TheSportsNotebook’s weeklong statistical overview of each division continues today with the AL West. As we’ve done in earlier overviews of the AL Eastand AL Central, we’ll run through each team’s league rank in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, along with starters’ ERA, bullpen ERA and save percentage. Then we’ll note a couple individual performances worth mentioning and summarize it all in a paragraph.
Oakland A’s (54-37)
Runs Scored: 6th
Starters’ ERA: 4th
Bullpen ERA: 3rd
Save Opps: 26/36
Notable: Josh Reddick is really struggling, with a .219 batting average and only four home runs. Grant Balfour is not, as the closer is lights out, closing all 24 of his save chances with a 1.72 ERA and conjuring up memories of Dennis Eckersley and his years closing games in one of this franchise’s two glory periods, from 1988-92. (The other, and bigger glory period was 1971-75, with three straight World Series titles mixed in).
Comments: For Oakland to be in the top half of the American League in runs scored in spite of being in a pitchers’ park and having a lousy year from Reddick speaks well to their top-to-bottom offensive balance. Realistically, they need Reddick to turn it around if this pace is going to sustain. Fortunately, that’s a realistic expectation. Realistically.
Texas Rangers (53-37) Runs Scored: 9th
Starters’ ERA: 5th
Bullpen ERA: 4th
Save Opps: 31/35
Notable: Yu Darvish might be the ace, but Derek Holland’s big year, with a 3.19 ERA in 18 starts, is the big reason the Rangers’ starting pitching has been so solid. If you’re looking for a culprit for the struggling offense, start with Elvis Andrus, with his meager .305 on-base percentage and awful .290 slugging percentage.
Comments: Texas’ park is the exact opposite of Oakland’s when it comes to its effect on offense. Therefore, for the Rangers to be only one spot behind the A’s in both starters’ ERA and bullpen ERA probably means the Texas staff is outperforming Oakland’s if all things were equal. But the offense is three spots behind the A’s. Imagine how dramatic the difference between the two contenders would be if they changed parks.
Los Angeles Angels (43-46)
Runs Scored: 7th
Starters’ ERA: 10th
Bullpen ERA: 9th
Save Opps: 24/31
Notable: No point in overanalyzing this. While the pitching problems are real, the fact Josh Hamilton has a woeful stat line of .288 OBP/.404 slugging, and Albert Pujols is sitting on .322/.424, is the biggest problem this line up has. It’s why a solid team OBP rank of 4th is not translating into more runs.
Comments: The flip side to the Hamilton/Pujols conundrum is that when those two players are the ones whose turnarounds are what you are most dependent on, that’s a good reason to feel optimistic. The question is going to be this—given that the Angels have given away their margin for error, can they ensure the bullpen doesn’t give up winnable games in the second half?
Seattle Mariners (40-50)
Runs Scored: 13th
Starters’ ERA: 9th
Bullpen ERA: 14th
Save Opps: 21/33
Notable: Kyle Seager, with a stat line of .352/.476, is one of the few everyday players having a good year with the bat. And pitching-wise, it’s all about Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who have combined for a 16-8 record and each has a sub-3.00 ERA.
Comments: Felix and Iwakuma are great, but the seven or so innings they pitch every fifth day is about all the Mariners have going for them. The fact this team is still below average in starters’ ERA in spite of having the game’s best 1-2 punch speaks volumes about how bad the back end is. They can’t score runs and even if one of the aces hands the bullpen a lead of 2-1 or 3-2, take a look at those numbers for the relievers.
Houston Astros (32-58)
Runs Scored: 14th
Starters’ ERA: 12th
Bullpen ERA: 15th
Save Opps: 20/31
Notable: We know the Astros are bad, so let’s be nice and talk about a couple positives. Bud Norris has a 3.63 ERA in 19 starts, and Minute Maid Park is hitter-friendly. In the everyday lineup, Chris Carter has hit 17 home runs.
Comments: What else is there to say? To paraphrase a famous rant by former NFL head coach Dennis Green, the Astros are who we thought they were.
THE VIEW FROM LAS VEGAS
I’m surprised to see that Texas is still considered a slight 4-5 favorite to win the AL West, while Oakland is at even money. I’m surprised because even though I respect what the Rangers have done this year, they have a ton of injuries on the pitching staff, while the A’s seem a little more complete. That’s not a prediction on my part—I’ll revisit my preseason picks at some point during next week’s All-Star break MLB coverage. But I thought the gambling community would be down on the A’s by this point.
The Angels are still 10-1. It’s not that their margin of ten games is impossible to overcome, but they’ve got two teams to make up that gap on—at least in terms of winning the division, which is what these odds reflect, as opposed to simply making the wild-card game. Seattle is 500-1 and Houston is 1,000-1. And the Astros odds should be longer.
The AL West has been teasing us with the promise of a heated race all season long, but Texas has held steady with leads sticking comfortably in the range of the 4-game margin they currently hold. Whether it was a midsummer push by Los Angeles, or the current landscape which as Oakland on their heels, the Rangers have been like that political candidate that looks beatable but just holds their position in the polls. If I might continue the political analogy, the AL West’s version of the debates start tonight when the A’s visit the Dallas area for four games. This series, along with a season-ending three-game set in Oakland a week from now give the challenger one last chance to deliver a punch.
Oakland’s got bigger problems than just catching Texas though, and it’s that the Angels will not go away. Prior to the weekend series, TheSportsNotebook noted how both Los Angeles and Tampa Bay faced must-win moments. Each responded with a series sweep, while the A’s were dropping two of three in New York, including a crushing Saturday defeat when they coughed up a 9-5 lead in extra innings and let the winning run score on an error. The end result is that Oakland’s lead over LAA is down to 2.5 games and they are just 3.5 up on Tampa, both smaller numbers than the deficit they are facing against Texas. Furthermore, Oakland has slipped behind Baltimore by a game for the top wild-card and right to host the one-game shootout that will settle a Division Series berth next Friday. Thus, while we focus on the AL West and surely Oakland’s got catching Texas in their mind, they face a bigger threat from the rearview mirror.
Texas has held steady in September because of pitching and three of the starters they’ll use in this series—Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison—all have ERAs under 2.40 for the month, with Darvish a dazzling 3-0 with a buck-80 ERA. The Rangers aren’t hitting the ball great—Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are in slumps at the top of the order, and Nelson Cruz is struggling in the middle. But Michael Young and David Murphy are each batting over. 300 for the month with three home runs. And Josh Hamilton? Don’t be fooled by the .231 batting average in September. With his proficiency at drawing walks, the on-base percentage is a productive .355 and with six home runs his monthly slugging is an MVP-caliber .635.
Conversely, Oakland’s meal ticket, Josh Reddick is struggling, with a .138 average in the final month. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp has started to cool down. The offense is being kept afloat by decent months from Seth Smith, Cliff Pennington and Josh Donaldson and a hot September from first baseman Brandon Moss, who has a .411/.640 slugging. Normally that would be enough for the A’s to keep winning games, but the pitching has started to cool off a bit. Dan Straily, who gets the ball for tonight’s opener has a 5.56 September ERA. Tommy Milone, who has to battle Darvish on Wednesday is up at 4.95. Only Jarrod Parker, who pitches the Thursday finale is really locked in right now at 1.86 for September.
If you look at both teams overall September numbers, they’re roughly equivalent—a little below average in scoring runs, a little above average in pitching. Given the disparity of the parks they play in—Texas is a hitters’ haven, while Oakland is a pitching paradise—that means the Rangers are pitching better and the A’s are hitting better. But pitching is what wins championships and the final battle towards settling at least an AL West championship starts tonight in Dallas.
Around the rest of the playoff races…
*Does anyone want the AL Central? The White Sox were the Angels’ victims this weekend, but the Tigers dropped two of three in Minnesota keeping the Chicago lead at one game. The ChiSox host Cleveland and Detroit hosts Kansas City. We might say both contenders are in position to get wins, but they way both are backpedaling to the finish line, who knows.
*St. Louis has to smell the moment when it comes to clinching the National League’s final wild-card spot alongside the NL East runner-up (presumably Atlanta). The chasing Brewers remain hot, taking two of three in Washington and concluding the series with a Monday afternoon wraparound. But the margin is still 2.5 games and while Milwaukee visits Cincinnati, St. Louis will play 103-loss Houston. By Friday, the half-game will be off the board (Milwaukee plays each of the next four games, St. Loo has Thursday off) and the schedule will flip, with the Brewers going home to face the Astros & Padres, while the Cards deal with the Nationals and Reds. St. Louis’ chance to put it away is right now. And I haven’t forgotten Los Angeles, who’s three games off the pace, but they have a scary series in San Diego. The Padres have plugged along, with a respectable 73-80 record and having split the last ten. If I’m a rival team that’s contending, I don’t know that I want to play them on the road.
*Atlanta has the top wild-card all but wrapped up, but still has Washington in their sights in the NL East, with the margin at 4.5 games. The Braves play a dead Miami team, while Washington—after finishing up with Milwaukee today—goes to Philadelphia. The Phils’ playoff push has crested, but this is still a veteran team with pride and playing decent baseball. Another road trip you hate to deal with as a contender.
*In the AL East, New York couldn’t shake Baltimore, as the Orioles went 6-3 on a nine-game road trip and prevented the Yankees’ recent hot streak from increasing their one-game lead in the division. Baltimore’s at home to play Toronto, who rolled over for Tampa this weekend. New York goes up to Minnesota, which showed some spunk in knocking off Detroit. Both contenders were prevented from pulling away with a wild-card spot by the weekend sweeps of the Angels and Rays.
*And speaking of the Angels & Rays, Los Angeles faces Seattle, who’s been the AL version of the Padres the entire second half, and were again this weekend, in beating Texas two of three. Tampa Bay goes to Boston. The teams split four in the Trop last week, a de facto defeat for the Rays. The Red Sox can now hope to put a knockout blow on the team that ripped their heart out last September.
*Finally we conclude with congratulations to Cincinnati and San Francisco who have clinched their NL Central and NL West respectively. Over the last couple weeks, TheSportsNotebook has broken down how each team blew open what was supposed to be competitive division races. If the playoffs started today they would meet in the Division Series, though Cincy is just a half-game back of Washington for the top seed in the National League.
The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels are barely hanging on in the AL West race, trailing Texas by 5.5 and 6 games respectively. But the A’s lead the wild-card race and the Angels are just a game out of the playoffs as they begin a crucial three-game series in NoCal tonight. The series’ loser might be out of the division race and a sweep either way makes a big hit in the wild-card push.
On paper everything favors Los Angeles, which is hardly a surprise. The Angels are better than everyone in paper, and the A’s are worse—at least when you consider the everyday lineup measured against the other contenders. They’re hot right now, ranking 3rd in the American League in runs scored since the All-Star break. But the Angels are even hotter, leading the AL in that same timeframe, as Albert Pujols at last looks like the Albert of old. Furthermore, the pitching matchups of this series work in LAA’s favor. They have Jered Weaver set to go tonight, and in Wednesday’s matinee finale Zack Greinke can feast on unproven 23-year-old Dan Straily. At least that’s the theory. The middle game is C.J. Wilson against Bartolo Colon.
Based strictly on the matchups, you’d think there was no reason the Angels couldn’t get a sweep, and certainly win the series. But Oakland fans would remind us that if we go by what’s on paper there was no reason to even think this would be a competitive series. True enough, and if the A’s starting pitching can get games into the seventh inning, the superior Oakland bullpen could help the magic ride keep rolling.
Other matchups involving contenders in the American League…
NY Yanks-Detroit: Both teams rank about the same in runs scored and ERA since the All-Star break, but given the vast differences in home parks, that likely means the Tiger offense has been much better, while the Yankee pitching staff is far superior. This series will be Comerica Park, so it will be tougher for New York to build their offense by the long ball and they have to deal with Justin Verlander in tonight’s ESPN telecast. But the Yanks get a crack at mediocre Rick Porcello tomorrow and then throw C.C. Sabathia on Wednesday.
Toronto-Tampa Bay: The Blue Jays are still on the fringes of the race, at five games out and this is a must-win series for them. The good news is they won’t have to face David Price or Jeremy Hellickson. Neither team is swinging the bats well, but the favorable pitching schedule for Toronto gives them at least a shot.
Texas-Boston: Texas isn’t playing its best right now, but Boston just dropped three of four at home to Minnesota to effectively blow a homestand everyone knew was vital. Now the Red Sox have to deal with a team that’s beat them up so far in 2012. Red Sox Nation has been waiting for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester to turn around, and with the Sox 4.5 games out of the wild-card, with several teams to pass, their starts on Tuesday and Wednesday and probably do-or-die.
Seattle-Baltimore: Neither team throws its ace during these three games, as Felix Hernandez and Wei-Yin Chen are coming off big Saturday wins over New York and Tampa respectively. Don’t sleep on the Mariners, who are playing some of the best baseball in the American League right now. If Baltimore’s going to continue to hang, Zach Britton has to get into rhythm. He’s got an 8.35 ERA in 18 innings since his recent return from a season-long DL stint. A lot of that can be excused to finding his form again, but if there were ever a spot to get back on track a Tuesday night home start against a poor lineup would be the place to do it.
Kansas City-ChiSox: With the Royals collapsing hard, the main interest is some bigger picture issues for Chicago. Namely, how will Chris Sale do in his first start back since being shut down nine days ago with a tired arm?
In the National League…
Arizona-Pittsburgh: This is a monster four-game set and with Pittsburgh having cast its lot for the stretch drive on their pitching, this series will test it. Arizona, as documented last week, is scorching hot with the bats, particularly the long ball. The Pirates are coming off a series loss in Cincinnati over the weekend and they won’t have A.J. Burnett for this one, as he salvaged the finale for them on Sunday.
San Francisco-St. Louis: Are the Cardinals coming again? They swept reeling Milwaukee over the weekend, but run into Matt Cain in the series opener. I’ve wondered how much longer Barry Zito can keep pitching well for the Giants, and a Tuesday night start against this lineup, especially red-hot Matt Holliday, will give some kind of indication.
Cincinnati-Milwaukee: The Reds are blazing and the Brewers, as noted above, are falling apart. Milwaukee hasn’t been able to pitch well, and even if they get good outings from Yovani Gallardo on Monday or promising rookie Matt Fiers on Tuesday, if the game is close late, the Brewer bullpen makes them underdogs. In the meantime, Cincy throws ace Johnny Cueto on Tuesday and a series win here keeps them in good position with Joey Votto’s return down to about ten days away.
Atlanta-Philadelphia: I have extreme doubt that Atlanta can keep pitching like they have been since the All-Star break—second in the NL in ERA, and both the success and the skepticism are due to Ben Sheets having a buck-46 ERA in the four starts since Atlanta picked him off the slag heap. Sheets goes tonight, but the trade-decimated Philadelphia lineup doesn’t seem like the best place for the magic ride to end.
Washington-Houston: The Nationals have scored more runs than any NL team since the break. With their pitching that makes them extremely tough to beat against anyone and it turns this four-game set into a virtual mismatch. Maybe Houston has a chance against Ross Detwiler on Tuesday night, but otherwise the Nats are well-poised to at least hold their three-game lead in the NL East and perhaps build on it if Atlanta stumbles in Philly.
Colorado-LA Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw won’t pitch in this series. That’s about the only negative thing you can say about the Dodgers in this matchup, as they have a chance for a three-game sweep against a team that’s rivaling Houston for the honor of worst team in baseball.
The Texas Rangers have a four-game lead on the Los Angeles Angels coming into tonight’s series finale between the two teams in Arlington. The Rangers are 4.5 ahead of Oakland, which would also be the margin of security Texas has for making the postseason as a wild-card. But it seems like Texas is playing from behind. Los Angeles made the big splash at the trade deadlinewhen they added Zack Greinke, while Texas’ best counter-move was to get Ryan Dempster, who gets the ball for his first Rangers’ start tonight. The idea that LAA is now the favorite in the AL West, even coming from behind, has a lot of currency in the mainstream media right now. But let’s go one step further and ask the unthinkable—could the two-time defending AL champs miss the playoffs altogether?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think it’s at least on the radar. Injuries to a pitching staff change the equation faster than anything and losing both Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the year is a heavy blow for anyone to handle. It’s worse for Texas, because by comparison to other contenders, depth in the rotation was their strong suit. They might not have had a Justin Verlander, a C.C. Sabathia or a Jered Weaver, but had an army of 2s and 3s and beat their rivals in the middle and at the back end of a rotation. Then in the playoffs, Ron Washington had the electric Alexi Ogando, a hybrid who comes out of the pen and gives several innings. It was enough to give Texas the edge in October the last two years.
Now that’s gone. Yu Darvish is the#1 starter, and while he looks like a good signing, with 11 wins and a 4.38 ERA in a hitter’s park, he’s ill-suited to be an ace and is starting to struggle, with a 5.74 ERA in his last four starts. Roy Oswalt was signed in mid-season, but has been banished to the bullpen after a 6.49 ERA in six outings. Derek Holland was clutch in the playoffs last year, but a 4.96 ERA this year has been disappointing. Only Matt Harrison, at 12-6, a 3.19 ERA and workmanlike 135 innings pitched, has been steady. When you look at this staff and consider they have to survive about sixty more games, you can see why the wild-card shouldn’t taken for granted. And why there’s so much pressure on Dempster to show that at age 35, his 2.25 ERA wasn’t a fluke combined with facing NL Central lineups with the Cubs. Or for fifth starter Scott Feldman to continue his strong recent work.
The offense has been Texas’ calling card over the years, even when they were a bad team and they lead the American League in runs scored. It’s a testimony to how good the offense was for three months, because in July the bats were positively atrocious. Josh Hamilton’s slump got media attention and a little public jab from team president Nolan Ryan, but he’s far from alone. The only noteworthy month was turned in by Nelson Cruz, who hit four home runs and slugged. 541 while getting on base consistently. In fact home runs in general weren’t a problem—Hamilton also hit four and catcher Mike Napoli hit five. But Napoli was like Hamilton in that he batted sub-.200, and the team was more like them then they were like Cruz. Texas finished dead last in the AL scoring runs for July.
We can expect the offense to bounce back and compensate at least somewhat for starting pitching problems. Then it’s going to be in the hands of the bullpen. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Feliz out of this unit and putting him in the rotation to begin with and now that he requires Tommy John surgery, I wonder if the Rangers didn’t cost themselves an elite reliever and Feliz his entire career with a foolish decision that blew up with the Yankees and Joba Chamberlain and the Red Sox with Daniel Bard. There’s still good arms in the back of the Texas pen, but they are short on quantity. Joe Nathan and Mike Adams make a nice closer-setup team for the last two innings and Ogando’s impact can be maximized in big situations. But where would Texas be without Robbie Ross, who came from nowhere to post a 1.72 ERA in 51 innings of work? In a short series, or any one-game situation where this group is all rested and available, the Rangers have all they need. Where it will be a problem is if the starters go through repeated stretches of not getting past the fifth or sixth. Then Oswalt, or perhaps Koji Uehara, will have to provide some veteran leadership and innings.
Texas is not playing well right now—they are 2-4 since the All-Star break against Los Angeles coming into Thursday night and lost a series with the Chicago White Sox. Looking ahead, they’ve got a road trip in Boston, a home series with Detroit and then a big four-game set in Yankee Stadium that concludes on August 16. I still can’t quite imagine Texas missing the playoffs entirely, but when starting pitching becomes a dicey situation and not only are they vulnerable to the Halos, it’s at least possible to envision a pitching-rich staff like they have at Oakland or Tampa Bay getting hot and stealing the wild-card berths.
The Los Angeles Angels were the winners in the Zack Greinke sweepstakes, making a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for the former Cy Young Award winner. The trade offers intriguing angles for three different teams, including LAA’s AL West rival in Texas. TheSportsNotebook runs through the trade’s implications…
*Los Angeles is clearly the best team in baseball with this addition. The rotation is now Jered Weaver-Zack Greinke-C.J. Wilson-Dan Haren. It’s going to take a significant upset to beat the Angels in a playoff series
*In spite of that, the trade is a significant risk for the Angels because they did not work out a long-term contract extension with Greinke, who is set to be a free agent at the end of the season. LAA was likely to make the playoffs as a wild-card even before this trade. Even with him, they’re still five games out in the West and have both Oakland and Texas to leap, something that’s not going to be easy. If the Angels end up in the one-game wild-card playoff, still the likeliest scenario, and get beat, then they never get a chance to showcase that starting rotation. And then if Greinke goes elsewhere in the offseason, the deal was essentially all for nothing. This doesn’t mean I think the trade is bad—there are three different ways it can work. Either win the wild-card game, win the AL West or sign the pitcher to a long-term deal and the prospects they gave up were worth the chance. But none of those are sure things.
*Speaking of the prospects, Milwaukee has to happy with the package they got back in return. Jean Segura is a top Triple A shortstop and he’ll likely be starting for the Brewers in September and then be the projected Opening Day starter in 2013. Milwaukee also got two Double A pitchers who are both rated in the top 10 of the Los Angeles minor league system. When you consider that the Brewers were only assured of two compensatory draft picks if they held on to Greinke and let him walk via free agency*, general manager Doug Melvin was able to exceed that benchmark with this package and get a major-league ready infielder at a spot where his team has immediate need.
*Now we come to the Texas Rangers, the team with the most to lose in all this. Texas has problems in its rotation right now, with Colby Lewis being out for the year and Neftali Feliz having a setback on his rehab stint. The Rangers have Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison as the 1-2 in their rotation and are keeping their fingers crossed on Roy Oswalt. Individually, each one of these pitchers has value, but all are about one notch higher on the rotation rung than they should be. Meaning the Rangers have a real need for a #1 starter. They also have the farm system to deal with and could have certainly matched, if not exceeded the package the Angels put together. What’s the problem? Or, as we sit here just 26 hours from the trade deadline, does Texas have something else in the works. Matt Garza and Josh Johnson are on the block, or they might swing for the fences and offer Seattle a blockbuster package for Felix Hernandez. Texas GM Jon Daniels has no record of sitting on his hands at this time of year, and after two straight American League pennants, but no World Series title, I can’t imagine he won’t give his team every chance to win. And that means at least making competitive offers for the ace-caliber starters on the table.
The other significant deal over the weekend was the Minnesota Twins shipping Francisco Liriano to the Chicago White Sox for a couple prospects. With Chris Sale suffering from arm fatigue and talk the White Sox may have to give him some serious rest, Chicago’s immediate need is apparent and for all Liriano’s inconsistency, it’s not hard to envision him ripping off five great starts in succession and tipping the balance in the AL Central race with Detroit. What is hard to imagine is him showing any real consistency, which is why I think this deal is a risk for the White Sox and one I would not have taken. Chicago has John Danks coming off the disabled list, they have the ability to move Brett Myers to the rotation and more to the point, this was never supposed to win-or-bust anyway. In spite of that, the deals for Myers and Kevin Youkilis made sense—Youkilis is a good player who became unexpectedly available and plays a position Chicago was atrocious at. Myers can start and relieve and is under club control through 2013. The most we can say for Liriano is that he might get hot. If he does, no one on the South Side will care about what was given up. But I can understand why Minnesota had no hesitation about dealing him within the division.
The Texas Rangers had moved into sluggish mode lately after their outstanding start. Now they’ve officially upgraded that to struggling. The AL West leaders just played three straight series against their division rivals and lost all three, including dumping three of four to heretofore struggling Oakland. The Rangers’ record is now at 34-25—obviously still a solid season by any measurement, but no longer enough to have the rest of the league far in the rearview mirror, and the race is on in the AL West.
Texas’ struggles are not unexpected, nor are they new. No team was going to maintain the pace the Rangers opened the season with—the Cardinals started off just as hot and when they hit the skids they fell all the way to .500 and into third place. Furthermore, this is how Texas played last year—a blazing start followed by a sluggishness that seemed to last throughout the summer, before the peaked again in September and in the American League playoffs. So the purpose in pointing out their struggles is not to hit a panic button.
One player who might want to play with a greater sense of urgency is Michael Young. The veteran has a batting average of .288, which seems fine on the surface. And the lack of home runs can be lived with. But he’s not taking walks, nor is he driving the ball in the gap for doubles, and his on-base percentage/slugging percentage line is a subpar .316/.381, marking him an offensive liability. Nelson Cruz is having a similarly poor year, with a lousy OBP and performing below expectations with his power. The offense is much too reliant on Josh Hamilton being transcendent. With a .338 average and 22 home runs, along with being a complete package of plate discipline and defense, Hamilton has been just that. But a championship team, which this most definitely still is, can’t leave that much on his shoulders.
There’s every reason to think Texas will follow last year’s pattern and turn back upward. The pitching staff is deep and that’s before you factor in Neftali Feliz’s impending return from the disabled list in the next week or so and the signing of Roy Oswalt to come on board in July. Matt Harrison threw a shutout against San Francisco last night to stop the bleeding and Yu Darvish has delivered a solid 3.72 ERA in 12 starts. And the Ranger gamble on Joe Nathan’s return to health in the closer’s role has paid off, with a 1.90 ERA as he’s closed 12/13 save opportunities. So this is likely just a normal bout of summer sluggishness. But with the Angels off the mat and better than last season, Texas can’t let it drag on for an extended period and some better play from good hitters is the key to snapping out.
Around the rest of the AL West…
LA Angels (30-29): We’ve all talked about Albert Pujols’ early struggles and recent resurgence, and to a lesser extent, that of Dan Haren in the rotation. We’ve celebrated Jered Weaver’s no-hitter and lamented his brief trip to the disabled list. But how about a little love for C.J. Wilson. I’ve mentioned him briefly in previous division reports, but with a 7-4 record and 2.39 ERA the lefty the Halos pilfered from Texas on last year’s free agent market has been a lifesaver early in the season.
Seattle (27-33): Last night’s strange six-pitcher no-hitter against the Dodgers was a visible example of the fact the Mariners have been playing better baseball lately. They bottomed out on May 27 with a 21-29 record, but have since won series with the Rangers and Angels. I don’t want to go on some Rick Sutcliffe-esque display of overstatement since they also lost a series to the White Sox, but Seattle is playing some steady baseball. The big concern has to be pitching. Felix Hernandez isn’t on the DL, but he’s dealing with a back issue and with a 3.42 ERA, he’s below his normal Cy Young-caliber level. With Kevin Millwood also starting to get nagging injuries and Blake Beavan pitching poorly, last night’s no-hitter could be forgotten in a hurry.
Oakland (26-33): Taking three of four from Texas stopped a complete free-fall, although the Oakland turned around at lost at Arizona. There’s more reason to think that Ranger series was about Texas’ vices rather than Oakland’s virtues. One pitcher who deserves a big shout out though is Jarrod Parker. His last three starts have come against the Angels, Twins and Rangers, and he’s gone 21 innings and allowed just one run. The Moneyball gloss might be off Billy Beane these days, but the man keeps churning out young pitchers just like he did in the days of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, the trio who really made the Moneyball A’s possible.
The Los Angeles Angels were gradually working up a head of steam in May and at the end of the month they finally came barreling in full-tilt. Since May 21, Mike Scoscia’s team has gone 9-2, including a series win over the Yankees and including a win in last night’s series opener against first-place Texas. With a record of 27-26 and within 4.5 games in the AL West, the Angels are back on the radar of real contenders.
Mike Trout has given this lineup a tremendous spark, hitting .330 with five home runs for the month. He runs well and a thumb injury to Vernon Wells—mostly a big drag on this lineup—opened up the playing time for Trout and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Mark Trumbo, last year’s first baseman who was displaced by the arrival of Albert Pujols, ratcheted up his power stroke this past month, with seven home runs and got on base at a .404 clip. And speaking of Albert, he hit eight home runs in May and slugged .514.
The pitching staff took a big blow with Jered Weaver going to the disabled list, but at least the ace will only be gone until the middle of this month, and in the meantime, tonight’s starter C.J. Wilson, along with Dan Haren are pitching like the #1 starters each of them can easily be. The best news has been the work of Jerome Williams, supposedly the weak link in the staff at #5. But his own May saw his post a 4-1 record with a 3.46 ERA. The bullpen remains a source of concern, but Scoscia is finding a way to get outs with what he has—both Ernesto Frieri and Scot Shields have each closed all three of their save chances. This bullpen isn’t going to be great, but a steady hand on the wheel can at least keep it manageable. That’s what Scoscia is doing.
LAA’s weekend battle with Texas gets understandable focus—with the Rangers having brought in Roy Oswalt, the Angels can’t let their rival open up the race a second time. After this weekend, there’s every reason to think they can keep the good times rolling, as they host Seattle and go to Colorado. At that point the stage would be set for an interleague series with the Dodgers. In the battle to sees who owns Los Angeles, the Halos have put themselves right back in the discussion, along with the more important question of American League wild-card position and within the AL West itself.
Around the rest of the AL West…
Texas (31-21): Texas, for some reason, couldn’t handle Seattle, losing two series to the Mariners that were sandwiched around a sweep of Toronto. The Rangers are hitting the ball, especially for power. Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz combined to hit 14 doubles in the past week, while the latter two sluggers each popped a couple home runs. As to the pitching, I’ll leave you with this—the bullpen worked 27.1 IP in the last six games. Don’t ask how they did, because when you work that many innings it almost ceases to be important.
Seattle (23-31): The Mariners got the bats going. Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, repeatedly panned here in previous reports, combined to go 15-for-42, while Smoak hit three home runs in the last week. Kyle Seager continues to be electrifying at third, going 10-for-26, while hot bats were swung by Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero. But just as the hitting came around and the team had the aforementioned wins over Texas, the pitching went south. Felix Hernandez has been knocked around by the Angels and White Sox his last two starts and his back is reportedly bothering him. The M’s lost four straight to LAA, lost at Chicago last night and have a road trip in Anaheim next.
Oakland (22-30): Yes, they’ve played the Angels and Yankees lately. But nine straight losses, including a series opener in Kansas City last night? When you have no offense, the pitching always has to great, so when Oakland registered an ERA for the week that ranked in the middle of the American League, it meant losses. We’ll give a nod to Colin Cowgill, who went 8-for-14, and Jemile Weeks, who went 9-for-25, but they were really the only productive players. Josh Reddick hit a couple home runs, but that was it and the rest of the offense was its usual non-existent self.
The AL West race is gradually tightening up, not so much at the top, where Texas still holds a five-game lead on Oakland, but at the bottom, as the LA Angels and Seattle nudge to within manageable distances of the leader. No team’s move has been sharper over the past several days than the Mariners.
Seattle just finished taking two of three from Texas to move to within seven games of the lead, even as the M’s sit in fourth place. Prior to the Ranger series, Seattle had swept reeling Colorado on the road in interleague play. Now in the midst of a four-game series with the Angels, followed by a return trip to Texas early next week, if Seattle ever intended on making some noise this season, now would be the time to show it.
Kyle Seagar has given the offense a boost, coming in at third base and finally giving the fans some relief from watching Chone Figgins post sub-.200 averages year after year. Seagar had a .379 on-base percentage/.455 slugging percentage, while Jesus Montero has caught fire again, posting .375/.550 numbers. With Ichiro Suzuki and Brendan Ryan also combining to hit .301, this otherwise anemic offense has been the fourth-best in the American League over the past week.
And then we come to the pitching. Kevin Millwood’s last three starts have seen him average over seven innings per, and he’s only given up one run combined in those three game. Two of the opponents have been the Yankees and Rangers, and the third was Colorado at Coors. Along with Felix Hernandez beating Yu Darvish earlier this week, the pitching staff also has a fourth-place ranking within the AL.
Seattle’s record is still a mediocre 21-26, even after the nice recent stretch, so I don’t want to overstate how well things are going. They still have to get their young offensive players producing, from Justin Smoak to Dustin Ackley to Mike Carp. All three are important to the team’s long-term success and if they continue to struggle—particularly Smoak, who’s been getting regular major-league playing time since mid-2010—the organization is going to have to conclude the players never were “all that.” But for the time being, the Mariners have given their fan base a nice shot in the arm and even with a 3-0 loss last night to the Angels, still have a chance to keep themselves hanging around in the AL West.
A look at the rest of the division…
Texas (27-18): It was back on May 13 that the Rangers hammered Angel ace Jered Weaver on Sunday night baseball for a 13-6 win that won a three-game series. Since then Texas has gone 4-6 and the opponents have been the Royals, A’s, Astros and Mariners. Nobody’s getting on base with any consistency, as Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Michael Young all have on-base percentages under .300. Then let’s add in that Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison got hit hard their last time out, while Neftali Feliz has an elbow injury that will keep him on the DL until June. Texas took full advantage of their opportunity when everything was going smoothly to build up an early cushion. Now they’ve settled into a point in the season where they’re going to have a battle a little more.
Oakland (22-23): Josh Reddick has hit the skids lately, with only three singles in his last 17 at-bats and the lack of any help in the A’s lineup is being exposed. Seth Smith and Jemile Weeks continued disappointing seasons, and Yoenis Cespedes has been on the disabled list with a bum wrist. He’s taking batting practice again, but not likely to return when he’s eligible on Tuesday. Oakland hosts the Yanks this weekend and need all the offensive help they can get.
LA Angels (21-25): The gradual improvement being shown by Mike Scoscia’s team continues, as they just completed a series win over Oakland and got the aforementioned win over Seattle last night to start a four-game series. Dan Haren, who’s struggled through the early year, pitched a shutout. C.J. Wilson dominated Oakland with eight innings of one-hit ball. Jered Weaver bounced back from the Sunday night thrashing by Texas to manhandle weaker lineups in San Diego and Oakland. The bullpen has tossed 15 straight innings of scoreless ball. Is there anyone else of note? Oh…yes, Albert Pujols has gone 8-for-28, hit two home runs and drawn four walks. That’s the Albert we’ve been waiting for and reappears with his team in striking distance, at 6.5 games.
With the first set of interleague games coming up in the baseball schedule this weekend and teams having at least 35 games under their belt, we’re a little more than 20 percent of the way through the schedule, so now is as good a time as any to have an early season evaluation session. TheSportsNotebook takes a concise look at what each team has done and what we might expect going forward.
This post focuses on the American League. Click here for the National League overview, and please also check the individual reports that were run yesterday, with an All-Star ballot put together for both theAL & NL.
Baltimore (23-14): The Orioles haven’t had a bullpen that was really effective since B.J. Ryan up and left for Toronto as a ridiculously overpaid free agent following the 2005 season. Ryan blew out his elbow, but the Orioles never recovered either. Until this season. With Jim Johnson having a fantastic season as a closer—and he has been a reliably consistent setup man for five years now and Buck Showalter fitting other pieces into place, you can no longer feel good if you’re down a run in Baltimore after six.
Offensively, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones are living up to their potential as the young breakout stars, while Wei-Yin Chen has been a boon to the pitching staff, including last night when he beat C.C. Sabathia in Camden Yards. Now the question is do the O’s keep it going? Well, they’re playing at a 101-win pace and I don’t think anyone expects that to keep going, nor do people expect them to win the AL East. But be a contender? If Nick Markakis can pick up his offense, along with J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds, that can help cushion when inevitable slumps come from the two young stars and Brian Matusz can continue his recover in the starting rotation, then yes, the Orioles can hang around.
Tampa Bay (23-14): With the injury to Mariano Rivera, the implosion of the Red Sox and the presumed fade of Baltimore, it’s the Rays who are the favorite to win this division and that’s appropriate. Like the Orioles, Tampa has put together a bullpen they has vastly outperformed expectations, with Fernando Rodney making the most of his opportunity at the back end.
The Rays are dealing with injuries right now, with Evan Longoria out for another 2-3 weeks and Desmond Jennings also on the DL. Offensively, they do a good job drawing walks, but need more guys who can hit—Carlos Pena’s .391 slugging percentage is the most obvious evidence of this problem. But at the end of the day, this rotation comes along to James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson—all having good years that are sustainable and if Matt Moore gets settled in as a rookie, the Rays will wear the rest of the AL East down.
NY Yankees (20-16): Not only is Rivera out for the year, but now replacement David Robertson has hit the disabled list. It was supposed to be bullpen depth combined with offense that bailed out a Yankee rotation that had serious problems behind Sabathia. But that depth is gone—even if Rafael Soriano stabilizes the ninth inning. The pitching problems have gotten worse, with the season-ending injury to Michael Pineda, the continued struggles of Phil Hughes and the demotion of Freddy Garcia. Even the offense, while hardly a problem at #3 in the American League scoring runs isn’t up to its usual standards. Mark Teixeira’s notorious April slumps have now extended into mid-May and Robinson Cano has yet to heat up. Derek Jeter’s been as valuable to the Yanks this season as ever, and the reason they’re still on a pace to win 90 games and would make the wild-card game if the season ended today. Still, it’s difficult to see this team, as presently constructed exceeding the 90-win level.
Toronto (19-18): It’s no surprise to see the Jays a little over .500, but if they don’t make the playoffs this year it’s a real missed opportunity, given the problems in New York and Boston, and given that Toronto is getting good starting pitching, with Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez being excellent, and Ricky Romero doing his usual solid job. But they have got to get some guys hitting. Hot young prospects like Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia have to realize how much the team needs them to reach their potential. The same goes for Colby Rasmus, who’s been a disaster since coming over St. Louis (Note to self: If I ever again disagree with a future Hall of Fame manager like Tony LaRussa on a player, it’s a good bet that I’m the one who’s going to be proven wrong). Edwin Encarcion is the only one who’s hitting and Jose Bautista is getting the Bonds treatment and being pitched around. And Bautista’s not doing anything with the pitches he does get, batting only a buck-98. The moment is there for Toronto to step up into the playoffs and even compete for the AL East title, but these hitters have got to perform.
Boston (17-19): A recent mini-surge against the AL Central and Seattle has enabled Boston to keep themselves afloat, but the starting pitching is a big problem. Clay Bucholz has been an absolute disaster with an 8.31 ERA and the reality is that Bucholz may not make it back, at least this season. Remember, the kid broke a bone in his back last year. Even if it’s healed, how did that affect his mechanics or his comfort level at turning it loose? I’m not saying he’s done, but he might need more than spring training to get himself really comfortable again. The bullpen’s struggles are much better documented, although that’s gradually starting to stabilize—it’s hardly a team strength, but the complete chaos that ensued from the seventh inning on during April looks to be a thing of the past as Bobby Valentine settles on roles.
Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have pitched reasonably well at the back end, but without Bucholz, with Josh Beckett being inconsistent and Jon Lester looking more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy, the Red Sox have not had the 1-2-3 punch at the top that was supposed to be the focal point of the season and I don’t take it for granted that any of that will come around at a level higher than it is right now. But know this—if it does, the Sox are still scoring runs like they did in the heyday, with only Texas being more proficient in the American League. And that’s with young players like Will Middlebrooks and Danny Nava stepping in for the wounded Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis.
Cleveland (20-16): Manny Acta’s pitching staff has to do a better job, and quickly, because even in a soft division, being 10th in the American League in ERA won’t cut it. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez have ERAs over 5. The bullpen that gave such good depth a year ago has been shaky this time. And what’s worse for the Tribe is how much can you really count on summer improvements? Sure, Masterson will pitch better, but Jiminez has had three good months in the course of his career—the first part of 2010 when he dominated in Colorado. And even given Masterson the benefit of the doubt, we have to also factor in that Derek Lowe’s 2.05 ERA will inevitably rise. So where does the overall team improvement come from? The Indians were projected by Las Vegas as a 79-win team at the start of the season. They might lead the pack right now, but I don’t see a reason to think that long-term assessment is all that off. Especially when you have bats like third baseman Jack Hannahan’s also destined to cool off.
Detroit (18-18): I think the worst is past the Tigers for now. Doug Fister, their #2 starter is back from the disabled list and looked very good in his first two starts. Rookie Drew Smyly has been great, and even if he comes down to earth, something else that will come down is Max Scherzer’s ERA of 6.26. Then there’s some guy named Verlander who keeps getting the ball every fifth day. The bullpen’s still a concern, but no more than last year when they eventually pulled away from Cleveland. And on offense, after an early part of the schedule where Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson were the only ones that hit, we’ve started to see some gradual warming up for Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila. I smell a big run by the Tigers here between now and the All-Star break to open this division up.
ChiSox (17-20): If they can get some offensive help for Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, the White Sox can push over .500 and stay in contention. Dunn may strike out a lot, but his power and ability to draw walks has returned. Alejandra de Aza has stepped up with a good year the plate, and the .363 on-base percentage needs to continue, while other players in the lineup start getting batting averages over .200. If that happens, Jake Peavy’s pitching well again, in spite of Monday’s disaster against Detroit. And I would expect John Danks to come around. Why? Because I just gave up on Danks in my Fantasy League and cut him, meaning he’s about to get picked up by some other owner and rip off five straight wins. But seriously, he and Gavin Floyd could both get it going. Then Philip Humber just has to return to being the pitcher he was prior to his perfect game, which was a steady underrated arm who could stabilize a rotation. Since that historic day in Seattle in April, he’s just not pitched well. But if you’re looking for a team that could really give Detroit a run, the White Sox are a better bet than the Indians. I don’t necessarily believe in the SouthSiders, but the starting pitching potential at least gives them an upside.
Kansas City (15-20): This is another team not to go to sleep on. They overcame a horrific 0-10 homestand in early April, have steadied the ship and have Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler all swinging good bats. Even with the loss of Joakim Soria, manager Ned Yost has put together a bullpen that can finish games. As usual, the issue is starting pitching. Danny Duffy had gotten off to a nice start and then hit the disabled list with an elbow problem. At least he’ll be back in a couple weeks. Luke Hochevar continues to disappoint, as does Jonathan Sanchez, who hit the DL himself. Within the everyday lineup, the Royals need first baseman Eric Hosmer to acclimate himself to big-league pitching as well as Moustakas on the other side of the infield has.
Minnesota (10-26): My early-season prediction that the Twins beating the Las Vegas number of 73.5 wins was the surest bet of March is looking like the single most foolish prediction I’ve made this year…and this in a year where I picked Long Beach State to reach the Final Four. Josh Willingham has been a quality pickup from Oakland, hitting for both power and average. Joe Mauer at least his ability to get on base back, if not his own power stroke. Denard Span’s had a pretty good year thus far. But Justin Morneau’s hurt, no one else is doing anything at all and other than recent call-up Scott Diamond, the pitching has been a complete disaster. Minnesota’s last in the AL in runs scored, last in ERA and they’ve made that formula work to a pace that will them at 45 wins by year’s end. It’s unfortunate for Ron Gardenhire, who’s done a good job here for a long time, but I’ll be surprised if he’s in the dugout for Opening Day next year (and as a Red Sox fan, positively furious if the Sox don’t call him).
Texas (23-14): There is absolutely nothing this team doesn’t do extremely well. You’ve heard about Josh Hamilton and he deserves to be the MVP if the season ended today. But let’s also single out for praise Elvis Andrus, the shortstop who wields a sharp glove and has a .398 on-base percentage to set the table for Hamilton. Or for Adrian Beltre, who’s slugging over .500. Or Mike Napoli’s who’s carving up pitchers for both average and power. Or for the bullpen, where Alexi Ogando is the best of a group that’s deep and has a revitalized Joe Nathan closing. And for the starting pitching, where Yu Darvish has met the burden of the hype and with a 2.84 ERA in a hitter’s park, looks like the ace this staff needs.
Oakland (19-18): The A’s playing a bit over .500 is a nice early story, but I find it hard to see where it lasts. While the pitching is #2 in the AL in ERA, Brandon McCarthy is the only one who really looks the part. Bartolo Colon is hitting that spot in the year where he should pull a hamstring and he’s been mediocre as it is. Tyson Ross is pitching poorly and the bullpen hasn’t settled on roles yet. Offensively, Josh Reddick has been the complete package in right field, and the A’s might reasonably expect more from Yoenis Cespedes in center and Seth Smith in left, but not enough to substantially move their #13 spot in the AL. Their preseason Vegas win projection was 71.5, and the current pace is for 83 wins. I can see Oakland’s pitching being good enough to beat that preseason Over/Under, but not to put this team over .500.
LA Angels (16-21): I don’t know if you knew this, but Albert Pujols only has one home run this year after a long drought into May. I also don’t know if you knew this, but the odds say he gets on a good hot streak some time soon. See the brilliant analysis we come up with here at TheSportsNotebook, in the mold of Stephen A. Smith? The Angels have started to slowly better baseball this month and in addition to Pujols, Dan Haren has struggled in the rotation with a 4.41 ERA. If you just get these two stars to return to previous levels, then LAA can get hot. And in spite of their struggles, if they can answer Texas’ hot start with 6-7 laser-hot weeks of their own, the AL West is back to being a coin flip and the Angels would shoot past other contenders for the wild-card spots. That’s what I expect to happen.
Seattle (16-22): King Felix and Jason Vargas have given the Mariners solid starting pitching at the top of the rotation and Hernandez can win another Cy Young Award this year. Third baseman Kyle Seagar is slugging .475, showing some nice pop and liberating M’s fans from watching Chone Figgins take the field anymore. Second baseman Dustin Ackley has started to hit after a slow start. Brandon League is a solid closer. But after that? Inconsistency in the starting pitching, instability in the bullpen and nothing on offense. The current pace is for 68 wins. I suppose I could see the number rising into the low 70s, but the Mariners are not about to surprise anyone.
MAY MULLIGANS: In my preseason picks, I had the Yankees, Tigers and Angels winning the divisions, with the Rangers-Jays for the wild-card game. I’m not throwing in the towel on the Angels just yet. We’ll revisit it at the All-Star break. The only area I’m taking a May Mulligan on is the AL East, where a combination of Rivera’s injury and Tampa’s own bullpen answering my concerns means I’m vaulting the Rays into the division winner slot, and dropping the Yanks to third, where they join the rival Red Sox in missing the playoffs. LAA’s still the pick to win the pennant and ultimately the World Series—don’t laugh, they’re closer to first place right now than the Cardinals were to the wild-card at the end of last August.
The AL West is the focus of MLB this week, as the Rangers and Angels have split the first two games of their weekend series and will get the ESPN showcase on Sunday night. But let’s not overlook that the Oakland A’s are hanging around and sitting at 17-16 coming into Saturday’s games, 4 ½ back of Texas and 2 ½ ahead of LAA. The A’s have survived an 11-game East Coast road trip and fought their way to a 6-5 record and then split two against Detroit these past two games at home. When you hear of Oakland succeeding, you generally think pitching. But it’s the bats that are helping the A’s hang tough in the AL West right now.
No bat is succeeding more than Josh Reddick, the rightfielder Oakland acquired from Boston when they unloaded injury-prone closer Andrew Bailey. Reddick’s on-base percentage is a solid .343 and his eight home runs have keyed a .554 slugging percentage—all done while playing in one of the least-friendly parks to hitters in the American League.
Reddick has been successful all year, and in recent games he’s started to get some help. Seth Smith, the left fielder brought in from Colorado has started to hit and lifted his on-base percentage to sparkling .402. The A’s picked up Brandon Inge off the slag heap Detroit thrust him on, and Inge has promptly hit four home runs in the last week, while hitting over .300. High-profile centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes isn’t dazzling, but he’s consistent, with a .434 slugging. Cespedes needs to get on base more consistently if the offense is to continue its strong pace—they’re third in the AL in runs scored this past week. Second baseman Jemile Weeks also has to show the offensive potential he flashed in the second half of last year, but has been dormant for the first month-plus of 2012.
Oakland won’t continue this offensive pace for an extended period. But if the outfield trio of Reddick, Smith and Cespedes produces and Weeks can get back to being a sparkplug, it won’t be a terrible offense. Then it depends on the pitching, which has been okay, but not as good as it’s capable of being. That’s a topic for another post, but for the time being next week is checkpoint time—the A’s will play consecutive two-game series on the road against the Angels & Rangers.
Around the rest of the AL West…
Texas (22-12): Josh Hamilton electrified the baseball world with his four-home run effort in Baltimore earlier this week and he hasn’t stopped crushing the ball. But there are other reasons the Rangers are still the best offense in the AL, both for the season and in recent games. Elvis Andrus is 12-for-29 and swiped three bases to help set the table. Adrian Beltre hit .320 and has gone deep three times. Nelson Cruz doesn’t have his power stroke going, but is at a .367 on-base percentage. Oh, and the bullpen, other than a couple innings from Robbie Ross, has been perfect for a week. There’s a reason this is the best team in baseball.
LA Angels (15-19): May has been better than April, with the Angels going 7-4, but there are still significant problems on the offense. Albert Pujols hit his first home run, but all he did beyond that last week was hit three singles. The few positive developments include young Mike Trout hitting .474 and drawing three walks, and Mark Trumbo opening up and driving the ball into the gaps and getting on base. Ultimately the biggest positive for the Angels is that the seven-game deficit they face in the AL West and only 4 ½ behind the Yankees who would currently be the second wild-card in the AL playoffs. LAA’s gradually improving, still has plenty of ceiling above them and hasn’t been buried.
Seattle (15-19): The Mariners have gotten some great pitching, with Hector Noesi and Jason Vargas delivering outstanding starts and Felix Hernandez continuing to be King Felix. Offensively, Jesus Montero hit a slump after a nice start, but at long last second baseman Dustin Ackley began to hit, as did centerfielder Mike Saunders. Now they just need first baseman Justin Smoak to join them. Seattle has just started a 10-game road trip, losing last night in the Bronx and trailing there again Saturday as this article goes online. Oakland faced a similar trip and showed they weren’t ready for an early burial. Seattle has to show the same thing.
The home run drought of Albert Pujols is getting the media attention, but as we noted in our AL West report last week it isn’t the reason the Los Angeles Angels are buried in the basement , even after Jered Weaver’s no-hitter against Minnesota Wednesday night. Last week we took the bullpen to task. This week TheSportsNotebook goes after another inexcusable Angel failing and it’s their inability to put runners on base.
For those who haven’t fully embraced the whole Moneyball idea and gotten on-base percentages (OBP) drilled into them like its second nature, .350 is a good benchmark to use for a player being a solid contributor. If you’re below .300 you are terrible, with the shades of gray going in between the two. Here’s a look at the season-long OBPs for all the LAA regulars…
Albert Pujols: .245—You didn’t think we were letting him off the hook entirely did you? Just his lack of power. But the fact Albert has drawn only six walks this year is almost incomprehensible. The old Albert could’ve done that in one series. A reasonable conclusion is that he’s chasing bad pitches rather than let the game come to him. If he lets the walks and OBP go up, the home runs will follow.
Vernon Wells: .237—As long as we’re on the subject of high-priced free agents who can’t do the basic thing in hitting, which is get to first base…
Alberto Callaspo: .204 Erick Aybar: .240 Howie Kendrick: .309 Chris Iannetta: .324 Peter Borjos: .327 Kendry Morales: .342 Maicer Itzuris: .367 Torii Hunter: .369
So of the 10 players who get regular playing time for Mike Scoscia, only two of them are productive OBP players, and of them—Itzuris—is a utility infielder. Four of the ten are complete liabilities. If Borjos could lift his up closer to the .350 benchmark it would help lot because of his ability to steal bases. Kendrick had a strong week and may be starting to come around, so there are some potential positives.
The Angels can win games without Pujols going deep. They won’t win a championship or even beat out Texas in the AL West without the big man coming through, but they can certainly make significant improvements on their current 10-16 record and get right back in the playoff chase by getting on base and improving their bullpen work. Because the starting pitching is there. Not just Weaver’s no-hitter, but Jerome Williams tossed a complete game, and Dan Haren went eight strong in a win at Cleveland and pitched well last night against Toronto (7 IP/3 ER). But the offense was shut out in that game. And if they don’t get base runners, even a Pujols power surge won’t mean all that much.
Here’s a look at the recent form of the three teams above the Angels in the AL West standings…
Texas (17-8): The Rangers are starting to cool down losing consecutive series to Tampa and at Toronto. They continue a road trip tonight with a visit to Cleveland then go to surprising Baltimore early next week. Pitching has failed Texas in the last two series, most notably Matt Harrison, who’s been bombed his last two times out. Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz have also been hit hard. So while the offense slowed a bit, it was primarily starting pitching that caused the Rangers to hiccup.
Oakland (13-12): Outfielder Seth Smith has started to hit, and had some big blows in Fenway Park this week where the A’s won two of three. They’re hanging in on this East Coast trip, having split six games in Boston and Baltimore, but now Tampa Bay looms. A series loss wouldn’t be the end of world, but the A’s do need to pick up one win at the Trop and a 4-5 swing through the AL East wouldn’t be bad.
Seattle (11-16): The Mariners are starting to wobble. Other than a three-game sweep in Detroit last week, they’ve lost four of their last five series and were nailed four straight by red-hot Tampa. They’ve got the LAA problem of not producing baserunners, in spite of a good year from Ichiro Suzuki, hot young prospect Jesus Montero and 24-year-old third baseman Kyle Seager. But it’s not enough to make up for the disaster that is Chone Figgins, and the disappointments that are the young 1B-2B combo of Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, all of whom have been very poor at the plate. Seattle has Minnesota at home, so if they don’t get better here, last place will be awaiting them very soon.
The Texas Rangers have come blazing out of the gate in the AL West and sit on a 13-3 record and a 5 ½ game lead as we enter the final week in April. Even better for the Rangers is that it’s Oakland, not the Los Angeles Angels, who is in second place. If you believe, along with the rest of the free world, that only the Angels can beat the Rangers in this division, then Texas’ actual working margin is seven games. Not bad for less than three weeks work.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain Texas’ success is this—they are doing everything on a baseball diamond extremely well. Josh Hamilton has hit seven home runs, and he and Michael Young are both hitting over .400. Ian Kinsler is hot out of the gate and catcher Mike Napoli has already gone deep six times. All the starting pitchers are doing well, but I think the one that deserves the most attention is Matt Harrison. Not just because his ERA of 1.66 in three starts is the best on the staff. But because he’s the one who was on the losing end of Game 7 in St. Louis a year ago. Texas was earned deserved praise from commentators for putting last year’s World Series behind them and nothing captures that better than how well Harrison has pitched right out of the gate.
There’s a long way to go of course, and the Rangers are going to have navigate stretches where things don’t go well. But they have answered one key question right away and that’s whether there’d be a hangover effect after their devastating Series loss. Whatever the rest of the season holds, Texas has won that mental battle and we have to give tremendous credit to Ron Washington, the manger who doesn’t really get his due in spite of two straight American League pennants. Texas will be in the national spotlight this week, hosting series against the Yankees starting tonight and the Rays over the weekend. Tonight’s game will be on ESPN, and the finale against Tampa will be the Sunday night game.
A look at the rest of the AL West, in order of the current standings…
Oakland (8-9): It’s all about pitching in Oakland, just as it’s been the past few years. Offensively, Yoenis Cespedes looks like a good signing, with a .364 on-base percentage and .509 slugging percentage, keyed by four early home runs. But the A’s need to get more from the other two new outfielders, Seth Smith and Josh Reddick if they aren’t going to condemn the thousand fans who flock to Oakland-Alameda each night to a slew of 2-1 losses all summer. Bartolo Colon is pitching great, although a hamstring injury or some other fatigue-based health problem is an inevitable part of his future. Billy Beane has to be happy with the work he’s getting from young starters like Tommy Milone, and relievers Grant Balfour and Tyson Ross, but there is nothing that suggests the A’s can maintain a .500 pace. This weekend starts a nine-game Eastern swing through Boston, Tampa and Baltimore.
Seattle (7-10): They won five of seven from Oakland, including on that silly two-game opening swing in Japan back in March, but have lost series’ to everyone else, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the White Sox, highlighted (or lowlighted from the Mariner perspective) by Philip Humber’s perfect game on Saturday. Like Oakland, they’ve got the pitching, but lack the bats. Felix Hernandez is his usual self, Jason Vargas has a 2.84 ERA in four starts and Brandon League has five saves and a 2.09 ERA. Now if we could just get a hitter to talk about and the M’s might have something.
LA Angels (6-10): I’m going to guess you have at some point, heard the news reports that Albert Pujols has yet to homer. Fair enough point to report and it is part of Pujols’ overall struggles at the plate. But the Angels have blown four saves already, and you have to wonder how long it will be before Mike Scoscia makes veteran Jason Isringhausen the closer. Isringhausen, along with fellow vet LaTroy Hawkins each have sub-2.00 ERAs. Pujols is going to come around. Jered Weaver and C. J. Wilson are pitching well, and it’s only a matter of time before Dan Haren gets settled in and brings his 4.07 ERA down. But it means nothing if the bullpen stays a mess. Mike Scoscia figured out his pen a year ago, and I have every confidence he’ll do it again, but the process off sorting everyone out is a lot scarier when you have Texas threatening to run away and hide.