If you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em. Or deal for ’em.
That seems to be the shared philosophies of the Mariners and Rangers, who have been busy importing former Angels as they try to overtake the three-time American League West champions.
Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman have moved to Seattle, giving the Mariners superior defense, quality offense and a whole lot of desire.
Texas, meanwhile, has upgraded its bullpen with Darren Oliver joining Darren O’Day and given the offense another lethal weapon with Vladimir Guerrero bringing his bat to an Arlington playground he has made look very small in his six AL seasons.
All that’s left is for the Mariners, Rangers or A’s to sign free agent Garret Anderson, who’d look especially good in Seattle with best buddies Figgy and Kotchman.
The Mariners and Rangers certainly have improved with these moves. Seattle also added a second ace to its rotation, with Cliff Lee joining Felix Hernandez for what could be the best 1-2 punch in the division. Texas also brought in a potential ace in Rich Harden, but it surrendered one when it sent Kevin Millwood to Baltimore. It remains to be seen how beneficial that will be, hinging almost entirely on Harden’s ability to get through a season intact.
The Angels are looking primarily within to replace the departed, having thus far limited their acquisitions to DH/left fielder Hideki Matsui and reliever Fernando Rodney. It says a great deal about the depth of organizational talent that they can do this and remain confident that they’re still the team to beat in the division.
Their deal for Scott Kazmir at the Aug. 28 deadline enabled the Angels to let John Lackey go to Boston for a king’s ransom. They wanted the big Texan back, but not for five years and $82.5 million.
A fifth starter to complement Kazmir, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana remains a priority, and it’s likely the Angels will get their man – if not now, sometime this spring. There are at least al dozen legitimate candidates out there, a market glut that could bring prices down to a reasonable level.
Of the AL West clubs, Seattle has made the most dramatic moves, obviously. If they’re going to claim the division, they’ll do it in a style reminiscent of the ’60s Dodgers: dominant starting pitching, defense and speed. They don’t have anything close to the power of the Angels or Rangers, but their defense should be the best in the game.
It is remarkable, in a sense, that the Angels’ biggest advantage over the vastly underrated division is their offense.
For years, fans have fired off emails by the hundreds expressing disenchantment with a lack of clout. But this is an offense that should roll up big numbers again with Matsui driving the ball in the middle of the order and Brandon Wood, if he fulfills his potential, bringing another loud bat to the mix at third base.
Their overall balance and depth make the Angels the team to beat again. You’ll hear differently from insiders who want to be able to boast in October that they told you it would be Seattle’s year, or Texas’ year. They conveniently forget those predictions when the Angels prevail.
Recent history shows rather conclusively you’ll save face — and money – if you resist betting against Mike Scioscia and Co.
Ichiro is as hip, stylish and in step with the times as any player in Major League Baseball, even if he doesn’t express it in fluent English.
Before the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium last season, Ichiro willingly gave me a brief taste of hip-hop. I’m no music critic – although I did once review a Bruce Springsteen concert for the late, lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner — but it sounded dead on to me.
“Ichiro is as cool as it gets, man,” Reds manager Dusty Baker had told me. “He’ll bust out some Snoop on you.”
The Mariners’ superstar, alone at his locker in the ancient home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, was just starting to feel it before I was ushered away, deprived of more Ichiro unplugged by pre-game time constraints.
Now here he is, on the verge of reaching 200 hits for the ninth consecutive season, meaning every season he’s played in the Major Leagues of this country. We’re fortunate that it could happen here, at Angel Stadium, because this is a performer to savor, one for the ages.
As contemporary as he is on every level, Ichiro, more than any other current player, takes us back to another time, another century.
If you’re younger than dirt and would be curious to know what Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, greats of those early times, played like, Ichiro is your ticket.
He slaps and dashes. He laces line drives everywhere. He runs as if swept by a quiet storm. He makes difficult plays routine and has a cannon for an arm. I’ll never forget the throw he made his rookie year to erase Oakland’s Terrence Long trying to reach third base on a single. I was thinking, that’s Clemente, Roberto Clemente.
Ichiro has pounded out and beat out his singles on wonderful teams (2001) and dismal ones. He has been as consistent as the weather in the Pacific Northwest. You know it’s going to rain base hits when this guy is on the field.
Ichiro is much like Pete Rose in that way, without the fury. Ichiro is a better hitter than Rose was, with all due respect, and much faster. Defensively, it’s no contest. Ichiro is among the best ever; Pete took his talents to physical limits that never constrained Ichiro.
If Pete was Charlie Hustle – and he was – Ichiro is Mr. Cool, in any language.
Seattle likely will finish no better than third in the American League West this season, but it led the division in legends with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. The Mariners also own perhaps the game’s most gifted young pitcher in Felix Hernandez, who takes his place right alongside Tim Lincecum.
Griffey has been, in my judgment, the player of his generation. Nobody ever had more fun playing the game than The Kid, and nobody ever was more fun to watch.
Ichiro Suzuki has been simply unique. His value can be measured with statistics that will carry him to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but there’s never been a number that defines style and class packaged in the one dynamic frame.
I’ll settle for No. 51, the one worn by the great Ichiro, a blazing star for several continents and all time.
The focus has been on Vladimir Guerrero the past few days in his return from a torn pectoral muscle, but deeper struggles are ongoing with Mike Napoli and Howard Kendrick, two of the Angels’ most lethal offensive weapons.
Napoli, mired in a 1-for-24 slump, was not in the lineup on Saturday night. Jeff Mathis got the call behind the plate against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a man Mathis has homered twice against.
Napoli was on fire in the designated hitter role, but a return to full-time catching has coincided with an offensive slumber. He lined out to center in his first at-bat on Friday night against lefty Jason Vargas before striking out twice and popping up.
Napoli’s average has fallen to .275 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 131 at-bats. Mathis is batting .229 and has 12 RBIs without a homer in 70 at-bats.
“Nap is a dangerous guy in that batter’s box,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He can hit the ball out to all parts of the field, and he has a good eye. Right now, he’s just having a little trouble squaring up some pitches that he had been hitting.”
After showing signs of breaking out on the road trip to Texas, L.A. and Seattle, Kendrick is hitless in 11 at-bats on the homestand, his average plunging to 229. He came into the season with a .306 Major Leager batting average after hitting .360 in the Minor Leagues.
Maicer Izturis got the start at second after Kendrick grounded out twice and struck out on Friday night.
“It’s a little spotty,” Scioscia said of Kendrick’s progress. “At times it looks like he’s making some strides. And there are times he looks a little frustrated, trying to do too much with pitches rather than square it up. He’s working hard. It’s something Mickey [Hatcher] is paying attention to. Hopefully, some hits will start to fall.”
Meanwhile, in Triple-A Salt Lake, versatile Sean Rodriguez is getting a lot of hits to fall — more than a few landing beyond walls. He has 17 homers and 50 RBIs with a .280 average through 46 games, slugging at a .652 clip.
“Sean started slowly, but he’s been putting some great swings on the ball,” Angels reliever Rich Thompson said, having played alongside Rodriguez in Salt Lake before getting called to Anaheim. “I’ve seen Howie when he gets hot, too, and pitchers can’t do anything with him. He hits shots everywhere. That will come, I’m sure. He’s too good a hitter.”