View Full Version : Evan Grant's Inside the Rangers

03-31-2002, 09:27 AM
Top 10 questions facing the Rangers

Evan Grant, who covers the Rangers for The Dallas Morning News, answers your questions about about the team each week in this column exclusively for DallasNews.com.

Granting and Raving

Well, here we are, on the brink of another season and a new era in Rangers history. So what's changed?

The roster.

The coaching staff.

The front office.

The chances, however, seem to remain the same. As your trusted Rangers prepare to leave Port Charlotte in the rear view mirror for the last time, I can unequivocally tell you this is a more talented team than a year ago. I believe it is a better team.

I don't necessarily know that that means tangible improvements in the standings, but you will just have to read on to find out why.

Texas Rangers Q & A
Q: Where will the Rangers finish the season?

GRANT: At home on Sept. 29 against Oakland. What do you mean that's not what you are talking about? Oh, you want a prediction for a finish in the division. Well, I still stand by original prediction. In other words there won't be any playoffs for this team.

Beyond that, you can take your pick of either third ahead of Anaheim in the AL West or last for the third consecutive year. The bottom line is pitching. Oakland has the best starting rotation in the AL and starting rotations are what win division titles. Seattle has the best bullpen in baseball and bullpens win playoff series.

With it's refurbished rotation, Anaheim isn't too far behind the others. The Rangers, too, are improved when it comes to pitching, but they enter the season still light years behind the top contenders in the division.

The Rangers have a fantastic offense. Fantastic offenses win home run hitting contests, not playoff races. They make for good TV highlights.


Q: How many pitchers will the Rangers carry to start the season?

GRANT: As I write this, there are 19 healthy pitchers in camp, (which doesn't take Justin Thompson, Dan Kolb, Hector Carrasco or Jeff Zimmerman into account). There is less than one week until opening day. The Rangers still don't have many decisions on pitching and likely won't until they return to Arlington Friday.

Because of the uncertainty of the staff's makeup, the Rangers can use as many pitchers as possible, which is why they consider the possibility of making as many as 13 of their 25-man roster pitchers. That leaves only a three-man bench. Of course, given the club's recent blatant disregard for rules (see the Grady Fuson tampering case, for example), I wouldn't put it past the Rangers to try and carry 30 or 35 players into the season. Wonder if MLB would notice that?

In lieu of breaking the rules, expect the Rangers to carry 13 pitchers if Carl Everett is healthy enough to play center at least semi-regularly. If they only carry him as DH, Jerry Narron may need the extra bench player.


Q: Will the Rangers trade for a starting pitcher?

GRANT: Here is a list of starting pitchers that have been mentioned to me as possible Rangers' trade acquisitions this spring: Sidney Ponson, Scott Erickson, Chris Carpenter, Orlando Hernandez, Tanyon Sturtze, Bruce Chen, Brad Penny, Matt Clement, Brad Radke, Rick Reed and John Thompson.

I give you this list just to illustrate how far flung the Rangers' perceived dearth of starting pitching is. In fact, the Rangers haven't talked with clubs about most of those and have had only superficial talks about any of the remaining guys.

Basically what it comes down to is the Rangers would like to add a pitcher of Carpenter, Erickson or Ponson's capabilities. Other clubs would like to divest their Matt Clements and Tanyon Sturtzes and think the desperate, free-spending Rangers would be the perfect match for them. The Rangers aren't falling for that.

Nothing is close. But John Hart loves to talk and loves to saturate the ground with possible deals. If he's going to deal one of his best commodities (a Gabe Kapler or Frank Catalanotto), it's only going to be in a deal that brings a pitcher for the top half of the rotation. His sense is that pitcher won't be available until close to the trading deadline in July.


Q: So, is the pitching staff improved?

GRANT: How could it not be? Rangers' starters had an ERA of 6.00 last year, making them only the fourth team in modern history to have an ERA reach six. A word of advice: When the rotation ERA and the average 30-year mortgage loan are about the same, that's a very bad thing.

The bullpen, and let's not forget about them, had the highest ERA (5.19), the most losses (31) and allowed the most runs (310) in the majors.

Chan Ho Park in the No. 1 spot over Rick Helling is an improvement, perhaps not huge, but an improvement. A healthy Kenny Rogers is an improvement over one who had no feeling in his left arm. A more experienced Doug Davis should be an improvement over the one who started last year with less than a season of major league service time. On the other two days, well, the offense sure is improved and maybe that will make the starters more effective.

When the offseason started, the Rangers set out to improve their bullpen as their top priority. They didn't end up with Seattle or the New York Yankees', but they've got a formidable group, even with Jeff Zimmerman headed to the disabled list. Remember John Rocker has averaged 29 saves a year over the past three seasons. Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell, Rudy Seanez and Dan Miceli are upgrades over J.D Smart, Pat Mahomes, R.A. Dickey and Mark Petkovsek.

But here's the caveat: As improved as this pitching staff is, it's still the worst in the pitching-rich AL West. Oakland has the best rotation, Seattle the best bullpen and Anaheim, believe it or not, might have the best combination of the two. You know it and I know it: Pitching wins.


Q: What about the offense, then? Is it good enough to keep this team competititve.

GRANT: Sure, the Rangers' offense was good enough to keep them competitive last year and this lineup is even better. Just remember there is a big difference between competitors and contenders. The Rangers lost 89 games last year. They led at some point in 52 of them. The offense generated the leads; the pitching staff and defense failed to protect them. And, I believe, at some points, the hitters just got frustrated and couldn't muster comebacks.

Say this about this season. Chan Ho Park is no Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez, but he should be in the top half of AL aces. On nights when Kenny Rogers and Doug Davis start, the Rangers probably will be about a .500 team. If the offense clubs opponents into submission on the other two nights through the rotation, the Rangers should be able to push above .500 for the first time since 1999.

And now the bad news: The top two teams in the division last year both played better than .600 ball. There's a pretty good shot they could repeat that percentage.


Q: So you are saying this club will have to overachieve to contend, Mr. Smart Aleck beat writer. What is the key to that?

GRANT: As usual, it comes down to pitching. If the bullpen is airtight, the Rangers are going to win more games than you and I probably suspect they will. If I'm picking one individual, though, it's Kenny Rogers.

Rogers would be a fine No. 3 pitcher at this stage of his career, but the Rangers are pushing the envelope a bit to have a 37-year-old coming off unusual arm surgery back up Chan Ho Park. The encouraging thing is that Rogers has had an outstanding spring, seems to have more zip on his fastball and better ability to get his arm to the right place in order to pitch to both sides of the plate.

If he can handle the No. 2 spot, and the bullpen is adequate, this team might surprise a lot of folks.


Q: Is Carl Everett ready to play center field?
GRANT: As of today, I'd say no. Then again, he's played only parts of three games in center this spring after undergoing late-December knee surgery. He simply hasn't looked very good on breaking balls. He's made good reads, just hasn't had the first step to make the catches routine. He couldn't get to one ball against Pittsburgh and had to make an over the shoulder grab on one against Tampa Bay that normally would not be that difficult for him. When it comes to hitting, though, that's a different story. Everett has simply smoked the ball.

Because of where his offense is, I think he will open the season on the active roster, perhaps at DH while he continues to strengthen the knee. Gabe Kapler would probably be the opening day center fielder with Everett at DH.


Q: Is their bad chemistry in the clubhouse?

GRANT: As of now, and remember it's still March, chemistry might be one of this team's assets. Carl Everett is genuinely happy to be out of Boston and has done a good job of fitting in with teammates. Juan Gonzalez is no less than ecstatic to be back in familiar surroundings and in an environment where he doesn't have to be a team spokesman. He and Alex Rodriguez have struck up a solid friendship.

Oscar Acosta has quickly won the loyalty of much of the pitching staff with his willingness to battle on their behalf.

And perhaps the biggest asset of all is manager Jerry Narron. In Narron, I see a manager who really understands the needs and insecurities of the modern player. He listens well and he won't compromise his credibility. That, not book smarts, are what allow a manager to get the most from his team. If given a chance to grow with this team, he's got a long managerial career in front of him.


Q: What is GM John Hart's biggest challenge in this job?

GRANT: Hart must realize that he is no longer in the diluted Central Division. For the last five years in Cleveland, Hart was in maintenance mode and, to be truthful, he didn't have a lot to maintain. Minnesota, Detroit and Kansas City didn't have the talent or resources to compete with the Indians.

Now, Hart finds himself looking up at perhaps the deepest division in baseball. Making the kind of moves he made to maintain top-dog status in the Central no longer work. Hart must balance trying to catch the other clubs in the West without compromising this team's future.

Hart has received a cupboard that is not empty. It appears that former GM Doug Melvin left him a much deeper farm system than was perhaps suspected. Colby Lewis, Hank Blalock, Kevin Mench, Mark Teixeira and Jason Romano all have had super springs and seem more poised than prospects of the past decade to compete in the majors. This is not considering pitchers Rob Bell and Aaron Myette, who are in the minors with significant major league experience, even though they are both still prospect age.

It would be wise not to deal any of these guys for aging veterans, especially since the Rangers won't have much of a draft this June. They have already lost four picks in the first five rounds as compensation for signing free agents.

The Rangers already made one risky deal in sending first baseman Carlos Pena to Oakland. In that deal, at least, they received four prospects back. If Mario Ramos one day moves into the top half of a solid rotation, it will have paid dividends. The Rangers can't give away good young players for guys they might control for one season.


Q: Who will win the World Series?

GRANT: You know, I can't remember who I picked in our special baseball section. My gut feeling is that Oakland will win the AL West because of the strength of its starting pitching. Starting pitching wins divisions. I think Seattle, however, will win the wild card and go deeper into the post-season because of the strength of its bullpen. Starters win divisions; bullpens win playoff series.

Today, I'm choosing Seattle over St. Louis. Check with me again in a week; I may have a different opinion.


Q: I am a single, vivacious, intelligent, funny and attractive woman who very much enjoys baseball and wise-guy writers. Are you available?

GRANT: As we say in the baseball business: I'm a free agent. Oops. Sorry, that was from the dating service column.

04-04-2002, 05:22 PM
Rangers' opener all too familiar
Evan Grant, who covers the Rangers for The Dallas Morning News, answers your questions about about the team each week in this column exclusively for DallasNews.com.

Granting and Raving

Nearly 24 hours after the Rangers' season opener has been put to rest, one thought sticks in my mind.

This team sure did look a lot like last year's.

You remember last year's team, right? Just in case you've forgotten: it was the one that entered the season with big hopes, only to lose its manager, its general manager and 89 games along the way.

It was the one that had all kinds of pretty offense, but neither the starting pitching to shut down a team nor the bullpen to keep an opponent in check.

On Monday, the Rangers lost, 8-3, to Oakland. The offense was smothered by a tough starting pitcher; the Rangers' starter didn't give his teammates much of a chance; the bullpen failed to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Remember last year's opener in Puerto Rico? The offense was smothered by none other than Toronto's Esteban Loaiza; starter Rick Helling couldn't keep his teammates in the game; reliever Mark Petkovsek added gas to the fire.

For a day, at least, it seemed the only thing that had changed were the names.

On Monday, instead of Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti flailing away at the plate, it was Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett, to whom the Rangers are paying $14 million this year.

Instead of Helling getting pounded, it was Chan Ho Park, whose salary is $13 million. Instead of Petkovsek getting knocked around, it was Todd Van Poppel. Yes, the Van Poppel who signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract last November.

OK, so maybe more than just the names have changed. The salaries have gotten larger, too.

I know what you are saying. It's only one game.

Ah, but it looked so similar to those 89 losses from last year. Until the Rangers string together several games - not just one - that are rooted in solid pitching from start to finish, the idea that this team is no different from last year's will hang thickly over its head.

It is more of a burden than this rebuilt Rangers team needs to start the season.

Until they show that something really has changed, however, they are going to have to deal with it, too.

Texas Rangers Q & A
Q: What are we doing to keep Pudge Rodriguez?

GRANT: It didn't take long for this question to pop up this season, did it? Opened the first batch of e-mails and there this was, staring at me. Of more significance, it is staring at the Rangers. I received several variations of this question but chose this one because it is, well, blunt and to the point.

So here's a blunt and to-the-point answer: Nothing. At least not right now.

And you know what? It's OK with Rodriguez. Though he's made it clear he wants to remain a Ranger, he's also made it clear that he's not going to give discounts to a team more than willing to pay market price for less-accomplished free agents (see Todd Van Poppel's three-year, $7.5 million contract for example). He's also made it clear that he's not going to let the contract situation distract him the way it did in 1997. He understands that baseball is a business and that he has skills to sell. Provided he remains healthy and puts up a typical Pudge-like year, he's going to sign a very fat contract. What upsets Rangers fans is that it may not be with the Rangers.

Here's some serious advice: For now, be like Pudge. Don't worry about the contract. Enjoy what you've got and let whatever is going to happen down the road happen down the road.


Q: At last count, the Rangers are trying Jason Romano at three positions. If the injuries keep piling up or John Hart trades an outfielder, and he is able to become a "better hitting" Scott Sheldon, how soon do you expect him to be on the major league roster?

GRANT: Going into the last week of camp, Jason Romano had a decent shot at making the team. Seriously. Had Jerry Narron not been convinced that Carl Everett was ready to play centerfield, the Rangers would have had to seriously consider taking an extra outfielder into the season. Someone like Romano, who could play center or could have run late in games, could have been the perfect fit.

Everett's improved health hurt Romano. What's hurt his chances of reaching the majors even more this year is the signing of Ruben Rivera. Though Rivera will go to Double-A, he's got five years of major league experience and is an above-average center fielder. If John Hart decides he needs another outfielder, you can bet he will seriously consider adding Rivera. If Michael Young or Frank Catalanotto were to get hurt, however, Romano would be at the top of the list for a major league callup.


Q: I am concerned about the hamstring injuries the starting pitchers have had in the last week of training camp: Ismael Valdes, Chan Ho Park and Kenny Rogers. I realize these kinds of things happen during spring training, but three injuries in four days? Is this just all a bad coincidence or does it have to do with have a new coaching staff and a new philosophy of getting ready for the season?
Kevin Skarupa, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

GRANT: In the final week of spring training, Chan Ho Park, Kenny Rogers and Dave Burba all experienced some kind of hamstring injury that forced them from starts. Ismael Valdes experienced tightness in his elbow, and the Rangers sent him back to Arlington to be examined.

All have said they are OK to pitch. But experience and common sense tell you that with four starters experiencing some kind of pain, the chances of all four being completely fine within a week are pretty slim.

So what's the reason? I'm not sure and I don't think the Rangers are either. I can tell you this: Valdes has a history of being fragile and actually opened the last two seasons on the DL; Burba suffered his hamstring injury running the bases, which makes his injury unlike the others; Rogers is 37 and pesky injuries seem to more often pop up at that advanced baseball age; For Park's injury, I offer no explanation.

Oscar Acosta has a different method of getting ready for the season than did previous Rangers pitching coaches, but that doesn't necessarily mean much here since three of the four pitchers didn't work with Acosta last year anyway.

My guess: Just a week of bad luck for the Rangers. This may not offer any real solid hypotheses for all the injuries. I'm just saying there may not be such a thing.


Q: This may be rhetorical in nature, but Tom Hicks fired Doug Melvin because of lack of talent in the minor league system.

Spring training shows this not a totally accurate assessment with Colby Lewis jumping to the forefront and Kevin Mench & Jason Romano making statements about their immediate availability.

ONLY the mention of Hank Blalock's name points out a player with as high a ceiling as can be imagined, and we just traded Carlos Pena, who has the tremendous upside along with so many A-Rod-esque intangibles.

The talent is there in Texas' system, and had Barry Zito signed with Texas as he wanted to instead of letting his dad overrule, Oakland's rotation would be missing a main cog and Texas would have a legit No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Possibly Grady Fuson wouldn't be quite as smart as he is today, and if Jovanny Cedeno had any "luck" as far as his health goes, Doug Melvin might be a little smarter, too.

We all want to win now, but I want to win every year or have a really good chance at winning, and a quality farm system is the best ticket. Was Doug Melvin's budget shorted in the scouting/player development category or was Doug simply trying to be fiscally responsible in his dealing with draft choices? Has Mr. Hicks given sufficient support for the best farm system in baseball?

GRANT: Doug Melvin thought he was acting in the name of fiscal responsibility proclaimed by his owner when he drew the line on his offer to third-round pick Barry Zito in 1998.

When Tom Hicks bought the team, he said he would handle the money and turn the baseball decisions over to executives. Melvin weighed the baseball decision vs. the money and thought he was doing what his owner wanted.

The same could be said of his actions on first-rounder Mark Teixeira and seventh-rounder Patrick Boyd last summer. Melvin was willing to give the two a combined total of $6.3 million; Hicks stepped in and signed them both (though he actually got Boyd after firing Melvin) for $10.1 million. Perhaps Hicks was swayed by arguments made by others outside the organization that Melvin was making a bad decision. In any case, Hicks lost his trust in Melvin's ability to make baseball decisions. At that point, it probably would have been useless to keep Melvin on anyway because he would have been constantly looking over his shoulder.

Hicks' comments about a lack of a farm system seem to ring pretty hollow right now, though. The position players you mention show that there is depth in the system. Doug Davis' emergence last year and Colby Lewis' breakthrough this spring indicate there is some pitching talent in the organization.

If Hicks says he simply lost faith in Melvin, that's one thing. The farm system argument seems to have been rendered pretty moot at this point, though.


Q: Do you believe that it was a mistake to keep Kenny Rogers and give away Rick Helling? It doesn't seem that Rogers has done anything for the Rangers since throwing the no-hitter (perfect game) so many years ago. While Helling was ineffective last year, he at least was a workhorse.
Jon Watts, Fort Worth

GRANT: It's hard to make that an either-or question. The Rangers didn't have the ability to walk away from Kenny Rogers the way they did with Helling. Rogers still had another year on his contract, had a 6.31 ERA in 2001 and was coming off season-ending surgery. It would have been hard to deal him.

Helling was eligible for salary arbitration, and John Hart hates salary arbitration the way you and I might hate an invasive medical procedure. Hart looked at Helling's request for $7 million, saw a guy who gave up 260 hits and decided to spend his money elsewhere.

As time went on, Helling did make it clear that he was willing to accept less money up front in order to stay with the Rangers. The Rangers decided to take that money and put it into more than one veteran, signing guys like Ismael Valdes and Dave Burba to round out the rotation. At the end of spring training, it was evident that Hart would have liked one more starter whom he could count on for 15 wins and 200 innings. That is precisely what Helling averaged over the past four years.


Q: Over the last couple of years, we've started to see an impressive amount of talented young pitchers hit the big leagues. Oakland, Houston, and Florida all have staffs anchored by young hurlers, and to a lesser extent, you can see the same thing in Minnesota, Baltimore and Milwaukee. Here's what I'd like to know: is it possible to compare the Rangers' current collection of young arms with what Oakland, Houston, Florida and Minnesota had two years ago and with what Baltimore and Milwaukee had one year ago?
M. Cook

GRANT: Actually, I don't think it is. With the exception of Houston, all of those clubs have gone through extended periods of poor performance at the major league level. They got lots of high draft picks and put them to use. Most of them (Baltimore being the exception) are small-market clubs that had to put more emphasis on getting the most out of their drafts.

The A's are a prime example. They did hit on Tim Hudson, a sixth-round draft choice in 1997, but Mark Mulder was the second overall selection in the 1998 draft and Barry Zito the ninth overall choice in 1999.

If the Rangers put Aaron Myette, Rob Bell and Colby Lewis in the big leagues for an extended period of time and let them slowly progress, then you could draw comparisons. Right now, there is none.


Q: How will Oscar Acosta impact the Rangers' pitching staff this year? What is his philosophy on pitching?
Chris Crombar, Cedar Park
GRANT: Acosta brings a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to the Rangers' pitching staff. Some may call it "tough love." Some may call it "intensity." It is definitely a different approach than the Rangers have been used to for the last few years. That approach, more than anything, separates Acosta from predecessors. There is really not much difference from one pitching coach to another when it comes to mechanical adjustments. The difference is in the mental approach. Acosta wants hard-nosed, tough pitchers who won't back down or give in.

Will it work? Don't know. You can say this, though: It's certainly worth a try given the miserable results the Rangers have received in the past two seasons.


Q: Why is it GMs seem to come to a team and, instead of actually finding good new players, they seem to just bring players from their former team that the former team doesn't want anymore? We seem to have a lot of new (or old) Cleveland and Oakland players, giving up some good players in the process (Carlos Pena, Rick Helling, Ruben Sierra). Are they just lazy? If Doug Melvin becomes a GM somewhere, will he start taking away the lesser players on the Ranger team?

GRANT: Hard as it may be to believe, GMs are people, too. They develop their own loyalties to players. Until last year, Dave Burba performed well for John Hart in Cleveland. Right or wrong, when Hart saw a hole in the Rangers' rotation, he felt comfortable bringing him here. The same could be said of lefty reliever Rich Rodriguez. All in all, it's pretty common for new GMs to round out teams with several players that they are quite familiar with. It gives them an air of safety and comfort.


Q: What's up with Juan? O.K. Juan-Gone is fine, but I'm referring to Juan Moreno. I thought he was pretty good for the Rangers last year. So why is John Hart so desperate to replace him with other team's spares?
Chad Thomas Hannon, Sam Houston State

GRANT: Juan Moreno's statistics for the Rangers were a bit deceiving last year. Though he compiled a 3.92 ERA and held lefties to a .171 average, Moreno had 28 walks in 41 1-3 innings. He faced 87 left-handed hitters and walked 17. Not good. You have to throw strikes to be a successful reliever.

When Moreno kept up the bad habits in spring training, John Hart decided he'd rather go with a lefty who has a longer track record of throwing strikes. And when Hart found himself in a roster bind, he decided it was OK to lose Moreno altogether, even though he is 27. Hart still has Chris Michalak, Jesus Pena and Randy Flores in reserve in the minors in case something happens with Rich Rodriguez in the majors.

This is what happens when you have too many players for spots on the 40-man roster. You end up making tough decisions. Only time will tell if it's the kind of decision the Rangers will regret.


Q: Will Justin Thompson ever pitch for the Rangers?
Michael McCauley, Fallon, Nev.

GRANT: Chances get slimmer and slimmer. Thompson has not pitched in a major league game since August, 1999. We're talking more than two years now, and it doesn't appear he'll be ready to pitch anytime soon. He had a recurrence of some shoulder pain in the final week of spring training and his throwing program was curtailed.

What Thompson does have going for him is age - he's still just 29 - and the fact that he's left-handed. Even if he's not healthy until next year when he's 30, somebody is going to be willing to look at an imposing left-hander.


Q: Assuming the Rangers stay in the race through the summer, do you see the pitching prospects ticketed for Oklahoma pushing out the veterans in the bottom half of the staff? Or will John Hart continue to grab every established pitcher he can get his hands on off the waiver wire to fill whatever holes appear, or worse, trade some of those prospects? His moves so far don't indicate much interest in giving minor leaguers a shot at roster spots unless the major league incumbent is a total disaster as with Mike Lamb at third.
Lamar Kukuk, Muir, Pa.

GRANT: If the Rangers are in contention, kids aren't going to be getting time in the major leagues. Interestingly, in response to a question I asked owner Tom Hicks before Monday's opener, he said the Rangers would be willing to add payroll if the team needed another pitcher for the stretch run.

What's interesting about it? Well, I asked him if the Rangers could add more payroll to this year's opening-day figure of $105 million. Hicks is the one who took that to mean the team would need to add another pitcher.


Q: I wonder whether even the most seasoned of managers could successfully deal with the volatility that is this year's Texas Rangers, let alone a rookie like Jerry Narron. I worry that he's really in over his head. The prevailing theory is that this team has to charge out of the gate, or Narron will be gone by mid-April. Do you think he's really on an incredibly short leash?

GRANT: The personalities in the Rangers' clubhouse would present a challenge for virtually any manager. The thing that is important in handling those personalities, however, isn't necessarily understanding baseball, but understanding people. In this regard, I think Jerry Narron is pretty well equipped for the job. He seems to understand what modern players want and need.

The manager has reached the players. If he's fired for a poor start, these players are likely to shut down completely. If he's fired, it's a clear signal to all of baseball that this winter's great overhaul hasn't worked. If he's fired, the vultures are liable to descend on the Rangers' bodies quickly. There could be no good to come of that.