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June 23, 2009 at 9:33 AM

Angels far from heavenly as Mariners try to make their move

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There is an assumption out there that, as the Texas Rangers continue to spring leaks everywhere, the Los Angeles Angels are about to ride off into the sunset as AL West winners. They just might. But I wouldn’t bet the doctored-up mortgage on it just yet. The Angels got smacked around in Colorado last night and are now just 1 1/2 games up on third-place Seattle, which plays host to the San Diego Padres starting tonight.
The strength of the Angels has always been pitching and, despite the returns of John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar, things are not going well on that front.
This blog post in the Los Angeles Times sums it all up rather neatly. You know who the Angels could use right now? Somebody like Jason Vargas. Sorry, not getting him.
Remember last week, when we were talking about how just one more injury to the Angels could throw this division race up for grabs? Well, we just saw Santana go back on the disabled list yesterday and believe me, that is cause for concern.
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If you read the LA Times story I linked to, there’s a small bit down below about Vladimir Guerrero as well. How he has just one home run since his return off the DL and how 30 of his 36 hits have been singles. No, these are not your older brother’s Angels.
Let’s get back to the pitching. Matt Palmer, who we discussed last month as being one of the worst undefeated starters (by the end of May) in recent baseball history, is finally being brought back to reality. He’s still got a 6-1 record, but opponents are hitting .343 off him in June and his ERA for the month is 6.35.
Lackey is getting whacked like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo, with teams hitting .333 off him this month and .329 in May. Lefties have a 1.051 OPS off him. Sure, he might snap out of it. But he won’t get to face the righty-laden Mariners until September and, well, we’ll just have to see what happens before then.
Escobar threw five innings in one start before going back to the DL. He won’t be coming back off it until at least next weekend.
So, what to make of this race?
ESPN columnist Buster Olney has been taking a daily look at bullpens and today featured the AL West. This might hold a key to what happens from here. We discussed yesterday how the 2007 Mariners had their bullpen fall apart because of overwork. Well, the Mariners are in a similar boat this year, with four pitchers — David Aardsma, Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista, and Sean White already headed towards career highs in both appearances and innings pitched. (Clearly, we’re talking about as a reliever in Batista’s case, since those types of innings are more stressful to the arm than the 200 he used to throw as a starter). By the way, whoever touted White back in March as a guy who’d become one of the most valuable bullpen arms, please give the Washington Nationals a call. They need you in the front office.
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Back to the point. The Mariners are in a different situation than two years ago, because all four of the above-mentioned arms have major league experience. They aren’t a bunch of raw rookies approaching this kind of workload for the first time. But they will have to surpass previous limits at this pace. It’s why the return of Shawn Kelley by the all-star break looms as quite a large development.
Because, as Olney points out, the Angels have the most rested bullpen in the division. The least taxed at working consecutive nights. That matters. You may not love Brian Fuentes as the closer, or the Angel bullpen’s terrible 5.76 ERA, but these races can often come down to the last bullpen standing. And so, the next time Don Wakamatsu sits a bullpen arm in a situation where you really think it calls for that guy to be used, keep this in mind.
This division is shaping up as a wide open race. You want the Mariners to have some legs to carry them if they’re still around for an all-out September sprint.

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