July 15, 2010
In first place by 4 ½ games despite a 3-8 July meltdown that included a four-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles, the Rangers may be sitting pretty, but they're obviously far from perfect. Trading for Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina took care of their biggest problems, however, giving them a true ace to frighten any opponent for any stakes with, while Molina, whatever his OBP limitations, at least provides a set answer at a position that has been a problem all season. Adding Rich Harden and Derek Holland back from the DL underscores the club's tremendous pitching depth at or near the major leagues, a resource that has been left relatively untouched by their dealing so far. The problem is a fundamentally mediocre lineup—they're sixth in the AL with a .262 True Average. Molina won't help, but the real dilemma is whether or not returning to Chris Davis at first base after trading away Justin Smoak will. Given the team's ownership dilemma, adding to the payroll by making a move on a big-time bopper at first base would be tough to afford, but reaching for that pitching depth would give them the ammunition to make the Nationals a deal they couldn't refuse for Adam Dunn, with the Nats eating cash to acquire additional live-armed pitching help.
The second-place Halos are yet again outperforming their expected record, clocking in at 47-44 where 42-49 is what they should be, an MLB-leading five games better that what their performance against their opponents would lead you to expect. That makes repairing them more complicated, because their multi-year run of outperforming their record should not be taken on faith—the Rangers are pulling away, and to make up ground, the Angels need to move aggressively to correct for their faults. The pitching staff has very real problems. The bullpen ranks 27th in Fair Run Average, the rotation a merely mediocre 15th in Support-Neutral and Lineup-adjusted performance per start. Scott Kazmir sticks out among the starters as the definition of a replacement-level starter, allowing more than seven runs per nine and accruing a 0.1 SNLVAR in 17 turns. Fixing him is a luxury the Angels don't have the time to afford, putting them in the market for a starter if they want to contend, but affording a second-half rental patch to help them contend limits the field to Ted Lilly or bust. The bullpen needs an arm beyond just getting Jason Bulger back from the DL.
Their offense ranks just 11th in the league by True Average, and their major problem positions are catcher (as long as Mike Napoli plays first), left field, and third base. Unless they make a move to add a veteran first baseman who puts Napoli back at catcher—the Snakes' Adam LaRoche would fit nicely—they can help themselves internally behind the plate by turning to prospect Hank Conger, hitting .327/.405/.497 vs. RHPs in hitter-friendly Salt Lake, and throwing out 29 percent of opponents' stolen-base attempts. They might invest some hope that Juan Rivera comes around as their everyday left fielder, but third base is where they have no choice but to make a trade if they want to contend—Maicer Izturis isn't the answer, and trusting in Brandon Wood at this point means we're already talking about next year. Trading for the Orioles' Ty Wigginton might be the cheap patch that works.
Although the A's are just 7 ½ games back, their ability to mount a charge seems handicapped by their struggles to keep everyone healthy. Getting Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson back after the break will restock an already strong rotation, which could help the A's play a particularly nasty spoiler's role if the Rangers come back to the pack. If they wanted to deal from depth, the starter to swap would be veteran Ben Sheets, but he won't bring much back in terms of talent (he's on a one-year deal), and the A's would have to eat a chunk of his $10 million salary. To really make a go of it, the real action item is to get better results from their lineup. They can do that by finding a left fielder instead of futzing around with Gabe Gross and Rajai Davis, but they could also stop giving up outs by asserting some managerial authority as far as in-game tactics beyond just lineup selection. Somebody, please alert Bob Geren to put the bat back in first baseman Daric Barton's hands instead of letting him bunt at will—his 10 sacrifice hits are a treat for historical re-enactors, but this ain't the Deadball Era. Letting the league's co-leader in walks make a run at also leading in intentional outs isn't Moneyball—as Trent from Swingers might say, it isn't even money.
After last winter's big buildup, the team's massive anticlimax involves their being four games below their expected record. If that was how the standings were tabulated, they'd be just seven games out instead of 15, and mulling their options instead of breaking down this season's assemblage to see what it's worth to help GM Jack Zduriencik's low-key rebuilding effort. Having shipped out Cliff Lee already, beyond the league's worst bullpen they're stuck with the certainty that nobody's going to want to take perpetual problem child Milton Bradley off their hands at any price, and moving Erik Bedard—however good the upside—will prove difficult as long as he continues to be unavailable to pitch. Their best bargaining chip might be third baseman Jose Lopez, just 26 years old but under contract through 2012 relatively cheaply; the problem is that they'd be selling low after a bad first season at the plate and at the hot corner since his move from second base. Otherwise, it's a matter of waiting to see what an international rescue squad made up of prospects can do, including hard-throwing Dominican right-hander Michael Pineda and his countryman (and lefty power source outfielder) Julio Peguero, the States' Dustin Ackley, Italian third baseman Alex Liddi, and free-swinging Dutchman outfielder Greg Halman. If there's a wish-list item that takes priority beyond restocking the bullpen, it would have to be a catcher.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .