The Rangers and others have seen winter's best-laid plans fail
to blossom in spring
In his first winter as general manager of the Rangers, John Hart
spared neither effort nor cash in trying to rejuvenate a team
that had finished last in the American League West two years in a
row. He signed free-agent righthander Chan Ho Park to be the ace
of a rotation that had had the league's worst ERA (6.00) in 2001.
He spent millions on five free-agent righthanded relievers and
traded for southpaws John Rocker and Rich Rodriguez to further
bolster the league's worst bullpen (5.19 ERA). He invited 34
pitchers to spring training. For good measure he added slugging
outfielders Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett to an already potent
Despite all the off-season tinkering, the 2002 Rangers bear a
striking resemblance to last year's edition. Through Sunday,
Texas had lost nine of its first 12 games and was already fading
from the division race. It had the league's second-worst bullpen
ERA (7.50) and the third-worst overall (5.47). Its supposed
strength, that bruising offense, was averaging 4.3 runs per game,
which was more than only three other teams in the league.
Texas wasn't alone when it came to seeing well-laid plans go
awry, at least for the moment. The Mets overhauled their roster
in an attempt to beef up the National League's lowest-scoring
lineup, but through Sunday they had the league's fourth-lowest
batting average (.227) and had scored three or fewer runs in
seven of their 12 games. The Cubs also tried to shore up a
sagging offense by adding outfielder Moises Alou, among others,
but Chicago had the fifth-weakest attack (3.4 runs per game) in
What happened? For starters, injuries to the newcomers. Alou
hadn't played yet this season because of a sore left calf. (The
Cubs activated him from the disabled list on Sunday.) Last week
Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn went on the DL with a fractured
hand, depriving New York of a power source; also, second baseman
Roberto Alomar had struggled, batting .170 with a .235 on-base
percentage, until he broke out on Sunday with two home runs and
A similar turnaround doesn't seem to be in the cards for the
Rangers, for whom a litany of injuries has been compounded by
questionable roster moves. Park left his Opening Day start in the
sixth inning with an aggravated right hamstring injury and landed
on the disabled list three days later. Gonzalez joined him on
April 11 after tearing muscle fibers in his right hand with an
awkward swing. Without its two top relievers--closer Jeff
Zimmerman (elbow tendinitis) and setup man Jay Powell (finger
tendinitis), both of whom have been on the DL since the season
began--the Texas bullpen has been in disarray.
Rocker has filled in as closer, but that left the Rangers without
a lefthanded setup man, forcing Hart to backtrack on earlier
roster moves. Last week he purchased the contract of lefty Chris
Michalak, whom he had outrighted to the minors to help clear
roster room for a passel of righthanded journeymen (Hideki Irabu,
Dan Miceli, Rudy Seanez and Steve Woodard) he had brought in.
The roster crunch created by Hart's numerous signings also forced
him to part with some key prospects in early April. Lefthanders
Juan Moreno and Andy Pratt were traded to the Braves and Padres,
Hart downplays his roster headaches, saying the veteran signees
have added much-needed depth. Still, a team with the Rangers'
recent pitching history needs to conserve and develop all the
prospects it can, not plug holes with pricey veterans. Even if
Texas's offense awakens this season, a flood of runs won't make
the Rangers' long-term picture any brighter.
Kent Mercker Returns
Success on The Side
Kent Mercker's activity list during his sabbatical from baseball
last summer reads as if it were drawn up by an overcaffeinated
camp counselor: racquetball, pickup basketball, golf (enough
rounds to lower his handicap from 7 to 4) and softball
(outfielder in two leagues). He did everything while home in
Dublin, Ohio, except what he had done the previous 15
summers--pitch professionally. "I had a lot of fun being home on a
daily basis," he says, "but I came to the realization that I love
to compete, and no matter what I do after baseball, I'll never
compete at the highest level in anything else."
It can be argued that the Rockies' bullpen isn't quite the
highest level of competition, but the lefthanded Mercker is happy
to be there. After he was cut by the Red Sox in spring training
last year and sat out the season, Mercker has returned to the big
leagues as a sidearming setup man. (Colorado, looking for veteran
relievers, invited him to camp and signed him to a one-year,
$500,000 contract.) Through Sunday he had given up just three
hits and hadn't allowed an earned run in seven appearances.
Mercker was a fifth starter in the Braves' rotation in the
mid-1990s--he threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers in April
'94--but when Atlanta wanted to trim payroll, he was traded to the
Orioles in December '95. He played for six teams over the next
five seasons. During a start for the Angels in May 2000 he felt a
discomfort in his head. "It seemed like I had liquid in my head,"
he says. "I got this pain that started in the back of my neck and
went through [to] the front [of my head] and right between my
Mercker had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He spent 12 days in
the hospital, the first four in intensive care. At first doctors
advised him not to play baseball again, but after several weeks
of tests they determined that the episode had been a freak
occurrence and not the result of an aneurysm or any other serious
condition. He was back on the mound for Anaheim in August of that
year, but his return was more heartwarming than effective. He had
a 7.71 ERA in nine games, including a five-run, three-homer
shelling in one third of an inning against the Mariners on the
next-to-last day of the season.
Last spring, after failing to catch on with Boston--he'd had a
brief stint with the Red Sox in 1999--Kent chose to spend the
summer at home with his family, wife Julie and their daughters
Madison and Sophia, rather than hang around in Triple A hoping
for a callup. "I didn't watch baseball all summer until the
playoffs came around," he says. "Then I realized the itch was
still there. I felt I could still do it, and I said, I've got to
When Mercker arrived at Colorado's camp this year he set about
reinventing himself as a situational reliever. After throwing
over the top throughout his career, he experimented with a
sidearm delivery to make his offerings more effective against
lefthanded hitters. He quickly found command of his fastball,
slider and changeup with the new throwing motion.
Mercker now varies his arm angle from pitch to pitch, though he
gets more movement on his 91-mph fastball from the sidearm slot
than he did throwing over the top. Through Sunday he'd retired
all 11 lefthanded hitters he'd faced, striking out six of them.
"I didn't want to go to the pen [before the hemorrhage]," Mercker
says, "but it's where I belong. My mentality is more suited to
the pen. I'm not a guy who likes sitting around."
The Cost of Cost Cutting
Pennies Saved, Grumbles Earned
In an effort to trim their expenses, the A's had been traveling
without a bullpen catcher since starting a nine-game roadtrip on
April 5. That meant they had to use a backup receiver to warm up
relievers. When regular catcher Ramon Hernandez missed an April 9
game at Texas to be with his wife for the expected birth of their
first child, backup Greg Myers started and third-stringer Scott
Hatteberg went to the pen. When the game dragged into the 11th
inning, Hatteberg was needed to pinch-hit. A scramble through the
bowels of the stadium got him to the on-deck circle just in time
to be announced. (He singled.) "I think we need a bullpen
catcher," ventured Hatteberg after the game. "When you want to
give Ramon a day off, you don't want to make him go down there
and warm up pitchers."
Oakland acted the next day, hiring former Astros farmhand Brandon
Buckley to catch in the pen. "You don't know it," manager Art
Howe told Buckley, "but you're the MVP of this team."
Indians' Roaring Start
New Cast, Same Great Show
This is how well things are going for the Indians: After rallying
from a five-run deficit to beat the Royals 8-7 last Saturday,
they seemed to take more pleasure in the comeback than in the
victory, as if the nine-game winning streak they had carried into
the game was cheapened because none of those wins had featured
late-inning drama. "The guys here know what a great tradition we
have of coming from behind," shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "We
were ahead in almost every other game, so this was a good test."
Added reliever Paul Shuey, "We had to prove we could come from
It's taken only two weeks of the season for Cleveland to prove
that all the preseason speculation about its demise was off
base. The Tribe's 11-1 record through Sunday was three wins shy
of the best start in franchise history. The Indians were working
on a 10-game winning streak and had already built a 3 1/2-game
lead in the American League Central. This is a team that was
widely written off after a winter during which it unloaded
Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez in the name of payroll paring.
"I'm surprised so many people jumped ship on us this winter,"
third baseman Travis Fryman said last week. "I kept looking
around the locker room saying, 'Do they see all the people I
still see around here?' We're much better than people ever gave
us credit for."
Cleveland's surge has been led by the top three hitters in the
order. Number 2 hitter Vizquel, who had his worst offensive
season as an Indian last year (.255 average, .323 on-base
percentage, 13 steals), is swinging well again; he hit .311 and
scored 13 runs in the first 12 games. The third man in the order,
Ellis Burks, had hit in 11 of 12 games (a .419 average, best in
the league) and driven in 10 runs.
The big lift, however, has come from new leadoff hitter Matt
Lawton, who was acquired from the Mets in the Alomar trade.
Lawton didn't win the leadoff job until the end of spring
training, but he has since sparked the offense better than Kenny
Lofton did last year. Lawton had a .404 on-base percentage and
tied for the lead in the majors with 15 runs. It was his fourth
home run (which tied him for the team lead with Jim Thome) that
breathed life into the Tribe on Saturday; the three-run shot was
the centerpiece of a five-run eighth inning that tied the game at
7-7. "I knew Lawton was a solid player," manager Charlie Manuel
said, "but I didn't know he was this good."
The once-rabid Cleveland fan base, discouraged by the Indians'
hacking $13 million from last year's $91 million payroll, has
been slower to catch on. The smallest crowd in Jacobs Field
history (23,760) watched the Indians beat the Twins on April 9,
and a mere 28,455 bought tickets for Saturday afternoon's
COLOR PHOTO: JULIE JACOBSON/AP PHOTO With Rocker filling in for closer Zimmerman, Texas was left without a lefty setup man.
COLOR PHOTO: MLB PHOTO (PALMEIRO)
COLOR PHOTO: TOM HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES (RHODES)
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO
COLOR PHOTO: AARON JOSEFCZYK/REUTERS Credit for the Tribe's fast start has to begin at the top of the order, with new arrival Lawton.
Owns Who Whom?
The American league's most feared lefty setup man, Rhodes held
lefthanded hitters to a lower average last year (.200) than any
other southpaw in the league, and he was even better against
righties (.177). Rhodes's mid-90s fastball and hard slider,
however, haven't fazed the lefthanded Palmeiro, who is 8 for 21
(.381) with a home run against him. With Palmeiro batting behind
Alex Rodriguez (a righthander who's 6 for 13 with a homer and
six RBIs against Rhodes) in the Texas lineup, the Rangers' visit
to Seattle this weekend could be rocky for Rhodes.
Yankee Mike Mussina's take on Fenway Park, where he retired the
first 16 batters he faced on the way to beating the Red Sox on
Sunday: "This place has had some success for me." Yeah, and
Sinatra put on some good shows at the Sands. Mussina (right),
who ended up allowing five hits and two runs in 62/3 innings,
had come within an out of a perfect game at Fenway last
September, so at one point on Sunday he had retired 43 of his
last 44 hitters in Boston. Mussina's 2.94 career ERA at Fenway
is surpassed only by his 2.68 at the Metrodome among current
road parks in which he has made at least 10 starts. Even those
marks aren't good enough to crack the top five of active
pitchers with the lowest ERAs at a road stadium (minimum 10
PITCHER, TEAM BALLPARK STARTS ERA
Jose Rijo, Reds Qualcomm Stadium 13 1.36
Roger Clemens, Yankees Kauffman Stadium 16 1.84
Jose Rijo, Reds Dodger Stadium 10 2.03
John Smoltz, Braves Olympic Stadium 15 2.06
Greg Maddux, Braves Pro Player Stadium 14 2.16
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU