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July 23, 2000

AL West Notebook

The Meat Market

by Jeff Bower

Ten days remain until the switch is turned off on baseball's mid-season blue light special and, mathematically, any of the teams outside the Lone Star State could be in first place at the end of July. Since all of the clubs still harbor thoughts of donning their uniforms in October, let's look at what each of them should do before the trading deadline, based on a realistic assessment of the division standings and each team's needs.

Anaheim Angels

Team President Tony Tavares recently said that Anaheim is interested in acquiring a rent-a-player for the stretch drive, but won't trade any of its young pitchers. Since upper-level positional prospects in the organization are as rare as Albert Belle sound bytes, hope exists that the Angels may have stumbled upon the right answer.

The Angels are going to fall out of the playoff chase over the next couple of months, but they can greatly improve their chances for next year if dormant General Manager Bill Stoneman stops acting out his surname and makes the correct moves.

Relocating Kent Bottenfield and Ken Hill should be the top priority. Bottenfield has been largely ineffective in the rotation and is a free agent after the season. While he could be a sturdy buttress in the Halos' bullpen, he probably has more value as a trade chip for prospect or two. Moving Hill is even more urgent, since he may have sparked some interest after pitching decently in his last three starts. The Angels are not going to pick up his $6 million dollar option for next year and need to ship him out before his arthritic elbow renders him not only useless, but worthless.

An unlikely but valid idea is to shop Garret Anderson. First-year manager Mike Scioscia generally has done a very good job running the ballclub, but his insistence on penciling Anderson's name into the fifth spot casts a shadow of doubt on his ability to assemble a lineup. Despite a .258 Equivalent Average that places him in the lower tier of center fielders, Anderson has glitter that sells: he's 28 years old, inked a multi-year deal earlier in the season and has some impressive, though misleading, run-production numbers. Dumping him on first-place Seattle would simultaneously help sink the good ship Mariner while returning some needed pitching depth.

Oakland Athletics

Because offensive contribution is more important than fielding, we generally don't place much emphasis on defense as long as a player knows which hand to put his glove on and doesn't require a walker. The 2000 Oakland Athletics may cause us to rethink that position. Not only have they committed the most errors in the American League, but aside from Miguel Tejada and Terrence Long, they have as much range as a one-valve tuba. Since they are not going to cure their defensive maladies with a deadline deal, they'll soothe the pain The Athletics Way: paper over the bad glovework by scoring bushels of runs.

General Manager Billy Beane has stated that he would be willing to make a short-term move and part with a few of the organization's many prospects if he can find the right player to push the team into the playoffs. He's not talking about Glenallen Hill or Al Martin. If Beane swings a trade for offense, expect it to yield an impact hitter like Manny Ramirez, even if that player is in the walk year of his contract.

If the A's want to be in a race with the Mariners come September, they need to stop inviting defeat once a week and trot a legitimate fifth starter out to the mound. Last year, the team overhauled its rotation by snaring Kevin Appier and Omar Olivares before the trading deadline. Despite last week's meltdown in Denver, fine tuning is all that is needed for this year's staff. Rather than go outside the organization, the A's have properly recalled their top draft pick from 1999, Barry Zito, from Sacramento. Zito has been carving up PCL hitters of late and could be this year's Tim Hudson.

Seattle Mariners

Though magnified since Alex Rodriguez went on the disabled list, the team's weaknesses are no different now than when they left spring training. The Mariners range from below average to dreadful at four of the nine spots in the lineup and have one of the least potent benches in the league.

The failure to promptly address some of these areas means that the team could be a few games further ahead in the standings if General Manager "Stand Pat" Gillick wasn't justifying his old Blue Jay nickname. This inactivity could come back to haunt Seattle if they don't capture the division and consequently damage their chances in this winter's colossal A-Rod Sweepstakes.

Gillick attempted to fill one of the holes when he took Rickey Henderson off the Mets' hands in late-May, but instead has created an awkward situation. Seattle was at the top of the leader board in walks before the pickup and need a corner outfielder with the juice to bring runners home more than they needed Henderson's declining on-base skills. While Henderson would make a nifty chess piece off the bench, he has personal goals that he wants to reach; if unwillingly shifted to a reserve role, his performance could suffer such that he becomes a detriment rather than an asset.

The Mariners should try to move some of their arms surplus for a Jeromy Burnitz or Manny Ramirez. If Henderson can't accept a reduced role, he can be given his walking papers.

Another, less complicated, boost for the bench could happen if the M's simply designate Raul Ibanez for assignment and recall Mike Neill from Tacoma. Long dubbed a "minor-league hitter", Neill would give the Mariners a left-handed hitter with pop to play in right field on Jay Buhner's twice-weekly days off. Neill is currently hitting .312/.424/.505 at Tacoma.

More glaring is the lack of production from three of the spots in the infield. Mark McLemore (.235 EqA), David Bell (.224 EqA) and Dan Wilson (.208 EqA) all rank in the bottom third of their positions offensively, and none of them are great shakes defensively. As attractive as it would be to dump Wilson, it's also highly unlikely since he comes with a hefty three-year contract gifted to him last off-season. And since second base and third base are skill positions, significant upgrades are hard to find unless the Mariners bring in young players with big upsides. This would be a good direction to go given the advanced age of the team, but Gillick's staunch conservatism and Lou Piniella's passion for war-torn veterans will undoubtedly put the kibosh on the notion. Instead the team will continue to play the waiting game and hope that the pool of players to choose from grows as the deadline approaches and clubs assess their playoff chances more realistically.

Texas Rangers

In case staring up at the rest of the pack for six weeks wasn't enough to convince Ranger fans that their club isn't going to win its fourth division title in the last five years, the petty trade of Estaban Loaiza to Toronto for two middling prospects should do it. It's time for GM Doug Melvin to add a few more live arms to the pipeline and clear up an outfield situation muddied by Ruben Mateo's career-threatening leg injury and Gabe Kapler's career-threatening stagnation. Fortunately, Melvin has some nice pieces with which to barter.

Luis Alicea and David Segui are both in their mid-30s, having career years and standing in the way of younger and better players. Alicea's extended stay above the hypnotic .300 mark in batting average is keeping Frank Catalanotto (.310 EqA) glued to the pine. Jason Romano will probably be shoving both of them out of the way by the spring of 2002. While there isn't a replacement for Segui on the big-league roster, go shake a tree and an adequate designated hitter will fall out. Heads up, there's Pedro Valdes! Of course, whoever it is will only be biding time until Carlos Pena moves Rafael Palmeiro to DH, which could be as soon as next April.

Free-agent-to-be John Wetteland has followed up on last year's substandard season with another one almost exactly like it, and the Rangers have a trio of hard throwers (Francisco Cordero, Jeff Zimmerman and Tim Crabtree) to step in if he is traded. Since having a "proven closer" on a last-place team is about as important as a pro wrestler having a Ph.D. in literature, the time is right for Melvin to pull the trigger. The club has been making noise about wanting to re-sign Wetteland; folks in Arlington should hope that's just a ploy to drive up his price.

Jeff Bower can be reached at jbower@baseballprospectus.com.

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