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3 texas Rangers
Jeff Pearlman
March 27, 2000
The playoff-pitiful Rangers traded power for pitching. But did they get enough?
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March 27, 2000

3 Texas Rangers

The playoff-pitiful Rangers traded power for pitching. But did they get enough?

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1999 record: 95-67 (first in AL West)

Batting average

293 (1)

Opponents' batting average

.286 (12)

Runs scored

945 (2)

ERA

5.07 (11)

Home runs

230 (3)

Fielding percentage

.981 (9)

Johnny Oates had been through the drill a million times. So too had Royce Clayton and Mike Simms, two of the Rangers' players who joined their skipper for a promotional tour that visited a San Antonio YMCA in early February. You show up, chat up some kids, sign some autographs then peace out, stage left. You do not break a sweat. Not ordinarily. "That afternoon," says Oates, smiling at the memory, "was my first real look at Gabe Kapler."

Oh, yeah, the Rangers' new rightfielder, one of six players acquired from Detroit for Juan Gonzalez and two others in a blockbuster November trade, was also along for the trip. As Oates, Clayton and Simms looked on with both awe and panic, Kapler changed from his slacks and dress shirt into a pair of shorts and played a couple of intense games of two-on-two basketball with three of the kids in attendance. "I was petrified he would turn an ankle or break a bone or something even worse," recalls Oates. "But I didn't stop him. He'll never know the impact he had on those kids' lives. Right then, I knew we'd found a good one."

Kapler, 24, is a baseball misfit, an undeniably talented athlete who does not conform to the conventional ballplayer mold. He is a devoutly religious Jew, a bodybuilding magazine cover boy and an inveterate bookworm. During one week in the off-season he was in the middle of the following books: Tough Jews by Rich Cohen, The Three Minute Meditator by David Harp and The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams.

Kapler is also one of several youngsters who will play a critical every-day role for the Rangers in 2000. He does not, however, have any illusions that he can replace the titanic run production of his rightfield predecessor, Gonzalez (43 home runs, 140 RBIs per year over the last four seasons). "I've been asked a million times about the pressure of taking over for Juan Gonzalez," says Kapler. "That's stupid. My manager doesn't expect me to replace Gonzalez. My teammates don't expect me to replace Gonzalez. I don't think the media does, either." He snickers. "They just like having something to ask. Everyone knows Gonzalez's shoes can't be filled."

True, and so the Rangers' front office focused on other priorities during the off-season. After watching the Yankees hold the vaunted Texas offense to less than a run a game (and Gonzalez to a .130 average and one RBI) in consecutive playoff sweeps of the Rangers in 1998 and '99, Oates and general manager Doug Melvin have adopted a youth-oriented, pitching-first approach. In addition to Kapler, the Rangers acquired Justin Thompson and Francisco Cordero—both of them live, young arms—in the Gonzalez deal. Future closer Cordero, 22, improves an already deep bullpen that includes John Wetteland (43 saves) and Jeff Zimmerman (only 50 hits allowed in 87? innings). The 27-year-old Thompson (who will miss at least the first month as he recovers from shoulder surgery) will join free-agent pickups Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver to give the club three quality lefthanded starters and bolster a rotation whose inability to pitch deep into games in '99 eventually took its toll on the relief corps (3.51 ERA before the All-Star break, 5.45 ERA after). Also, Melvin points out, the Rangers now match up much better with New York's chock-full-o'-lefties lineup.

"Ever since I got here [in 1994], other G.M.'s have called me about acquiring offense," says Melvin. "This is the first time they've asked about our pitchers. Last year I had an opposing player tell me how facing our staff was easy, because all the pitchers were the same. Not anymore."

There is, Melvin concedes, a risk in the franchise's new philosophy. In addition to Gonzalez, the Rangers lost third baseman Todd Zeile (24 homers, 98 RBIs) and centerfielder Tom Goodwin (39 stolen bases) to free agency. Oates still has some hefty hackers—MVP catcher Pudge Rodriguez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro are coming off the most productive seasons of their careers, and leftfielder Rusty Greer drove in 100 runs for a second straight season. Still, runs will be harder to come by this year. There is no true leadoff hitter, and while kids like five-tool rookie centerfielder Ruben Mateo, third baseman Tom Evans (who beat out highly-touted prospect Mike Lamb with a strong spring) and Kapler have plenty of potential, only Kapler is proven at the big league level.

Of course, three American League West titles in four years is plenty of reason for optimism. "As soon as I arrived here, I knew I was in a winning environment," says Kapler. "In Detroit it was no fun. We wanted to win, but there was no optimism. Here, winning is expected. There's no question."

Not exactly. This year there are quite a few questions.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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