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February 9, 2000

AL West Notebook

Winter-League Notes

by Jeff Bower

Following the lead of the most recent AL East Notebook, let's take a closer look at some prospects in winter ball from the Junior Circuit's Western Division, focusing mainly on those who added impressive performances to their resumes.

Anaheim Angels

The Angels had the fewest winter ball participants of any team in the division. The general consensus among analysts is that Anaheim has the weakest farm system in the game today, so it should come as no surprise that not a single player had a noteworthy campaign. Pity any Tinseltown sportswriters paid by the column inch if they were forced to cover the Angels this off-season--this is a ballclub without direction, in deep hibernation.

Oakland Athletics

By having Ryan Christenson, Mario Encarnacion and Terrence Long play on different winter league clubs; the Athletics wanted to begin sorting out their logjam in center field. However, no member of the trio did much to advance his cause, as they all posted OPS of less than .700. The competition will shift to Phoenix in a few weeks, but the group's continuing struggles may have GM Billy Beane second-guessing about whether he should have tossed another prospect on the pile and acquired Jim Edmonds.

One player who did help himself was hard-throwing Luis Vizcaino. Following an inconsistent summer toiling in the warm jet streams of Midland's Christensen Stadium, Vizcaino flourished in his native Dominican Republic. He had an ERA of 1.00 and put together one of the more dominating seasons of any reliever in the league, allowing just 21 baserunners and whiffing 34 in 27 innings. There's an unreserved space in the A's bullpen for the last right-handed reliever, with competition from Scott Service, Chad Harville, Bert Snow and, possibly, Brett Laxton. While Vizcaino may not emerge from the scrum with the job, there's a good possibility he'll be apartment hunting in the East Bay at some point in 2000. After all, Doug Jones' right arm is now 43 years old and, courtesy of Dallas Green, so is Jason Isringhausen's.

Seattle Mariners

Jose Flores was one of just a handful of players with major league affiliations who finished the Puerto Rican League season with an on-base-percentage over .400. Flores' fetish for being on the basepaths isn't new-over the last two triple-A campaigns (nearly 850 plate appearances) his OBP has been .398. Curiously, D'Angelo Jimenez' lost 2000 season could be the break that the 26-year-old infielder needs to make the parent club. Within days after Jimenez' injury, the Yankees inked utilityman Rafael Bournigal, who Pat Gillick hoped to re-sign to fill that role in Seattle. If Gillick is as bright as the Northwest media paints him, he'll raise his sights and notice that Flores not only provides a versatile glove, but a useful bat off the bench, as well.

The Mariners had lots of encouraging mound performances from the Carribean, but many came from veterans or non-prospects. One pitcher who doesn't fall into either of those categories is Sean Spencer. Though not a flame thrower, Spencer has good stuff and struck out over a batter an inning while notching a 2.15 ERA working for Joey Cora's Caguas club. Spencer had the misfortune of being in Seattle last season when Lou Piniella was wrapping up his one-man Kingdome farewell performance of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", and it dimmed his star in the eyes of the organization. Hopefully, his excellent winter league will begin to right that injustice. The Mariners plan on having spring training auditions for a second southpaw out of the bullpen and Spencer is the best alternative currently on the roster.

Texas Rangers

The Lone Star State gets its fair share of summer thunderstorms, and Chuck Smith's sizzling winter increased the probability that lightning will strike twice at The Ballpark in Arlington. Like Jeff Zimmerman, Smith was a longshot signed out of the independent Northern League. Unlike Zimmerman, the 30-year-old Smith relies on changing speeds and a baffling changeup to get hitters out. He certainly had Puerto Rican League batters tied up in knots, finishing among the league leaders with a 2.08 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 52 innings.

While Smith worked as a starter with Bayamon, he was primarily a reliever with Oklahoma City last year, and was successful in that role, too. Though it is unlikely that he'll break camp with the Rangers, a good spring will establish him as their top option if a reliever gets hurt or if General Manager Doug Melvin is forced to trade some of his bullpen bounty for help at other positions. A rash of injuries and ineffectiveness from the starters could also land Smith at the back end of the Texas rotation late in the season.

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