Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 3, 2002
BASEBALL: The Reds, The Rangers and The Early Results

Originally posted on Projo.com

Want an early candidate for a team playing over its head? Other than the Red Sox, of course; the Sox have played over anybody's head thus far, as well they should with 18 of their first 24 games against Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Playing close to .700 ball even against the bad teams is impressive, but we'll need more time to evaluate these Sox as the schedule balances out with an impending West Coast swing.

But the rest of the early returns in the AL are fairly close to expectations. The real surprises have been in the NL, with the Braves and Phillies struggling, the Expos and Dodgers surging, and the whole NL Central is topsy-turvy. Everyone knows about the Expos, who are sort of for real but will cool down some when Michael Barrett returns to earth and when/if they get hit with their annual run of pitching injuries (ace Javier Vazquez complained of a sore arm in camp but has gotten stronger as the season has worn on, while the biggest injury risk, Carl Pavano, has not pitched well and thus hasn't been an element of the team's early success). Some of their success may keep up: early hero Lee Stevens may just be on his way to a good year in his mid-30s, Tony Armas Jr. has always had good stuff and Tomo Okha was a solid starter in the minors, and Brad Wilkerson has looked for some time like a guy who could get on base and contribute if he settled down into an everyday job. (One worry: key reliever Matt Herges, who worked hard the past few years in LA, is on pace to appear in 96 games and throw over 100 innings).

For a team that's drawing some early raves but can't keep it up, I'd take the 17-9 Reds. Through Wednesday, the Reds were the only team in the vaunted NL Central to have outscored their opponents on the season, and only barely at that (108-100). The infield and catcher Jason LaRue aren't hitting at all, which might be a positive in a way (Sean Casey and Aaron Boone could get hot later on, and Barry Larkin and Todd Walker aren't this bad). The team's offense has come largely from young outfielders Adam Dunn, Juan Encarnacion, Ruben Mateo and Austin Kearns, and Ken Griffey is expected back soon. But that could also lead to a logjam, while the health record of the people involved suggests that the Reds would be premature in trying to trade any of them. The bigger problem is the pitching; the rotation really isn't in any better shape than at the start of the season. Jimmy Haynes has been terrible for about the seventh straight season. Joey Hamilton has a good ERA, but has allowed 59 baserunners in 37.1 innings, and you can't win for long doing that; ditto for Chris Reitsma (36 baserunners in 22.1 innings; I'm more optimistic about Reitsma but recall how he tailed off last season). Jose Acevedo was sent back to the minors two weeks ago, and in his place is Jose Rijo, hardly a guy you can bank on for 200 innings (remember all the times Fernando came back with 3-4 good starts and then fell apart). That leaves just Elmer Dessens, who's a solid enough third starter but not likely to post a 1.80 ERA over a full season.

(The Dodgers are too early to call, although I'm skeptical since their success is based almost entirely on pitching and defense and depends on the mercurial Hideo Nomo and the equally wild but unproven Kazuhisa Ishii, neither of whom is likely to keep succeeding if they keep issuing so many walks. Odalis Perez has also been unconscious in the early going with a 1.64 ERA and a 25-3 K/BB ratio, threatening to justify the Sheffield trade. The Pirates, by contrast, are already running out of smoke and mirrors, with most of the non-Giles lineup not hitting and the starting rotation other than rookie Josh Fogg getting shelled).

At this point in the year, the teams you look most skeptically at are the ones that are winning with late rallies, unreal relief pitching and a lot of close games - things that can all turn on you in a heartbeat, and usually do over the long season. The Reds and Pirates fit that bill to perfection, the Expos and Mets to a lesser degree.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

On the other side of that coin, there's the Rangers. There has been more than a little unrestrained gloating over the Rangers' disastrous and embarrassing start to 2002. A prime example was this ESPN column by Phil Rogers, but he's hardly the only one. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News has been piling on Tom Hicks ever since he signed Lupica's nemesis Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season.

There's a lot of reasons for this. Hicks is a brash, big-spending type who has tried to replicate his NHL experience of pouring big dollars into the free agent market to produce an instant winner, and a lot of the owners don't much care for the threat of salary inflation; writers like Rogers who tend to side with the owners echo this sentiment. Hicks is also close to a certain former Rangers owner now in the White House, and as with George Steinbrenner and Peter Angelos, his outside political activities give some people an added reason to dislike him. Lupica's war of words with A-Rod goes back a ways, and there's enough wrong to go around - A-Rod was treated shabbily by some of the teams he talked to as a free agent (i.e., the Mets), but he shouldn't have tried to paint himself as a martyr for selling out to the highest bidder; Lupica of all people should be the last to criticize a guy for changing jobs. I'm just picking on two writers here, but if you go down the list you find a lot of people with axes to grind against not just Hicks and Rodriguez but also John Hart, Juan Gonzalez, John Rocker, Hideki Irabu, Kenny Rogers, and of course Carl Everett.

But beyond the media's ppig pile, the Rangers haven't actually been that bad in the early going. Sure, the bullpen's been dreadful, and that can be demoralizing as well as undoing all the good work of the rest of the team. But a bullpen is the cheapest and easiest part of a baseball team to fix. Specifically, Texas' starting rotation has been vastly improved over last year, but with the bullpen giving away leads like Halloween candy, there hasn't been a lot of attention paid to the starters. Kenny Rogers, Doug Davis and Ismael Valdes have all pitched well; none of them is going to challenge for a Cy Young award, but all have thrown strikes and generally kept the ball in the park (Davis has had longball problems but his control is exceptional). A return by Chan Ho Park in the next few weeks would greatly stabilize the staff, leaving Dave Burba as the only underperforming starter. They also have Rob Bell on hand, a talented youngster who has lost his way the past few years; if Bell throws well in Park's absence there would be a backup on hand if Burba flames out or Valdes goes down. Even with the bullpen gasping for air, the team's ERA is 4.48, much improved from last season, and tied for fifth in the AL. The Rangers have actually allowed fewer runs than division leaders Seattle and the White Sox. The hand of pitching coach Oscar Acosta, who guided the Cubs to a major league K record last season, is already apparent; only the Yankees have struck out more opposing batters among AL teams.

Then there's the Fat Toad. The naming of Hideki Irabu as the Texas closer of the week drew predictable snickers (including from me), but Irabu has always had the stuff and the control, his problem has been stamina and concentration, which are less likely to be issues in the closer role. Cutting him back to 70 critical innings and two pitches may yet give the Rangers a solid foundation to build the bullpen around. The other people on hand - Todd van Poppel, Francisco Cordero, John Rocker, and Steve Woodard - are also talented guys (all except Woodard have serious fastballs), so it would not be a shock to see this team wind up with a half-decent pitching staff after all is said and done. With this team's offense, that ought to be enough to play .550 ball the rest of the way.

Problem is, that won't be enough. In the wild wild NL West, the division winner may need scarcely more than 90 wins; even fewer may be needed to thread the needle between the aging divisional powers and the uneven upstarts in the NL East. The NL Central is practically upside down today, with the top teams talent-wise struggling, and the White Sox can probably win the appalling AL Central even if they take the second half of the season off. But to make the playoffs over the heads of the Mariners, A's, and the loser of the Yankee-Red Sox race could easily take 95 or more wins; recall that last season's AL Wild Card won 102 games. And the same dynamic may hold for 2003 as well, despite the age and injuries on people like Edgar Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Jamie Moyer. The Rangers, if they are genuinely serious about building a championship team, need to do better than build a pitching staff that's sort-of competitive and an offense that's just one of the best in the league; they need to either dominate on offense or get a lot better pitching-wise. The pitching is still a good place to look - since divisional play started in 1969, only four teams have reached the World Series with a pitching staff that finished in the bottom half of the league in ERA, and one of those played in Fenway Park when it was a serious hitter's park (the four teams: the 1975 Red Sox, 1987 Twins, 1992 Blue Jays, and 1997 Indians). But offensively the Rangers also have needs: right now, in fact, they sit in 8th place in the AL in
runs scored, and are no better than sixth in any significant offensive category.

The problem? Don't look at the $252 million man, who's earning his pay as usual, leading the league in homers and slugging near .700. It still astonishes me that we've become jaded to a shortstop who hits like this. Heck, we Mets fans would kill for a shortsop who slugged .375. Injuries to Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez haven't helped, with Bill Haselman providing woeful offense at catcher and Gonzalez' absence forcing the team to stick with both Carl Everett and Gabe Kapler, neither of whom is hitting. (Fortunately, light-hitting Calvin Murray has started well since being acquired to cover for Everett's inability to handle center field). Super-prospect Hank Blalock also proved unready in the extreme to handle an everyday job; he may come around with some patience, but people who expected Blalock to be the next George Brett from day one probably forgot that the original Brett slugged .363 with a .312 on base percentage as a 21-year-old rookie.

I still expect Kapler and Frank Catalanotto to get hot at some point, but the fact is that the Rangers don't have a true leadoff hitter, and when Pudge and Gonzalez are in the middle of the order, neither one gets on base very much. The solution to this mess is as painful as it is obvious: trade Ivan Rodriguez when and if he's healthy again. If you're serious about building a truly excellent team for a period of years, trade Rafael Palmiero too, while he's still a deadly hitter. Trading the 33-year-old Rusty Greer while he's hot wouldn't be a bad idea either. The other options aren't so good: Alex Rodriguez is unlikely to bring back equal value in return, plus he's still only 26 and only a few teams could even afford to talk about him. Juan Gonzalez, like A-Rod, was bought on the open market for money only the Rangers would pay him; he's not going to bring back equal value either, and despite his injury history he's still young enough (unlike Palmiero) to project him as part of the answer for several more years.

Unfortunately, that's the kind of long-range thinking that John Hart hasn't done in years; rather than contemplate planning a long-term attack on the division, Hart traded Carlos Pena before the season in a rerun of his deals of Brian Giles, Sean Casey and Richie Sexson. In fact, given Hart's record, the last thing I'd ask him to do is deal offense for pitching, for fear that he'd unload Blalock for Mike Williams or John Halama or somebody. Which is why, if I'm a Ranger fan, I'd be gritting my teeth and hoping for some wild breaks to go my way - because this team looks unlikely to make the moves it's going to need to get to that next level.

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