"They're the best in baseball right now," one scout said of the Angels. "I've seen all three teams, and they're all very good, but if I had a choice, the Angels are the last team I'd want to play right now."
The Angels, off to the best start in franchise history (40-24), have the second-best record in baseball behind Boston and are tied with the Red Sox for the most victories (entering play Tuesday). The Angels have won 17 of their last 23 games and have won 10 of their last 11 series.
Their team batting average (.284) is the third-best in baseball. The Angels rank fifth in runs, second in hits, seventh in on-base percentage and second in stolen bases. Their team ERA of 3.85 is the eighth-best in the Major Leagues.
"Obviously they're a great team, that's why they're in first place in their division," St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols said, after the Angels beat the Cardinals two of three at Busch Stadium, while outscoring their hosts 25-18. "They're a tough team, they have speed on the bases, they can steal, they can hit, they can play defense. [They have a] great bullpen and great starters. They just have great hitters. Every time we put runs on the board, they came back."
Another scout said the Angels' depth and versatility are what separates them from most teams.
"They've got guys like Vladdy [Guerrero] and [Gary] Matthews who can beat you with the home run," another scout said. "But they can also beat you with their running game. They've got speed at the top and off the bench. Everybody in their lineup, top to bottom, can hurt you in multiple ways."
Guerrero's 54 RBIs are the third most in the Majors behind Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees (63) and Magglio Ordonez of the Tigers (56). Guerrero is hitting .335 with 12 homers. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera leads all Major League shortstops in fielding and is second among Major League shortstops in batting (.335). First baseman Casey Kotchman is batting .323, outfielder Reggie Willits .311 with 14 stolen bases and Matthews .286 with eight homers and 38 RBIs.
John Lackey (9-4, 2.60 ERA) is tied for the Major League lead with nine victories, while Kelvim Escobar, who starts Tuesday at Cincinnati, is 7-3 with a 2.76 ERA. All five starters (Ervin Santana, Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver) have at least five wins. A deep bullpen headed by closer Francisco Rodriguez, who leads the league in saves and has converted 19 of 20 opportunities, backs up one of the best rotations in baseball.
"I'm impressed," said St. Louis center fielder and former Angel Jim Edmonds. "They've got a lot of guys who can beat you a lot of ways. It will be interesting to see how they do when we get closer the the playoffs."
Pearls from the diamond
Pujols, on hitting six home runs in his last nine games: "I feel pretty comfortable. I still feel like I need a little bit more discipline at the plate. I can't ask for more. All I need to do is prepare myself to work hard and be ready for the game. I can't control what happens in the game after that. There's a couple of things that I can do more, [like hitting] to right field. Me and [Cards hitting instructor] Hal McRae were talking about missing some pitches down the middle."
Atlanta hitting coach Terry Pendleton has been trying to get first baseman Scott Thorman to be more selective at the plate. Thorman is batting .228 with 36 strikeouts and only seven walks.
Speaking of the Braves, they were 24-17 with Chipper Jones and have gone 11-12 since the third baseman went on the disabled list on May 24.
When Troy Percival, who signed a Minor League contract with the Cardinals on Friday, arrives in St. Louis, it doesn't mean reliever Ryan Franklin will be heading to the rotation. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said Franklin, who has been outstanding in his role this season but has spent most of his career as a starter, will be staying put. "The only way Franklin is ever going to be considered is if we've got absolutely no other options," La Russa said. "We've got a guy that's doing a real good job in a very important role, so we're going to try not to mess with it."
Cards outfielder Chris Duncan, who returned a week ago after being sidelined with bursitis and an infection in his left knee, went 2-for-22 on the homestand. "[He's] pressing a little bit, mechanics a little off, he'll be fine," La Russa said.
There have been casual conversations between several clubs, but apparently nothing intense on the trade front thus far. One thing is certain: Just about every team is looking for pitching. "I think there's a lot of teams that need bullpen help," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said. "It will start picking up first of July or so. Clubs are still evaluating their rosters. Pitching is the hardest thing to part with because it's the hardest thing to get, that's certainly been the case since I've been in baseball. You're hesitant to part with it unless you have it or you're going to get some back."
The Cardinals' 4.77 team ERA ranks last in the National League and 27th in the Major Leagues. Of the starters, only Braden Looper (6-5, 4.12) has an ERA under 4.50. "I don't think the group gets any respect at all," said Cards converted reliever Brad Thompson (4-1, 4.56). "Everything you hear is that the pitching struggles. We can be great when Chris [Carpenter] and Mark Mulder get back [from the disabled list]."
One team to keep a close eye on in the coming weeks is Baltimore. If the Orioles, 29-34 and in fourth place in the AL East (11 1/2 games out), decide to become sellers, star shortstop Miguel Tejada might be among the veterans the Birds put on the block. Tejada has two-plus years remaining on the six-year, $72 million contract he signed before the 2004 season.
Look for the Nationals to move Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard before the deadline, especially Young, whose potent bat is drawing interest from a few contending teams.
The White Sox are among the teams eyeing left-hander J.C. Romero. Boston designated Romero for assignment following Friday night's game and the Red Sox must either trade or release him.
The Devil Rays have been gauging interest in outfielder Elijah Dukes, and according to multiple sources, the Washington Nationals are interested. "I'm not going to [talk about] any trade discussions that we are having," Nationals GM Jim Bowden said. "I think it's fair to say that we talk to almost every team in baseball on a regular basis. I'm not going to confirm nor deny any discussions that are out there, except to say that we are not close to any trade with any player at this point."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.