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August 13, 2008

On the Beat

Angels Rising

by John Perrotto

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They have the best record in the major leagues and are on pace for the first 100-win season in franchise history. They hold the biggest lead of any of the six first-place teams in the majors, and are close to a mortal lock to make the playoffs; BP's Postseason Odds Report estimates their chances of seeing action in October at 99.87 percent. Yet the Angels, tucked away in Orange County where they seem insulated from the rest of the baseball world, just don't create any buzz.

Left-hander Joe Saunders, one of the reasons why the Angels are running away with the American League West, says that he and his teammates don't care if the national spotlight shines as always on the Red Sox and the Yankees while the Rays have stolen some of the shine as the surprise leaders in the AL East. "I think we might be overlooked a little bit, but I never hear anyone on our team complain about it," Saunders said. "We really don't have the type of guys in our clubhouse who worry about getting a lot of publicity or media exposure. What we like to do the most is go out and compete every night. We know we can play with anybody in baseball. All we care about is competing and putting up wins. Our sole focus is on nothing but keeping the momentum going."

The Angels certainly have plenty of momentum: they're 75-43 and hold a 15-game lead over the Rangers in the AL West, putting the club record for victories in a season (99 in 2002) in jeopardy. While the Angels mimic the blue-collar style of play that manager Mike Scioscia employed during his 13 seasons as catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1980-92, they are certainly not without the sort of star power you'd associate with the best record in baseball. General manager Tony Reagins made one of the biggest deals prior to the July 31 deadline when he acquired switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Braves for first baseman Casey Kotchman and minor league reliever Steve Marek. Reagins also pulled off one of the biggest free-agent signings last offseason when he signed seven-time Gold Glove center fielder Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract. The Angels also have another superstar in right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, a standout closer in Francisco Rodriguez (who has 46 saves and is threatening to break the major league record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990), and two emerging young stars in starting pitchers Saunders and right-hander Ervin Santana to go with staff ace John Lackey.

The Angels aren't dominating in any specific statistical category. They're 13th in the major leagues in runs scored per game (4.73), seventh in runs allowed (4.20), and eighth in defensive efficiency (.702), yet they have the best record in baseball-their Pythagorean over/under of nine is tops in the majors. The Angels attribute that to intangibles that can't be quantified statistically. "We don't fear anyone," Santana said. "We really believe that we're the best team every time we step on the field. We play with a lot of confidence. We feel we're going to do the job every day." "We have great team chemistry," Saunders added. "We work very well together and we all get along in the clubhouse and off the field. It's not a team with big egos. No one tries to step up and do too much. Everyone stays within themselves and just does what they're capable of doing, and it really works out well for us because we all complement each other so well."

Unlike many teams in the Moneyball era, the Angels haven't been adherents to the virtues of building an offense based on power and on-base percentage, although that seemed to change somewhat with the acquisition of Teixeira. Scioscia has believed that good fundamental play equals wins. "You pound the fundamentals during spring training, refresh them during the season, and then clean them up when they need cleaning up," Scioscia said. "At the same time, you don't turn your team into a bunch of robots. You give them the freedom to go out and play the game, but one of the things we do pride ourselves in is that we don't beat ourselves often. We don't have the perfect team, but we usually play the game right."

That philosophy has put the Angels in command of the division race as they look to win their second straight AL West title and fourth in five years. However, don't look for Scioscia to pull back the reins anytime soon and start planning for the postseason. "We've got to keep grinding," Scioscia said. "If you want to reach your goal, and ours is winning the World Series, you don't look past that day's game. We've got to keep pushing. We'll let others keep score and let us know how we're doing. There's no playoff talk around here until we clinch, and that's the way it's got to be."

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Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes made his counter-move to Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's big deal at the non-waiver trading deadline on Tuesday, acquiring outfielder Adam Dunn from the Reds for minor league pitcher Dallas Buck and two players to be named, one of whom is expected to be right-hander Micah Owings. Byrnes' Snakes hold a one-game lead over LA in the National League West, but he was somewhat hesitant to call it a direct answer to the Dodgers dealing for Manny Ramirez in a three-team trade. "Manny has done a good job with the Dodgers, but we needed to worry about ourselves," Byrnes said. "This is a very high-end player who has been dominant against right-handers."

However, the Diamondbacks players do see Dunn as their answer to Ramirez. "He is a power bat. He drives in runs. He hits home runs. He walks. I don't think he can do anything but help," first baseman Chad Tracy told the East Valley Tribune. "We got one of the best players out there to combat Manny." Dunn will play right field for the Diamondbacks after primarily manning left for the Reds. Arizona wants Conor Jackson to stay in left field, where he's still getting comfortable after being shifted from first base last month, making it clear they did not acquire Dunn for his glove. "It is going to be tougher to maneuver through our lineup now," manager Bob Melvin said. "This helps all the way through."

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The Rays' magical run toward an unexpected AL East title has seemingly taken a hit the past few days, with third baseman Evan Longoria and left fielder Carl Crawford both being placed on the disabled list. Crawford is likely to miss the rest of the season and is scheduled to have surgery to repair a tendon in his right hand. Longoria probably won't return until early next month after breaking his right wrist.

However, the Rays have a three-game lead on the Red Sox in the division race, and say that they still feel they can win with their remaining players, and they won't be forced into making any waiver deals. Willy Aybar will get the majority of the playing time at third base, while Eric Hinske and Justin Ruggiano will platoon in left field.

"I'm not going to say we have the same quality whether it's offensively or defensively, but I'm saying I like the names, and I really believe the people who are going to take their place in their absence are going to perform at a very high level and help us win," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I really believe that." So, too, does Rays Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman, who seems to have no interest in trading for Tigers outfielder Gary Sheffield or signing free agent outfielders Barry Bonds or Kenny Lofton. "We've gotten where we are, based on a combination of different things, different players," Friedman told the St. Petersburg Times. "My belief is there will be guys who step up during this time period."

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While many Venezuelan stars have said they won't play in the 2009 World Baseball Classic because they felt they were not treated professionally and were not happy with manager Luis Sojo and his coaching staff during the inaugural WBC in 2006, Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel does plan to play again if asked. Among stars who have said that they are opting out are Mets left-hander Johan Santana and Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, third baseman Carlos Guillen, and right fielder Magglio Ordonez. Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano says he is on the fence. The Venezuelan players are upset that Sojo has been asked back. The stars felt they should have been consulted about the choice of managers after Venezuela finished a disappointing seventh in the 16-team event three years ago.

Vizquel's having none of it. "I think it's kind of sad that they're thinking about that instead of their country," Vizquel told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have no control over how they pick the team and who the manager is. Our job is to play baseball, not worry about who's managing. It's a pity that people think about that instead of what they should do on the field."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: While Ramirez has been a sensation since joining the Dodgers, they aren't likely to re-sign him as a free agent if he demands a contract in the range of four years and $100 million, as has been speculated. Cubs manager Lou Piniella is close to benching right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, shifting second baseman Mark DeRosa to right, and playing Mike Fontenot at second. The Padres are expected to significantly cut their payroll from this year's Opening Day salary total of $74 million, as owner John Moores is going through a messy divorce that has even caused conflict when it comes to who has the right to sit in the owner's box at Petco Park.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina is considering retirement at the end of the season, and is unlikely to sign with any team as a free agent other than New York. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero prefers to work out a contract extension with the Angels rather than test free agency this upcoming offseason. The Rangers want to add an ace starting pitcher through free agency, and will target the Brewers' CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. The Indians feel their biggest need for 2009 is a power-hitting outfielder. The Royals are already considering alternatives for second base in 2009 if free agent Mark Grudzielanek isn't re-signed, and they might move Mike Aviles to the other side of the bag and reinstall Tony Pena Jr. as their starting shortstop. Another in-house possibility for second base is Alberto Callapso.

---

Scouts' views of various major-league players:

  • Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez: "He's still far from a finished prospect, but he's already one of the best players in the game. Once he learns to lay off a few more pitches out of the strike zone and quit trying to force some plays on defense, he might wind up being the best player in baseball."
  • Braves outfielder Gregor Blanco: "The more I see this kid, the more he grows on me. He does a lot of things well. He'll give you a good at-bat. He'll drive a ball into the gap. He'll make a nice play in the field. I used to think he was going to be nothing more than a fourth outfielder, but I'm not so sure now that he can't be a regular in the big leagues."
  • Yankees closer Mariano Rivera: "I don't think people truly appreciate how amazing he is. He uses one pitch with that cutter, everyone in the world knows it is coming, and hardly anyone still ever squares the bat up on it."
  • Pirates right-hander Jeff Karstens: "He isn't going to wow you with his stuff, but he has a real good feel for pitching and doesn't rattle. He's not a top-of-the-rotation guy, but I think he's going to have himself a nice little career in Pittsburgh."
  • Padres center fielder Jody Gerut: "I wrote this guy off for dead after he missed the last two years (following knee surgery). He's fooled me, though. He's swinging the bat better than ever, and he's covering a pretty fair amount of ground in center field. He is definitely one of the biggest surprise players of the year."
  • Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija: "I'm stunned that he's pitched so well in the major leagues. I didn't like him in the minor leagues, and I definitely thought the Cubs rushed him. He's proven me wrong so far, and he seems to have the type of makeup from his football background at Notre Dame to thrive in the spotlight. Still, I can't help but wonder if big-league hitters won't catch up to him after they see him a second time."
  • Royals designated hitter Billy Butler: "Kansas City did the right thing by sending him back to [Triple-A] Omaha earlier this season. He's a much better hitter now. He's not swinging at everything and getting himself out all the time anymore. He's got a chance to be a pretty good big-league hitter, and I couldn't say that with a lot of confidence early in the year."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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