase, what changes could be made sooner to revitalize the offense? Moving Garret Anderson out of the cleanup hole, or, better yet, out of the organization would be a start. The Dodgers, short on left-handed hitting, could be interested. Mo Vaughn needs to bounce back from a subpar first half now that his ankle is almost 100%. Before being demoted to Edmonton, Todd Greene was chasing anything within two feet of the plate. If he can regain some semblance of plate discipline, he would be a huge step up from the likes of Steve Decker and Bret Hemphill. Overall, there is not a whole lot of upside to the Anaheim offense until Salmon and Edmonds get healthy.

Even with the woeful offense, the Angels could be in second place if they had more consistent starting pitching. Their top three starters entering the season--Chuck Finley, Tim Belcher and Ken Hill--have all been miserable. An arthritic elbow threatens Hill's career, already in jeopardy due to an arthritic ERA. Scott Schoeneweis is the logical choice to move into the rotation, having pitched adequately out of the bullpen after being a starter in the minor leagues.

Finley, as a 10-and-5 player, has said that he would accept a trade to a contender. Such a move is unlikely, although an ice-cold start in the second half could make it a reality. As poorly as Finley has pitched this season, the booty the Angels would receive in return won't exactly re-seed the farm. Ramon Ortiz has been mentioned as a possible recall, and has pitched well since his promotion to triple-A. Ortiz is still recovering from a broken bone in his elbow last year, so the last place he should spend this September is in Collins' rotation if Anaheim is within ten games of first.

The Angels' relievers have quietly put together an outstanding campaign, with Troy Percival dominating and Mark Petkovsek shockingly effective. No changes need to be made, with the exception of Mike Holtz picking up a few more innings if Schoeneweis moves into the rotation.

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