The Texas Rangers improved their offense this winter replacing Will Clark with Raphael Palmeiro. With Royce Clayton and Todd Zeile also for the full season, the Texas offense, which scored 940 runs last year, should be even more productive. The Rangers have also bolstered their starting rotation, bringing in Mark Clark to fall in behind John Burkett, Rick Helling and Aaron Sele. Clark is a solid innings-eater, having averaged 200+ for the past three years with an ERA of around 4. His win totals have been depressed largely because he always seems to have lapses in focus at crucial times. Pitching guru Dick Bosman should help cure him of that. However, some questions remain as to whether Helling and Sele are for real or just one-year wonders. Both allowed a significant increase in baserunners per inning over the second half of last year and neither showed great command of the strikezone. Trends like that don't bode well for a continuation of the success they enjoyed in 1998. The key as to whether or not the Rangers will have enough pitching to contend appears to be the health of closer John Wetteland. If he's healthy after his offseason surgery, the bullpen should be solid enough to keep the Rangers in contention regardless of what Sele and Helling do. If he's not, those two may have to reproduce last year's success for the Rangers to repeat as division champs. FYI - did you know that Aaron Sele is the highest paid pitcher in Rangers history?
Injuries were the only constant for an Anaheim Angels team that came agonizingly close to winning the West for the second time in 3 years. So the Angels got a lot tougher and younger this offseason. Their signing of Mo Vaughn will move Darin Erstad to the outfield, upgrading the defense and allowing Tim Salmon stay in the line-up more often as a DH. They've given phenom Troy Glaus the job at the hot corner, which improves the left side of the infield both offensively and defensively, as Hollins has been average at best at 3rd. The Vaughn/Erstad move will allow the Angels to deal an outfielder for some pitching help if they run into trouble, although the only one that seems to have significant trade value is centerfielder par-excellance Jim Edmonds. Speaking of the pitching, the starters should be decent if not occassionally very good, health-willing. The signing of Tim Belcher takes much of the innings burden off youngsters Jason Dickson and Jarrod Washburn, both of whom showed the effects of overwork in the second half last year. The bullpen has some questions with the injury to set-up man Mike James, but there appears to be enough depth to allow manager Terry Collins to go with the hot hand to get to closer Troy Percival. If the Angels can avoid as many injuries as they sustained last year, they could finally claim the AL West crown for the first time since 1986.
The Seattle Mariners have two of the most impressive baseball talents in the history of baseball in Ken Griffey, Jr and Alex Rodriguez. If their careers continue according to projection, they will end up as the greatest centerfielder and greatest shortstop of all time respectively. And at the rate the M's are going, they still won't have won a pennant. They still have an impressive offensive team, especially if Jay Buhner's recovery from surgery is as complete as some reports suggest. This would allow Pinella to keep David Segui at first and to platoon Butch Huskey and John Mabry in left. The spring training winner of David Bell/Carlos Guillen at second base will no doubt be an upgrade over Joey Cora's defensive woes with Guillen being a significant upgrade offensively as well. But the Mariners still don't have enough pitching to seriously contend. GM Woody Woodward has again tried to build a pitching staff on the cheap with newly-acquired retreads Butch Henry, Billy Swift, Jose Mesa, Mark Leiter and Jose Paniagua. Even if by some miracle all of them pan out, it won't be enough to save a pitching staff that has only 2 noteworthy starters in Jamie Moyer and Jeff Fassero, both of whom are over 35 and showing signs of decline. While both of the pitching prospects the Mariners got in the Randy Johnson deal, John Halama and Freddie Garcia, are good, they are still probably a year or two away from helping.
The Oakland A's have quietly assembled a team that could challenge the Mariners for offensive supremacy in the West in a year or two, mostly through good drafts and talent development. Catcher AJ Hinch, cornermen Jason Giambi and Eric Chavez, shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielder Ben Grieve have each been considered among the top three prospects in all of baseball at their respective positions. The front office did their homework this offseason and signed veterans Tony Phillips and Tim Raines, both of whom are cagey veterans who know how to get on base and should be instrumental in helping these talented youngsters hone that skill. Patience/selectivity at the plate is the hardest, and possibly the most important skill for a hitter to learn. With it, a player can help his team win even without getting a hit. Without it, a player is an unproductive out waiting to happen. Expect the A's offense to mature quickly and perhaps be ready for a run for the postseason. That is, as soon as the pitching is decent. After staff ace Kenny Rogers, who may be dealt to the Indians some time during spring training, the A's starting staff is mediocre at best. The bullpen has a chance to be solid, depending on which Doug Jones shows up. If he can pitch like he did down the stretch for the Tribe last year, then Jones will be a key contributor in getting leads to journeyman closer Billy Taylor. If, however, he gives up a homer every four innings as he did for the Brewers last year, then the only key contributions he'll be making will be towards finishing the postgame buffet.