The Rangers and A’s are set for another heated race, the red-hot Angels are playing their way back into contention, the Mariners are trotting out the kids, and the Astros are showcasing some surprisingly effective pitchers. Our trade deadline preview concludes today with a look at the AL West.
It’s Week 13 of The 30, and Colby Rasmus is ready to celebrate.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
5. TEXAS RANGERS
The money has helped. With revenue streams surging (including the promise of gigantic TV riches on the way), the Rangers have nearly doubled their payroll over the past three years, to more than $125 million on Opening Day of this season. That’s how you end up with stars like Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish anchoring your team.
But like many other rising powers, Texas has built a winning team through those old pillars of scouting and player development. The Mark Teixeira trade of 2007 brought in Elvis Andrus and several other key pieces in exchange for an expensive slugger a year and a third away from free agency. Shrewd draft picks and aggressive spending on international talent bolstered an emerging core of young players, culminating in the Rangers making their first two World Series in franchise history.1 But this season is the stiffest test yet of Texas’s organizational depth. The Rangers have been slammed by injuries, particularly on the pitching side. They’ve responded with impressive results throughout the staff, including from a starting rotation that now features three rookies and no pitcher over 26 years old.
Though Darvish deservedly gets tons of ink for his impressive results and pitch repertoire of death, the team’s best pitcher2 has been the far less-heralded Derek Holland. A 25th-round pick out of Wallace State Community College3 in 2006, Holland has grown into one of the farm system’s top success stories. In 296⅓ minor league innings, most of them in nasty environments for pitchers, Holland struck out 307 batters, allowed just 234 hits and 20 home runs, and posted a 2.58 ERA. His transition to the majors wasn’t nearly as smooth. Holland posted a 6.12 ERA and 5.10 FIP in his rookie season, then split the following year between Triple-A and the majors. The breakout came in 2011, when he fired 198 innings of 3.95 ERA/3.94 FIP ball. Then last season, Holland reverted back to the same mediocrity, putting up a 4.67 ERA and 4.75 FIP while missing a month with a shoulder injury.
He has been a revelation this year. Facing the Yankees on Thursday, Holland fired a two-hit shutout, striking out seven, walking just two, and clocking the third Maddux of his career. That outing actually snapped a three-start string of giving up four runs; he also earns no bonus points for shutting down a rookie-league version of the Yankees lineup. Still, the broader body of work shows a starter who’s tossed seven or more innings nine of 16 times, with at least six innings pitched in 12 of 16 tries. He owns a 3.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and has delivered career-best numbers despite a career-high .317 batting average on balls in play.
If Darvish and Holland were the only two effective starters on the active roster, you’d worry. That hasn’t been the case. Fourteenth-round pick Nick Tepesch has been boom-or-bust in his 15 starts this year, but eight of those have resulted in two runs allowed or fewer. Fifth-rounder Justin Grimm sports an ugly 5.56 ERA, but he has been victimized by a high BABIP and low strand rate, and has posted roughly league-average numbers on a defense- and bullpen-independent basis. And Martin Perez has excelled in his first two starts since returning from the minors, allowing just two runs, 11 hits, and two walks in 13⅔ innings.
As much as you can appreciate such competence for three rookie starters, teams with championship aspirations need more than competence from their nos. 3 through 5 starters. The latest reports have both Alexi Ogando and Colby Lewis due back soon after the All-Star break; if they both return to top form, the Rangers would suddenly boast one of the strongest rotations in baseball. Still, for a team that prides itself on having depth and options — Jurickson Profar filling in when Ian Kinsler got hurt; Robbie Ross cranking up his numbers and pitching very well in high-leverage spots with several relievers hurt; Tepesch, Grimm, and Perez holding the fort while injured starters heal — it just won’t cut it to depend on unpredictable returns from one erratic though talented starter and another starter who’ll have sat out at least a year by the time he comes back. Rumors have the Rangers pursuing Matt Garza and other starting pitchers to take them the rest of the way. Given how much young talent still remains on the farm even after graduating so many quality players to the majors, the opportunity will be there to load up for the stretch run.
6. OAKLAND A’S
Bartolo Colon has been Oakland’s best pitcher, returning from a PED suspension to post one of the best and most improbable seasons for any American League starter. But over the past few weeks, Colon had found an able running mate atop the rotation: Jarrod Parker.
After a fifth-place finish in 2012’s Rookie of the Year voting, Parker didn’t look anything like that pitcher to start this season, posting a 6.86 ERA and .957 opponents’ OPS, with 30 strikeouts against 22 walks and nine home runs allowed in 40⅔ innings. A May 17 start against the Royals turned the tide. Starting with that outing, Parker has posted a 2.25 ERA, an opponents’ OPS of .541, and a strikeout-to-walk rate just over of 3-to-1. Even acknowledging much improved luck on balls in play (.346 in his first eight starts, .194 in his next nine), this was a huge turnaround for Parker, spurred by the return of his plus changeup. Which is what made what happened to him in the fourth inning of Saturday’s game against St. Louis so disheartening. With two outs in the inning, Parker fired a pitch … and immediately crumpled to the ground in agony. The situation looked so dire at first that you wondered if Parker might have torn something, potentially deleting a streaking starter from a rotation that sorely needed him. The thought two days later is that Parker might’ve simply suffered a severe cramp, hopefully reminiscent of this Luis Avilan injury that looked much more serious than it was (Avilan returned in a few days). If Parker gets the same good fortune, that would leave Oakland’s staff in good shape for the second half, potentially canceling any need to make a big deal for a pitcher.
It would also mean the team’s only glaring need — other than Josh Reddick rediscovering his power and Yoenis Cespedes not making outs at an obscene rate — would be a second baseman who can hit. Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales have combined for just four home runs in 345 plate appearances,4 with Rosales also hitting below the Mendoza line. If only the Phillies would ever accept that they’re a lousy team likely going nowhere this year, and that Chase Utley would be a valuable commodity for a second base–needy team (even with just three months left till free agency). Utley might not be the MVP-caliber player he once was. But healthy and hitting .284/.348/.517 with his usual solid defense even at age 34, he’d instantly become one of the most valuable commodities on the market. Given where they are in the standings and what their roster is missing, the A’s would make a perfect trade partner.
16. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The hottest team in baseball that doesn’t have a grilled-cheese slinger handling the ninth inning, the Angels have won six in a row, pulling off their first 6-0 road trip since 2002.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way first. Playing the worst team in the AL — a team that can turn doubles into Little League home runs — in three of those games helps. Even with this streak, the Angels still sit four games under .500, nine back of front-running Texas and well behind several teams in the wild-card race. And their starting pitching still stinks. With Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas on the disabled list, and Jered Weaver delivering mixed, non-ace results since his return from the DL, a flurry of off days between now and the All-Star break is all that will save them from having no fifth starter to speak of.
Still, the Angels were bound to improve given how many things went horribly wrong to start the season. Josh Hamilton is still struggling to get on base, but he’s banged out 14 doubles, eight homers, and a triple in his past 44 starts (after just five extra-base hits in his first 29 starts), while also starting to flash some leather. Mike Trout has pumped up his OPS by 121 points since May 1. Howie Kendrick was hitting .282/.318/.417 at the end of April; he’s up to .317/.362/.471 now. Even Tomato Can Joe Blanton has picked up the pace, fanning 40 batters and walking just five in his past five starts.
To truly propel themselves back into the race, the Angels need to see more from their rotation — and from Albert Pujols, Erick Aybar, and Hamilton, with a quick return for Peter Bourjos from the DL to boot. Even if all those things happen, because the Halos dug themselves such a deep hole, have such a thin farm system, have the memory of Jean Segura so fresh in their minds, and face a market full of no. 3 and no. 4 starters, a blockbuster deal for an ace looks basically impossible. They can nibble with Scott Feldman, Ricky Nolasco, and others of that ilk. But for the most part, the Angels will have to rely on the expensive collection of talent they’ve already assembled. And they’ll need a monumental second half, plus maybe even some witchcraft, to have a shot.
26. SEATTLE MARINERS
The next generation of Mariners talent has arrived. Friday’s lineup featured Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino all in the big league lineup at the same time. We’ll likely see top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker in the rotation by Labor Day, if not sooner. The M’s have struggled for years in their attempts to usher high draft picks into starting jobs. Now, it’s finally happening.
None of that is going to change Seattle’s march toward another losing season. But it does bode well for the future, as the Mariners hope to surround Felix Hernandez with some actual high-upside, homegrown talent for the first time in years.
The next step will be selling off nonessential veterans. On that front, they can start with Raul Ibanez. The 41-year-old outfielder/DH has built on last fall’s power binge, blasting 19 homers in 61 games while slugging .544, all in one of the toughest parks for hitters. He costs next to nothing and could be an upgrade for several AL teams at DH, or at the very least as a part-time outfielder and ace pinch hitter for multiple contenders. Like Ibanez, Mike Morse offers no discernible skills other than power, but with an Isolated Power number greater than .200, he could attract some buyers when he comes off the DL in a week or two. Kendrys Morales has posted offensive numbers 17 percent above league average and is owed about $2.5 million more in his walk year before free agency. If a bunch of mediocre teams end up harboring false hopes of contention, we could see a thin market for power hitters. If that happens, skills-limited sluggers like Ibanez, Morse, and Morales could fetch more than expected.
30. HOUSTON ASTROS
Bud Norris’s name has been linked to every major league team, half the teams in the Pacific Coast League, the Newark Bears, the Bad News Bears, and the post–Monty Brewster inheritance Hackensack Bulls. Rightfully so. Norris has posted a 3.35 ERA and 3.52 FIP through 102 innings. His recent results have been even better, with a 2.42 ERA, .649 opponents’ OPS, and just two homers allowed in his past 52 innings. And he’s under team control for the next 2½ years for whichever team gets him, making him one of the only starters likely to offer that much controllable service time who’ll be available over the next month.
Just don’t sleep on Erik Bedard. After a terrible start to the season, he has struck out 42 batters, walked 19, and ceded just four homers in his past nine starts, netting a 3.23 ERA. You won’t find a cheaper starter anywhere, with Bedard slightly less than half of the bargain-basement $1.15 million contract he bagged for the year. Though his aggregate numbers look a lot worse, glance at what the awful fifth starters have done for several contending teams and suddenly a market for the 34-year-old lefty emerges.
Count on the Astros to cash in whatever they can as they take the long view toward rebuilding, including relievers like Jose Veras and Wesley Wright, and maybe Carlos Pena for a team seeking bench help. If a player isn’t stapled to Tal’s Hill, he’s available.