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Angels quietly dominating AL West

Angels quietly dominating AL West

Major League Baseball, like life, is defined by checks and balances and decisions to live with. Teams are forever juggling strengths and deficiencies, especially in this big-ticket era. It's all about how you slice that pie.

If you want a rock in the middle of that rotation, you've got to give a little in the middle of the bullpen. You can have studs at the corners of the infield, but you'll have to do settle for defense without the power in center. Want a catcher with a gun? Fine, but don't expect him to hit, too.

Pluses and minuses. Every team has both.

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Then, there are the Los Angeles Angels. Nothing about them overwhelms you, but everything they bring can beat you. They run, they pick, they grind -- they work in concert like the wheels of a semi, rolling along. And because there is no star system -- although there are legitimate stars -- injuries can't derail them.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy, a former Southland neighbor with the Dodgers, broke it down after an Interleague encounter: "[The Angels] have weapons for you at the back end of the bullpen, they have starting pitching, power in the middle of the order, they have speed up and down the lineup, they're very aggressive and they're extremely well-managed. This may be the best team in baseball."

That's what the rest of the AL West has to deal with.

And, to their credit, the Mariners and A's will do exactly that. Counting on their own strong staffs, they'll shadow the Angels to the wire, ready to take advantage of any stumble. The Rangers aren't running the same race, but, with a myriad of individual talent openly shopped, they present their own gripping storylines.

  Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (53-35)
Band Aid? They've played all of the season without Juan Rivera, and much of it without Garret Anderson and second baseman Howie Kendrick. Yet, they lead the league in batting, and rank near the top in scoring despite ranking near the bottom in homers. Purists love that combination.

Overall grade: A
Ravaged by nasty weather in April, and by nagging injuries ever since. Issues? Nobody wants to hear about them. Have led the division for all but 10 days.

Gold stars:
Reggie Willits; beyond the stats and gung-ho defense, he showed up when the team was sagging and provided an immediate lift. Chone Figgins; what a revival -- 53 hits in June, which is a good season for a lot of people. Orlando Cabrera; 36 multi-hit games through June, practically Ichiro territory.

Needs improvement:
Bartolo Colon; the decision for non-surgical recovery from a torn cuff a case of toughing out, or wimping out? He isn't inspiring the confidence he has in the past.

GM homework assignment:
Keep resisting calls to add calibers to the offense. Bill Stoneman wisely turned a deaf ear to all the offseason and early-season criticism of his passivity at the trade mart, and he needs to adhere to his own vision.

  Seattle Mariners (49-36)
They have a major postpartum issue to deal with, following Mike Hargrove's abrupt resignation. But if the Mariners can respond to John McLaren as well, they'll stay in the dance until the last note.

Overall grade: B
The upside remains high, because this was a very middling first-half offense, with the notable exception of Ichiro's typical hit storm. You've got to like how pitching coach Rafael Chaves has maneuvered around the repeated absences of purported ace Felix Hernandez, with Jeff Weaver's revival atop that list.

Gold stars:
Ichiro Suzuki; hitting 26 points above his career average. Jose Vidro; career National Leaguer has done a terrific job adapting to the new role of DH. J.J. Putz; not only perfect in 24 save opportunities, but has gone either multiple-innings or 1-2-3 ninths for most of them.

Needs improvement:
Felix Hernandez; it hasn't been so good to be King. Adrian Beltre; his room for improvement could spell the difference down the stretch.

GM homework assignment:
After openly ruing Hargrove's departure, Bill Bavasi must present a unified front with McLaren and make sure to give him the type of team with which he feels most comfortable. And, by all means, respond to opportunity with action in the trade-deadline market.

  Oakland A's (44-44)
Rich Harden, on a program to regain his stamina after a two-month absence with shoulder tightness, sets up the A's for one of their typical late-season charges. Getting some other key players healthy -- mainly Huston Street, Mike Piazza and Bobby Kielty -- will make their threat legit.

Overall grade: B
Thin-margin-of-error clubs like this aren't supposed to withstand a bulging disabled list. But the A's have, a credit to manager Bob Geren, with an assist to GM Billy Beane's usual low-profile, high-return moves (waiver pickups Lenny DiNardo, Jack Cust).

Gold stars:
Cust; his DH production turned Piazza back into a catcher. Chad Gaudin; Dan Haren has been the obvious ace getting his deserved props, but this 24-year-old righty isn't too far behind.

Needs improvement:
Jason Kendall; the power went first, now he's hitting about 70 points below his career average. Eric Chavez; smooth-as-ever-D at third, but has emerged as the weak bat of the infield.

GM homework assignment:
Beane doesn't get homework, he gives it as the professor. He's an ardent believer in making the most of every shot at a title because they don't come along too often so, if the A's are looking at a single-digit deficit in the last week of July, he'll make things happen.

  Texas Rangers (38-50)
Big letdowns from both aces (Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla) left the rotation in atrocious shape, and injuries unplugged the offense (Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock have already missed 60-plus games). On top of it all, the fickle Rangers appeared to fall out of love with new manager Ron Washington in a Hollywood minute.

Overall grade: C-
They've had their feel-good weeks, but for long stretches haven't even been competitive. With all the long-odds moves that have turned out right (Sammy Sosa, Eric Gagne, Kenny Lofton) should be in a lot better shape.

Gold stars:
Lofton; a trooper, still doing his thing after 17 seasons and 11 teams. Sosa; much more than a born-again long-ball novelty, he ranks in the AL top 10 with 63 RBIs.

Needs improvement:
Brad Wilkerson; he caught fire approaching the break, but hasn't provided the consistent production needed to help fill the injury-created holes. Padilla; his big payday has led to nothing by pain-days.

GM homework assignment:
Jon Daniels is playing with some might heavy chips. He must turn Teixeira, Gagne, perhaps even Sosa, into a solid foundation, unless the Rangers want to just keep revisiting Square One year after year.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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