SweetSpot: Mark Trumbo

1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.

Happy birthday, Albert Pujols

January, 16, 2014
I'm going to try something new here. Maybe this will be a one-time post, maybe I'll do it on occasion or maybe I'll do it for two months and get tired of doing it. Anyway, the idea is to look at each day's list of birthdays and write a short blurb about some of the players. So let's give it a shot.

Today looks like a pretty good day for birthdays -- two Hall of Famers plus a future Hall of Famer.

Jimmy Collins: Born in 1870

Collins was a turn-of-the-century third baseman known for his slick fielding, one of the stars of the National League powerhouse Boston Beaneaters. He jumped ship to the Boston Americans to become player-manager when the American League was founded in 1901. Can you imagine the uproar that must have caused? It would be like Robinson Cano leaving the Yankees to become player-manager of the Mets. Collins received a big raise in salary and a percentage of the team's profits and accused National League owners of holding down salaries (he was right). Collins was the manager of the Americans when they won the first World Series in 1903.

Those Beaneaters teams were dominant for much of the decade. They won championships in 1891, '92 and '93, and with Collins, they won National League pennants in 1897 (Collins hit .346 and drove in 132 runs) and 1898 (Collins hit .328 and led the league in home runs and total bases). The 1897 team featured four Hall of Famers (Collins, outfielders Hugh Duffy and the original Billy Hamilton, and pitcher Kid Nichols) and went 93-39 while outscoring its opponents 1,025 runs to 665. That's 7.6 runs per game. And you thought offense was out of control in the steroids era. The 1898 club went 102-47 and added a fifth Hall of Famer in pitcher Vic Willis. Manager Frank Selee is also in Cooperstown. The Boston clubs were known for their speed, probably utilizing the hit-and-run and double steal with runners on first and third more than any team of their era.

After his major league career ended, Collins played and managed a couple years in the minors before returning to his hometown of Buffalo, where he lived well off real-estate investments until the Depression wiped him out. It seems odd he never got another chance to manage in the majors, as his Boston teams were generally successful, but maybe he'd had enough with baseball. As Bill James has written, Collins was largely considered the greatest third baseman of all time up to the mid-'50s, but he's a forgotten star now. The Old Timers Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1945, two years after his death.

Dizzy Dean: Born 1910

You probably know the Dizzy Dean story; or maybe not. If not, you should, as he's one of the most colorful characters in major league history, an American original, the last National League pitcher to win 30 games in a season and later a national broadcaster for ABC and CBS. He was a country boy from Arkansas, an image he played up both as a player and broadcaster. ("The Good Lord was good to me. He gave me a strong right arm, a good body, and a weak mind.")

Dean won 30 games in 1934 and two more in the World Series, including a Game 7 shutout to beat the Tigers. He won the MVP Award that year and followed that up with MVP runner-up finishes in 1935 (28-12, 29 complete games) and 1936 (24-13, 28 complete games and 11 saves). He was pitching as well as ever when he started the 1937 All-Star Game. Earl Averill smoked a line drive back to the mound that broke Dean's toe and, as the story goes, Dean came back too soon from the injury, altered his delivery so he wouldn't land as hard on his foot and hurt his shoulder.

Does the story hold up? It seems to. The All-Star Game was on July 7. Dean had thrown a shutout in his last start before the game. He returned on July 21 and made a few more starts -- pitching OK, although his strikeouts were down. He started on Aug. 8, but not again until Aug. 22. On Aug. 26, he started but left after one batter. He tried one more start before shutting it down for the season. So there's little doubt he wasn't the same after the All-Star Game.

The following April, the Cardinals traded Dean to the Cubs at the end of spring training. The AP article doesn't mention anything about Dean's injury problems from the year before, although it quotes teammate Pepper Martin saying this about his spring performance: "Well, he's been sort of in and out so far. He hasn't been pitching his fast ball." Terry Moore, another teammate, said, "Don't worry about that. We'll have his fast ball all right when he gets to Chicago." The article quotes a Cubs scout saying, "I'm convinced Dizzy is just as good as he ever was."

Dean actually went 7-1 with a 1.83 ERA with the Cubs, but he made just 10 starts. Sure, it could have just been a result of all those innings -- he averaged 306 innings from 1932 to 1936, often pitching in relief between starts -- but everything did fall apart after the broken toe. A 1942 newspaper story tells of Dean attempting a comeback (he had pitched one game for the Cubs in 1941), and mentions he was now throwing sidearm and a lot of slow curveballs. Dean said his shoulder didn't hurt, just that he no longer had his fastball.

Here's a question: If Dean had his career today, would he be elected to the Hall of Fame? He won just 150 games and basically had a six-year career. Kind of where Clayton Kershaw is right now. If Mike Trout hits a line drive off Kershaw in the 2014 All-Star Game, breaking his toe, and Kershaw proceeds to hurt his shoulder and scuffle along for a few years, does he get elected to the Hall of Fame? Probably not. (Of course, if Kershaw had Dean's personality ...)

Jack McDowell: Born 1966

As a Mariners fan, I have two quick recollections of McDowell: Randy Johnson should have won that 1993 Cy Young Award (OK, maybe Kevin Appier should have won it); and, of course, this play. A fun pitcher to watch, competitive, injuries cut his career short.

Albert Pujols: Born 1980 (no snickering)

Is there a more difficult player to project for 2014 than Pujols? It still seems too soon to dismiss his greatness, especially considering the foot injury he tried to play through in 2013. On the other hand, there is the trend line in his batting averages and slugging percentages: .357, .327, .312, .299, .285, .258; and .653, .658, .596, .541, .516, .437. In 2008 and 2009, he was a 9-WAR player and deservedly won two MVP trophies. In 2013, he was down to 1.5 WAR.

The projection systems don't know exactly what do with Pujols. Steamer has him at .282/.357/.515 -- basically a mirror image of 2012, when he hit 50 doubles and 30 home runs. Oliver has him at .263/.330/.446.

Pujols is still just 34 and he was pretty good in 2012, even if he wasn't the ALBERT PUJOLS of his Cardinals days. So the Angels have to believe that Pujols can rebound to his 2012 level. If he does and plays 150 games, they should be happy at this point. I'm inclined to bet he rebounds a bit -- that .280/.350/.500 line sounds about right.

Mark Trumbo: Born 1986

Happy birthday, Mark. May you hit 40 long ones for the Diamondbacks.

NL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we would take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our National League look:

NL East
Braves: The big change for Atlanta will be dealing with the departure of Brian McCann, whose strike-stealing skills will be hard to replace. Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will try. Gattis may be better than you think (3 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013). By our tally (and that of StatCorner’s publicly available data), he ranked among the best in the majors at getting pitches in the strike zone to be called strikes.

Marlins: The Miami infield rated as average last season, but it has a new -- and potentially worse -- look in 2014, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria as the lone holdover. The Marlins will try Garrett Jones (and his negative-22 career Runs Saved) at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base (last played there for two innings in 2004) and Casey McGehee at third (bad numbers there in 2009 and 2010, but average in 2011). They’ll also have Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching; he typically rates bottom of the pack when it comes to defensive metrics.

Mets: The big story for the Mets will likely be how three center fielders coalesce in the outfield. If it works, the Mets could have the best ground-covering combo in the league. The likely alignment will be Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, though Young could shift to center (with Granderson moving to right and Eric Young to left) if Lagares’ offense isn’t to the Mets liking.

Nationals: Washington hasn't done anything to tinker with its primary starting unit. Arguably the biggest worry will be making sure Bryce Harper doesn’t overhustle his way into any walls as he did last season. The other thing that will be intriguing will be how new acquisition Doug Fister fares with a better infield defense behind him than he had in Detroit the past couple of seasons. Some think that could bode really well.

Phillies: Many scoffed at the Marlon Byrd contract, but he represents a huge defensive upgrade for the Phillies in right field. The transition from John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young, Darin Ruf and Laynce Nix to Byrd represents a swing of 31 Runs Saved (the four combined for negative-19 Runs Saved; Byrd rated among the best with 12).

The Phillies still have a lot of defensive issues, though. First baseman Ryan Howard has minimal range. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins may still pass the eye test but has rated poorly three years running (negative-30 Runs Saved in that span). Their third-base combo rated almost as badly as right field. And primary center fielder Ben Revere had all sorts of issues with balls hit over his head last season. There is a lot of potential trouble brewing for 2014.

NL Central
Brewers: Ryan Braun will not just be returning from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He’ll also be playing a new position, right field, as the Brewers announced their intention to shift him from left field. Braun has 23 Runs Saved over the past four seasons, but the deterrent value of his throwing arm, which is minimal to below average, will now be a bigger factor. He’ll have to be pretty good all-around to match what the team got from Norichika Aoki & Co. (combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved).

Cardinals: St. Louis ranked second to last in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved last season and had only one position that rated above the major league average. That shouldn’t happen again.

The Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter from second to his natural spot at third, where he should be an upgrade over David Freese. Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who, if his hamstrings are healthy, could be a 20-plus run improvement over Jon Jay in center field. Another great glove in Mark Ellis signed to share second base with Kolten Wong, which will be an improvement over Carpenter. And Jhonny Peralta probably is no worse than on par defensively with the man he’ll replace at short, Pete Kozma. In sum, the Cardinals could be the most-improved defensive team from last season to this season.

Cubs: The Cubs aren’t vastly different from what they were at the end of last season, at least not yet. Their outfield defense needed an upgrade, and the one thing they’ve done to that end is obtain Justin Ruggiano. He has fared both well and poorly in center field in the past. Ruggiano may get a full-time shot to see what he can do in 2014.

Pirates: Pittsburgh liked Russell Martin so much it brought in a defensive standout to back him up in Chris Stewart. Stewart excels in all areas and could invert what the team got in 2013 from its backup catchers (negative-6 Runs Saved). The Pirates were also smart about keeping Clint Barmes around on a low-salary deal. He’s no Andrelton Simmons, but he rates among the best defensive shortstops in the league.

Reds: Cincinnati will give Billy Hamilton every chance to be the every-day center fielder in 2014. He rates as “fine,” which will be a major upgrade from the struggles of Shin-Soo Choo, who was forced to play out of position last season. The Reds will also fully take the training wheels off Devin Mesoraco with outstanding defender Ryan Hanigan having been traded to the Rays. Keep an eye on that one. The security of having Hanigan could be a big loss on the defensive side.

NL West
Diamondbacks: Mark Trumbo shifted back and forth between first base and the outfield with the Angels, but he should be the full-time left fielder in 2014 for a team that had four players with 25 or more starts at the position last season. Trumbo showed he could handle left in a stint there with the Halos two seasons ago (a better fit there than in right). My guess is the Diamondbacks will play him deep and concede some singles to limit the number of times he’ll have to retreat to chase a potential extra-base hit.

Dodgers: Yasiel Puig posted a terrific defensive rating in his initial stint in the big leagues (10 Runs Saved), but one concern the Dodgers will have was visible in the NL Championship Series -- how Puig does at limiting his mistakes.

Puig ranked 20th in innings played in right field last season but had the seventh-most Defensive Misplays & Errors (22) based on Baseball Info Solutions’ video review. Over 162 games, that might not affect his overall rating, but that sort of thing could play a large role in swinging a couple of important games one way or the other.

The loss of Mark Ellis could also be big, though the jury is out until we see how Alexander Guerrero handles second base.

Giants: San Francisco cast its lot with a pair of outfielders who will look a bit awkward in the corners, with Mike Morse in left and Hunter Pence in right. This could be a problem if the pitching staff is fly ball inclined. Pence is at negative-16 Runs Saved over the past two seasons. Morse fits best as a DH, and his value will be in whether he can drive in more runs than he lets in. Whoever the Giants' center fielder is this season will have his work cut out for him.

Padres: San Diego will look to run Seth Smith, whom it got from the Athletics for Luke Gregerson, in right field. This could be a little dicey. Smith has negative-13 Runs Saved in the equivalent of about a season’s worth of games there. Expect Chris Denorfia (21 career Runs Saved in right) to remain as a valuable fourth outfielder, late-game replacement.

Rockies: The big defensive-themed news for the Rockies this offseason was their decision to commit to Gold Glove left fielder Carlos Gonzalez as a full-timer in center after trading Dexter Fowler. So long as he’s not the Gonzalez of 2012, who looked a little heavy and finished with negative-13 Runs Saved, that should work out all right.

Colorado does have a lot of flexibility in its outfield with Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs coming off the bench for now. Either could come in as a late-game replacement for Michael Cuddyer if needed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if either got some significant playing time in left field too.
After winning five American League West titles in six seasons, the Angels missed the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 and replaced general manager Tony Reagins with Jerry Dipoto. In 2012, they signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson as free agents and Mike Trout burst onto the scene with a rookie season for the ages, but they still missed the playoffs. In 2013, they added Josh Hamilton, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton and missed the playoffs again, finishing with their worst record since 2003.

The consensus seems to be the Angels need to make some big moves this winter, but those moves will be impeded by the albatross contracts of Pujols and Hamilton. Pujols is owed $212 million through 2021 and Hamilton $107.6 million through 2017. In 2016, those two alone will make $57.4 million ($58.4 million in 2017). Wilson and Jered Weaver are also signed through 2016; that year, the Angels will be paying more than $98 million to those four players.

Oh, they also have what is regarded as one of the weakest farm systems in the majors.

The hidden flaw in the Angels in 2013 was their defense. Consider:

2013: -63 Defensive Runs Saved (27th in majors)
2012: +58 Defensive Runs Saved (2nd in majors)

Whoa. The Angels were 121 runs worse on defense in 2013? Let's see what happened, with the usual caveats that one-year defensive metrics aren't always reliable (Ultimate Zone Rating had the Angels declining from plus-60 to negative-2, still a big drop).

C: +2 to -7 (Chris Iannetta from 0 to -7)
1B: +7 to 0 (Pujols from +8 to +1)
2B: +3 to -9 (Grant Green was -6 in 323 innings)
3B: +4 to -4 (Alberto Callaspo from +7 to -6)
SS: -7 to -12 (Erick Aybar from +3 to -7)
LF: +7 to +1 (Mark Trumbo was +7 in 497 innings in 2012)
CF: +30 to -7 (Trout from +23 to -9)
RF: +9 to -13 (Torii Hunter was +15 while Hamilton was -8)
P: +2 to -13 (J.C. Gutierrez -4 in just 26 innings)

So according to Defensive Runs Saved, the Angels declined at every position, with the biggest problems caused by Trout declining 32 runs in center field and Hamilton replacing Hunter, a decline of 23 runs. (Mark Simon detailed Trout's defensive problems in late August.)

Overall, the Angels allowed 38 more runs in 2013, so that decline -- if you trust Defensive Runs Saved -- is mostly attributable to the defense and not the pitching staff. If that's the case, this should show up in the peripheral pitching numbers. Let's see:

2012 7.3 3.0 1.0 72.6 .277
2013 7.4 3.3 1.2 72.3 .300

The Angels did walk a few more batters, but the big difference was batting average on balls in play. In 2012, the Angels ranked second in the majors in BABIP (just behind the Rays). In 2013, they ranked 22nd. Those figures do suggest a defensive decline (well, plus a lot of line drives allowed by Joe Blanton).

The trick for the Angels' front office: Do you work to improve the pitching staff or work to improve the team's defense? And how can they avoid torpedoing the offense in the process? Trading Howie Kendrick and installing Grant Green or rookie Taylor Lindsey at second base likely hurts you on defense and offense (Green probably won't hit as well as Kendrick and Keith Law gave Lindsey's defense in the Arizona Fall League a poor review). Or maybe you trade Kendrick, hope for the best from Green/Lindsey and hope everyone else plays a little better than last season. Still, the defensive numbers are a reason I'd be hesitant about trading Peter Bourjos, who may not bring much in trade anyway considering his injury issues last season.

If I'm the Angels, I look to deal Trumbo, who hit 34 home runs but will be 28 and had a sub-.300 OBP. The power is nice, but it comes at the expense of a lot of outs at the plate. Now's the time to trade him, with three years of team control being an attraction for another club. Return Pujols to first base, play Kole Calhoun in the outfield with Trout and Bourjos and have Hamilton split time in right field and DH.

Baseball-Reference estimates the Angels' payroll right now at $148 million after being at $137 million in 2013. With the new $25 million in national TV money, there's money for the Angels to go up over that $137 million, but probably not a lot of room for big-ticket free agents. That means the Angels probably have to take a risk on a couple of low-cost starters if they want to improve their rotation -- think Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Phil Hughes or bringing back Jason Vargas. None of those guys will break the bank or require a long-term deal.

That still leaves third base open, assuming Trumbo is dealt for pitching help (say, Felix Doubront from the Red Sox). Jhonny Peralta would be a nice fit there, a guy Jim Bowden predicted to receive a two-year, $20 million deal.

It's not a sexy offseason, but the Angels could then roll out a lineup like this:

RF Kole Calhoun
2B Howie Kendrick
LF Mike Trout
1B Albert Pujols
DH Josh Hamilton
3B Jhonny Peralta (2 years, $20 million)
C Chris Iannetta/Hank Conger
SS Erick Aybar
CF Peter Bourjos

SP Jered Weaver
SP C.J. Wilson
SP Josh Johnson (1 year, $8 million)
SP Felix Doubront
SP Garrett Richards
SP Jerome Williams
SP Tommy Hanson (the Angels may non-tender him )
SP Joe Blanton (he's still around!)
SP Chris Volstad

Can that team win? It certainly would be dependent on getting more from Pujols than Hamilton. Pujols had the foot injury he tried to play through and Hamilton did hit .287/.341/.460 in the second half (a big improvement from his .224/.283/.413 first half), so there is a good chance that will happen.

I can see the Angels improving in 2013. Just not sure they have the resources to catch the A's and Rangers.

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.

Even short-handed, Angels flying high

May, 26, 2013

The Angels had a plan, and the expectation was that if they executed it, this time around they’d get back to the postseason. They’ve followed a course many might advise, and when they fell hard early, many were ready to write them off. But now that they’re riding a seven-game win streak and they’re on the cusp of seeing their roster more closely resemble their original contending design, “it’s early” is no longer an excuse, and it might be a confident prediction that the Angels are far from done when it comes to the American League postseason picture.

Keep in mind, the Angels have been missing from October action since 2009, when they lost the ALCS to the Yankees in six games. Making good on the time and seasons lost inspired their $240 million investment in Albert Pujols, followed by last winter’s $133 million in Josh Hamilton. In doing so, the Angels were doing something many statheads could sign off on: investing major money in top-quality position players, putting their money on the so-called “certainty” that hitters age a certain way. Proving that Arte Moreno’s pockets aren’t bottomless, for free-agent pitching help they settled on journeyman Joe Blanton and traded for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson.

This season, same as last (when they got off to an 8-15 start in April), the Angels dug themselves an early hole. But now, as the big-spending franchise gets in gear and finally starts winning games -- clouting the AL’s middle-class franchises, such as the Mariners, Royals and White Sox -- it’s worth crediting Los Angeles for what’s working. Obviously, any plan that starts with having Mike Trout has something going for it, and he and fellow homegrown Angel Mark Trumbo have combined to make any investment in free agents over homegrown talent seem like money ill-spent. Trout and Trumbo have powered the win streak, between them muscling nine extra-base hits, including four home runs, in those seven games.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout, Mark Trumbo
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMike Trout, left, and Mark Trumbo have been homegrown keys to the Angels' win streak.
That duo hasn’t been alone, though. Some of it is a matter of who’s due. Hamilton might not be slugging what’s expected in the aggregate yet, but he cranked out six walks and a couple of homers during the streak. Chris Iannetta, long loathed for what he hadn’t lived up to being during his time in Denver, has settled into being what he can be as an Angel, providing OBP -- in the form of 30 walks already -- to a team that can score men on base, plus a couple of homers during the streak. Alberto Callaspo has had a great week, ripping five doubles and plating eight men before Saturday’s action. That might be the last time you read about Alberto Callaspo, but if he can be better than the sub-.700 OPS he’d sunk to beforehand, third base is no longer a problem to solve.

But the better news is that the Angels have been doing this even as injuries have kept staff ace Jered Weaver, closer Ryan Madson and erstwhile leadoff threat Peter Bourjos out of action, while nagging hurts have kept Pujols from really romping at opponents’ expense. But Pujols, already living down the most disappointing 80-extra-base-hit season ever -- and how reasonable is that? -- while playing on bad wheels, has bounced back at the bat; seeing regular turns as designated hitter, he's been left to get back to doing what he can do best: hitting for average and power. And with Bourjos and Weaver due back inside of two weeks, and Madson gearing up for a June return, the Angels might be just rolling. But just as you might expect the natural life of a hot streak to peter out, they’re about to get reinforcements.

Even with Weaver out for another couple of spins through the rotation, it’s also worth noting that this year’s cobbled-together crew has done well in the meantime -- sitting just two quality starts behind the AL-leading White Sox and Tigers. With Weaver hurt and Hanson absent for much of May with an undisclosed problem, much of that has been thanks to C.J. Wilson (eight of 10) and Vargas (six of 10), the lefties scooped up from division rivals in consecutive seasons. But in their moments of need, they’ve also been able to turn to swingman Jerome Williams -- because, yes, the Angels have one -- who has put up three quality starts in four turns. Once Weaver and Hanson return, it makes for an interesting decision, to see whether manager Mike Scioscia will bump Williams back to the bullpen before Blanton, who’s 1-7 with a 6.19 ERA.

Going forward, the same reasons to believe that the Angels had it going for them up front are there. They still have Trout, who might be the best bet to be the no-doubt-about-it best player in baseball since Ken Griffey Jr., or maybe even Fred Lynn. Hamilton might not deliver the same results playing in Anaheim that he did in the Rangers’ bandbox, but the same basic talent should be there. Even if Pujols has to DH and Trumbo keeps manning first, if that lets Pujols keep producing an .876 OPS without having to field, that’s well worth doing.

With help on the way and the Angels already showing off how they can play, you better believe they’re far from done.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games ...
  • The Orioles continue to impress, beating the Royals 5-3, improving to 21-13. They only had five hits, but took advantage of three Kansas City errors, and the bullpen backed up Chris Tillman with three scoreless innings. The one area the Orioles aren't getting production from is second base, where Ryan Flaherty is hitting .114 and Brian Roberts is on the DL. This is a good team, but I'm not sure the Orioles can count on Roberts staying healthy when he returns. What about going after Chase Utley, an impending free agent? This article by Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs points out that Utley has a no-trade clause to 21 teams, and the Orioles and Phillies are rivals by geographic proximity, but Utley makes perfect sense. He'd look pretty sweet in the third spot in the lineup between Manny Machado and Adam Jones.
  • The Angels might have hit a low point -- and that's saying something -- in a 3-1 loss to Bud Norris and the Astros. As Jason Collette pointed out on Twitter, the Angels saw just 93 pitches, the third-lowest total of the season and lowest by an AL team. Even more remarkable -- they had 11 runners, with nine hits, a walk and a hit batter. Eight times the Angels put the first pitch in play (one of those was a Josh Hamilton home run) but the Astros turned four double plays. The Angels are 11-22, and last night's game had the appearance of a team playing out the string in a late September game. "It's still frustrating," Mark Trumbo told MLB.com. "You never want to stop feeling frustrated, because then you've pretty much given up hope. You come here each day with the mindset we're going to win the ballgame, so obviously it's a letdown when that doesn't happen."
  • The Twins pounded Red Sox rookie starter Allen Webster, who looked like the JV kid called up to the varsity in his second career start. Not only does he look 15 years old, but he pitched tentatively and then grooved his fastball when behind in the count, and the Twins pounced. The 15-8 win pushed the surprising Twins to .500. David Ortiz also had his 27-game hitting streak dating to last season stopped. With the Twins playing respectable baseball, the Indians on a roll and the Royals four games over .500, the AL Central might be better than it has been in years.
  • In a day game, Felix Hernandez outdueled A.J. Burnett for a 2-1 victory. The Pirates scored in the first when Starling Marte pulled a low fastball down the third-base line for a double and scored on Andrew McCutchen's hit. After walking Garrett Jones, the King got a double play and cruised after that. Burnett was just as tough, but Seattle scored one run without a hit thanks to two wild pitches, and then Jesus Montero homered in the seventh. What I didn't understand was Eric Wedge pulling Hernandez in the ninth. He'd only thrown 98 pitches and, yes, Tom Wilhelmsen has been solid, but I'd have let Felix finish it off.
  • Another terrific start by Jordan Zimmermann, who shut down the Tigers for seven innings in the Nationals' 3-1 win. He's now 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA, and in his past three starts -- against the Tigers, Braves and Reds -- has allowed just one run. Zimmermann's approach is different from guys like Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish, who have dominated while racking up the strikeouts. Zimmermann pitches more to contact and has just 34 K's in 51 innings, despite which he's allowed just a .181 average thanks to a .209 average on balls in play. I like Zimmermann a lot, but I'm not quite ready to put him in the Hernandez/Darvish/Verlander/Harvey class. One thing that seems clear, however: He, and not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, is the ace of the Nationals.
  • Goldschmidt happens. Again.
There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than watching Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander pitch. Especially if you're not at the ballpark and you can set up a laptop outside, put up your feet, soak in those first warm rays of early May and imagine what it's like to throw a baseball like these two guys.

Darvish faced the Red Sox and struck out 14 batters in his seven innings -- and in some ways this was a bad start for him, as he gave up two home runs and three runs. But he showed why he's been so tough this season: four strikeouts on his fastball, six with his slider, three on his curve and a 14th on a pitch classified as a splitter (a 93-mph pitch that David Ortiz swung through in the sixth inning). Who knows; it could have been a gyroball or some other exotic pitch Darvish made up on the spot. On his 127th and final pitch, he fanned Pedro Ciriaco on a 3-2 slider that moved wickedly away from the plate. Rangers manager Ron Washington took him out, and he ended up with a no-decision in Texas' 4-3 victory, but I have no doubt he could have pitched another inning or two.

Verlander, meanwhile, cruised through the Triple-A lineup known as the Houston Astros, taking a no-hitter into the seventh while rarely pumping up the velocity on his fastball. He didn't need to. He averaged 92.8 mph on his heater, but on this day that was enough. He pitched seven scoreless frames, allowing two hits and striking out nine.

With apologies to Clay Buchholz (great start but inconsistent career), Matt Harvey (too soon), Jordan Zimmermann (getting there), Adam Wainwright (amazing control so far) and a few others, the battle for best right-handed starter in baseball right now is between Darvish, Verlander and Felix Hernandez, who pitched his own must-watch gem on Friday, shutting out the Toronto Blue Jays over eight innings.

Let's take a quick look at how the three have fared in 2013.

The statistics
Darvish: 5-1, 2.56 ERA, 45.2 IP, 27 H, 15 BB, 72 SO, 3 HR, .169 AVG
Verlander: 4-2, 1.55 ERA, 46.1 IP, 38 H, 13 BB, 50 SO, 1 HR, .222 AVG
Hernandez: 4-2, 1.60 ERA, 50.2 IP, 39 H, 7 BB, 51 SO, 3 HR, .212 AVG

Hernandez has pitched the most innings; Verlander and Hernandez have the lower ERAs; but Darvish has been the most dominant, averaging 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that would shatter Randy Johnson's record for starters of 13.4, set in 2001. Darvish has also been the toughest to hit with that .169 batting average against and has to pitch in the best hitter's park of the three. Hernandez, however, has faced a slightly tougher slate of offenses, mostly because he's had to pitch against the Rangers and Tigers while the other two haven't. All three started once against Houston ... and none allowed a run.

Edge: We can't put too much emphasis on ERA this early in the season. Hernandez has the edge in durability and command, but Darvish's strikeout rate has been off-the-charts phenomenal. Edge to Darvish.

Issues entering the season
Darvish: Command, especially of fastball; he must prove he can be a 200-inning workhorse (threw 191.1 in 29 starts last season).

So far, it's mixed reviews on this. His walk rate is down from 11.9 percent to 8.4 percent, so that's good. His percentage of fastballs in the strike zone, however, is actually just 42 percent, down 10 percent from last season. He has the killer wipeout pitches when he gets to two strikes -- 20 K's in 31 plate appearances ending with his curve, 29 K's in 69 plate appearances with his slider -- which makes it scary that he's been so good without consistently throwing his fastball for strikes. In part, this works to his advantage -- kind of an effective wildness that makes it hard for hitters to attack his fastball (or his cutter, which hasn't been a great pitch for him) but can lead to some high pitch counts and fewer innings.

Verlander: Durability after leading AL in innings the past two seasons and throwing 50 more in the postseason. Would there be a letdown after two great seasons?

I'd say a 1.55 ERA answers the second question. He hasn't pitched more than seven innings yet, which is unusual for him, but that's not just because of a tight leash. He's had games of 126, 116, 114, 111 and 111 pitches. He did throw 120-plus in nine regular-season starts in 2012, so Jim Leyland has maybe been a little conservative so far, but Verlander has also pitched in a lot of cold weather. Plus, Leyland may hold back a bit, trying to make sure Verlander remains stronger for a possible October run.

Hernandez: Concerns about declining fastball velocity and late slump last season (0-4, 6.62 ERA in six September starts).

So far, his average fastball is down one mph from last season (92.1 to 91.1), which, in turn, is down two mph from 2011 and down from the 93.9 he averaged in his 2010 Cy Young season. Put it this way: His fastest fastball this season was 94.1 -- pretty much his average just three seasons ago. That said, he's been as good as ever, thanks to that Wiffleball changeup and showing that whatever happened last September was an aberration.

Edge: Even though he doesn't throw as hard as he once did, Hernandez looks better than ever with one of the best stretches of his career. Sure, it helps pitching in the dead air of the West Coast ballparks, and maybe some day the lack of separation betweeen his fastball and changeup will catch up to him, but we're not there yet.

Darvish: Off the charts. He is basically unhittable when he gets to two strikes, thanks to that curveball/slider combo. In 112 plate appearances with two strikes, batters are hitting .088 with 72 strikeouts, eight walks and two extra-base hits. Ouch.

Verlander: Speaking of fastball velocity, Verlander has yet to unleash one of his famous 100-mph heaters and has averaged just 92.2 mph with a peak velocity of 97.1. That doesn't mean it's been any easier to hit: Batters are hitting .192/.289/.256 against his fastball, which is actually worse than the .215/.291/.362 line in 2011.

Hernandez: There might not be a better pitch in the game right now than Hernandez's changeup, which moves away from lefties and jams righties. Batters are hitting .130 off it. He mixes in some sliders and curveballs, making him a four-pitch guy with great command of all four pitches.

Edge: It's hard to suggest somebody has better stuff than Verlander, but right now that's the case with Darvish's deep arsenal of weapons. Verlander doesn't necessarily have to crank it up 95-plus regularly -- we know that he's learned to conserve that until he needs it -- but until he does start doing that more often, nobody can match the electric arsenal of pitches that Darvish possesses.

Who is the best?
This is like picking between Mays and Mantle at their peaks. There's only one way to answer: If all three are pitching at the same time and you can watch only one -- and you don't have a rooting interest in one of the specific teams -- who are you watching? Right now, I'm watching Darvish. Put him in a neutral park and I think he's the best right-hander in the game.

But I might change my mind next week.



Who is the best right-handed starter right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 12,684)

Three stars

1. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins. A controversial call-up earlier in the week, considering he'd played just 10 games in Double-A (although he hit five home runs), Ozuna didn't look overmatched his first week in the majors, hitting .478 with five extra-base hits in his first six games. He hit his first home run off Cole Hamels in Saturday's 2-0 win -- a nice easy swing off a 92-mph fastball -- and then went 4-for-5 with two doubles, three runs and three RBIs on Sunday.

2. Jeremy Guthrie, Royals. Guthrie's three-year, $25 million free agent deal with Kansas City was widely panned, but so far, so great. Guthrie threw a four-hit shutout in Saturday's 2-0 win over the White Sox -- yes, a manager who let a pitcher go the distance in a close game! -- and improved to 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA.

3. Jon Jay, Cardinals. A few days ago, Jay was hitting .204 and he'd lost his leadoff spot in the lineup. Now he's had four straight two-hit games and is batting a respectable .252/.339/.393. He drove in two runs on Friday, hit a three-run homer off Yovani Gallardo on Saturday and scored two more runs on Sunday. The Cardinals won all four in Milwaukee.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Rangers pitching staff. The Red Sox entered the weekend leading the AL in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wOBA (weighted on-base average) -- in other words, the best offense in the league. Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Darvish held the Red Sox to four runs in 21 innings, striking out 27, as the Rangers swept. That's an impressive three starts against any lineup, but especially against a red-hot lineup in a pitcher's park like Texas'. The Rangers moved into a tie with the Red Sox for the best record in the AL, and it's been all about their pitching -- they've allowed the fewest runs in the AL. Kudos once again to pitching coach Mike Maddux for building a staff that appeared to have some holes entering the season (and especially when Matt Harrison underwent back surgery).

Best game
Giants 10, Dodgers 9, 10 innings (Saturday). On Friday night, Buster Posey hit a walk-off home run off Ronald Belisario on a 3-2 fastball to give the Giants a 2-1 win. On Saturday night, it was an unlikely hero for the Giants: Backup catcher Guillermo Quiroz lined a pinch-hit homer on an 0-2 pitch from Brandon League to give the Giants a 10-9 victory. The crazy game included the Giants blowing 5-0 and 6-1 leads, the Dodgers scoring seven runs in the fifth inning, the Giants tying it up, the Dodgers turning a 4-3 double play on Posey with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and then Quiroz hitting that sinker from League just over the fence in left for his third career home run and first against a right-hander. It wasn't a terrible pitch from League, as you can see from the pitch location map below; sometimes, the hitter just gets good wood on a good pitch.

QuirozESPN Stats & InformationBrandon League's 0-2 sinker wasn't that bad of a pitch.
As for the Giants, they continue to win despite poor performances from the rotation. Ryan Vogelsong was the victim in the seven-run inning, and he is 1-2 with a 7.20 ERA with just one quality start in six games. Matt Cain has a 5.57 ERA (lowered from 6.49 after Sunday night's win), thanks to nine home runs allowed. And Tim Lincecum has scuffled along with a 2-1, 4.41 ERA mark. Vogelsong and Cain should fare better -- their strikeout/walk ratios are good -- if they curb the home runs. But it's time to recognize that the 2013 Giants -- like the 2012 Giants -- are built as much around an underrated offense and bullpen (second-best ERA in the majors) as they are around their starting pitchers.

Hitter on the rise: Mark Trumbo, Angels
Miguel Cabrera had a monster RBI week (and even played some sweet D) and Ryan Raburn had an amazing three-game stretch during which he went 11-for-13 with two two-homer games, but we already know Miggy can hit and we know Raburn will revert back to being a role player off the bench. The Angels had another bad week, but don't blame Trumbo, who blasted five home runs. Importantly, he also drew six walks, a sign that perhaps he's gaining some respect (and that Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have not been on base much in front of him) but also that he's laying off those pitches outside the strike zone. We know Trumbo has big-time power -- 29 home runs as a rookie in 2011, 32 last season -- but low on-base percentages have held down his value. He has too much swing-and-miss to ever hit .300, so he needs to draw some walks to increase his overall offensive value.

Pitcher on the rise: Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
It's time to start believing in Iwakuma as the real deal. With wins over the Angels and Blue Jays this week (one run allowed in each game) he's now 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA and hasn't allowed more than three runs in a start. Since he joined Seattle's rotation on July 2, only Kris Medlen and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA than Iwakuma's 2.32 mark. Check out the heat map on his splitter -- hitters just can't distinguish from his two- and four-seam fastballs as they're 9-for-51 (.176) against it with 23 strikeouts, one walk and two extra-base hits.

Hisashi Iwakuma heat mapESPN Stats & Information Hitters have not been able to read Hisashi Iwakuma's low splitter.
He can't hit but, he sure can field
The obligatory Brendan Ryan defensive play of the week.

Team on the rise: Cardinals
The Rangers sweeping the Red Sox at home was big, I'll rate the Cardinals' four-game sweep in Milwaukee as the weekend's most impressive series. The Brewers are tough at home -- 9-6 before this series, 49-32 in 2012, 57-24 in 2011 -- so the Cards made a big statement by hitting .322 and scoring 29 runs and twice holding Milwaukee to one run. With the Braves just 3-7 over their past 10 games, the Cardinals have staked their claim as the NL's best team. Besides the NL's best record and best run differential, the Cards' bullpen is starting to sort itself out, with Edward Mujica as closer, Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth and Mitchell Boggs now back in the minors. Here's how good the rest of the team has been: St. Louis is 19-6 when the relievers don't get the decision.

Team on the fall: Phillies
Two losses to the Marlins can make a team look bad. First, rookie Jose Fernandez threw seven one-hit innings in a 2-0 win on Saturday for his first major league victory (tell him that pitcher wins don't matter). That was followed by Sunday's embarrassing 14-2 loss in which Roy Halladay got battered around by what is essentially another Triple-A lineup. Adeiny Hechavarria tripled to drive in three and then hit a grand slam (video review changed the call from a double to a home run), part of his seven-RBI day. Let's say that again: Adeiny Hechavarria knocked in seven runs against Roy Halladay. Halladay used to go entire months giving up seven runs. With his ERA at 8.65, it appears the shoulder is a problem and he may be headed to the DL. But, hey, Delmon Young is back, so that should fix the 14-18 Phillies.
You cannot lose a game like this if you're the Los Angeles Angels, not when leading 6-2 in the eighth inning, not while coming off losing three of four to Seattle, not when your team is struggling and staring at a second straight disastrous April.

The Angels did lose to the Oakland A's, when Brandon Moss' two-run walk-off homer in the 19th inning gave the A's the dramatic 10-8 victory in a game that lasted 392 minutes and required 597 pitches to compete. It might end up being the game of the year. The painful defeat dropped the Angels to 9-16. They're already 7 games behind the Rangers and 5 games behind the A's in the AL West, and you have to wonder if long-time manager Mike Scioscia will survive much longer.

[+] EnlargeMike Scioscia
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAngels manager Mike Scioscia might be running out of time to save his job after another slow start.
I made it into the 17th inning before calling it a night (hey, it was 4 a.m. on the East Coast!). Some thoughts on a game that began with A's fans chanting "Thank you, Josh! Thank you, Josh!" in regards to the fly ball that Josh Hamilton dropped last year in the final game of the regular season, helping the A's beat the Rangers to win the division title, and ended with Moss swatting a Barry Enright changeup over the wall in right:

  • The thing to remember about Scioscia is that GM Jerry DiPoto didn't hire him; he inherited him. After a second straight slow start, maybe the Angels will make a change just to shake things up. The Angels have missed the postseason the past three seasons, and are now looking at a fourth straight October on the bench if they don't turn things around in a hurry. That doesn't mean there's an obvious replacement available (how about Joe Torre on an interim basis?) and maybe the Angels don't want to signal panic, but I would say it is time to panic. The Angels might also have to consider that Don Mattingly isn't exactly on firm ground with the Dodgers, who might happily scoop up their popular former catcher, a turn of events that could be a PR disaster for the Angels.
  • Look, everybody knows this team was built around Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Trout is off to a slow start, Pujols hit two home runs on Monday but is hitting a mediocre .265/.359/.439 and Hamilton is hitting .202/.246/.298. He looked terrible in going 0-for-8, with several ugly swings, especially against left-handers. He looks pretty helpless against lefties, getting tied up inside and is hitting .172 off them with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 32 plate appearances.
  • Kudos to relievers Jerome Williams and Brett Anderson (who was scheduled to start for Oakland but scratched because of a sore ankle) for soaking up innings. Williams deserved to earn the win after the Angels took the lead in the top of the 15th on a bases-loaded walk to J.B. Shuck that left Anderson barking at home-plate ump Kerwin Danley as he walked off the mound. (He did retire Trout to escape the jam). Josh Donaldson began the bottom of the 15th with a routine grounder that second baseman Howie Kendrick bobbled, but Pujols simply dropped the throw. Derek Norris walked but Williams got a double play before Adam Rosales' two-out single tied it up.
  • Anderson finally left after 5.1 innings, but Jerry Blevins threw 1.2 scoreless innings for the win. Williams went six. While Anderson's outing was a unique situation, Williams showed the value in having a good long relief option in the pen. A guy who can pitch multiple in extra innings is more valuable than having a third LOOGY in your pen.
  • The A's delivered with two outs all night. In the eighth, Melvin hit Chris Young for Josh Reddick when Scioscia brought in lefty Scott Downs, and Young singled to make the score 7-6. Scioscia ended up bringing in closer Ernesto Frieri for a four-out save anyway, but why not bring him in to face the struggling Reddick? He should have anticipated that Melvin would go to Young there. In the ninth, Yoenis Cespedes (who hit a big game-tying home run on Sunday) came through with a two-out blast off the left-center fence to score Coco Crisp.
  • Mark Trumbo hit a monster 475-foot moon shot in the second inning, tied with Anthony Rizzo for the longest home run this year. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the longest home run in Oakland since the ESPN Home Run Tracker began measuring home runs (in 2006), and the ball left Trumbo's bat at 120.1 mph, the fastest of any home run this season (by 3 mph).
  • The few fans left at the end of the game were chanting the names of A's announcers Ray Fosse and Ken Korach.
  • Moss gave himself the shaving cream pie during the postgame interview. Gotta love the A's.

Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agent Josh Hamilton to five-year, $125 million contract. Traded Kendrys Morales to Mariners for Jason Vargas. Traded Jordan Walden to Braves for Tommy Hanson. Signed free agents Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton. Traded Ervin Santana to Royals. Lost Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

What to make of general manager Jerry Dipoto's busy offseason? In some ways, it's just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.

Hunter: 5.5 WAR, 88 runs created in 584 PAs
Hamilton: 3.4 WAR, 115 runs created in 636 PAs

At quick glance, Hamilton looks like the far superior hitter in 2012, creating 27 more runs in a few more plate appearances. Once you adjust for home-park environment, Hunter edges a little closer, then when you factor in Hunter's superior defense (Hunter plus-15 defense runs saved, Hamilton minus-9 DRS), you can see why Hunter moves ahead in wins above replacement. That doesn't mean Hamilton was a bad signing; Hunter was unlikely to repeat his season -- at the plate or in the field -- and Hamilton might have a better year. In terms of 2012 value versus 2013 value, however, this looks pretty even.

Vargas and Hanson: 2.8 WAR and minus-0.9 WAR (392 IP)
Haren and Santana: minus-0.6 WAR and minus-1.6 WAR (354.2 IP)

Haren and Santana were pretty bad last year, posting high ERAs despite playing in a pitchers' park and with a good defense behind them. Hanson remains an injury risk, but Vargas has developed into a solid innings-eater and should put up good numbers in Angel Stadium with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos running down fly balls behind him. This should be an upgrade of a few wins over 2012 performance. However, some of that is given back with the Blanton signing, given that he's unlikely to replicate the Greinke/Jerome Williams rotation slot. So unless Hanson is healthy and pitches better than last year, this looks like a minor upgrade -- maybe a win or two.

Morales out, Bourjos in.

Bourjos won't produce as much offense as Morales, but adding his elite glove back to the outfield on a regular basis is a big plus. Still, if Morales is 20 runs better at the plate than Bourjos and Bourjos is 20 runs better than Mark Trumbo in the outfield, that's another equal tradeoff.

The bullpen should be better, although Madson -- returning from Tommy John surgery -- has already been shut down with a sore elbow.

In the end, I can't give the Angels' offseason that high of a grade, especially given that they didn't get the guy they really wanted: Greinke. But at least give Dipoto credit for adjusting to not getting Greinke by signing Hamilton and trading for Vargas.

Position Players

The Angels have the best player in baseball, a 40-homer guy, one of the greatest players of all time who is still pretty good even if he's in decline, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, a 32-homer designated hitter and two middle infielders who hit pretty well for middle infielders. The catcher hits OK for a catcher, and the third baseman at least puts up a decent OBP.

That's a lineup without a glaring weakness. It's a lineup that will be as fun to watch as any in the game. Is it a great lineup, however, or just very good?

Aside from Trout's sophomore campaign and Hamilton's transition across the AL West, Albert Pujols is the guy to pay attention to. Take away his homerless April and he hit .297/.357/.553. His days as a .400 OBP machine are long gone thanks to the continued deterioration in his walk rate, but a lot of teams would still like Pujols anchoring their lineup.

The one problem area? Depth. There is none (no, Vernon Wells doesn't count). The Angels do have some players with injury histories, so we'll see whether that comes into play.

Pitching Staff

A year ago, we were talking about the possibility of the Angels having four 220-inning starters. Instead, C.J. Wilson led the staff with 202.1 innings.

Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas should be a solid top three, although Wilson had his elbow cleaned out in the offseason. His first season with the Angels was a bit of disappointment -- 3.83 ERA after a 3.14 ERA with the Rangers over the previous two seasons -- and if his walk rate remains at 4.0 per nine innings, it's going to be difficult to get that ERA under 3.50.

Blanton is a bit of wild card in the fifth spot. He's the opposite of Wilson -- a guy who basically throws strikes and hopes his defense helps him out. He had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the past three seasons, so there's a good chance he won't last the season in the rotation.

The Angels' bullpen had a 3.97 ERA last year, ranking ahead of only Cleveland and Toronto in the AL. But it was arguably even more problematic than that. Only the Yankees' pen threw fewer innings, so Mike Scioscia was able to concentrate his innings in his best relievers. Although Ernesto Frieri did an excellent job as the closer after coming over from the Padres, it was the middle relief that hurt the club. The Angels lost 12 games when they led heading into the seventh inning -- 3.5 more than the major league average. Madson was supposed to help out there (or assume closer duties, with Frieri sliding to the seventh and eighth) but is a big question mark. The one thing the Angels do have is three good lefties in Burnett, Scott Downs and rookie Nick Maronde, if he's kept on the big league roster as a reliever instead of starting in the minors.

Heat Map to Watch
With a quick glance at Trout's heat map, you can see he punished low pitches. On pitches in the lower half of the zone, he hit .360/.396/.608 -- the best OPS in the majors against pitches down in the zone. Does that mean pitchers should attack Trout up high this year? Possibly. But if you attack up in the zone, that means doing it with the fastball. Trout hit .297/.397/.509 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Which is actually kind of scary: He already has shown he can cream the off-speed stuff. Good luck, pitchers.

Mike Trout heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWhere do you pitch Mike Trout? Working him low in the zone didn't pay off in 2012.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Angels win?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,753)

The Angels might be the best team in the American League. With Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, they might have the best offensive trio of any team in baseball. In Weaver, they have a legitimate No. 1. That makes them one of the top World Series favorites, at least according to the latest odds in Vegas.

But they were in that position last year and failed to make the playoffs despite Trout's monster rookie season. I worry about the lack of depth behind the starting nine and the back end of the rotation. I don't think Pujols will put up better numbers than last year, and I don't think Hamilton will hit 43 home runs again. The Angels will surely be in the playoff chase, but I don't expect them to run away with the division -- and they might not win it.

What do you think?
In a rare intradivision trade, the Los Angeles Angels traded Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners for Jason Vargas, and while I like the upside a little better for the Mariners, it looks like a trade that should work for both teams.

Morales gives the Mariners a much-needed power bat as he hit 22 home runs in his first year back after missing nearly two full seasons after that horrific ankle injury in 2010. A switch-hitter, he's much better from the left side of the plate, with a career OPS 157 points higher from that side. A first baseman in the past, he's probably limited to DH duties at this point.

The trickle effect for the Mariners: What does this mean for Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero? It could be the end of Smoak, with Montero being given the chance to learn first base; or maybe Morales slides in at first with Montero assuming regular DH duties. It could also mean Montero remains behind the plate, at least platooning with John Jaso to start the year. But with catching prospect Mike Zunino not that far away, Montero's catching days aren't going to last long anyway.

The Mariners also give up a pitcher who was a bad risk for them in 2013, with the fences moving in at Safeco Field. Even though Safeco was one of the toughest home-run parks in the majors in 2012, Vargas allowed the second-most home runs in the American League with 35. His home-road splits have been sizable since joining Seattle and in 2012 he had a 2.74 ERA at home, 4.78 on the road. While we don't know how Safeco will play, it was a good bet Vargas' ERA was going to balloon.

That doesn't mean he's a bad pickup for the Angels. Their home ballpark is also one of the toughest home run parks around and the Angels aren't moving in their fences. They get a durable left-hander who has averaged 204 innings the past three seasons (one of just 20 pitchers to throw at least 600 innings over the past three years). With Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Peter Bourjos playing behind him (with Mark Trumbo moving to DH), many of Vargas' fly balls will be hauled on by that outfield; Trout and Bourjos alone may make it the best defensive outfield in the majors, even with Hamilton having lost range out there.

Vargas has to be viewed as a better pitcher than Joe Blanton and gives them more probability than injury-risk Tommy Hanson. A solid pickup by the Angels and they didn't have to surrender the younger and cheaper Bourjos or Trumbo.

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012

I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.


Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,309)

Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.

I just returned from vacation and spent a portion of the weekend catching up on the HBO series "The Newsroom." The show has been a little uneven -- what's with all the personal discussions and arguments taking place right in the middle of the newsroom, in front of everyone? -- but a recent episode did present an interesting dilemma.

The theme of the show's first season has been the challenges the newscast faces as it transitions to broadcasting more legitimate news and less fluff. Set in 2011, when the newscast doesn't initially cover the Casey Anthony trial the ratings drop dramatically, so the producers have to decide: Do you give more air time to the trial or to the more important debt-crisis debate going on in Congress?

Well, the Boston Red Sox are Casey Anthony. The Los Angeles Angels are the debt crisis. It's a sexier issue to talk about Josh Beckett's golf outings than Ervin Santana's hanging sliders. It's a lot more fun to break down Bobby Valentine's personality conflicts -- misunderstood genius or funny-nose-and-glasses nutty? -- than to break down Mike Scioscia's bullpen usage. Tabloid headlines about chemistry issues and unhappy players will bring in more readers than stories about Dan Haren's earned run average.

So the dark clouds that hovered over the Red Sox all season had been the car crash we couldn't keep our eyes off. Like it or not, the Red Sox bring in the ratings. While the Red Sox finally, mercifully, died when general manager Ben Cherington seduced the Dodgers with Saturday's big trade, dangling Adrian Gonzalez in order to purge the contracts of Beckett and Carl Crawford, in the end the Red Sox story was more fluff than substance, beginning with this: The Angels, not the Red Sox, have been the season's most disappointing team.

Not that expectations weren't high for the Red Sox, of course, but consider the preseason predictions for the Angels:

  • Of 50 people who voted on ESPN.com's preseason predictions list, 25 picked the Angels to win the American League West and 21 picked them to win a wild card. Only four predicted they would miss the playoffs.
  • Of those 50 voters, only one picked the Red Sox to win the AL East and 15 picked them to win a wild card. Thirty-four picked them to miss the playoffs.
  • The Angels were also the overwhelming consensus World Series pick -- remarkably, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win it all, 10 more than other team (eight chose the Rangers). Only one person picked the Red Sox.
So on a national level, the Angels were the big story heading into the 2012 season, not the Red Sox. According to the vast majority of ESPN's baseball contributors, the Red Sox weren't even supposed to be a playoff team. (Before Angels fans jump all over me, it's obviously too early to write off the Angels just yet. They're 66-62 after losing 5-2 to the Tigers on Sunday, four games behind the wild-card leading trio of Tampa Bay, Oakland and Baltimore, and also 3.5 games behind Detroit. So they have 34 games left to pass at least three teams and claim one of the two wild-card spots.)

But a one-game coin-flip affair is not what the Angels expected after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the offseason and then acquiring Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. Remember when the spring-training storyline was how the Angels-Rangers rivalry was going to develop into baseball's best? Well, wake me up when it begins. The Angels are 9.5 games behind the Rangers, closer in the standings to the Mariners than to the Rangers.

What's remarkable about the Angels is they're in this position despite the unexpected MVP-caliber season from Mike Trout and improvement from Mark Trumbo. And Pujols, even with his homerless April, is essentially on pace to match his 2011 numbers with the Cardinals. Unlike the Red Sox, the Angels don't even have the injury excuse to fall back on. The only significant injury has been to catcher Chris Iannetta. Reliever Jordan Walden missed most of July and half of August and set-up man Scott Downs missed a couple of weeks, but even there the Angels caught lightning in a bottle with Ernesto Frieri.

Trout's monster season, of course, has served to obscure the Angels' inability to stay close to Texas. He has deservedly been the most intriguing individual player story of the season. I think everyone kept expecting the Angels to go on a big streak; it hasn't happened. And now it's getting late.

While Trout's rise to stardom wasn't expected -- at least, not this quick and not at this level -- the Red Sox's collapse fit neatly into the spring-training angst that the media stirred up: chicken, beer, Bobby Valentine, a meddling ownership and so on. While there were obvious issues inside the Boston clubhouse, those stories served to detract attention from the real reasons the Red Sox are 61-67: Beckett, Jon Lester and late-game bullpen issues.

Even with all the missed time from Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Crawford, the Red Sox are second in the American League in runs scored. If Beckett (5.23 ERA) and Lester (4.98 ERA) had allowed even one run fewer per nine innings, we're talking about a 32-run improvement -- or about three wins. If they were 1.5 runs better per nine innings, we're talking a 48-run improvement -- or about five wins. Add five wins, and the Red Sox are 66-62 ... the same as the Angels. The Red Sox have lost 12 games they've led entering the seventh inning; cut that down to a more normal total of six and the Red Sox have 72 wins -- just two fewer than the Yankees. You can blame clubhouse chemistry; I'll blame the team's two aces and a lousy bullpen.

So the Red Sox are now irrelevant; they won on Sunday but nobody cares. The Angels lost again and it's time to start analyzing why. And asking the obvious follow-up question: Are there chemistry issues in the Angels' clubhouse?

Howard KendrickRick Osentoski/US PresswireHoward Kendrick's dive back to the bag reflects an Angels team that isn't advancing.

Angels will need more than Pujols

August, 5, 2012

Now this is what Arte Moreno signed up for. With Saturday night’s home run against the White Sox, that’s six home runs in five games in five days off the bat of Albert Pujols. And all of them hit against the Rangers and White Sox, both potential playoff rivals. Better than any playbook, that’s exactly what the Angels ordered when Moreno shelled out $240 million to import Albert to the left coast last winter.

Say what you will about the big picture, but at some fundamental level that money wasn’t about rebranding a ballclub. It was not about telegraphing seriousness or an intent to contend. It was not about whatever meta-messaging you might have wanted to invest signing Pujols with. Gargantuan expense was supposed to generate gargantuan power, and since that ugly, homer-free initial 27-game introduction to Angels fans, Pujols has delivered, slugging .629 with 24 home runs through Saturday night.

So for all those who doubted that Albert Pujols was going to be Albert Pujols, shame on you. To think that somehow the burden of on-demand greatness in Southern California was supposed to crush the man who will redefine all-time excellence at first base? Perish the thought. And all you folks worried overmuch about that slow start, shame on you.

To bring things back to the big picture, though, the question is whether the Angels will live up to the billing they earn as we head toward the stretch. Much like the Yankees or Rangers, the Angels’ cast of characters seems like a made-to-order highlight reel, a guaranteed collection of show-stopping entertainments. Perhaps nobody was seen as more automatic than Albert Pujols himself, but he’s not alone. When he isn’t conjuring up conversations over whether he should be compared to Fred Lynn or Willie Mays or both, Mike Trout seems to reinvent the definition of what a Web Gem ought to be on a nightly basis. Mark Trumbo is making everyone who doubted his Rookie of the Year worthiness last season eat that skepticism. And every fifth day, Jered Weaver takes his shot at mowing down any team, any lineup, any batter with the relentlessness of an animatronic strike machine.

The question is whether all that highlight material and all that star power adds up to a team that can catch the Rangers in the American League West, or whether it will have to take its chances in the one-and-done wild-card play-in at season’s end. We’re probably all aware that determining the American League’s playoff field is going to be brutal. Say we swap in the Red Sox for the Orioles because you think they’ll be strong while the injury-riddled O’s fade. That means we’re talking about eight contenders in the AL. Maybe the league-leading Rangers and Yankees come back to the pack, maybe they don’t.

That still leaves a six-team pack the Angels need to separate themselves from. Guess what? Thirty-six of the Angels’ last 54 games are against American League contenders. Not even the consolation of facing the Mariners in six of their final nine games can help much -- if the Angels are going to make a move, it has to be in the next month.

As much as seeing their “name” players shine is cause for highlight-related fun, the less happy fact of the past week is how badly Angels pitching has been clouted in the Weaver-free ballgames. Even including Weaver’s shutting down Texas on July 31, the Halos been hammered in their five games before Saturday’s action, allowing 44 runs in 44 2/3 IP against the Rangers and White Sox, including 64 hits (10 of them homers). That won’t fly in October, not for long.

What those drubbings indicate to me is two things, or one big interrelated thing, which is a problem on pitching and defense. It’s easy to pick on Ervin Santana’s schizophrenic failures or Dan Haren’s struggles, just as it’s easy to suggest that Zack Greinke will fix things because he’s being swapped in for merely adequate fifth-starter material in Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards -- or maybe Santana.

But whether Richards replaces Santana as the starter behind Door No. 5 loses sight of the problem that everyone’s had to work with over the past two weeks, which is the absence of shortstop Erick Aybar on defense. Relying on Maicer Izturis and Andrew Romine doesn’t seem all that coincidental with the sudden outpouring of base hits dropping in against Angels’ pitching, at least not where advanced defensive metrics have Izturis’ work at short. And if Aybar is back in time to play against the Oakland Athletics in the three-game series that starts Monday, that’s a little bit of help from someone beyond those better Angels who might pick everybody up.

Getting help from players beyond the famous people is going to be crucial for the Angels down the stretch in other ways as well. It can show up in something as simple as seeing Howard Kendrick plate Alberto Callaspo with the winning run in the top of the 10th against the White Sox. Not Pujols, not Trout, not Trumbo, but Kendrick, and not with some feat of strength that you’ll still be talking about at work in the break room on Monday.

Better was expected from Callaspo and Kendrick and more beside. While their seasonal slumps didn’t get the same attention as Pujols, breaking them for keeps will make a big difference -- perhaps not as noisily as Pujols’, but significantly. Callaspo, Kendrick and Izturis have all done better than the struggle that each has endured this season to post an OPS above .700. Seeing better work from all of them down the stretch should happen, in the same way that a healthy Aybar should make a difference on defense. Getting Chris Iannetta back from the disabled list isn’t going to set headlines ablaze, but it should repair a slot in the Angels’ lineup that has been dead for months. And if Torii Hunter keeps on keeping on …

Which is why you can believe in Angels, because just as a team is more than the sum of its stars, there are plenty of reason to expect improvement down the stretch. Not just because of the big names or the highlights, but because of some of the other guys who should do better, in part because they couldn’t do much worse. If they do that just as the Halos’ schedule turns fearsome, who knows, there could be credit to go around -- to names small as well as big.

Michael TaylorKelley L Cox/US PresswireMichael Taylor isn't taking a bow for striking out, but he's being polite about it.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Final score: Los Angeles Angels 13, Detroit Tigers 0. Thoughts for tonight ...

1. Mike Trout is good at baseball.

That two-run blast to right-center off Jacob Turner made me happy just to be a baseball fan. As @dianagram tweeted, "OK ... that Trout shot to right-center ... that was Piazza-like oppo power ... wow!"

He four hits all told. He's not slowing down. He may not slow down until 2028.

2. Mark Trumbo is Orange County strong.

Player A: .298/.371/.612
Player B: .311/.364/.634

Player A is Josh Hamilton. Player B is Trumbo. The only Angels player to slug .600 was Troy Glaus in 2000. Trumbo could do it this year.

3. Are the Angels too right-handed?

It's a minor issue. Against the right-handed Turner, manager Mike Scioscia's first four batters all hit right-handed. He has been concerned enough to usually hit the switch-hitting Kendrys Morales between Albert Pujols and Trumbo, but the correct decision is to move Trumbo into the cleanup spot. It's just common sense to hit your best hitters higher in the order and not get overly worried about late-inning relief matchups.

4. Should Peter Bourjos play every day or be traded?

I wouldn't trade him. I love the idea of a 2013 outfield of Trout, Bourjos and Trumbo once Torii Hunter's contract expires after this season. You have two Gold Glove-calibers fielders in Trout and Bourjos and big offensive production from Trout and Trumbo. Bourjos is attractive trade bait, but he's more valuable than another middle reliever. In fact, I think you can make the argument that the Angels' best lineup this season has Bourjos in center field and Trumbo at designated hitter instead of Morales. Understandably, Scioscia is reluctant to lose Morales' bat, but it's not like he's tearing it up. It's also possible Bourjos would hit better with regular playing time.

5. Garrett Richards throws hard.

He didn't rack up the strikeouts in Tuesday's outing (just two), and he doesn't always know where the ball's going, but he cranked his fastball up to 98 mph and his final pitch in the seventh was clocked at 95. If I were the Angels' front office, I'd be very reluctant to include him in a trade.

6. Ervin Santana. Discuss.

We know Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are good. Santana and Haren were supposed to be the other half of a great four-man group. Among 43 qualified American League starters, Santana ranks 41st in ERA at 5.60. Plagued by inconsistency and too many flat breaking balls, he has been hammered on the road. His walk rate is up and strikeout rate down from 2011. Only Seattle's Jason Vargas has allowed more home runs among AL starters. At this point, once Haren returns from the disabled list, you have to wonder if Jerome Williams stays in the rotation and Santana gets sent to the pen for a spell.

7. Dan Haren was so underrated for so long that he almost became overrated. What is he now?

A question mark. Haren's trip to the DL was the first of his career and led to his first missed start. Haren told ESPNLA.com's Mark Saxon that his back felt great in Monday's rehab start and that's he's ready to face the Rangers this weekend. He didn't enjoy missing time. "At the All-Star break, I had insomnia," Haren said. "I slept like nine hours in three days, total. I was just stressed about not being out there and I stayed home. That was really hard, watching the team on TV. Especially if you lose a game or two -- we lost that tough one [Friday] -- it's just hard not being there."

8. They do need bullpen help.

The bullpen ERA is ninth in the AL and Jordan Walden just went on the DL with a strained biceps. Ernesto Frieri finally gave up his first runs and his control issues will always make Angels fans a little nervous when he enters (as we saw the other night when Scott Down and then Kevin Jepsen were required to close out a lead against the Yankees). Still, it's not an awful pen. There's depth with Downs, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, but the group doesn't seem to inspire a lot of confidence. Look for the Angels to add another arm here.

9. Angels catchers ...

No, they're not very good. They're hitting a collective .211 with 20 RBIs. Hey, I hear Miguel Olivo is available.

10. May Vernon Wells' rehab assignment last forever.

"Get well. Really well. Are you absolutely sure you’re OK? I don’t know, I think you need to achieve peace of mind. Have you been to Nepal? Ever tried getting there by canoe?"

Bryce HarperJoy R. Absalon/US PresswireDavid Wright and Bryce Harper have a slight disagreement over who third base belongs to.