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September 8, 1999

AL West Notebook

As Summer Turns to Fall...

by Jeff Bower

Anaheim Angels

Last Friday's "mutually agreed upon resignation" of Terry Collins certainly won't be the final act in the calamitous drama unfolding thirty minutes southeast of Hollywood. General Manager Bill Bavasi and President Tony Tavares will also likely be exiting stage right after the season. Even the parent Disney Corporation is seeking to bail out, having determined that it is easier to increase investor return by cranking out formulaic animation films and building theme parks from which the patrons exit with smiling faces. That's clearly not Edison Field.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The off-season signing of Mo Vaughn to a contract befitting his size...er, stature...presumably gave the club the "emotional leadership" thought to be the missing ingredient. The problem? Well, while the leadership might have arrived, the Angels' offense departed soon after. A combination of injuries--the Angels played without their three best hitters, Vaughn, Jim Edmonds and Tim Salmon, for much of the year--disappointing performances and a typical Garret Anderson season fueled Anaheim's descent to the bottom of the league in runs scored. The lack of offense combined with poor starting pitching, most notably from Chuck Finley and Tim Belcher to create an obstacle to winning that no amount of leadership could overcome.

Collins wanted a roster filled with vocal, emotional gamers, so in retrospect, it should come as no surprise that as the losses mounted that players began to sound off. Misguided efforts by management to censor the clubhouse failed, and the media, always willing to create an interesting story if one doesn't exist on the field, turned the griping into front-page news. Now, of course, bad team chemistry is being cited as the root cause of the Angels' miserable campaign. In fact, just the opposite is true.

The 1999 Angels are another in a long line of teams that prove just how ridiculous it is to attempt to build a team around intangibles, and stand out as an example of how fleeting the concept of "chemistry" is.

Oakland Athletics

To the bewilderment of many--mostly those who don't understand that batting average isn't offense--Oakland remains in the thick of the wild card race. Athletics' GM Billy Beane made what were lauded as the smartest group of trading deadline maneuvers of any GM in baseball, so let's take a gander at how his acquisitions are faring. We'll also include Rich Becker, who seemingly was on a plane from Milwaukee before X-rays had even been taken of Tony Phillips' broken leg.

Randy Velarde:  38 games, .321/.385/.448
Rich Becker:    19 games, .288/.440/.305

Velarde has even improved slightly on his numbers with the Angels, where he was the only regular having a season that outperformed his projections. While Becker's slugging percentage languishes in the Ordonez Zone, his on-base percentage is nirvana for a leadoff hitter.

Kevin Appier:       4-3, 40.1 IP, 6.02 ERA
Omar Olivares:      5-1, 51 IP, 3.88 ERA
Jason Isringhausen: 3 saves, 16.1 IP, 1.10 ERA
Greg McMichael:     0-0, 10 IP, 2.70 ERA

Appier, the most heralded of Beane's pickups, has actually performed the poorest. After two excellent outings, he began having problems with a strained iliotibial band (thigh) and his pitching has suffered. Olivares continues his charmed season (a mediocre 23:20 K/BB ratio with the A's), giving them much-needed innings. Isringhausen and McMichael have fortified what had become a shaky Oakland bullpen. They were the booty from the Mets in exchange for Billy Taylor, who currently sports an ERA of 12.38 with the Gothams.

Generally, I'm not enamored with the notion of trading for veteran players at the deadline. They seldom make a significant impact and teams often sacrifice valuable prospects to obtain their services. However, Billy Beane appears to have made the right moves: the acquisitions are doing quite well and the Athletics didn't even begin to gut their deep and talented farm system.

Seattle Mariners

At the All-Star break, the Seattle Mariners ranked second in the American League in runs scored, averaging 6.1 runs per game. Since the break, which coincides with the opening of Safeco Field, they rank eleventh in the league at 4.6 runs per game.

The pitching has undergone a similar transformation. Before moving across the street, Mariner moundsmen were dead last in the league with an ERA of 6.02. Since the move, their 4.62 ERA ranks sixth in the junior circuit.

So far, Safeco Field appears to be a pitcher's paradise compared to the Kingdome, which for some inexplicable reason was playing like Coors Field this season. To counteract the effects of playing baseball outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, Manager Lou Piniella has been emphasizing the importance of doing the "little things to win games".

He certainly is getting a response from his left fielder, third baseman and first basemen, roles typically occupied by big boppers. It's difficult to imagine getting "littler" offensive performances from these positions.

Since the All-star break:

Brian Hunter:   .175/.234/.210
Russ Davis:     .269/.324/.372
First Basemen:  .273/.319/.428

The totals for first sackers are composite figures. Ryan Jackson is currently getting most of the playing time, but luminaries such as David Bell, Dan Wilson and Mike Blowers have also made cameos. The numbers would be even worse if not for a few appearances by Edgar Martinez.

Who would have thought that Brian Hunter would be the Mariner most negatively affected by his new environs? In games at "The Safe", Hunter has batted .120/.190/.120. That's right: not a single extra-base hit in 84 plate appearances! Seattle residents haven't seen such offensive prowess since Ray Oyler was roaming the infield at Sick's Stadium.

Texas Rangers

Texas' month-long tear immediately after the All-Star break not only essentially clinched the AL West, but it put the Rangers up with the high rafter bats for the league's best record. Having been blown out of the first round of the playoffs in three games by the Yankees last year, Manager Johnny Oates is trying to gain any potential edge this October, and home-field advantage suddenly became a real possibility.

To maximize the Rangers' chances of rising to the top, Oates has decided to pitch his only three effective starters--Rick Helling, Aaron Sele and Estaban Loaiza--as often as possible. While the thought of working the trio on three days' rest did cross his mind, Oates has opted to take advantage of off-days and have them start every fifth day for the final month of the season.

Currently, Texas is three games behind Cleveland and one in back of New York. With two teams to climb over and only 22 games to play, Oates may want to rethink his strategy. While Loaiza should be relatively fresh after splitting the first half of the campaign betweee the bullpen and on the disabled list, Helling and Sele could probably benefit from some rest. Both rank in the top 10 in the AL in number of pitches thrown, are toiling in the sapping Texas heat and carried similarly heavy loads last year.

Oates might be able to pull off the plan and have his starters fresh for the post-season if he limited them to five or six innings and then called for relief. However, the bullpen has also been showing signs of wearing down. Rangers' relievers have worked a league-high 453 1/3 innings and have been rocked the last two weeks. On August 23, the bullpen led the AL with an ERA of 3.68. Since then, they have given up 47 runs in 39 2/3 innings, inflating their ERA to 4.27. Rookie Jeff Zimmerman, who has already tossed 80 1/3 innings this year, has been hit especially hard, nearly doubling his ERA in a week's time.

While having the best record in the league will look nice in the record books, what will it really accomplish? Both the Indians and Yankees lineups are loaded with left-handed sluggers who will find the short right-field porch at The Ballpark much to their liking. Since the Rangers can't counter with a reliable southpaw starter (Jeff Fassero? Yikes!), it seems that their best option might be to take advantage of the expanded September roster to rejuvenate Helling, Sele and the bullpen.

Related Content:  The Who,  Leadership

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