Competitive AL West clubs show fight
Pitching-heavy division remains anyone's for the taking
ARLINGTON -- The Seattle Mariners, so everybody thinks, are on the verge of trading pitcher Cliff Lee. Instead, despite being 14 games out at the time, they decided to do something about their offense by reacquiring first baseman Russell Branyan on Friday as general manager Jack Zduriencik made it clear that part of development is winning baseball games.In Oakland, the Athletics have tried to do what they could this month to improve their roster, acquiring outfielder Conor Jackson from the D-backs and signing veteran pitcher Jamey Wright to a Minor League contract. They also activated outfielder Coco Crisp from the disabled list last week. All of this has happened while the Rangers have taken charge of the division by tearing through the bottom half of the National League hierarchy, while the Angels pushed forward after the devastating walk-off celebration injury to first baseman Kendry Morales last month. That the bottom two teams remain active in looking for immediate help suggests that the American League West -- while not exactly the cut-throat four-team race that many envisioned at the outset -- is still up for grabs and nobody is waving the white flag in the face of the Rangers' rampage. "No way has it become a two-team race," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Seattle, they've got pitching, and Oakland, with their young pitching, they can put some games together just like everybody else. Until you get into September and have a huge lead, there's no way you can say it's a two-team race. I was in Oakland one year when we were 11 games back at the All-Star break and we ended up winning it." All four teams rest on Monday but there is more than a half-season to go and there will be much interest this week in Anaheim, where the Rangers and the Angels square off on Tuesday to begin a three-game series. That's just the latest in a long summer of many intra-divisional games to be played in the AL West. Here is what you really need to know about the AL West. The division has four of the top eight starting rotations (by ERA) in the AL and that's why there is still lingering hope and a perceptible heartbeat with all four teams. That includes the Mariners, who have had to deal with multiple misfortunes as well as an anemic offense but still have a rotation with the lowest ERA in the league.
How AL West clubs stack up
"We've been playing first- and second-place teams most of the year, so to be where we're at, we're actually doing pretty good," Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins said. "The numbers don't show that, but in reality we're doing pretty good because of who those other teams are. It's always a tough road to this point. I just think it's starting to be a little more consistent. We're starting to try and find some rhythm will all of us playing together."The other clubs know that the Mariners still may have the best 1-2 combination with Felix Hernandez and Lee and don't do badly with Jason Vargas and Doug Fister right behind them. Ryan Rowland-Smith (1-7, 6.18 ERA) and Ian Snell (0-5, 6.41) haven't held up their end but what has clobbered the Mariners was having a lead in 50 of their first 75 games and losing 21 of those games. They're still third among the league leaders in overall pitching, although that has been negated somewhat by having an offense that has scored the fewest runs in the league. But if a team has good starting pitching, an extended winning streak and a second-half surge is possible. The Athletics, who swept the Pirates over the weekend, believe that as well and they are willing to match their young pitching up with that of any team. Brett Anderson's elbow has him on the disabled list for the second time this season, but in Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez, they have three starting pitchers 26 and under who have made at least 12 starts and ERAs under 4.00. Ben Sheets is also healthy after missing last season. He is 2-4 with a 4.00 ERA and opponents are hitting .239 off him in his past 10 outings after a rough first month. "Just a month ago we were in first place, and now we've hit a little skid in the season due to a few different factors, but right now I'd say our team is pretty strong," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "We're still battling through some pitching things, but hopefully we can get through the break and get everybody strong for the second half. Added catcher Kurt Suzuki: "Considering the guys that have been down due to injury, I really don't think we've seen what this team is fully capable of. We're playing good baseball and that may not show in the standings right now, but we're going to keep fighting. We can compete with anybody in the division." The Angels show the Mariners and Athletics what can happen when the starting rotation gets on a roll. The Angels started off 12-18 because their starters had a 5.32 ERA in the first 30 games. Since then, Angels starters are 26-14 with a 3.72 ERA in 48 games and the Angels are 31-17 since May 6. They are 20-8 since losing Morales for the season on May 29. The Angels' rotation of Jered Weaver, Joel Pineiro, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders is the only one in baseball with five pitchers who have at least 50 career wins in the big leagues. The Angels' problems -- besides getting almost nothing out of first base since Morales went down -- is an erratic bullpen that can be really good or really bad. The bullpen has been a major strength during a decade-long run of success under manager Mike Scioscia but this season, Angels relievers have a 2.09 ERA in 43 wins and a 7.58 ERA in 26 losses. Scioscia still likes a bullpen built around Fernando Rodney, Brian Fuentes, Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger and Scot Shields, and the Angels are more likely to look for help at first base as the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches. Paul Konerko has been prominently mentioned but seems a far less likely candidate now that the White Sox have jumped back into the AL Central race. "They're a good club,' third baseman Michael Young said. "We know they are a good team. They are the defending champions so you have to knock them to get to postseason. We have a lot of respect for the success they've had as a team." The respect is mutual. The Angels have seen what's happened in Texas as the Rangers used an 11-game winning streak to open up at some daylight between themselves and the rest of the division. But the Rangers also had a 4 1/2-game lead last year midway through June and never saw first place after the All-Star break. One difference may be that they're working with an almost completely revamped rotation with Colby Lewis coming over from Japan, C.J. Wilson coming out of the bullpen and Tommy Hunter coming up from Triple-A. They could use one more starter to help prevent them from overtaxing a lights-out bullpen but still harbor hopes that either Derek Holland or Rich Harden can get off the disabled list and be second-half factors. The Rangers would still like to trade for more starting pitching but continue to work under financial uncertainty until the sale of the franchise is completed. That means internal improvements are likely the Rangers' best hope. But with Young, Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero powering their lineup, the Rangers may have more staying power than they've had since their last division title in 1999. "I see what they're doing -- I've got no choice," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "If they're winning like that in September, then it's a problem. September shows what you're really made of. Their pitching is good, their hitting is good, their defense is good. They look totally different. You can't take these guys lightly." Right now there is no reason to take any of the four teams lightly. They all have their problems but they all have quality starting pitching. That makes them all dangerous and leaves nobody officially eliminated. At least not yet. "We're not even in July yet," Young said. "There is a lot of baseball left. In my mind it's still a four-team race."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.