Maybe it is just me, but this doesn't really feel like a team that is going anywhere this season. It doesn't have the same aura about it as last year's team did.
Of course, I kept expecting last year's team to fall off anyway, which didn't happen until late September, but still...there was definitely a different feeling...
The 2004 team was 25-17 after 42 games, compared to 22-20 this season. On the other hand, Oakland and Anaheim were looking a lot stronger last season, as well...this year, Oakland and Seattle both look dead in the water, and Anaheim is weaker...
And at this point, the Rangers are the best team in the A.L. West, at least so far this season.
Why? Well, let's take a look at Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings...the Rangers have been the best team in the West so far this year. Texas and Anaheim are even in Pythagorean standings, which calculates the expected won/loss record based on runs scored and runs allowed -- so far this season, Anaheim has been a little luckier than Texas. And Pythagorean standings are a better measure of how a team has actually performed, and is likely to perform going forward, than actual won/loss records.
But taking projections another step is BP's second order standings, generated by extrapolating won/loss records based on expected runs scored and runs allowed based on the team's component performance. This is done using BP's EQR formulae for every team's battling line and opponent's batting lines, since, once again, the expected runs based on the component elements of the offense and pitching staff are a better measure of true performance, and expected future performance, than the actual runs scored and runs allowed. This helps eliminate some of the random elements from early-season performances, and identifies teams that are scoring or allowing significantly more or less runs than would be expected based on the players' actual performances, since those disparaties are generally going to even out over the course of a season. After all, a team that has scored 20 more runs than would be expected based on the stats one-fourth of the way through the season is extremely unlikely to be 80 runs above expectations at season's end.
So if we look at expected runs scored and runs allowed, based on the stats so far this season, Texas looks about the same...they are projected as a 21-21 team, rather than a 22-20 team.
But Anaheim takes a huge hit...taking expected runs and runs allowed and applying the Pythagorean formula gives you an expected 16-24 record, worse than even the Mariners. The Angels have scored 10 more runs this season than would normally be expected, and have allowed a whopping 35 runs fewer than would be expected based on their pitchers' performance, an enormous disparity. Over the course of a full season, that projects to a 135 run difference between expected pitching performance and actual pitching performance...a gap that is completely unsustainable.
So, using this analysis, the Rangers have been the best team in the West this season, albeit while playing like a .500 team...the other three teams in the division have simply been much worse.
The offenses in the A.L. West have been horrid so far this season...Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland are 28th, 29th and 30th, respectively, in EQA this season. And with Anaheim (the only other team in the West that looks like it could contend for the division), the offensive weakness doesn't simply look like an aberration...this likely is just not a good offensive team.
Yes, Vlad is great, and he's been great this season. But Garret Anderson is back to hitting the way he has hit for most of his career, posting a sub-par .268 EQA; age appears to have caught up with the 41 year old Steve Finley; Darin Erstad and Orlando Cabrera are as mediocre as they've been throughout their career; Chone Figgins is back to playing like a utility man; and Jeff DaVanon, Dallas McPherson, Juan Rivera, and Adam Kennedy have been awful. Rivera, McPherson and Kennedy should improve somewhat, but this still looks like a bad offensive team. They do have the resources to make improvements during the course of the season -- either internally, by promoting Casey Kotchman, or through trading some of their abundant minor league talent -- but until that happens, the Angels don't have a playoff-caliber offensive team.
The Angels have gotten out to a 2.5 game lead in the West on the strength of their pitching...they are 3rd in the A.L. in team ERA. But the supporting stats don't justify that ERA: the Angels are 6th in the A.L. in WHIP, 7th in OPS allowed, 6th in K/BB ratio, 7th in homers allowed, 7th in average allowed...in all the component stats, the Angels' pitching staff has been middle-of-the-pack.
So as we stand here today, the Angels have a bad offensive team -- whose only quality hitter so far this season has just suffered a separated shoulder -- and a mediocre pitching staff. That's good news for the Rangers, obviously...but because Anaheim has been winning at an unsustainable rate, it creates the appearance that Anaheim is a team that is in good shape the way it is. Thus, no pressure in the front office to make a deal, no worries about the state of the team...they are the favorites in the division and have a 2.5 game lead, so everything is going to plan as far as Anaheim's concerned.
There's no pressure on the team to shore up its problems...Darin Erstad can continue starting at first base for no good reason, Vlad Guerrero can keeping carrying the offense with no help, because on the surface, it looks like everything in Anaheim is fine.
Which is actually good news for the Rangers...Anaheim's early success means complacency, it means not fixing the holes in the team, and that means that Anaheim is more likely to struggle and be vulnerable down the stretch. It makes it that much more likely that Texas will be able to surpass Anaheim come August and September.
And yet...and yet...
I wish I had more faith that Texas was going to do what is necessary to actually pass Anaheim.
This is a team that is still getting nothing out of the catcher slot, that is getting nothing out of right field, that has no DH against lefthanded pitchers, that is getting little offense from shortstop and centerfield, and that only has two starting pitchers that are pitching well right now. A lot of those problems could be fixed from within -- with Gerald Laird, Jason Botts, and Ricardo Rodriguez in the majors, this team would immediately be better -- but if the Rangers really want to succeed this season, they are going to have to get at least a bat, and probably another starting pitcher, from outside the organization.
One of the most worrisome things about the first quarter of the season for the Rangers is that the team's success is inordinantly centered around three players -- David Dellucci, Chris Young, and Kenny Rogers -- who are performing way over their heads. Dellucci is not going to walk 160 times this season. Young and Rogers aren't going to finish the season with ERAs around 3.00. The Rangers need the young core players from last season -- Blalock, Teixeira, Mike Young, and Drese -- to perform at a much higher level than they have thusfar. Those four players have been, to varying degrees, disappointments this season, which probably explains why I, for one, have felt something of a malaise so far this year. It is hard to get fired up about your team when the only reason it is above .500 is because a 4th outfielder is having a career year and a 41 year old free-agent-to-be has strung together 30-something scoreless innings.
But the Rangers have a golden opportunity this season. Anaheim is weak, Oakland and Seattle are non-factors, and this is a division ripe for the taking. It makes this offseason's failure to do anything that much more frustrating, but Anaheim's problems are such that even the disastrous Ranger offseason can be overcome. Just a few simple things could make the Rangers the favorites in the West:
- Replace Pedro Astacio with Ricardo Rodriguez. Gammons called Astacio the free agent bargain of the year a few weeks ago, something that seems more ludicrous with every passing day. The Rangers are apparently going to bump his next start back a couple of days, to get him more bullpen work, but that's simply delaying the inevitable. I can't understand or explain their fascination with Astacio, but the guy can't pitch, and Ricardo Rodriguez can. Sending Astacio out, and bringing RicRod up, should mean the difference of 2-3 wins over the course of the rest of the season.
- Make Gerald Laird the starting catcher. I've railed on this time and again, so I won't belabor it here, but every day that the best catcher in the organization continues to toil in AAA so that the manager's buddies can futz about behind the plate is a day wasted.
- Get another bat in here. Either DH or right field, it doesn't really matter. But the Rangers need a legitimate hitter...they simply can't afford to keep giving away at bats with the likes of Chad Allen and Richard Hidalgo. Mike Sweeney would be fine. Cliff Floyd would be fine. Let's get creative, see if we can pry Mike Cameron away from the Mets, and plug him in centerfield, moving Nix into a platoon in right field with Hidalgo, which would upgrade the Rangers both offensively and defensively. But the Rangers cannot expect to compete without another big stick.
- Find a righthanded bat to platoon with Dellucci. This should be easy...there are guys out there who can't field but who can mash lefty pitchers, and the Highest Paid G.M. In Baseball should be able to find one better than Chad Allen, who doesn't do anything well enough to be anything other than an emergency call-up. Going forward with Chad Allen as part of your DH platoon is a signal that you aren't serious about trying to compete.
- Put Juan Dominguez in the pen as the setup man. The losses of Francisco and Almanzar have been devastating...but the organization needs to address that hole by bringing up Juan Dominguez and letting him be the 8th inning guy. Buck might think Doug Brocail has good face, but he doesn't have a good fastball, and can't hack it in a high-leverage role like that. Dominguez has shown his fastball/change combo is devastating the first time through a lineup, even against major leaguers, and to continue to have him languishing in AA is simply hurting the major league club. It is time to bring him up and let him be the setup man for Cordero the rest of the way.