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May 13, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Wild AL West

by Jay Jaffe

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It's been a brutal week in the AL West. On Saturday, the Rangers placed right fielder Nelson Cruz on the disabled list with a quad strain. On Wednesday, the Angels announced that first baseman Kendrys Morales would undergo season-ending surgery on his left ankle, this on top of his having already missed roughly two-thirds of last season after being injured in a post-walkoff home run celebration. That same day, the A's reported that starter Dallas Braden will need surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule, quite likely a season-ender as well. Even the Mariners got into the black-and-blue bit, revealing that closer David Aardsma may need Tommy John surgery.

Aardsma aside, the other three injuries have the potential to influence a division race that currently rates as the majors' closest three-team affair. At this writing, the Angels (21-17) hold a 1 1/2-game lead on both the Rangers and A's (19-18 each), with all three teams idle on Thursday, and the first two set to square off in a three-game series in Arlington beginning on Friday night. That the Halos are on top rates as something of a surprise, given that they finished under .500 last season—albeit just barely, at 80-82—for the first time since 2003, and were forecast to plunge even further into mediocrity at 78-84. Of course, they did win the West five times in the previous six years, so being on top isn't entirely new. What follows is a quick rundown of the three teams' strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to this race.

Angels:.584 Adjusted Hit List Factor (4th), Playoff Odds 12.3 percent Division, 1.4 percent Wild Card, 13.7 percent Playoff
What's Going Right?The Angels have the league's fourth-best run differential (+17), primarily because they've done a good job of preventing runs (3.74 per game, fourth in the league), which is a credit to a pitching staff that is second in the league in strikeout rate (7.1 per nine) and to a defense that is second in Defensive Efficiency (.722). Dan Haren and Jered Weaver have identical 1.87 ERAs and are 1-2 in strikeouts (the latter tied with Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander). The former, who's in his first full season with the Angels, has the league's lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) and highest K/BB ratio (7.0) as well. Third starter Ervin Santana has put up better peripherals than his 1-4 record and 4.81 ERA would suggest—better peripherals than last year as well, when he went 17-10 with a 3.92 ERA. Rookie Jordan Walden has converted six out of eight save opportunities while striking out nearly a batter per inning himself.

Meanwhile, although the team's 4.18 runs per game is a touch below league average (4.29), their .272 True Average indicates that they're being held back by their ballpark. Four-fifths of the Angels' infield—Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and supersub Maicer Izturis—have on-base percentages of at least .362 and slugging percentages of at least .395 in over 100 plate appearances. Kendrick (.320/.381/.523) is tied for the team lead in homers (six) despite having never hit more than 10 in a season. Manager Mike Scioscia has tested his versatility, starting him seven times at first base in addition to 27 times at second, and even two times in left field, a career first. Izturis (.328/.374/.492) held down the fort at shortstop while Aybar did a stint on the DL for an oblique strain in April, and he has seen time at both second and third as well. Center fielder Peter Bourjos (.290/.343/.458) is hitting like a bona fide major leaguer after struggling as a rookie; having him flanked by two former center fielders in Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter hasn't hurt the defense. Rookie catcher Hank Conger (.279/.329/.456) has worked his way into Scioscia's good graces with alarming speed, giving him as many starts as the execrable Jeff Mathis. First base fill-in Mark Trumbo has been hacktastic (.263/.306/.477), but his .282 True Average is more than serviceable in the face of Morales' loss.

What's Going Wrong? As bad as the Vernon Wells trade looked at the time—we're talking triple facepalm territory—it looks even worse given Wells' .183/.224/.303 line and 30/7 K/BB ratio, to the point that it rates as a relief that he has been sidelined by a groin injury. Torii Hunter (.247/.321/.370) isn't providing much bang for the buck as a right fielder, a cleanup hitter, or the team's second-highest player. Rookie starter Tyler Chatwood, who was initially brought up to fill in for Scott Kazmir, has been much shakier than his 3.67 ERA would suggest, with an 18/25 K/BB ratio and a .454 Support Neutral Winning Percentage. The bullpen's swollen walk rate (4.5 per nine) is the league's third highest, and control problems have already cost Fernando Rodney his closer's job.

Where Do They Go From Here? What's been most interesting about this year's Angels is how quickly Scioscia made changes to fix longstanding problems that he once appeared ready to manage around. Mathis began losing time to Conger after starting four of the season's first six games. Rodney was out as closer—a job where he has never been anything but shaky—within the season's first week. Kazmir, who has been beaten like a rented mule for most of the previous two seasons, and who showed reduced velocity during a miserable spring, lasted less than two innings in his lone start before going on the DL with, um, lower back stiffness, though perhaps the injury report was referred to the pain in the ass he provided for Scioscia.

At some point, the team is going to need its bigger bats to step up, as the offense is being driven by a league-best .322 BABIP, the product of unsustainably high marks from historically slappy guys like Bourjos (.400), Aybar (.398), Kendrick (.394) and Izturis (.366). Wells, who's coming off a relatively strong season, can't possibly be this bad, and although the team began the season with the major's fourth-highest payroll, owner Arte Moreno's spending history suggests they won't be afraid to pick up salary if an upgrade becomes available this summer, particularly if Trumbo cools off.

Rangers: .543 Adjusted Hit List Factor (6th), Playoff Odds 49.2 percent Division, 3.3 percent Wild Card, 52.5 percent Total
What's Going Right? Even without Josh Hamilton, who has been sidelined since April 12 due to a broken humerus, the offense is fourth in the league in scoring at 4.78 runs per game; their .277 True Average ranks fourth as well, so this isn't just a park illusion. The team is second in the league in slugging percentage (.433) and homers (42), and while very few of the hitters have put up great numbers, Mitch Moreland is hitting .302/.378/.547 while carrying the bulk of the first base load, Michael Young is at .349/.384/.514 while DHing and seeing time at second and first bases, and Mike Napoli is hitting a lopsided but productive .203/.360/.522 while splitting time between catching and first base.

The pitching staff's performance has been more uneven, but C.J. Wilson is living up to last season's promise, with strong peripherals supporting a 3.36 ERA en route to the league's fourth-best Support Neutral Winning Percentage. Rotation fill-in Alexi Ogando, who moved from the bullpen when Tommy Hunter went down, has posted a 2.17 ERA and a staff-best 3.0 K/BB ratio. Ageless Darren Oliver helped hold the bullpen together in the absence of Neftali Feliz, who just returned from the disabled list after a bout of shoulder inflammation.

What's Going Wrong? Since pummeling the Red Sox by a combined 26-11 score in the season's first series, the Rangers are 16-18 with a -3 run differential, and they're just 10-16 and 21 runs in the red since Hamilton went down. After homering in the season's first four games, Cruz hit just .187/.272/.308 with three homers before hitting the DL for the fourth time in the past two seasons. Ian Kinsler, who homered in the first three games, is batting just .206/.308/.341 with two homers since. Adrian Beltre is scuffling at a .239/.287/.464 clip, though he does have a team-high eight homers.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff is yielding 4.46 runs per game, 0.18 worse than league average, and their homer rate (1.3 per nine) is the league's second worst. Leading the way on the latter front is Colby Lewis, who has yielded an astounding 12 homers in 45.1 innings after allowing 21 in 201 innings last season; meanwhile, his strikeout rate has fallen from 8.8 per nine to 6.2, though he has at least strung together three good outings in a row. Lewis' early struggles only underscore the rotation's lack of a true ace in the wake of Cliff Lee's departure. The bullpen's 4.50 ERA is just ninth in the league, but could easily be worse given that both their 1.40 K/BB ratio and 1.5 HR/9 rank 12th.

Where Do They Go From Here? The offense will get a major boost with the return of Hamilton, who is healing well and expected to take batting practice on Friday, with a rehab assignment hopefully just another week away. His return will particularly help a lineup that has hit just .247/.320/.393 against righties since his injury, losing 11 of 16 games started by northpaws. Cruz's return to the lineup could happen around the same time, and when it does, this offense will be much more imposing.

In the bigger picture, if the Rangers fancy themselves serious contenders for another AL pennant, they'll likely have to dip into their deep reserve of prospects to obtain another frontline starter. The eventual return of Hunter—who suffered a setback during his rehab this week—won't fill that bill, and neither will the continuation of incremental gains from Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, though it certainly can't hurt to have depth at the back end of the rotation to keep the bullpen from getting overtaxed.

A's: .529 Adjusted Hit List Factor (7th), Playoff Odds 37.8 percent Division, 3.5 percent Wild Card, 41.4 percent Playoff
What's Going Right? The A's have been the league's best run prevention team at 3.41 per game despite a defense whose .695 Defensive Efficiency ratio ranks ninth, seven points below league average. Collectively, the rotation has been outstanding, with a major league-best 2.69 ERA built upon a microscopic home run rate (a league-best 0.5 per nine) and a stingy walk rate (2.6 per nine, second in the league by .003). Trevor Cahill continue to build upon last season's breakout, boosting his strikeout rate from 5.4 to 7.7, surviving a 20-point increase in BABIP (.237 to .257) and allowing more than one run in just one of his eight starts en route to a 1.72 ERA. Brent Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and reclamation project Brandon McCarthy have been strong as well, while Tyson Ross has provided three quality starts out of four since stepping for Braden. The bullpen has survived the loss of Andrew Bailey, who suffered a forearm strain during spring training; while Brian Fuentes has posted a beefy 4.42 ERA, he is an acceptable 9-for-11 in save opportunities, and setup men Brad Zeigler and Grant Balfour have both been strong, helping the bullpen as a whole post a 2.89 ERA, second-best in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The offense has scored just 3.49 runs per game, 13th in the league, and they're either 12th or 13th in all three slash categories while hitting a combined .233/.300/.354. Some of that owes to the ballpark, but the team's .255 True Average ranks 12th in the league. Daric Barton is the only regular with an OBP above .312, and he is hitting just .210/.336/.290. In this 1968-esque scoring environment, that shakes down to a .261 TAv, which at least makes him one of the three regulars above .260. Josh Willingham is the only regular slugging above .388, and his .229/.308/.424 line is nothing to write home about; he and fellow newcomers David DeJesus (.217/.296/.308) and Hideki Matsui (.235/.289/.387) have failed to add the punch last year's lineup so sorely needed.

Where Do They Go From Here? The A's came into the season as PECOTA's favorites by a slim one-game margin (84-78, over the Rangers' 83-79), but that forecast was predicated on the offense holding up their end of the bargain, which certainly hasn't happened. The arrivals of Willingham and Matsui blocked top prospect Chris Carter, and while normal circumstances would dictate that the team should find him some at-bats between left field, first base and DH, Carter's hitting just .173/.323/.346 at Triple-A Sacramento. That is not worthy of a promotion, and it isn't helping his stock any if the A's were to consider trading him instead. With thinner reserves of both prospects and cash than either of their current rivals, the team must rely primarily upon what is at hand. At the very least, it's worth giving productive role players Conor Jackson (.284/.359/.395), Ryan Sweeney (.364/.451/.477) and Andy LaRoche (.250/.324/.328) longer looks, with Barton, Coco Crisp (.256/.274/.388), Kevin Kouzmanoff (.209/.245/.360) and Mark Ellis (.185/.215/.266) grabbing some well-deserved bench.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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