July 10, 2008
AL West Moves and Issues
Big Move: After a very busy May in terms of moves, the Angels have settled down a bit, getting Chone Figgns, Erick Aybar, and Howie Kendrick back in the infield and dispatching Sean Rodriguez and Brandon Wood back to Utah with their own copies of a memo suggesting that hitting with flair needs to go beyond just the minimum. Just look at Erick Aybar on the field-with his basepaths derring-do and his sometimes too-exciting fielding, he's all about flair. Happily, Figgins is getting on base and Kendrick's whistling balls around the gaps (if not into the seats), and the job-sharing arrangement between Aybar and Maicer Izturis is keeping them both in playing time when Izturis isn't spotting for Figgins or Kendrick. It makes for a nice concentration of the playing time among that quartet, makes for a ready replacement should any one starter go down, and it keeps Robb Quinlan away from the hot corner. These are all good things, the sort of casual, elegant flexibility that we've come to expect from the Angels.
The rotation's been stable and sound since John Lackey's return, with a full quintet that cause no concern, although it does make for an interesting dilemma as far as who to start in a short series after leading off with Lackey. It'll be interesting to see if they let a prospective opponent guide their selections; Ervin Santana's been death on right-handers, Joe Saunders every bit as nasty on lefties, and Jered Weaver's probably better off just being asked to pitch in the Big A if at all possible. Will the spike in Jon Garland's strikeout rates in June translate into better performance, or is it a reaction to the early-season nibbling that didn't change how hittable he is? Now that the A's have dealt Harden, it's probably a reasonable suggestion to call the Angels one of the two best rotations in the league.
Major Injury: They just lost Mike Napoli to the DL with a bum shoulder, which could put the Angels in a bad spot if he's gone for any length of time, especially if they let their enthusiasm for Jeff Mathis get in the way of their then-obvious need for a starting catcher. Calling up Ryan Budde doesn't really help matters-he's the option who makes Mathis' slim production at the plate seem good enough to play regularly.
Gaping Hole: In terms of its productivity, the lineup's the worst in the American League, and worse than any team outside of the nation's capital. Setting aside questions over whether or not Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter will start doing those things they're supposed to do, or if Casey Kotchman's ever going to turn the corner as opposed to just go 'round the block, the real ugliness is coming out of two positions you're supposed to be getting offense from: left field and DH. It's become quite clear that Garret Anderson and Gary Matthews just don't have the bats to carry either position, and don't hit well enough to even platoon at one. The solution's already on hand-free Juan Rivera?-but he's been here for three months, and Mike Scioscia's not going for it. You can argue that Kotchman's developing, or accept that Hunter also has significant value on defense, but Anderson and Matthews have no such defenses of their offensive offense. Whether or not the Angels do something about this will tell us a lot about their willingness to settle, or if they decide they want to put together the kind of club that could take an ALCS from any of their prospective postseason rivals.
Noisome Minor Concern? The pen isn't really all that. It's great that Scioscia doesn't limit Darren Oliver to a situational lefty role he wouldn't be very good at, and it's neat that Francisco Rodriguez has a shot at the saves record, but he's been walking more guys than you'd like to see, and Justin Speier's been the Human Torch a few times too many for it to still be cute. Scot Shields is still the unit's fulcrum, the pitcher who leverages leads into wins (and save opportunities), but it would be nice to see the Angels add something. They may have found what they need in Jose Arredondo, who though he just missed the Angels' pre-season top 11 prospects list slings the kind of scorchy heat people always like to see coming out of the pen.
Cool Underrated Move: Promoting Arredondo would be my pick, at least until they do something about shoring up the lineup by accepting what Little Sarge and Anderson are not.
In-Game Tactical Fun: With Aybar, Figgins, Quinlan, and Izturis all capable of playing multiple positions, the options are there, but not having all of them around at once has perhaps put a crimp on Scioscia's in-game machinations.
In-System Solutions: If something is seriously wrong with Napoli, they're probably going to have to go shopping to add a veteran, because promoting Bobby Wilson is off the table since he just fractured his thumb and wound up on Salt Lake's disabled list. His overall numbers at Salt Lake weren't great (.310/.399/.397, which boils down to a .239 EqA), but they wouldn't have been unplayable; he might eventually make a decent poor man's Mike Redmond as the sort of part-timer who makes a decent amount of contact. Usually, it seems like backup catchers come in the Mathis' flavor-lots of strikeouts, no ability to hit for average, and low OBPs leavened by that rare crushed cookie-so Wilson's almost exotic by comparison.
Big Move(s): Well, you might have missed it, but they made a trade. (I'd say it was in the papers, but they don't print so many of those any more, not since they dumbed themselves down to drive away the people who would read them, or since the classifieds went to Craigslist.) Beyond cashing out Rich Harden, there's been a revolving door on the clubhouse, but most of that has been about injuries. In terms of more significant non-Harden moves, they brought up Carlos Gonzalez and have plugged him in as their center fielder, and they briefly brought back Travis Buck back when Ryan Sweeney went down, only to get frustrated with him all over again. Oh, and they cut Kiko Calero, but you can't say they didn't give him more than enough opportunities.
Major Injuries: Eric Chavez returned for a moment before resuming his career on the DL, and he's been joined by Bobby Crosby, Mike Sweeney, Frank Thomas, and Keith Foulke. These non-exciting predictable non-events were the natural outgrowths of what happens when you cruise hospital wards for talent. Injuries have become part and parcel of all of these guys' careers, so it's not like I think we can consider this an indication that last winter's "team health conference" hasn't led to progress. Indeed, as Will Carroll would no doubt remind us, when you bog down a staff with injuries in this kind of profusion, the sheer logistics of managing all of them risk becoming overwhelming for any one team's staff. It's invariably admirable that they're all still doing their damnedest to get back on the diamond, but however willing the spirit, we're talking about pounds and pounds of weak, aging flesh. Rather than point the finger at the trainers or the players, if you're not satisfied with saying this is one of those things, then put responsibility where it belongs-on the people in the front office willing to take so many chances. Logistics isn't sexy, but as a matter of basic necessity, anticipating how many of these risks can afford to be run simultaneously may have to become part of any team's player acquisition process. We don't say that health is a skill often enough. As much as I know it's an oversimplification in this case-Chavez and Crosby are long-term contract legacies, not decisions made overnight, and Thomas sort of fell into their lap once the Jays made that particular mistake. Nevertheless, it's one thing to acknowledge that injuries are part of the game, another to go out and make sure you'll have them as a byproduct of who you're bringing in.
In happier news from the trainer's room, though, keep in mind that even with all of this litany of broken-down thirtysomethings, they've managed to get both Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla back in action. They're down Joey Devine (still struggling to get buck from his bum elbow), but the absences of Devine and Foulke created opportunities for talented alternatives like Brad Ziegler and Jerry Blevins.
Gaping Hole: In the same way that it seems strange that a club that's above .500 shouldn't seem so unlikely to actually make up any ground on a pretty vincible Angels team, it's hard to pick out the places where you might make a fix. They need a left side of an infield, but that's what happens when you're the team that employs Crosby and Chavez. They're playing Gonzalez and Sweeney in the outfield, which makes sense since they have an understandable faith in each, but it isn't going to help them any in the standings unless Gonzalez starts delivering on his power potential and Sweeney simply develops any. These things weren't really part of the preseason program, though, so the A's can afford to await development.
Massive Disappointment: I suppose if it wasn't for the echoes of Buck's implosion, Daric Barton's rough introduction to everyday play in the majors would be inspiring a few more noisy lamentations. He's been especially hopeless against right-handed hitters, whom he has the platoon advantage on everything, only touching them for .192/.307/.254. Here's hoping the second half involves some kind of improvement, but it's no surprise that he's losing at-bats to former Rays prospect Wes Bankston at first, even setting aside additional concerns about Barton's glove work. I think it's safe to say that we're also past the honeymoon period with Jack Hannahan.
In-Game Tactical Fun: For the most part, if's there joy to be found in the boxscore, it's being delivered by the pitching staff, but there isn't all that much to talk about in terms of creativity-Bob Geren's had trouble enough fielding a full roster. It's semi-cool that Rajai Davis is a regularly-employed defensive replacement in center, but that's because Jack Cust's not somebody you want to leave out there in left late in games, and Emil Brown's little better. So that left-field platoon gets swapped out, with Davis coming in, Gonzalez going to right, and Sweeney swapping corners. Sweeney and Davis form the outfield's other platoon, with Sweeney generally starting in right versus righties, and Davis in center versus lefties, and Gonzalez playing every day. As commitments go, that seems about right.
In-System Solutions: There's a lot of pitching that might be worth a peek and that's currently doing interesting stuff at the upper levels of the system, but the big league staff's already stocked with kids, so there's no particular need to advance anyone's timetable. Gregorio Petit's a better shortstop than Donnie Murphy, but it looks like Crosby will be back shortly after the break, so Murphy's absorbing the playing time in the interim. If Crosby goes down for an extended period of time, I wouldn't be surprised to see Petit get more consideration. However, as his hitting .305/.357/.371 reflects, he's basically a guy gifted with the Rafael Santana Skills Suite: singles and defense, but no speed, no power, and no walks. It's interesting how that's in stark contrast to Sacramento's Cliff Pennington, who's all walks and steals, but who might have to take that off-the-rack Lance Blankenship act to a position other than short.
Big Moves: Firing the decision makers was certainly newsworthy. Having now presided over two massively disappointing meltdowns, it'll be interesting to see if former GM Bill Bavasi gets a third bite at the apple; since one of his big mistakes with the Angels was bringing in Mo Vaughn, I suppose there is some Marxist irony that Richie Sexson's release, perhaps inevitable after Bavasi's trip to the virtual guillotine, went down this morning. It is perhaps even more ironic that among Sexson's replacements will be Jose Vidro, one of the few people making anything close to the same amount as Sexson was while performing even worse. It's rare when the contradiction between change and progress is so profound, but it does speak to how the Mariners got where they are. Certainly, there's probably some amount of local celebration over Sexson's release, but Sexson was already gone after this season, whereas there's still the danger that Vidro's 2009 option for $6 million might vest if he reached 535 plate appearances. That would basically take his playing every day from here on out, since he's effectively only halfway there with more than half of the season played, and his hitting hasn't exactly helped his bid for further work. If he hurts himself, the two weeks would probably make 535 unattainable, and spare the Mariners from accusations of being cheap where they would really just be acting rationally, however belatedly.
As for replacing John McLaren in the dugout, I'm mildly pleased to see Jim Riggleman finally get another shot at skippering. He had some promise managing the Cubs in the '90s, wasn't afraid to platoon or run a few risks, and if he wasn't the next Earl Weaver, he was at least somebody who hadn't disqualified himself from ever managing again. It's a lousy situation to take over, but here's hoping he reminds people why he was seen in such a positive light in his early days running the Padres and then the Cubs.
Major Injury: Despite placing two-fifths of the rotation on the DL in July, neither the injury to Felix Hernandez nor that to Erik Bedard is seen as being a major setback for either hurler, and both are expected back shortly-Bedard in plenty of time to get dealt, and King Felix in plenty of time to help ticket sales in this, the summer of Seattle's discontent. In one of their places, R.A. Dickey's getting his latest shot to win fans, whether it's because he's missing that UCL in his elbow (from birth, no less), or that he's spinning flutterballs, or that both of those things got him fawned upon by NPR this spring, or whatever. In the other, the club's plugged in Aussie southpaw Ryan Rowland-Smith in a quasi-pen start sort of setup; Rowland-Smith has started for stretches in the minors (in the Cal League in 2003, and Double-A in 2004), but never for a full season.
Gaping Holes: Wherever Jose Vidro's playing. The rotation, because Miguel Batista, Jarrod Washburn, and Carlos Silva have all been horrifyingly bad-and they're still taking their turns. The team's pocketbook, courtesy of late-day deals like that given to Kenji Johjima. The team's OBP total, which is a product of those two, Sexson, and a middle infield that thinks a walk is what you do between the dugout and home plate. However, even with J.J. Putz on the DL, it isn't really the pen's fault, as the unit has at least managed to rate well in Adjusted Runs Prevented, or ARP.
Cool Underrated Move: Bringing back Jeff Clement in the middle of June was sensible, but here again, it came with the bitterness of having to send Wladimir Balentien away to work on his swing; however, with a stronger commitment to letting Clement catch, this wasn't a one-for-one exchange of problems. Jeremy Reed's playing most of the time in center, Clement's getting plenty of at-bats at DH as well as catcher, and there's no time like the present to see if Reed's worth keeping, or if he just isn't ever going to pan out.
That isn't really underrated as moves go, but it's good news, and there isn't a lot of that hereabouts, so I figured I'd bring it up here. For a genuinely underrated move, the decision to promote Tug Hulett's pretty cool. Both Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt have been more disappointing than not, and both bat righty. As I noted in December when Bavasi did a good job in off-loading Ben Broussard for something of value, Hulett's a lefty hitter who can play second and short, and he was hurting right-handers for Tacoma at a .339/.413/.584 clip. At 25, he's not a prospect, but he could be an excellent complementary infielder who allows Jim Riggleman (or whoever) to mix and match a bit and protect Lopez and Betancourt from being relied upon too heavily.
In-Game Tactical Fun: Maybe they'll let Willie Bloomquist play every position in a game, because he has the ability, and maybe he'd like to. Whatever it is, in this organization it seems like he's the kid who only has to ask for a pony to get one.
In-System Solutions: They're already employing several, which is great; ideally, they'll have Balentien back in action soon, although he only recently started digging himself out of the slump that followed him down the Sound to Tacoma. Bryan LaHair's hitting right-handed pitching well enough for the Rainiers (.278/.388/.525) to merit some consideration at first base. Michael Wilson could do a convincing (if sometimes unpleasant) Balentien impression if brought up from Double-A to help stock the outfield; he's hitting .275/.369/.556 and striking out in a quarter of his PAs. Michael Saunders is shining in center playing alongside him, but he's only 21 and I don't expect they'll want to add him to the 40-man any sooner than necessary. If matters in the rotation stay bad and/or they manage to deal any of the starters, nine-year minor league veteran Rich Dorman might get the call and see if simple strike-throwing's all it takes. Dorman's an interesting story in that he's a former college catcher, and he's coming back from missing much of 2007 with elbow inflammation, but with a 103-31 K/UBB ratio in 113 2/3 IP, he's doing something right, and that's almost singular among high-minors starters in the system.
Big Move: Finding a rotation to make it through the end of several consecutive weeks should be seen as pretty remarkable. Excusing Sidney Ponson you can understand, and perhaps losing Jason Jennings for the year was something you could anticipate. But also losing Kason Gabbard and Vicente Padilla, and having Kevin Millwood pitch through some arm issues of his own? Call it Santa Anna's revenge, with the ghost of the swaggering caudil-lothario wiping out another rotation in his quest to avenge himself upon the team representing the state that got him started off on his first big losing streak. Even so, there are some rays of sunshine-Scott Feldman delivering eight quality starts in 15 is a happy development. The problem is that this performance makes him the best starter on the team. I suppose if they're stuck in this area, they have no fear of landing at the replacement level, because they're effectively already there. However, Padilla's probably going to be back within a week of Bastille Day, and Eric Hurley's hamstring will bear watching (closely, no less) to see if he'll be able to come back and shunt aside a sub-replacement like Luis Mendoza.
Major Injury: Hank Blalock, perhaps, but the injury is more to his utility than to his body at this point, since he's well on the road to recovery. If everyone's intent on making him a first baseman, he just becomes a merely decent player at the position when he isn't struggling with his questionable durability, as opposed to a potential asset at third... when he isn't struggling with his questionable durability. In a similar off-beat vein, Jarrod Saltalamacchia's prospect status has fallen, and can't get up; whether that's a matter of a wounded bat, a mere bad patch, or another Brave prospect offloaded at just the right time remains to be seen.
Gaping Hole: First base, in a way, but the Rangers have so many positive possibilities that it's hard to call it a hole as much as a pothole on their road to eventually winding up with Chris Davis playing there every day. (Davis' brief homage to the memory of Dave Hostetler aside, it doesn't look like the future is now for him, however game-breaking the power is.) Instead, it's really more the rotation that's the major issue, and to a minor extent there are problems at third base and catcher that mirror the first-base problem, in that it isn't that the Rangers lack options, it's that they can't all work out simultaneously-they have to make some tough discretionary choices over who plays and where. At the hot corner, let's face it, Ramon Vazquez's numbers are going to keep coming down a few ticks. He has value as a lefty-hitting infield reserve, even as one you plug in as a semi-regular, but making him an everyday third baseman isn't a solution, it's a patch, however nice. Behind the plate, the question is what to do about Salty's struggles. Ramirez's limitations as a receiver might militate against committing to him, and once Gerald Laird comes back in another ten days or so, there's the need to play him that gets that much more important should they decide to peddle him before the non-waivers trade deadline at month's end.
Cool Underrated Move: As an adaptation to Josh Hamilton's playing center field only sporadically, sorting out an outfield platoon of David Murphy and Brandon Boggs in left seems to be working out pretty well.
In-Game Tactical Fun: Having Max Ramirez available to move over to first base now and again when Ron Washington wants to keep him in games he started out at catcher's kind of cool, although the necessity for doing so shrinks with Davis trying to establish himself as a regular. Maybe it stays on the menu when Blalock returns should that also mean Davis is headed back to the minors, because Blalock's almost certain to need to be swapped out now and again.
In-System Solutions: That they haven't already turned to? Nelson Cruz is having an insanely great year for Oklahoma (.343/.444/.689), but the Rangers don't have an outfield problem, and they've got far too much water under the bridge with Cruz to get that intrigued by the performance. With the promotion of Harrison, they're starting to hit bottom in terms of their upper-minors options for fielding a rotation; their next alternative might have to be Elizardo Ramirez, or The EZ-E Experience: Smack Attack!.