August 5, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
For a division that has seen at least one player with the major-league credentials of a Cliff Lee or Matt Holliday or Mark Teixeira dealt at each of the last four trade deadlines, this year's late-July game of transactional roulette just didn't have the same amount of big-name punch to it. However, what it lacked in that department was amply compensated for elsewhere. The Rangers, of course, secured two of their highest-priority trade targets (though their season-long story of bullpen woe has just now taken another bizarre turn), whereas the Mariners converted two of their five rotation regulars into a small collection of young position players. Oakland managed to get little done, and the Angels took that deadline abstinence one step further by becoming one of only two legitimate playoff contenders (along with the Yankees) that didn't complete a single trade. How will the AL West be shaped by what did and didn't happen over the last seven days?
It was apparent last week that the market's few readily-available trade resources didn't match up very well with what the Angels needed, as their rumored top positional trade target, Aramis Ramirez, ultimately invoked his no-trade clause to remain in Chicago, leaving the still-decent Alberto Callaspo/Maicer Izturis platoon intact at third base. And from a retrospective standpoint, the only two bats to be moved with legitimate difference-making potential as far as this season was concerned (Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran) were both exclusive to corner-outfield spots, both of which are occupied at present by the immovable Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter.
The national perception of Tony Reagins' deadline inertia hasn't been favorable, but one could reasonably argue that overpaying for a short-term addition—one possibly lacking enough impact to push Los Angeles over Texas—would have been far more myopic and dangerous than standing pat transaction-wise. And since the passing of the deadline, the Angels have resumed maxing out the pressure on the first-place Rangers, who have won only one series out of their last five since their 12-game winning streak was snapped; after boasting a robust five-game lead a couple weeks earlier, Texas now clings to a meager one-game lead. The Rangers still have a 3-in-4 chance of claiming the division title by virtue of still being the most talented team the AL West has to offer, but it's beginning to seem more and more as though this race will go down to the wire.
The Rangers, meanwhile, were heralded far and wide as this year's great deadline champion, with Jon Daniels being able to spin two good but not elite pitching prospects (Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland), perennially frustrating first baseman Chris Davis, and back-of-the-rotation starter Tommy Hunter for two of the game's best bullpen threats in Koji Uehara and Mike Adams. With both being controllable through at least the 2012 season, there's some belief that the Rangers now have enough late-game weaponry on hand to enable another serious attempt to slide closer Neftali Feliz over into the starting rotation next spring—and, of course, there's the fact that Uehara and Adams are together a substantial upgrade over Hunter and the recently DFA'd Arthur Rhodes, the latter of whom you can't help but root for if you're aware of the primary reason why he keeps on playing.
How sickeningly ironic it is, then, that the Rangers and their newly-fortified bullpen have lost each of their last two games in Detroit by a lone run, and that Adams and Uehara have each allowed the Tigers' final run on back-to-back nights. Adams was summoned into a knotted 5-5 affair on Tuesday night, and with both his command and feel for his nasty fastball-cutter-curveball mix compromised by his acknowledged case of nerves and the steady rain lingering over Comerica Park, he allowed the game-winning solo blast to Brennan Boesch on an 0-2 changeup—a pitch that PITCHf/x hadn't captured during one of his appearances since May 22, spanning more than 350 total pitches. And on Wednesday night, the more homer-prone Uehara yielded an eighth-inning solo shot to Ryan Raburn that put the Tigers up two runs, leaving Texas one run shy after Mike Napoli responded with a ninth-inning solo shot of his own.
Uehara will be fine. Adams will be fine. Their consecutive disastrous appearances change nothing about the premium late-inning quality they bring to the table. But it could have been argued that the bigger issue than the bullpen during the lead-up to the trade deadline was a starting rotation with several cracks developing in its foundation. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be a definable upper-tier starter available that they wanted (Texas, for whatever reason, never seemed to be seriously in on Ubaldo Jimenez), and their push for mid-rotation righty Hiroki Kuroda was stymied by his no-trade clause. And so in addition to desperately needing Adrian Beltre back and healthy at the hot corner, the Rangers need C.J. Wilson to recalibrate the mechanics that have apparently gone wonky over his last two starts, Colby Lewis to cut back on a homer rate (1.75 HR/9) that is approaching historical levels, and Alexi Ogando to not run out of gas as he ascends further and further above his career high in innings pitched.
The Mariners moved more players in and out of their organization at the deadline than any other AL West team, and though they really didn't net a true impact talent in the process of moving Doug Fister, David Pauley, Erik Bedard, and Josh Fields, they did well enough for themselves in that they dealt from an organizational strength to bring in positional help that can contribute immediately (Casper Wells) and down the line (Trayvon Robinson and Francisco Martinez). It wasn't a mind-blowing haul, but it was serviceable. So, too, was the Athletics’ haul of minors-terrorizing first baseman Brandon Allen and high-strikeout, high-walk lefty Jordan Norberto for reliever Brad Ziegler... but the bigger stories than that deal itself was the sudden collapse of the Rich Harden-to-Boston trade, and the fact that Billy Beane remained true to his word about not engaging in the trade market unless the players acquired would help Oakland “significantly” going forward.
Along those lines, SI.com’s Tom Verducci recently wrote at length about Beane’s frustration toward other teams’ approaches to midseason dealing and, more importantly, the Athletics’ problematic stadium situation that prompted this very frank remark from Beane: "The biggest problem we have is that until we get a stadium it's going to be treading water for us. There cannot be any long-term planning. It's likely to get worse before it gets any better. It's going to be more than challenging." The main takeaway from it is one you’re likely acquainted with already—that Beane’s once-enormous information advantage has been whittled away as the playing field has evened out and the most exploitable market inefficiencies have disappeared, and that the Athletics are now impaired from the standpoint of being less able to attract primo talent and bring in revenue to acquire said talent because of their continued stadium limbo. I may not be an Athletics fan, but speaking purely as a fan of the game, I want to see that get squared away—and soon. No team’s fans deserve utter hopelessness.