The door just opened for the Oakland Athletics to steal the AL West. The Rangers are passing on turning Neftali Feliz into a possible shutdown starter, all for the sake of getting about 25 meaningful innings out of him.
Texas will enter the season with a rotation of C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, with perpetually injured Brandon Webb and Scott Feldman seen as midseason insurance for the inevitable injuries and slumps. It's not nearly as impressive as the Oakland rotation.
The Rangers were fortunate last season because they benefit from the greatest inequity in baseball -- a division in which they need to be better than just three teams to make the playoffs, and last year none of those three teams were any good. Only the Indians and Royals had fewer quality starts than Texas, and yet the Rangers still coasted to the division title. Oakland is improved enough so that mediocre starting pitching won't be enough this year.
As for Feliz, GM John Daniels said leaving him as the closer was the best option for the "2011 club." He left open the possibility that the Rangers would revisit a switch after the season. At that point Feliz's innings totals since 2007 will have been 42 1/3, 127 1/3, 108 1/3, 69 1/3 and, this year, about 70 innings again. Good luck asking him to throw 180 innings at age 24 after three years of so little use. (His earning power as he approaches his arbitration years also has been compromised without a foundation of starting.)
As I wrote
The Rangers will feel great about saving the best arm on the team to try to get three outs before the other team scores three runs. The Athletics will feel even better about it.
Why would you ever mess with a 24-year-old switch hitter who batted .343 and slugged .576 in the minors? Until last week, nobody ever did dare mess with Matt Wieters. Now that Wieters has been a bit of a disappointment at the plate after 226 major league games -- he is the same hitter as John Baker, Nick Hundley or Jesus Flores, only with more hype -- the Orioles saw an opening to bring Wieters closer to his potential.
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter and hitting coach Jim Presley suggested some mechanical changes in Wieters' stroke, an idea that would have been ridiculous when Wieters was tearing up the minors or getting his feet wet in the majors. To his credit, Wieters was receptive to the help and whacked four hits the very next day.
The Orioles still are confident Wieters is going to be a star. The Baltimore catcher is what Showalter called "a quiet assassin," a guy with leadership qualities who loves the defensive end of the game, working with pitchers and finding any way to improve. "He's the best tagger I've ever seen among catchers," Showalter said.
Wieters' bat just hasn't come as quickly as his minor league numbers suggested. His career stats (.266/.328/.393 with 20 homers and 98 RBIs) are nothing more than decent. Once thought of as "Mauer with Power," Wieters has the statistical profile of Baker (.273/.358/.406; 14 and 88), Hundley (.242/.302/.398; 21 and 97) and Flores (.260/.313/.406; 16 and 99), all of whom are separated by no more than 28 career games and .013 slugging percentage points..
"His bat is too slow through the zone," said one major league scout. "It just drags."
Wieters is 6-foot-5 but hits with the torque of someone 5-foot-6. Why? He "drifts" into the ball, causing his bat to cast, or what the scout called "drag," and he hits off a soft front side. Wieters has very little in the way of a load with his hands. Instead, his head slides forward as he starts his swing, which causes his front leg to bend, or "collapse," at the knee at impact. The great power hitters keep a still head behind the ball and maintain a firm front leg at the moment of impact.
Wieters' issues are more acute from the right side than the left. The good news is that Wieters has size, age, athleticism and hand-eye coordination on his side. He still is going to be a star for the Orioles, just not as quickly as everyone once thought. Perhaps the adjustments he is making in Florida (using more of a load and hitting off a firm front side) will accelerate the process.
Meanwhile, Wieters, Mark Reynolds, Luke Scott and Derrek Lee (who has been hurt much of the spring) have hit just three home runs in 156 at-bats this spring. (Wieters is hitting a homerless .267.) But catcher Jake Fox, the Babe Ruth of the Grapefruit League, has crushed eight home runs. Fox's defense behind the plate still needs a lot of work -- to his credit, he has worked hard on that side of the game this spring -- but if nothing else he looks like a big-time righthanded bat off Baltimore's bench.
Major League Baseball and the union this week released the list of the 20 most popular jerseys, according to Majestic's 2010 sales. Only two of the top 20 replicas are for players with West Coast teams, and both of them are Giants: Tim Lincecum (ranking number 10) and Buster Posey (19).
Twelve of the top 20 jerseys, including six of the top nine, play in the center of the baseball universe: the I-95 corridor between Philadelphia and Boston. I'll repeat what I've been saying: baseball is a top-heavy game. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are the engine to the business of baseball, and the other 27 clubs are boxcars along for the ride.
The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies account for half of the top 18 jerseys: Derek Jeter (1), Alex Rodriguez (9) and Mark Teixiera (11) of the Yankees, Dustin Pedroia (8) and Jacoby Ellsbury (16) of the Red Sox and Roy Halladay (3), Chase Utley (4), Cliff Lee (5) and Ryan Howard (18) of the Phillies.
Actually, I can respect the West Coast vibe that wearing a jersey with someone else's name on it (adult sizes, anyway) might not be considered all that. But there are a couple of other issues the top 20 jersey list brings to mind:
• The West Coast has no sluggers. Of the top 30 players ranked by OPS last year, only one plays for a West Coast team this year: Aubrey Huff of the Giants, who was 18th.
• The NL is dead in its three largest markets. The New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs all had losing seasons last year -- the first time the three biggest NL markets had losing teams in the same season since 1992. None of the players from the NL teams in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago show up in the top 20 list -- yet there at number 16 is Ellsbury, a .291 hitter with 20 career home runs who never has been selected to an All-Star game and who played just 18 games last year.