Things are looking up for Texas, but maybe not at catcher
The Rangers were essentially eliminated from the American League West race in May by the Mariners' scorching start and bottomed out on June 13, when they fell 20 games below .500. Since then, however, Texas had gone 40-33 through Sunday. Although that was hardly a championship pace, it did represent a step toward respectability. "We haven't been real consistent," says closer Jeff Zimmerman, "but there are glimmers of hope."
That's an improvement over last season, when, several players and general manager Doug Melvin admit, the cellar-dwelling Rangers mailed it in down the stretch. This time Texas has been energized by a youth movement at several key positions. Once it became clear that his team had no chance of contending this year, Melvin began unloading expensive veterans, like Ken Caminiti (released), Andres Galarraga (traded) and Randy Velarde (traded), and replacing them with talented youngsters.
Second baseman Michael Young, 24, was called up from the minors in May, and through Sunday he was hitting .251 and had made only eight errors in 79 games. Third baseman Mike Lamb, 26, became a regular when he was recalled in June and was batting .325 with only 26 strikeouts in 234 at bats. "We have the makings of a good young infield for the next few years," says Melvin. "It's easy to forget that Alex Rodriguez is only 26."
As usual, pitching is the Rangers' b�te noire. Their staff ERA was 5.59—the highest in the majors despite having fallen nearly a third of a run since the All-Star break—but there are even encouraging signs on the mound. Twenty-five-year-old lefthander Doug Davis (8-8, 4.32 ERA) and 23-year-old righty Aaron Myette (3-2, 6.23) have been effective enough that Melvin says he'll be looking for bullpen help, not starters, in the free-agent market this winter. Also, after a subpar 2000 Zimmerman has returned to his 1999 All-Star form. Moved for good from the setup role to the closer's after Tim Crabtree suffered a torn rotator cuff in late June, he had a 2.80 ERA and 23 saves in 26 chances.
Who will be the catcher for those pitchers, however, is a storm cloud hanging over the Rangers. Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, whose five-year, $42 million contract expires after the 2002 season, has been on edge since Texas signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million package over the winter, waiting for the club to give him a more equitable extension. Melvin says the Rangers are waiting for this winter's uncertain labor situation to shake out before they make any offers, but there's another complication: Pudge's aching knees might reduce what owner Tom Hicks is willing to pay him. On Aug. 22 Ridge, a forma-American League MVP and a 10-time All-Star, left a game against the Yankees with pain in his right knee, and last Friday he was scratched in Kansas City with tendinitis in his left knee. Pudge, who will turn 30 in November, returned to Texas for an MRI.
"There is always concern about injury, especially once a player reaches 30," Melvin says, sounding as if he were already beginning contract negotiations. "Three years ago Frank Thomas and Albert Belle were two of the best hitters in the game. Now Thomas is hurt, and Belle is out of the game—and they don't play as demanding a position [as Pudge]."
Pudge's popularity with the fans forced the Rangers to squash trade rumors involving him earlier this season, but since then he has become a 10-and-5 player, which could make it harder to trade him. Texas can ill afford a rancorous contract squabble with the future Hall of Famer during this off-season, especially because, as Melvin says, the Rangers feel as if they "can get right back in it next year."
Early Glimpse at Tomorrow's Stars
The Phillies were out of the playoff chase last September when they summoned shortstop Jimmy Rollins from the Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, figuring it was a good opportunity to check out one of their top prospects. Rollins, then 21, batted .321 with three stolen bases and one error in 14 games, so impressing the Philadelphia front office that it decided during the off-season to hand him the starting job in spring training. He's now one of the main reasons the Phillies are in the race for the National League East crown.