Rangers banking on improvement

Big '01 payroll wasted on last-place finish

Baseball

March 19, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Baseball owners have spent the past decade bemoaning the payroll disparity between the richest and poorest clubs, treating the correlation between money and success as an immutable fact that is almost impossible to overcome.

If that is truly so, how do you explain the Texas Rangers?

The Rangers committed more than $300 million to pry themselves off the floor in the American League West last year, only to display a surprisingly inverse relationship between payroll and position in the standings.

The addition of superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez and several other veteran offensive stars was supposed to energize the club and return it to the top of the division, but the dramatic imbalance between the explosive offense and what turned out to be an equally explosive pitching staff kept Texas securely in last place for the second straight season.

"What happened last year was embarrassing to us," Rodriguez said, "so we have to get better."

It certainly didn't help that the Seattle Mariners concurrently turned in one of the greatest regular-season performances in baseball history - in their first season without Rodriguez.

Rangers owner Tom Hicks may have been willing to pay whatever was necessary to improve the club, but it was former manager Johnny Oates and general manager Doug Melvin who ended up paying the price for the richly but poorly constructed roster. Oates resigned just one month into 2001, and Melvin would be replaced after the season by former Cleveland Indians architect John Hart.

The Rangers continued to spend freely last winter, but clearly the game plan had changed. Hart focused his off-season efforts on upgrading the pitching staff and succeeded in making major improvements in the bullpen and starting rotation.

He acquired or signed seven veteran pitchers - most notably No. 1 starter Chan Ho Park, but also controversial reliever John Rocker, veteran starters Dave Burba and Hideki Irabu and relievers Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell and Steve Woodard.

"We couldn't turn it all around in one year, but we felt we could do some things," Hart said. "We were extremely aggressive, selling our program and where we wanted to go. We felt, in the short term, we didn't want to trade away any of our kids. We just wanted to keep what we had and turn the nose of the plane back up."

Hart actually was able to do much more than he originally hoped. He acquired volatile outfielder Carl Everett in a deal with the Red Sox and - when it became clear the free-agent market would be much softer than expected - also brought back two-time American League Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez.

"It was an exciting off-season for us - to see our team improve on almost a daily basis," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "Last year was so frustrating. We were so overmatched sometimes, it was hard to go out and play. This year, we have a chance to win every day with the pitching we can send out there."

Second-year manager Jerry Narron would appear to have his hands full with Rocker, who still carries the baggage of his anti-minority remarks to Sports Illustrated two years ago, and Everett, who clashed with teammates and management in Boston, in the same clubhouse. But Narron also has a club that has a puncher's - and a pitcher's - chance to upend the Mariners.

"I think we added some great arms," said Rodriguez. "We have more depth. Obviously, Jerry has some great decisions to make for this team. That's the major difference. This year, we've got 50 guys battling for 25 spots. Last year, we had maybe 27. That's conducive to playing good baseball."

Nobody will have a more imposing offensive lineup. The Rangers can claim four likely Hall of Famers - A-Rod, Palmeiro, Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez - at the heart of the batting order, and there is more to come. Everett is coming off knee surgery, but he should be ready to go in early April, and the Rangers have a couple of pretty good young hitters in Gabe Kapler and rookie third baseman Hank Blalock.

"The equalizer for us is the offense we have," Hart said. "It's a thick, deep lineup."

The only question is whether that great offensive attack will be enough to overcome any remaining holes in a pitching staff that posted a league-worst 5.71 combined ERA last year.

"I don't think that we're there yet," Hart said. "We don't have a Seattle-type bullpen. There are some questions. It's improved. The rotation is improved. How much? I don't know. I don't think we're at the point where we're beating our chests that it's a finely tuned machine. We still have some holes, but we'll be competitive."

What choice do they have? The Mariners figure to give back some ground after winning 116 games last year. How could they not? But they're still a team with great top-to-bottom pitching, a balanced offensive lineup and great team chemistry.

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