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Can the Angels Catch the Rangers?

The Texas Rangers have been the talk of the league lately. Just a few weeks ago they were tied atop the AL West, a division that featured no clear frontrunner. The Angels and Mariners stayed close enough to create some intrigue, but it didn’t last long. In a run that started on Independence Day, the Rangers have taken 11 straight and have eliminated at least one division contender, the Mariners, by beating them four times. They now have a four-game cushion. It could have been more, too, had the Angels not put together a modest run of their own.

In early June the Angels hit rock bottom. Their 4-2 loss to Kansas City in the series opener was their sixth straight, leaving them five games below .500 and six games out of the AL West. Things didn’t get immediately better from there, though they did start to string together wins. In fact, from June 12th up through Saturday they hadn’t lost two straight. Even with two losses to Oakland, they’ve gone 21-10 since that game against Kansas City. Yet they’ve made up just two games on the division lead in that month-plus span.

The Angels now find themselves in a difficult position. They clearly expect to win this season, as their $141.75 million payroll is $20 million more than their previous high. But they’re going up against a Texas team that was not only considered better at season’s start, but has the resources to make upgrades themselves. That is, even if the Angels make a move, or multiple moves, to shore up their current roster, they’ll have to contend with an upgraded Rangers roster. That could further complicate matters, and it could dictate how the Angels proceed in the next two weeks.

To their benefit, the Angels are set in terms of starting pitching. Their staff ranks second in IP, third in ERA, and second in FIP, leading to the highest WAR in the AL. They might want to add an arm for depth, perhaps as insurance against a collapse from Joel Pineiro or Tyler Chatwood, but it does not rank high on their list of needs. Their relievers have done well enough, but given their 40 meltdowns, just five away from the worst in the league, they might prefer to add one more arm. As we’ve seen on the market, that might not be overly difficult. If they left the pitching staff in tact and used only in-house replacements, they’d probably fare reasonably well, if not very well, the rest of the way.

Where they could really use help is on the other side of the ball. Their team wOBA of .312 is just below league average, and there are no serious contenders, save perhaps for the White Sox, trailing them. As was the case even two months ago, power is their biggest problem, as their .132 ISO ranks below all other contenders, and far behind the Rangers’ team .175 mark. If they’re going to make a serious run at the West they simply must add a power bat. It’s the most noticeably absent part of their game.

They thought they might be getting that power bat when they signed Russell Branyan, but he hasn’t provided much production at all. It has been just 56 PA, but he has just two extra base hits in that span, which is far below expectations for a guy with a .251 career ISO. Again, things might turn around, but his playing time is a complicated matter. He fits at either DH or first base, but the Angels are seemingly covered there with Mark Trumbo, who has by far the highest ISO on the team, and with Bobby Abreu, whose .388 OBP leads the way. Removing either player from the lineup would only serve to hurt it. Abreu could move to the outfield and open up the DH spot, but the Angels are crowded there, too, with Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, and Peter Bourjos.

The crowding at first base, DH, and outfield greatly hurts the Angels’ pursuit of a power bat, since those are typically where power hitters play. For instance, Carlos Beltran would greatly serve their needs. With their payroll already at an all-time high, they’re pinching pennies, but the Mets have said that they’ll eat the remainder of Beltran’s salary in order to receive a prospect for him. He would step right in as the power bat the Angels require, but there is no logical place to play him. They could use him in an outfield corner and move Wells to center, but that would only weaken the outfield defense. That unit has been very friendly to the pitching staff so far, producing 15.4 UZR, which ranks third in the AL. Bourjos is by far the standout there. So if they did decide to bench Bourjos in favor of Beltran, they would lose on defense part of what they’d gain on offense.

Beyond Beltran, there aren’t many power-hitting players who are available. Wilson Betemit has some pop, and has been connected to the Angels, but that would mean removing Alberto Callaspo, but they’d be trading his good OBP (.364) and defense (.4.8 UZR) for Betemit’s power upgrade. Again, that’s taking away from one area to improve another. Aramis Ramirez would provide the better upgrade, since he hits for more power and can play an average third base, but there are many complications, including his no-trade rights and the 2012 option that vests if he’s traded, that could hold the Angels back.

The Angels have a clear need as they approach the deadline, but there is no clearly available player who can fill it. They have their own roster issues that further hinder them, which could leave them empty handed come August 1. It’s not the worst position to be in, since they do have one of the best pitching staffs, if not the best overall staff, in the AL. But absent another power bat they could find it difficult to catch the Rangers, a team that figures to improve on its own weaknesses before July 31st. They might be all-in for this season, but unless they can solve their roster puzzle and find a power bat that fits, they stand little chance of making up the difference in the division.