January 19, 2000
AL West Notebook
Filling the Big Holes
Unless you're the Anaheim Angels--who seem to be taking the term "offseason" literally--the winter has been a busy one for the American League West. New GM Pat Gillick hasn't been shy about spending the Mariners' increased budget, the Rangers have revamped their team via a blockbuster trade and free agency and, surprisingly, the Athletics have re-signed nearly all of their own free agents.
Amidst all that activity, are these teams addressing their needs? Below, we look at each team's weakest position in 1999, whether they've made any changes at that position and if they can expect improvement at that position in 2000. Pitching will not be examined here--everybody needs pitching, right?--but we may come back to it in a future notebook.
The tools used to evaluate position strength were Runs Above Position (RAP), from Clay Davenport's Final 1999 Equivalent Average Report, and Clay's estimates of player's Fielding Runs. The two numbers are added together to obtain a composite figure that shows how many total runs above or below position-average teams were.
Lots of negative numbers here, but the "winner" is shortstop, where Andy Sheets and Gary DiSarcina combined to finish a whopping 51 runs worse than the league-average shortstop. Sheets, who was acquired after DiSarcina broke his wrist in spring training, not only finished with an EqA of .157, but he posted -11 fielding runs. Sheets' miserable performance doesn't absolve DiSarcina of blame: the Angels' incumbent shortstop was -20 runs in only 81 games after his return.
New General Manager Bill Stoneman hasn't made any significant moves this winter, apparently believing that fewer injuries and better team chemistry can make up the 20-odd games that would put the Angels in the hunt for the division title. Even if Stoneman were active in the trade market, DiSarcina wouldn't be out the door, as he is considered the heart and soul of the team. Maybe that type of player evaluation is why Anaheim hasn't been to the playoffs since 1986.
If there's any truth to the old axiom about good teams being strong up the middle, the Angels are in deep guana. Last year, their catchers were a combined -28 runs and non-Randy Velarde second basemen were -20 in the two months after Velarde was dealt to the Athletics.
At 19 runs below average, catcher graded out as the worst position for the A's last year, with A.J. Hinch's lost season responsible for 15 of those runs. The hemorrhaging behind the plate stopped when Ramon Hernandez was recalled in early July, and he enters 2000 clearly entrenched as the starter. With the retirement of Mike MacFarlane, Hinch has the inside track to the reserve role, unless the A's decide that Danny Ardoin is better suited to be the backup.
Overall, catcher is a position where Billy Beane doesn't have to organize a manhunt to solve a personnel problem. Normal development by the 24-year-old Hernandez and the organization's depth should enable Oakland to have league-average catching next year without going outside the organization for help.
Ranking just above catcher was the center-field mix of Tony Phillips, Ryan Christenson, Jason McDonald and Rich Becker, at -17 runs. The Athletics have come up empty in their efforts to pry Jim Edmonds from the Angels, so it's unlikely that there will be any marked improvement at the position. Becker was re-signed at a Wal-Mart price and will get the bulk of the at-bats, while Christenson takes on all comers for the short end of the platoon stick. Mario Encarnacion is the longshot with upside, and should spend some time in Oakland this year.
Anybody who watched Lou Piniella lead off with Brian Hunter for a hundred games despite an on-base percentage that could double as a quality bowling average knows where the Mariners' greatest positional weakness was last year. Hunter was -41.6 RAP at the plate last year, and not even his exceptional play in the field (+11 fielding runs) can begin to paper over that kind of offensive ineptitude.
While Seattle has been one of the more active clubs in the free-agent market this winter, Pat Gillick has yet to adequately address the void in left field. Free-agent pickup Mark McLemore will see some action in left field, but his -6.7 RAP at second base will only decrease in a hitter's position like left field. Labeling McLemore an improvement is like advocating lethal injection over the electric chair. Stan Javier will also probably get a few starts every week, but as it currently stands, Hunter is penciled in for significant playing time.
Adding John Olerud did solve the Mariners' next biggest positional need. The collection of misfits Piniella tried at first base in 1999 were a combined -15 runs below position-average. Olerud finished the season 23.5 runs above, a net improvement of 38 runs, or about three and a half wins in today's high-scoring environment.
When a team wins its division as handily as the Rangers did despite finishing in the lower half of the league in runs allowed, it can't be far below average at too many positions. However, Tom Goodwin confirmed that his 1998 campaign was a fluke and led Texas' center fielders in digging a 27-run hole.
That fact didn't slip by GM Doug Melvin, who let Goodwin walk to Denver, where his ability to cover the outfield apparently is a vital part of Dan O'Dowd's Coors Field master plan. The Rangers' organization is committed to Ruben Mateo, and it will take an act of god or yet another injury for him not to emerge from spring training with the center-field job. Even though Mateo lacks plate discipline and was overmatched in his time in the majors last year, his natural talent should keep him afloat. He should put up league-average numbers offensively, and if he plays every day his counting totals will make him a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year, a la Carlos Beltran in 1999.
Andro disciple Lee Stevens did a nice job at first base when Rafael Palmeiro's knees wouldn't allow him to play regularly in the field, but still finished the season at -8 RAP. It was his lead glove (-9 fielding runs) that made first base the Rangers' second-weakest position in 1999. Melvin hasn't lost any sleep over it, because the problem goes away if Gold Glover Palmeiro's knees are healthy.