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Monday, April 22
 
Ugly start for Rangers despite high payroll

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

Tom Hicks' words must ring in Jerry Narron's ears.

For the first time in his five years owning the Texas Rangers, Hicks didn't mention the World Series during his annual speech to the team at the beginning of spring training. He did, however, stress other expectations -- to get off to a good start, to be competitive.

Hicks and headline-driven general manager John Hart sincerely believed the Rangers could compete with Seattle and Oakland in the American League West, perhaps baseball's toughest division. But you don't finish 43 games back one year and scare anyone the next.

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is hitting .310 with eight home runs through Sunday, but the frustration is setting in.

Hicks, attempting to prove he wasn't nuts to give Alex Rodriguez that $252 million deal, essentially handed his new GM a blank check to turn around a franchise that had suffered back-to-back losing seasons after a run in which it won the West three times in four years. As unrealistic as it was to expect to contend while shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic of a pitching staff that had produced the majors' highest ERA in 2001 and 2000, Hicks certainly expected something better than a 5-13 record and deficit of 9 1/2 games when he woke up on the morning of April 22.

It's also safe to say this couldn't have been a good day to be Hicks' personal secretary. With the Dallas Stars missing the NHL playoffs, the prince of leveraged buyouts doesn't even have hockey to distract him from the apathy and bitterness that the Rangers will face playing 13 of their next 19 games at The Ballpark in Arlington, beginning with a homestand against Toronto and Cleveland.

Maybe Hicks will finally do something economical and call one press conference to announce two firings, that of Stars coach Rick Wilson and Narron.

Narron is a solid baseball man who has presided over one crisis after another since taking over for Johnny Oates last May. He deserves little blame for what has gone wrong the last three weeks, when an injury-plagued team in transition and under the gun crumbled against a difficult schedule.

Texas has played 14 of its 18 games against Seattle and Oakland, who combined for 218 wins last season and so far this year are 20-7 outside of their five head-to-head meetings. The Rangers already used the disabled list eight times, with Juan Gonzalez (bruised right hand) and Ivan Rodriguez (herniated disc) missing 17 of a possible 36 games between them.

Chan Ho Park, who was given $55 million over five years as a free agent this past offseason, went on the DL with a strained hamstring after losing on Opening Day. Jeff Zimmerman, whose status as closer was compromised by Hart's craziest move -- the trade that added the karma-draining stylings of John Rocker -- has been sidelined since spring training, as has setup man Jay Powell.

Hart, of course, plays the injury card. "You lose your No. 1 starter, your closer, your No. 1 setup guy, your situational left-hander (Rich Rodriguez) and your cleanup man, how do you survive all that?" he asked ESPN.com's Jayson Stark.

Not easily, but it can be done. The White Sox went 69-50 after a 14-29 start last season even though they played the second half without Frank Thomas and pitchers David Wells, Cal Eldred, Jim Parque, Kelly Wunsch, Antonio Osuna and Lorenzo Barcelo.

Hart might point to closer Keith Foulke as a stabilizing force but that's hardly the only difference between the '01 Sox and the '02 Rangers.

An experienced manager who wasn't in danger of losing his job guided that Chicago team. It was built around low-maintenance veterans like Foulke, Jose Valentin, Ray Durham and Magglio Ordonez and was re-supplied by a deep farm system that sent Jerry Manuel a string of talented young pitchers. The White Sox got 117 starts and 51 wins from pitchers 25-and-under.

That's not going to happen in Texas. Instead of committing to restocking the pitching in a farm system heavy on terrific young hitters, Hicks directed Hart and predecessor Doug Melvin to try to win as many games as possible by surrounding Rodriguez with an experienced supporting cast.

The Rangers dumped two productive pitchers in Rick Helling and Mike Venafro, traded Darren Oliver to beef up the lineup with Carl Everett, forfeited six top draft picks in the upcoming June draft to sign free agents and then moved prospects Justin Duchscherer and Andy Pratt because they had crowded the roster with retreads like Rudy Seanez, Dan Miceli, Steve Woodard and Hideki Irabu.

The results have been stunningly bad. The lineup has produced a disappointing 4.7 runs per game, but Texas has still led in 15 of 18 games. The pitching staff, however, has already lost nine games in which it was given the lead in the sixth inning or later, including four games when the Rangers were tied or leading in the ninth.

Had Texas gone even 6-for-9 at winning those games in which it led in the sixth or later, it would be 11-7. You better believe A-Rod knows it. He has homered eight times already, but not yet in a game the Rangers have won. They've already lost two games in which he has homered twice.

Yikes.

In baseball, there's nothing worse than a bad team built around old players. That is exactly what Hicks is getting for his $105.7 million payroll.

Future Hall of Famers Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez and Pudge Rodriguez aren't going to make the suffering any easier to bear. If anything, they'll make it worse.

While Palmeiro and A-Rod put up hollow numbers, Hart will have to decide what to do with Pudge. The back problems that landed him on the DL could keep him out six weeks. But if Pudge returns to form in June, teams are going to ask about his availability. He heads the class of players eligible for free agency after this season.

Like everything else, it seems, the Rangers have lost control on this front, too. Because he became a 10-and-5 man last year, Rodriguez has full veto power over all deals. Health questions make it unlikely any team will offer the large contract necessary to secure him beyond 2002, so Rodriguez may have to decide if he wants to try to win somewhere else or try to ride it out in Texas.

The losing could make that decision easier.

Matt Clement
Starting Pitcher
Chicago Cubs
Profile
2001 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W-L IP H K ERA
3 1-2 19.1 18 30 3.72

Spotlight: Cubs RHP Matt Clement
Has any pitching coach ever gotten quicker results than Larry Rothschild? The erstwhile Tampa Bay manager, now Cubs pitching coach, needed about six minutes to teach Mark Prior a changeup and improve the curveball that had allowed him to dominate hitters at USC. Yet the transformation of Matt Clement is nevertheless shocking.

In less than a month, Rothschild has the Bobby Witt of his generation throwing like a cross between Kevin Brown and Pedro Martinez. "His confidence should be at an all-time high," manager Don Baylor said. "All the years I watched him pitch, I never knew he had that kind of fastball and slider."

Clement has 30 strikeouts and only three walks in 19 1/3 innings, throwing strikes without compromising movement on his pitches. He threw one slider in an April 13 start that was nasty enough to dislocate catcher Todd Hundley's left thumb. His stuff was so good against Cincinnati that he was accused of throwing spitballs.

"I'm not trying to throw a spitball to try to make the ball move more," said Clement, who routinely moves off the mound to lick his fingers. "Usually I'm trying to tame some of my movement."

The Cubs knew they were getting a 27-year-old with a big upside when they acquired Clement and closer Antonio Alfonseca from the Marlins for Julian Tavarez and three minor leaguers late in spring training. But Clement's command has been an absolute revelation. This is a guy who has led the National League in wild pitches the last two years and walked an NL-high 125 batters in 2000.

Clement, who opened the season as the Cubs' No. 5 starter, threw seven shutout innings against Cincinnati last Friday. He's moved behind Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood in one of baseball's deepest rotations, and more importantly stopped talk about a move to the bullpen before it began.

If somebody has to step aside for Prior, who could be ready for the majors by June, it will probably be luckless rookie Juan Cruz -- the Cubs have scored 10 runs in his four starts while allowing 10 unearned runs, thus the 0-4 record and 2.14 ERA -- or veteran Jason Bere. Andy MacPhail should consider dealing Bere for catching help.

New face: Twin RF Dustan Mohr
Releasing Dustan Mohr wasn't the toughest decision Cleveland's minor-league staff ever made. It wasn't one of the good ones, either.

When the Indians got swept by the Twins last weekend at the Metrodome, Mohr started twice in right field. He's hitting .333 with two homers and five RBI in 14 games. It's got to be hard for Cleveland officials to believe this is the same guy who needed four seasons at Class A after playing for the University of Alabama.

Minnesota, which signed Mohr the day after Cleveland released him at the end of spring training in 2000, suspected it might be onto something when Mohr won an Eastern League batting title in '01. He reinforced that belief with a strong spring and then capitalized on a chance when Opening Day right fielder Brian Buchanan was placed on the disabled list.

"Dustan helped us in a lot of different ways," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That gives us more strength on the bench."

Team to watch: Boston Red Sox
Oops. A couple of weeks ago, the Chasing the Pennant braintrust declared that the New York Yankees had essentially clinched the AL East, opining that "the only question is how big of a threat they pose to the 116-win record set by the 1906 Cubs and matched by last year's Mariners."

We jumped to that conclusion based both on the Yankees' early dominance and questions about Pedro Martinez. It turns out that not only has New York not proven dominant but Boston's starting rotation is showing itself to be just as deep, if not as glittering.

Not including the slow starts of aces Martinez and Roger Clemens, the two East frontrunners are getting a combined 2.55 ERA from their starters. It breaks down this way: Yankees, 2.51; Red Sox, 2.59.

Gone, it seems, are the days the Red Sox would go as far as Martinez could carry them. Last season, Boston was 9-9 in Pedro's starts and 73-70 behind the other 11 guys who got starts. Through Sunday, the Sox were 3-1 behind Pedro and 9-3 behind the other starters. The breakdown: Derek Lowe, 3-1; Frank Castillo, 2-1; Tim Wakefield, 1-1; Darren Oliver, 2-0; and John Burkett, 1-0.

The bullpen also appears deep. Ugueth Urbina (seven), Rolando Arrojo and Wakefield have registered saves.

Oh, yes, the Red Sox are scoring runs, too. They entered the week having produced 64 in their last nine games, eight of them victories. This trend began when they took three of four from the Yankees and continued with sweeps at Toronto and Kansas City.

For the season, they are scoring 6.3 runs per game. Johnny Damon has a .427 on-base percentage. Shea Hillenbrand has been an unexpected force (.349-5-20) and Manny Ramirez is delivering (.364-6-17). Ramirez has five homers in the last seven games. An unspectacular start by Nomar Garciaparra (.271-3-10) has been a non-issue.

If the Red Sox can keep this up until Memorial Day, we might just have us a race.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.








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