September 26, 2002
Theatrics in the AL West
It's Wednesday night, and I didn't write my column early because I was watching the Mariners-Athletics game. Now I sit down, feeling a little vindicated for my season-long fight against local anti-Mike Cameron sentiment.
The Mariners face the A's again tomorrow, starting Joel Pineiro against Cory Lidle. The Angels have John Lackey facing Colby Lewis. I don't think this particularly unfair to the Mariners; it's not as if they didn't have their chances to beat up on bad teams, or anything. Their pit is one they've dug themselves with crappy pickups and a low-key battle between the manager and GM, where Piniella seems determined to put the awful pieces he's been given (like Jose Offerman) in crucial game situations where their failures are magnified. Gillick in retaliation doesn't care.
The M's can limp in if they become the third AL team to have an insane late-season hot streak. With one game left before a three-game series with Anaheim, they can't lose tomorrow, and then would have to sweep the Angels in Anaheim in front of the Rally Monkey.
So--Angels drop Thursday and M's win out: I get the one-game playoff I was complaining about being forced to buy tickets to, and whoever wins is going to have a tough time getting their playoff rotation going. It's a tall order for the M's--their projected rotation would put Garcia-Franklin-Valdes up for the three games in Anahiem, unless going into the last day Lou decides to start Moyer on three days rest to force a playoff, then have Pineiro start on three days rest... leaving him a playoff rotation against the Yankees of Garcia, Franklin... to start off a five-game series. Yeagh.
Even if they get in without those antics, the M's aren't looking good. They've got a closer who's nursing an injury, or at least doing an excellent job of pretending he is--shaking off the forkball, sometimes clutching his arm when he does throw it. Fortunately they can pitch Rhodes/Nelson if it comes to that, but already Sasaki's possible injury is something to think about for next year. Do you try and diagnose it now, or wait until he blows it out in spring training?
They're also playing a second baseman with a nasty heel problem, Olerud's still got a groin pull that (if you can believe it) has slowed him down on the basepaths, and the team is suddenly in love with Willie "No Hit" Bloomquist, who has come up with a series of improbable hits and is going to be getting season-round Valentine cards from Piniella, who likes Willie's scrappy play and ability to wear the uniform well. I'm sure when Bloomquist is playing the super-utility role and hitting .200, his hard-charging style and cute white-boy looks will make him the apple of the town's eye, a symbol of the blue-collar, working class baseball people long for... but anyway.
The Angels--I'll be honest, they're the worst really good team in baseball. They're playing way over their heads (a la the Mariners last year). Their offensive attack has been powered by guys who've no business hitting this well--and I mean Kennedy/Spiezio, yeah--and their rotation's been anchored by an unreal performance by Jarrod Washburn and the season I thought Ramon Ortiz would have this year, back when I thought he was much younger. They're living on good defense and their manager, much like their cross-market rivals the Dodgers.
Who cares who goes in for the right to lose to the Yankees in the first round, though? While the Twins have featured a middling offensive attack with a patched-together rotation, the A's-Twins series is still going to be the AL's first-rounder to watch. Do we really want to see the scrappy old school professional baseball player bring-it-to-the-park-every-day Angels brutally laid open by a far superior Yankees squad and their insane playoff scouting machine?
Even with their rotation problems, the Yankees have a bunch of interesting options behind Clemens, who will almost certainly remain their go-to crazy dude. They start with on/off again ace Mussina, a guy I've seen take a scouting report on vulnerable hitters and serve up free samples of embarrassment for the other team. He's turned it on coming into September, and I think all will be forgiven when he tears through the first round of the playoffs.
But as I watch the AL West finish up so dramatically, I'm thinking of the '95 Mariners, who snuck into the playoffs and then surprised the Yankees. They're what I see when I look at the Angels--guys like Amaral and Sojo, scrubs, a rotation with Randy Johnson and duct tape, somehow going .550 with the same kind of smoke-and-mirrors the Angels are playing. So yeah, I think the Angels are the worst really good team in baseball. That doesn't mean they can't get into the playoffs, or that they can't beat the Yankees. And then 1995 reminds me of all the Angels collapses. These next four days could have some awesome baseball in store, and if that means I've come around to accepting the Wild Card... well, so be it. I paid for my one-game playoff ticket already.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.