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With the Angels and Rangers falling off the pace, there are only two real
contenders in the AL West, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners.
As I write this, Seattle has just completed a sweep of the
Centrum-sponsored Orioles while Oakland has taken two of three from Royals,
which means the A’s are a scant half-game up in this nasty divisional race.

Offensively, both teams are run-scoring machines. Seattle has managed this
behind the continuing dominance of super-hitter Edgar Martinez, who
has smoked opposing pitchers to the tune of .363/.452/.697. Alex
Rodriguez
, the apt pupil, is going to be paid in small nations if he
keeps hitting .353/.448/.647. Jay Buhner, John Olerud and
Mike Cameron make for five quality hitters behind leadoff man
Rickey Henderson.

Despite being first in the league in OBP, the Mariners are third in runs
scored, behind Oakland and Chicago. Why? Well, here’s one reason: Lou
Piniella is an idiot. Quick: you have the sluggingest, on-baseingest lineup
in the AL. What do you do with it?

You run, of course! Play small baseball! Sacrifice those productive at-bats
for advanced runners and outs! The Mariners lead the AL in being caught
stealing, even though they’re seventh in attempts. Historically, you need
to be successful about two-thirds of the time to make an attempted steal
worth trying. I’d bet that in today’s offensive climate the break-even
point is more like 70%, maybe even 75%. The M’s are barely getting 62%.
That’s out-tastic.

The Mariners have also been scoring all those runs with two holes in their
lineup every day, the third baseman and the catcher. With Dan Wilson
out with a pulled oblique muscle, the Mariners are using Joe Oliver
and Tom Lampkin, which is about as bad. At third base, they’re
playing the John Mabry Experiment and David Bell, both terrible
hitters (Mabry: .233/.309/.315, Bell: .225/.286/.339) and defensive
liabilities.

You can assemble a fearsome offensive team with a limited number of
excellent hitters. The Mets did so last year, with a great top of the order
and automatic outs at the bottom. This is especially true, I think, if
you’re sacrificing those lineup spots for superior defense up the middle,
which is clearly not the case with the Mariners. Charles Gipson, who
plays surprisingly superior–and unheralded–defense at the hot corner,
would be a great compliment to Rodriguez on the left side of the infield
and wouldn’t be a noticeable offensive downgrade from the Mabry/Bell disaster.

Oakland, meanwhile, has got it right. They don’t steal–33 attempts all
year, or as many as the Royals had while you’ve been reading this–and they
couldn’t care less. Jason Giambi is a terror (.339/.480/.669),
Ben Grieve and Terrence Long are each having good years and
Eric Chavez is emerging into the star that his faithful fans thought
he’d become. The development of these players is a key for Oakland, as it
means the bulk of their offense is now coming from their young core and not
the dispensable role players like John Jaha and Matt Stairs
(who should be dumped immediately so Jeremy Giambi can get on with
his development). While they don’t have twin terrors like the Mariners’
Martinez and Rodriguez, there are no easy stretches in the lineup, either.

Of course, if you can manage to scrape up some spot left-handed starters
from Triple-A, you may be in business. This could be a problem for the A’s
in a short playoff series. For now, it seems to be enough that right-handed
pitchers are given last rites as they head onto the diamond.

On the mound, Oakland has been getting quality work out of Tim
Hudson
, Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier. The three of them
have made 42 starts and have ERAs just a hair over 4.00. Hudson has been
giving up a few too many gopher balls, but he’s also striking out nearly a
man an inning (84 in 91 innings). Omar Olivares and Mark
Mulder
haven’t been nearly as good, but Mulder is young and talented,
and Olivares may be dealt if the A’s decide to acquire something shiny for
the stretch drive. Oakland has also gotten excellent work out of their
bullpen, particularly Jason Isringhausen and standout journeyman
Jeff Tam, who has been just this side of amazing.

Meanwhile, a Mariner team that was supposedly overloaded with pitching
talent has burned through it like so many virgins sacrificed to the angry
volcano god. Just three pitchers, Aaron Sele, John Halama and
Gil Meche, have more than ten starts. GM Pat Gillick appears to have
stumbled on a brilliant strategy: let Piniella abuse a pitcher, like
Freddy Garcia until the pitcher comes down with something. Then DL
the pitcher out of the way and let Piniella abuse cheap replacement Paul
Abbott
until the pitcher makes his leisurely way back to rejoin the
team, their ligaments spared another couple of weeks of 120-pitch outings.
It’s an interesting strategy, but wouldn’t it just be better to fire
Piniella or force him to use his young, talented pitchers in a sane manner?

Despite my frequent flame-throwing, Piniella’s managed to run his
Tilt-A-Whirl bullpen with some degree of effectiveness, coaxing excellent
work out of free-agent pickup Arthur Rhodes and Jose
Paniagua
, with whom Lou seems to be cultivating a Dibble-esque love/hate
relationship. Jose Mesa has been terrible in the various roles
he’s been tried in, while Japanese import Kazuhiro Sasaki has been
effective save for one rough stretch.

Statistically, the two teams are also almost a dead-heat: Seattle and
Oakland are 4th and 5th in the league in ERA. The difference here is that
there’s no reason to expect that Oakland’s pitching will get much worse,
even though Appier’s year is surprising. Art Howe is unlikely to start
putting his pitchers out there for 140-pitch outings or run his bullpen
into the ground.

Piniella, however, will, as he’s demonstrated before. Only Halama seems to
have hypnotized Lou into keeping his pitch counts low. Meche’s mysterious
"dead arm" is directly attributable, I think, to Lou’s early use
of Meche this season. Pitch counts of 98, 82, 103, 113, 81, 114, 106 and 110 in his
first eight starts don’t seem terrible until you realize that Meche is only 21.

Piniella has also never met a bullpen he couldn’t run into the ground.
He’s used Rhodes to good effect so far, but has started to pitch him over
and over, like a user returning to the only dealer he can trust. That’s a
pattern Mariners fans have seen in the past as he rides a hot reliever into
ineffectiveness and then discards him (Bob Wells, for instance).

Both teams have terrific offenses that have been backed by great pitching
performances. Both teams should battle for the lead through the season. But
the fact remains that a baseball season is a long race; of the two teams
only one, Oakland, understands that while refusing to use Mark Mulder for
two more innings may potentially cost the team a game, it could carry the
season. Piniella will continue to manage by crisis and it will cost the
Mariners games, players, the division title and, I can only hope, his job.

Oakland will win the division by four games.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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