MLB Preview Bonanza: AL West

Now that Tim has started breaking down the archaic, stuck-in-the-19th century National League, it’s time for John S to focus on the American League, where our lineups actually go nine-deep and pitchers aren’t forced to pretend to know how to hit. As Tim did, we’ll being in the West.

The AL West is the most wide-open division in the American League, and probably in all of baseball this year. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won the division easily last year, as we’ve become accustomed to: They’ve won it five of the last six years. But the Angels lost their ace, John Lackey, their leadoff hitter, Chone Figgins, and their slugger, Vlad Guerrero, to free agency, and only really replaced Guerrero (by adding World Series MVP Hideki Matsui). Add in the fact that Guerrero and Figgins went to division rivals, and that every other team in the division made a significant addition to their rotation, and the Angels seem particularly vulnerable this year.

TEXAS RANGERS

Last Season: 87-75, 2nd in AL West

This Season: 90-72, 1st in AL West

The Texas Rangers quietly won 87 games last year, and quietly gave up fewer runs all season than any team in the AL except Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. Of course, their rotation is still full of question marks: Scott Feldman won 17 games last year but had an ERA of 4.08. C.J. Wilson is making the transition from set-up man to the starting rotation, which we at NPI know is always shaky. They also added Rich Harden, who is coming off a shaky year, as well as transitioning back to the AL. And let’s not even talk about Colby Lewis, who hasn’t pitched since 2007, and Matt Harrison, who has a career ERA of 5.76 over 26 starts.

So why are you picking a team with no sure starter to win the division? Well, partially because every team in this division has some serious flaws, but also because this is the same staff that had a surprisingly good 2009, largely because of the bullpen. It’s also a staff of mostly young players who will get better. The bullpen still has young sensation Neftali Feliz, who had an ERA+ of 269 in 31 innings last year, and closer Frank Francisco, who had a great season as well.

Didn’t he throw a chair into the stands once? Yeah, back in 2004. But we all get mad and throw folding chairs every now and then, right? Am I right?

What about the lineup? The lineup is one of the biggest reasons to be optimistic about this team. It was pretty disappointing last year, but Josh Hamilton and Mike Young missed significant amounts of time last year. We still haven’t seen a full season from Nelson Cruz or Jarrod Saltalamacchia (and Saltalamacchia is still only 25, too young to write off). Elvis Andrus is maturing, and there’s a chance that we could see Justin Smoak, the organization’s prized prospect, at first base by mid-year. This is a line-up that really underachieved last year, and you have to figure that most of them will get better in 2010.

Are you even going to mention Guerrero? It’s no secret that Guerrero’s skills have been on a marked decline over the last two seasons. I’d be surprised if he was still in the starting lineup by the end of the year. Nevertheless, I think signing him made some sense, since he was cheap and there’s always an outside chance he recaptures it. Plus, in a lineup with so many young players, Guerrero’s experience may be a stabilizing force.

Man, I bet you can’t wait until they clinch. Why?

Well, I just think Hamilton and Ron Washington could probably throw one hell of a celebration together? Uncool, man, uncool.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

Last Season: 97-65, 1st AL West, Lost in ALCS

This Season: 88-74, 2nd AL West

So this is the year the Angels finally fall off? Looks that way.

But you still have them ahead of Oakland and Seattle? Yes, this team’s lineup was very good last year—2nd in the AL in runs scored—and they really didn’t lose all that much from it. Losing Chone Figgins obviously hurts, but hopefully Brandon Wood can offset some of that loss. Wood was a top prospect in the Angels organization for a while, although his progress seems to have slowed as he moved from shortstop to third to make room for Erick Aybar. Wood, along with Howie Kendrick, will now get a chance to play everyday for the Angels; Kendrick has torn it up over stretches, so it’ll be exciting to see him put it together.

You just mean Kendrick has torn it up against the Yankees, don’t you? He hits .426 with a 1.051 OPS over 29 games against us! How is that reasonable?

How come nobody in that lineup really scares me? Because you don’t know it well enough; apparently you didn’t watch the ALCS. The Angels lineup lacks stars, but Kendry Morales, Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera, Bobby Abreu, and now Hideki Matsui are solid, professional hitters who just get on base and drive guys in.

How hard was it for you to watch Matsui go? Letting Matsui go after his World Series heroics was one of those heart vs. head matters. Part of me felt like the Yankees owed it to him to resign him and, even more, that it would be painful to see him play for another team and root against him. But I realized that letting him go was the right baseball decision. Someone like him, who simply cannot play the field at all, is tough to keep on your team when you want roster flexibility. He’s a good fit for the Angels, though, as he’ll probably top Guerrero’s production, which he was basically signed to replace.

Would you say the Angels have two of your favorite left-handed former corner outfielders for the New York Yankees? Yeah, probably.

If you’re such a big fan of the Angels lineup, then why do you have them behind the Rangers? Well, they weren’t a very good pitching team last year, and they lost their best starter. Without John Lackey, the Angels seem like a team with four #3 starters and an ace—Scott Kazmir—who’s thrown more than 152 innings only once, is coming off a bad season, and is already on the DL. As for the rest of their rotation, only Joel Piniero has put up ERAs of under 4.30 in consecutive seasons, and that was back in 2002-03. And, unlike Texas, LA doesn’t have an especially good bullpen. Fernando Rodney and Brian Fuentes might be the least intimidating set-up man/closer combo of any playoff contender.

You’re not really ready to discount the Angels yet, though, right? Not at all. I actually think they are still probably the favorite in this division—I just expect a lot of bounce back years or breakthrough seasons from guys on the Rangers. If Kazmir manages to stay more or less healthy this season, or if they go out and get a top of the line starter at the deadline, or if the lineup simply keeps the staff afloat, expect the reports of LAA’s demise to be proven premature.

SEATTLE MARINERS

Last Season: 85-77, 3rd AL West

This Season: 81-81, 3rd AL West

So you’re not drinking the Kool-Aid on the 2010 Mariners? Not at all. The addition of Cliff Lee is important—if and when he gets healthy—but the team still faces the same question it faced two years ago when it added Erik Bedard: Where are the runs going to come from? Ken Griffey, Jr., of the .735 OPS last year, is currently hitting fifth—FIFTH!—in that lineup. The additions of Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley will help, but neither of them are the kind of additions that can reshape your offense. Bradley, after all, is coming off a down year, and he has proven to be an erratic player who is not exactly good for morale.

Still, though, a potential top three of Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, and Erik Bedard? How many runs do you need to score for those guys? It’s true that if the Mariners can put together a stretch in which all three of those guys are healthy and pitching at full capacity at the same time, then they are going to be hard to beat. But I’m just very skeptical that’s going to happen. Bedard has thrown 160 innings combined in his last two seasons with the Mariners; if it’s just Hernandez and Lee, then they still seem like a mediocre team to me. Last year their run differential was -52, indicating that they were pretty lucky to win 85 games—their Pythagorean had them at only 75 wins. The Reds had a -50 run differential and lost 84. They might be a little better this year, with slight offensive upgrades and 25 or so starts from Lee, but they won’t be able to give their staff enough run support.

What about defense? There is no denying that Seattle is a great defensive team. With Franklyn Guitierrez in center, Ichiro in right, Casey Kotchman at first, and Jack Wilson at short, they have some top-shelf fielders. In many ways, the Mariners are great at preventing runs. But the tradeoffs made for defense may be too much. Kotchman’s value as a great defensive first baseman, for example, is pretty much negated by having one of your heaviest hitting positions occupied by someone with a career slugging percentage of .405. And even for a shortstop, Jack Wilson’s offensive numbers (.654 OPS in 2009) are pretty paltry.

You’re such a bad fan. True baseball people are supposed to be drawn to teams like Seatttle: Pitching and defense wins championships! Eh. Scoring more runs than your opponents wins championships. Seattle’s probably not going to do that very often this year.

Speaking of which, people are predicting that 2010 will be “the year of defense” since a lot of teams (Seattle, Boston, Chicago) seemed to emphasize defensive play in their off-season moves. It seems to me that, really, this was just an excuse to justify a spendthrift off-season, to not go after sluggers on the market because of “defensive concerns.” As I was last year, I’m still wary of the ability to find team-altering players based on defensive skills.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Last Year: 75-87, 4th AL West

This Year: 79-83, 4th AL West

So, another year, another rebuilding season for Oakland? You got it! This team wasn’t as bad they looked last year—the Pythagorean had them at 81-81—but man did they look bad sometimes. Early in the season, with Matt Holliday in the lineup, their offense actually looked worse than Seattle’s at times—they had so little surrounding Holliday, and his numbers were down so dramatically, that it didn’t look like a team built for the long haul.

And they’re built for the long haul now? Well, ever since Oakland traded Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder after the 2004 season, I’ve consistently felt like the Athletics were one or two years away from competing. This year is no different. They’ve got good, young pitchers in their rotation, in Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, and, if he can get healthy, Josh Outman. At this point, though, only Anderson looks poised to make the leap this year. Also in their rotation are two starters—Ben Sheets and Justin Duscherer—who missed all of 2009. You don’t know what you are going to get from them, but if they can put together years like they had in 2008, then this team could actually make some noise in the division.

Wow, way to hedge. You’ve now come up with plausible ways for every team in the AL West to win the division. Well, hey, I said this was the most wide-open division in baseball. There isn’t much separating all four teams, and a lot will depend on luck: which team has guys overachieve, or which teams suffers from injury problems. The main knock on Oakland is that its offense is still weak.

How can you say that? Travis Buck! Ryan Sweeney! Daric Barton! Exactly.

But doesn’t Oakland have some great hitters in their system about ready to come up? That always seems to be the case. Yeah, that’s true once again. Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, who sound like they should be a wide-receiver tandem in the NFL, are the two best bats in their system, and people expect them to have an impact this year.

Something tells me you’re dubious… I am. As I wondered last season, I’m not so sure Billy Beane’s talents for picking up young talent actually translate into winning games. He seems to flip the talent before they ever get to the Major Leagues—just last summer we were talking about Brett Wallace, who Beane had acquired from St. Louis for Holliday, and then Beane traded him to pick up Taylor. Even the ones who do get to the majors, like Buck and Barton, often seem pretty underwhelming once they get there. They haven’t really had a reliable bat come out of their system since Nick Swisher.

Speaking of Swisher, how come you don’t tell us your favorite player in every team’s history, like Tim? Please, I don’t want to bore you with that shit.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on April 10, 2010 at 11:37 PM

    It’s a good thing they unbalanced the schedule some years ago; otherwise, we could have seen a repeat of the ’94 AL West, am I right?

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1994.shtml

    Reply

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