Wednesday, September 12, 2007

State of the MLB Union . . . AL West

Before I get to the AL West, a few observations about some baseball games I'm watching on this lazy Saturday afternoon:

  • The Pirates just beat the Brewers 7-4. This leaves the Brewers just 1/2 game ahead of the Cubs atop the NL Central. The NL Central race between the Cubs and Brewers looks like it's going right down to the wire. Luckily, the Cubs finish up their season in Cincinnati, so (if it's not sold out) I might get the opportunity to see some history made at the GABP.
    The Pirates telecasts are very odd. They have a lot of product placements, but the most puzzling one by far is the Etch-a-Sketch renderings of the players as they come up to bat. Does this mean that most of the Pirates' audience is 5 years old? It would help explain all the empty seats at PNC Park -- I think they actually ran out of people to show in the crowd shots.
    I'll be doing another entry soon, weighing in with my opinions and predictions about the various division races. Although it's getting clearer and clearer who's going to the postseason, and there aren't a lot of really fascinating races left.
  • The White Sox are leading the Indians 5-1 after five innings, beating up on Jake Westbrook. I don't worry about the Indians, who have a pretty safe lead in the AL Central. Their only competition is Detroit, who will be without Jeremy Bonderman now.
  • The Royals are beating the Twins 4-0. Boy, the Twins were one of my big misses in my preseason predictions. And Gil Meche is pitching a pretty nifty game. I must admit that Meche's contract hasn't been as disastrous as I anticipated, but I stand by my opinion that the deal will be a poor one. It's great that Meche is having such a good year, but will it really continue?
And now, on to the AL West.

Los Angeles Angels (85-59)

My Prediction: 94-68
On Current Pace: 96-66

The Angels have done a pretty good job of overcoming some tough obstacles while still running away with the AL West. The fairy-tale story of the Mariners has finally disintegrated horrifically, and so the Angels are as sure a thing as anyone when it comes to making the postseason. Let's just look at how they got there and what their chances are when they get there.

It surprises me how much offense the Angels have been getting. They rank 5th in the AL in runs scored, this despite their "limitations" as a strict contact-hitting team. But they've managed to succeed by getting important contributions from several players.
The team MVP is, of course, Vladimir Guerrero (327/405/556), and there's no one else close. But the Angels have managed to get some valuable work from several other players. Chone Figgins is having another career year as a super-utility man, hitting 345/406/454, going 36/47 in steals. Orlando Cabrera is having a comeback year at shortstop, hitting 305/345/407. And the team has finally been able to get some good work from Casey Kotchman, who's hitting 294/362/464. These three, along with Howie Kendrick at second (320/345/458) give the Angels a much stronger infield than I anticipated.
But there are problems in the outfield, even with Vlad holding down right field. Neither Garret Anderson (294/332/495) nor Gary Matthews, Jr. (257/323/428) have been awful, but they haven't been too helpful, either, especially considering their big salaries. Reggie Willits has been a big help here, filling holes and getting on base like a madman (290/390/342). He's a better choice for left field than the aging Anderson, and has in fact spent a good deal of time there.
Other useful guys have been 1B/DH Kendry Morales (310/337/490) and catcher Mike Napoli (249/341/452).
So while Vlad Guerrero is the only real star on the team, the Angels have a great deal of depth in their lineup that doesn't offer any real easy outs. They also haven't wasted a lot of at bats on unproductive hitters (except for Shea Hillenbrand). The Angels' style is unique, but it has also proven to be productive and efficient in 2007. So while we may think of the Angels as having a pitching-first attack, that would be an unfair slight on what is a well-above average lineup.

Pitching-wise, the Angels have been strong as ever. They're tied for 3rd in the AL in runs allowed, even though their defense (.685 DER) hasn't been as strong as in recent years. But their pitching is strong as ever; their 4.18 team ERA is just a hair behind that of Cleveland (4.12) and Minnesota (4.16).
The keys behind this pitching staff have been a pair of aces named John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. Lackey has for a few years now been acknowledged as the ace apparent in Los Angeles and has backed it up with his work on the mound. This year he's sporting a career-best 3.18 ERA, with a 49:152 BB:K ratio in 195 IP. This has earned him Cy Young consideration once again.
But even better than ace Lackey has been the veteran Kelvim Escobar. The Angels acquired Escobar after an ugly career detour as a closer in Toronto, and he's given them very good work with a low profile (and a low salary) since then. This year may be the best of his career, as his 3.04 ERA is also a career high, and he's managed a 60:150 BB:K ratio in 180.1 IP. With a 1-2 punch of Lackey-Escobar, the Angels are not only cruising toward the AL West title, they're also a force to be reckoned with in October.
The Angels also have Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders, and while neither is as good as Lackey or Escobar, they're very good for the #3 and #4 spots in the rotation. Weaver's ERA is an even 4.00, which is a disappointment after last year's brilliant campaign, but he's still a solid #3. Saunders' ERA is 3.97, but he's not striking out very many batters at all, casting some doubt over that figure. But again, you could do a lot worse for your #4.
The Angels have had a hell of a time getting a fifth starting pitcher to round things out. Erstwhile prospect Ervin Santana has struggled mightility, and Bartolo Colon has finally collapsed in upon himself (6.72 ERA in 16 starts). The good news here, though, is that they won't need a 5th starter in the playoffs, so that weakness will be rendered moot.

The Angels again have gotten good work from their bullpen, but it's not nearly as strong as it's been in recent years. Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez is holding down the closer's spot, but it should be said that his 3.03 ERA is his worst mark since his rookie season. He has managed 78 strikeouts in 59.1 IP, which is great, but he's on pace to set a career low in that category (his next-lowest figure was 91 Ks in 2005). Rodriguez is still an effective closer, but we have to bear in mind that he may not be as dominant as he used to be.
Behind K-Rod, the bullpen has been decent if unspectacular. Scot Shields, the rubber-armed setup man, currently sports a 3.78 ERA that's not at all in line with his potential. Apart from the predictably awful Hector Carrasco, the Angels haven't gotten bad production from any of their key bullpen arms. They also haven't gotten very good production from any of them, either, with the possible exception of Rodriguez and Justin Speier.

The Angels will go into October with a very strong team. However, it must be said that it will be a different plan of attack from past Angel teams. They have a much stronger, more diverse lineup with strong starting pitching but just a decent bullpen. How far this will get them is questionable, but it should be said that all the other AL playoff hopefuls have problems, too.

Seattle Mariners (75-68)
My Prediction: 72-90
On Current Pace: 85-77

I missed this prediction by a fair amount but, to be fair, so did most of North America. I still can't understand how the Mariners were good enough to make it this far, although their horrific collapse over the past few weeks has taken them down a few pegs and essentially removed them from postseason consideration. But even still, if the Mariners can finish the season above .500, that's a big step for the franchise. I'm just wondering how they did it.

The Mariners are 8th in the AL in runs scored. Considering that they play in a pitcher's park, we could probably say that they're either an average offensive team or slightly above-average. How did they pull off this miracle? Chief credit goes to Ichiro Suzuki, who's had another banner year, hitting 350/395/433 and going 37/41 in steals while playing a good center field. But we could have expected that. The real surprise is that four or five other players have had solid offensive season behind him, which is two or three more than I would have anticipated.
Number on is Adrian Beltre, who's hit 282/329/503 with good defense at third. Those aren't All-Star numbers, but they're better than we would have expected from him. Number 2 and number 3 are the biggest surprises of all: good seasons from Jose Vidro (315/384/398) and Jose Guillen (289/355/457). Vidro would be an All-Star if he could play defense or hit for power, but he's still been a more valuable run producer than I could have dreamed. I also thought that injuries had rendered Jose Guillen basically useless, but now he has to look like one of the big bargains of the offseason, providing good offense and defense from the right field position.
Raul Ibanez has put up good number as a LF/DH (284/342/462), but that's no surprise. Neither is the good work from catcher Kenji Johjima (285/319/441), and I actually expected him to do better. Put that all together, and you've got the core of a surprisingly decent offense.
Of course, the M's have been weighed down by their mistakes. The biggest has been not bringing up top prospect Adam Jones to play regularly. With an outfield of Jones/Ichiro/Guillen, the M's would be even better, with Ibanez shifting to DH. But it's too late for that; Jones has only gotten 46 plate appearances so far this year.
The albatross around the Mariners' neck has been their infield (excepting Beltre). First baseman Richie Sexson has been woeful (205/295/399), as everything but his power has disappeared. And the middle infield, full of defensive potential that has yet to become reality, has been a drag at the plate, especially second baseman Jose Lopez (259/290/355).

So if the M's can light a fire under their middle infield and get Adam Jones into the everyday lineup, they might be able to push their offense into the top 5 or 6 in the AL. If only so many of them weren't on the wrong side of 30 . . .

The Mariners are 9th in the AL in runs allowed, which is even worse considering their pitcher-friendly home ballpark. A lot of blame goes to the AL's worst defense (.675 DER), but the pitching hasn't been so hot, either.
None of the starters in Seattle has been very good, and the only really decent ones have been Felix Hernandez (whose 4.17 ERA in 26 starts means another disappointing year) and Jarrod Washburn, who has at least been durably average, with a 4.49 ERA in 29 starts.
#3 starter Miguel Batista has been pretty poor (4.73 ERA), and the M's have been stymied at getting decent work from the back end of the rotation. Horacio Ramirez was a predictable failure (6.80 ERA in 19 starts), and although Jeff Weaver has turned things around, he's still got a 6.05 ERA on the season and is starting to prove why nobody else wanted to pony up big money for him.

The bullpen has been a much better story. Closer J.J. Putz has been lights-out, posting a 1.43 ERA in 63 innings while striking out 69. And Putz has, surprisingly, gotten some strong backup from the likes of George Sherrill, Eric O'Flaherty, and Sean Green.

The M's made an exciting and unexpected run at the postseason in 2007, and bully for them. But it's hard to see that they're really any better than an 80-win team when you get down to it, and you really have to wonder who's going to be pitching this team into contention next year. That's assuming, also, that their patchwork offense stays afloat.

There's a lot of promise here in many ways, but what it comes down to is a franchise that is still disappointing. Fire the manager and GM, and maybe then you can get optimistic about the future.

Oakland Athletics (71-75)
My Prediction: 92-70
On Current Pace: 79-83

Ouch. That's the word to describe the A's season this year. Most of the players they were counting on to produce for them have suffered from injuries that have rendered them all but helpless on the field. The team has gotten some extra help from some unlikely sources, but it still hasn't been enough to push them into contention. This A's team is in a transitional stage, and it will be interesting to see how they move to regenerate their roster. Until then, they're stuck with what they have.
The A's are 10th in the AL in scoring, and if there's a silver lining there, it's that they weren't expected to pack a big punch on offense. But even so, they've had a hell of a time scoring runs. Jason Kendall (226/261/281) was supposed to be this bad, but Mark Kotsay (214/279/296) wasn't. And Bobby Crosby's injuries/ineffectiveness (226/278/341) have cast his whole future in doubt.
Then there are the guys who have just been disappointing rather than disastrous. Mike Piazza (282/313/423) hasn't been awful, but he doesn't hold up to the standards of a DH. The same could be said for first baseman Dan Johnson (230/341/404) And Eric Chavez (240/306/446) is starting to look like a big dud, with his big contract making him expendable.
It hasn't been all bad for the A's. Second baseman Mark Ellis is hitting quite well (276/339/440), especially considering he's a top-notch defender. Nick Swisher has been solid (261/385/446) and looks like the closest thing to a reliable hitter they've got. And the A's have also gotten good work from part-timers Milton Bradley (before they traded him) and catcher Kurt Suzuki (244/321/435). Shannon Stewart, who looked like he was going to finish his career as a fourth outfielder, has stepped up and hit 285/343/396 in 563 plate appearances.
But the real quality work has come from two surprise players: Travis Buck and Jack Cust. Buck has hit 288/377/474 in 334 PAs, but it's Cust who has been the team MVP, batting 257/401/510 and shedding the label of "4-A hitter."

Lucky for the A's, their pitching staff is once again carrying the load, if not as well as in the past. Dan Haren has stepped forward as staff ace and currently sports a 3.03 ERA in 196 IP, with 50:168 BB:K ratio. The team has also gotten good work from Joe Blanton (3.77 ERA in 31 starts) and decent work from Chad Gaudin (4.47 ERA in 30 starts).
But the end of the line has come for those famous Oakland pitching staffs. While Haren is an ace and Blanton is a solid innings-eater, you need something better than that to back them up if you want to contend in the AL. Gaudin has been decent, as I said, and the club has gotten help from Lenny DiNardo and Joe Kennedy, but there's a lot missing. Rich Harden only managed 4 starts this year and, like Crosby, any hopes for his future come with a caution label. The A's did manage to shed some payroll by sending off Esteban Loaiza, who wasn't going to do them any good anyhow. I'm still amazed that that deal got made (and I lodged my objection at the time).
The A's bullpen isn't bad, but it's not a strength of the club, either. Huston Street, two years off from a Rookie of the Year campaign, now just looks like a plain, vanilla good closer (3.07 ERA, 58 K in 44 IP). Justin Duchscherer is dealing with injuries, and after them, the best pitcher in the 'pen has been Alan Embree, who isn't exactly part of your long-term rebuilding plan.

Things are in flux for the A's, and the writing on the wall says that this team, as is, isn't going anywhere. Parts can still be salvaged, but there needs to be a pretty big overhaul to regenerate this roster and get the A's back up there with the Angels (and -- dare I say -- the Mariners and Rangers). Let's just hope that Billy Beane is reading the same tea leaves I am.
Texas Rangers (69-76)
My Prediction: 84-78
On Current Pace: 77-85

Boy, I thought the Rangers would have better luck than this. And to be fair, they're looking a lot better than they did in the first half. But this team needs pitching like a junkie needs a fix, and the sad part is that their offense can no longer be taken for granted.
The Rangers rank 6th in the AL in runs scored, so when you take their ballpark into account, that means they're right in the middle of the pack. Their infield was their strength. Michael Young is having an off year, but that's still pretty good (308/361/408), Ian Kinsler is looking like a solid second baseman (276/360/470), and Hank Blalock has actually been hitting like his former self (298/351/550) -- in smaller doses (188 PAs). Mark Teixeira was having a good year at first base (297/397/524), but then he got traded. And I do think that the Teixeira trade was the best move, in the long run. Because while the Rangers have had a good infield for the past five or six years, they've done a horrific job of putting together an outfield.
They did make a wise move by snatching Kenny Lofton on a one-year deal (303/380/438), but then they traded him to Cleveland. Frank Catalanotto has hit well (276/355/472) as the left side of the left field platoon, so that's good news. Even more good news is the improbable comeback by Marlon Byrd (310/357/469), but it should be noted that he's hitting 271/315/442 away from Arlington and hasn't hit nearly this well since 2003.
After that, we've got the rogues' gallery of outfielders the Rangers have tossed out there. David Murphy (382/414/673) has hit well since coming over from Boston in the Gagne trade, but that's just 55 at bats for ya'. Brad Wilkerson (236/315/484)still hasn't recovered from the injuries that brought his offense to a full stop last year. And while Sammy Sosa is hitting home runs and does have decent stats (253/309/465), he's a 38-year-old DH hitting in a pitcher's park who turns into a little leaguer against righties (228/268/422). He might be useful as the short half of a DH platoon, but I doubt that's a job description the Sammy's looking for. He's going to want more money and playing time, and some doofus may just give it to him. And the less said about Jerry Hairston (190/250/291 in 183 PAs) and Nelson Cruz (221/279/357 in 296 PAs) the better.
Behind the plate, the Rangers have benefited (somewhat) from the addition of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty's not hit so well in Texas (242/271/460), but he's still a gigantic improvement over his predecessor, Gerald "Outs By the Bucketful" Laird (218/274/334 in 417 PAs).

If you had told me, coming into this season, that Joaquin Benoit would be the most valuable pitcher on the Rangers, I would have either laughed in your face or assumed that the Texas staff had all dropped dead of bird flu. The latter is closest to the truth, because while Benoit has been decent this year (2.63 ERA in 75 relief innings), the starting rotation has been abysmal.
The "best" starter on the team has been Kevin "Chan Ho" Millwood, sporting a 5.31 ERA in 27 starts. Millwood's peripherals aren't that bad -- 59:113 BB:K ratio, 17 HR allowed -- but it's still a far cry from what you'd expect from someone who's earning a great deal of money to be your ace.
And let's just take a quick glance at the other four pitchers who have made the most starts on the team after Millwood:

Brandon McCarthy: 5.04 ERA, 45:54 BB:K, 94.2 IP
Kameron Loe: 5.36 ERA, 56:78 BB:K, 136 IP
Vicente Padilla: 5.70 ERA, 45:69 BB:K, 115.1 IP
Robinson Tejeda: 6.61 ERA, 60:69 BB:K, 17 HR, 95.1 IP

Conclusion: Money does not solve all problems. At least Millwood has decent peripherals to counter his poor showing, but these doofuses look just as bad as they've pitched. They can spend more money if they want to, but this problem isn't going away easily.
On the flip side, the Rangers have gotten surprisingly good work from their bullpen. Former closer Eric Gagne was doing well (2.16 ERA) before going off to Boston to die. He's been replaced by Akinori Otsuka, who's done pretty well on his own (2.51 ERA, 23 K in 32.1 IP). Ron Mahay was doing well (2.77 ERA), but he also got traded away, sent off to Atlanta in the Saltalamacchia deal.
I already mentioned Benoit, but other relievers having good or surprisingly decent seasons are C.J. Wilson, Wes Littleton, and spot starter Jamey Wright.

WANTED: An entire outfield and a starting rotation. Will offer meddling doofus in return.

No comments: