When the Angels beat the Mariners to even their series Saturday, Garrett Richards delivered the kind of win people have come to expect from him. He pitched into the eighth to notch his eighth victory and 11th quality start. Without getting big games at the plate from either Mike Trout or Albert Pujols, the Angels managed to get four runs and give Richards a lead he could work with.
So you might be asking yourself: Are the Angels going to make a move and take over the AL West?
There is certainly enough star power on this team that it might be able to put away the anonymous Astros (at least comparatively). Richards is a top-shelf starter doubling down on last year’s breakthrough. Pujols is leading the American League in home runs and putting up his best season since he left St. Louis. With another season with an OPS above .939, Trout is adding a fourth year to the previous trio of campaigns for “best start to a career ever.”
You’d expect to associate all that baseball goodness with a contender, and given that the Angels are just four games out of first in the AL West and 2½ out of the wild-card picture (which includes everybody in the league), you can call the Angels a contender. But they’re also just a .500 team, and that’s what they’ve been for a while now, after going 5-5 in their past 10, 10-10 in their past 20 and 15-15 in their past 30. The Angels are anything but unlucky, having split their one-run games (12-12) while barely outperforming their expected record and standing 38-37 instead of 37-38. This doesn’t look like a team about to bust out.
The problem is the lineup beyond Trout and Pujols. The Angels are averaging fewer than four runs per game and rank just 12th in the league in runs scored. That’s despite Trout -- the best player in baseball -- and the AL’s home run leader in Pujols.
What’s wrong? For starters, three lineup slots -- catcher, shortstop and left field -- are cranking out an OPS below .600. The Angels' designated hitters are putting up a collective OPS of just .631 despite an assist from Phat Albert on his days off from first base. The Angels are overwhelmingly mediocre despite their star power because, in this particular stars-and-scrubs theme, the scrubs are worse than average.
You can understand the problems at the up-the-middle positions -- it’s Erick Aybar or bust at short, with not a lot of alternatives. If Carlos Perez isn’t ready to take over for Chris Iannetta behind the plate, that isn’t the rookie’s fault.
The real problem is not getting offense at offensive positions such as left field and DH. Much of that is self-inflicted with the decision to get rid of Josh Hamilton earlier this year after investing in him more than $125 million over five years. Dumping Hamilton on the Rangers and effectively eating the contract didn’t just hurt the Angels financially, now and into the future; it left them in a hole with no ready replacement at either big-bopper lineup slot.
All this means if the Angels want to make a move past the Astros, general manager Jerry Dipoto will have to shop for premium bats. That’s no easy task, considering almost everyone is still in the running for at least a wild-card slot as we approach July. That keeps the better alternatives out of the mix if there’s going to be a fix sooner rather than later. Maybe that means asking about Domonic Brown from the Phillies, on the off chance a change of scenery does him good, or absorbing the expense of trading for Jay Bruce from the Reds (or settling for Marlon Byrd). It means talking to the Brewers about Adam Lind and Gerardo Parra and feeling great if you get either.
The good news is that between the power pair in the lineup and the pitching, the Angels don’t have much else to worry about. Their rotation is one of the league’s best, and that’s the platform for succeeding and making sure a little bit more offense would go a long way. Richards has been the ace the Angels learned they had after last year’s breakthrough. Losing Jered Weaver to the DL with a hip injury until after the All-Star break might actually be a small relief, given Weaver’s struggles (4.8 RA/9 and 4.80 FIP, not to mention a career-low 12 percent strikeout rate), because it creates the opportunity to see if former Marlins prospect Andrew Heaney is going to be a serious stretch option as a starter. Heaney made a strong first start Wednesday by beating the Astros to clinch a series win. He gets his second spin against the Yankees on Tuesday.
If Dipoto is ready to shop sooner rather than later, based on the very few sellers in the trade market, he might give his team the depth it needs. That might sound like last year’s script, when the Angels overtook the A’s to win the West, but last year’s Angels were 42-33 at this point of the season. But if the Angels do something to help themselves in the lineup now, they’ll be ready to deliver again down the stretch.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.