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ANAHEIM ANGELS

DH/C Todd Greene‘s emergence has been delayed due to shoulder surgery
following the ’97 season. Early word out of the Angels camp is that he is
throwing pain-free. If this is more than just rhetoric from the feel-good
Disney Corporation, the Halos’ backstop position suddenly becomes a
strength instead of a liability, as Greene is very capable of a .330/.500
campaign. Even if he only catches three times a week, his presence helps to
fulfill that old baseball axiom: the less Matt Walbeck, the better the team.
Probably the biggest benefit to the Mo Vaughn signing-besides the
media–fanned "leadership" fire–is that Darin Erstad will move permanently
back to the outfield, where he is an absolute ball-hawk. Assuming that
last year’s hamstring woes are behind him, the 25-year-old is ready for a
.900 OPS campaign and another All-Star game appearance–that is, if voters
(or Joe Torre) are savvy enough to recognize that the Angels’ success isn’t
entirely due to the man shaped like an icebox.

What about the best bets to flop? The reason the designated hitter
controversy generates so little interest in the Los Angeles area is that
for the past seven years, SS Gary DiSarcina has barely approached Fernando
Valenzuela
‘s prowess at the plate. To be fair, DiSarcina’s ’98 campaign was
his best since his injury-shortened ’95 season. Given that he is 31 years
old, there’s even more reason to expect him to battle for the second-team
HACKING MASS shortstop honor in 1999. Although he’s broken his left forearm
in a fungo accident, healing services are regularly held at the Crystal
Cathedral, and DiSarcina says he’ll be ready by Opening Day. After watching
Tim Belcher pitch for the Mariners in ’95, I wouldn’t have given a plugged
nickel for the chances that he would still be pitching in 1999. I have to
give him credit for doing an admirable job for Herk’s Heroes the past three
seasons. I still think that one of the many facial contortions that the
rubber-masked Belcher will make on the mound this season will be because a
ligament has detached from his elbow. Barring that, Edison Field is no
longer the pitcher’s haven it was before the remodelling, and Belcher is
prone to the big fly.

If there’s a man on the spot, it’s reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa. With a
rotation that will include Ken Hill, Steve Sparks and maybe even Omar
Olivares
, there should be plenty of job opportunities for "Shiggy" this
upcoming season. A talented hurler, Hasagawa could turn a lot of middling
starts into late-inning victories if used correctly. Keep in mind, however,
that correct pitcher usage isn’t Terry Collins‘ strength. With Mike James
and Pep Harris likely out for the season, Hasegawa should keep the driving
directions to Dr. Jobe’s Los Angeles office handy.


OAKLAND ATHLETICS

A good bet for a returning player to break out is C A.J. Hinch.
Hinch held his own in ’98 despite very little experience above A-ball.
While some folks enjoy talking about his intelligence–no doubt due to his
time at Stanford–I prefer to focus on his sound defensive skills, fair
batting eye and decent pop in his stick. Hinch should progress nicely and
put up an OPS of around .750, which will place him in the upper third of
the American League catching class. RF Ben Grieve will only get better, as
the 23-year-old is blessed with a saccharin-sweet swing and the patience of
a Jaguar XKE owner. While Tom’s boy will never be hired as a spokesman for
Gold’s Gym, he will fill out and start smacking 70+ extra base hits despite
foot-speed that rivals Kevin Mitchell‘s.

Potential flops? I guess I’m in synch with the rest of the BP team
regarding SS Miguel Tejada, in that I don’t see him coming close to living
up to the hype that preceded his arrival in 1997. Despite the emphasis
placed on plate discipline throughout the A’s system, Tejada appears to
have slept through many of the lessons. That still doesn’t make releasing
Rafael Bournigal a bad thing. Closer Billy Taylor could be due for a flop.
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, because as a Mariners’ fan,
I’m tired of watching Taylor stroll in late in the game and make Edgar
Martinez
perform a convincing Alfredo Griffin impression. On a less
prejudicial note, Taylor’s peripheral numbers have been declining, he is 37
years old, and the A’s have added Doug Jones to the bullpen.


SEATTLE MARINERS

It’s very rare for a young pitcher to be primed for a breakout season on a
Piniella-managed ballclub, but reliever Jose Paniagua showed his mettle
during the last six weeks of the ’98 campaign by passing the daunting
Piniella Test of Manhood, which for a reliever entails throwing lots of
successful innings for several consecutive days for no particular reason.
Paniagua should get some save opportunities once Jose Mesa fails for the
fourth consecutive year to revert to his 1995 form, and after Mark Leiter
makes the inevitable move to the rotation.

This could be the beginning of the end for C Dan Wilson. Catchers really do
have shortened careers, and Wilson didn’t have far to fall. His
productivity could improve if the Mariners had a backup receiver worthy of
catching 50 games a year, as Wilson’s bat speed appears to decrease as the
year progresses. Look for a .700 OPS and the Seattle media to rave about
his defensive talents.

How about starting pitcher Ken Cloude? Flop? Okay, maybe he isn’t exactly a
flop. After all, how can things possibly get worse for Cloude, whose 6.37
ERA was the highest for any pitcher since WWII who threw at least 155
innings? Piniella currently has the 24-year-old penciled in as the number
three starter for 1999. When he struggles and the M’s are twelve games out
at the All-Star break, the requisite Piniella scapegoat will be in place.
An excellent young prospect, Cloude’s future likely will bear an uncanny
resemblance to that of Bob Wolcott.

Jay Buhner had knee surgery on his good knee and Tommy John surgery on his
right arm in 1998. The Mariners are hoping for a return to his 40 HR/100 BB
form, but Buhner’s fondness for outfield walls and artificial turf make him
physically older than his 34 years. If his arm doesn’t come all the way
back, Buhner is practically worthless in the outfield, as his range is
"very limited." At this point in his career, he is best suited to be a DH,
but that’s one of the few positions where the Mariners don’t need help as
long as Edgar Martinez is around.

That Butch Henry‘s health is critical to a successful season is a dismal
commentary on the state of the Mariners. Henry has barely logged a total of
90 innings over the last two seasons, and hasn’t managed more than 130
since 1992. Whispers out of Arizona indicate that the knee which suffered a
torn ACL last April is already acting up. The question isn’t whether Henry
is going to get hurt, but who is going to scatter the vultures away from
Billy Swift‘s moldy carcass so that he can pitch after Henry breaks down.


TEXAS RANGERS

Maybe breakout is the wrong term to apply to LF Rusty Greer; perhaps
bounce-back is more appropriate. Greer started slowly last season, and
despite a good second half, his numbers were down from ’97. Injury is
always a concern, as Greer’s reckless style leads to plenty of crashes into
walls–good filler for ESPN when NASCAR highlights are unavailable. Still,
his ability to draw walks and the return of his gap power should help Juan
Gonzalez
pile up lots of RBIs–which we all know that the BBWAA loves.

Re-signed primarily for his defense, SS Royce Clayton should benefit from a
full season at The Ballpark. In his two month stint with the Rangers in ’98
he had an OPS of .771, more than 100 points above his career average. Owner
Tom Hicks sure hopes so, since he has committed $18 million to Clayton over
the next four years.

As for potential flops on the Rangers, it’s fortunate for 2B Mark McLemore
both that his eyes have gotten sharper as he’s aged, and that Warren Morris
was shipped to Pirates, because his average and power are moving rapidly
towards Ordonez territory. For Rangers fans, a McLemore flop could be a
boon, since Luis Alicea is arguably the better player. Another problem
could be starting pitching. The question with starting pitcher Aaron Sele
isn’t his talent, but his health. Both Sele and Rick Helling posted career
highs in IP in 1998, and Johnny Oates will be asking for an encore in ’99.
The thinking here is that one of their arms is going to buckle. My money is
on Sele, who has had arm problems in the past.

As long as we’re worrying about Rangers starting pitching, that sort of
puts the spotlight on Mark Clark, because that could mean that Oates is
going to be looking for innings from Clark the way a junkie looks for a
clean needle. The big money that the Rangers shelled out for Clark isn’t
going to suddenly transform him into a top-notch starter. However, with the
Rangers’ heavy lumber, if Clark can furnish 200+ innings of the mediocre
durability on which he has built his reputation, at least Oates will feel
get a rush. Another guy on the spot is CF Tom Goodwin. Rumor has it that
prior to last year, Goodwin had never read Baseball Rule 6.08(a): "The
batter… is entitled to first base… when four balls have been called by
the umpire." If Goodwin is able to retain that sort of book-learning, he’s
a useful player; if not, with him and McLemore batting 1-2, the top of the
Rangers batting order could become a major disappointment.

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