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May 19, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Plague Ship

by Joey Matschulat

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A quick glance at the AL West standings as of late Wednesday evening would reveal a competitive outlook very similar to that which has been the norm ever since the Rangers began their descent from their early-season 9-1 pedestal—Texas, Oakland, and Los Angeles all clustered within 1½ games of each other, constituting the tightest division race in baseball thus far, with Seattle trailing by a somewhat more formidable 4 ½-game margin. Another quick glance directed towards the Playoff Odds report would reveal that the Royals (0.3 percent) are the only American League squad in possession of worse post-season odds than the Mariners (0.5 percent), and I believe even the most stubborn/eternal optimists residing in the Northwest would freely acknowledge that this will probably not be the Mariners' year ...but if it's any consolation whatsoever, at least they have their health. Sort of.

The Mariners haven't been immune to the injury bug (David Aardsma, Shawn Kelley, and friends send their love from the infirmary), but at least have been healthier on the whole than their three divisional counterparts. It does, in fact, strike me that this has been one of the worst early-season AL West injury outbreaks that I can recall, what with the Rangers' organizational pitching and outfield depth being virtually decimated by everything from skull-grazing line drives (Eric Hurley; concussion) to ill-advised head-first slides (Josh Hamilton; fractured humerus) and everything in between, and now, more recently, the unfortunate news that both Dallas Braden and Kendrys Morales* will miss the remainder of the season after going under the knife for their respective ailments.

[* I don't mean to beoverly hyperbolic here, but I literally winced while I was reading through Corey Dawkins' and Marc Normandin's Collateral Damage column, and came upon the suggestion that Morales' ankle problems could have career-threatening implications if the extent of the damage is great enough. Baseball is full of disappointing, dejecting and otherwise somber narratives, but when I take a step back and view things from a wider perspective, I have great difficulty identifying a sadder injury-related story than Morales’. The mere thought of a player possibly losing his career because of a horrible stroke of bad luck during an impulsive celebratory action is very difficult to comprehend, and I can't express into words just how deeply I feel for Morales or how much I hope he manages to make it back someday.]

One is hopeful that we're nearing the end of the all-around hurting, and that this division will ultimately be decided by talent and determination and diligence and all other virtues along those lines rather than another destructive rash of injuries, but there are a couple of red flags that merit some attention.

Including his Wednesday night effort in Seattle, Jered Weaver has lost four consecutive starts, holds a month-of-May ERA in excess of five, is on pace for his worst single-month strikeout rate (6.0 K/9) since April 2008, and has now allowed three or more earned runs in four consecutive starts for the first time since -- if you can believe it -- July 18-Aug. 2, 2009, with Weaver himself recently ascribing his "struggles" to a possible case of dead arm. Looking at all of the evidence in its totality, this seems to boil down to some command-related problems that have left his pitches elevated and changed a decently heavy proportion of the whiffs at offerings inside of the strike zone over into base hits.

What amazes me, though, is the fact that even in one of his worst months in recent memory from run prevention and strikeout standpoints, Weaver has still managed to post a 16-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio with only two home runs allowed in 24 innings. Even when he's something less than fully effective and fully squared away stuff- and command-wise, Weaver's peripherals are still reflective of a very good starting pitcher. Los Angeles may not be able to muster enough offense to overcome Oakland's present aversion to allowing runs or a near full-strength Rangers roster, but Dan Haren and Jeff Weaver continue to reign as the most terrifying one-two rotation punch in the AL West, if not all of the American League and beyond, and that alone renders the Angels a very serious continued threat.

That's one potential red flag debunked, but there is another out in Texas that actually has some legitimacy to it and is, if anything, growing more worrisome with each passing day. Nearly two weeks have passed since Feliz was activated from the 15-day disabled list with what was described as rotator cuff inflammation (prompting him to remark during his convalescence that he blamed his experimental spring training run in the Rangers' starting rotation for his arm problems, and that he hoped he would close games for the rest of his career; he backpedaled later on in the day for reasons unknown), and just as wobbly command has been responsible for Weaver's "struggles," a lack of command has been the primary reason for Feliz not being himself ... but in this case, there's no cause to throw quotation marks around the word as indicators of sarcasm.

In his three most recent appearances leading up to his meltdown on Wednesday night, Feliz scattered four walks and was unavailable to pitch in at least one key high-leverage situation because he was feeling "cranky" (whatever that actually means), and there were enough overall warning signs in both his actual delivery and mound demeanor to guess that something still wasn't quite right. Now, it appears we have some form of confirmation of those warning signs, as Feliz was summoned into a one-run save situation against the Royals during a wild Wednesday night affair, promptly allowed a game-tying solo homer to Eric Hosmer, walked consecutive Royals and proceeded to pick them both off first base consecutively (?!), and then allowed two singles during the top of the next inning before finally being lifted. Final toll: 1.1 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HR. He's had worst moments during his time as a major leaguer, but that may have been the first time I could honestly say that I was scared to see him continue to pitch.

General manager Jon Daniels was insistent during a recent chat session that Feliz was clean from a physical standpoint, but also acknowledged that he hasn't "looked like himself" and warranted close monitoring by the baseball staff. You can't go out on a limb and confidently exclaim that he is still hurt, but if you combine the fact that the Rangers' relief ace is currently pitching like a shell of his usual self with the widespread problems throughout the rest of the bullpen, you have a very serious issue that will continue to be a significant drag on the Rangers as they try to create any kind of distance in one of baseball’s most compelling divisional races.

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