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Sports Illustrated's 1999 Baseball Preview
 
  With Palmeiro providing power and protection behind him, two-time MVP Gonzalez could shatter the lofty numbers he put up last year. Damian Strohmeyer

Texas Rangers

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."

 
Manager
Johnny Oates
(fifth season with Texas)
1998 Record
88-74 (first in AL West)
Prediction
Second in AL West
Batting Order
CFTom Goodwin
2BMark McLemore
LF Rusty Greer
RFJuan Gonzalez
1B Rafael Palmeiro
C Ivan Rodriguez
DH Lee Stevens
3B Todd Zeile
SS Royce Clayton
Starters
RH Rick Helling
RH Aaron Sele
RH Mark Clark
RH John Burkett
RH Esteban Loaiza
Bullpen
RH John Wetteland
RH Tim Crabtree
RH Danny Patterson
LH Eric Gunderson
RH Jeff Zimmerman
RH Mike Morgan
Next Up...
A funny thing happened to Tim Crabtree last season, his seventh in professional baseball. He learned how to pitch. Crabtree, the Rangers' 29-year-old righthanded setup man, has no trouble explaining why: He had a good teacher. After spending six years in the Blue Jays' organization, Crabtree came to Texas in a spring training deal last year and began to study every move closer John Wetteland made. "Just being around Wetteland made me a smarter and tougher pitcher," says Crabtree, who had a 1.20 ERA in his final 10 appearances. "I learned that it's just me and the hitter, one-on-one. Nothing tricky. Like John, I throw hard, and I learned to challenge hitters."
As everyone in baseball knows by now, Greer has blossomed into so much more than that, but still he's perfectly content to remain in the shadows of the Rangers' sexier sluggers. "I like sneaking up on people," says Greer. That's not as easy as it used to be for Texas's Opie Taylor look-alike. Last season he hit .306, his third straight season over .300. He also knocked in 108 runs and scored 107, many of them courtesy of Juan Gonzalez, cleanup man extraordinaire. Defensively, no one in the American League played a better leftfield than Greer.

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."


  • Cincinnati Reds
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    In the infield the Rangers have an experienced group of veterans who don't like to come out of the lineup. "That's one thing we've got: durable guys," says Oates. Third baseman Todd Zeile was traded twice last season and still logged 158 games, and sure-handed shortstop Royce Clayton, re-signed as a free agent after coming to Texas in a trade from the Cardinals last July, has never been on the disabled list. "And don't forget to include me in that group," says second baseman Mark McLemore, the 10\!year veteran who has had his share of injuries in his career. "I'm healthy now, and I'm going to contribute. We've got a better ball club now than we did when we won the division last year."

    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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