The A's have improved a notch since last year, and should benefit by having some more of their principles healthy. Their rookies are a year older, and the team as a whole looks to be the most balanced and promising bunch in the league.
The A's have a dominant starting rotation. Barry Zito is the most famous, but might end up being the fourth-best pitcher in the rotation. Zito is durable and gets his strikeouts; his 171 Ks last year reversed a trend of diminishing strikeouts since his Cy Young season in 2002. But he also set a new career high with 89 walks and allowed 26 HR in a park that's not homer-friendly. Zito is a fine pitcher, there's no question; but his 2002 season is what people remember, and that's looking more and more like a career year.
Rich Harden, if healthy, could turn out to be the Oakland ace. Harden had a good year in 2004, then emerged last year to post an amazing 2.53 ERA with a 43:121 BB:K ratio, although injuries limited him to just 128 IP. Health is an issue, but this 24-year-old has all the promise in the world.
Another pitcher who had a breakthrough 2005 was Danny Haren. The A's got Haren as part of the trade for Mark Mulder, and Haren alone has made the trade a steal already. While Mulder struggled, Haren posted an impressive 3.73 ERA in 217 innings of work, striking out 163. Haren is just 25, another young pitcher in the rotation with nowhere to go but up.
Joe Blanton is less predictable. Blanton had a fine rookie year in 2005, posting a 3.53 ERA in 201.1 IP. But Blanton's low strikeout rate (just 116 against 67 walks) is troubling; it could mean that his rookie year was more lucky than good. Blanton has a promising minor league track record, but it may be too much to expect him to reproduce his 2005 numbers.
The A's made the questionable decision to sign free agent Esteban Loaiza to a 3-year, $21 million deal. It's questionable, because few teams -- especially those already strong on pitching -- would spend that much on their #5 starter, and Loaiza is a 34-year-old who will be, at best, average.
The A's return AL Rookie of the Year Huston Street, who should keep developing into one of baseball's best closers. There is good support behind him in Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero. All in all, a fine pitching staff.
The A's will likely start Dan Johnson at 1B. Johnson is coming off a solid rookie year in 2005 (275/355/451), and while he doesn't hit that well for the position, it will be an improvement over Scott Hatteberg. Eric Chavez has a difficult time putting together that monster year that everyone thinks he's capable of, but this Gold Glove-winner just needs to hit like he already has (275/350/496 career) to anchor this lineup.
Mark Ellis has always been a solid defender, but burst out with a big career year in 2005 (316/384/477). While Ellis did hit well in the minors, he's never looked this good in the majors, so the A's should prepare for a regression.
Shortstop Bobby Crosby is an above-average defensive shortstop, but most of his reputation is based on his scrappiness. That may be true, but to be a real asset to the team, Crosby needs to improve upon his hitter-iness (249/326/431 career).
The A's will bring back Jay Payton in left (bad hitter, good defender) and Mark Kotsay in center (great defender, decent hitter). But the real boost will be the addition of Milton Bradley in right field. Bradley is a fine hitter (269/350/426 career), a fine defender (a good center fielder moving to right), and is still young, turning 29 in April.
Jason Kendall isn't a great defender, but the A's took on his contract because he's a disciplined hitter who takes pitches and gets on base. Imagine their surprise when Kendall hit just 271/345/321 in 601 ABs last year -- this after hitting 319/399/390 with Pittsburgh in 2004. Kendall is 31 (he turns 32 in June), so it's likely that his best days are behind him. But he should still have some good hitting left in the tank, so last season was probably mostly a slump.
Nick Swisher will likely start out the season as DH. Swisher is a promising hitting prospect, but will have to improve on his rookie year in 2005 (236/322/446). Behind him is Frank Thomas. Thomas isn't very healthy and is getting pretty old, but when he is in the lineup, he can still hit very well. The A's have a good glove to back up the middle infield (Marco Scutaro) a solid and versatile pinch hitter in Antonio Perez (taken from L.A. in the Bradley deal) and a decent fourth outfielder in Bobby Kielty.
The A's haven't looked as glamorous lately, missing the playoffs these past two years despite energizing late-season runs and good overall win-loss records. But this could be the year they return to the postseason. The A's have a great pitching staff, a solid lineup with good depth, and plenty of hope and guile to win the AL West.
Projected Finish: 1st place
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels spent most of their time this off-season fighting off a lawsuit brought by the city of Anaheim. They lost 2/5 of their starting rotation and a pretty good starting catcher and did little to recoup those losses. They do have a good many top-shelf prospects approaching the majors, but even they may not be able to close the gap with Oakland.
Defending AL Cy Young Bartolo Colon returns. That makes him sound a lot better than he is, but Colon is still quite capable of being one of the league's 6 or 7 best pitchers (3.48 ERA, 43:157 BB:K ratio in 222.2 IP last year). John Lackey will take over as #2 starter. Lackey had a career year in 2005, striking out 199 hitter in 209 IP while posting a 3.44 ERA. His high strikeout total is way out of line with his career numbers, but he should still be a quality contributor.
After Colon and Lackey, though, it gets dicey, and here's where the Angels will miss Jarrod Washburn and Paul Byrd. Washburn wasn't very durable, but he was an above-average contributor for several years in Anaheim, and he'll be replaced by Jeff Weaver. Weaver is much more durable than Washburn, but isn't nearly as good:
Washburn 2005: 131 ERA+, 177.1 IP, 51:94 BB:K ratio, 19 HR allowed
Weaver 2005: 96 ERA+, 224 IP, 43:157 BB:K ratio, 35 HR allowed
Weaver does allow more homers, but his added durability and better strikeout ratio makes him much closer to Washburn than the ERA would suggest. Weaver is a little younger, but his career has been heading south for several years now. Weaver won't replace Washburn, but he will come close. The scary thing is that Weaver was a last-minute free agent signing, managing to extract a fair sum from the Angels, who needed somebody else in their starting rotation. Dicey though their rotation is with Weaver, it was a really scary prospect without him.
The Angels will be replacing Paul Byrd with a healthy Kelvim Escobar. Escobar is very difficult to predict, but should be a solid presence. Escobar fared well in an injury-shortened 2005, and his last two seasons in the rotation, 2003 in Toronto and 2004 with the Angels, were quite good. If Escobar's healthy, he should post a good ERA and rack up some strikeouts -- an adequate replacement for Byrd.
The 5th starter will be young Ervin Santana. Santana showed promise in the minor leagues, but was never over a lot of innings. Santana showed good promise in Class A and AA in 2003, striking out 153 batters in 154.1 IP. Santana pitched just 48 IP at AA in 2004 (striking out 48). He was then sent through AA (39 IP, 32 K) AAA (19.1 IP, 17 K) and the majors last year (133.2 IP, 99 K). Santana does have a good minor league track record, but it comes with several caveats. And his poor performance at the major league level in 2005 (4.65 ERA in a pitcher's park and with a good defense) suggests that he's not a superstar-in-waiting, despite what some have said.
The Angel bullpen has traditionally been their strongest point, and there's nothing to suggest that 2006 will be much different. Francisco Rodriguez doesn't quite live up to the hype, but is still a fine closer. Scot Shields returns as a great and versatile backup, and the Angels even added lefty J.C. Romero in a trade with Minnesota. There's good depth behind them as well, suggesting another good year for the Angel 'pen.
The Angels suffered in 2005 from poor production at the infield corners by a veteran on one hand (Darin Erstad) and an unproductive rookie (Dallas MacPherson). The Angels shook up the lineup in the offseason by moving Erstad back to center field (wisely) and installing young Casey Kotchman at first. Kotchman hasn't yet made an impact in the majors, but the 23-year-old showed promise in 126 ABs last year (278/352/484).
MacPherson is gone, replaced by shifting super-utility man Chone Figgins to third. Figgins is invaluably verstaile, and a good defender in general. He hits well for a lead-off sparkplug (292/349/400 career) and steals bases as well (62/79 last year). If Figgins gets shifted elsewhere or someone struggles, look for Edgardo Alfonzo, a good player in the midst of a career crisis, to step in.
Adam Kennedy returns at second base. Kennedy is one of many Angels who will have to fight off competition from rookies. The Angels have top-notch middle-infield prospects Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood ready, and the unspectacular Kennedy will have a lot to worry about, considering their minor league track record.
Shortstop belongs to Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera's defense isn't nearly as good as his reputation, but it's good. He's not a bad hitter, but he sure looked bad last year (257/309/365). This 31-year-old would be in the same danger as Kennedy, except that the Angels are on the hook for a silly long-term they signed him to last year, and so won't be able to trade him at anything but a big loss. So Cabrera's contract, if nothing else, will justify his everyday job.
The Angels made a stupid mistake last year in signing the elderly Steve Finley (222/271/374 for them) to an expensive free agent deal. But they made up for it this year by dealing Finley's silly contract to the Giants (who like to give old people money) in exchange for Edgardo Alfonzo's less-silly-but-still-questionable contract. This meant that they could shift Darin Erstad back to center field, where his defense is more valuable and his offensive shortcomings (273/325/371 in '05) less of an issue than they were at first base.
Left Fielder Garret Anderson is a prematurely old 33-year-old. Not just in terms of health, but in terms of diminishing production, bottoming out with a dismal 283/308/435 line in 2005. It's possibly that 2005 was just a slump, but Anderson's physical condition is such that it's hard to anticipate a great rebound in quality.
Luckily for the Angels, they have an offensive juggernaut in right fielder Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero's defense is overrated, but anyone who hits 317/394/565, as Guerrero did last year, is worth it.
The Angels will really miss the departed Bengie Molina. Re-signing Molina may not have made sense in the long run, as they have a good catching prospect in Jeff Mathis. But Mathis won't be able to replace Molina's production for a while now. It's also difficult since Molina ended up signing a cheap, 1-year deal with Toronto anyhow, making one wonder (as Bengie apparently did) why the Angels didn't do a better job pursuing him.
The presence of so many prospects gives the Angels a good deal of flexibility from the bench. Underrated Juan Rivera could start out the season at DH, although he could end up seeing some time in the outfield. This should get more competitive as the rookies start pushing the veterans out of the starting lineup.
The Arte Moreno-Bill Stoneman duo had done a commendable job of cementing a very strong Angel organization over the past couple years, but their odd inactivity in the 2005-6 offseason could hurt the team in the short run. They do have a lot of young talent and no need to sign cumbersome long-term contracts, but the Angels are perfectly capable of signing short-term solutions in order to keep up with Oakland. As it is, it will be an uphill battle for the team going into 2006, with a lot of pressure on the young talent to produce.
Projected Finish: 2nd place
The Rangers had a lot of money to spend upgrading their pitching staff, but they spent it all on one pitcher -- Kevin Millwood. The problem is that Millwood can only pitch 200 innnigs or so, meaning it will be the same bunch of yahoos taking up the slack. Other than that, there's not a lot of difference from the 2005 group that went 79-83.
The Rangers overpaid Millwood by a tremendous amount. Millwood did have an excellent year in 2005, but his track record is such that he cannot be relied upon as a staff ace; he is an above-average pitcher who isn't going to set the world on fire. This isn't as big as the Chan Ho Park blunder, but it will seem like it three or four years from now when Millwood's production goes down the tubes.
After Millwood, it's really slim pickens. The Rangers made a pretty poor trade in exchanging promising young pitcher Chris Young for less-promising Padre pitcher Adam Eaton. Not only is Young a better bet for the future, but Eaton is one year away from free agency, compared to two for Young. The Rangers did get some other players in the deal, but it was a pretty bad move overall, weakening an already-thin starting staff.
The Rangers traded for Phillies starter Vicente Padilla. Padilla is pretty good when healthy; he just hasn't been healthy since 2003. It's not a bad deal and would be a great deal if Padilla is healthy, but that's a lot of risk to place in your #3 pitcher.
Young starter Kameron Loe had a good rookie year in 2005, posting a 3.42 ERA. But he also had a 31:45 BB:K ratio in 92 innings, so he may not be the wunderkind the Rangers hope for.
The bullpen is better, but not dramatically so. Closer Francisco Cordero had an off-year in 2005, but it was likely just a slump for a guy who was among baseball's best the two previous seasons. After Cordero is Akinori Otsuka, who isn't nearly a sure thing after a sub-par 2005, and a bunch of warm bodies.
1B Mark Teixeira isn't quite as good as his ballpark makes him look (301/379/575 in '05), but he's still pretty darn good. 3B Hank Blalock had a down year last year, but this 26-year-old should return to the solid form he displayed in 2003 and 2004.
Michael Young is a durable player and a team leader, which is why he is so very overrated. It looks like he'll return as the shortstop, even though this natural second baseman is very poor there. He does hit very well (331/385/513), but consider the ballpark. The Rangers may miss Alfonso Soriano's home runs, but they will not miss the continuing deterioration of his other offensive skills, nor his wretched defense at second base. Instead they will start promising young Ian Kinsler at second base, not a bad idea since they won't really be contenders anyhow.
The Rangers made a strong improvement to a weak infield in obtaining Brad Wilkerson. The Wilkerson-for-Soriano trade was an absolute steal for the Rangers, especially since Wilkerson makes less than half as much money and won't be a free agent for another two years (Soriano hits the market after this season). Wilkerson isn't a great defender, but is capable of playing center, although he will likely start in one of the corners. He's also a solid hitter (256/365/452 career in NL pitcher's parks) who will be a big upgrade to a generally poor outfield.
Left Fielder Kevin Mench is the only other reliably guy out there, but even his offensive numbers (272/334/484 career) show only a decent hitter given a big power boost by his ballpark. Center will likely be manned by Laynce Nix, although the Rangers say that every year until he inevitably gets hurt.
Catcher Rod Barajas isn't really great at anything, but he's solid all-around. He'll be backed up by young Gerald Laird.
David Dellucci enjoyed a big career year in 2005 (251/367/513), and although he's a good hitter (career 259/345/438), the Rangers should expect a sizable regression. Verstaile Gary Matthews, Jr. returns to the outfield, but the Rangers' options off the bench are pretty limited at this point.
After a solid improvement that showed a team on the rise, the Rangers took a sizable step back in 2005, leveling off at 79-83. This is the reflection of a solid young infield surrounded by a fair outfield and a still-awful pitching staff. Manager Buck Showalter shoulders some of the blame, but upper management should once again be scolded for failing to produce even a hint of an effective pitching staff. Texas is a tough place to pitch, but isn't as bad as its reputation. They say that they can't get pitchers to come to Texas, but that excuse only works for the first 10 years or so. Get a clue, guys.
Projected Finish: 3rd place
The Mariners are starting to realize that it takes more than 2 or 3 free agents to turn around a 90-loss franchise. The team fared better, "improving" to 69-93, and they should be a bit better than that this year. But this is still a team filled with holes, especially in the rotation and no way to fix them apart from throwing money at people.
Jamie Moyer keeps doing all he can to make the Seattle rotation look good, but he's running out of steam. The 43-year-old rebounded somewhat to throw 200 more-or-less average innings last year, but he can't go on like this forever. The Mariners may have overpaid to get Jarrod Washburn, but he gives them a solid #2 and more respectability.
The real story here, though, is soon-to-be-20-year-old Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. His minor league reputation bore fruit in the majors when he posted a 2.67 ERA in 84.1 IP, striking out 77 against just 23 BB and 5 HR allowed. The only issue here is keeping him healthy, an issue the Mariners are taking very seriously, and rightfully so.
After these three, it's old faces Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche, with no indication they'll be anything more than durably poor.
Eddie Guardado is still a potent closer, but he's 35 and doesn't have an obvious successor. Rafael Soriano and J.J. Putz have shown good promise, but have yet to sustain that for long enough to make them safe options at the end of a ballgame. There's very little depth to the Seattle bullpen.
Richie Sexson isn't a miracle worker, but he is a darn good hitter. He hit 263/369/541 last year and is, other then Ichiro, the only truly solid offensive presence in the lineup.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre's 2004 was a one-year wonder; just accept it.
It will be young Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, who will give the Mariners strong defense and two big holes in the lineup.
Ichiro is a good hitter, of course (332/377/442 career), but is like most modern slap hitters (i.e. Pete Rose) tremendously overrated for his offensive contribution. During the WBC, commentator Joe Morgan continually talked about the wonders of the Japanese hitting style, which tends to sacrifice big power for contact. Morgan acts as if that's always a good thing, despite the fact that if he were a hitting coach teaching that style, Morgan would have ruined the careers of most major power hitters. But that's just my opinion, and I could be wrong...
It doesn't look like center fielder Jeremy Reed will turn into much of a hitter (254/322/352 in '05), but he's a fine defensive center fielder. The M's re-signed Raul Ibanez (280/355/436 last year) to play left field, a good move for a team that really needs offense.
The M's decided on a creative solution to their catching problem, signing Japanese import Kenji Johjima. Johjima projects to be a good -- but not great -- hitter, with most concerns centering around his handling of a pitching staff that speaks a different language. I think this is an overrated issue -- how long does it take to learn the English words for "fastball," "curveball," "high," "low," and "inside?" It's not like Johjima is going to have to discuss dialectical materialism with his pitchers, or name all 50 states. He should be fine.
The M's signed Carl Everett as their DH, ignoring the fact that while he can still hit for power Everett's other hitting skills have degenerated significantly (he hit 251/311/435 last year). And since he's moving from the AL's friendliest HR park to its least-friendly HR park, this could be a problem. The M's also signed Matt Lawton, which could end up being a really good move, although Lawton played very poorly last year after his steroids suspension.
As I said before, Seattle management has taken a very poor track toward solving their problems. Because they have a large payroll, they feel compelled to sign big free agents, ignoring whether or not it would actually serve the long-term interests of the team to do so. They don't have a lot coming out of the farm system, rapidly turning the team into a defense-only group with a below-average pitching staff supporting it. Jobs will be lost if things don't turn around soon.
Projected Finish: 4th place