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August 19, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Battle Ahead

by Joey Matschulat

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For the increasingly difficult-to-catch frontrunner atop the AL West, the future is already now. For the two teams firmly entrenched in the cellar, the future is tomorrow. And for the team caught in the middle, it's not entirely clear where the future is headed. In theory, the Angels and Rangers are still locked in a violent tussle for the right to claim divisional supremacy, but just as I found myself expecting a great race to the finish (not a wholly unreasonable expectation, given that the Angels were still sitting within two games of first place as recently as this past Saturday morning), something a little odd happened: Texas stopped losing, and Los Angeles stopped winning... altogether.

Since blowing up the Athletics in Oakland to the tune of a 23-8 scoring advantage over this past weekend, the Rangers collected three consecutive road victories against the Angels before falling to them last night, and vaulting their lead in the AL West to a whopping six games with just 37 games left to play. That definitely wasn't the turn I was expecting. I do expect the Angels to whittle down at least a small portion of that deficit over the next three weeks, as they get to contend with a far less daunting schedule than the Rangers (who must play 16 games in 17 days against the Red Sox, Angels, and Rays from Aug. 22-Sept. 7), but it's apparent that the post-season dream is rapidly slipping from the Angels' grasp.

So, you have the team that's beginning to run away with the division in the present and figures to roll into 2012 with nearly all of its core pieces still intact (sans a free agency-bound C.J. Wilson, though it’s possible he could re-sign), and then you have, well, everybody else. Now, don't misunderstand me: There's ample talent scattered amongst the Angels, Mariners, and Athletics at both the major- and minor-league levels, and probably enough talent to make next year's AL West sufficiently interesting, but the challenge of knocking off a Rangers team that's sitting squarely in the middle of its competitive prime isn't going to get any easier in 2012, and that's especially true for the...

Seattle Mariners (53-69, 18.0 GB, $86.5 million Opening Day payroll), who surprised a healthy number of people by hanging around within 2-3 games of first place into early July, and then promptly doused most of the enthusiasm they had accumulated around their major-league product by going 6-20 on the month and slipping 10-plus games back in just a couple weeks’ time. However, it could be argued that their utter collapse was at least a minor blessing in disguise, as it eliminated any uncertainty about whether Jack Zduriencik and company should assume a buy or sell position going into the latter part of the month, and aided the justification for spinning Erik Bedard, Doug Fister, and David Pauley into some decent young assets. Since the beginning of August, the Mariners have gone 8-7, albeit with a still upside-down run differential of 65 runs scored to 69 runs allowed.

The nice thing about where the Mariners are positioned right now is that they still have a nasty one-two punch atop their starting rotation (one that will be in place through at least the 2014 season, provided they don't make a move with Felix Hernandez or Michael Pineda), some decent cost-controlled innings-eaters at the back of their rotation in Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan, and a young offensive core comprising Justin Smoak (I'm still a believer, in spite of his struggles), Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, and perhaps Trayvon Robinson. Unfortunately, even the long-awaited elimination of Milton Bradley's $12 million from the books helps only up to a point, as several players will be due raises via their existing contracts or arbitration, and barring a huge turnaround from Ichiro and/or Chone Figgins next season, Seattle will still be dropping $26 million on two roughly replacement-level players. 

I see quite a bit to like about the Mariners' future, particularly since they've dedicated themselves to the youth movement, but they're probably not going to be ready to seriously contend for a division title in 2012, which will likely also be the case for the ...

Oakland Athletics (55-69, 16.5 GB, $66.5 million Opening Day payroll), whose deplorable stadium situation recently drove general manager Billy Beane to state that until the Athletics do get a new stadium, they'll be "treading water," with no meaningful long-term planning being possible, and with things "likely to get worse [before they get] any better.” Not exactly encouraging, but I respect the brutal honesty. By my count, Oakland will have more than $20 million coming off the books over the winter as the contracts of David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, Hideki Matsui, Conor Jackson, and Kevin Kouzmanoff fade away into the ether, which is sufficient enough to cover all of the forthcoming pay raises and even retain a couple of those players without needing to expand payroll further—but while that's all fine and good, the question now becomes how Oakland will take that next step forward with the challenges they face in terms of revenue generation and attracting talent to the Bay Area.

I don't profess to be an expert on Athletics baseball, but I have to say that from my perspective, the immediate future looks much dimmer for Oakland than it does for Seattle, with the young talent that is on hand not being nearly enough to compensate for the enormously troubling stadium situation, the lack of offensive punch that can't be completely solved in one (or maybe even two) offseason(s), and the likelihood that a rehabilitating Brett Anderson will give the Athletics little to nothing in 2012. That's a bad situation, but at least Oakland isn't tied down by arguably the worst contract situation in baseball, which belongs to the ...

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (66-59, 6.0 GB, $138.5 million Opening Day payroll), who must pay out $21 million per year over the next three years to a player (Vernon Wells) who is chucking up the third-worst full-season on-base percentage of any major-league player since 1919. Anaheim badly needed an injection of mid-order power and OBP at the trade deadline, but were blocked from making a run at Carlos Beltran—who would have been a perfect fit for the stretch drive, albeit at a fairly hefty cost—by the presence of Wells and Torii Hunter (due $18 million in 2012) in the outfield corners. Even if you pencil in a mild dead-cat bounce for Wells going into next season, you're still looking at an unnervingly high probability of him being a serious drag on both the Angels' performance and payroll over the next three seasons—and when you pair that mistake with the reality of what the Angels relinquished for Wells (Mike Napoli)*, you can't help but arrive at the feeling that Los Angeles committed one of the greatest blunders by an AL West club in the last decade or so.

[* So long as we're tooling around in the realm of the hypothetical here, how about this: The Angels keep Napoli and Juan Rivera at a total cost of approximately $11 million instead of dealing them away for Wells' four-year, $86 million commitment and the $5 million cash subsidy from the Blue Jays. Then, they go above and beyond their reported five-year, $70 million offer to Adrian Beltre and secure his services before the Rangers manage to lock him in. There is a good argument to be made that the Angels are in first place today (and in a far brighter competitive position going forward) if they end up on that path.]

Beyond those concerns, the Angels are staring down the barrel of Jered Weaver walking at the end of the 2012 season for a nine-figure bounty, and they must continue paying out low-eight figure salaries on an annual basis to Dan Haren and Ervin Santana if they wish to retain their services through the 2013 season. Their middle-infield combo of Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar also comes free at the end of the 2012 season, which will require another large chunk of change and/or a willingness to deal with the growing pains that will accompany shortstop prospect Jean Segura, who may not be ready by the beginning of 2013 after losing a couple of months of his High-A ball campaign to a hamstring injury.

 There is, of course, special talent in this system, top-flight pitching at the top of the Angels' rotation, and the ability to carry a huge payroll, and those are all great attributes for an organization to have—but after the huge setback incurred in making the Wells trade, can the Angels make up all of the ground that separates them and the Rangers, given the severity of the holes that do exist in their roster and the conflicting reports about how much payroll flexibility they actually do wield? It's possible, and I don't expect the Angels to go away quietly, but next year looks like another uphill battle in the making for the team whose 2011 campaign is now clinging to life.  

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