Everything is bigger in Texas, including a new AL West superpower.
With nearly 40,000 in attendance at their final 2011 home game on Wednesday night, Mike Scioscia's Angels went out with a resounding bang—but not of their own doing, unfortunately. The Halos found themselves on the receiving end of a torturous game-winning blast by the slugger who had played out his entire pre-2011 career in an Angels uniform. I would make some kind of remark about Mike Napoli's two-homer game being tantamount to adding insult to injury for the Angels, but the problem is that Napoli had already taken care of that the previous night when he clubbed two more homers during a 10-3 drubbing of his former team.
And during the intervening hours between his team's final two games, Scioscia found himself in the awkward position of simultaneously defending Napoli's chops behind the plate and assigning responsibility for the consummation of the Napoli-for-Wells deal: "The issue was [Kendrys] Morales was expected back, and we needed to get better in the outfield, so some decisions were made by Tony [Reagins] and Arte [Moreno] as to what the team would look like." If I really wanted to make this article about the Angels, I'd point again towards Ken Rosenthal's recent assertion that the real power in the Angels organization lies with Scioscia and Moreno, and maybe wonder out loud about Scioscia's apparent fingering of Reagins and Moreno as the lone parties responsible for shaping the Napoli trade... but this article is less about the Halos, and more about the team that ultimately ended up steamrolling its way to the division crown.
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The Athletics' inability to draw a crowd is a reflection of their poor record and awful stadium situation.
On September 4, 2002, the Oakland Athletics crammed a season-high 55,000-plus fans into the then-named Network Associates Coliseum for what is often fondly remembered as the climactic epoch of Moneyball—the night that the Athletics frittered away an early 11-run lead at home against the lowly Royals, followed by a classic incredulity-fueled Billy Beane tantrum, followed by Scott Hatteberg's heartwarming pinch-hit blast in the bottom of the ninth inning to win it. At the outset of the chapter devoted to that particular game, Michael Lewis painted a surreal picture of a "traffic jam extraordinary even by Northern California standards stretched as far as the eye could see" leading up to the sea of concrete surrounding the Coliseum on all sides.
On Wednesday night, the Coliseum played host to the playoff-bound Rangers and a comparatively exciting pitching matchup (Brandon McCarthy vs. C.J. Wilson). The announced crowd of 19,589—a figure that would rank somewhere between subpar and miserable in virtually every other major-league market, but actually constitutes the 27th-best showing in Oakland's first 80 home dates of the season. In case you were wondering what such an announced attendance total actually looks like, here was the scene from what is now named the O.co Coliseum less than five minutes before first pitch on Wednesday:
After failing to take advantage of a lull in the schedule, the Halos are running out of time to contend.
There's one particular kind of vision with which we're all well acquainted, regardless of whether it has yet infiltrated our darkest nightmares—the vision where there's something laid out just before us that we desperately want, but the harder we pursue it and the further we reach out towards it, the more distant it becomes. Ideally, said vision is accompanied by some form of horror trance music, heavily distorted surroundings, and enormous projection screens depicting a larger-than-life De La Soul mockingly, uproariously laughing at our plight. Said vision would likely also have been preceded by the consumption of a generous quantity of high-quality alcohol, but since tales of that sort are best left to folks like my good friend Jason Parks, I'm going to swing this back around into an actual baseball point.
We all know of this vision, but not all of us have had the misfortune of dealing with such an experience in real life. The 2011 Angels aren't so lucky. It's not that they were widely regarded as favorites within their division before the outset of the season (note: they weren't), or even that they currently seem destined to fall short of their ultimate goal (as reflected in their post-season odds, which are now in great danger of slipping beneath the 1-in-20 mark). Well, it is partly about the second one, but one of the more frustrating realities from the Angels' perspective has been their recurring failure over the last four months to make it back over the first-place hump. Each time they've surged back within a stone's throw of Texas, they've fallen behind yet again. And even though the Angels have hung tough with their first-place adversaries throughout that four-month period, they have now all but run out of the one commodity that they need most: time.
One of the newest members of the 2,000-hit club has been a huge offensive upgrade for Texas, but was it worth it?
On Sunday, eight months and a day after word leaked of his defection to the land of cattle ranches, oil fields, and mind-melting Big 12 Conference feuds, Adrian Beltre ripped a seemingly nondescript single through the right side of the infield at Fenway Park to move recent 2,000-hit club entrant Michael Young from first to third base. If not for the momentary stoppage of play and the ensuing game of hot potato that ultimately steered the game ball over into the relative safety of the Rangers' dugout, an in-house spectator likely wouldn't have assumed any special significance of the hit—a hit that was itself Beltre's 2,000th hit, rendering him the youngest third baseman in history to reach the plateau, and one of only 46 players in history to reach the 2,000-hit milestone by the end of his age-32 season. Texas won, 11-4.
Three nights later, the never-say-die Angels extracted nearly everything they could have reasonably hoped for out of their own third baseman... or basemen, even. With the bottom of the eighth inning underway, and with Los Angeles staring down the barrel of a potential 1-0 loss to Charlie Furbush and the Mariners (and thus facing the prospect of gaining only one half-game in the AL West standings during a three-week stretch where their schedule was a relative cakewalk), the third-base platoon of (a pinch-hitting) Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis went walk-double to put the Angels ahead for good. For one night, at least, it would have been difficult to argue vigorously in favor of an alternate reality where the Angels, not the Rangers, had won the Beltre sweepstakes.
A look at the deals and non-deals made by the AL West front offices at the waiver deadline.
You know, for a division race that is supposed to be the most exciting one still going with major post-season implications attached (I don't count that back-and-forth affair between Boston and New York in the AL East, since both clubs are all but assured of playing on into October anyway), I'm not so sure the AL West's two-team battle is really living up to its top billing. The Rangers' division-winning chances have fluctuated within the 80-95 percent range for the better part of two months and still rest within close proximity of the 90 percent mark as of this morning, and Texas has spent 140 days in first place this season compared to just 25 days for Los Angeles. It does still fit within the parameters of what we would define as a legitimate playoff race, and both clubs have done their respective parts to ensure the Angels sticking around, but the "race" is beginning to feel a bit one-sided.
And on Wednesday, the final day where players could be traded and still retain post-season eligibility with their new clubs, the deepest and most talented team in the division continued to pile on the talent while the two cellar-dwellers pulled off a couple of largely inconsequential—but nevertheless interesting—deals, and the second-running Angels did nothing ... again. Running concurrent to those waiver-period trade storylines are a few different chunks of news and speculation relating to the front offices of each AL West club, and so it strikes me that this might be a good opportunity to juxtapose the trade storylines alongside those front-office storylines, and see what comes of the whole process.
How Jered Weaver's contract extension will affect C.J. Wilson's impending free agency.
One week ago, I labeled Jered Weaver's looming post-2012 eligibility for free agency as one of several key threats to the Angels' five-year competitive window. Turns out it took only a couple of days for that threat to end up completely neutralized because Weaver (much to the dismay of the AL West's other denizens) will play out each of his next five seasons in an Angels uniform, having consented to a five-year, $85 million deal that most neutral observers seem to regard as a win-win pact for player and team alike. Ben Lindberghalready analyzed the direct implications of the contract in exhaustive detail, and I can't think of much to add on that front that wouldn't be redundant, so this obviously isn't going to be an article dedicated solely to Jered Weaver.
My only addition would be this: since the deal's announcement, Weaver's drawn great praise from some circles for choosing comfort and loyalty to the Angels organization over the largest guaranteed dollar amount. I appreciate that, and I do find his choice and willingness to eschew the extraction of every last possible dollar at least somewhat commendable. But at the same time, I've stumbled upon some comments from people in those same circles who have used the Weaver extension as a jumping-off point to snipe at those professional athletes who do gun for deals promising the most money.
Over the course of the week, the outlook in the AL West has changed completely, leaving three teams to look toward what the future holds.
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.
Out West, the Angels' inability to take advantage of situations on the basepaths could cost them a division title.
Last season, there were two divisions (the NL West, from which the reigning world champion Giants arose, and the AL East) that were decided by a margin of three games or fewer. In 2009, there were two more division races (the AL Central, which the Twins captured by a single game, and again the NL West) that came down to a swing of three or fewer games. 2008? Three races. 2007? Four races. Over the last four years, every division in baseball has been able to boast at least one pennant race resolved within the final three days of the season—well, every division except the AL West.
Throughout the better part of the early- to mid-aughts, the AL West stood proud and tall as one of the more hotly-contested divisions in the game; four of the five division titles between 2002-06 were secured by a margin of no more than four games. But over the last four seasons, the average margin of victory in the AL West has been a far less suspenseful 11.5 games. That’s great for the conquering team but not so great for those fans of AL West teams who enjoy an ample dose of divisional parity, and definitely not so great for the distant second-place team whose late-season gate receipts are inhibited by their non-contender status.
While there were no aces or big boppers dealt in the AL West before the deadline, Texas fixed up its bullpen while Seattle tried to collect young talent.
For a division that has seen at least one player with the major-league credentials of a Cliff Lee or Matt Holliday or Mark Teixeira dealt at each of the last four trade deadlines, this year's late-July game of transactional roulette just didn't have the same amount of big-name punch to it. However, what it lacked in that department was amply compensated for elsewhere. The Rangers, of course, secured two of their highest-priority trade targets (though their season-long story of bullpen woe has just now taken another bizarre turn), whereas the Mariners converted two of their five rotation regulars into a small collection of young position players. Oakland managed to get little done, and the Angels took that deadline abstinence one step further by becoming one of only two legitimate playoff contenders (along with the Yankees) that didn't complete a single trade. How will the AL West be shaped by what did and didn't happen over the last seven days?
It was apparent last week that the market's few readily-available trade resources didn't match up very well with what the Angels needed, as their rumored top positional trade target, Aramis Ramirez, ultimately invoked his no-trade clause to remain in Chicago, leaving the still-decent Alberto Callaspo/Maicer Izturis platoon intact at third base. And from a retrospective standpoint, the only two bats to be moved with legitimate difference-making potential as far as this season was concerned (Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran) were both exclusive to corner-outfield spots, both of which are occupied at present by the immovable Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter.
A look at what AL West teams may end up doing before Sunday's trade deadline.
Early Wednesday afternoon, the Angels' Ervin Santananailed down only the 11th no-hitterin the last 93 years where the lack of hits was somehow accompanied by at least one run allowed. Shortly thereafter, the Mariners snapped their historic 17-game losing streak behind a stunning nine-run, 17-hit outburst from an anemic Seattle lineup and seven frames of one-run baseball from Felix Hernandez at Yankee Stadium. A few hours later, the Rangers dropped their second consecutive home game to the sub-.500 Twins and watched their first-place lead slip to a meager two games. A little while after that, the Athletics’ also-anemic offense pounded out 13 runs to seal a clean three-game home sweep of the Rays.
There's a huge part of me that wants to devote ample attention to each one of these stories, but it's late July, which means that the overriding storyline throughout baseball—and, of course, the AL West—is the non-waiver trade deadline. That, I think, deserves the preponderance of the attention this week as we look at two contenders who have every reason in the world to be buyers and two non-contenders that we would naturally assume to be aggressive sellers. As you'll see, however, sometimes our preconceived notions don't cleanly match up with the reality of baseball's trade market. Aside from gazing into each AL West ballclub's trade situation, I've also highlighted the career record of each currently employed general manager in the division, as well as the three most notable July trades that each has made over the last three seasons:
The rest of the division may be a dud, but the Rangers' red-hot run looks all the more impressive when compared to their past rotations.
I'm beginning to wonder if I’ve broken the AL West. I'm being facetious, of course, but the timing has caught me a little off guard. Since writing at length about how Seattle was making something of a spirited go at the division crown and might have a decent shot at swinging a .500 season, the Mariners have dropped from an even 38-38 (2 ½ games back) to 43-54 (12 ½ games), effectively crushing any lingering hopes of contending in 2011. Something similarly strange has happened to the Angels, as my efforts to paint them as legitimate contenders for the division crown just seven days ago had been rewarded by a sharp 3 ½-game drop in the standings and a one-week post-season odds plunge of 11.9 percent going into Wednesday night.
But rather than falsely attribute the coincidentally-timed struggles of the Rangers' competition to any of my work at Baseball Prospectus, let's just be brutally honest about what's going on here: Texas has gone into hyperdrive. Seriously. Before dropping a 9-8 heartbreaker in Anaheim during the waning hours of Wednesday evening (a game the Rangers led by an 8-3 margin after chasing Dan Haren early, leading to a peak win expectancy of 96.4 percent), Texas had collected 12 straight wins, a high-water mark for winning streaks among American League ballclubs since the Red Sox accomplished that same feat back in June 2006.
The Angels have been able to rely on good fortune and solid performances to stage improbable comebacks for the last few years.
The date was May 30, an unseasonably cool Saturday evening in Orange County, and its resident Angels were beginning to run out of answers. They had tripped coming off the starting block and fallen behind in the division race almost immediately, dropping eight of their first 12 games of the season (including three straight at Minnesota). Though their record had stabilized to an unremarkable 24-23 entering the night, the first-place Rangers were then threatening to pull away from the mad scramble, having amassed the second-largest division lead (4.5 games) in baseball in less than two months' time, and having just reeled off an impressive six wins in eight games.
That night, however, hinted at the possibility of being everyone's favorite nebulous, media-invented stimulant to the Angels' weakening heart known as the "turning point." Despite appearing to be something of a huge pitching mismatch on paper, Los Angeles' Matt Palmer remained in lockstep with Seattle's Felix Hernandez for seven innings, with neither team pushing a run across until a one-out Erick Aybar double in the bottom of the seventh plated an unearned run against the King. Two more runs in the eighth, and the Angels' closer was on to lock down a stunning shutout win against one of the great starting pitchers of our generation. Men cheered. Women swooned. Children cried. The earth shook. The Rally Monkey spazzed out and had to be heavily sedated.