The Rangers Should Buy to Win This Year

The Texas Rangers have what it takes to compete in the playoffs if they can buy a solid starting pitcher. Although unlikely to win the pennant, nothing would cause Ranger fans to fill seats in their new stadium next year like coming off a deep playoff run.

Despite splitting their recent four-game series with the Boston Red Sox, the last game on Thursday could have gone either way. The Red Sox returned to form, knocking five out of the park, and the Rangers left the bases loaded twice in their 7-6 loss. Adrian Sampson did not necessarily pitch badly; the Ranger bats simply did not pull through against a high-scoring opponent when needed.

The Rangers currently sit one game ahead of the Red Sox for the second American League Wild Card spot. But they weren’t supposed to be here. After last year’s abysmal 67-95 record, Las Vegas oddsmakers had the team improving to only 71-91 before Opening Day. After trading away Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman last year and Jurickson Profar during the offseason, 2019 was meant to continue their rebuild. They would pretend to compete, then trade away Joey Gallo, Mike Minor, and anyone else who showed promise before the July 31 trade deadline.

Their surprising 2019 success, though, has prompted analysts to speculate if GM Jon Daniels will turn away from selling to buying.

They have stayed an above-.500 team most of the season, and Willie Calhoun, Elvis Andrus, Danny Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, and Hunter Pence are all hitting above .280.

Were they as inconsistent as the Cardinals, or even the Red Sox, most would urge them to play for 2020 and 2021. But the Rangers are simply not as bad as most people thought.

If they do try to capitalize on their success this year and make a run for it—as they should—they will desperately need to fill their rotation with at least one more quality starter.

After moving Drew Smyly to the bullpen, they will add a fifth starter next week. But Minor, Lance Lynn, Sampson, Ariel Jurado, and whomever the Rangers name to replace Smyly will not hold in multiple seven-game series.

Despite the need for pitching depth now, though, Daniels recently made clear the club’s overall rebuilding strategy has not changed and if any new pitching is added to the team it would ideally be someone “with control beyond next year.”

Cory Mageors of 105.3 The Fan does a good job breaking down possible pitching trades from all teams likely to sell, and there’s simply not a lot on the table. Adding someone who is locked in past 2020, while keeping to their rebuilding timeframe, significantly limits their options.

Unless the front office is willing to upend two years of rebuilding to bank on this year’s success, the likes of Madison Bumgardner, Zack Greinke, Trevor Bauer, and Matthew Boyd are out of reach—all too expensive.

However, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez of the Toronto Blue Jays, Jeff Samardzija of the San Francisco Giants, Mike Leake of the Seattle Mariners, and Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets do fit the bill.

Marcus Stroman

Stroman makes an attractive option money-wise. He signed a $7.4 million contract with Toronto in January and has one year of arbitration left before becoming a free agent in 2021—meaning the Rangers would have Stroman until their recent drafts and prospects get ready for the call-up.

Stroman started the season strong with a 2.41 FIP and 2.20 ERA but has petered off slightly as of late. He currently holds a 3.31 ERA and a 3.75 FIP.

Stroman brings a fastball that ranges in the low to mid-90s and a solid slider. But what makes him truly dangerous is his efficient sinker and cutter. According to Fangraphs, Stroman’s sinker sinks more than that of any right-handed pitcher in baseball. Furthermore, 68 percent of batted balls off his sinker result in grounders, which is in line with his 70 percent career percentage. Stroman has had a rocky ERA, depending on where he has played, but his FIP has remained consistent. He clearly performs best with a team that has a good infield to back him up.

If the Rangers had a top-tier defense or even a middle-of-the-road infield, the trade would make sense. But the team’s defense is not even middle-of-the-road. It currently has a Defensive Efficiency Rating of .670—dead last in the league.

Toronto will not part easily with Stroman and would likely require the Rangers to dip deeper into the farm than they plan to. If the Rangers’ infield played as well as it hit, acquiring Stroman would make sense. As things currently stand, though, the team should pass on this one.

Aaron Sanchez

The Blue Jays’ second likely pitching trade is 26 and is controllable until the end of 2020. Sanchez’s $3.9 million contract is attractive, but his performance has been mediocre since his peak year in 2016. Granted, he’s not playing with a very good team, but his FIP is higher than his 4.25 ERA. With a career 3.55 ERA, though, he promises potential if the Rangers could strike a deal with Toronto that would not require them to give away too much. However, his inconsistency, driven by finger blisters, require cautious consideration.

Jeff Samardzija

Samardzija fits the bill similarly to Sanchez. Controllable through 2020 with a salary of $18 million, he holds a 3.72 ERA and a 4.63 FIP. Most importantly, his ground ball rate is 33 percent, the lowest of all the pitchers considered here. That alone should give him an advantage for the Rangers. At 34, though, the team would likely only use him to hold the gap until 2021 and would require the Giant to eat part of his salary. He would make a good fit for what the team needs to maintain its rebuilding strategy if it can get him without sacrificing pitching prospects.

Mike Leake

Leake might make an attractive choice contract-wise if the Mariners would be willing to cover a good chunk of the $23 million owed him by the end of next year. At 31, he probably still has a few good years left. Although, with a 4.26 ERA, but a 5.33 FIP, it’s probably not the kind of good the Rangers need with such a subpar defense. Furthermore, Leake, like Stroman, relies heavily on grounded outs. Fansided’s Kenneth Nash believes a trade of Leake for Rangers outfield prospect Scott Heineman would be a winner. If that’s all the Mariners asked for Leake, then Leake by far crushes all the trade prospects I list here. Such a scenario, however, seems unlikely.

Noah Syndergaard

The Mets have locked Jacob DeGrom in with a five-year contract, and they’re not making the playoffs this year—which means they will almost certainly trade Syndergaard.

Syndergaard makes $6 million with two years of arbitration, which means he fits what Daniels wants in controllability. At 26, he has a 3.19 career ERA and has likely not yet peaked. His ERA is higher this year, but remember, he’s playing with the Mets. The fact that his 3.48 FIP is a point below shows he hasn’t gone anywhere talent-wise.

He would be a fantastic addition to the Rangers’ rotation but would not come cheap. The Rangers would have to dig deep into their shallow farm to satisfy the New Yorkers, and yes, that would undoubtedly include sending their number one prospect right-hander Hans Crouse their way. But the Rangers would get everything they want from Crouse and more through Syndergaard. A Texan himself, “Thor” would fit perfectly and may have six more years of prime left. He would give the Rangers pitching depth another two years and possibly another decade if only Daniels & Co. are willing to deviate slightly from their rebuilding plan.

Although it would be fun to watch the Rangers go for it all this year, even if it means selling half the farm, Daniels will not take that road. The front office will instead try to acquire a few more prospects that it feels can take the team deep in 2021. That does not, however, mean that it should not try to keep what’s working in its rotation and land an ace that can compliment Minor and Lynn.

Stroman, Sanchez, Samardzija, Leake, and Syndergaard all fit the bill without completely undoing the team’s rebuild. Considering the Rangers’ weak infield, though, Syndergaard fits it best, with Samardzija a close second, and Sanchez and Leake both a distant third.

The Nationals Defense Must Back Up Scherzer and Strasburg

A warrior can only do so much when those he leads rely on him to win battles alone.

Since the start of the season, the Nationals have disappointed in every metric. Heavy favorites to win the National League East, their performance in the first two months from the plate to the bullpen looked nothing short of abysmal.

Despite their misfortune, the team is nothing less than stacked with talent, hence the lofty predictions. Their rotation, particularly Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, has actually met expectations. Scherzer commands an impressive 33.3 percent strikeout rate, compared with his 34.6 percent last year. Strasburg, meanwhile, has improved to 30.3 percent over last year’s 28.7 percent. But their respective ERAs of 2.83 and 3.36, however, don’t show it. Solid hitting this month has lifted Strasburg to a 7-3 record, but the Nats are 4-5 in games in which Scherzer has started.

Much ink has been spilled about the Nationals’ bullpen troubles and its 6.43 ERA. But the relievers’ poor performances must only add to the frustration that Scherzer and Strassburg feel toward their infield. Despite a decent rotation, the defense, particularly the infield, has played to the team’s record. 


Oakland capitalizes on Nationals error

 From missed ground balls to missed throws, the infield has forced the team’s rotation to rely more on the strikeout. With 46 errors, it’s currently tied for sixth worst along with the New York Mets. Scherzer and Strassburg have coped with the task as well as, or better than, anyone could ask a starting pitcher. Scherzer has a 2.04 FIP, which more accurately gauges the pitcher’s contribution minus the defense. Strassburg’s FIP similarly stands at .56 points behind his ERA at 2.76.

But even the greatest of pitching warriors cannot cut down an enemy alone while their comrades watch from a sleepy distance.

Scherzer has remained consistent, despite “playing in front of a bunch of butchers” as The Athletic’s Jonah Keri put it, and Strassburg by some metrics has improved. Consistently poor fielding, however, has doubtlessly hurt the bullpen more than the team’s starters by preventing unseasoned relievers from building the necessary confidence to turn their season around.

The Nats are finally starting to find their bats this month, and the season is far from over. If Nats manager Davey Martinez can find a way to rally the team’s defense and give its bullpen—which lacks the consistency and focus of Scherzer and Strassburg—something to pitch for, this team could still be in the Wild Card race.

Can Juan Soto Save the Nationals from Missing the Playoffs?

The series finale on Sunday between the Nationals and Phillies would have entertained even non-baseball fans. Down 6-2 in the sixth inning, the Nats staged a spectacular offensive comeback to win 8-6.

One of the most surprising moves came in the bottom of the eighth when leading 6-5, with runners on first and second, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler elected to walk 19-year-old rookie Juan Soto to load the bases for veteran Daniel Murphy.

The method-to-madness narrative appeared as Murphy fell behind in the count 1-2. After relying on fastballs, pitcher Seranthony Dominguez tried to end the inning with a low slider, but Murphy was having none of it. Dipping down for a golf-like swing, the Nats secondbaseman scooped it just high enough to clear the infield and score two runs, sending Soto to third to give his team the lead.

But why would Kapler walk a rookie to give one of the best players in modern MLB history a chance with the bases loaded against a backup pitcher? Furthermore, Soto had struck out at his previous plate appearance.

“You pick your poison right there,” Kapler explained after the game. “You have two very good hitters. The first one in Soto has been elite. And Murphy has struggled a little bit. And we went after the guy that was struggling and coming off injury.”

That Soto has barely played a month in the majors, but already inspires more fear in opposing teams than a veteran like Murphy tells just how important he is to the Nationals. Furthermore, the 19-year-old could be the morale booster that stems the team’s march of shame to a playoff-missing season upset.

The team has played pitifully this year, and barring a sharp turnaround will fall far short of its preseason expectations.

After a sloppy, early June series against the Braves, Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark held the Rays down in interleague play before the team dropped a series to the lackluster Giants. The Yankees’ blanking the Nats only 3-0 in the first of a two-game series then seemed merciful.

After failing to score a run in its previous two games, the Nationals managed to get on the board in the second game, on June 13, sparing the team an embarrassing shutout sweep.

Saving face, though, didn’t cut it for the new kid on the block. With two runners on in the top of the fourth, Soto made an improbable launch along the left field line that cleared the wall to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead.

But Soto was not finished. After the Yanks tied it up, he powered a 436-foot homer over right-center field, becoming the youngest player to homer in nearly three decades in any Yankees stadium and only the third teenager to do it twice. Soto’s solo shot gave the Nats a 5-4 lead, which they held onto and improved to 37-28 instead of falling to 36-29.

The Nats have made it to the postseason in four of the previous six seasons. Although they faced bad luck in the playoffs, their stacked roster and pennant-winning potential were never in question. Last year, they comfortably won the National League East by 20 games, and they entered the 2018 season the heavy favorites to win the division again. Las Vegas even gave them 7/2 odds to win the National Leage title, only slightly behind the Chicago Cubs.

“When a team has names such as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper on their squad, they’re expected to do big things,” opined Christopher Walsh from isportsweb.

Walsh named the Nationals’ star-studded squad, momentum from 2017, and lack of divisional competition as reasons why the Nats would win the NL East in 2018.

Furthermore, with studs Gio Gonzales’s, Daniel Murphy’s, and Bryce Harper’s becoming free agents at the end of the season, it may be their last opportunity in the near future to take the NL title.

Despite expectations—created by the looming talent downgrade—that Nats players would do what it takes to win, everything went wrong from the start.

Murphy underwent surgery in the offseason, which put him on the 60-day disabled list. Only two weeks ago did he rejoin the Nats from minor league play.

Then, on April 9, Adam Eaton aggravated a serious ankle injury from last year, which required surgey, causing him to miss two months of play.

Four days later, third baseman Anthony Rendon fouled a ball off his left big toe, which put him out of commission for nearly a month.

On the mound, Stephen Strasburg came through as expected, and Max Scherzer even exceeded expectations, but they had to largely carry the team on their shoulders before Strasburg injured his earlier this month—it is still unknown when he will return.

More than a dozen Nats players have been placed on the disabled list—nearly all of them solid hitters.

The team’s inability to perform at the plate has been aggravated by unexpected improvement from their division opponents. The dominance the Nationals had accustomed themselves to in their division was gone.

The new Braves have finally come of age. Our Jonathan Brock credits the addition of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna to the Braves’ position, which if it holds will at worst put them in the Wild Card game after being “the laughing stock of the National League” for so long.

Then there are the Mets. They opened their first 14 games of the season 12-2—the second best in the MLB behind the Boston Red Sox. Brock even dubbed them the only real challenge to the Braves’ cruising to division dominance. The Mets’ late implosion has benefitted the Nationals, but the season is far from over. Although the Mets cannot make the playoffs they pose a great enough threat to spoil the chances of one of the remaining three contenders.

Then there are the Phillies. After narrowly missing a sweep of the Nationals they lead them by a half a game. Unlike the Mets, they have remained consistently hot.

Before June, winnning the division became more elusive with each series, and it appeared that limping to a third-place division finish would be the best Washington fans could hope for.

Enter Juan Soto.

The Nationals primarily brought Soto up to Washington so soon because they ran out of outfielders.

Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell pointed out the unlikelihood of bringing a teenager to to the majors.

At 23, if you’re a real prospect, you’re probably in the majors. At 22, maybe. At 21, that’s still hot stuff. At 20, pay big attention, such as Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who is now the second-youngest player in the majors — after Soto.

But 19? Come on, even if injuries have sped a player’s rise, as with Soto amid the Nats’ injury tsunami, how good do you think this kid is?

In the past 16 years, Soto is only the ninth teenager to be brought up to the big leagues. The others include the best player in the league, Mike Trout; Bryce Harper, who will probably sign a $300 million-plus contract after this season; Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who had 143 victories before he was 30; Justin Upton, a four-time all-star; and Jose Reyes, a batting and stolen base champion.

The frustrated look on Soto’s face in his debut at-bat when when he struck out against the Dodgers, however, showed the young Dominican did not expect to simply fill injured starters’ shoes. He came to show he can outplay any of those starters at their healthiest.

Since then, he has batted .324 and hit six home rus and 16 RBIs.

More important than his long balls is his unbelievabe sense of the strike zone. In the minors his strike out to walk ratio was almost equal. On Sunday, Kapler had to choose between Soto’s consistency and Murphy’s grand slam potential and found the former more intimidating.

Soto’s consistency shows what a difference an additional consistent player can make for a team’s record and playoff hopes.

The Nats face a triple threat from the Braves, Phillies, and the Mets. If he stays healthy, Soto could provide the extra power at the plate that his team needs to make the postseason in the most competitive division in the MLB.

Few predicted the Nationals would face a potentially embarrassing playoff miss. But even fewer predicted teen Soto would present their best option to save face and make the postseason.

Are the Mariners for Real, or Will Their Playoff Drought Continue?

While the likes of Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Aaron Judge continue to command the attention of baseball world, the Seattle Mariners have quietly been on a tear, posting a 23-9 record since May 14.

The Mariners sit just 1.5 games behind the reigning world champion Houston Astros and appear to have at last compiled a resilient, winning team.

Riding excellent starting pitching, timely offense, and a stellar bullpen, the Ms are on pace to have their best regular season since 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki, who started the 2018 season out as a Mariners outfielder, won Rookie of the Year and the team won a franchise-record 116 games.

Much of this recent success has come in the absence of 8-time All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who is currently under an 80-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug. Furthermore, Dee Gordon, the Mariners’ current starting second baseman and steady offensive threat, missed several games due to a toe injury. Adding to potential problems, longtime Mariners starting ace Felix Hernandez has had a poor start to the season.

Yet, somehow, the Mariners are neck and neck with the Astros. How? Good outings by starting pitchers, stellar relief, and timely batting.

James Paxton is following up his stellar 2017 season with one even more brilliant this year, posting a 3.44 ERA, 6-1 record, 111 Ks, and a 1.01 WHIP in 14 starts. By contrast, Hernandez has had a rough season thus far: 6-6 with 5.44 ERA, just 70 Ks, and a 1.38 WHIP in 15 starts.

However, Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales, and Wade LeBlanc have picked up the slack for King Felix, delivering numerous quality starts. In the their previous 7 starts:

  • Before Sunday’s 9-3 loss against the Red Sox, Leake was 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA, 48 IP, and a 1.00 WHIP.
  • Gonzales is 4-1 with a 3.42 ERA, 61.2 IP, and a 1.28 WHIP
  • LeBlanc is 2-0 with 2.63 ERA, 36.1 IP, and a 1.10 WHIP

The bullpen deserves its fair share of credit as well. Diaz, Colome, Pazos, and Altavilla have all made valuable contributions–recording hold after hold and save after save, in large part contributing to the Mariners’ 21-10 record in games decided by one run.

Consistent and timely batting has been another reliable area for the Mariners who are now approaching a challenging end to June. Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz, Mitch Haniger, and Ryon Healy are the major reason for this offensive success, although Kyle Seager and Guillermo Heredia show signs that they may heat up as well.

Segura, in particular, has put in an All-Star caliber first half, boasting an MLB second-best .340 batting average. Since May 29, Cruz has a .342 batting average, 8 homers, 16 RBIs, and a .870 slugging percentage in his last 7 games. Haniger is batting over .270 on the season, with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs, and has been the hero in three walk-off wins for the Ms.

Dee Gordon is batting .290, has AL-best 19 stolen bases, and continues to shine as second basemen in Cano’s suspension. Ryon Healy is batting .257, with 13 homers, and 32 RBIs and a .485 slugging percentage during this stretch. Adding to this hot offense, Ben Gamel continues his own excellent season, going into tonight’s game with a .300 batting average.

Boston presented the latest threat to the Ms’ success, as they defeated them yesterday in Seattle to tie the series 2-2-. However, the Ms have a chance to bounce back and cruise past the elite Yankees before facing the sub .500 Orioles and Royals at the end of the month.

Questions remain for the Mariners. Even with Cano eventually returning to a healthy, productive roster, they will be without him for postseason play. Will all this be enough? Will Seattle fans see their team break the wretched 16-year playoff drought ended finally?

If the remainder of their season resembles their hot months of May and June, the Mariners will most definitely play in the postseason once again. A long-awaited playoff run is theirs’ for the taking.

Oakland Athletics Draft Quarterback Kyler Murray

The Oakland Athletics’ drafting Kyler Murray has made him the latest two-sport college athlete to go pro.

University of Oklahoma junior Kyler Murray went in the ninth round to the A’s under the condition that he can play his junior year with the Sooners. Last year, he played backup to Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and is largely expected to win the starting quarterback position with the Sooners. Murray attended Texas A&M before transferring to Oklahoma for his sophomore year.

The A’s declined to give the details of Murray’s contract other than his $4.6 signing bonus.  The contract also includes a clause providing insurance in case Murray is injured during the 2018 football season.

“I don’t know that it gets me off of Cal football to root for Oklahoma football,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin, “but we will definitely watch Oklahoma football a little closer this year.

At Allen High School in Texas Murray starred both as a quarterback and shortstop. As a quarterback, he led a perfect team—winning 42 games straight, including three consecutive state championships. He won the Gatorade Football Player of the Year during his senior year and became the first player ever to be selected for the Under Armour All-America Baseball Game and the Under Armour All-America Football Game.

He initially played both football and baseball at Texas A&M before transferring to Oklahoma, which per NCAA rules on transfers, forced him to forego his sophomore year of sports.

During the Sooners’ 2017 baseball season, he played left field and batted .122. He performed significantly better this year, however, playing center field and batting .296 with ten home runs, 47 RBI’s, and ten stolen bases. Before this year’s breakout baseball season, though, he gained national attention on the gridiron as a backup to Mayfield. He went 86 percent in pass completions and threw three touchdowns. He is currently a favorite to win the QB position for the Sooners this year.

Murray will join a select but growing number of athletes who excelled either in college or professionally in more than one sport. The more famous of those who excelled in Murray’s sports include 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, who played as a running back for the Oakland Raiders and an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals; Deion Sanders, who won two Super Bowls and played with the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 World Series; and Jeff Samardzija, who currently pitches for the Chicago Cubs after he became the all-time leading receiver at Notre Dame.

Playing a year as the starting QB of a red-hot team like Oklahoma could give Murray the kind of breakout year that would allow him to keep his career options open in the future.

At 5’11 and under 200 lbs, though, his NFL chances are slim. And the fact that the A’s were willing to offer him insurance and close the contract now shows that they are confident Murray will not be drafted into the NFL.

But even if the football scouts do come knocking, Oakland’s front office likely believes Murray will choose the safer option of baseball. After all, Jackson, the only athlete ever to be a baseball All-Star and football Pro-Bowler, said if he knew what he knows now about the concussion risk in football, he would have stuck to baseball.

Can the Angels Slow Down the Mariners?

The Seattle Mariners got the best of Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Andrew Heaney on Monday, securing their spot for now atop the American League West. If the Angels are to remain in contention, they need to at least avoid a sweep.

Monday’s matchup came across as more of a home run derby than a normal game. Mike Trout nearly gave a one-man show from the Angels’ side, blasting two long balls at over 110 miles per hour off the bat. Albert Pujols joined him in the top of the first to start what no doubt gave many Halos fans a premature expectation for an easy upset. The Mariners quickly answered, though, and in less than four innings, they hit Heaney a total of more than 1,200 feet, including three home runs.

Heaney’s performance marked a major disappointment following his recent one-hit shutout against the Kansas City Royals. But credit for the Mariners’ victory also belongs to Seattle manager Scott Servais, who had Wade LeBlanc walk Trout to load the bases, then left LeBlanc in to face Justin Upton. A base hit would have at least meant extra innings. Upton, however, was 3 for 13 against LeBlanc, and LeBlanc struck him out on a 3-2 count with his cutter.

The series opener presented an opportunity for the Angels—then on a nine-game winning streak—to break the momentum that Seattle had built after the Mariners went 7-2 in June. Along with the Houston Astros, both teams stood poised to win the division. The Angels’ recent loss of Shohei Ohtani, however, made their 4 1/2 game trailing to the Mariners seem much greater. A win on Monday would have given them a clear morale boost.

The next two games could send the Mariners and Astros off to the races if the Angels cannot find a way to cool their rivals to the north.

Today, the Angels’ rookie Jaime Barria (2.48 ERA) will likely fill Ohtani’s shoes, and Angels bats will face Mike Leake (4.46 ERA).

Game one did not show clear dominance on the part of the Mariners, and if Barria performs better than Heaney the Angels have a solid shot of taking this one because of how well they have hit Leake in the past. A key concern, though, is the steady improvement of the Mariners as a team—including Leake—who despite his overall high ERA, has kept it under 2.0 in the past four games.

The Angels desperately need to win the series against the Mariners, but if they lose another one, it does not need to be the one tonight. Much will depend on Barria’s ability to get the job done at the mound to reassure fans and his teammates that the team will continue to soar without Ohtani.

A series win for the Angels would put the AL West back on the path to a three-way toss-up. Most importantly, it would give the Halos a much needed morale boost coming off the loss of one of their best players.

A’s on the Mound: Should Fans Expect April to Continue?

On Monday night, the defending world champion Astros teed off on Athletics starter Brett Anderson as if they were scrimmaging against Oakland’s Triple-A Nashville Sounds with Anderson still there. Astros leadoff George Springer alone had nearly as many hits as the A’s, breaking an Astro record.

Few expect Anderson, or any of the team’s pitchers, to compete now on the level of Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. Many A’s fans would be happy if their pitchers could at least make it look like they belong in Oakland and not Nashville—which until Monday they had.

For a team expected to compete for the last place in the American West, the A’s performed solidly in April.

Although they largely rely on Khris Davis, Matt Olsen, Mark Canha, and Jed Lowrie, for hits, their defense—particularly their pitching staff—at least gave them something to hit for.

After losing key starters to injuries, rather than drop a hefty price on an Alex Cobb or Bartolo Colon, Oakland’s front office decided to farm its existing talent and acquire previous hires.

This no doubt annoyed some supporters because the team started 2018 without an ace. Sean Manaea showed the most promise if only he could return to his old 2016 self. But in 2017, he only managed a 4.37 ERA and lost velocity on his fastball—blamed on the weight loss he experienced from his Attention Deficit Disorder medication.

The A’s rotation, however, proved in April that they can compete with some of the best in the league. The bullpen came alive when needed, with Lou Trevino and Yusmeiro Petit’s having especially stood out.

Manaea led the AL with a 1.03 ERA, including a no-hitter against the Red Sox, which earned him American League Pitcher of the Month.

Losing Jharel Cotton to Tommy John surgery prompted the A’s to bring back free agent Trevor Cahill for a modest $1.5 million one-year contract. They originally drafted Cahill as an 18-year-old in 2006, and he played with them in 2009 and 2010. Like Anderson though, who played with the A’s from 2009 to 2013, Cahill has since gone under the radar, struggling with injuries and bouncing around the league, mostly as a reliever.

Since rejoining the A’s though, Cahill has pitched better than ever and currently holds a 2.25 ERA. He became only the third A’s pitcher to strike out 12 or more batters in six innings in his recent shutout against the Orioles.

Meanwhile, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Mengden have also pleasantly surprised.

Although none of their rotation pitched at an Angels or Red Sox level, they proved they had every reason to be where they are.

Perhaps Anderson’s dismal performance on Monday was “just one of those games,” as Melvin put it. It did differ sharply from his recent debut against the Mariners where he threw the seventh best swinging-strike rate of his career in 6+ innings. But it shows the maddening inconsistency that will likely continue for A’s fans until the team’s starters gain more confidence and experience at the helm.

Although putting away the Orioles improved the team to 18-16, the month of May likely presents the toughest stretch that any team will face this year. After their series against the Astros, they travel to Yankee Stadium to take on the hottest team in the league. They then travel to Boston to face the Yankees’ only competition in that department, followed by the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Diamondbacks.

“That list includes five of the six current best teams in the AL by record, with only the Angels missing,” notes Athletics Nation’s Alex Hall. “In their place, we get the current best team in the NL.”

The lack of aces in their starting rotation created basement expectations for the A’s. To raise them will require the team’s channeling its inner April. Manaea, Cahill, Triggs, or possibly even Anderson could develop into aces with time, but it will require a significant boost in confidence and expectations.

Most A’s fans don’t expect them to win the pennant, but they would like to see it at least be a rebuilding year to put them in contention for 2019. Whether their rotation and bullpen enjoyed a temporary April high—or if they really are that good—will be tested every game in May.








Is Ohtani Mania Over? Or Just Warming Up?

The poor performance by the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani against the Boston Red Sox tells more about baseball and the Red Sox than Ohtani.

Ohtani stole the hearts and imagination of millions of fans after awing in his first three games against the Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians. The Japanese rookie pitched 18 strikeouts in 13 innings. His splitter fastball seemed unhittable. He also proved just as dangerous at the plate, hitting .367, including 3 home runs and 11 RBIs.

On Tuesday night, forty-five thousand fans filled Angel Stadium—the second largest crowd since 1998 when it was renovated. Many saw the showdown with the number one ranked Red Sox as the ultimate test of Ohtani’s star power. Ohtani met his match early, however, against leadoff Mookie Betts, dubbed by Red Sox blog Surviving Grady as the meeting of an Unstoppable Force (Ohtani) with an Immovable Object (Betts). Betts, one of the most difficult to strike out in the league, took two strikes from Ohtani before driving one out of the park. Ohtani fell apart after that. He gave up four hits and two walks as the Red Sox racked up a total of three runs against him. The Angels pulled him midway through the second inning, citing a blister on his pitching hand.

Although Ohtani both pitched and hit poorly during spring training, allusions that Ohtani’s latest performance represents his true baseball prowess, and not the Ohtani against the A’s and Indians, hardly holds up. The Red Sox hit off Luke Bard even more brutally than they did off Ohtani, clipping the Angels’ wings with a humiliating 10-1 victory. Betts homered twice more, making it the third three-homer game of his career, tying a Red Sox record with Ted Williams.

Several commentators have brought the typical problems for Japanese pitchers into play, such as the different ball structure and the mound height. But Ohtani has had ample time to make the necessary American adjustments, and those impediments didn’t seem to hurt him against the A’s and Indians. The morale loss with Betts’ opening homerun, however, cannot be discounted. The showdown of champions occurred, and Betts won. This gave the Red Sox a clear momentum advantage.

More than Ohtani’s showing his weakness against the Red Sox, the Red Sox showed that they are truly a force to be reckoned with and the hottest team in the MLB right now. Ohtani’s poor performance no doubt deflated some fans’ hopes who see him as the Second Coming of Babe Ruth. But it’s far too early for Ohtani’s fans to lose hope that this wunderkind will help make baseball the greatest American sport again and lift the Angels to unpredicted success this year.

Ohtani’s first three games were not flukes. But as ESPN’s David Schoenfield put it, “Shohei Ohtani was making the game look a little too easy, and it most certainly is not easy.”