What derailed promising seasons of Rays, Angels?
We all look a lot smarter when we ignore predictions made months ago. Predicting the future is hard. But if you're feeling a little silly about that Angels-Rays American League Championship Series you predicted back in March, don't worry about it. You weren't alone.
Los Angeles and Tampa Bay were, for good reason, two of the hottest preseason picks in baseball coming into this year. The Angels made a couple of very high-profile, big-ticket additions to a team that had already been a contender. And a young Rays team looked to be a year better after a late surge propelled it to the 2011 AL Wild Card.
Yet here we are in early October, with both teams eliminated from postseason contention and locked in to finish third in their respective division. Neither team had a bad year -- odds are both finish with 90 wins, a total that could reasonably have been expected to secure one of the two Wild Card spots.
Here's a look at three reasons why the playoffs will include neither the Rays nor the Angels.
Stretches without key players
The Rays' best player has appeared in 72 games this year. The Angels' best player has played in 137.
Evan Longoria suffered a hamstring injury in April that cost him more than three months. In the intervening games, the Rays went 41-44 without their star third baseman. When Longoria plays, they're 46-26. The slugger is a key figure in both an offense that has little margin for error and a defense that is always a key factor when the Rays succeed.
Mike Trout has stayed healthy, of course, but his season debut didn't come until April 28, as the Halos elected to start the star outfielder in the Minor Leagues. It was justifiable to be cautious with Trout, who suffered an injury in Spring Training, but it still proved costly. Los Angeles went 6-14 before Trout was called up, and 83-57 since.
Even a few more games from either player might have made an enormous difference in the outcomes of the various AL playoff races.
Value buying didn't work out
When the 2011 season came to a close, the Rays knew they needed to improve their offense. The Angels knew they needed to improve their bullpen. Each made some tweaks in those problem areas, but neither club's upgrades were good enough.
Tampa Bay brought in Luke Scott and brought back Carlos Pena, adding needed left-handed potency to a lineup that needed it -- or so the Rays thought. Instead, Pena entered Tuesday with a dismal .357 slugging percentage, while Scott has a .287 on-base percentage. Each has been a bit better than it may appear due to the brutal effects of Tropicana Field on offensive numbers, but neither has been the kind of answer the Rays hoped.
The Angels added LaTroy Hawkins and took a flyer on Jason Isringhausen, hoping that the imports, along with what they already had in house, would be enough to add up to a quality bullpen. They weren't. An early-season trade for Ernesto Frieri turned out brilliantly, but even the former Padre wasn't enough to stabilize a relief corps that ranks 11th in the AL in ERA and leads the league in blown saves.
It's not that the ideas were bad -- Scott and Pena have a history of crushing right-handers, and some great bullpens have been built on the cheap -- but the moves just didn't work out.
Sometimes, as the saying goes, you just have to tip your hat. Almost nobody saw the Orioles or the A's as serious threats when the season started. But they are in the postseason, and the Angels and Rays aren't.
That's partly attributable to what the favorites didn't do, but it's also largely because of what the underdogs did do. Baltimore rode a superb bullpen and a patchwork starting rotation to its best season in 15 years. Oakland piled up homers and quality starts en route to its second playoff berth in the years since the Hudson-Mulder-Zito triumvirate was broken up.
In a world where either Cinderella falls even a little short, either Tampa Bay or Los Angeles is in the playoffs. But neither upstart stumbled, and so they're both in, while the favorites are going home.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.