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With all their new pluses, Rangers still minus pitching

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


PORT CHARLOTTE -- Their team ERA was the worst in the majors. So the Rangers signed shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a $252-million contract.

Their starters had fewer complete games than any team in the majors. So the Rangers signed first baseman Andres Galarraga to a $6.5-million contract.

Their closer told them in the off-season that a severe back problem would likely force his retirement. So the Rangers signed third baseman Ken Caminiti to a $3.25-million contract and traded for second baseman Randy Velarde.

Did we mention the Rangers need pitching help?

For all the money spent by owner Tom Hicks and all the excitement generated by A-Rod's arrival at spring training last week, the Rangers are not exactly a sure bet for the World Series. Or the AL West title. Or the wild card.

"No matter what, every team is going to have some question to their ballclub," Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said. "If we'd have signed (Mike) Mussina and (Mike) Hampton, I'd probably be sitting here answering the question, "What about your offense?' "

To be fair to Melvin and the Rangers, they did inquire about some of the top free-agent pitchers, but were not greeted with enthusiasm.

So, instead, the Rangers decided upgrading at other positions could actually help the pitching staff. The defense is in better shape with Velarde, Rodriguez and Caminiti in the infield, making life easier for pitchers. And the offense is explosive enough to spot pitchers some early leads, removing some of the pressure on the mound.

"That's all I've heard is that we have a bad pitching staff, a Little League pitching staff," Rodriguez said. "We've been reading about that all winter. I like being the underdog. Hopefully we'll surprise a lot of you guys."

The Texas 2001 rotation looks a lot like the 2000 rotation, which is not necessarily good. Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers are adequate, but there is a huge drop after that. Darren Oliver was 2-9 with a 7.42 ERA -- and he's No. 3. The bullpen also is questionable if John Wetteland remains retired. Tim Crabtree, with five career saves, is the heir apparent.

"We feel we're a better club on paper. As I told (manager) Johnny (Oates) and the rest of the coaching staff, I'm not so arrogant to think signing Alex makes us a World Series team," Melvin said. "But I'd like to think we have a better chance today than at the end of this past season."

BUCKING THE RULES: It was a not-so-subtle shift from Buck Showalter's dictatorial reign in Arizona when new manager Bob Brenly addressed the club on his first day of spring training. Brenly held up Arizona's thick manual of rules and regulations and dropped it. He then read a short list of his own rules. "I think he wrote his notes down on a cocktail napkin," pitcher Brian Anderson said. Players are raving about workouts that last half as long.

CRACKED BELLE: He may have passed his physical, but that does not mean the Orioles are dropping the issue of Albert Belle's degenerative right hip condition. Owner Peter Angelos admits signing Belle to a five-year, $65-million contract was a mistake, blaming the slugger's drop in production on the injury. "If his condition is such that he should not be playing baseball -- because of his health -- then he ought to retire," Angelos said "If he can't produce at (an optimum) level, the only recourse would be for him to retire to prevent further injury to himself."

WILD PITCH: Pitcher Rick Ankiel is still struggling with his control, so the Cardinals have moved his workouts to early in the morning, away from the other pitchers and spring training crowds. "It's really sad because there's a lot of people who would like to see him fall apart," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "It's almost like they enjoy seeing him go through this so they can make something out of it."

NOT PLAYING WELL WITH OTHERS: John Vander Wal did not like losing his job in rightfield to Derek Bell. And Bell did not like Vander Wal's bellyaching. A pinch-hitting specialist, Vander Wal had a career year when given the chance to play in 2000. After Bell signed as a free agent, Vander Wal groused that Bell "hadn't done anything in three years." Bell fired back last week. "He's never been an everyday player," Bell said. "If you haven't been playing every day, stick to your role."

HERE AND THERE: Moving Manny Ramirez from rightfield to leftfield in Boston is a fairly strong signal that Troy O'Leary is available in trade. ... St. Petersburg's Jeff D'Amico could be Milwaukee's opening day starter. ... Jose Canseco showed up 20 pounds lighter for Anaheim. Canseco figures less weight lifting over the winter will cut down on his numerous injuries. ... Minnesota's payroll was less than $17-million last season. The Twins already have committed more than $14-million to Brad Radke, Eric Milton, LaTroy Hawkins, Eddie Guardado and Bob Wells.

LINE OF THE WEEK: Norm Charlton's response after seeing 38-year-old Edgar Martinez and 36-year-old Jay Buhner running together in spring training for the Mariners: "First time I ever saw fossils move."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

A question to ponder

Frank Thomas, who skipped most of Chicago's workouts last week, including a fourth straight one Saturday, is unhappy because he is being paid a mere $9.927-million this season. Thomas says he is not trying to get a new contract. "I'm not trying to get out of mine. I don't want it redone, just add some money to it," Thomas said. "You see the pay scale is getting out of whack. You can't have an A-Rod making 25-million and we're coming in at 7-, 8-, 9-million."

Our question: Does this mean Thomas will give the White Sox a refund for 1998-99 when he performed well below the level of his salary?

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