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The meat of the order has been beefed up, but it's hard to be bullish on Texas pitching
By Gerry Callahan
Rusty Greer stood in the Texas Rangers' spring training clubhouse and glanced at a row of empty lockers. Above the stalls, the nameplates glowed as if in neon: PALMEIRO, GONZALEZ, RODRIGUEZ. Greer could only smile as he turned his eyes toward the 1999 season.
Greer has been called the best active major leaguer who hasn't played in an All-Star Game, but as he looked around the room, Greer couldn't help but feel he already had been selected for something special. He hit third for the Rangers last season and hopes to hold down the same spot for the defending American League West champions this year. If there's a better place to hit in all of baseball, Greer hasn't heard about it. "Our four-five-six guys are as good as any in baseball," he says. "Me? I'm just one of the guys who's supposed to get on base for the big guns."
Gonzalez, who won his second MVP in the last three seasons, drove in 157 runs, the most for an American Leaguer since 1949. Last year he was followed in the order by first baseman Will Clark, but the Rangers upgraded the position in the off-season, signing free-agent Palmeiro to a five-year, $45 million deal. With the Orioles last season Palmeiro hit 43 homers, drove in 121 runs and won his second Gold Glove. (For Texas, Clark hit 23 homers and drove in 102 runs.) Cozy Camden Yards may have helped Palmeiro put up his numbers, but the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington is unlikely to slow him down. In 79 career at bats at the Rangers' five-year-old stadium, he has hit .341 with nine homers and 22 RBIs. The 34-year-old Palmeiro missed most of spring training after surgery on his right knee but is expected back in the lineup by mid-April.
Palmeiro will likely be followed in the order by peerless catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the seven-time All-Star who's coming off his best season. Along with winning the Gold Glove for the seventh straight year (a streak that'll be challenged now that four-time National League Gold Glover Charles Johnson is with the Orioles), Rodriguez had career highs in average, homers and RBIs. Says Texas manager Johnny Oates, "This is the most talent I've ever had on a ball club."
When spring training began, Greer was happy to still be a part of it. In the off-season his name was mentioned as part of a possible blockbuster trade with Toronto for Roger Clemens. The Blue Jays wanted him, but the Rangers didn't want to give him up. When Clemens landed in New York at the start of spring training, Greer could finally take a breath and appreciate the compliment both clubs had paid him. "Just to be mentioned in a trade with Roger Clemens is flattering," says Greer.
Unsuccessful in their attempt to trade for Clemens, sign Randy Johnson as a free agent or retain Todd Stottlemyre (who departed for the Diamondbacks), the Rangers are left with largely the same pitching core they had last season, when the staff produced a 4.99 ERA, third worst in the American League. The 28-year-old Rick Helling will be the ace. Last season was the first time Helling won more than five games in the big leagues, going 20-7 with a 4.41 ERA. Aaron Sele, free-agent signee Mark Clark, John Burkett and Esteban Loaiza round out a rotation that's deep if not dazzling. The Texas bullpen is also deep, and it has something the starting staff lacks -- a star. Closer John Wetteland held opponents to a .203 batting average and saved 42 games last season. Says Clark, "You can win without a legitimate No. 1 starter like Clemens or Greg Maddux because of this defense. And you know this offense is going to score runs."
Of course, this time the Rangers would like to do more than just win the division. Last year, after outlasting the Angels for the American League West title, Texas was unceremoniously swatted out of the playoffs by the Yankees in three straight games. "We thought we were prepared, but we just ran into one of the best teams in history," says Greer. "We've got to put all the elements together on a consistent basis, which is what the Yankees do."
The Rangers aren't the Yankees yet, but they're getting closer.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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