Commentary

Angels cautiously optimistic

One exciting game shouldn't turn Los Angeles into buyer in this trading season

Updated: July 21, 2011, 3:04 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Wednesday night produced the Los Angeles Angels' most stirring win of the year. A big crowd at Angel Stadium was on its feet and roaring in the final innings, the Angels doing something they never do -- exploding for a half-dozen runs in an inning -- to cool off the streaking Texas Rangers 9-8 and keep their teetering playoff hopes on the beam.

If it looks like a pennant race and it sounds like a pennant race, is it a pennant race?

After Wednesday's game, which snapped the Rangers' winning streak at 12 games and kept the Angels a manageable four games out of first place, nobody on the Angels was ready to declare it a springboard into October baseball. There have been too many false starts in the past couple of years, a sputtering offense usually the offending party.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTorii Hunter and the Angels showed some promise against the Rangers, but they might be farther behind than they think.

"Ask me in November," was how Angels manager Mike Scioscia described it. "Hopefully, we'll be talking about it, but we have a long way to go."

This is a ticklish time of year to send mixed signals, with general managers all around the major leagues trying to figure out how many chips to throw in the pot as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. The Angels have 10 days before the deadline, and there are so many intriguing possibilities out there.

For example, they could trim a little fat from their $140 million payroll, bloated by players who aren't playing anymore or are playing at stunningly low levels. They could add a few decent prospects to a farm system that is embarrassingly thin in the upper levels. They could clear some room for their promising young players who are proving they belong -- and could make a dent -- in the major leagues.

Those aren't the notions that are going to be linked to the Angels in the coming days, of course, in part because the Angels are believed to be perpetual buyers and in part because the reality might not have settled into their executive offices before the deadline hits.

But even after watching Wednesday's outpouring, I'm convinced the Angels should be thinking about rebuilding in 2011. I say that not because I think this team is bereft of hope, but because I think it has a solid young core that is probably a year or two from maturing into a bona fide threat in a tough American League.

The hints were all over Wednesday's game that this could be a young team on the come-up if given a little boost from the front office. Uber-prospect Mike Trout, the 19-year-old built like an NFL power back, beat out a routine grounder to shortstop Elvis Andrus for an infield single in the midst of the Angels' big rally. Scioscia was anxious to check with third-base coach Dino Ebel to see how quickly Trout got to first on that play. One scout timed him in 3.8 seconds, ridiculous speed for a right-handed hitter.

Rookie closer Jordan Walden was at his barely contained best in the ninth inning, blowing away Adrian Beltre with a 100 mph fastball -- and Angel Stadium is known for having a legit in-stadium radar gun.

"He was changing speeds well," Scioscia said. "What was his range, 98 to 100?"

The Rangers didn't play a very good game Wednesday. Their starter, Derek Holland, wore down in the middle innings; their young shortstop, Andrus, seems to be regressing defensively (he has 16 errors before Aug. 1); and reliever Tommy Hunter looked as rusty as he probably was since he hadn't pitched in 11 days.

But let's not fool ourselves. This team did just rattle off baseball's longest winning streak in five years. The ready-for-prime-time talent gap between the only two teams still alive in the AL West race remains a significant one.

Somebody asked Torii Hunter whether the Angels beat the Rangers at their own game Wednesday night. In other words, they scored a bunch of runs, something they rarely do.

"They're more of a power team. We actually got some hits, some timely hits, not too many homers," Hunter said. "That's their game, swinging for the fences. We just played our game. We're not worried about how they play. We just play Angels baseball."

The Angels went into Wednesday with 79 home runs, or 41 fewer than the Rangers, who rank second in the AL. Yeah, the ballparks are different, but they're not that different.

If their time horizon is greater than the next two months, to dip into a sellers' market might be a brilliant stealth move for the Angels' front office this month. But it seems the Angels always seem to get the message too late. By the time they started thinking about moving spare parts last year, the deadline had passed and all they could get for closer Brian Fuentes was a man who could one day be the tallest starting pitcher in major league history. The only problem is he's got to get to the major leagues, and right now, Loek Van Mil, 26, is the only 7-foot-1 pitcher in Double-A.

The market for middle relief could get comically overheated in the coming days. If Fernando Rodney comes back and shows he's healthy, maybe the Angels could turn him into a young player who might one day be an everyday third baseman. The Angels haven't had one of those since Chone Figgins went north (then went south).

A handful of teams are desperate for another starting pitcher. If Joel Pineiro can show that last, awful start wasn't the start of a trend, he probably could draw some interest, maybe even get the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox bidding against each other. Teams always overpay for pitching.

Wednesday had the Angels' clubhouse in a buoyant mood after what had been a grim start to the second half, but they might want to see a little more of that before they decide to go all-in.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.