Al West

April 04, 1999

Rangers

That was then: Juan Gonzalez had 157 RBIs, most in the AL since 1949, and Texas went 5-for-5 against Anaheim in the last two weeks to win the division. The Rangers hit just .141 in a Division Series sweep by the Yankees.

This is now: Texas signed first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who should take advantage of the Ballpark's short right field.

Upside: Palmeiro and a full season of shortstop Royce Clayton should solidify an infield defense that went in the past three seasons from 59 errors to 74 to 90.

Downside: Rick Helling and Aaron Sele (28-35 the previous two years) are unlikely to combine again for 39 wins -- 11 more than any other duo in the division. Closer John Wetteland isn't fully recovered from arthroscopic elbow surgery. Mike Simms (16 homers in 186 at-bats) is out until July with a torn Achilles' tendon.

Inside pitch: Helling was the first 20-game winner not listed on any Cy Young Award ballot since Dennis Leonard in 1980. His 4.41 ERA -- highest for a 20-game winner in 60 years -- was a big reason.

Outside chance: Someone might still be foolish enough to take a big lead on catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who has 47 pickoffs since 1991 -- 30 more than runner-up Charlie O'Brien in that time.

Coming distractions: Tom Hicks has been willing to raise payroll in midseason to fill holes, but that could add pressure on manager Johnny Oates. "People will be held accountable," the owner says.

Now playing: "Texas Rangers Ride Again," "How the West Was Won"

Angels

That was then: Tied for first Sept. 21, Anaheim dropped three straight home games to the Rangers by a combined score of 25-3. Manager Terry Collins recorded his fifth straight second-place finish.

This is now: The Angels signed Mo Vaughn, their first formidable clubhouse leader since Don Baylor and a Triple Crown candidate whose lineup presence will guarantee that team doesn't finish 10th in the league in runs again.

Upside: New third baseman Troy Glaus had 36 homers in three minor-league stops last season. Tim Belcher eats up innings. Power-hitting catcher Todd Greene's shoulder is healthy enough to let him play in the field.

Downside: Darin Erstad hit 19 homers before July 10 and none after. Shortstop Gary DiSarcina is out 3-4 months after breaking a bone in his left forearm stepping into a coach's fungo swing.

Inside pitch: Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds and Tim Salmon have played a combined total of 1,700 games since 1995 -- the 11th most for an outfield trio in baseball history. Now, Vaughn's arrival moves Erstad to the outfield.

Outside chance: If Anaheim can trade its outfield surplus for a pitching ace, there might be a Freeway Series. The Angels were the only AL team with a winning record against the Yankees last season.

Coming distractions: Vaughn is a .303 September hitter with 35 homers, but his latest cursed team has had seven straight losing records in that month.

Now playing: "Mo' Better Blues," "The Dream Life of Angels"

Mariners

That was then: Seattle blew any chance to contend by dropping 20 games in June. Then, despite trading Randy Johnson on July 31, the Mariners had the division's best second-half record.

This is now: The Mariners, a league-worst 22-41 on grass, will leave the Kingdome for the natural surface of Safeco Field on July 15.

Upside: After a 42-homer, 46-steal season at age 23, Alex Rodriguez could be the game's first 50-50 player. Jay Buhner is back from elbow reconstruction and throwing well. Carlos Guillen had 33 spring hits.

Downside: Seattle hit 200 or more homers for a major-league-record third straight season but finished only fifth in the AL in runs. A bullpen that blew 27 saves may be worse with Jose Mesa, who walked in the go-ahead run three times in an eight-game span, as closer and Mark Leiter, first in the NL in blown saves, in setup.

Inside pitch: Ken Griffey, 29, has 350 career home runs and still hasn't turned 30. The active NL player with the most homers before age 30 is Raul Mondesi -- with 130.

Outside chance: Russ Davis might win a Gold Glove. He led AL third basemen with 32 errors but had none in his past 25 games.

Coming distractions: With Jamie Moyer, Jeff Fassero, Edgar Martinez and David Segui entering free-agent seasons, the team has a sense of urgency. Griffey and Rodriguez have refused to begin talks to extend their contracts beyond 2000.

Now playing: "Abandon Ship," "Deep Impact"

Athletics

That was then: Oakland was never in the race, finishing under .500 for a club-record sixth straight season, but used a potent offense to improve nine games from 1997.

This is now: With six starting position players 26 or younger, the Athletics market themselves as Generation A's, but they also have four players 39 or older.

Upside: Third baseman Eric Chavez is the leading candidate to follow teammate Ben Grieve as Rookie of the Year. Kenny Rogers, 11-0 at home last season but now slowed by a sore elbow, could bring a bonanza in a midseason trade.

Downside: The middle of the lineup -- Grieve, Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs and Chavez -- is vulnerable to left-handed pitchers. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire would be good fits here. The loss of Rickey Henderson's 66 steals could drop Oakland from fifth to last in steals.

Inside pitch: The infield committed 101 errors, most in the AL in the 1990s, and Chavez figures to struggle in just his third season as a third baseman.

Outside chance: Matt Stairs might fulfill his vow to steal 20 bases for the first time since Double-A in 1991. He used a protein diet -- including a dozen eggs a day -- to lose 25 pounds of fat and gain 16 pounds of muscle.

Coming distractions: The stadium commission has until April 15 to find a local buyer. The team can't move until 2001, but its likelihood could force attendance to plummet even from last year's AL-low 1.23 million.

Now playing: "Green Without Envy," "California Split"

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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