AL West: The also-rans

Is it too early to say Texas and Oakland will carry their fight for the American League West division championship through the end of this season? Maybe it is, and a strong case could be made for Texas taking command of the race in the next few weeks and ending up on top.

The Rangers were able to add Matt Garza as a result of a trade with the Chicago Cubs, a move that strengthened a starting rotation that already had Derek Holland and Yu Darvish. Those two have ranked among the 10 best pitchers in the American League this season, so if Garza can pitch close to as well as he did the past season and a half for the Cubs, Texas could own a rotation that at least can hang with what a team like Detroit could run out in the playoffs.

Garza’s new teammates were hot heading into this past weekend’s series against Chicago, a trend that started back at the end of July when a sweep of the Angels propelled the Rangers on a 13-1 burst. They’ve only slightly cooled since then and look like the team to beat in the West.

But we can’t count out Oakland, either. Remember their late charge last year to steal the division? The A’s lack the star power of the Rangers, but their band of youngsters and role players could make another run this season.

They are hanging around by adhering to one of the main tenets of Oakland A’s doctrine, reaching via the base on balls. The team ranks toward the top of the AL in walks and, of course, that usually translates to lots of runs.

However, Oakland is middle of the pack in runs scored since there still needs to be at least some hitting if you want to drive all those base runners in. Unfortunately, the A’s rank toward the bottom of the league in batting average. There are no Giambis and Tejadas driving in those base runners like back in the day, and that makes their offense merely mediocre.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the kind of sexy names that they do in Detroit or Texas. But, bullpen included, the staff allows fewer runs than most teams in the American League. This season, the team defense plays the starring role and is a big reason for the pitching success.

The next 10 games are crucial for Oakland. After the A’s travel to Detroit for four games in a rematch of last year’s ALDS, they come home to host Tampa Bay and Texas in their next six games. The schedule softens after that, with a mid-September three-game set against Texas representing their only series against an above .500 team.

If they can go 5-5 over the next 10 games, the A’s should be primed for a charge. Texas has the Pirates, Rays, and Royals in addition to two series with Oakland. The Rangers’ remaining schedule looks a little tougher, but it ends with seven games playing the Astros and Angels, so Oakland may need to overtake them before the last week of the season in order to repeat as division champs.

It will be fun to see how the race plays out, and even more fun next year as we watch how Billy Beane will use the expansion of instant replay to immediately find a way to take more advantage of it than any other general manager, keep making playoff runs, and reverse the effects of aging, all while saving his owner millions of dollars.

On a completely different note, it also will be fun this offseason to see how the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim respond to another disappointing year, a year made all the more disappointing since it seems like a waste. Mike Trout, the Angels’ amazing outfielder, is somehow following up one of the greatest seasons in baseball history by doing almost everything even better this time around.

Over at Grantland, Jonah Keri did a fine job putting Trout’s excellence in perspective. In short, the homer totals are down a little for Trout, and he’s not rating as well with some defensive metrics in comparison to last season. But he somehow has improved over last year’s historic year in just about every other area. He is arguably the best all-around player in baseball.

But Trout has had the slight misfortune of putting together these wondrous seasons the same time Miguel Cabrera is in the process of replacing Albert Pujols as the best hitter in the game. While it would have been nice to see Pujols try to hold Cabrera off a while longer, the former has been shut down for the remainder of 2013 so he can fix his ailing foot. It also would be nice for Angels fans if Trout’s excellence wasn’t wasted on an underperforming team.

The big additions to the Angels’ roster the past two years have been Josh Hamilton and Pujols. Hamilton is posting an on-base percentage in the .280s. Pujols, who for the second consecutive year had a crummy first half of the season, is out for the year as he tries to get healthy enough to make people stop using the words “shell” and “former” every time they talk about him.

And so management, which has thrown money around wildly the past two winters, spent the trade deadline checking on the interest other teams may have in some talent the Angels may sell off. With the news that the Angels were shopping Howie Kendrick at the trade deadline, it seems there is only one way for management to go.

Kendrick will make almost $10 million each of the next two seasons. If the Angels can deal him after this season ends, it opens up some money for them to spend extravagantly by signing a starter somewhere on the level of Joe Blanton, like they did this past December. But far more importantly, it opens up second base.

If they can get rid of Kendrick, they can do the most “Angels” of things and sign Robinson Cano to a 12-year, $300 million contract. Signing Cano would guarantee that the organization would dominate the headlines for the third straight winter and keep the Yankees star from signing with the Dodgers, which really is the most important thing, right?

If this sounds foolish, or implausible, remember that the Phillies just signed Chase Utley to an extension. That took a potential free agent star off the market, a free agent who, given the actions of the past couple of seasons, surely would have had Arte Moreno and Jerry DiPoto frazzled.

Utley seemed to resemble everything the Angels’ brain trust would want in a free agent hitter: past excellence, advancing age, and a recent decline. Cano may be younger than Pujols was when he signed with the Angels, and the looming decline might not be as severe, but sometimes the Angels just gotta do what the Angels gotta do and spend all that money.

We hardly ever talk about Seattle around these parts, and it’s because the Mariners have performed poorly the past couple of years and have failed to sign anyone to outrageous contracts, in spite of themselves. That said, they have a good chance to finish ahead of the Angels this season, and if ownership is still willing to spend a little money, they may be able to become relevant soon.

Felix Hernandez has the only big contract on the team, and he is still producing. He’s in the running to win the AL Cy Young award again, posting a 2.63 ERA and improving on his already stellar career rates in strikeouts and walks. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be one of the best starters in the game next year, so while he gets a $3 million raise to make almost $23 million next year, he should justify that gaudy amount.

Here’s the best part for Seattle. The Mariners will probably cut ties with guys like Joe Saunders, Michael Morse, and Franklin Gutierrez. That will clear almost $21 million off the 2014 payroll. A whopping $8.5 million will be off the books for a long-departed player since Chone Figgins‘ contract mercifully ends this year.

Arbitration raises to guys who are serviceable, like Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders, will barely be felt. That leaves a lot of coin for Jack Zduriencik to spend this offseason. The Mariners’ general manager is signed only through the end of 2014, through an extension made public only recently, and it’s pretty easy to envision him going after some big names this winter.

The potential spending spree is just part of the reason for optimism in Seattle. Dustin Ackley has not been great since coming back up to the bigs following his demotion at the end of May. But he’s also not been the nightmare he was before that. Kyle Seager is pretty good, maybe one of the more underrated players in the game, and he won’t begin to cost much money for another couple of years.

Then there’s the pitching. The organization has Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton waiting in the wings. While the bloom is off the rose a little on that group, especially in regards to Hultzen’s shoulder, Walker still may be able to provide some help as soon as next year.

With young players already getting a chance, and another one or two close to major league-ready, the time has come for Seattle to aggressively work the free agent market. For the Mariners’ sake, Seattle fans hope that would work out better for them than it has for the Angels.

Finally, the Houston Astros continue their rebuilding process. It’s hard to believe that the ‘Stros had a $100 million payroll back in 2009, especially since their commitments for next year only add up to six percent of that.

While money surely will be spent, management likely will continue to focus on international talent and stockpiling draft picks. Even though they have the resources to spend stupid money as soon as this winter, we probably won’t see the Astros in Seattle’s position for another couple of years.

Get set for a tight finish in the AL West and a potentially wild offseason.

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Comments

  1. Dave Cornutt said...

    I nominate the Angels for the Most Disappointing Team award for 2013, along with the Nationals and the Giants.  The thing is, those other two teams still have lots of prime talent and will be back in contention if they can plug a few holes.  The Angels look like they need to tear down and rebuild, but they can’t because of the contracts they are stuck with. 

    I haven’t kept track of Seattle that much lately; it does seem like a lot of their position prospects haven’t worked out very well, but they do seem to be headed for better days.  Finally getting out from under the Figgins contract will be a big help.

    Houston appears to be doing all the right things.  It’s a process and it takes time.  I remember what the Braves went though as they started to rebuild themselves after Bobby Cox returned to the organization in 1987.  The first two years were miserable.  But two years after that, they were in the World Series.

  2. David Wade said...

    I agree with all that Dave.  My joking about Robbie Cano aside, I think you are right in that the Angels could be in big trouble going forward.  Big trouble.  That’s why the Cano joke is only 95% a joke- at this point, if they don’t blow it up, I guess they need to throw good money after bad, even though you’re not supposed to do that.

    Meanwhile, Forbes is reporting that the Astros made a bunch of money the past couple of years, and have 6 million in payroll commited to next year.  Heck, maybe they WILL shop free agency this offseason.

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