Uninformed Baseball Preview: AL West
This is the second in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.
No division in baseball saw more big-ticket off-season moves than the AL West, which is surprising considering that most of the games richest teams reside in the Central and Eastern divisions. Some teams in the AL West made acquisitions looking to preserve their status as World Series contenders (Texas) others were looking to return to contender status (Angels) while others are trying to rebuild on the fly (As, Mariners). Let’s take a look at how it all breaks down:
1. Texas Rangers (Projected 2012 record: 95-67)
Despite some big moves by the Angels, Texas remains the prohibitive favorite to win this division. Simply put, the Rangers have very few holes. The Rangers lost CJ Wilson to Anaheim, but their rotation may actually be improved heading into this season. Japanese import Yu Darvish has the potential to be just as good, if not better than Wilson and he’s six years younger than the departed ace. Japanese pitchers have struggled with transitioning to the States (see: Matsuzaka, Daisuke), but there’s reason to believe that Darvish will be different. For one, at 6’5” and 216lbs, (compare that to Dice-K: 6’0” 185lbs) Darvish is built for the rigors of the Major League game. What’s more, the stats show that Darvish is a much more dominant pitcher than Matsuzaka ever was, Yu’s career Japan League ERA is 1.99, Matsuzaka’s lowest single season ERA in Japan was 2.13.
As exciting as it will be to watch Darvish develop, the real wild card in the Rangers rotation is former closer Neftali Feliz. Feliz has filthy stuff, and it wasn’t too long ago when he was being talked of on a par with Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg as a future Cy Young winner. If Feliz can live up to that ceiling then the Rangers will have one of the best rotations in the game (along with Philadelphia and Anaheim), even if he’s a number 3, they’ll be deep in quality arms. If injuries become a problem, Texas can reach down to Triple-A for top prospect Martin Perez.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Rangers are deep and powerful. Josh Hamilton is the anchor of this lineup and while there are some makeup concerns with him, he’s been a consistent producer since arriving in Texas. What sets the Rangers apart from other high offense teams like the Yankees, is that they can also flash the leather. Every player on the infield is above average defensively, so long as Michael Young is limited to first base. The Rangers one weakness offensively is at first where Mitch Moreland is really more of a platoon player than an everyday starter, but Texas does a good job of rotating Moreland, Young and catcher/1b Mike Napoli between first and DH to mask the weakness.
The only thing that can really hold the Rangers back is manager Ron Washington. Washington does some things very well — he clearly provides a good environment for a team with players who might struggle in the wrong situation. That said, he’s an absolutely atrocious in-game manager (surprising for a guy who cut his teeth in Oakland) and may have cost the Rangers two rings already with his blundering. Don’t look for the Rangers to make a change, but Washington may be the difference between Texas being this era’s Dallas Cowboys or Buffalo Bills.
2. Los Angeles Angels (90 – 72)
What a difference a GM makes. In a winter full of big moves, perhaps the best move that the Angels made was firing Tony Reagins and tabbing Jerry DiPoto to replace him at the head of their front office. While its arguable that Reagins could have signed CJ Wilson and Albert Pujols, but what sets the good GMs apart from the bad ones are the little moves and DiPoto made one very telling acquisition by trading for Rockies castoff Chris Iannetta. Iannetta isn’t a household name, but he’s the type of player that stat-heads love, he’s got a great minor-league track record and has demonstrated an ability to get on base at every level, yet the Rockies yanked him back and forth between the majors and minors and seemed to prefer retreads like Yorvit Torrealba. Not only is Iannetta a good player, his acquisition shows that DiPoto understands the needs of his team. For the past seven years Angels fans have been subjected to manager Mike Scioscia’s man-crush on catcher Jeff Mathis, who with a career .257 OBP (that’s atrocious) is arguably the worst hitter in baseball (Chone Figgins might have an argument too). Scioscia apparently loved Mathis’ defensive ability, but catcher defensive is nearly impossible to quantify and what stats we do have (caught stealing %) don’t peg Mathis as anything better than average. Every Angels fan should send DiPoto flowers for trading Mathis to Toronto during the winter.
The Angels strength as a team lies in their starting pitching. With a rotation of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson, and Ervin Santana, the Angels have a stable of innings eaters who can rack up strikeouts. That said, their window to compete is probably the next two years as all of their pitchers are in the 29-31 age range and could begin to decline after they hit 33. Wilson especially is a prime candidate for regression as he’s 31 and prior to the past two years had been a bit of an enigma as a reliever. He’s been a consistent performer more recently, but he’s not in the same class as other top lefties like CC Sabathia, David Price and Cliff Lee. He should be able to preserve some value, however, by moving from an extreme hitters park in Texas, to a more favorable environment in Anaheim.
Adding Pujols in the offseason gave the Angels a much needed anchor to their lineup, however, its hard to get excited about their other players. Second baseman Howie Kendrick had a great 2011 season, but he doesn’t walk and could be due for a regression. The Angels appear to want to try second year player Mark Trumbo at third base, which doesn’t make much sense. Trumbo was LA’s first baseman last year and was respectable with the glove (5.5 UZR), but third base is a much harder position to play and there’s zero chance that Trumbo will be good enough there to compensate for his sub -.300 OBP. The Angels are better off starting incumbent Alberto Callaspo at the hot corner and trading Trumbo to a team that doesn’t understand how baseball works and will be enamored with his 28 home runs. The outfield is also a major area of concern as uber-prospect Mike Trout may need a bit more time in the minors, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu are getting old, and Vernon Wells is still around only because his contract would be too big a sunk cost for the team to accept if he was cut.
3. Seattle Mariners (68-94)
This team is not good, but that could change in a couple years. Trading number 2 pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for catcher/DH Jesus Montero was a smart move for a couple of reasons. First, hitters seemed to figure Pineda out towards the end of last season, he’s a big pitcher with a big fastball and a good slider, but he currently lacks the changeup necessary to get left-handed hitters out and pitchers are notoriously volatile commodities. Second, Seattle was dealing from a position of strength — along with current ace Felix Hernandez they have a stable of young pitchers in the minors including last year’s second overall pick Danny Hultzen and prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. In the meantime the Mariners know that their home-field is enough of an offense suppressor to get by with a few fringe-average pitchers in 2012. Finally, Montero is exactly what the doctor ordered for Seattle. He’s about as high a probability bat as you can find, with a demonstrated ability to hit for average and power. The only knock on Montero is that he can’t catch, but the bat is good enough to make him an impact player even if he’s mostly a DH. Second baseman Dustin Ackley is another second overall pick who showed plenty of promise in his first season and should be another lineup anchor in the coming years. If former top-prospect Justin Smoak can rebound from a year filled with injuries and personal tragedy (his father died) then the Mariners could have a nice set of young hitters to carry them as Ichiro Suzuki begins the twilight of his career.
On the pitching side it’s Hernandez and a bunch of so-so guys. The best case for Seattle is that a pitcher like Blake Beaven or Hector Noesi gets enough boost from Safeco field that they can deal him for a B-level prospect. As mentioned before, help is on the way, as Hultzen, a high probability lefty, albeit one with a limited ceiling, could be up in 2012. Paxton and Walker are a couple years away, but Walker has a very high ceiling. For Mariners fans worried about the team dealing Hernandez away, I don’t see it happening. For one, Seattle has more money than most people assume and the Pineda trade seems to signal that Seattle wants to keep the King in the Pacific Northwest and build a more balanced team.
4. Oakland Athletics (64-98)
This is how you do a rebuild. As GM Billy Beane rightly recognized that his team wasn’t going anywhere as it was constructed in 2011 and made a strategic decision to deal some of his young players to restock the farm. Beane started by moving Trevor Cahill to Arizona for pitcher Jarrod Parker and outfielder Colin Cowgill. The Cahill trade was a bit questionable as Cowgill is a fourth outfielder and Parker — the main piece in the deal — is only a year younger than Cahill and much less established. That said, it appears clear that Beane believed that Cahill had reached his ceiling and thought that Parker could be better in a couple of years. Given that Cahill doesn’t have the best pure stuff for a right-hander that may not be a terrible guess. The best deal that the As made in the offseason was trading Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for a package of four prospects including starters Brad Peacock and AJ Cole. Even if Peacock has to move to the bullpen, it was a great haul for a guy (Gonzalez) whose value was inflated by his home park and probably isn’t better than a number 3.
On the other side of the ball the As big move was signing Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. Despite great athletic ability, huge power, and sick youtube skills, Cespedes is still a huge question mark largely due to his purported inability to take a walk. The As don’t have much in terms of hitters, but they do play good defense across the board. That’s about all there is to say about their position players. Seriously, look at this depth chart.
Potential MVP: Albert Pujols, 1B, LAA (ZiPS Projection: (AVG/OBP/OPS) .302/.388/.952, 37 HR)
Even during a down year in 2011, Pujols was one of the five best players in the game. The only other legitimate MVP candidate in this division is Josh Hamilton, but Pujols isn’t just a once-in-a-generation player, he’s a once-in-50 years player and will likely be remembered the same way as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and the like.
Potential Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, RHP, SEA (ZiPS: (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 3.00, 8.57, 2.54, 2.96)
You can also make a case for Jered Weaver, but King Felix has been consistently better over the course of his career. He’s still only 26 by the way. I think the Mariners will try to lock him up so he can lead the team once the rest of their young talent comes along.
Potential Rookie of the Year: Jesus Montero
I might say Mike Trout if I was convinced that he would be starting in the outfield and not sitting on the bench/in the minors while Vernon Wells’ bloated corpse -er contract- eats up at-bats. Montero should start from day 1 as he has absolutely nothing left to prove in the minors. Expect him to catch a couple days a week and DH the rest. I personally think that the Mariners should just go ahead and make him their full-time DH and let him hit, but fantasy owners will rejoice if he qualifies as a catcher. Expect Edgar Martinez comparisons to become rote.
Texas is hands down the best team in this division. The Angels may have won the offseason, but it’s indicative of how good the Rangers are that after looking at the two rosters it’s pretty hard to envision Los Angeles pulling off an upset. The Mariners and As are clearly in rebuilding mode, but both teams have some reason to be optimistic about the future, especially Seattle. In two years I could see the Angels and Mariners swapping places as Anaheim’s core ages and Seattle’s prospects hit the majors. Still, Texas is so stacked with both veterans and youngsters that they should dominate this division for the foreseeable future.
Previous Previews: NL West