Predicting is harrrrd. Almost every player, for one reason or another, is difficult to project. Leonys Martin has little track record, while Seth Smith has a consistent track record which he is not realizing. John Jaso is having a great season by OBP but a lousy one by lack-of-brain-injuries, while Alex Rios seems unable to make up his mind, month by month, whether he is fantastic or putrid.
And then there's Bartolo Colon, who appears to be part cheater, part All-Star, part batting practice pitcher. I guess there really is enough of him to go around. It's not often that your team's ace pitcher goes on the 15-day DL and you go, "Oh thank God," but watching his last 3 starts was painful.
Apparently the A's agreed, as they came up with a groin injury that seems about as above board as Nelson Cruz's vitamin regimen or the apparent outbreak of ADD amongst major league baseball players. I imagine the conversation between Billy Beane and David Forst on Saturday went about like this:
"Billy, they're actually asking me to check a box for why we're putting Colon on the DL."
"There's no box for 'old, fat, and out of shape'?"
"Not so much, actually."
"Hmm...Is there one for gout?"
"Acute leprosy? Sudden agoraphobia? Distemper?"
"Not seeing it."
"An injured arm is going to attract too much attention. He's throwing in the bullpen right now -- go kick him in groin."
"I can't reach it."
"OK, wait until he's on flat ground."
In any event, going forward who will emerge as the better team in the AL West, Oakland or Texas? Here is my best attempt at some unbiased analysis which, along with $3.50, will get you a latte.
When comparing the two teams, the first thing that jumps out at me is that the Rangers have the best starting pitcher (Yu Darvish) and the biggest impact player (Adrian Beltre) on either team. Now we all know that 2 players doth not a team make, and so focusing on the "star power" can actually lead one to miscalculate. However, one reason it can be problematic to have so many of your eggs in two baskets is the risk of injury -- the A's can afford any player or two to go down better than the Rangers could afford to lose Darvish and/or Beltre. But in a smaller sample, such as the season's final 39 games, the odds of a given injury are less.
Make no mistake about it, Darvish is the only pitcher in either rotation with the "ruh-roh" factor. Jarrod Parker and Derek Holland are both very solid and talented young pitchers who probably cancel each other out in any comparative analysis, but only Darvish is a true #1. And as much potential as Yoenis Cespedes has, as clutch and valuable as Josh Donaldson has been, it's Beltre who not only can, but can be expected to, carry the team seemingly whenever it needs a big hit.
So to me, the question becomes, "Can the A's, with the combined depth of the other 23, overcome losing the battle of the best SP and the best position player?" The answer appears to be that in some ways they can and they have. For the season, the A's and Rangers have scored almost exactly the same number of runs: After today's games, Oakland has scored 544 runs, while Texas has scored 547 runs in one more game.
When considered in the context of Texas playing their home games in a hitter's park and Oakland in a pitcher's park, this would suggest that pound for pound the A's actually have the better collection of hitters. Even if Cespedes and Reddick get hot for the final 6 weeks they will have disappointed at the plate overall in 2013. But if this happens, the A's probably will have the better offense overall because they have matched Texas run for run with minimal contributions from these two.
But one can play that game all day. Both teams have gotten surprisingly good, and surprisingly poor, production here and there. The fact is, after 123 games it would appear that the two teams are pretty much dead even in their ability to score runs.
The bullpens are also somewhat even, in that both bullpens are good and deep. The A's have a fearsome trio in Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, and Ryan Cook, with Dan Otero quickly gaining favor and Jerry Blevins awfully good for a team's 4th reliever out of the bullpen. The Rangers made a shrewd pickup in Joakim Soria and Neal Cotts has been sensational. Add them to Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers, and Robbie Ross and you have a very strong bullpen.
As for the rotations, I think the A's may have an edge at the back end but the Rangers may have the edge on the front end. I would take Darvish-Holland-Garza over the A's top 3, because I have little to no confidence in Bartolo Colon going forward, it's very unclear how soon, if at all, Brett Anderson will be back in the rotation as his old self, and Sonny Gray is an unknown. I think you have to give Texas an edge here. However, with Martin Perez and Questionmark now rounding out the rotation, I think the A's have more depth with Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin, and Tommy Milone to choose from. Overall, it's probably close to a wash -- if I gave an edge to one team it would probably be the Rangers, especially because you can occasionally skip your 5th starter. But I think it's awfully close, and Gray could be a real wild card (and by that I mean division) here.
What all this means is that the difference between the two teams might be found in the area most often overlooked because it is the most tricky to quantify: Defense. I think defense will decide the division -- I'm just entirely sure in which direction.
The A's have a truly superlative OF defense. Just in the last 48 hours we have seen jaw-dropping throws by Reddick and Cespedes and a circus catch by Chris Young, Coco Crisp is an asset in CF, and the A's lead the league in "defensive efficiency" (converting balls in play to outs) largely because they have a fly-ball pitching staff and a terrific defensive OF. The A's also have some real issues defensively on the infield, especially when they face a LHP and put Nate Freiman and Alberto Callaspo out there to join Jed Lowrie.
I think it's fair to say that the A's have a better outfield defense, and a worse infield defense, than the Rangers. I suspect that one way or the other, either the A's great outfield play or the A's porous infield play will separate these two teams -- or maybe they will cancel one another out and we will be playing game 163 for all the AL West marbles.
So where does this leave us? If the two teams are this close offensively, this comparable in bullpen quality and depth, this hard to name the better rotation, etc., I think you have to say that the first 123-124 games have accurately left the two teams dead even, and that the division might be won by the great jump Reddick gets on a sinking liner or by the looping one-hop throw by Lowrie that Freiman can't handle.
The one consideration that nags at me is how many games Texas lost when they had to start Justin Grimm, Nick Tepesch, Josh Lindblom, or Ross Wolf (each of whom, ironically, started games Texas won over Oakland). There won't be many of those in the season's final 38 games. On the flip side, though, is the "intangible" of the A's resilience and confidence -- seemingly no tough loss, no tough stretch, no bad news can stop the A's from believing they can win tomorrow and that they will win the AL West.
I think it's really a division that could really be won by an inch (if so that's bad news for the A's, who have lost two games this week each by an inch), and I think that anyone who believes either team is 5-6 games better than the other has miscalculated.
Oh, I'm supposed to make a prediction based on everything I've said? Um...ok..Texas by 1 game, +/- 2?