Friday, February 29, 2008

AL West Preview

Los Angeles Angels
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 90-72
Strengths: Pitching staff, Vlad Guerrero
Weaknesses: Overpaid $50 million+ outfield, lack of offensive punch
Biggest Change from '07: Torii Hunter and Jon Garland
One Reason:

One reason the Angels will win in '08 is that no team in the division is within 10 wins of them.

One reason the Angels will lose in '08 is if they change divisions.
The $50 million outfield referred to above is Torii Hunter ($16MM), Vladimir Guerrero ($14.5MM), Garret Anderson ($12MM) and Gary Matthews, Jr. ($9MM). Hunter is signed for 4 more years, Matthews for 3 more, and Guerrero and Anderson have 1-year club options for 2009. This pretty pickle means that somebody (Anderson and/or Guerrero) will play DH, sharing time with Juan Rivera (who's making just a little more than $2MM). Here's how these guys did last year, listed with their age in the forthcoming 2008 season:

T. Hunter (32): 287/334/505 w/ Twins

V. Guerrero (32): 324/403/547

G. Anderson (36): 297/336/492 (108 G)

G. Matthews (33): 252/323/419

J. Rivera (29): 279/295/442 (14 G)

Anderson's power surge isn't likely to continue. His SLG the three previous seasons was .433, .435, and .446, totally unacceptable for a corner outfielder with limited range and health problems. Hunter's defense makes him a good (if expensive) choice for center field, but he's not the hitter people think. He's a career 271/324/469 hitter in a pretty friendly hitter's park. With his defense, that's a good player, but not a $16 million player that you want to keep paying through his age 36 season. Matthews was a big mistake, and Hunter's signing indicates that the Angels are aware of that. Good for them, except you've still go to pay him. Guerrero's the only one who's a lock to earn his money, and with it probably a contract extension. As for Rivera, it's too bad that the youngest and cheapest option is the only left on the bench. But, as last year's stats indicate, Rivera's health is always a question. He's only played three seasons in his career of 100 or more games ... In the infield, the team is counting on Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick to keep progressing forward and make the left side of the infield potent offensively (and stable defensively. On the right side, Chone Figgins will be starting at third base, but he's really better suited for the super-sub role. And with Brandon Wood rising through the minors and an overstocked outfield, the Angels should consider trading the overrated Figgins for what they can get ... The Halos have two catching prospects, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis, but neither one has been consistently productive in the bigs ... The addition of Jon Garland to the back of the rotation gives the Angels one of the best in the league. John Lackey is a true ace, so no problem there. Kelvim Escobar pitched like a #2 last year, but he's turning 32 and still hasn't found consistency as a starter. Jered Weaver is a fine choice as #3, and Garland is as solid a #4 as you'll find. That leaves Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana to fight over the fifth spot. The club is well-protected in case of an injury in the rotation and may even consider trading someone (Santana's name has alwayd popped up in rumors) ... Outfielder Reggie Willits may be SOL as the 6th outfielder on the team. No team carries six outfielders nowadays, and maybe some desperate team can get Willits as a role-player down the stretch ... Some people have expected Francisco Rodriguez's mechanics to give him trouble at some point during his career, but while he can be volatile (in many senses of the word) on the mound, he's still been one of the best closers in the game since he came up. But there may be a fight brewing over the terms of a contract extension ... I disagreed with former GM Bill Stoneman from time to time (especially on the Matthews contract), but on the whole, he did a fine job of building up a long-term contender with relatively little fanfare. The Angels may not have had any success in October since they won it all in '02, but at least they're there at the end of the race every year. This franchise needed to be turned around, and it has been. For better or worse, Bill Stoneman has been one of the key figures in doing it.

Oakland Athletics
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 79-83
Strengths: Young prospects freshly culled from other teams
Weaknesses: Everything else
Biggest Change from '07: The loss of key contributors Dan Haren and Nick Swisher; the death of Joe Kennedy
One Reason:

One reason the A's will win in '08 is -- sorry, this is a rebuilding year.
One reason the A's will lose in '08 is that their roster has been stripped to its barest essentials. The A's have one or two reliable starters (Joe Blanton, Chad Gaudin), one converted reliever with injury troubles (Justin Duchscherer) one walking wounded (Rich Harden) and some spare parts. If Blanton gets traded that becomes even worse. Their bullpen has Huston Street (who may also be traded), a lot of duct tape, and high hopes. The offense is in tatters. Eric Chavez is the big star, but he hasn't played like one in quite a while. Mark Ellis is getting older, and "future MVP" Bobby Crosby is just hoping to stay healthy for a full season above the replacement level. You can pin some hopes on Jack Cust, Travis Buck, Carlos Gonzalez, and Kurt Suzuki, but not "AL contender" hopes.
Given the market, I think that Blanton will be gone. He's really not a great pitcher at all; he's a decent guy in a pitcher's park who is helped by a good defense despite poor strikeout numbers. Yes, he'll go 200+ innings, but he's not worth a Grade-A prospect. And putting him somewhere like Cincinnati, where all his environmental help is gone, would ruin his value ... The A's did a fine job of restocking the farm system with their trades, but they've still got a ways to go if they want to rebuild a contender ... Drafting and developing should be at the top of their priority list. It would be nice to have a winner when they move into their new ballpark in Fremont (still no firm date on that), but not if it means sacrificing long-term goals. In other words, don't get too attached to Ellis or Chavez, as Ellis in particular is an attractive player with an affordable contract ... The AL West looks like a plum division right now, but the Angels are firmly established on top with more hot prospects coming, and the Rangers have one of the best farm systems in baseball. In the years to come, the A's will have a tough battle fighting off the Angels, and the Rangers, too, if their development plans come to fruition. The only team that's not set for the future is Seattle, who is hopelessly clinging to the short-term and has a terrible record of developing prospects, especially pitchers.

Seattle Mariners
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 79-83
Strengths: Ace Pitchers
Weaknesses: Woeful Infield, Aging Players
Biggest Change from '07: Trading the future (Adam Jones) for the present (Erik Bedard)
One Reason:
One Reason the Mariners will win in '08 is that there's just enough talent here to contemplate a dark horse run for the playoffs. The M's don't have much in the lineup, but they could be decent, and with a rotation of Bedard-Hernandez-Washburn-Batista-Silva combined with closer J.J. Putz, they just might be able to pitch their way into contention.
One reason the Mariners will lose in '08 is that the lineup is just a paper tiger. Ichiro Suzuki is still a legitimate star, but he's the only one in the entire batting order. Don't get me wrong, I expect decent production from Kenji Johjima, Adrian Beltre, and maybe Raul Ibanez, but that's about it. Right field became a weakness with the trade of Jones, DH is a big hole if they think Jose Vidro is really that good, and the infield (apart from Beltre) is a mess. I expect Richie Sexson to bounce back somewhat from his hellacious 2007, but he may not be much better than average, and the M's desperately need more from him, especially power-wise. The middle of the infield is a horrific mess, with hitless wonders Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt yet to earn their fielding chops. And when you hit like they do, you'd better be a Gold Glover. Lopez may be on the way out, but there's not a clear upgrade, unless the M's want to bite on Brian Roberts.
Even calling the starting rotation a strength is a stretch. Carlos Silva is adequate at best at this point in his career, and he's walking proof that the real overpaid free agents aren't the superstars, but the mid-level stars. Jarrod Washburn is also proof of that, and proof as well that the M's don't learn from their mistakes. Washburn hasn't been a star in Seattle and never will. Miguel Batista is probably the best of the three, but he's also the oldest (37). Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard are a possibly dominant 1-2 punch, but Bedard has to prove that he can stay healthy, and Hernandez still has to take that giant step from star to superstar. I'm more optimistic about the latter ... The bullpen is no great shakes after closer J.J. Putz. If Putz misses any time (as he did last year), the end of the game becomes a lot more interesting in Seattle ... Prospect-wise, the biggest difference-makers are probably catcher Jeff Clement and outfielder Wladimir Balentien. Clement's bat is superior to Johjima's, even if he's a bit raw as a receiver. Still, if he's ready, Johjima would be a valuable trade chip come July ... Balentien should eventually move up to take over full-time status in right field. Projections on his major league performance are inconclusive, but he'll at least be better than Brad Wilkerson. I should also mention glove man Yung-Chi Chen. Chen is no great shakes as a hitter, but carries a fine glove, and if Jose Lopez continues to wander around aimlessly, the M's may just cut him loose and take the glove man ... The M's surprise run last year was, by all accounts, a fluke, but it had the effect of keeping Bill Bavasi in the GM's chair and dropping the "interim" label from manager John McLaren. But if the Mariners disappoint, both men are on the hot seat. Bavasi has earned it with a poor performance since inheriting a franchise that was once a powerhouse winner, and McLaren has earned it with decisions that leave even the casual fan scratching his head. The M's need to start over from the beginning, but that won't happen while Bavasi is still around. Which is why I don't expect him to still be around for very long.

Texas Rangers
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 79-83
Strengths: Top prospects, low-risk acquisitions of Milton Bradley & Josh Hamilton
Weaknesses: Pitching staff, lineup in disarray
Biggest Change from '07: Not much has changed. Maybe a full season of Jarrod Saltalamacchia?
One Reason:
One reason the Rangers will win in '08 is that they have such low expectations, much lower than their real level of talent. It's easy to dump on the Rangers, but they were a 75+-win team last year and have some big-time prospects movin' on up. Looking at the roster, you may not see a contender, but neither do you see a push-over.
One reason the Rangers will lose in '08 is that most of those prospects are too far away to help. 2009 or 2010 is the arrival date of most of their young studs, meaning this season is just an attempt to fight off mediocrity. And with this pitching staff, that's quite a challenge.
The good news with the pitching staff is that's it's hard to imagine it being much worse than it was last year. Kevin Millwood (5.16 ERA in 172.2 IP), Vicente Padilla (5.76 ERA and 71 K in 120.1 IP), and Brandon McCarthy (4.87 ERA in 101.2 IP) were all pitching at or near the bottom of their talent level in 2007. It would be hard not to improve on the awful numbers they posted, especially since Millwood is still talented, somewhere deep down, as is young McCarthy. The Rangers are optimistic about Kason Gabbard, acquired from the Red Sox in the Eric Gagne trade/steal, and Jason Jennings should be adequate as a #4 or #5 starter ... The bullpen is another matter. C.J. Wilson has been pencilled in as closer after the loss of Gagne and Akinori Otsuka. Wilson is no Mariano Rivera, but he should be at least adequate. The Rangers signed Eddie Guardado as a tutor and as insurance. Joaquin Benoit deserves note, too, as someone who may finally have found his niche, but after that, it's still pretty dicey ... About four years ago, I said that the Rangers had the best young infield in all of baseball and perhaps the best overall since the late-90's Mets. They had four legitimate All-Stars and possible MVP candidates in Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Michael Young, and Hank Blalock. Sadly, things have only gone downhill since then. Soriano was traded to Washington in a move that I defended at the time (but that turned out to be a disaster). Teixeira, nearing a big free-agent payday, was sent to Atlanta for seem impressive prospects last year. That leaves just Young and Blalock. Young is a solid player. I don't think he's an MVP guy, like a lot of Ranger fans, but even if he is a below-average defender, his offense is a blessing from the shortstop spot. As for Blalock, he went into one of the most mysterious slumps in recent memory. It seems like just yesterday that he hit the game-winning homer in the All-Star game. Ever since then, he's been a shadow of his former self, and injuries are only slightly to blame. The good news is that he hit well in limited action last year (293/358/543 in 58 games) and may yet manage a comeback ... As for the left side of the infield, the Rangers produced solid (if unspectacular) Ian Kinsler from their own system, recently signing him to a contract extension to keep him in Arlington. Kinsler hit 263/355/441 last year, and while he also isn't a great defender, he's good enough to keep around while he's cheap. At first base this year, the Rangers are planning to go with Ben Broussard. Broussard is a lefty platoon hitter who needs protection in the lineup. In Seattle last year, he hit 275/330/404 as a first baseman, even though he was almost exclusive platooned (only facing lefties in 19 of 164 PAs). He's not any sort of answer there, but then he's cheap, and it's not like he's the thing keeping the Rangers down. The Rangers may still experiment with Jarrod Saltalamacchia at first base, even though his bat, while great for a catcher, is only decent as a first baseman. But their hand may be forced if "Salty" struggles behind the plate and gets pushed by catching prospect Taylor Teagarden. Either way, my guess is there's a %15 chance Broussard finishes the season as the everyday first baseman ... The Texas outfield has been a black hole for years. The last time they had even two decent outfielders was eight years ago, in 2000, when Rusty Greer and Gabe Kapler hit well (Ricky Ledee did not, although backup Chad Curtis was decent). The last time they had a good outfield was in 1999, not coincidentally the last time they made the playoffs. Rusty Greer and Juan Gonzalez had excellent years, which offset the execrable year by center fielder Tom Goodwin. Generally speaking, it's easier to find a good outfielder than a good infielder. But the Rangers have been stymied in the outfield, even as they've fielded some fine infields. This year may mark a change, as the projected starters are Marlon Byrd, Josh Hamilton, and Milton Bradley. Now, there's enough risk here to give Lloyd's of London a heart attack, but it's cheap risk and there's also strong potential. Hamilton and Bradley are both worth taking a cheap risk on. If they fail, so what? 2008 doesn't matter. As for Marlon Byrd, he's a bad-body former center fielder who had a career year in 2007 (307/355/459). Don't count on another ... Mistakes have been made, but I'm becoming a fan of the Jon Daniels regime in Texas. The horrible Kevin Millwood contract may have represented a watershed, because since then the Rangers have faced up to the fact that they need to rebuild and have avoided the horrible contracts that have become associated with owner Tom Hicks. The Rangers have very quickly assembled a set of prospects that has a great deal of potential, and the wise way in which they do spend money (1 year for Gagne, 1 year for Bradley, trading for Hamilton) is enough to merit genuine optimism. And even if that promise doesn't bear fruit in 2008, it will soon. And the Rangers may soon move up in a division that includes another rebuilding team (Oakland) and an old team that's facing a quick fall if it doesn't rebuild (Seattle).

Having covered all the divisions now, my next effort will be my official predictions: who will win and lose in 2008, by how much, who will win the World Series, and who will take home the awards. I've been making these predictions for some years now, and while I'm no Carnac, at least I'm getting better. (It's sad to think that the clock is ticking on that particular pop culture reference ...)

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