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Tuesday, June 11
 
Expect Angels to give M's a tough fight

By Derek Zumsteg
Special to ESPN.com

While the Mariners have gotten off to another roaring start, and the Red Sox and Yankees have battled for the AL East title -- with the loser getting the consolation wild card -- the Angels have quietly stayed within a couple games of the Mariners, flirting with a .600 pace, despite starting the season 6-14.

What's more, they're it for chasers at this point. The A's are six behind the Mariners and five games behind the Angels, and the AL Central demolition derby of flawed teams isn't going to challenge. Can the Angels contend? Could they possibly challenge the Mariners for the AL West, or even knock off one of the AL East teams for the wild card?

Let's check out how they've gotten this far, and whether or not there's a chance they can knock off their hated divisional rivals, who still gloat about their 1995 win and strut about the division like they own the place.

Using the tools developed by Clay Davenport and Michael Wolverton, here's how the league's four contenders stack up in AL rankings:

Team     Hitting Starters Bullpen Win Pct
Red Sox     3      1        6      .672
Yankees     2      2        2      .641
Mariners    1      9        3      .619
Angels      5      3        4      .607

It's clear that while the Angels aren't in the same class with the Yankees, they're hanging out near the top of the overall standings for good reason. Unless Pedro Martinez goes down for the season, the Mariners are the vulnerable team here, and they'll face the Angels 12 more times this season through the magic of the unbalanced schedule. The Mariners lead the season series so far, 6-1, but the matchup is more balanced than it would seem.

We all knew going into the season that the Angels were going to have a good rotation. Most surprising has been Ramon Ortiz, one of the Dominican players who aged three years in the offseason. He's seemingly developed three years on the mound as well, with a 3.34 ERA, 64 strikeouts and just 25 walks. Jarrod Washburn, the 27-year-old left-hander, has also done well with a 3.43 ERA and 57 strikeouts to 23 walks. Innings-eaters Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele have both eaten innings and given the Angels a chance to win most of their starts.

Meanwhile, the Mariners have struggled with their rotation. Behind Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer, they've been shaky: Paul Abbott was terrible before he was put on the DL, James Baldwin has looked bad, and Joel Piniero has been erratic. When Baldwin was with the White Sox, he was a second-half pitcher, so there's some history to his slow starts, but right now he's a problem.

In the bullpen, Mike Scioscia is again getting the most from a crew of journeymen like Lou Pote and Ben Weber, leading up to Troy Percival in the ninth inning. The Mariners go into the late innings with a high-paid, high-powered Arthur Rhodes/Kazuhiro Sasaki combo (along with Jeff Nelson, when he returns from elbow surgery).

At the plate is where the comparisons get really interesting. The Angels have been surprisingly good at scoring runs. Troy Glaus is the best third baseman in baseball, just tailed by Eric Chavez. Garret Anderson is still not taking walks, but hitting for average and power, and Tim Salmon came back from an awful start to show good plate discipline and power. They're backed up by hitters who are around average for their positions. There's still a hole at first base, where Scott Spiezio's hitting like half a normal first sacker.

Meanwhile, the Mariners are getting great years out of Ichiro Suzuki, John Olerud and Carlos Guillen. On the other hand, Mike Cameron has been way off his form, Bret Boone looks like a cross between his previous career and his 2001, and Jeff Cirillo has struggled badly in the transition from pre-doctored-ball Colorado to heavy-air, sea-level Seattle. Edgar Martinez has spent most of the season on the DL, but Ruben Sierra has shown the same form of 2001 to pick up the slack. When Martinez returns, their lineup gets better, and a little more squeezed for playing time.

Both teams are getting huge performances out of their big men, have a core of average guys, and a couple of issues that can use attention. The Angels do have a marked advantage over the M's here, though. The Mariners have only one way to plug a hole -- picking up a Bartolo Colon-type starter -- because where they're weak they are also handicapped by large, long-term contracts. The Angels, by contrast, could strengthen their rotation that way, they could plug in a strong bat at first base, or even at catcher or second base, and in each case wouldn't force a high-priced veteran to the bench. This gives them a lot of flexibility shopping for an upgrade, flexibility the Mariners don't have.

What about injuries? Another injury to the Mariners' rotation and they'll be sticking Ryan Franklin or John Halama in as the fifth starter, or calling up a newly healthy and effective Ken Cloude from Triple-A. Meanwhile, at their own Triple-A affiliate, the Angels have Matt Wise, who could be a solid late-rotation starter, laying down batters like kitchen tile, along with John Lackey, who's showing great stuff. The Angels' pitching depth is good enough they tossed Bobby Jenks off their Double-A roster for "immature behavior" last week, a luxury many teams don't have.

The Mariners already called up their best hitting prospect in Chris Snelling, only to see him tear his ACL and put himself out for the season, and they've run most of the pitchers on their 40-man roster through the bullpen already. The Angels are much better prepared to recover from injuries to their rotation, and neither team has much in the way of offensive prospects they could bring up to fill holes.

Can the Angels catch and beat the Mariners?

When it comes down to it, you've got to look at the intangibles as well. The Mariners in the late innings have techno music. The Angels? The Rally Monkey. You can't bet against monkeys; they get agitated and bite you, you catch the deadly Mutaba virus, and then it's all over. The Angels will be the only team close to the triumvirate of power teams, and if one of them stumbles, the Angels will be there to take a playoff berth.

You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.






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