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August 20, 2012

What You Need to Know

Monday, August 20

by Daniel Rathman

The Weekend Takeaway
When Jerry DiPoto made the biggest splash of the trade deadline, reeling in Zack Greinke from the Brewers, it seemed that the first-year general manager had positioned the Angels to threaten the Rangers for the American League West crown and to pose a formidable challenge to any junior circuit postseason foe. Armed with the best position player of the past decade, the most promising rookie of the generation, and enough aces to win the World Series of Poker, the Angels featured more attractions than nearby Disneyland. But three weeks later, the Big ‘A’ most certainly is not the happiest place on earth.

After spending the first month of the campaign scorching Triple-A pitching, Mike Trout returned to the majors on April 28, with the Angels off to a disappointing 6-14 start and already nine games behind the first-place Rangers. That nine-game margin marked a season high, and after cutting it to eight on May 1, Mike Scioscia’s team would not fall that far behind again. Until yesterday.

By the time Greinke arrived in Anaheim and debuted on July 29, his new team had improved to 55-47, just five games behind Texas, which—with Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis done for the year—looked increasingly vulnerable. But after an 8-3 loss to the Rays on Sunday afternoon, their third in Greinke’s four starts, the Angels are right back to where they were nearly four months ago, when Trout was still a Salt Lake City Bee and Pujols was homer-less with a 592 OPS.

The dog days of August have dogged the Angels more than any other team. Jered Weaver, untouchable at Angel Stadium from April through July, has lost his last two starts in front of the home fans. Dan Haren, once among the league’s most durable pitchers, has dealt with back trouble for much of the season and turned in only nine quality starts. And Greinke, at worst expected to be a post-season insurance policy if Haren proved unreliable, left his 2.65 FIP behind in Milwaukee for a 4.70 with his new team. Put all of that together, and you can see why the dream rotation has become a nightmare, combining for a 6.53 ERA and only 103 1/3 innings in 18 August starts.

It reached a new low this weekend, with the Rays—now among the favorites in the wild-card race—in town for a four-game series. Joe Maddon’s offense thumped Haren on Thursday, Weaver on Friday, and C.J. Wilson on Saturday, saddling each of them with at least five runs and sending all three to the showers before the end of the fifth inning. Greinke was the only member of the big four to complete the sixth, but even he coughed up six runs along the way. The carnage: Tampa Bay set a franchise record with 37 runs in the four-game sweep, moving to the top of the wild-card standings and dumping the Angels into fifth place, 4 ½ games behind second-place Baltimore.

Veteran beat writer Mike DiGiovanna, who has covered the Angels for the Los Angeles Times for almost two decades, summed it up in 14 words: “This is as low as I’ve seen the Angels sink in a long time.” The second-place Athletics, who are now four games ahead of the Halos and took two of three in the most recent showdown between the teams on Aug. 6-8, are in the midst of a storybook season, looking far greater than the sum of their parts. The Angels, by contrast, seem determined to look far worse.

But for all the rotation’s recent duds, all the agony of squandering an 8-0 lead, and all the questions that now sit unanswered, it’s important to remember that this is not even the team’s worst 20-game stretch of the season, and that those parts are still there. That could be a good thing—it could mean a September surge that carries the Angels into the playoffs, where Trout could dazzle and the dream rotation could redeem itself, is in store. Or it could be a bad thing, because Pujols has already rediscovered his swing, and Trout and Greinke have already walked through the door.

Our playoff odds, accounting for the aforementioned parts and seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to the August swoon, are nonetheless growing pessimistic about the Angels’ chances:

The red graph above bears a striking resemblance to the bear market of 2007-2009. With 50 games remaining, there is little DiPoto or Scioscia can do to reverse the trend. It’s up to the players—who, after Sunday’s loss, both berated their own performance and blamed bad luck for their struggles—to turn all those promising parts into a winning whole.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • As beat writer and moonlight Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerman noted, Friday’s game marked the first time this season that the Nationals have fielded the full starting lineup general manager Mike Rizzo envisioned—complete with Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Ian Desmond, fresh off a four-week stint on the disabled list to nurse a strained oblique. Davey Johnson’s team is now among the healthiest in the league, which is bad news for the Braves, who are coming to the nation’s capital for a three-game series that could either narrow the five-game gap in the National League East or give Washington a virtually insurmountable lead. Tim Hudson, who is 0-2 and has been charged with 13 runs (12 earned) in 12 2/3 innings in two tries against the Nationals this year, will lock horns with Jordan Zimmermann in the series opener (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Dusty Baker’s corner outfielders are armed and dangerous these days, helping Cincinnati to overcome Joey Votto’s prolonged absence. Right fielder Jay Bruce and left fielder Ryan Ludwick have combined to go 20-for-51 with seven homers over their last seven games, paving the way for a 5-2 homestand. Their next task: Staying hot against Phillies ace Roy Halladay, who made history against the Reds on Oct. 6, 2010, and has held Bruce and Ludwick to a combined 5-for-26 with 10 strikeouts in their past encounters. The Reds will counter with Mike Leake, who owns a 3.13 ERA in 10 starts away from Great American Ball Park this year, in game one of four in Philadephia (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • We’re still not sure how Ryan Dempster, a native of British Columbia, could not overcome the loss of his passport to gain access to his homeland, but instead of pitching against the Blue Jays last Saturday, he will take on the Orioles tonight. The 35-year-old righty’s ERA has spiked from 2.25 to 3.12 since the deadline trade from the Cubs, but he got the rudest possible introduction to the junior circuit, hosting the Angels, then doing battle with the Red Sox at Fenway and the Yankees in the Bronx. Things should get a bit easier in his fourth start, as Buck Showalter’s pesky squad has sputtered to a sub-700 OPS away from Camden Yards this season. Dempster tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball in his lone career start versus Baltimore—though that came way back on June 8, 1999, when rookie infielder Manny Machado was merely daydreaming about hitting bombs off the Marlins starter in his second-grade classroom in Miami (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • After snatching a pair from the Red Sox, the Yankees will switch drawers and take on the Pale Hose, sending Freddy Garcia to the bump to face his former team. The 35-year-old right-hander has won his last three starts, allowing two earned runs each to the Mariners, Blue Jays, and Rangers, but he has not taken on the White Sox since Sept. 28, 2008. With Garcia on the mound, make sure Paul Konerko is in your fantasy lineup, as he owns a 10-for-28 line with four home runs against his former teammate. Likewise, make sure you’ve got Ichiro Suzuki in there, because he’s 15-for-39 with a pair of big flies versus Chicago starter Gavin Floyd (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • The National League West rivals begin their third-to-last showdown of the season, a three-game series at Chavez Ravine, with the Dodgers enjoying a half-game lead. Game one features a duel between Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, and while Bumgarner has not yet faced the Dodgers this season, Kershaw fired a complete-game shutout at AT&T Park on July 29. The 23-year-old Bumgarner has endured some road woes in his second full campaign, serving up 15 homers in 82 innings en route to a 4.06 ERA. He will need to look out for Juan Rivera, who has gone 3-for-7 with a home run in their past meetings. Hunter Pence, meanwhile, is just 1-for-18 lifetime against Kershaw (10:10 p.m. ET).

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Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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