September 14, 2000
AL West Notebook
Taking a cue from Chris Kahrl's latest NL Central Notebook, what should teams in the AL West be doing as the season winds down?
Mike Scioscia's troops have had a surprising run, but still find themselves six games back in the division with two teams to climb over and five-and-a-half games behind in the wild-card hunt with four clubs ahead of them. As much as turnabout is fair play, it's tough to envision two to four teams folding on the same scale as the Angels did in the 1995 stretch run. For a ballclub that doesn't want to appear to be throwing in the towel, however, there are a couple of moves that should be considered.
An obvious change would be to start their group of promising young pitchers exclusively. The fly in that ointment is that not many of them are healthy, as Jarrod Washburn and Seth Etherton are on the disabled list, possibly to be joined by Matt Wise. Wise's sore right elbow is the latest in a string of ailments among their pitching prospects, and has the team hunting for a root cause. A good place to begin the search is the workloads doled out last year: all of their best mound hopes racked up excessive innings in 1999.
One hurler who hasn't been overworked since joining the Angels is Derrick Turnbow. Plucked out of the Phillies' organization in the Rule 5 draft last winter, Turnbow has been on Anaheim's roster all season, while most other teams have stashed their Rule 5ers on rehab assignments under the guise of injuries that would make insurance frauds blush. Turnbow has good stuff and a 4.22 ERA in 32 meaningless relief innings, but his 26 walks indicate that he isn't challenging batters. A starter in the Phillies' chain, it would be good experience for Turnbow to take a few turns in the rotation before being sent back to the bushes next spring. Given their shortage of healthy starters, the Angels have both opportunity and motive. After all, the alternatives are Tim Belcher and Scott Karl.
A small-scale science experiment with little chance of blowing up in the Angels' face is to slide Adam Kennedy over to shortstop for the last few weeks of the campaign. Kennedy played extensively at shortstop while in Cardinals' farm system, and is really not much worse defensively there than he is at second base. Although Kennedy's .234 Equivalent Average isn't a huge offensive upgrade over Kevin Stocker or Benji Gil, at age 24, he does have some upside. Anaheim doesn't have any keystone prospects in the high minors, but a second basemen with adequate offensive skills would be easier for GM Bill Stoneman to unearth in the off-season than a comparable shortstop.
The Athletics recently rewarded seven players from Triple-A Sacramento with a recall after the River Cats bowed out of the PCL playoffs. However, during the final two-and-a-half week tango with the wheezing Mariners, most of them won't gather much playing time, as Oakland is primarily going to dance with who brought them.
A's starters spent last weekend toying with the toothless Devil Rays, logging 35 of 36 innings in the four games with no walks. That performance has the team feeling warm about its starting staff and affords them the luxury of a fully-rested bullpen for the final sprint. The only potential question mark is at fifth starter, where rookie southpaw Mark Mulder has been inconsistent. Since Thursday is the Athletics' final off day of the regular season, Art Howe won't simply be able to skip that spot in the rotation. Options include Omar Olivares and his 6.98 ERA, and River Cat alumni Ariel Prieto and Jon Ratliff. None are thought of highly by the organization, and other than a spot start in the doubleheader against the Orioles on the 19th, they are unlikely to be entrusted with the team's playoff hopes.
The jury may be in final deliberations about the fifth starter, but the verdict is in on the offense: guilty of non-support against left-handed pitching. As recompense, the A's should start Bo Porter in right field against portsiders from here on out. Though his power is down from 1999, Porter retained his on-base skills, hitting .272/.386/.416 with a PCL-leading 39 stolen bases. Porter's arrival from Sacramento, along with the arrivals of outfielder Eric Byrnes (.333/.410/.547) and third baseman Mark Bellhorn (.266/.399/.521), give Howe enough options that he should feel comfortable removing some of his thundering herd from the infield and outfield corners late in games for defensive purposes.
While Pacific Coast League MVP Jose Ortiz has also been added to the roster, it's unlikely that he'll see much action on either side of second base, instead being relegated to occasional pinch-hitting/pinch-running chores. If nothing else, being forced to watch him in pre-game warmups will serve to remind Billy Beane to think long and hard before again handing out multi-year contracts to aging crystal like John Jaha and Randy Velarde.
The Mariners are an old team, and unless they manage to re-sign Alex Rodriguez and shore up a couple positions in the off-season, this will be their last chance at playing baseball in October until Ralph Nader makes his next symbolic run at the presidency. As such, all decisions have inherent urgency, but need to be made with an eye towards not simply winning a single game, but maximizing the number of wins over the final 16 games.
To illustrate this, Lou Piniella recently declared that he is going to stop his season-long practice of resting some of his regulars. This announcement will primarily mean increased playing time for the outfield trio of Rickey Henderson, Mike Cameron and Jay Buhner. Although the idea has obvious benefits--Al Martin won't be seen stumbling around in center field and Raul Ibanez (.209 EqA) won't be seen at all--Buhner (.305 EqA), in particular, has benefited from resting every third day and should still be given an occasional breather, for the greater good of all involved.
Another example is how Piniella elects to use his relievers over the final five series. Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua have established themselves as the Mariners' most reliable setup men and, naturally, Piniella wants to use them in every late-inning close situation. This is where the definition of "close" becomes important. He needs to remember that Rob Ramsay and Kevin Hodges are very capable of carrying a five-run lead to the barn, or at least to Kazuhiro Sasaki's doorstep, so that Rhodes and Paniagua are at full-strength when they are genuinely needed.
Other changes don't require such game-specific decision-making, but are based on long-term performances. Effective immediately, John Halama should be dropped from the rotation. Piniella has lost confidence in him, Halama has lost confidence in himself and, most significantly, other clubs are pasting his collection of off-speed junk to the tune of .318/.348/.535 in his last seven starts.
Also, does anybody besides his mother remember that Seattle acquired Chris Widger from the Expos in early August? Since joining the club, Widger has racked up all of 10 at-bats and has spent as much time in the outfield and first base as at catcher. Meanwhile, Dan Wilson has an overall EqA of .212 and has descended even further into The Matheny Zone since the All-Star break (.224/.294/.296). While the right-handed hitting Widger has a significant platoon split, at this point in their careers, he's better than Wilson regardless of what arm the pitcher throws with. Widger has had five weeks to learn the Mariners' pitching staff, and now is when he should be putting that education to use.
Just like in the bad old days, the last two months of the Rangers' season has been reduced to selecting next year's wardrobe and planning events like tributes to Bert Campaneris and where Rafael Palmeiro will hit his 400th home run. However, between the sideshows there are still important decisions to be made concerning the futures of certain ballplayers.
Though Texas inked Bill Haselman to a two-year deal last month, considering that he could start for at least ten other clubs and Ivan Rodriguez's thumb is expected to be fully-healed by next spring, he may have more value as a trade chip. Haselman recently went down with a partially torn rotator cuff, which provides an excellent opportunity to see if B.J. Waszgis can handle the grueling once-a-week regimen typical of a Rodriguez backup. Though he didn't make his big-league debut until this July, Waszgis is already 30 years old. He showed both good plate discipline and fair power at Oklahoma, hitting .263/.398/.479 in more than 300 plate appearances.
Darren Oliver's tired left shoulder could use rest more than a handful of meaningless September starts, and the Rangers have to sort through their collection of Oklahoma sun-dried arms, including Ryan Glynn, Brian Sikorski, Doug Davis, Jonathan Johnson and Matt Perisho. Though it appears that the best of the lot, Chuck Smith, was sent packing to Florida for two months of Dave Martinez, Johnny Oates and Co. need to determine who gets to spend their winter on the 40-man roster and who gets to send out resumes.
Finally, rather than nine positions in one game, Scott Sheldon should play one position for at least nine games; specifically, shortstop. It appears that those waiting for Royce Clayton to finally put things together offensively will be left at the station. While Clayton looks good in a uniform and totes a decent glove, his .220 EqA ranks him among the worst offensive shortstops in the game. Although Sheldon's .256 EqA has been achieved in only 111 plate appearances, his minor-league record indicates that he's capable of performing that well over a full season and, at age 31, he is only a year older than Clayton. The trick for GM Doug Melvin will be finding somebody willing to pick up the last two years of Clayton's $18 million contract.
Jeff Bower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.