After a (pretty big) hiccup, we're back with the trimester checkups. Last, and definitely least, we're hitting the western circuits. AL first.
1. Texas Rangers, 37-31
2. Los Angeles Angels, 36-31
3. Seattle Mariners, 35-34
4. Oakland A's, 30-38
Biggest Surprise: Well, the Rangers, of course. This is a team with loads of young talent in the bigs and the minors; that they put it together this quickly is remarkable, even if it is still fairly early. But their pitching looked like it might have been Orioles-level bad, and instead they've managed to stay above .500 as their motley mound crew, headed by the resurgent Kevin Millwood, has pitched above expectations. They're not quite hitting like Ranger teams of old, but Josh Hamilton's likely to put up numbers once he returns from surgery, and Chris Davis is due to rebound. If he doesn't, they've still got Justin Smoak ready to take his spot at first. The bats should heat up with the weather; the Rangers just have to hope that their pitchers don't wear down in the Texas heat. Oh, and Russell Branyan of the Mariners deserves a mention here. Dude's been mashing lefties for years, and he finally got a starting job at the tender age of 33. What's he done with it so far? Oh, just OPS'd over 1.000. NBD, brah. Jarrod Washburn's been surprisingly good for the fishermen of the northwest as well.
Biggest Disappointment: The A's, we suppose. Some places had tabbed them as divison winners; we didn't share their optimism, but we did expect better than the sub-.500 performance they're tossed up so far. Key culprits include a punchless Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera...heck, a punchless lineup. No one on this team is slugging .500. Oddly, what was seen as their biggest Achilles heel going into the season was their young pitching, and Dallas Braden, Josh Outman, and Trevor Cahill have done an above-average job fronting up the rotation. Brett Anderson has left a lot to be desired, but the team that doesn't have problems in the back end of its rotation is a rare one.
Moves That Should Be Made:
- The Rangers need to shore up their pitching staff. We know, we know, we just extolled their virtues. But the fact is, most of these guys just aren't very good, and most of the young guys aren't ready yet. They do have a position of rare strength with their young pitching and catching depth; our suggestion is to call up RHP Neftali Feliz and flip C Max Ramirez and RHP Neil Ramirez for RHP Aaron Cook. The Rockies are out of contention right now, and while C Chris Iannetta is a very good backstop, catching is one of those places where teams always want more. Both Ramirezes are relatively high-ceiling prospects; if Max finds a starting job, it won't be with Texas, though. Neil is young and inconsistent, but could be a star - and the Rox could stand for some upside with their hurlers. Cook's groundball tendencies should play well in the Texas bandbox.
- The Angels need to call up 3B/SS Brandon Wood. And he needs to play every day. That this guy has been held in the minors for so long, putting up so many numbers, that it's absurd the organization hasn't given him a fair look. He's played 3 years in AAA now, hitting 25, 23, and 31 HRs while his extremely high strikeout rate has declined each year. The guy's learned his batting eye, he's slugging .600, and he can play shortstop. Most teams would be dying to have this guy on their team and the Halos are willfully witholding his wings. They don't have the money or flexibility to go get anyone else, either.
- The Mariners need to trade Jarrod Washburn to the Rays for SS Reid Brignac or OF Fernando Perez. That is, assuming the Rays don't do as we suggested here and flip Brignac to the Indians. The Rays need another pitcher to remain competitive in the ridiculously stacked AL East; between Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine, they've basically been punting games. If Kazmir can come back healthy, and if Washburn keeps this up, all of a sudden the Rays have a starting five that can compete with anyone in the league. As for the M's, they get a guy with higher upside than incumbent SS Yuniesky Betancourt (best name in the majors) or another fast glove guy who happens to have some upside with the stick to put alongside Ichiro, and Wladimir Balentien, or whosoever takes the third spot in the outfield.
- The A's need to decide whether they're contenders or not. In our opinion, they aren't. So, there's a couple deals they should make. Send LF Matt Holliday and 2B Adam Kennedy to the Tigers for OF Wilkin Ramirez and 1B Ryan Strieby. Both Ramirez and Strieby have 40-HR potential, and the A's are all about stockpiling high-ceiling guys. Whether that's enough to reel in Holliday is questionable, and he also has to prove he can play right field, but that's a foundation for a deal. The Tigers have the high upside guys that they don't need now as division title contenders, and the A's have expendable veteran pieces in Holliday and Kennedy. Owner Mike Ilitch has said that he's willing to spend whatever it takes to turn this team into a winner; he can put his money where his mouth is by landing the big fish on the market.
Prognostication: The Rangers are going to slow down a bit if their pitching starts performing as expected. They're going to come to a screeching halt if that happens and Josh Hamilton fails to find his swing. We see them calling up Justin Smoak at some point and also trading for pitching, both of which should be a big help. The Angels need to get healthy; once John Lackey, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar get fully healthy, they will have three more star-caliber pitchers in their pocket. Escobar's probably going to be relegated to bullpen duty the rest of the way, which is convenient since star 8th-inning guy Scot Shields is out for the year, and Lackey and Santana should be great for a rotation that's been mediocre. Vlad better start hitting, though. There's another guy who might be washed up... The Mariners are in a rebuiliding process that is showing better results now than was expected. But we don't think that's a good thing; this team is not good enough to actually win at a good clip all year. If they fail to recognize this like they did 2 seasos ago, when they went for broke trading for Erik Bedard after a fluky season, they'll dig themselves deeper into the same hole they're working out of right now. The A's don't have a whole lot to build on. Their offense is moribund and we have very little hope for them to recover. The way we see it, Matt Holliday and Jack Cust are really the only two major-league caliber hitters in the group. Their pitching is showing signs of improving, which is great for the youngsters, but they won't contend this year the way some thought they would.
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Texas Rangers
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland A's