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Second-Half Prospectus

The AL West is the tightest race in baseball at the break, with just 6 1/2
games separating the four teams. There’s potential here for a great finish,
especially since none of the teams is likely to win enough to be a
wild-card factor.

Texas Rangers (48-39, division leader)

Texas hasn’t made a roster move not forced by injury since the season
began, yet Manager Johnny Oates’ endurance has been rewarded with a
gradually widening lead over the rest of the division. Two major changes
may occur over the next four weeks, at which point the club will have
essentially set its roster for the remainder of the season.

The Rangers’ offense is down from last year, currently tied for fifth in
the league in runs scored and in the middle of the pack in Equivalent
Average. The descent has coincided with Tom Goodwin‘s return to his
normal, hack-happy self (.241/.319/.311). Fortunately, Ruben Mateo
is poised to grab the center field job. Goodwin is hobbling with a hip
flexor, which will keep him sidelines until mid-August. A hot streak by
Mateo will make the correct decision easy for the Rangers’ brass. Should
Mateo falter, he likely will be sent back down to Oklahoma City to take out
his frustrations on triple-A pitching until September, as the Rangers won’t
risk rocking the boat with a disenchanted Goodwin.

No other changes among the position players are likely, although the
Rangers could atone for a bad utility infielder decision they made in
spring training. Scott Sheldon is tearing the cover off the ball at
Triple-A (.308/.390/.617) and has even added the catcher position to his
resume. If Sheldon replaced Jon Shave, he would provide sock off the
bench and be one of the top utilitymen in the game.

Mike Simms will not be back with the big league club anytime soon,
even if his Achilles’ tendon is healthy. Lee Stevens has shown that
he is fully capable of hitting southpaws and Simms’ vacant roster spot has
enabled Oates to use a twelve-man pitching staff with great success.

The starting pitching is the $64,000 question down in Arlington. Four
recent good starts by John Burkett haven’t erased the memory of two
years of shellings, and the injured Mark Clark has been a bust. The
prevailing feeling in the organization is that the Rangers can’t advance in
the playoffs without adding another frontline starter; scoring more than
one run in 27 innings would help, too.

Winning in the playoffs is often luck and the team shouldn’t mortgage its
future for a couple months of Kenny Rogers or Wilson
Alvarez’s
bloated contract. However, if Texas could package some of
their more overrated prospects (e.g., Kelly Dransfeldt, Mike
Lamb
, Jonathan Johnson) with, say, Goodwin, a deal should be made.

Aside from the question of who will be the long man (probably Estaban
Loaiza
), no changes are forthcoming in the bullpen. Oates deserves
plaudits for mixing three unrecognized pieces–Jeff Zimmerman,
Mike Venafro and Mike Munoz–with the solid duo of Tim
Crabtree
and John Wetteland to create the best relief corps in
the American League. His bullpen usage has been impeccable, with only
Zimmerman racking up what could be considered a heavy workload. This unit
alone practically guarantees the Rangers a spot in the playoffs.

Oakland Athletics (43-44, 2nd place, 5 games behind)

Oakland is in the unique position of being the team most likely to catch
Texas in the AL West, yet having no pressure on them to do so. Their youth
and the perception that they are a small market team has the local media
foolishly conceding that the Athletics are not going to mount a challenge
this year. Futility is freedom, or in this case, the Athletics’ recent
history of futility is freedom. This freedom puts the A’s in the enviable
position of being able to make moves to insure long-term success for the
club without reprisal from their fans, while still competing in a pennant
race.

The A’s could increase their run output more than any team in the league in
the second half. Of the regulars, only Tony Phillips and DH surprise
John Jaha have exceeded projections. Significant improvement can be
expected from Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Matt Stairs and
the Ryan Christenson/Jason McDonald duo. A week after his
recall, catcher Ramon Hernandez and his big stick had forced
light-hitting A.J. Hinch onto a plane bound for Vancouver. Hernandez
should continue to be an improvement over Hinch.

So, besides letting talent take its course, what other moves should the
Athletics make? Art Howe–recent contract extension through next year in
hand–should take advantage of his new-found security and play Grieve and
Chavez full-time. Both have been sitting regularly against left-handers
and, as cornerstones of the franchise, should be playing every day.
Scott Spiezio has been on fire since his demotion to Triple-A and
has earned another shot at second base, which would allow Phillips to
return to his super-utility role.

General Manager Billy Beane’s first priority for the remainder of the month
is prying the most young talent he can from a desperate club in exchange
for Rogers. The left-hander has announced that he will not re-sign with
Oakland and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be traded, regardless of the
team’s position in the standings. With Tim Hudson already up and
torturing hitters with his devastating forkball, Rogers’ departure will
probably create one final opportunity for Blake Stein to wear the
green and gold. Should Stein’s arrival produce another hailstorm of
baseballs in the Coliseum bleachers, look for last year’s number one draft
choice, Mark Mulder, to be next in line.

All members of the bullpen, except T.J. Mathews and future closer
Chad Harville, may want to ready their suitcases over the next few
weeks, as all reasonable bids should be accepted. Since the Athletics have
shown that they are one of the few teams that know how to readily assemble
a cheap, effective bullpen, losing any of their relievers isn’t cause for
alarm. Billy Taylor could be especially attractive to a team seeking
an established veteran reliever. Where the hell is that Seattle phone book?

The organizational emphasis will continue to be building for the future and
adding to their solid farm system base. Oakland already has many of the
pieces in place and has the opportunity to put together a club resembling
the A’s of the late 1980s, all while still giving the Rangers a scare in
September. What more could you want?

Seattle Mariners (42-45, 3rd place, 6 games behind)

Thursday, amidst great fanfare, the Seattle Mariners cut the ribbon at
their new ballpark, Safeco Field. Superficially joyous, the celebration was
tempered by mismanagement from the owners on down to the field coaches,
which has resulted in cost overrun shenanigans and disappointing on-field
performances. Although the team’s finances certainly will play a role in
their ability to retain Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez
this off-season, the two mega-stars claim that winning is the main
prerequisite to their re-signing. Since the main obstacle to success is
entrenched in the Mariners’ dugout, and will be there until he wants to
leave, look for even more roster shuffling as the team continues to confuse
movement with progress.

The Mariners won’t be tweaking their lineup, as they rank behind only
Cleveland in runs scored. However, there is room for improvement; with the
Mariners’ pitching, they can never have too many runs. The main problems
are John Mabry and Brian Hunter . The versatile Mabry is
actually a useful player to have on the team, but should be used in a
reserve role. Lou Piniella insists on penciling Mabry’s name in the lineup
despite an OPS that would make Rey Ordonez blush.

An even bigger problem is the perception that Hunter’s speed makes for a
more potent offense. Since the team either doesn’t realize or can’t admit
that acquiring him was a mistake, they won’t cut bait and move on. The most
Northwest fans can hope for is that they plant his carcass on the bench and
use him as a late-inning pinch runner or defensive replacement. With Jay
Buhner returning from another stint on the DL and reclaiming his spot in
right field, now is an opportune time to make Butch Huskey the everyday
left fielder. Raul Ibanez can spell the two as needed.

Continuing a tradition of the Piniella regime, the Mariners’ pitching is in
disarray. Piniella continues to plead for more arms to placate his
insatiable lust for flesh; however, as usual, key pieces to his four-year
pitching puzzle are right under his nose. He can put them together by
defining roles for his staff and giving his pitchers a real opportunity to
succeed. The Mariners’ top three starters–Jamie Moyer, John
Halama
and Freddy Garcia–are the best in the division. Gil
Meche
, though foolishly rushed to Seattle, can immediately be a
league-average fourth starter if handled properly (stifle those guffaws).
This includes large doses of confidence-building and limiting his pitch
count, both weak spots in Piniella’s game.

Jeff Fassero has had far too many chances to show that he can still
be an effective starter and should embark on his future career in the
bullpen posthaste. Paul Abbott, a serviceable spot starter/long
reliever, can step into his spot.

An extended sabbatical in Tacoma would be in Ken Cloude‘s best
interests. M’s pitching coach Stan Williams has screwed up his mechanics by
changing his delivery and Piniella has worked his interpersonal
"magic". In the knowledgeable, patient care of Rainiers’ pitching
coach Jim Slaton, perhaps Cloude could resurrect his career.

Seattle’s short relief is in decent shape with Jose Paniagua and
Jose Mesa, though Paniagua’s outings need to be limited to one
inning. Since nearly all of the relievers at Triple-A have already been
victimized by Piniella this season, look for the Mariners to trade for
bullpen help. This isn’t a bad thing if they give up roster chaff or ditch
Brian Hunter. The fear is that another GM will entice Woody Woodward
with a mediocre situational left-hander and a box of shiny objects; then,
in a Piniella-induced trance, Woodward will part with Ryan Anderson.
Anderson’s had an inconsistent year at Double-A New Haven, after all….

Anaheim Angels (41-45, 4th place, 6 1/2 games behind)

It hasn’t been the enchanting, feel-good season in Anaheim that The Walt
Disney Corporation visualized. It has, however, been amusing, with internal
bickering about manager Terry Collins’ intensity and stories that the
team’s rash of injuries is due to Edison Field being located on an Indian
burial ground. The Angels entered the All-Star break only 6 1/2 games out
of first place, but with a depleted farm system, there isn’t much help
available for recall or to act as trade bait. So, unless Claude Brochu pulls a
Charlie Finley and starts auctioning off players in mid-season, the Angels
are going to have to make due with what they have.

Offensively, the Angels are at the bottom of the league in runs scored and
trump only Minnesota in Equivalent Average. Tim Salmon could return
to the lineup by the end of July, though wrist injuries are always dicey
propositions. Jim Edmonds probably won’t be back crashing into
fences until mid-August.

Since Terry Collins still considers the Angels to be in the pennant chase,
what changes could be made sooner to revitalize the offense? Moving
Garret Anderson out of the cleanup hole, or, better yet, out of the
organization would be a start. The Dodgers, short on left-handed hitting,
could be interested. Mo Vaughn needs to bounce back from a subpar
first half now that his ankle is almost 100%. Before being demoted to
Edmonton, Todd Greene was chasing anything within two feet of the
plate. If he can regain some semblance of plate discipline, he would be a
huge step up from the likes of Steve Decker and Bret
Hemphill
. Overall, there is not a whole lot of upside to the Anaheim
offense until Salmon and Edmonds get healthy.

Even with the woeful offense, the Angels could be in second place if they
had more consistent starting pitching. Their top three starters entering
the season–Chuck Finley, Tim Belcher and Ken
Hill
–have all been miserable. An arthritic elbow threatens Hill’s
career, already in jeopardy due to an arthritic ERA. Scott
Schoeneweis
is the logical choice to move into the rotation, having
pitched adequately out of the bullpen after being a starter in the minor
leagues.

Finley, as a 10-and-5 player, has said that he would accept a trade to a
contender. Such a move is unlikely, although an ice-cold start in the
second half could make it a reality. As poorly as Finley has pitched this
season, the booty the Angels would receive in return won’t exactly re-seed
the farm. Ramon Ortiz has been mentioned as a possible recall, and
has pitched well since his promotion to triple-A. Ortiz is still recovering
from a broken bone in his elbow last year, so the last place he should
spend this September is in Collins’ rotation if Anaheim is within ten games
of first.

The Angels’ relievers have quietly put together an outstanding campaign,
with Troy Percival dominating and Mark Petkovsek shockingly
effective. No changes need to be made, with the exception of Mike
Holtz
picking up a few more innings if Schoeneweis moves into the
rotation.