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April 22, 2000
AL West Notebook
Starts, Fast and Slow
You don't need to look any further than the top of the Angels' lineup to find one of the main reasons for the team's unexpectedly good start, as Darin Erstad (.492/.548/.738) is reestablishing himself as one of the toughest outs in the game. Less than a month ago, some pundits were questioning his future, citing the possibility of permanent hamstring damage caused by playing through injuries in previous seasons. While his stolen base totals have dropped every year since 1997, of greater importance is that he seems to have rediscovered his stroke at the plate.
Erstad is an intensely competitive player, and it's quite possible that his poor start last season and the team's disappointing performance caused him to press. The resulting downward spiral concluded with him landing with a thud on top of Brian Hunter among the worst everyday players in the league. A resurgent Erstad combined with the continuing development of Troy Glaus should push the Angels toward offensive respectability.
The real shocker is that Mike Scioscia's starting corps currently sports an ERA among the leaders in the Junior Circuit. A string of good outings by Kent Bottenfield, Scott Schoeneweis and Jason Dickson has fueled the climb, but shouldn't be expected to continue. With Ramon Ortiz toiling with a partially torn labrum, there isn't a starter on the staff whose fastball approaches the mid-90s, and Anaheim's hurlers rank last in the league in strikeouts per nine innings.
While Bottenfield seems to legitimately have a little post-30 craftiness tucked away in his ample folds, Schoeneweis and Dickson are due to implode before your neighbors defrock their Easter Egg trees. Neither can be successful unless their location is spot on--which it has been thus far, the two combining for only seven walks in 41 1/3 innings.
As was the case last season, the A's broke from the gate and quickly plummeted to the depths of the league in team batting. And just like last year, fans of the Green and Gold needn't be concerned. Despite the second lowest team batting average in the AL, the Athletics aren't deviating from their patient approach at the plate, ranking second in the league with 4.8 walks per game. It's only a matter of time until Oakland's heavy lumber breaks loose and starts scoring as often as a male escort armed with Rohypnol.
After two and a half weeks of play, the Athletics are getting above-average offense from only three positions: first base, second base and third base. The keystone production is a bit of a surprise, as Frank Menechino (827 OPS) has firmed up his roster spot with solid play while filling in for the injured Randy Velarde.
After nine games, Mariner moundsmen had the best ERA in the league at 2.73. Six games later, it was a not so gaudy 5.09. Their real performance level lies somewhere in between, and despite a recent outburst in which the offense set team records for most runs over a four-game span, rest assured that the 2000 Mariners will go only as far as their arms take them. As long as Lou Piniella steers the ship, that's not a reassuring thought. Piniella has as poor a track record with pitchers as any manager in the game, which makes "new" pitching coach Bryan Price a key figure in the Mariners' season.
As alluded to recently by ESPN's Rob Neyer, Price isn't as new as advertised. He was the organization's roving pitching instructor in 1999, temporarily assuming the big-league coaching reins when Stan Williams had knee surgery in August. When Williams returned, he was reduced to little more than a figurehead, as Price's roving consisted of following the Mariners wherever they went. Price has a very good rapport with his pitchers and was as instrumental as Safeco Field in helping the Mariners log the best ERA in the AL over the second half of last season.
If the injury bug doesn't bite, Alex Rodriguez may well post the best offensive campaign by a shortstop in the history of the game. Rodriguez spent a good portion of spring training in lengthy chat sessions with Edgar Martinez and free-agent acquisition John Olerud discussing the art of hitting. Early returns (.380/.500/.780) indicate that it was time well spent. A-Rod's new-found patience at the plate (12 walks in 62 plate appearances) and the additions of Olerud, Mike Cameron and Mark McLemore gives the Mariners six players who could rack up more than 80 bases on balls this season.
Doug Melvin spent his off-season doing two things: collecting southpaws and retooling the Rangers' everyday lineup while trying to retain their competitiveness and a semblance of fiscal sanity. Stockpiling left-handers is the most recent tack teams are taking in an attempt to knock Joe Torre's three-time champs off the throne. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be working, as the Yankees are off to an 11-3 start, including five consecutive pastings of the Rangers.
While "Project Yankee Killer" didn't exactly pan out, there's still optimism for the revamped lineup. Unlike last year, the Rangers aren't going to wrap up the division by August. However, no other team in the AL West wields a big enough scythe to lay waste to the division by harvest season, either. If the Rangers can stay close for four months, that may buy enough time for Ruben Mateo and Gabe Kapler to gain the experience they need to push the team across the finish line by a nose.
John Wetteland was recently asked to pitch in four consecutive games, something he hadn't done since 1995. Wetteland proceeded to blow ninth-inning leads in each of the last two contests. Managers shy away from such overuse because the reliever generally becomes less effective with each successive outing. Additionally, this is the final year of Wetteland's contract and Melvin has given no indication that the club intends to try and re-sign him, what with Tim Crabtree, Jeff Zimmerman and Francisco Cordero all younger, cheaper and fully capable of assuming the closer role.
The third and fourth games of that stretch were an ideal opportunity for manager Johnny Oates to give one or more of the trio additional on-the-job training in pressure situations, as well as increasing the probability that the Rangers might have won one or both of the games.