Monday, July 24, 2006

The Wild Wild West
By Ben Valentine

In the National League, the wild card race features one team over .500 and a bunch of teams under. That isn’t how things will likely finish, but right now it has allowed a lot of mediocre teams to remain in it. That isn’t the case in the American League battle, where the Blue Jays at 4.5 back would be leading in the NL by a healthy three games. Heck in the AL West, the Rangers and Angels, back of the White Sox by nine games, would be neck and neck with the Reds if they played in the other league.

As a result, there really aren’t any “long shots” so to speak in the American League with the exception of the Mariners, who sit 12.5 back of Chicago for the wild card. Still, even they remain within four games of the AL West leading A’s, despite having a record of 47-51.

So rather than do a contender and long shot column, we’ll break it down division by division. Today the West gets the spotlight. It isn’t a pretty sight, where by virtue of overall mediocrity, even the aforementioned Mariners still have a chance. The anomaly of the rest of the league will still produce a playoff team however, so let’s see how the West could be won.

Oakland Athletics 51-47, 1st place- One look at the Athletics runs per game and run allowed per game tells you all you need to know. Oakland ranks second best to Detroit in pitching and second worst to Tampa Bay in offense. In fact, with a ratio of 4.44 to 4.47 respectively, the A’s are averaging just three hundreds of a run more than they are allowing. That says .500 ball club, and the A’s haven’t been much better than that all year.

So bats are what Billy Beane needs to focus on at the deadline. Could he try to spin Barry Zito into a couple of players? Might he try to pull off one of his three way trades to bring back a bat and some prospects? The A’s do have some prospects they could trade. Outside of that, shortstop Bobby Crosby, who’s miserable .644 OPS is killing Oakland’s chances this year, could be an intriguing piece. At 26 years old and injury prone the A’s might be willing to give him up in the right deal. Dan Johnson, who was recently demoted to AAA, is another young player someone might want to take a chance on in exchange for a veteran. Don’t be surprised if Beane pulls the trigger for someone like Reggie Sanders; a low cost player who can give the A’s a boost in production but is no real difference maker.

In the end, the A’s will be watched, but mainly to see what they do with Zito. I don’t think he’ll be traded unless some team steps up with an overwhelming offer. Thus, A’s will remain the popular favorite in the West, whether or not they make a move. However, those who make that assumption could not be more wrong.

Texas Rangers 51-48, .5 games back of A’s, 9 behind White Sox for wild card- Ameriquest Field has long been called the American League version of Coors and this year is no exception. Much like Coors is playing more pitcher friendly this year, so is Ameriquest, which actually has been neutral overall. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Rangers are seventh in both runs scored and runs allowed.

Being middle of the pack in those two categories suggest the Rangers could go either way at the deadline. The likely emphasis will be on pitching since that is where Texas’ reputation is the weakest, but a hitter would cost less in this arms starved market. They’re probably not involved in either the Zito or Soriano hunt, but might be interested in a guy like Bobby Abreu. They’ve had issues in the outfield all season outside of Gary Matthews and would not shirk at taking on Abreu’s deal. Remember, this is the team that handed A-Rod 250 million dollars (and is still paying a good chunk of it).

Since Ameriquest still is a homer happy park despite playing neutral overall, someone like Jake Westbrook would be the best fit pitching wise. Miguel Batistia, who has a GB/FB ratio of 1.97 this year, would be a more likely acquisition, though he is being hotly pursued by a number of teams.

The Rangers run differential is the best in the division, so in fact, they probably should be the favorites over the A’s if the teams stand pat. If they can get a ground ball pitcher in there, and they have the prospects in Jason Botts and John Danks to do it, then the Rangers will have set themselves up in prime position to win the West. If they can get a bat and an arm, they actually have a shot at the American League too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 50-48, 1 game back of A’s, 9.5 back of White Sox- Outside of the Rangers, the American League West teams can be summed up with this description; solid pitching, lousy hitting. The Angels offense has struggled through veterans like Tim Salmon and Garrett Anderson hanging on too long while youngsters Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson have struggled with consistencies and injuries.

Therefore the Angels need a bat, plain and simple. They have the chips to get a Soriano or Abreu with their solid farm system. The Phillies might be a good choice since they probably wouldn’t ask for Jered Weaver, given his propensity for fly balls. The Angels could also go the route of the cheaper 3rd outfield type, though with their offense they’d likely need more than that if they want to seriously contend.

The question with the Angels should be how much are they willing to gamble for this season. There are lot of appealing players on their team they could deal, but for someone like Soriano, such a move could set them back a couple of years if things don’t pan out. Since the Angels are a mix of young players and aging veterans, they probably would be wise in actually trying to sell at the deadline.

Seattle Mariners- 47-51, 4 back of A’s, 12.5 back of White Sox- Hanging on by a thread, the Mariners might have stalled off the reaper with victories over the Red Sox on Saturday and Sunday. They too have lackluster hitting to go with solid pitching, but they likely need a pitcher to stay competitive.

Why are they different? Because their pitching has held it together by virtue of pitching at Safeco, outside of Felix Hernandez, who should continue to improve as the year goes on. Gil Meche has decent peripherals and Jarrod Washburn is an okay third or fourth starter. But neither is a top of the rotation guy that slots in well behind Hernandez, who also isn’t being treated as an ace yet. So a pitcher that can replace Joel Piniero or Jamie Moyer (especially on the road) would be a great help to their playoff chances. One can't give away road starts when you're already behind in the race.

Meanwhile the lineup doesn’t need that much work. Richie Sexson’s career numbers indicate a turnaround is in order. Carl Everett isn’t a particularly good DH, but an upgrade there shouldn’t cost much. Of course, they’re rumored to be after Soriano. It’s not certain what the Mariners would have to give up to get him, but unless Hernandez is involved (and he shouldn’t be), it’s doubtful they could match a team like the Angels or Tigers in terms of prospects. And considering where the Mariners are, they probably shouldn’t be giving up any solid young prospects for a rental.

Before the season, I said the Mariners would be around .500. That’s exactly how they’ve played so far. In this division that’s enough to stay competitive. But this is not a good baseball team and one move will not make them a contender. The Mariners should sit back, deal a veteran or two and get ready for 2007. However, indications are that is not their current plan. We shall see.

That’s the AL West, the weak sister of the league. Tomorrow it’s on to the surprising two team race that is about to become three in the AL Central.


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