Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
AL West: End-of-Year Awards
The Angels reign over the AL West this season has been pretty remarkable. When September comes to a close, Los Angeles will have finished every month atop the division standings. With the regular season coming to a close this week, it's time to hand out AL West awards. Fittingly, the Halos dominate the hardware aspect of the AL West, as well.
AL West Most Valuable Player: Vladimir Guerrero, Angels. I quickly contemplated Ichiro Suzuki and his .350 batting average for this award, but truth be told, Vlad's far more valuable. In fact, it's hard to identify another player in baseball who means more to his team than The Impaler does to the Angels. As the sole big bopper in a small-ball lineup, Big Daddy Vladdy accumulates RBIs in bunches (123) and hits for average (.322). It's hard to imagine where this team would be without its free-swinging right fielder.
AL West Cy Young: John Lackey, Angels. The Angels nailed down the division title on Monday, appropriately with Lackey on the hill. While Kelvim Escobar has enjoyed a breakout season, Lackey has been the Angels' rock since Day 1. The Halos' ace boasts the second-highest ERA in the American League (3.11). J.J. Putz and Dan Haren both merited serious consideration, but Lackey's 18 wins and division title pushed him over the top.
AL West Rookie of the Year: Reggie Willits, Angels. With an extremely limited number of impact rookies in this division, Willits is a runaway winner here. Willits doesn't possess much power -- as evidenced by his zero homers -- but he hits for average (.296) and simply gets on base (.394 OBP). Willits' scrappy style -- he leads the majors with 4.43 pitches per plate appearance -- is a perfect fit for the Angels.
AL West Comeback Player of the Year: Jose Guillen, Mariners. Bill Bavasi took a big gamble in signing Guillen to a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Tommy John surgery effectively ended Guillen's 2006 campaign and left him questionable for spring training in '07. But the Mariners rolled the dice and hit pay dirt. Primarily hitting third and cleanup, Guillen currently has 97 RBIs and a chance to hit the triple digits for the first time since 2004. On top of this offensive upsurge, Guillen -- a notorious hothead -- quickly established himself as one of Seattle's biggest clubhouse leaders.
AL West Manger of the Year: Mike Scioscia, Angels. In his eighth season as the Halos' skipper, Scioscia has established himself as one of the game's master technicians. It's hard not to love his approach to the game, which produces an exciting, active style of play. Scioscia constantly puts his baserunners in motion, applying massive pressure to the defense. Scioscia's squad took sole possession of first place in late April and basically cruised through the next five months.
AL West All-Star Team
C: Kenji Johjima, Mariners
1B: Nick Swisher, A's
2B: Ian Kinsler, Rangers
3B: Chone Figgins, Angels
SS: Orlando Cabrera, Angels
OF: Vladimir Guerrero, Angels
OF: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
OF: Jose Guillen, Mariners
SP: John Lackey, Angels
RP: J.J. Putz, Mariners
Labels: AL West
AL West: Cellar Battle
Well, Seattle's epic implosion sure took all the fun out of September baseball in the American League West. Besides effectively ending the division race, the Mariners' collapse also made the Wild Card race irrelevant to followers of baseball's smallest division.
But there's still one race left in the A.L. West -- the race from the cellar. Back on Aug. 24, the Rangers trailed third-place Oakland by eight games and seemed like a lock to finish in dead last for the first time since 2003. But the new look Rangers battled back. Even after losing their last two games, Texas has still won 13 of 17 and currently sits a game back of the A's (and more importantly, even in the loss column).
Today, the Rangers begin their final meeting with the A's -- a four-game set in Oakland. Having Swept the A's last week in Arlington, the Rangers have a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the division's virtual toilet bowl. And it seems that the schedule gods are smiling down upon Texas, as the Rangers dodge Oakland ace Dan Haren.
Here are the pitching matchups in this all-important back-seat battle:
Thursday: Kevin Millwood (9-11, 5.31) vs. Chad Gaudin (10-11, 4.47)
Skinny: Gaudin hasn't fared too well against the Rangers this season, going 1-3 with a 6.26 ERA.
Friday: Kason Gabbard (6-1, 4.07) vs. Dan Meyer (0-1, 4.32)
Skinny: For Meyer, this September is a tryout for a spot in Oakland's rotation next season.
Saturday: Brandon McCarthy (5-9, 5.04) vs. Joe Blanton (13-9, 3.77)
Skinny: McCarthy is working back from a stress fracture in his shoulder and will be limited to around 60 pitches in this start.
Sunday: Vicente Padilla (6-9, 5.70) vs. Lenny DiNardo (8-9, 3.87)
Skinny: Padilla, who is earning $9 million this year, is finally showing a pulse. He has thrown 12 consecutive innings of shutout baseball.
It's been a long year for first-year manager Ron Washington. His team's basically been out of the division race since May and he's experienced public rifts with a couple of his own players (Mark Teixeira and Gerald Laird). But with 16 games left, the Rangers have an outside chance of finishing at .500 or better for just the second time this millennium (they went 89-73 in 2004), and Washington has legitimate shot to finish above his old team in the division standings.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Mariners Sinking
Last week in this space, I proclaimed that the Mariners were done in the division race and close-to-finished in the Wild Card as well. After Wednesday's 10-2 loss to the Yankees -- Seattle's 11th defeat in 12 games -- the Mariners blogosphere was all doom and gloom. Both U.S.S. Mariner and Caffeinated Confines confirmed that this latest setback is the death blow to Seattle's season. Now that the Mariners have reached their last day, it's time to appreciate the surprising season that was.
Here are the top 10 positives to take away from Seattle's 2007 campaign:
10. Seattle signs Phillipe Aumont. Many scouts believed Aumont was a top-five talent, but the Mariners snatched him up with the 11th overall pick. Seattle signed the 6-foot-7, 225-pound hurler just hours before the August 15 deadline.
9. Kenji's Golden Glove. Although this award is far from predictable, Johjima should be a shoe-in for the Gold Glove. The Mariners' backstop has committed just two errors all season and boasts more than a 40 percent success rate in nailing potential base stealers (29-of-70).
8. Mariner Moose still has a job. Red Sox Nation wasn't too happy after Mariner Moose's hit-and-run on Coco Crisp, but the team quickly announced that the mascot's reckless driving would go unpunished.
7. The Guillen gamble paid off. Before this season, Bill Bavasi signed Jose Guillen to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, even though the outfielder was fresh off the surgeon's table. Guillen took on a big leadership role and rewarded the Mariners with a productive season (.287, 19 homers, 84 RBIs)
6. Adrian Beltre's career has a pulse again. At this point, it's safe to say that Beltre's unbelievable 2004 season was an aberration, but at least he's starting to partially earn his $64 million contract.
5. Brandon Morrow's rookie year. As the Mariners' top pick from the 2006 draft, Morrow wasn't expected to make an impact this soon. But the hard-throwing right-hander has been a key cog in Seattle's above-average bullpen. This season is a solid stepping stone for Morrow, who could fill a spot in the starting rotation in 2008.
4. King Felix displayed notable progress. OK, so consistency was still a major issue, but let's all remember one thing -- this kid's still just 21. Hernandez looked downright dominant during stretches this season, and he could finish the season with a sub-4.00 ERA.
3. Ichiro's staying put. Seattle locked up its 200-hit machine through 2012 with a five-year, $90 million deal. Although Marlins president David Samson would disagree, I think this is market value.
2. J.J. Putz's meteoric rise. Putz quietly enjoyed a spectacular 2006 campaign, but he garnered national attention during his sophomore stint as Seattle's closer. Putz converted his first 29 save opportunities of the season and ranks second in the AL with 37 total. He'll receive a fair amount of Cy Young votes.
1. Valuable games into September. Let's be honest ... If I had told Mariners fans back in March that they would care about this team going into the season's last month, they would have laughed in my face.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Seattle's last act?
Sorry, Seattle, but I think that portly gal just hit the high note.
The Mariners entered this week with a golden opportunity, facing division leader Los Angeles for a three-game set in the comfy confines of Safeco Field. Trailing the Angels by just two games at dawn on Monday, a sweep would have given Seattle the division lead for the first time since April 17.
Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out as planned...
Instead, the Angels decisively swept Seattle by a combined score of 24-8, improving their season record against the Mariners to 11-4 and increasing their division lead to five games (their largest edge since June). Following the sweep, Angels shortstop Orlando Cabrera told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I think this series probably put in their head they need to be worried about the wild card and not the division." I have to agree with OC.
With just 29 games left, Seattle faces the extremely daunting task of closing a five-game gap on Los Angeles, and that's before taking into account both teams' remaining schedules. Other than facing off in three-game series in September, the Angels and Mariners finish the season in dissimilar fashion. Outside of Seattle, Los Angeles will play just one more team with a record north of .500 (in a four-game series against Cleveland). The Halos should rack up Ws against the likes Texas, Oakland, Baltimore, Chicago and Tampa Bay. On the other hand, Seattle has an extremely challenging slate, chock-full of winning teams. Today, the Mariners begin a 10-game road trip that includes one make-up game at Cleveland and three-game sets at Toronto and New York and Detroit... Oh, my! Just for good measure, Seattle also faces Cleveland four more times later in September.
The Mariners have been a pleasant surprise in 2007, but it's obvious that they've been playing over their heads. The events that took place over the last three days exposed them as an inferior team to the Angels in almost every category (hitting, pitching, coaching, etc.). Combine this with their remaining schedule, and the Mariners' division-title dreams are cooked. The 2007 A.L. West pennant belongs to Los Angeles.
On the plus side, Seattle's still tied with New York for the wild card lead, three games ahead of defending A.L. champ Detroit. But let's be honest: The Mariners' grasp on first place is tenuous and weakening by the day. Regardless of how good their bullpen is, the rotation (Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horatio Ramirez) makes this team highly suspect in a meaningful month of September.
Seattle's play has rejuvenated an underrated baseball city, but unfortunately this improbable run will end in September, not October.
Labels: AL West
AL West: The Anti-Yankees
Since Joe Torre took over as Yankees manager in 1996, the Bronx Bombers have undoubtedly been baseball's most dominant franchise. Winning four World Series titles and 10 division crowns during this stretch, the Yankees have compiled a winning record against every American League team ... except the Angels.
After taking two of three games from the Yankees this week, the Angels improved their record against the Torre-led Yankees to 61-55. Even more impressive, over the past 33 games, Los Angeles has managed 21 wins (including six wins in nine games this season). And this doesn't even include the postseason, in which Los Angeles ousted New York in 2002 and 2005.
It's difficult to identify exactly why the Angels give New York such well-documented fits, but Los Angeles' aggressive approach may have something to do with it.
The Angels' game plan couldn't be more foreign to the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees annually field a dynamic offense; this year's lineup ranks leads the majors in runs (758), home runs (160), batting average (.293), on-base percentage (.367) and slugging percentage (.468). Torre in recent years has had a station-to-station mentality, letting his sluggers take care of business on their own. Angels manager Mike Scioscia employs a far more active modus operandi. Los Angeles' offense is constantly in motion. With a lineup chock full of capable baserunners (including Chone Figgins, Orlando Cabrera, Reggie Willits, Gary Matthews Jr., Vlad Guerrero, Maicer Izturis and Howie Kendrick), Scioscia rarely sits back and waits for the three-run homer. The Halos lead the American League in stolen bases (115) and go first-to-third better than any team in baseball.
"They put pressure on you," Torre said to the New York Times. "They're distracting. They don't stop."
Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui likes to also give credit to Los Angeles' pitching staff, which seems to perform at its best against the Bombers.
"You get the feeling that they really study the Yankees," Matsui told the Los Angles Times. "And they've assembled the talent to execute their game plans, particularly the pitchers. They don't make mistakes. They don't self-destruct."
The Angels don't have any more regular season games against the Yanks, but the teams could face off in the playoffs, possibly in the first round.
Labels: AL West
AL West: The Good, the Bad, and the Disorderly
Last winter, the Mariners found themselves with just two legitimate starting pitchers (Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn) on the payroll. The arduous task of overhauling their rotation was made all the more difficult by an absurdly inflated market for starting pitching. After the supposed premier arms (Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Ted Lilly and even career-Mariner Gil Meche) proved too expensive, Seattle ended up acquiring three middling starters: Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez. Almost three quarters of the way through the season, GM these three acquisitions fall into three categories: the good, the bad and the disorderly.
The good: Miguel Batista. Many folks questioned Seattle GM Bill Bavasi's sanity when he signed the then-35-year-old Batista to a three-year deal with $25 million, but Batista has served as a quality No. 3 starter. The right-hander easily leads the team with 12 wins (a career high), and boasts the second-highest starter ERA (4.13). In his 10th full year of MLB service, Batista has shown a veteran savvy over the last couple months, pitching fabulously and helping Seattle stay in the pennant race. Since June 10, Batista has made 11 starts and one relief appearance, going 6-4 with a 2.71 ERA. Over his past eight starts, Batista is 5-2.
The bad: Horacio Ramirez. The Mariners acquired Ramirez from Atlanta by trading promising reliever Rafael Soriano. Though he owns a winning record 7-4, that is just the byproduct of good run support -- the Mariners have produced 90 runs during his 14 starts (an average of 6.4 per game). Ramirez's true colors shine through in his horrendous 7.38 ERA. In fairness, Ramirez has been pretty good at Safeco Field, going 6-1 with a 4.05 ERA. But in his six road starts, the southpaw has been overwhelmingly horrendous (1-3, 13.50 ERA). The biggest problem for the 27-year-old has been his knack of throwing every pitch at a very similar speed, which takes away an element of surprise for a finesse pitcher. Without a legitimate replacement, though, Seattle's stuck with Ramirez for now.
The disorderly: Jeff Weaver. I'm going by the dictionary.com definition of disorderly: "characterized by disorder; irregular; untidy; confused." Thus far, "irregular" and "confused" perfectly describe Weaver's '07 campaign. He has either been fabulous or horrible, nothing in between, as evidenced by this post on BaseballMusings.com. I think it's safe to say the Mariners were looking for a bit more consistency when they signed Weaver -- a World Series hero last October -- to a one-year, $8.4 million deal.
Seattle is just three games behind Los Angeles in the AL West race and they're tied with New York in the Wild Card, so these three hurlers face a month-and-a-half of high-stakes pitching. Unfortunately for Mariners faithful, it doesn't look like Ramirez will be exempt from road trips.
Labels: AL West
AL West: What's up with Big Sexy?
Gone are the days when we marveled at Richie Sexson's 6-foot-8 stature and the mammoth blasts that it produced (like in this tremendous commercial). Nowadays, Mariners fans are amazed when their first baseman simply makes contact. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not for Big Sexy.
Back in December 2004, Sexson, a Washington native, inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Seattle, supposedly giving the Mariners the big bopper they'd been missing since the departure of Ken Griffey Jr.. The signing triggered instant adulation: "Any time you had a hitter with numbers like Richie has produced, it helps to legitimize your lineup," then-manager Mike Hargrove told reporters. "Richie is a proven middle-of-the-order hitter and one of the better power and production hitters of the last four years."
Fast forward to Seattle's most recent homestand, though, and little love remains for Big Sexy in the Starbuck City. Against Boston last Friday, Sexson went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. In what has become customary inside the (un)friendly confines of Safeco Field, thousands of fans directed passionate boos toward their first baseman. A large group even sarcastically cheered after Sexson hit a foul ball. "When they cheer you when you hit a foul ball," Seattle manager John McLaren said to MLB.com, "it's a humbling experience."
In fairness to Mariners faithful, they have every reason to be distraught with the play of their native son. Sexson, who owns a .264 career batting clip and averaged 36 homers and 112 RBIs over his first seven full seasons, has completely fallen apart. Simply put, he's the worst everyday first baseman in the bigs this year.
With more strikeouts (82) than hits (72) this season, Sexson possesses the lowest average of all qualified major leaguers (.200) and lowest on-base percentage of all qualified first basemen (.298). Even though he's belted 17 homers, Sexson easily owns the worst slugging percentage (.389) of all everyday first basemen. His .687 OPS is unheard of in today's game; since the turn of the millennium, no regular first baseman has finished below the .700 mark.
Sexson is making a cool $15.5 million this season. This makes him the wealthiest player in Seattle and the 10th-highest paid player in all of baseball.
Richie's Mendoza-line hitting is harming much more than his personal pride. Trailing the Angels by just three games, Seattle's in the midst of its first pennant race since 2003. Ben Broussard and his .295 batting average have started three of the last six games at first base. This could be a left-right platoon or -- as many Mariners fans hope -- a gradual changing of the guard altogether. Though it's extremely difficult to believe the latter; Sexson's due an additional $14 million in 2008 and no team can shell out that much dough on a pinch hitter.
Labels: AL West
AL West: All About Texas
Over the first four months of this AL West blog's existence, I haven't written a whole lot about the Rangers, and Lonestar State inhabitants have made sure that I'm aware of this. But in my own defense, outside of the team's unadulterated horrendousness (something I did cover), which captivating Rangers storylines have I overlooked? Their four-game winning streak in July? Michael Young's magnificent All-Star campaign (he's hitting an underwhelming .301 with four homers)? Brandon McCarthy's sparkling, rotation-leading 5.18 ERA?
Texas isn't exactly a beacon of arresting subject matter. As the worst team in the division (and one of the worst teams in baseball), the Rangers just haven't been too relevant. But that changed in a big way when Texas dealt the two most highly regarded players at the trade deadline. So Rangers faithful, here you go -- an entry devoted to the franchise from Arlington ...
The Rangers undoubtedly made the biggest splash at the deadline. On Tuesday, Texas formally announced a trade that sent first baseman Mark Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay to Atlanta for catcher/first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia, minor-league shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones. Later in the day, the Rangers flipped Eric Gagne for Red Sox pitcher Kason Gabbard and minor-league outfielders Engel Beltre and David Murphy. Touché, Jon Daniels -- I'm a big fan of the Texas GM's moves. Here are four big reasons why:
1. If it's broke, fix it: Eleven games below .500 and 14 1/2 games out of first place, it's clear that these Rangers just weren't built to succeed. Unlike a few other perennial losers (Washington and Baltimore come to mind), the Rangers actually recognized their ineptitude and shook things up. True, they gave up their best bat and best arm, but they received a pair of young major leaguers and -- more important -- stocked their farm system with some extremely high-ceiling talent (especially Andrus, Harrison and Beltre). This team's building for the future, which is more than can be said for a number of cellar-dwellers that stood pat at the deadline.
2. Everything with a grain of Salty: Saltalamacchia is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Texas' haul. Entering the season, Salty was Atlanta's No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America. The dependable BA Prospect Handbook had this to say about him in its 2007 edition: "Saltalamacchia's calling card is his ability to hit and drive the ball from both sides of the plate. He has one of the sweetest swings in the game from the left side, displaying natural loft that should produce solid home run numbers." With Gerald Laird behind the plate, Saltalamacchia will spend most of his time at first base, at least for the time being. A talented, young first baseman in Texas with the ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate -- sound familiar? While Saltalamacchia has huge shoes to fill (Teixeira hit at least 30 homers and 110 RBIs from 2004-06), there's just something about this kid that gives me a really good vibe.
3. Expanded role for C.J. Wilson: With the departure of Gagne, everyone in the bullpen takes on an increased responsibility. With Akinori Otsuka out until late August, Rangers manager Ron Washington has indicated that save opportunities will be split between Wilson, Joaquin Benoit and Frank Francisco. Personally, I think Texas should opt for Wilson. I'm a big fan of the 26-year-old south paw with a 2.44 ERA and .182 batting average against. He boasts nasty stuff that is tailor-made for the ninth inning. Since the All-Star break, he's been almost unhittable (2-0, 9 IP, 0 ERA, 0.33 WHIP, 12 K, 1 BB). Wilson has also nailed down the first two saves in the post-Gagne era.
4. Maybe Tom Hicks isn't dirt cheap: In the aftermath of the Teixeira trade, the Rangers owner publicly stated that he offered Tex an eight-year, $140 million deal (something which Teixeira has confirmed). In a surprise to many, Hicks showed that he's willing to shell out a large chunk of dough, which is great news for the Rangers heading into free agency this winter. This money could go to one of the premier center fielders (Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter) on the market.
Labels: AL West
AL West: A post-derby slump
Earlier this month, many of the games biggest sluggers, including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Ken Griffey Jr., chose to skip the Home Run Derby. Immediately, folks relentlessly hammered the non-participants. Fans and media members alike especially bashed Bonds' old man rationale. ("It's not that you don't want to do it," Bonds had told the San Francisco Chronicle. "At a certain age you just can't.")
But Bonds and cohorts may have made the right decision in opting out of the contest. Just ask Vladimir Guerrero.
Big Daddy Vladdy took home the derby title, smacking 17 balls into the AT&T Park stands, but Guerrero hasn't hit a homer since his magnificent display in the Bay. In fact, he hasn't left the yard since a June 23 game against Pittsburgh. This 24-game, 97-at-bat stretch is the longest homerless drought in Guerrero's illustrious career. According to Angels color commentator Rex Hudler, Guerrero says three taxing rounds at the derby are at least partially responsible for the dry spell. During Tuesday's broadcast, Hudler spoke of a pregame conversation with Vlad in which the right fielder surprisingly admitted that the derby wore him down and affected his stroke.
With just 14 jacks through the first 100 games of 2007, Guerrero's on pace to finish the regular season with 23, which would be a career low.
Truth be told, though, the Angels couldn't care less.
While the home runs have been scarce, Guerrero's still managed to produce at an elite level. His current .327 batting average is two points better than his career mark, and his .409 on-base percentage easily trumps his lifetime clip (.391). Vlad has the fourth-most RBIs (79) in the American League; at this rate, he has a chance to top his career-best mark of 131 in 1999. And with 32 doubles, he's en route to easily eclipse his highest total ever (45 in 2001).
Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave Guerrero the day off on Wednesday and the Angels don't play today. On Friday, Los Angeles opens up a three-game series against the Tigers, who have given up the fourth-most homers in the American League. If facing Detroit doesn't get Guerrero out of his big-fly funk then the turn of the month should do the trick. Vlad's career splits show that August is definitely The Impaler's best power month.
Labels: AL West
AL West: A's can RIP
Let's take a trip back to last millennium -- 1998 to be exact. Back to a time when our Commander in Chief "did not have sexual relations with that woman," Dawson's Creek capitalized on teacher-student sexy time, astronomical disaster flicks ruled the box office (see: Armageddon and Deep Impact) and the A's were the worst team in the AL West.
Oakland finished 1998 -- Billy Beane's first season as general manager -- in the cellar at 74-88. The definitive stretch of that season came in late July when Oakland lost nine in a row -- something the franchise hadn't repeated since ... until Tuesday. Texas' 11-4 shellacking gave Oakland its ninth straight defeat. During futile spell, the A's also set a team record by scoring three runs or fewer in 11 consecutive games.
Granted, the A's ended the nine-game skid with a 6-0 win over the Rangers yesterday, but the win still left them five games below .500 at 45-50. With 67 games left, Oakland sits 11 games behind the division-leading Angels and 10 1/2 games back in the Wild Card. The recent ineptitude has caused me to officially do something I promised I would never do: give up on Beane's A's in July. I know, I know -- considering the A's second-half brilliance in recent years, this seems highly premature. But I've watched enough of this year's Athletics to know they'll be busy on the links -- not the diamond -- come October. The '07 installment is just too flawed (and delicate).
First and foremost, Oakland's offense is nothing short of horrendous. The A's have scored the second-lowest amount of runs in the American League (ahead of only Chicago), thanks in large part to their major-league worst .234 average with runners in scoring position. Though Mike Piazza is on the verge of returning to the lineup, he's no longer a game-changing threat. Piazza hasn't been a steady run producer 2002, so don't expect the designated hitter to carry Oakland's offense down the stretch like Frank Thomas did last season.
This offensive ineptness leaves absolutely no margin for error in the pitching department. Oakland's pitching as a whole has been rock solid -- ranking second in team ERA (3.74) -- but it isn't without flaw. Oakland's top three starters (Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Chad Gaudin) are fabulous, but the back end of the rotation (Joe Kennedy and Lenny DiNardo) leaves something to be desired. And Rich Harden's second trip to the DL for a strained right shoulder could mean the A's will be without their flame-throwing right-hander for the rest of 2007.
The rotation is far less of a concern than the bullpen. Without closer Huston Street (on the DL since May 15 with elbow problems) and setup man Justin Duchscherer (out for the season after hip surgery), Oakland's 'pen has dropped off significantly since last year, ranking just 21st in baseball with an 4.34 ERA.
On top of all this, on Monday the A's traded veteran presence Jason Kendall to the Cubs, opting to start 23.-year-old backstop Kurt Suzuki full time. Though Kendall was hitting .226 at the time of the trade, his guidance of the young staff was invaluable. As Huston Street told the San Francisco Chronicle, "For a lot of us who trusted [Kendall], it's going to be a difficult transition." Also, Beane admits that this trade at least partially indicates the team is focusing on the future (past this season).
"I think certainly, with the injuries we've had, this isn't the place we'd like to be sitting right now," Beane told the Chronicle. "We've got an uphill battle to get back into this, given the way the Angels and Mariners have been playing and the fact that we still have some critical members of the team who won't be ready for awhile.
"At [catcher], there's no question that we're looking toward next year, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond that or from the whole team's standpoint."
Labels: AL West
AL West: Midseason Grades
The Angels entered this season as the consensus favorite, so it comes as no surprise to see them at the top of the heap. After playing musical standings for the first month-and-a-half, the Angels took sole possession of first place on May 9 and have held it since. Los Angeles owned a commanding eight-game edge over the rest of the division on June 24, but the Halos stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their final 12 games.
The Angels' slide left an opening for the division's most surprising team: Seattle. The Mariners won 12 of their 15 games, chopping Los Angeles' division lead to just 2 1/2 games at the break. And, oh yeah, manager Mike Hargrove quit in the middle of this hot streak, citing a lack of passion. Does this type of turmoil instantly make Seattle a team of destiny? Meanwhile, Oakland finds itself at .500 after a first half that was marred by injuries and offensive ineptness. The good news: The A's were 45-43 at the break last season and went on to win the division title. The bad news: Last year's AL West was far inferior to the 2007 edition.
As for the Rangers … well, Texans, football season's just a few months away.
Los Angeles Angels
Record: 53-35, 1st place
Runs Scored: 437 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 389 (3rd in the AL)
What went wrong: With a 1-2 punch of John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, the top of Los Angeles' rotation has been as good as any in baseball. Unfortunately, the back end leaves much to be desired. Ervin Santana still struggles mightily on the road (1-8, 8.59 ERA), and former Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon's abysmal numbers (6.44 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) have many folks questioning whether his shoulder is fully recovered from a rotator-cuff tear.
What went right: The Angels' aggressive offense has proven highly effective through 88 games. Los Angeles ranks second in baseball in batting average (.284), sixth in runs (437), seventh in on-base percentage (.340) and second in steals (78). Orlando Cabrera, Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits have all served as prime table-setters and Vladimir Guerrero is enjoying an MVP-type season (.325, 14 homers, 75 RBIs).
What's next: With Juan Rivera expected to return in August, the Angels might not need to trade for a power bat to complement Guerrero. The Angels are far more complete than any division foe, so the AL West is theirs to lose. But a division title should just be the beginning, as this team has the makeup to play late into October.
Record: 49-36, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 424 (8th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 407 (8th in the AL)
What went wrong: Seattle regularly digs itself into an early hole by trotting out one of the worst starting rotations in the American League. The unit ranks 26th in ERA (5.07), 28th in WHIP (1.52) and 29th in batting average against (.295). Phenom Felix Hernandez started and finished the first half in dominant fashion, but in between, the 21-year-old struggled with his consistency.
What went right: Led by lights-out closer J.J. Putz (0.88 ERA, 0.59 WHIP, 24-for-24 in saves), Seattle's bullpen as been absolutely stellar. The Mariners' 'pen owns the best record in all of baseball (19-5) and ranks fourth in ERA (3.40). George Sherrill is one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball this season, and rookie Brandon Morrow excelled as a setup man for much of the first half.
What's next: Seattle has been one of this season's most pleasant surprises. By rallying at the end of the first half, the Mariners put themselves within striking distance of the division title and the wild card. At this point, the Mariners have a realistic shot at reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2001, but how will Hargrove's sudden resignation affect the team as the year goes on?
Record: 44-44, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 380 (13th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 357 (2nd in the A.L.)
What went wrong: For the second consecutive season, the A's have sent an absurd amount of high-impact players to the disabled list. Huston Street, Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Mike Piazza, Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay, Esteban Loaiza … and the list goes on. With this rash of injuries, Oakland's lucky to be .500.
What went right: Even without Harden's services for most of the first half, Oakland's starting rotation leads the majors with a 3.36 ERA. The lion's share of praise goes to All-Star Game starter Dan Haren, who leads the American League in ERA (2.30) and all of baseball in quality starts (17). Joe Blanton boasts the league's ninth-lowest ERA (3.28) and the 26-year-old has been a horse, pacing the league in innings pitched (134.1).
What's next: Oakland is nine games back in the division race and eight behind Wild Card-leader Cleveland, but if there's one thing we've learned in recent years, it's to never give up on the A's. This team must get healthy, though. Piazza is still trying to work himself into catching condition (a plan the A's may have to scrap). Street is aiming to return by late July, but Harden continues to feel discomfort in his right shoulder.
Record: 38-50, 4th place
Runs Scored: 440 (4th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 480 (13th in the AL)
What went wrong: There's no easy way to put it -- Texas' rotation is absolutely horrendous. Rangers starters rank dead last in, losses (40), ERA (6.19), WHIP (1.70) and batting average against (.304). Nobody in the rotation owns an ERA below 5.36. The teams top two pitchers, Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, own ERAs of 6.16 and 6.69, respectively.
What went right: Even after losing Carlos Lee to free agency, Texas' offense has produced the fifth-highest runs total in the majors with 440. While Mark Teixeira and Michael Young have been solid, the story of this offense has been the unexpected production of two stars from the past: Sammy Sosa and Kenny Lofton. Sosa paces the Rangers in RBIs (62) and is tied for the home run lead (14). Lofton may be 40, but his legs still work. The outfielder leads Texas in runs (53) and steals (20) and boasts a .301 average to boot.
What's next: The Rangers have been out of the playoff race for a good time, but they did win 12 of their final 18 games heading into the break. The second half will serve as a learning period for Texas' many young arms. But the Rangers could become major players in the trade market; there's heavy interest in Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Putz Pwns
The AL West boasts two legitimate candidates to start next Tuesday's All-Star Game in Oakland's Dan Haren and Los Angeles' John Lackey, but neither one has been the most dominant hurler in the division. No, that title has to go to Mariners closer J.J. Putz, and Wednesday night served as yet another example why.
After baffling the Kansas City lineup for eight shutout innings, Seattle's Jarrod Washburn yielded a base hit and a walk to open up the bottom of the ninth, forcing new manager John McLaren to make a call to the bullpen. Enter Putz (pronounced "puts," as in, "puts it on a shelf"). As the Mariners' closer warmed up, TV cameras concentrated on the blissful Washburn, who was high-fiving teammates throughout the dugout, not the least bit concerned about a potential Royals rally. And for good reason. Just two pitches and two groundballs later, Putz earned his 26th consecutive save (dating back to last year) and Washburn could officially begin celebrating.
In his first full year as Seattle's closer, Putz has quickly become one of baseball's most imposing pitchers. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has converted all 24 of his save opportunities this season (making him the only opening-day closer without a blown save), posting a 0.90 ERA, 0.57 WHIP and .125 batting average against (right-handed hitters are hitting just .098 against him). The 30-year-old consistently pounds the strike zone with high-90s gas and a biting split-finger fastball. In 40 innings, he has struck out 43 hitters, while walking just seven. At his current pace, Putz will challenge Kazuhiro Sasaki's Seattle record for most saves in a season (45 in 2001).
Putz made his first All-Star Game Sunday and was named June's AL Pitcher of the Month. During the month, Putz earned 11 saves with a 0.59 ERA and 19 strikeouts to three walks.
J.J.'s last blown save occurred on Sept. 27, his first year in the closing role. Putz replaced "Everyday" Eddie Guardado as Seattle's closer in May of 2006 and finished the season with 36 saves (in 43 opportunities), a 2.30 ERA and 104 strikeouts to just 13 walks.
For the majority of his 14-month tenure as Seattle's closer, Putz's accomplishments have been largely overlooked. But recently, folks around the league have started to recognize the brilliance of Joseph Jason.
"Man, that closer," San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds said. "He throws 98 MPH then he drops that split on you. See you later."
The Mariners signed Putz to a three-year, $13.1 million contract prior to this season. At this point, this deal's obviously a steal. As we all know, there's no sure thing when it comes to closers, but Putz's resilient arm and durable frame should instill confidence in the Mariners faithful.
Labels: AL West
A.L. West: The Charles Dickens division
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness ...
Charles Dickens opens his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities with this brilliant description of the conditions in England and France just prior to the French Revolution. And almost 150 years later, Chuck's acclaimed words are still as relevant as ever ... in the AL West.
Just take a quick look at the standings: It's "the best of times" for the Angels, who boast the most wins in the American League (and all of baseball, for that matter), and the worst of times for the Rangers, who own the least wins in the Junior Circuit.
So, the question must be asked: Does baseball's smallest division possess both the best and worst team in the game today?
Although they just lost three straight to the Royals, the Angels are most definitely enjoying a "season of Light." With a glowing 49-30 record, this team could win 100 games for the first time in franchise history. Surprisingly, the strength of this squad has been its offense. Before the start of this season, skeptics claimed Vladimir Guerrero needed more support for the Halos' offense to click, but 79 games into the season, L.A.'s stats tell a different story. The Angels are second in the majors in average (.291) and fourth in runs (400) and doubles (158). As usual, Mike Scioscia's bunch is both aggressive (leading the AL in steals with 74) and efficient at plain putting the ball in play (boasting the fifth lowest strikeout total in baseball).
Guerrero's the unquestioned leader of the offense (and a bona fide MVP candidate), but the Angels have also been blessed by huge contributions from Orlando Cabrera, Gary Matthews Jr. and lately Chone Figgins. To boot, budding youngsters Reggie Willits and Casey Kotchman have infused the lineup with enviable depth. Paced by John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, the starting rotation has performed admirably, ranking third in the AL with a 3.88 ERA. On the other hand, the bullpen just hasn't been as dominant as usual, partly due to Justin Speier's extended stay on the DL for an intestinal infection. Though Francisco Rodriguez is still lights out.
The Angels rampaged through interleague play -- tying Detroit for the best mark (14-4) in baseball -- but L.A.'s record against AL powers leaves something to be desired. While these are very small sample sizes, they must be addressed in judging the MLB's best team. The Halos are 3-3 against the Indians and 2-3 against the Tigers. LA's played three games against Boston, dropping all three by a combined score of 25-3. (Granted, the games all took place in Fenway Park during a mid-April series.) The Angels do have a few holes in their resume, but nothing like one AL West counterpart ...
For the Rangers, "season of Darkness" doesn't quite capture the horrendousness of the '07 campaign, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Texas easily possesses the worst rotation in baseball, with a starter ERA (6.61) that is over a full point higher than any other team's mark. And this is futility by committee -- no Texas pitcher with over five starts owns an ERA below 5.90. The 'pen isn't bad, but relievers rarely take over a game with a lead. Defensively, the Rangers have committed the most errors in the American League (63). Public beef between new manager Ron Washington and some of his players just adds to the team's overwhelming woes.
To their credit, the Rangers' have produced the third-most runs in baseball (407). And Texas actually had a winning record in June (13-10)
At the end of the day, Los Angeles may not be the best team in baseball and Texas may not be the worst, but this 'Tale of Two Cities" sure brings some intrigue to an undersized division that rarely receives national attention.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Recognize the O.C.
Earlier this month, Orlando Cabrera made a rare defensive miscue that loomed large in a 9-6 loss to the Cardinals. After the game, Cabrera wasn't too hospitable to inquiring reporters.
"You're wasting your [expletive] time with me," Cabrera said. "Get the (expletive) out of here. [Expletive] unbelievable.
"You guys are a bunch of [expletive] [expletive]; get the [expletive] out of here. Write whatever you want. [Expletive] use your imagination."
While there are enough expletives there to make Richard Nixon turn over in his grave, I can't completely blame OC. The guy is having as good a season as any shortstop in baseball, yet the only time he receives any attention is when he makes a game-changing mistake. This is nothing new. Cabrera is a Rodney Dangerfield in the baseball landscape: don't get no respect. When discussing the best shortstops in the American League, Cabrera's name seldom surfaces. But, make no mistake about it -- OC can flat out [expletive] play ball.
Everyone knows that Cabrera is one of the league's finest defensive shortstops. Referred to as "The Wizard of OC" by Angels announcer Steve Physioc, Cabrera leads AL shortstops with a .986 fielding percentage. With stellar range, soft hands and a plus arm, Cabrera's the complete package in the field and a dream for any pitcher. As former Red Sox teammate Curt Schilling told the Boston Globe following a playoff game in 2004, "He's a game-changer in the field."
It's Cabrera's exploits at the plate that go underappreciated. Last season, Cabrera hit .282 with 72 RBIs and led the Angels in runs (95) and doubles (45). His finest accomplishment of the '06 campaign was reaching base safely in 63 consecutive games -- something that hadn't been done since Ted Williams set the major-league record in 1949 with 84 straight games. This year, Cabrera leads Los Angeles in batting average (.337), runs (48) and doubles (23). A savvy baserunner, he's also 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts.
Cabrera has yet to make an All-Star game, and this year may be no different. The Angels have three All-Star locks (John Lackey, Vladimir Guerrero and Francisco Rodriguez) and Kelvim Escobar is making a strong case to join the party. So Cabrera may fall victim to his teammates' success. Also, there's little wiggle room at his position. New York's Derek Jeter will start at shortstop for the American League, and with Jim Leyland is the manager, Tigers SS Carlos Guillen is almost a sure thing to make the team. Miguel Tejada has made four of the last five All-Star games. Although his numbers are down this season, Tejada could be the Orioles' lone representative, leaving Cabrera off the squad.
Cabrera isn't the only AL West player who goes underappreciated. Below, I present the division's top five unheralded studs. There are only two requirements for players on the list: 1) No All-Star game appearances; 2) A track record of production beyond this year (sorry, Reggie Willits).
5. Chad Gaudin, A's: A solid contributor in out of the A's bullpen in '06, Gaudin was forced into Oakland's rotation by multiple injuries this season. But the transition has been extremely smooth; Gaudin owns a 6-2 record with a 3.05 ERA.
4. Akinori Otsuka, Rangers: Otsuka boasts a 2.39 ERA over his four-year career and he saved 32 games for Texas last season.
3. Kenji Johjima, Mariners: Johjima's boasting All-Star-caliber numbers (.316, seven homers, 28 RBIs) for the second straight season, but he still can't even crack the top five catchers in AL All-Star game voting.
2. Orlando Cabrera, Angels: This season, Cabrera's the best all-around shortstop in the American League.
1. Dan Haren, A's: While most talk regarding AL starters centers around Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Justin Verlander and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Haren quietly leads the majors in ERA (1.78), WHIP (0.90) and quality starts (14). At this point, it's a crime if he doesn't start the All-Star game.
Ohh, dream weaver,
I believe you can get me through the night.
Ohh, dream weaver,
I believe we can reach the morning light.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Sailing the high seas
When cooking up a winning ballclub, starting pitching is the essential ingredient -- at least, that's the general belief. Mariners fans may disagree. Seattle boasts a respectable 35-27 mark, yet it holds the second-worst starter ERA in the majors (5.55). The Mariners have taken nine of 12 games in July, even though the rotation has racked up just four quality starts in the month.
While the Mariners have struggled to get any type of consistency in the starting rotation, they've excelled in some key areas.
First and foremost, Seattle has been red hot at the plate, boasting baseball's second-highest batting average (.286) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.296). Another reason for the Mariners' offensive success is the fact that they plain put the ball in play, as Seattle easily has the lowest strikeout total (292) in either league. In a surprise to nobody, the catalyst of the lineup is leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki. After a slow start in April, Ichiro's hitting .355 in the last month-and-a-half. But Ichiro isn't the only one swinging a hot bat; unheralded catcher Kenji Johjima's quietly hitting .330, while shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt just ended a 20-game hitting streak.
The Mariners have also formed a reliable bullpen chock-full of live arms. Besides boasting the best bullpen record in baseball (13-3), the Mariners rank fifth in bullpen ERA (3.35). J.J. Putz has steadily developed into one of the game's most dominant closers and Brandon Morrow is enjoying a remarkable rookie year as Putz's setup man. Also, lefty George Sherrill has proven highly effective in middle relief. Fireballer Mark Lowe could return from the 60-day DL before the All-Star break to boot.
Recently, no team has been more clutch than Seattle. Wednesday night's loss snapped a five-game winning streak in which the Mariners won every game in their last at-bat.
Behind its efficient offense, shutdown 'pen and late-game savvy, Seattle has leapfrogged Oakland into second place in the A.L. West, and Mariners faithful are talking about a pennant race for the first time in years.
At the end of the day, though, that horrendous rotation is still extremely disconcerting. Since the turn of the millennium, only two teams have made the playoffs with a starter ERA ranked below 20th (the Indians finished 26th in 2001 and the Yankees finished 21st in 2005), and each of those teams boasted a more potent offense than this Mariners installment.
After Jarrod Washburn and Felix Hernandez, Seattle's rotation takes a nosedive. Gil Meche and his 3.16 ERA would be nice to have, but Seattle let Meche walk in free agency.
Mariners GM Bill Bavasi has made some questionable moves in the past (trading Freddy Garcia for peanuts, signing Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to gargantuan deals, etc.), but he must get back in the saddle and acquire another arm. Seattle's playoff hopes hang in the balance.
Labels: AL West
AL West: The Deadball Era
For many modern-day baseball fans, a high-scoring affair is far more exciting than a pitchers' duel.
But the Oakland A's aren't from this era. The Athletics, it seems, hate runs. They don't score them; they don't give them up. Currently, the A's are 12th in the league in runs scored per game and first in the league in runs allowed per game. But is this deadball era style of baseball a recipe for success? Can the team make it to the postseason if it gives up the fewest runs, but also scores the fewest?
It's unlikely. Sure, pitching wins championships -– and right now, led by Dan Haren and Chad Gaudin, the A's pitching is as good as it gets -– but somewhere along the line someone has to hit and the team has to score.
The A's are 31-27 and are in third place by percentage points, 5 1/2 games behind the AL West-leading Angels. The A's have won five in a row thanks to a combination of outstanding pitching and offensive prowess (which in this case is defined as scoring four runs on June 3, five on June 4 and three on June 6), but it's doubtful they will be able to keep it up long enough to surpass the Angels, who, after all, aren't playing deadball baseball. The Angels are right behind the A's with the second-fewest runs allowed per game, but they're seventh in the league in runs scored per game, averaging more than a half-run higher than the A's.
The A's rank in the top-five in only one major offensive category: walks (second, with 238). But their hitting has been so poor that even though they have earned a lot of walks, they are still only in the middle of the pack (eighth) in on-base percentage, the former key to their success and the pet-stat of general manager Billy Beane. No one on the team with at least 100 at-bats is hitting .300, though Dan Johnson (.284) and Nick Swisher (.299) are close. And the A's, who are 13th in stolen bases, don't have enough team speed -– and don't utilize the speed they do have -– to create more scoring opportunities when someone actually manages to get on base.
The A's, especially of late, have relied on rare offensive occurrences to pull out wins. But it's unlikely that Eric Chavez will hit many more walk-off home runs this season, or that Mark Ellis will again hit for the cycle (as they did against the Red Sox on June 4). It's certainly just as likely Jack Cust will fall into a prolonged and shocking strikeout slump as he will into another home run hitting streak.
Serious baseball fans want to believe that a lot of runs don't necessarily equate to a more exciting game, but the fact is the A's are pretty boring. Watching talented young pitchers emerge is always a thrill, but watching this offense is only slightly less dull than tracking the growth of a single blade of grass. Swisher might be the only all-around entertaining and promising non-pitcher currently on the A's.
Labels: AL West
AL West: King Felix vs. Dream Weaver
As I noted in an earlier post, the AL West is chalk full of talented young arms. In said post, I ranked the division's top 10 pitchers with a birth date in the Reagan Administration (1981-89). At the time, my most difficult decision was who to rank higher between Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver. While King Felix boasts endless potential with his once-in-a-generation arsenal of pitches, Weaver is coming off a fabulous rookie season in which he posted an ERA (2.56) almost two full points lower than Hernandez's 2006 mark (4.52). Weaver also beat Hernandez in both of their '06 showdowns. Still, in the end, I bought into the hype and slotted "King Felix" above "Dream Weaver."
On Wednesday, the pitchers faced off for the first time this season, and I found myself with the perfect chance to revisit the question of superiority. I DVR'd the game in order to give myself ample time to break down each pitcher's brilliance.
Unfortunately, neither pitcher showed up with "A" stuff -- not even close. Hernandez took the loss by giving up seven earned runs on nine hits (including three homers) in six innings. Weaver managed to pitch just 4.2 innings, yielding five earned runs on nine hits.
My late-night film session ended up being a clinic on how not to pitch at the major league level.
Each hurler committed three cardinal sins in pitching:
1. Early emotions
Weaver: Jeff Weaver, Jered's brother, has always been known to wear his emotions on his sleeve -- a dangerous trait for any pitcher. After giving up a run in the first, Jered ferociously slapped his glove and was visibly upset as he walked off the mound. Though this was nothing compared to his counterpart's outburst ...
Hernandez: After giving up four runs in the first, Hernandez threw a violent tantrum at the far end of the dugout, repeatedly slamming his glove on the bench before pitching coach Rafael Chavez came over to settle him down.
2. Failing to locate the fastball
Weaver: Throughout his rookie season, Weaver spotted his fastball with pinpoint accuracy. On Wednesday, though, the right-hander was all over the place with his heater, throwing off his approach to every hitter.
Hernandez: He may have one of the most electric arms in the American League, but nobody can consistently get away with elevating fastballs. Gary Matthews Jr. and Vlad Guerrero each turned letters-high fastballs into three-run bombs.
3. Walking the leadoff
Weaver: In the fourth inning, Weaver got ahead of leadoff Ben Broussard 0-2, but ended up walking him. Sure enough, the Mariners went on to score two runs in the inning.
Hernandez: Felix walked Reggie Willits to start off the fifth, and the Angels proceeded to score three runs in the inning.
With a pair of performances like this, it's hard to argue for either pitcher's supremacy. For now, I'll continue to be a slave to hype and rank Hernandez a bit ahead of Weaver.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Ichiro Ichiban
On the Gregorian calendar, May is one of seven months with 31 days, and nobody's happier about that than Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro boasts the highest career average among active players in the year's fifth month (.370), so the more days in May, the merrier for him. After a slow start this season, he's hitting .348 in May (and .429 during his current 16-game hitting streak). But Ichiro, who was the first Japanese position player in MLB history, has done far more than produce for just one month.
In Thursday's series finale against the Devil Rays, Ichiro's expected to play his 1,000th major league game. As he reaches the millennium mark, one question comes to mind: Is Ichiro a Hall of Famer?
Over his nine seasons in Japan, Ichiro hit .353, winning three MVP awards, seven batting titles and seven Gold Gloves. But when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, the only stats that will truly be weighed are those that Ichiro compiles on this side of the Pacific.
No matter. In six and a half years as a Mariner, Ichiro's achievements are nothing short of spectacular:
Ichiro, who is a free agent in the coming offseason, needs to play at least three more seasons to reach the Hall's requirement of 10 years. In very good shape at the age of 33, Ichiro should easily meet this prerequisite. But even if he does serve the mandatory decade, some folks still doubt his accomplishments will be plaque-worthy. Here are the two most common knocks to Ichiro's Hall of Fame resume:
1. Power outage: Although he has switched over to center field this season, Ichiro has spent the majority of his career in right field. Traditionally, corner outfielders are run producers, something Ichiro definitely is not. A career singles hitter, Ichiro has never eclipsed 70 RBIs. He has compiled just 63 career homers and a pedestrian .813 OPS.
2 Mariners' mediocrity:. Ichiro has led the Mariners to just one postseason, in 2001 when the Mariners set the record for regular season wins (116).
Personally, I think Ichiro's well on his way to Cooperstown, and these two criticisms are not as damning as some may think. First, there's no Hall of Fame rule that says every member must boast five-tool talent. Although Ichiro doesn't hit for power, he may have the best combination of four tools of any outfielder in the aughts (Vlad Guerrero must be considered as well). And it's hard to blame Seattle's current five-year playoff drought on Ichiro. The Mariners won 93 games in both 2002 and '03 but missed the cut because of the loaded AL West. Over the last three campaigns, management has constantly surrounded Ichiro with mediocre (at best) pitching and minimal lineup support, including overpriced underachievers like Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson.
Barring an extreme drop-off over the next few seasons, Ichiro should become the first Mariner in the Hall of Fame. (Unless, of course, Edgar Martinez beats him to the punch.)
Labels: AL West
AL West: Mad About Vlad
At-bat for at-bat, nobody's more entertaining than Vladimir Guerrero.
Not only does Big Daddy Vladdy annually manufacture some of the gaudiest hitting stats in the game, but he does so while employing a free-swinging approach that defies all conventional hitting wisdom. Vlad's hyper-aggressive dominance makes for must-see TV every time he steps up to the plate (his at-bats alone make the $160 MLB Extra Innings package worthwhile).
Simply put, Vlad Guerrero is, bar-none, the most exciting hitter in the world.
But you already know this. One thing you may not know is that Vlad is also the best all-around right-handed hitter of his era.
Currently hitting .341 with nine home runs, 33 RBIs and an AL-high .455 on-base percentage, Vladdy's well on his way on his way to another stellar season in a Hall of Fame career. Guerrero holds a lifetime .325 batting average with a .391 on-base percentage and .584 slugging percentage. He has compiled 347 homers, 1,085 RBIs, 972 runs and a ridiculously low 688 strikeouts.
Now, I understand that these absurd numbers alone aren't going to convince some folks that Vlad's truly the best all-around right-handed hitter of his era. To prove that point, I must address the three players that most closely challenge Guerrero for said title: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
Vlad vs. Pujols: Over his short career, Pujols boasts a higher batting average (.329), on-base percentage (.416) and slugging percentage (.620). But the key word in that sentence is "short." While Pujols is in just his 7th season in the bigs, Vlad has kept up his averages for 11 strong. Longevity is essential to this title. Albert, who has struggled a bit this season, must continue at this pace for at least a decade before he thinks about supplanting Vlad The Impaler.
Vlad vs. A-Rod: No question about it, A-Rod is a more prolific home run hitter. (With 479 jacks at the age of 31, he's en route to becoming the home run king.) But I specifically stated that Vlad is the top "all-around" right-handed batter. Juxtaposed with with A-Rod, Vlad sweeps the three biggest categories in hitting, easily cleaning up in average (.325 to .306) and holding a slight edge in on-base percentage (.391 to .386) and slugging percentage (.584 to .576). Vlad is also more proven in the clutch, with a .323 average with runners in scoring position to A-Rod's .304 mark. Also, like anyone else, I'm a believer that good hitters simply put the ball in play. While A-Rod has struck out every 4.8 at-bats over his career, Vlad only fans every 8.1 at-bats.
Vlad vs. Manny: Manny is definitely Vlad's toughest competition. This matchup is basically a toss-up, but I do think Vlad reigns supreme as an all-around threat at the plate. There may only be a .12 discrepancy between the career averages of Vlad (.325) and Manny (.313), but that's a world of difference. (Think: averaging 25 points in basketball vs. averaging 19.) Vlad has never struck out 100 times in a season, but Manny has done so 10 times (including 147 in 2001). To Manny's credit, he holds advantages in on-base percentage (.410 to .391), slugging percentage (.596 to .584) and hitting with runners in scoring position (.330). But throughout his career, Manny has enjoyed a luxury Vlad can only dream of: lineup support. As an Indian, Manny played on some of the most ridiculous offensive teams in recent memory, and during his days in Boston, he's enjoyed the company of Nomar Garciaparra and David Ortiz. Playing on underwhelming Expos and Angels lineups every year, Vlad has always been the lone big bopper. While Manny has played alongside 17 100-RBI players, Vlad has been graced with just one (Jose Guillen had 104 RBIs in 2004.) Like I said before, this Manny-Vlad matchup is extremely tight, but how close would it be if they swapped career lineups?
Labels: AL West
AL West: Bring Sexy Back
On Dictionary.com, the definition for sex appeal is: "Immediate appeal or obvious potential to interest or excite others, as by appearance, style, or charm." The Web site doesn't list an antonym, but for now, it may as well be: AL West.
As the only division in baseball without a 20-win team (Los Angeles leads the quartet with 17 victories), the AL West is the least buzz-worthy collection of squads in the majors. In the grand scheme of MLB sexiness, the AL West is Janet Reno.
Alas, division attractiveness is cyclical, and a glance reveals the West's potential for intrigue. This quartet is completely void of a lost-cause team like the Washington Nationals or Kansas City Royals -- all four teams are somewhat evenly matched, as the standings portray (four games separate first from last). Simply put, this division is currently mired with mediocrity. In turn, every team is in the race. So, there is potential for high sex appeal ... if a couple teams just improved a bit to give the division race some cachet on the national level. So just over a month into the '07 campaign, here is my advice for spicing things up on each AL West team and bringing the collective division back from the depths of irrelevancy. It's sexy time!
Angels: Two words: Miggy magic. It was widely reported last season that the Angels were working on a trade with Baltimore that would have sent some of the Angels' youth (Ervin Santana and Erick Aybar were among those mentioned) to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada. Baltimore allegedly nixed the deal, but there seemed to be definite interest. It's time for Los Angeles GM Bill Stoneman to rekindle these talks (if he hasn't already). The Angels organization is loaded with pitching talent (on top of the current five-man rotation, Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley have shown they can be effective starters), so giving up a young arm wouldn't leave the cupboard bare. While trading a position prospect like Aybar could hurt the team down the line, the Angels must think in the present. With its deep, battle-tested pitching staff, this team is just a potent bat away from becoming a true World Series contender.
Athletics: The A's need even more offensive help than the Angels, and Oakland's hitting ineptitude starts right at the top of the lineup. When it comes to the leadoff spot, the A's possess the lowest batting average (.226) and run total (15) in the American League. Jason Kendall has proven too old for table-setting duties and I'm skeptical of this Shannon Stewart experiment. Oakland must obtain a true leadoff man, and I'm not talking about bringing back Rickey Henderson. The A's have developed a fabulous relationship with Kansas City over the years. Any chance David Dejesus -- who was involved in trade rumors in the offseason -- is available? Another simple way to improve the A's: make sure everyone takes their vitamins. Seriously, this team is absolutely crippled by injury (Rich Harden, Mike Piazza, Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay, Bobby Kielty and Esteban Loaiza are all on the DL).
Mariners: Aside from praying for King Felix's arm and Richie Sexson's bat, Mariners brass have one glaring item on the to-do list: shake up the rotation. Even if Hernandez does return in the near future, the Mariners still have the second-worst starters' ERA in the baseball (5.92). Miguel Batista (5.70), Horacio Ramirez (7.62) and Jeff Weaver (15.35) may be the worst 3-4-5 in baseball. As evidenced by this offseason, though, starting pitching comes at a premium price. Luckily, no trade is necessary. The solution can be found in Seattle's bullpen right now and his name is Brandon Morrow. Before becoming the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, the fireballing Morrow was Cal's ace. I know the team's plan was to let him get his feet wet in the 'pen this season before moving him to the rotation in '08, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Last year proved that rookie pitchers don't need bullpen training wheels (see: Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain).
Rangers: Admittedly, this is the team with the most work to do. The offense is vastly underachieving, and the pitching staff may be baseball's worst. But first things first -- this ballclub must start by improving its basic fundamentals. The Rangers have committed the most errors (28) in the American League and compiled the second-highest total of unearned runs (21). Infielders are responsible for 21 of these miscues, which is very strange considering infield defense is Ron Washington's forte. The defense should get better as the year goes along and Washington has more time to impart his knowledge on the team. The Rangers also need to position some players better, namely Jerry Hairston Jr. This guy is not a center fielder -- just look at his costly error on Tuesday night against the Yankees.
This entire team is underperforming, and trading guys at their lowest value wouldn't make much sense. The farm system has seen better days, especially when it comes to position players. So "spicing up" this team is a pretty difficult task. For right now, the Rangers need to weather this storm and hope that whenever they snap out of this collective funk, .500 is in sight.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Feast or Famine
Over the past dozen days, no American League team has been hotter than ... Seattle. The Mariners have won seven of eight games and sit a game behind the Angels in the AL West. This comes as a definite surprise, especially considering that prior to this tear, Seattle lost six straight games. But then again, this erratic output is nothing new for the Mariners. Since the turn of the millennium, this franchise's production has always been feast or famine.
From 2000-03, Seattle won at least 91 games every season, tying the 1906 Cubs' major league record for wins (116) in 2001. But over the past three years, the Mariners have averaged just 70 wins and finished dead last in the division each time.
So what does the 2007 campaign hold? Will the Mariners return to their steady form of the early aughts or check in for another stay in the division cellar. Early indications are inconclusive (and predictably hinge on Felix Hernandez's recovery)...
Three signs it will be a feast season:
1. King Felix's maturation: Entering this season, the biggest question was whether Seattle's 21-year-old phenom was ready to take over as No. 1 starter after going 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA in his first full season. Felix was nothing short of brilliant in his first two starts, throwing 17 innings of shutout ball while allowing just four hits. Although he was put on the 15-day DL after leaving his third start in the first inning, Hernandez is now expected to make his fourth start next Wednesday.
2. Success against Oakland: Last year, the Mariners opened up their season series against the A's with a 6-2 win ... and then proceeded to lose 17 of 18 to the eventual division champions. But in 2007, Seattle has taken four of five from Oakland. The Mariners boast a 7-5 record against all AL West teams.
3. Putz power: Lost in the shuffle of last year's forgettable season, J.J. Putz compiled some impressive numbers in his first year as closer. On top of posting 36 saves and a 2.30 ERA, Putz boasted a mind-boggling strikeout-to-walk ratio of 104:13. In his second year on the job, Putz has converted all five save opportunities with relative ease, further proving that this team won't give away many games in the latter innings.
Three signs it will be a famine season:
1. King Felix's pronator problem: It took just 17.1 innings for every Mariners fan's worst nightmare to come true. As mentioned before, Hernandez left his third start with an injury and landed on the DL with a strained flexor-pronator muscle. The injury doesn't seem to have long-term effects, but Seattle has already pushed back Hernandez's return from tomorrow to next week. Any lingering concern surrounding Seattle's burgeoning superstar will severely hamper the team's chances in the division race. Mariners brass have made it utterly apparent that Hernandez's grooming process is far more important than immediate team success and they'll shut him down at the drop of a hat.
2. Big Richie's little production: .143 = 15,000,000. Kind of fuzzy math, eh? Unfortunately, this is Richie Sexson's batting average and the money he's making this year. Through 22 games and 77 at-bats, Seattle's No. 5 hitter has managed four homers, six doubles and one single, making him the biggest all-or-nothing hitter since Mark McGwire.
3. The $8.3 million bust: While we're on the subject of underperforming multi-millionaires ... On the heels of a fabulous playoff run with the Cardinals, Jeff Weaver signed a one-year, $8.3 million deal with Seattle in the offseason. So far, he's 0-4 with a plump 18.26 ERA, and in his four starts, he has made it past the second inning just once. The good news: Mariners manager Mike Hargrove says Weaver will get one more start to turn things around and keep his spot in the rotation. The bad news: That start will come Saturday against baseball's most imposing lineup in Yankee Stadium.
Labels: AL West
AL West: How Do They Do It?
We're almost a month into the 2007 season, and I have one resounding AL West question: How in the name of Justin Duchscherer (just call him "Duke" -- it's much easier) are the A's in first place?
To explain this inquiry a bit further, let's review what's transpired since last season ended:
Once again -- how are the A's in first? Almost a month into the season, Oakland's offensive production has been nothing short of pathetic. The A's are last in the majors in batting average (.228) and slugging percentage (.340), and last in the AL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.221). The bullpen has been horrendous as well, posting a 5.22 ERA.
But for all the personnel losses, injuries, drama and offensive woes, the A's have excelled in quite possibly the most important aspects of the game: starting pitching and defense. Leading the majors in starter ERA (.207), Oakland has had 19 straight starters give up three runs or fewer (an A's record), with seven of the last nine yielding one run or fewer. Also, Wednesday night marked the 21st straight game in which the A's held their opponent scoreless in the first inning, an ongoing major league record to start the season. The glovework has been there, too: Oakland has an outstanding defensive efficiency rating (turning balls in play into outs) of .733.
The leader of the rotation thus far has been Dan Haren. Haren entered this year surrounded by breakout buzz, and through five starts he leads the AL in ERA (1.41). The A's have also received solid performances from Joe Blanton, Joe Kennedy and especially Rich Harden, who had the second lowest ERA in the league (1.42) before heading to the DL.
But the most pleasant surprise has been the performances of two youngsters thrust into the starting rotation. Filling in for Loaiza, Chad Gaudin has been brilliant. Coming off a solid '06 campaign out of the 'pen, the 24-year-old Gaudin has posted a 1.85 ERA over four starts. After Harden was placed on the DL, the A's called up Dallas Braden to start Tuesday. In his major league debut, the 23-year-old rode his screwball and baffled the Orioles over six innings to the tune of three hits, one run and six strikeouts.
As Huston Street recently told The Oakland Tribune, "Every team has injuries, but who steps in for those injuries? We have guys with the ability to step in and get it done. That's the reason for our success."
Granted, the A's record is just 11-10 and they are actually tied for first place with the Angels -- another team that has struggled with injuries in the early going. But the fact that Oakland holds an early share of the AL West lead after all it has been through should frighten the rest of the division. It's no secret that the A's are a second-half team; their .634 winning percentage (376-217) after the All-Star break since 1990 is tops in baseball. If Oakland finds itself atop the division at the break (the A's achieved this last season for the first time since 1990), watch out.
Labels: AL West
AL West: NorCal vs. SoCal
On Friday night, Yankees-Red Sox takes center stage for the first time this season. As the preeminent clash in our nation's pastime (and by most accounts, all of American sports), Yanks-Sawx receives more hype than every other MLB rivalry combined. (In a surprise to no one, every matchup of the three-game set will be seen on national TV.)
But far from the glitz and glamour of Yankees-Sox, two AL West teams have recently bolstered a rivalry that could challenge Boston-New York in competitive balance, if not overall significance. Over the past five years, no season series has packed more excitement than A's-Angels.
Since 2002, the AL West crown has made its home in either Oakland or Anaheim (A's in '02, '03 and '06; Angels in '04 and '05). The teams have faced off 103 times in that time, and after Oakland's two-game sweep this week, the A's hold a slight 53-50 advantage. An inordinate amount of these games have hinged on a single play, too, with 21 of the last 43 showdowns being decided by one run. As Mike Piazza said following his first game in the rivalry (which he won with a ninth-inning home run) two weeks ago, "If these games are going to be like this, I'm going to need a lot of antacid on the bench."
Both teams have succeeded recently behind their strong pitching. But like any other great rivalry, A's-Angels flourishes behind the teams' inherent differences. These discrepancies can be broken up into three main subjects -- front office approach, playing style and fanfare.
Front office approach: Especially since Arte Moreno bought the team in 2003, the Angels have shown little monetary restraint. They annually lead the AL West in spending, and this season rank fifth in baseball with a $108,704,524 payroll. On the other hand, the A's have always worked on a reduced budget under GM Billy Beane. Although this year's A's boast the highest payroll in franchise history ($79,938,369), it's still in the lower half of the MLB.
Playing style: The A's and Angels employ two vastly different offensive strategies. With Beane's reliance on Moneyball philosophies, the A's rarely utilize small-ball tactics like the steal, hit-and-run or sacrifice bunt. The Angels couldn't be more opposite. Manager Mike Scioscia's teams run wild -- every player steals bags, including catcher Mike Napoli.
Fanfare: Anyone that has lived in California or known a California native is privy to the fact that the Golden State is a state divided. NorCal prides itself on a down-to-earth, hippy demeanor, smog-free air, the Silicon Valley, wine, the beauty of Yosemite and Tahoe, Hyphy and old money. SoCal natives dig their laid back disposition, sunshine, Hollywood, gnarly waves, fish tacos, beautiful people, G-funk and new money. But when these two sides collide on in the world of sports, they share a passionate hatred of each other.
The A's hold a 4-2 advantage in the '07 campaign and sit atop the division standings. Thirteen regular-season games remain between the two teams this season, and it's safe to say their outcomes will have a broad affect on the AL West race.
• On Wednesday, "King" Felix Hernandez left his third start of the season after just 24 pitches with elbow tightness. Needless to say, the vagueness of the injury has Mariners fans inching closer and closer to the edge of the Space Needle. In The (Tacoma) News Tribune, Dave Boling provided a telling description of the scene at Safeco Field: "As Hernandez left the game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove had the look of a man who'd been kidney punched, the crowd of more than 20,000 sat in stunned silence, and a passing train chose that moment to blow its ominous whistle."
• Tuesday marked the latest in a season the Mariners had been in first place since Aug., 24, 2003.
• Having hit a combined .316 over the past four seasons, Texas shortstop Michael Young is off to a slow start, currently posting a .175 average. In March, the Mariners locked up Young through 2013 with a five-year, $80 million extension. The folks at U.S.S. Mariner claim that this contract makes Young the fourth-least tradeable player in baseball.
• Texas' Sammy Sosa returned to Chicago to play the White Sox on Tuesday, and was greeted by large-scale booing from the South Side crowd. But Sosa quieted the Sox faithful in the eighth inning. Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen chose to intentionally walk Mark Teixeira with two outs in the inning and take his chances with Sosa. And Sosa made him pay, launching a three-run home run off of Mike MacDougal that gave Texas an 8-1 lead. After the game, Guillen had no regrets about choosing to face Sosa over Teixeira, saying "I will walk Teixeira tomorrow and pitch to Sammy Sosa every day this year. I'm not scared of Sammy. He had a ball right in the middle of the plate."
Labels: AL West
AL West: Santana's Main Competition
When it comes to the AL Cy Young Award, the conversation starts and ends with a certain southpaw from the Twin Cities -- and rightfully so. Since 2003, no hurler has been nearly as dominant as Twins ace Johan Santana.
As evidenced by the 2005 season, though, when Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young award, Johan's mere presence isn't always enough to sway voters. So if not Santana, then who?
Some will look to dominant-but-fragile Roy Halladay, or perhaps one of the league's overwhelming closers. And after his one-hit shutout of the Red Sox on Wednesday night, Felix Hernandez suddenly has a bandwagon all to his own. But I'm looking squarely at one darkhorse candidate who may be the most underappreciated pitcher in baseball: Los Angeles' John Lackey.
Lackey is coming off a solid season in which he posted a 3.56 ERA with 190 strikeouts and 23 quality starts (the second-highest total in the AL to Santana). Lackey also enjoyed a stretch of 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Lackey kicked a tradition of starting slow last season, and he's flourishing out the gates once again. Through his first two starts, Lackey is 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA.
Unseating Johan in the Cy Young hierarchy is about as easy as hitting one of his changeups, but here are three reasons why I believe that Lackey, who is just hitting his prime at age 28, could be the man to steal the Cy away from Santana in '07:
1. Durability: The imposing Texan gets the most out of his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame. Since his first full season in the bigs in 2003, Lackey has averaged just over 207 innings pitched per season and has never missed a start due to injury. Lackey's on the hill every five days. Period.
2. 'Pen support: Leave the game with a lead, and a win is guaranteed. With a stellar bullpen that includes mainstays Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and newcomer Justin Speier, Lackey won't lose many Ws after hitting the showers.
3. Sex appeal: Like any other award, the Cy Young is in large part a popularity contest. And Lackey definitely has the stuff to fire up the masses. Lackey's impetuous personality on the mound parallels his aggressive approach to pitching. Lackey gets right after hitters with an overpowering arsenal and he's compiled 389 Ks over the last two seasons. He's the unquestioned ace of what should be a bona fide pennant contender.
But the most impressive part about the start is that Felix dominated without consistently locating his fastball. Many pitchers will tell you that the best pitch in baseball is a well-placed fastball, and Felix just didn't have it for much of the night, especially early in the count, forcing him to work from behind. Though mindboggling velocity gives him leeway on location, if Felix can learn to place his heater, he'll battle Johan for the strikeout crown.
One other thing I noticed was Hernandez constantly shaking off second-year catcher Kenji Johjima. Those two need to get on the same page for the phenom to max out his talent.
Labels: AL West
AL West: Young Guns
Glancing at AL West lineups, it doesn't take an expert to recognize the division's offensive ineptitude. Oakland won the pennant last season while batting .260 (25th in MLB) with a .412 slugging percentage (27th). Outside of the Rangers, no team finished in the top half of the mamjors in runs scored or home runs ... and that was before the division lost big boppers Carlos Lee and Frank Thomas in the offseason.
But what the league lacks in offense, it makes up in pitching. Both the A's and Angels finished last season in the top seven in the majors in team ERA and the Rangers joined those two in the top seven in bullpen ERA. In the AL West, arms, not bats, are king. And this year should be no different.
Much of the division's finest pitching talent is young -- like carded-at-the-bar young. Whether starters, relievers or closers, a number of AL West hurlers enter the '07 campaign with an integral role and a birth date in the Reagan Administration.
Here's my top 10 best Reaganites (pitchers born between 1981 and 1989) in the AL West. In a tight division with little offensive pop (don't take it personally, Vlad and Tex), this group of adolescent arms will play a key role in deciding the final pecking order ... whether they can legally rent a car or not.
10. Chad Gaudin, A's, 24
2006 key stats: 64 IP, 3,09 ERA, 36 K, 42 BB
Skinny: After a solid year in the 'pen, Gaudin earns a chance in the rotation with the injury to Esteban Loaiza.
9. Brandon Morrow, Mariners, 22
2006 key stats: 16 IP, 2.25 ERA, 17 Ks in low-level minor leagues Skinny: Picked fifth overall in the 2006 draft, the fireballer made the Opening Day roster after just 10 months in pro baseball. He'll work out of a bullpen that lost Rafael Soriano (trade) and Mark Lowe (injury) from last season.
8. Robinson Tejeda, Rangers, 25
2006 key stats: 5-5, 4.28 ERA, 40 K, 32 BB
Skinny: Tejeda boasts an impressive arsenal of pitches, highlighted by a live fastball, but consistency is a big question for Texas' fourth starter.
7. Brandon McCarthy, Rangers, 23
2006 key stats: 84.2 IP, 4.68 ERA, 69 K, 33 BB
Skinny: Finally given a chance to start in Arlington, McCarthy will serve as the Rangers' No. 3 and must prove Texas made the right move in giving up top pitching prospect John Danks.
6. Ervin Santana, Angels, 24
2006 key stats: 16-8, 4.28 ERA, 141 K, 70 BB
Skinny: Santana, who excelled last season while mostly using just two pitches (fastball and changeup), claims he perfected a tight-spinning slider during spring training.
5. Rich Harden, A's, 25
2006 key stats: 4-0, 4.24 ERA, 49 K, 26 BB
Skinny: If he can stay off the DL (big "if"), he'll put together monster numbers on the strength of a high 90s fastball and unique splitter.
4. Jered Weaver, Angels, 24
2006 key stats: 11-2, 2.56 ERA, 105 K, 33 BB
Skinny: Currently on the DL for biceps tendonitis, Weaver must prove he can handle the grind of an entire season in the bigs. In 19 starts last season, Weaver showed highly advanced command of his pitches.
3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners, 20
2006 key stats: 12-14, 4.52 ERA, 176 K, 60 BB
Skinny: As evidenced by his Opening Day start against the A's, when he has command of his filthy arsenal, he's virtually unhittable.
2. Huston Street, A's, 23
2006 key stats: 37 saves, 3.81 ERA, 67 K, 13 BB
Skinny: Following a brilliant Rookie of the Year season in '05, Street's sophomore campaign was much more of a roller-coaster ride.
1. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels, 25
2006 key stats: 47 saves, 1.73 ERA, 98 K, 28 BB
Skinny: Yes, somehow he's still only 25. And yes, he may be the most dominant closer in the game today.
K-Fraud?Since taking the 2002 playoffs by storm, K-Rod has established himself as one of the nastiest pitchers in the game. But is his filthiness a byproduct of ball doctoring? "The Cheaters Guide to Baseball Blog" caught the Angels closer repeatedly going to his hat during his opening-day save. A close inspection of the pictures reveal some sort of white substance on the brim of his hat.
Labels: AL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)