Recap - The Angels have played .600 baseball to open up a 4 1/2 game lead on the A's largely due to the second-best pitching staff (in terms of actual run prevention) in the league thus far. The team leads MLB in quality starts, which accurately alludes to the depth of solid rotation candidates that the team possesses. A sensational start from MVP candidate Vlad Guerrero has carried an otherwise mediocre offense, masking some severe issues (including a 29th place showing in EYE thus far). The A's have been about as good thus far despite suffering more on the injury front, so there's reason for concern in the Angel camp.
What's Gone Right? - All but Ervin Santana in the rotation (and Joe Saunders is a capable, ready replacement if that becomes necessary), all of the non-long portion of the bullpen, Vlad the Impaler, and Reggie Willits' solid impersonation of Richie Ashburn thus far.
What's Gone Wrong? - The Angels' insistence on using a non-fielding non-hitter at DH (Shea Hillenbrand) has created a lineup that has between 2 and 4 nearly-automatic outs in it depending on the day, which is about two too many for the American League. If they allow Garret Anderson to push Reggie Willits back to the bench, they will have one solidly above-average on-base threat in the lineup, a guy that also happens to be their only main power threat. In short, this team is heavily dependent on Vlad Guerrero to continue to produce at an MVP pace.....just to stay average.
Who Has Been Better Than Expected? - Bartolo Colon, at age 34, has bounced right back to his 2005 form, which might be a bit unexpected. The way that he's been handled, though (5/6 in quality starts, pitch counts consistently under 100), makes me think that it is sustainable. Other than that, only the team is better than expected.....they are outperforming their third order winning percentage (see Baseball Prospectus for details) by three games already.
Who Has Been Worse? - Garret Anderson and Maicer Izturis, but not by as much as you might think. Anderson's body is forcing a fairly steep decline, it seems, and Izturis hasn't hit much outside of the PCL in his nine year pro career. With Figgins and Kendrick back, and with Willits playing so well, these things may become moot anyway. Ervin Santana is allowing about two homers per nine with some control issues.....he might not be long for the rotation if the A's start gaining.
Any Opportunities? - Joe Saunders has allowed a few homers down at Salt Lake, but who doesn't? If Ervin Santana continues to struggle, the calls for Saunders (who was excellent filling in for Jered Weaver for three starts early on, but with poor peripherals) will intensify. He'll probably be serviceable, which might be OK at the back of this rotation. Nick Adenhart is the better long-term option, but his chances of having an impact this year are still fairly small, as he's had control issues of his own in AA. Any more injuries in the infield might force the Angels' hand with Brandon Wood, to whom they allowed an 11 AB cup of coffee before shipping him back to Salt Lake. He's almost ready, and might be an upgrade over Figgins already.
What to Expect? - If the Angels can remove the relative dead weight of Anderson, Hillenbrand, Izturis, and Jose Molina in favor of Willits, Morales/Quinlan, Figgins/Wood, and Mike Napoli respectively, they should be able to maintain an above-average offense. With this pitching staff, that would probably be enough. John Lackey and Jered Weaver could be two of the top 15 pitchers in the AL, and Kelvim Escobar and Bartolo Colon are savvy veterans that could easily qualify as #2 starters in many rotations. There are plenty of options for the fifth spot in the rotation that would be at least adequate, and the bullpen has a neat mix of horses (K-Rod and Shields) and interesting retreads (Moseley, Speier, maybe even Bootcheck). They'll be around for the duration, and I think that they are likely to win the division, although Oakland should stay in it until the end. If the Angels commit too much to the hacktastic veterans, it could cost them.
Buy Low, Expect More - Mike Napoli has been red-hot in May, he could be the next Gene Tenace. Jered Weaver has been nothing short of outstanding except for that one outing against Detroit....he could get that ERA down under 3.00 before year's end. I'm still a big Casey Kotchman fan....guys that can walk more than they strike out are not very common, and it shows he has more bat control than the rest of his stats would lead you to believe. I still think Chone Figgins is overrated, but with his horrid start to the year (108/159/154 plus an injury) he might be undervalued for the short-term.
Sell High, Expect Less - Not much aside from perhaps Kelvim Escobar, whom I like anyway. Still, he's been pretty hit-lucky so far this year, and I certainly wouldn't expect an ERA under 3.50 for the full year out of him. He's good, but not this good.
Sleeper Value - There aren't really any sleepers to speak of here, but I do think Napoli will give everyone good value for what they're paying, and Robb Quinlan and Kendry Morales are both decent bats that might sneak into some playing time if a few other things happen (Hillenbrand and Anderson's exile to points unknown). Morales in particular has more upside than most people give him credit for, assuming (as I do) that he is actually 23.
Recap - The A's have been a great story thus far, as despite injuries to almost half of their lineup, 2/5 of their rotation, and their closer, they have virtually matched the Angels on offense and defense. Unfortunately, it hasn't translated into wins and losses, as they find themselves 4 1/2 games back despite a terrific performance from most of their starting rotation (2nd to the Angels in quality starts in the league). They have been as creative as ever in finding bodies to fill slots, and it's resulted in some potential keepers even after the team gets healthy. All in all, another interesting first few months of the year.
What's Gone Right? - Their decision-making, first and foremost. Grabbing Jack Cust might have smacked of obstinacy on Billy Beane's part, but it has paid off in spades thus far. Converting Chad Gaudin back into a starter made sense at the time, and it makes even more in hindsight. Promoting Travis Buck and giving him a hefty role in the offense was a gamble, but it has worked well to this point. The organization has always been pretty flexible in its problem solving, which is probably the biggest point in its favor. Dan Johnson, Joe Blanton, and Dan Haren have all taken major steps forward, and every bit of it has been necessary for the A's to stay in the race early.
What's Gone Wrong? - Injuries to Bradley, Piazza, Kotsay, Harden, Loaiza, and now Street have been consistently taxing. Eric Chavez continues to trundle along barely in front of Hank Blalock on the "somehow perpetually disappointing"career path, the fork sticking out of Jason Kendall's back has rusted completely at this point, the bullpen outside of Street (which is now a major problem) has been wretched, and Marco Scutaro is playing way more (and in the outfield, no less) than he ever should.
Who Has Been Better Than Expected? - All Cust, all the time. With a homer every six at-bats, and 1.2 walks per game, he's become the epitome of the Three True Outcome player. Of course, he always was....it's just that the two favorable outcomes are showing up an awful lot so far. Travis Buck's minor league numbers would not have led you to expect quite this kind of a debut. A little less in the power and patience department, sure, but not an EYE of .119 and an ISO of .263. Blanton, Haren, Gaudin, and Kennedy have all been better than expected. I don't doubt three of them, and I'll let you guess which guy is the fourth.
Who Has Been Worse? - The bullpen, namely Calero and Duchscherer, have been a big problem thus far. They're going to be leaned on heavily in the coming months, so a turnaround is a must for the team to succeed. Jason Kendall has been so bad I can't even talk about it.....if he ever does go out to pasture Mike Piazza can borrow his fork. Bobby Crosby and Eric Chavez are doing what they do, which is to say stagnating slightly instead of developing.
Any Opportunities? - Seriously? This is Oak-town, of course there are opportunities. Kurt Suzuki is what Jason Kendall used to be, sans a bit of speed. He could easily be up in the near future, and up to stay. Hiram Bocachica is 31 now, and I have no idea if he's even capable of playing anywhere but the OF at this point in his career, but his minor league numbers have always been decent, and somehow he has only received about 2/3 of a season worth of at-bats in the majors. Another shot for Bocachica would be fitting on this squad. Kevin Melillo and Antonio Perez are just waiting for another infield injury....both could be serviceable at the big league level. Colby Lewis had a horrendous first start, but his minor league numbers (and stuff) have promise. It's been a long road, and this might be his last shot to fulfill that "1st round pick promise".
What to Expect - The A's will continue to be creative, and with the returns of Mark Kotsay and Milton Bradley imminent, all they really need is a body or two to step forward to stabilize the bullpen and they will be able to wage a dogfight with the Angels all season. I think they may fall short in the end, but my confidence on LA vs. OAK is more like 55/45 than a sure bet. The group of outperforming youngsters' (Cust, Johnson, Buck, Kennedy) expected declines should be offset by some of the veterans stepping forward a bit (Piazza when he returns, Chavez, whatever they end up with at catcher, be it Kendall or Suzuki).
Buy Low, Expect More - Eric Chavez and Kiko Calero are better than this, and they should start showing it soon. I'd buy low on Suzuki as well, and maybe even take a flyer on Colby Lewis. Going from the PCL to Oakland shouldn't be that much of a stretch, given park effects.
Sell High, Expect Less - Buck, Johnson, Cust, and Gaudin should all slow down a bit. Although I like all four of them, Cust is the one that carries the biggest risk in my estimation. The other three should have decent careers going forward, but Cust could be Kwvin Maas circa. September 1990 right now. Joe Kennedy's peripherals scream caution. He is a decent fifth starter that has the ERA of an ace....it won't last, not with a K/9 rate of around 4.0.
Sleeper Values - Let's go with Suzuki and Calero. Suzuki is hitting 275/352/379 in AAA, and Kendall is hitting 189/234/203 in the majors. I think they might take their chances before too long. Calero has somehow allowed 12 runs on only 23 baserunners in 19 innings, and he has a K:BB ratio of almost 4. He'll be better, and with Duchscherer's hip still bothering him, Calero is the best bet to pick up saves in my opinion (he's also their best reliever in terms of talent and past performance, which is more important). Kotsay could also be a sleeper if he has slipped past people's radar during his absence.
Recap - It's really a miracle that the M's are at .500 right now, just 4 1/2 back of the Angels. Their below average offense is held hostage by an MLB-worst team EYE of .052, and their home park is keeping their pitching staff respectable despite ranking 29th in pitcher strikeouts.
What's Gone Right? - Kenji Johjima is showing a bunch more power in his second year stateside, and his constant ability to put the ball in play (only 10 strikeouts in 123 AB's) bodes well for his offensive value. Between injuries, Felix Hernandez has certainly looked the part of the staff ace for the next decade-plus, and J.J. Putz is picking up right where he left off in 2006 as one of the league's dominant closers. Cha Seung Baek has definitely shown signs of stabilizing one more rotation spot in his last three outings.
What's Gone Wrong? - Adrian Beltre's struggles have been surpassed only by those of Richie Sexson on the offensive side of the ledger, while four of the six starters that the M's have utilized sport ERA's of 5.50 or worse. Jeff Weaver was disabled for what might be a case of whiplash: 50 hits allowed in just 22 innings is earth-shattering futility. Aside from the two Japanese imports, the offense has been extremely poor. Their new DH Jose Vidro, in spite of batting .300, has been practically dead weight: he's on pace for fewer than 25 extra-base hits for the season.
Who Has Been Better Than Expected? - Johjima's ISO has increased to .220, which is outstanding for a catcher. His ISO during his Japanese league tenure was .215, so this is a bit more in keeping with his power potential than the .160 he posted last season, although with the park differences the .160 seemed reasonable at the time. Perhaps this is too much performance to hope for going forward. Jarrod Washburn has been a horse for the M's thus far, averaging close to seven innings per start despite only fanning 4.5 men per nine. He's had the good fortune of pitching six times at home already, so that plus the strikeout figures, combined with a GO:FO ratio of barely over 1 (53% GO's), lead me to believe that this level of success is short-lived. J.J. Putz may have a ticking time-bomb for an arm, but he continues to be outstanding virtually every time out. There's no reason to think he won't keep this up until he gets hurt, and as we've seen from K-Rod, you might wait for an inevitable injury for quite some time.
Who Has Been Worse? - Um, everyone else? Ibanez is coming off the second-best year of his career, but he's managed an ISO of barely more than one-third of 2006's. Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt are hitting for a bit of power, but as impatient as they are they need to bit over .300 to have much value. At .271 and .241 respectively, they aren't cutting it. Sexson and Beltre deserve an entire column for the lack of production that they are offering per dollar. Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver were bad ideas to begin with, but this level of performance was beyond anyone's nightmares.
Any Opportunities? - Wladimir Balentien has continued to show off his impressive power, and despite the high strikeout numbers he certainly could help the Seattle OF. 21 year old Adam Jones also appears to be ready to assist. Compare Balentien (326/397/554 in AAA) and Jones (313/395/530 at AAA) with Raul Ibanez (273/316/364), Jose Vidro (306/355/364), Jose Guillen (282/354/451), and Richie Sexson (177/284/355). The M's aren't going to give up on Sexson, but do they have to be so stubborn with the other three as well? Justin Lehr is being converted back into a starters at AAA. He's a modest solution at best, but Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver have been complete disasters....Lehr really couldn't be worse.
What to Expect? - The M's have some nice young talent in the system. Lopez and Betancourt have their warts, but as the 8th and 9th best hitters in a lineup, you could probably wait for them to develop some more. Jones and Balentien are top-flight prospects with plenty of potential, and under normal circumstances Johjima, Suzuki, Sexson, and Beltre would form a nice, solid core to play the youngsters around. Hernandez is a stud, Putz is a great closer....the pieces are almost there for a contender. Unfortunately, the M's free-agent and trade acquisitions (with the exception of the Far East contingent) have been unilaterally disappointing this year, so the team is left to figure out what sort of commitments they want to make to the players in question. I would guess that the M's will keep playing guys like Weaver, Ramirez, and Vidro long past their expiration dates, which will keep the team out of the pennant race. There's talent here, and there's reason for optimism for the future (if they can pick up another two starters, but lots of teams have that issue), but I would still expect them to be battling Texas for the bottom two spots rather than fighting for the playoffs.
Buy Low, Expect More - Baek has looked good much more than he hasn't, and I've been impressed with what I've seen the past few outings. I think he could be a solid mid-rotation guy the rest of the way. Ibanez and Sexson are the best bets to get going out of the struggling veteran contingent. Sexson in particular has never posted an ISO this low, so at the very least I'd expect some more pop from him.
Sell High, Expect Less - Washburn has already been covered. I would almost expect he and Baek to meet each other in the middle as far as their ERA's go. I guess the good news for the M's is that no one else really applies for this category.
Sleeper Values - Baek for sure, although his ceiling is low enough that he is a modest choice to begin with. If Jones or Balentien comes up, they are immediately worth having. Jones, because he has already been up (and because he has a bit higher of a ceiling as a complete player), is the better bet of the two. Unfortunately, that's it.
Recap - The offense, despite some significant underperformances thus far, has been the fifth-best in baseball. Unfortunately, that hasn't been enough to compensate for yet another dreadful Texas pitching staff, which is barely in front of the D-Rays for second-worst in the land. Sammy Sosa's resurgence has been fun to watch, but nearly everyone else is disappointing outside of the bullpen, with the starting rotation leading they way. Every one of them outside of Kam Loe (who's allowing hits at a prodigious rate) has a horrendous BB:K ratio, and there's little help on the horizon.
What's Gone Right? - The offense doesn't have anyone wildly beyond expectations (except for possibly Sosa), but the sum has been greater than the parts so far. Teixeira, Kinsler, and Sosa have provided plenty of power to overcome a team OBP that is iffy. The bullpen, led by Aki Otsuka and Eric Gagne, has been very solid as well.
What's Gone Wrong? - The Rangers might be willing to pay any amount for a starting pitcher right now, as the lowest ERA of the five is offered by Robinson Tejeda at 5.18. Brad Wilkerson and Hank Blalock were just starting to hit, but now both are on the shelf for a while (Blalock for quite a while, unfortunately). Aside from Tex, the highest OBP belongs to Kenny Lofton at .341.
Who Has Been Better Than Expected? - Slammin' Sammy has posted an ISO of .260 thus far, which is pretty much in keeping with his last two (decline) years in Chicago. No one else is outperforming, and most aren't even meeting expectations.
Who Has Been Worse? - Michael Young has gone backwards rapidly from his career year in 2005, and his performance this year looks just like his sophomore campaign of 2002. A rebound is certainly not a sure thing....Young is already 30 and is heavily dependant on batting average for his offensive value. Frank Catalanotto has had a rough start to the year, but pretty much only via his AVG. He should bounce back well now that he is ostensibly healthy. Gerald Laird hasn't shown much power at all thus far in his first chance at the full-time gig post-Barajas. Padilla, Tejeda, Loe, Millwood, and McCarthy all appear to be hopelessly lost thus far, with a lack of control being the primary culprit in all but Loe's case.
Any Opportunities? - Travis Metcalf is bouncing back nicely from a horrid 2006 season, but the Rangers appear to have bypassed him as a potential solution to their temporary 3B hole. He could still resurface as an option once they realize that Ramon Vazquez and Matt Kata are utility guys for a reason. Marlon Byrd got hurt at the worst possible time, since he probably would have been called up to replace Brad Wilkerson. He has more potential than you'd expect given his major league performances (305/375/514 career minor league line), but the Rangers may be inclined to look at Victor Diaz more right now. That's unfortunate, because all Diaz has done is hit a couple of homers. Zero walks and 16 K's in 49 AB's likely means that he won't hit any more than he did in NY over the long haul. Guillermo Quiroz is hanging around in AAA waiting for a second chance that never came for him in Toronto, and his playing time the past few years has been so sporadic it would be easy to envision a scenario where this works out for him. I still prefer Laird, but they both are interesting plays.....it would be nice to see a job share between the two kind of like what they tried with Barajas and Laird in the past. It's doubtful that it will work out that way, but possible I suppose. Eric Hurley has cut down on his homers allowed significantly this year at AA, and at age 21 he is ahead of the development curve. He hasn't been touted as highly as any of the DVD group, but he may end up being as viable an option. Volquez is also back, and his last start was excellent. His control has been so poor that I think Hurley is a better bet for success right now, but his stuff is good enough that he'll get some more chances. Both Hurley and Volquez could see action before long, because the AAA staff is full of filler, Padilla is pitching as if he's hurt, and the rest of the rotation has been tremendously bad.
What to Expect? - The Rangers have a bunch of offensive talent, but very little pitching. That combo has relegated them to also-ran status for most of this decade, and it'll keep them there for the time being. They may have enough to sneak past the M's into third, but I'd bet the basement is more likely.
Buy Low, Expect More - Ian Kinsler keeps moving forward with his EYE and ISO, but a low batting average this year thus far might have reduced his value a bit. I like what I've seen from him, and I think he could be an impact bat at a tough position to fill. Catalanotto is a very underrated hitter, and playing time has opened up with the absence of Brad Wilkerson and Hank Blalock. He should provide better stats in a hurry. Kevin Millwood is out for probably another 2-3 weeks, but he hasn't had control issues like this in over a decade. Unless there's an arm injury we don't know about, I would expect him to cut a couple of runs off of that ERA, which would get him back to adequate.
Sell High, Expect Less - Diaz is going to get playing time with the injuries, but that BB:K ratio would have me selling. No one else sticks out right now....not even Sosa.
Sleeper Values - Catalanotto is one of those guys that is perpetually underrated, maybe because he is a platoon player, I don't know. He is worth having. His AVG right now is over 100 points lower than the worst he's posted in his career. I do like Gerald Laird....he has much more power than this. I'd take him over Pudge (and slightly less than half of all the other catchers in baseball), for example. The difficulty of pitching in Texas makes most of their pitchers' stats tough to swallow, but I'd grab Eric Hurley if he came up. The offense is good enough to support decent pitching, and he could certainly give them that.