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Poor pitching doomed Oates

Special to

May 5

Doug Melvin was hardly surprised Thursday night when Johnny Oates called to say that it was best that he step down as the Rangers' manager. Owner Tom Hicks, not known for patience, had skipped the NHL's Dallas Stars' finale in St. Louis and called a meeting of the Rangers' leaders for Friday morning. The club was in last place, the defense was clanking and the pitching ... oh, the pitching.

When Oates resigned, the Rangers were on a record pace for runs and earned runs allowed and hits against. They had five quality starts in 28 total games. "Rick Helling had 22 quality starts last year, so did Kenny Rogers, as many as Tim Hudson, Brad Radke and Andy Pettitte," said Melvin Friday night. "Pitching will get you fired."

Rick Helling
Rick Helling's struggles (he's 1-5 with an 8.01 ERA) is one of the main reasons why Johnny Oates is no longer the Rangers' manager.

When Hicks signed Alex Rodriguez for more than double the next highest offer last winter, the idea was that A-Rod would be the fulcrum for two generations of Rangers teams -- this year's club, with veterans like Rafael Palmeiro, Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti, then the future, with Alex and Pudge Rodriguez mentoring Carlos Pena, Ruben Mateo, Mike Young, Jason Romano, Kevin Mench, et al. The hope was that they would be a consistent contender.

But while 10 years was good for one, five weeks was bad for another. Melvin searched everywhere for pitching last winter, but felt "a lot of the free agents were overpriced or just weren't that good."

Melvin thought that if Helling and Rogers pitched to their norms, Doug Davis blossomed as expected and Darren Oliver could come back from his two-win season of a year ago, the Rangers could survive until pitchers became available.

Said Melvin: "With the labor issue in front of us, I thought some clubs would try to move contracts earlier than usual. But what's happened is that a lot of teams that weren't counted on have played very well and wouldn't consider moving pitching right now. It seems everyone in the National League is within hailing distance (every club other than the Pirates was within five games through Friday). I look around and see Esteban Loaiza and John Burkett pitching well and think we had them and traded them away."

No one other than a talk-show caller or a baseball owner would second-guess those deals. Should Melvin have gone harder after Hideo Nomo? Maybe. "Trading for pitching is so treacherous," Melvin says. "Look at some of the names that we discussed, like Scott Williamson or Jose Rosado. Look what happened to Gord Ash with (Mike) Sirotka (or Jim Bowden with Seth Etherton). Then you see the performance of Willis Roberts and wonder where you go wrong. I've done a lot of second-guessing of myself. John Oates did a terrific job here, and naturally I feel really badly about what's happened."

When Melvin traded Juan Gonzalez before his free agent walk year to the Tigers, the idea was to get a young, all-around outfielder (Gabe Kapler) and pitching. He knew Justin Thompson had shoulder problems, but felt he was one of the best young lefties in the league, and the reports on Francisco Cordova were that he could be a dominating closer; they had their choice between Cordova and Matt Anderson, and chose Cordova.

"We thought that by now we'd have a solid left-handed starter and our closer to replace John Wetteland," says Melvin. "Both went down." Thompson had a second operation and right now is hoping to throw off a mound next week and be pitching by July. Cordero is on the mend in Florida. Oates, well he's now gone.

From the outset of spring training, Melvin has tried to trade for pitching, but the only names he hears being asked for inreturn are Mateo and Pena. Montreal offered Ugueth Urbina for Mateo, but would not deal Javier Vasquez for the young outfielder. So, they sit.

Melvin and Jerry Narron go back a long way, to West Haven in the Eastern League when Narron caught Melvin. Narron, a quiet North Carolinian, has always been managerial timber; when he was managing in the Orioles chain, Birdie Tebbetts likened Narron to Walter Alston.

That is all well and good, but the fact is that Caminiti, Galarraga and Randy Velarde are all old enough to be president, and the pitching -- right down through the bullpen -- is what it is. And since Hicks is known to be a highly impatient person, Melvin himself may be on the firing line come the end of the season. If the Rangers do not finish above .500 with an $88-million payroll, expect the John Hart rumors to surface.

"Doug Melvin is one of the five best general managers in the game, no question," says Oakland GM Billy Beane.

"I'm not sure anyone in this business has more integrity," says St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty.

If Hicks does decide he wants a new GM, performance and integrity will get Melvin another job, in a heartbeat. But he's right. Pitching will get you fired.

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