Sunday, March 16, 2008

AL West Preview

Moving on to the American League today, I will examine the AL West, baseball's smallest division. For the past decade, this division has really been about 3 teams: Oakland, L.A., and Seattle. Texas has found itself in third or fourth every year since 1999. Meanwhile, the Angels have suddenly become big spenders under owner Artie Moreno. Since he took over after their World Series win in 2002, L.A. has seen its payroll increase rapidly. It now ranks annually in baseball's top 5. However, that spending has not helped the Angels return to the Series. After striking out with last year's big free agent acquisition (Gary Matthews, Jr.), the Angels hope to turn the tables with this year's signing, Torii Hunter. Seattle traded away its best young player, OF Adam Jones, for pitcher Erik Bedard. Everyone seems to think Bedard is an ace pitcher, especially considering Seattle traded five players for him. Yet, he's only pitched one full season, thrown one complete game, never thrown 200 innings in a season, and has had only two seasons with an ERA under 4.00. It's not like he's young at 29. But, with little else behind King Felix Hernandez, Seattle had to make a move to compete with L.A.

Projected Order of Finish
Los Angeles
Seattle
Oakland
Texas

Best Positional Player: Vladimir Guerrero, L.A.
Best Pitcher: John Lackey, L.A.
Best Rookie: Daric Barton, Oakland

Divisional All-Star Team
C- Kenji Johjima, Seattle
1B- Daric Barton, Oakland
2B- Ian Kinsler, Texas
SS- Michael Young, Texas
3B- Adrian Beltre, Seattle
LF- Gary Matthews, Jr., L.A.
CF- Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle
RF- Vladimir Guerrero, L.A.
DH- Jack Cust, Oakland
SP- John Lackey, L.A.
SP- Erik Bedard, Seattle
SP- Felix Hernandez, Seattle
SP- Kelvim Escobar, L.A.
SP- Joe Blanton, Oakland
RP- Alan Embree, Oakland
RP- Scot Shields, L.A.
CP- J.J. Putz, Seattle
CP- Francisco Rodriguez, L.A.

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Lineup
C- Mike Napoli
1B- Casey Kotchman
2B- Howie Kendrick
SS- Erick Aybar
3B- Chone Figgins
LF- Gary Matthews, Jr.
CF- Torii Hunter
RF- Vladimir Guerrero
DH- Garret Anderson
Bench- C- Jeff Mathis; INF- Maicer Izturis, Robb Quinlan; OF- Juan Rivera, Reggie Willits

Pitchers
SP- John Lackey
SP- Kelvim Escobar
SP- Jered Weaver
SP- Jon Garland
SP- Ervin Santana
CP- Francisco Rodriguez
RP- Scot Shields
RP- Justin Speier
RP- Darren Oliver
RP- Joe Saunders
RP- Dustin Moseley
RP- Chris Bootcheck

The Angels' chances of winning the title in 2008 will hinge on two things: the health of their outfield and their pitching. They have dependable young talent in the infield who should all be improving as they hit their primes. But, the outfielders are all on the wrong side of 30. Manager Mike Scioscia will have to be careful how he doles out playing time amongst the four starters. Guerrero, Anderson, Matthews, and Hunter will have to rotate between the OF and DH to stay fresh. Guerrero has been injured on and off for years now because of the early pounding his knees went through on that horrible Montreal turf. Anderson is 36 and has seen his power decline rapidly over the past three years. The smart move would be to play Juan Rivera in his place, but Scioscia seems content to ride out Anderson until his retirement. Matthews was never worth the contract he signed last off-season. He had one decent season that was amplified by Texas' great hitting atmosphere and his highlight-reel catch. Now, L.A. is stuck with his contract for three more years. They admitted their mistake by signing Hunter this winter, but it remains to be seen how this will pan out. Hunter, too, is 33 and is unlikely to match last year's stats. By the time late summer rolls around, we may see L.A. playing Rivera and Reggie Willits much more often if the old starters break down. Oddly enough, that may net the Angels a few more wins. After all, big names and big money don't always guarantee big success.

Los Angeles has already seen their top two starters go down to injury. Lackey will be out until mid to late April. Escobar will likely be out until May. But, the Angels have the depth to account for these setbacks. That's why they're in first place so often in this division. Filling in will be Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley, two players with plenty of starting experience already. Over the past 3 seasons, 27-year-old Saunders has started 33 games. In what amounts to a full season, Saunders has gone 15-8 with a 4.71 ERA. Moseley pitched in 46 games last year, starting 8. He had a 4.40 ERA. To have two guys like Moseley and Saunders on your bench is a major boon. Both could easily start for half of the other major league teams. The Angels can relax knowing they will get at least league-average innings from their replacements. They don't have to worry about taxing their bullpen or calling up an untested minor leaguer. The problem lies in the length of the pitchers' injuries. If either Lackey or Escobar miss a significant amount of time, the Angels will feel the effects. As good as Saunders and Moseley are, they are not aces. They're capable replacements in the short-term, but over a few months, they won't pitch like a #1 starter.

2. Seattle Mariners

Lineup
C- Kenji Johjima
1B- Richie Sexson
2B- Jose Lopez
SS- Yuniesky Betancourt
3B- Adrian Beltre
LF- Brad Wilkerson
CF- Ichiro Suzuki
RF- Raul Ibanez
DH- Jose Vidro
Bench- C- Jeff Clement; INF- Willie Bloomquist, Miguel Cairo; OF- Jeremy Reed, Wladimir Balentien

Pitchers
SP- Erik Bedard
SP- Felix Hernandez
SP- Jarrod Washburn
SP- Carlos Silva
SP- Miguel Batista
CP- J.J. Putz
RP- Arthur Rhodes
RP- Eric O'Flaherty
RP- Brandon Morrow
RP- Mark Lowe
RP- R.A. Dickey
RP- Sean Green

The Mariners are an intriguing team. Based on pitching alone, they are a worthy playoff contender. Playing in cavernous Safeco Field, Seattle can use the spacious dimensions to their advantage. With the acquisition of Bedard, the Mariners have a viable 1-2 combo with him and Hernandez. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they finished 1-2 in strikeouts in the league. Behind them, there are 3 dependable starters in Washburn, Batista, and Silva. None of them will ever win 20 games or strike out 200 in a season, but they rarely get hurt, they keep their ERA under 5.00 and keep their team in the game. There's not much more to ask for in your 3-4-5 starters.

The questions lie on offense. Seattle's middle infield of Lopez and Betancourt has plenty of potential and plays great defense, but their offense disappoints. The Mariners also play a middle infielder at DH, Vidro. In the American League, there is very little room for error on the offensive end. Seattle is risking a lot by playing three so-so middle infielders, one at a premium offensive position like DH. They also have Wilkerson and Ibanez in the outfield corners, two players who may be better off platooning at this point in their careers. They're certainly good players to an extent, but an AL team needs more power out of those positions. A lot of the offensive load will depend on Beltre and a bounce-back year from Sexson. If that doesn't happen, the performance of newcomer Bedard will be ever more emphasized.

3. Oakland Athletics

Lineup
C- Kurt Suzuki
1B- Daric Barton
2B- Mark Ellis
SS- Bobby Crosby
3B- Eric Chavez
LF- Travis Buck
CF- Chris Denorfia
RF- Emil Brown
DH- Jack Cust
Bench- C- Rob Bowen; INF- Donnie Murphy, Jack Hannahan; OF- Ryan Sweeney, Dan Johnson

Pitchers
SP- Joe Blanton
SP- Rich Harden
SP- Chad Gaudin
SP- Justin Duchscherer
SP- Lenny DiNardo
CP- Huston Street
RP- Alan Embree
RP- Joey Devine
RP- Santiago Casilla
RP- Kiko Calero
RP- Andrew Brown
RP- Keith Foulke

Many people expect Oakland to finish in last place this year after trading away Dan Haren and Nick Swisher. However, there is still a lot of talent left on the roster, especially on offense. Daric Barton could be the 2008 Rookie of the Year if he continues to hit like he did in his '07 cup of coffee. In 72 at-bats, Barton hit .347/.429/.639 with a 10:11 K:BB ratio. His power may not stay at that level, but expect a terrific on-base % and a .300 average. Jack Cust has a chance for 40 HRs with a full season in the bigs. He may also strike out 200 times while doing so. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what Chavez and Crosby can do when healthy. The pair could form a potent left-side duo on the infield, but neither can seem to stay intact.

The wild-card will be the A's starting pitching. After Mr. Consistency Joe Blanton, Oakland has a mishmash of pitchers. Harden is a Cy Young contender when healthy, but that only happened in 2004-5. Every year, Oakland hopes Harden can stay in the rotation long enough to help the team, but each time he disappoints. In years past, they've had the depth to account for his absence. Now, Oakland is much shallower in the rotation. Gaudin and DiNardo have only started one year each, while Duchscherer is moving into the rotation for the first time. While both DiNardo and Gaudin performed capably in 2007, I can't imagine both will replicate the success. Look for just one of these 3 to be a viable rotation member.

4. Texas Rangers

Lineup
C- Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B- Ben Broussard
2B- Ian Kinsler
SS- Michael Young
3B- Hank Blalock
LF- Marlon Byrd
CF- Josh Hamilton
RF- Milton Bradley
DH- Frank Catalanotto
Bench- C- Gerald Laird; INF- Chris Shelton, Ramon Vazquez; OF- Nelson Cruz, David Murphy

Pitchers
SP- Kevin Millwood
SP- Vicente Padilla
SP- Jason Jennings
SP- Brandon McCarthy
SP- Robinson Tejeda
CP- C.J. Wilson
RP- Joaquin Benoit
RP- Frank Francisco
RP- Kaz Fukumori
RP- Wes Littleton
RP- Eddie Guardado
RP- John Rheinecker

Think about some of the players that have come through Arlington since the Rangers last won a division title. Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Juan Gonzalez, Alfonso Soriano, and Adrian Gonzalez. The problem has been the pitching. Year in and year out, Texas has failed to find a solid rotation. It continues again in 2008. Millwood, Jennings, and Padilla are fine pitchers, but none of them are #1's. Texas has not had a true #1 starter since Kevin Brown in the early 90s. Much like Colorado has done for much of its history, Texas gets caught up in its offensive numbers. Playing in an extreme hitters park, the offensive stats tend to get skewed upward. This illusion gets overlooked when evaluating players, causing the Rangers to build around overrated hitters and completely overlooking pitching. They figure pitching is hard to come by anyway in Ameriquest Field, so why not just get more offense?

The offense in '08 will feature above-average hitters in Young, Kinsler, Blalock, and Hamilton. However, they are also counting on Saltalamacchia in his first full major league season. Byrd and Broussard have proven over the years that they are no better than backups. Frank the Cat used to be a good utility player who could fill in at multiple positions, but now at 34, he's become a full-time DH. No longer able to offer versatility, hie value is much lower and he doesn't have the bat to start at DH. Yet, here they are starting (Chris Shelton may platoon with Broussard). It simply won't be enough combined with the lackluster pitching.

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