Things are looking up for Texas, but maybe not at catcher
The Rangers were essentially eliminated from the American League
West race in May by the Mariners' scorching start and bottomed
out on June 13, when they fell 20 games below .500. Since then,
however, Texas had gone 40-33 through Sunday. Although that was
hardly a championship pace, it did represent a step toward
respectability. "We haven't been real consistent," says closer
Jeff Zimmerman, "but there are glimmers of hope."
That's an improvement over last season, when, several players and
general manager Doug Melvin admit, the cellar-dwelling Rangers
mailed it in down the stretch. This time Texas has been energized
by a youth movement at several key positions. Once it became
clear that his team had no chance of contending this year, Melvin
began unloading expensive veterans, like Ken Caminiti (released),
Andres Galarraga (traded) and Randy Velarde (traded), and
replacing them with talented youngsters.
Second baseman Michael Young, 24, was called up from the minors
in May, and through Sunday he was hitting .251 and had made only
eight errors in 79 games. Third baseman Mike Lamb, 26, became a
regular when he was recalled in June and was batting .325 with
only 26 strikeouts in 234 at bats. "We have the makings of a good
young infield for the next few years," says Melvin. "It's easy to
forget that Alex Rodriguez is only 26."
As usual, pitching is the Rangers' bete noire. Their staff ERA
was 5.59--the highest in the majors despite having fallen nearly a
third of a run since the All-Star break--but there are even
encouraging signs on the mound. Twenty-five-year-old lefthander
Doug Davis (8-8, 4.32 ERA) and 23-year-old righty Aaron Myette
(3-2, 6.23) have been effective enough that Melvin says he'll be
looking for bullpen help, not starters, in the free-agent market
this winter. Also, after a subpar 2000 Zimmerman has returned to
his 1999 All-Star form. Moved for good from the setup role to the
closer's after Tim Crabtree suffered a torn rotator cuff in late
June, he had a 2.80 ERA and 23 saves in 26 chances.
Who will be the catcher for those pitchers, however, is a storm
cloud hanging over the Rangers. Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, whose
five-year, $42 million contract expires after the 2002 season,
has been on edge since Texas signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year,
$252 million package over the winter, waiting for the club to
give him a more equitable extension. Melvin says the Rangers are
waiting for this winter's uncertain labor situation to shake out
before they make any offers, but there's another complication:
Pudge's aching knees might reduce what owner Tom Hicks is willing
to pay him. On Aug. 22 Pudge, a former American League MVP and a
10-time All-Star, left a game against the Yankees with pain in
his right knee, and last Friday he was scratched in Kansas City
with tendinitis in his left knee. Pudge, who will turn 30 in
November, returned to Texas for an MRI.
"There is always concern about injury, especially once a player
reaches 30," Melvin says, sounding as if he were already
beginning contract negotiations. "Three years ago Frank Thomas
and Albert Belle were two of the best hitters in the game. Now
Thomas is hurt, and Belle is out of the game--and they don't play
as demanding a position [as Pudge]."
Pudge's popularity with the fans forced the Rangers to squash
trade rumors involving him earlier this season, but since then he
has become a 10-and-5 player, which could make it harder to trade
him. Texas can ill afford a rancorous contract squabble with the
future Hall of Famer during this off-season, especially because,
as Melvin says, the Rangers feel as if they "can get right back
in it next year."
Early Glimpse at Tomorrow's Stars
The Phillies were out of the playoff chase last September when
they summoned shortstop Jimmy Rollins from the Triple A
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, figuring it was a good
opportunity to check out one of their top prospects. Rollins,
then 21, batted .321 with three stolen bases and one error in 14
games, so impressing the Philadelphia front office that it
decided during the off-season to hand him the starting job in
spring training. He's now one of the main reasons the Phillies
are in the race for the National League East crown.
Players are called up after rosters expand from 25 players to 40
on Sept. 1 for a variety of reasons: to provide bench depth in a
pennant race; as a reward for a productive minor league season;
or, as was the case with Rollins, to gauge their development.
This year a club's decision on whom to promote is complicated by
the uncertainty over a new collective bargaining agreement. (The
current one expires after the World Series.) Some teams are leery
of promoting their top prospects because any player who ends the
season on the 40-man roster would be ineligible to play in the
minors next spring if there's an extended work stoppage in the
majors. A call-up for a few at bats or innings in September could
cost a prospect valuable playing time next year.
Third baseman Sean Burroughs, the best player in the Padres'
system, and outfielder Joe Borchard, a future star in the White
Sox organization, are two minor leaguers likely to be held back
because of the looming labor situation. Here are four players who
have been or will be called up and who bear watching:
--Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins. As far as Florida's front office
is concerned, there's nothing left for Beckett, 21, to
accomplish in the minors. The Marlins' first-round pick in 1999,
Beckett throws a fastball in the mid-90s and a knee-buckling
curve, and he was a combined 14-1 with a 1.54 ERA and 203
strikeouts in 140 innings for the Class A Brevard County
Manatees and the Double A Portland Sea Dogs this season. He was
scheduled to make his first major league start on Tuesday
against the Cubs. Even though he has fewer than 200 innings in
the minors, Beckett was brought up because Florida believes the
experience he gets this month will help him earn a spot in the
rotation next spring. Says G.M. Dave Dombrowski, "You won't find
many guys with better stuff."
--Carlos Pena, 1B, Rangers. A strong September showing by this
slugger, a 1998 first-round choice, could force Texas to make a
difficult decision regarding Rafael Palmeiro in the off-season.
Pena, 23, has hit 20 homers or driven in 100 runs in each of his
three full minor league seasons, and he was on a tear for Triple
A Oklahoma as the season ended, having hit .342 with 12 homers
from July 1 through Sunday. He's also excellent in the field and
thus a logical candidate to take over for Palmeiro, whose range
this year has been limited by sore knees. Problem is, Palmeiro
isn't ready to become a full-time DH. "If taking time off from
first base will extend my career, I'm all for it," says
Palmeiro. "I just don't see the need for other experiments."
--Milton Bradley, OF, Indians. If cost-conscious Cleveland isn't
able to retain centerfielder Kenny Lofton, a free agent after
this season, Bradley, acquired from the Expos in July, is his
heir apparent. A 23-year-old switch-hitter, he batted .222 in
109 games with Montreal over the past two seasons, but the
Indians are smitten with his speed and above-average arm.
Bradley also showed signs of offensive life for the Triple A
Buffalo Bisons, for whom he had hit .263 with nine stolen bases
in 30 games through Sunday.
--Kurt Ainsworth, RHP, Giants. San Francisco's top draft pick in
1999, Ainsworth, 22, was on last year's gold-medal-winning U.S
Olympic team. The Giants' need for pitching to stay in the
postseason race landed him in the big leagues last Saturday.
Ainsworth was 10-9 with a 5.07 ERA for the Triple A Fresno
Rocker Swap and Other Bad Trades
A few weeks ago Indians manager Charlie Manuel announced to
reporters, "You can second-guess me all you want, but John Rocker
is going to pitch. If John Rocker gets me fired, so be it."
With Cleveland cruising toward the American League Central title,
Manuel's job seems safe, but the June trade that brought Rocker
from the Braves for relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed has
rightfully invited second-guessing. Through Sunday, Rocker had
been awful: six losses, a 5.04 ERA, three blown saves in five
opportunities and 20 walks in 25 innings. Karsay and Reed,
meanwhile, had been mostly effective, if not spectacular, for
At least the Indians aren't alone--the Phillies have also seen a
swap designed to strengthen their bullpen blow up in their faces.
Just before the trade deadline Philadelphia sent lefthander Bruce
Chen to the Mets for righthander Turk Wendell and lefty Dennis
Cook, two battle-tested relievers who were to bring experience
and reliability to the Phillies' playoff drive. Instead, both
have struggled. Cook had a 6.35 ERA in 11 outings for
Philadelphia; Wendell was 0-2 with a 9.75 ERA.
Manager Larry Bowa concedes that the Phillies are unlikely to win
unless Cook and Wendell get straightened out. The Indians, on the
other hand, have options, although Rocker's struggles have
brought disarray to the once well-defined roles in the Cleveland
bullpen. Bob Wickman (27 saves in 30 chances, 2.65 ERA),
previously the full-time closer, yo-yoed from closer to setup man
as Rocker was awarded and then lost the stopper's job. Since the
trade Wickman has been outstanding, with a 2.40 ERA and only four
walks in 30 innings.
The saving grace for the Indians has been the emergence of rookie
righthanders Danys Baez and David Riske as setup men. Baez, a
23-year-old Cuban defector, was called up from Triple A Buffalo
in early July and through Sunday was 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA. Riske
was equally impressive since his July 23 call-up, with a 2.00 ERA
in 17 appearances. Thanks to them, the Indians may survive the
Reds at Cubs
The jolt of offense Fred McGriff was supposed to give Chicago
hasn't happened. Through Sunday the Cubs' average of 4.8 runs in
the 33 games since he joined them on July 29 was barely more than
their 4.5 rate without him. That could change in this series,
when McGriff faces one of his favorite opponents. In 90 career
games against Cincinnati, he has 28 home runs and 70 RBIs. Only
the Astros have served up more homers and RBIs to him. In fact,
this could be a banner month for McGriff. Following this series
the Cubs are scheduled to face Houston seven times and the Reds
three more times.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:
The Red Sox are in chaos. In the middle of a division race they
handed the managing job to someone [Joe Kerrigan] with no
managerial experience at any level, and he's already cost them
games with bad pitching moves and poor decisions about sending
Jermaine Dye has brought balance to the Oakland lineup. With him
the A's are as good as Seattle. And their rotation, with three
guys who can shut out any team on any given night, will be scary
in the playoffs....
The Blue Jays are playing better now that it doesn't count. That
club has a lot of selfish players and needs to be blown up....
The Indians' young pitchers are impressive. Lefthander C.C.
Sabathia [14-4, 4.42 ERA] is making a believer out of me, and
the kid they called up last Saturday, righthander Ryan Drese,
might have the best stuff I've seen in the minor leagues this
year. He throws 92 to 95 mph and has a good hard slider and
curve--the weapons to be a top-of-the-rotation guy....
The Mariners' bats have gone cold, and they're not playing all
that well. I expect they'll turn it back up as the playoffs
approach, but there are still some doubts about them. They're an
old club, one injury from being in trouble....
The Rockies are showing a breath of life. Their kids up the
middle, shortstop Juan Uribe and second baseman Jose Ortiz, are
playing well, and outfielder Alex Ochoa has brought energy to
the team since coming over from the Reds. Add three young
starters who have pitched well [righthanders Shawn Chacon, Jason
Jennings and John Thomson], and there's cause for at least some
optimism in Colorado about next year.
in the Box
YANKEES 1, RED SOX 0 Sept. 2
The stars were aligned for the Yankees' Mike Mussina to pitch a
perfect game: His Boston counterpart, David Cone, had thrown the
last perfecto while wearing New York pinstripes two years ago.
There was the requisite stellar defensive play, first baseman
Clay Bellinger's diving stop of Troy O'Leary's smash leading off
the bottom of the ninth, moments after Bellinger, who had pinch
run for Tino Martinez, took the field. And there was a matchup
with two outs in the ninth that tilted in Mussina's favor:
Pinch-hitter Carl Everett was 1 for 9 with seven strikeouts in
his career against him. After Bellinger's gem, Mussina even
thought, Maybe this time it's going to happen.
Karma turned out to be no match for a mistake in location. Ahead
in the count 1 and 2, Mussina tried to get Everett to chase a
fastball up and away. The pitch caught the strike zone's upper
reaches, however, and Everett blooped it to left center for a
single. It was the third time Mussina had taken a perfect game
into the eighth or beyond and not finished the job, but at least
he preserved the shutout. The last pitcher to throw 8 2/3
perfect innings and then falter? The Mariners' Brian Holman, who
gave up a ninth-inning home run to the A's Ken Phelps in a 6-1
win on April 20, 1990.