We have part II of the A.L. West Roundtable up today after the jump...
Part 2: Second Half Storylines
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): What surprising story lines from the first half of the season have shaped the standings the most?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): The ability of Mike Scioscia to keep a piecemeal Triple A Team in contention has to be the story of the season. I know that every team has injuries, but the Angels have had multiple key players go down, our #1 pitching prospect died, Twelve pitchers have started for the Angels at one time or another this season. I have always appreciated Scioscia, but to even be at .500 would be respectable in the face of this onslaught of misfortune. But to have delivered this team into or near first place his deep in July might be a bigger achievement than his slew of division titles.
Another amazing piece to this story is that the Angels have done this without the aid of infielder Brandon Wood. It is painfully obvious that the team is auditioning Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, if not also Howie Kendrick, for midseason trades, expecting to get value in return for making way for Wood as a regular major leaguer.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: That the Angels have stayed alive through everything they've faced is a minor miracle, but I guess I'm here to talk about the Mariners, so our surprise is being right there in the thick of things despite having one of the lowest-scoring offenses in baseball. The M's are only on the edge of the race (as of this writing on July 11th) and haven't made a strong move for the lead, but to still be playing important, competitive baseball this late in the season with an offense that doesn't score has felt all kinds of rewarding. Pretty much every single one of us is waiting for the other shoe to drop so that we can have 2007 all over again. Bill Bavasi may be gone, but the mindset endures. I wonder how much longer that'll last because I'll be honest with you, it's kind of a downer.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: For Texas, the story line has been how the a team defense that has gone from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best has resulted in the Rangers being in first place for much of the first half of the season. With the departure of Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton being hurt and ineffective, and Chris Davis falling off the map after looking like an All Star in 2008, the offense has taken a big hit from last season, but the team is playing better because of improved run prevention. Most of the focus amongst the mainstream media has been on Nolan Ryan and his philosophy of having pitchers work deeper into games, but the reality is, the pitching isn't really any better for the Rangers in 2009 than in 2008...what has improved is the defense, particularly in the middle of the infield, along with a certain amount of regression to the mean in regards to things like strand rate (where the Rangers were awful last year and would be expected to improve anyway).
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: The expectations going in was that the A's had enough offense to carry the young pitching this season, and more often than not, the opposite has occurred. Jason Giambi looks to be on his last legs. Matt Holliday, though surely not horrible, has not produced in a manner that was expected of him.
What is equally frustrating is how poorly the A's are being managed. Whether it's been an overall attitude and/or philosophy (or lack thereof), questionable in-game decisions, or the mysterious use of select players, Bob Geren doesn't appear to have what it takes to manage a ball club. That said, it is hard to put the entire blame on him.
Sky: What specific things has MIke Scioscia done to affect the on-field performance of the Angels? Why not give the farm system and the bench players credit, in other words?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): He and Figgins have been the only constant on this team in the chaotic season from hell.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: You know how in other sports you end up in situations where teams start to copy the previous year's champion? It's only a matter of time now before dozens of coaches and managers around the league start practicing their best whiny face.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): When and where does Brandon Wood get his chance? He just hit his first home run this year, but it's obvious to many he should be in the majors. Is it obvious to the Angels?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): It is obvious to them that they have to market Kendrick and/or Izturis and/or Aybar as legit major leaguers in order to get trade value from them when they finally do make room for Wood. They have the luxury of patience in this underachieving division.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: The Brandon Wood situation is interesting as an outsider, particularly since I examined him pretty closely last season in trying to figure out what a realistic expectation for Chris Davis, a very similar hitter, would be. Guys with K rates as high as Wood's generally have a smaller margin of error, and there's always the risk that at the higher levels they'll have such problems making contact that they can't be quality major league hitters. I also think that those guys often seem to take longer to get it together at the major league level -- you look at how long it took Carlos Pena and Jack Cust, to take a couple of example of highly-regarded high-K prospects who bounced around before they stuck. And fans, managers, everyone hates Ks in general...guys who strike out a ton are going to draw more criticism when they struggle than someone who is making contact. So while Rev is closer to the situation that I am, and probably has a better handle on what the Angels are going to do, I'm just not sold on the idea that they are going to move someone to make room for him, particularly given how reluctant the Angels have been to give him playing time up to now.
Sky: Does Matt Holliday's approach look significantly different? What types of pitches are getting him out that didn't in Colorado? Or is he just not able to make the ball carry as far?
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: I don't see anything different to his approach. Some A's fans felt he was just going through the motions earlier in the season, that his body language spoke of someone who really didn't want to be here. I don't really buy into that. While I (and everyone else) was expecting more out of Matt, especially power-wise, I can't say that I am terribly disappointed in what he has given the A's so far.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which of those surprises are most likely to continue throughout the rest of the season? I.e. which are flukes and which are for real?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): The Angels are not necessarily for real and their health will dictate who wins the American League West. No matter how great Scioscia is, he is no Lewis Yocum.
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: Sadly, I expect the A's to continue at their inept offensive pace, and it is doubtful that Holliday will be around much longer. I like the Hairston pick-up so maybe he can give the team a lift in the second half. I think Jack Cust is better than his average suggests.
Not that I ever thought Geren was great anyway, but I don't see the lightbulb suddenly going on this late in the season (though he did bench Ryan Swweney this week for not hustling). I should say that I'd be surprised to see him back next season, but the truth is, I wouldn't be.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: I won't guarantee that it's going to happen, but the M's could very well wilt once regression hits the bullpen and Jarrod Washburn. Erik Bedard could really do us a solid by not getting hurt again. Basically, what it comes down to is that the M's are two games over .500 right now with a run differential of -23. How you feel about them going forward depends on whether or not you think their roster as currently built is better than the performance we saw through the first three months. I personally think it is, but I should know better than to get my hopes up.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: I think any of the three teams that are in the race in the West right now could win the division. None of these teams is, I think, an empirically 90+ win team right now, but one of them will probably win 91 or 92 games to take the division. It will probably come down to health and who gets the breaks the rest of the way.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which big local stories aren't getting as much attention from the national media? Should they be?
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: Franklin Gutierrez has blossomed into one of the best all-around outfielders in baseball before our very eyes. That seems like the sort of thing more people should notice. Other than that, uh, well basically the national media thinks this team is Griffey and Ichiro, and if I cared about the national media more than I do then that would probably get on my nerves.
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): I gave up on the national media, but seeing as Josh Beckett is on the all star team it is obvious they are deepthroating the same boring organizations. Do they ever run out of lube?
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: Most of the national stories seem to focus on Nolan Ryan and how he's improved the pitching staff, or how the Rangers can hit a bunch of home runs. But the biggest story vis-a-vis the Rangers' success this year is the improved defense, and the player who has had the biggest impact on that is Elvis Andrus. And yet, when Jayson Stark runs a midseason review, he lists 13 players in the A.L. who he seems to think deserve Rookie of the Year consideration, and Andrus isn't mentioned. Andrus debuted this season as the youngest position player in the majors. He's 20 years old -- younger than Stephen Strasburg, for example -- if he were an American kid and had gone to college, he'd be starting his junior season in September. And yet he's holding his own offensively (BP has him at just a half-run below average for a shortstop this season with the bat) and has been one of the best defensive players at the position this year. And he's a guy who is, by all accounts, a great kid that oozes charisma and wants to take on a leadership role with the team. Elvis Andrus is a special player, and his is a special story, and I'm a little disappointed more people aren't talking about him.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Why pick on Josh Beckett (8.8/2.3 K/BB, 3.39 FIP) when Tim Wakefield made the team? Oh, and can I point out that the media and fans don't pick the All-Star pitchers?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): Dood, Wake haz more WINZ, Beckett just has last year's rep and a lame-o necklace.
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: The A's get national attention? Ha, that's rich. We got a kid at catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is a relative unknown. Zooks has been the A's most consistent hitter, and has gained the trust of the young pitching staff.
Speaking of, no secret what Mazzaro, Anderson, and Cahill are capable of, but Dallas Braden has assumed the role of ace this year. And it's not just his credentials, it's his make-up and mentality. He's a wonderful interview, and does lots of community-related things. His is a story worthy of being told well beyond the outskirts of Oakland.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: Being the A's most consistent hitter is damning with faint praise. That's like being the most reasonable opinion offered by John Kruk during BBTN. Lots of fans were up in arms over Wakefield making the team over Kevin Millwood, but I don't have a real big issue with Wakefield getting a "lifetime achievement" nod and giving Maddon someone who can go all night if the game goes into extra innings. And Beckett has pitched a lot better than his ERA suggests this year...I don't have a problem with him getting in.
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation)::: I see your point but that should in no way diminish how well Suzuki has played this season.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): I have a weird curioisity about Trevor Cahill. His K/BB ratio was awful initially, but he's started to turn it around. What's been different and is there any obvious key to his success? His stuff doesn't appear very hittable when he decides to put it in the zone.
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: Cahill has actually struggled of late. And as is the case with many young pitchers, it doesn't take long to for a start to go sour, which happened this past week in Fenway. There has been concern among the locals that his velocity is down, and that he has given up far too many homeruns for a sinkerball pitcher. He'll be fine, though.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: I thought the A's moved too quickly with Cahill and Brett Anderson, both. I prefer what the Rangers are doing with their stud prospects, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, letting them get their feet wet in the bullpen before being thrust in the rotation. And by plugging Cahill and Anderson both in the rotation from Opening Day, rather than letting them debut around Memorial Day, the A's have potential cost themselves a year of team control over those guys.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): For the teams probably out of the running, what acquisitions and decisions based on the 2010 and future seasons would you consider a "win"?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): I think if any team besides the Angels draws more than 2 million fans it will be a "win" for them. If the Rangers gets sold to a Chinese mutinational and moved to Myanmar it will be a win for them. If the Athletics get San Jose as their territory it will be a win for the, not having to move to Portland and all. If Stephen Strasburgh ends up getting an 8 figure signing bonus it will be a big win for the Mariners.
Teams out of the running, ok, this one is for me. Well it's always a win to see the Angels lose in the playoffs if only to see Mike's face. Small victory, sure, but we take 'em where we can get 'em these days. But seriously, the A's aren't all that far off. Give these kids another year under their belt, and look out. And there's talent in the lower leagues, too. In short, Rev should be getting nervous real soon. Admit it, you've missed the competition.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: The past several years, the Rangers have been sellers at the deadline, and doing so has helped re-stock the farm system. But now, the team is really working on building a winning atmosphere and trying to generate some buzz and momentum going into 2010. Being out of the playoffs for the last 10 years, and getting off to horrible starts the previous two Aprils, resulted in the Rangers turning into an afterthought in the D/FW sports market. Spending a couple of months of 2009 in first place has helped get folks excited about the Rangers again, but there always hangs around the team a cynical, "Well, Texas always fades when it gets hot" mindset amongst some fans, and finishing strong -- even if the team is several games out of first at the end of the day -- is a priority for the organization in order to keep the momentum built among the fans going. And it makes things a lot easier for the business side when the team is playing well and there's excitement about them out there.
So...that was a little bit off-topic. But I think the team would consider staying in the race and finishing solidly a "win," even if it means they don't move a Marlon Byrd or a Hank Blalock for a prospect or two at the deadline. Besides, other than Byrd or Blalock, Vicente Padilla is the only other prominent soon-to-be-free-agent, and I don't think any of those guys are going to generate the type of interest that would bring back a blue-chipper.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: We may shortly end up sellers, so with that in mind, it would become important to unload Washburn, test the market for Bedard, and try like all hell to bring in a longer-term shortstop. Finding a shortstop would be a big win. A high-level 3B or SP prospect would also be of use.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): What story lines will we see in the second half of the season that most people aren't expecting?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): I've been wanting to end the prelude t the Brandon Wood Cooperstown Chronicles to end for a season and a half. People are genuinely expecting a dogfight in this division and if the Angels are hurt they will get one, but health is really all we are going to need and fans of other teams expect to somehow be able to compete with that.
I actually think the A's will have a strong second half, and not just becuase it's been their wont for most of the decade. Look for them to do a little spoiling. Winning in Tampa twice over the weekend is no small feat. Any positives from Oakland are sure to be unexpected considering how far under the radar they are currently flying.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: The improvement of the Mariner offense to something a little less below average? I don't know. It's hard to know what people expect and don't expect because I only ever talk about the Mariners with my own community and we're all pretty smart. I have no idea what idiots think about this team. Guess I could ask Dayton Moore. Nobody expects a hey-Bedard-is-healthy! storyline but then I don't either so I guess that doesn't count.
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: That's hard to say. The Ranger offense continuing to struggle, I guess...there still is the mindset out there that the Rangers have this great offense, but they've been awful this year, particularly in the last couple of months.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): How about ending with one bold prediction we won't hold you accountable for if you're wrong, but we'll worship at your feet for if it comes true?
Rev Halofan (Halos Heaven): I will get interviewed on ESPN before Jeff Sullivan ever does.
67MARQUEZ (Athletics Nation):: Texas and/or Seattle hang around, and the A's knock the Angels out of the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
Jeff Sullivan (Lookout Landing):: Brandon Morrow will get placed on the DL and contemplate offseason shoulder surgery. Is this supposed to be happy bold or sad bold?
Adam J. Morris (Lone Star Ball):: Chris Davis is an All Star in 2010.