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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Disparity Between Forecast and Fact

April 23, 2002|Ross Newhan

Amid all the harping on competitive and revenue disparity, Commissioner Bud Selig would call it an aberration. Put it this way:

If the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates lead their divisions, as they do, it's a clear indication of the danger in early judging of 2002's races and teams.

The next three weeks may provide greater clarity--or greater confusion.

In the cases of the Angels and Dodgers, however, there has been enough evidence in the first three weeks to suggest that the alleged experts--here I go, writing about myself again--misread their Tarot cards.

I'm reserving the right to change opinion again later, but it seems that the Angels were overrated, and the Dodgers were possibly underrated.

If that revised Dodger evaluation is cautious and not so certain, it's because all of the pivotal spring questions have produced only a mixed bag of answers.

For example:

* If Kazuhisa Ishii and Odalis Perez are removing March qualms, the physical status of Kevin Brown remains a significant concern, and Andy Ashby has been inconsistent in his comeback from similar elbow surgery.

* If Eric Gagne has emerged as the closer, Paul Quantrill and Terry Mulholland have been disappointing in the set-up and middle-relief assignments.

* If shortstop Cesar Izturis has been solid in the field and the No. 2 spot in the batting order, Dave Roberts has struggled batting leadoff, making creativity difficult.

* If Eric Karros has been encouraging in his comeback from 2001's setback, an offense lacking the type of hitter who disrupts pitching schemes ranks 13th among the 16 National League teams in runs.

Three weeks, of course, amount to a heartbeat in a six-month season and the uncertainty clearly lingers in key areas.

Even so, with apologies to Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, the NL West has no 116-win standout of the Seattle Mariners' caliber and the Dodgers seem more capable of contending now than they did April 1.

At that point, Ishii, Perez and Gagne, in particular, were major concerns and/or unknowns, the depth of the rotation was in question, the void at closer was a gaping wound.

All of that has become a fading memory.

Ishii and Perez, joined by Hideo Nomo and Omar Daal, have stabilized the rotation, and Gagne has been flawless.

Whether the Dodgers could survive if Brown were to be sidelined for an extended period, or if the offense failed to improve, is questionable.

In another era, the Dodgers made their mark in Los Angeles with pitching and not much else.

It's a stretch to compare this to that era of Koufax and Drysdale, but it can legitimately be said that the rotation is giving the Dodgers a chance to win every game, helping ease the burden on an offense relying heavily--and unrealistically, perhaps--on Shawn Green and Paul Lo Duca to duplicate their 2001 productivity (without Gary Sheffield somewhere in the middle) and contributing to a more relaxed clubhouse.

How far the Dodgers go remains to be seen, but they are likely to make the trip with more unity and camaraderie.

They have replaced Sheffield, a ticking time bomb, with a genuine leader in Brian Jordan and continue to get improved communication and direction from Manager Jim Tracy, a key himself.

In a heated race over a prolonged period, Tracy's tactics and strategies will be more closely scrutinized than during last year's honeymoon season.

In fact, his decision Sunday to give virtually his entire bench some at-bats by resting four regulars, in the comparative cool of April with a day off following, left a struggling offense with even fewer weapons in a 5-0 loss to San Diego. That might have--and maybe should have--drawn criticism from a more hardened media in a more hardened environment.

Mike Scioscia, Tracy's Angel counterpart, also continues to fly under the media radar, despite another disappointing start.

The Angels, who finished 41 games behind the Mariners last year, are 91/2 games back after Monday's loss in the first of a three-game series at Seattle, a pivotal series in April.

The acquisitions of pitchers Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier and designated hitter Brad Fullmer raised expectations, clouding reality and certain imperatives.

At this point:

* Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad, recently sidelined with a concussion, have yet to regain their 2000 form, although Salmon awakened some over the weekend.

* Neither Fullmer nor first baseman Scott Spiezio has provided the productivity expected at offensive positions.

* Third baseman Troy Glaus continues having problems with plate discipline. He is striking out at nearly the pace of the last two years (163 in 2000 and 158 last season) and complaining about his contact lenses, of which no one said anything when he was hitting 41 homers last year and 47 in 2000.

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