Wednesday, March 25, 2009

AL West Preview: Angels and Demons

My Prediction:
1st: Los Angeles Angels
2nd: Oakland Athletics
3rd: Texas Rangers
4th: Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Angels

The only team that needed Mark Teixeira more than the Yankees was the Angels. With the injuries to Vladimir Guerrero, the Angels just don't have an impact bat anymore – period. They finished 10th in the AL in runs scored last year, and that was with half a season of Teixeira hitting 358/449/632*. Their 100-62 record in 2008 disguised a roster whose Pythagorean record was a disappointing 88-74. Stuck in a division with two of the best farm systems – Oakland and Texas – churning out prospects left and right, there's no room for disappointment.

If the Angels are to improve their offense in 2009, it will have to come from their young infield. Both Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood have stellar minor league resumes and they came to L.A. looking like future All-Stars. But it seems that they left their offense somewhere in the minors. Kendrick has hit well enough (306/333/430 career), but not up to his potential, and his defense has been problematic. Wood hasn't hit well at all (191/212/317 in 68 games), as big-league pitchers have consistently rung him up for strikeouts, to the tune of 55 in 150 at bats, against a mere 4 walks. The Angels will also need help from Teixeira's replacement at first, Kendry Morales. The Cuban import has potential, but has hit just 249/302/408 in three seasons of part-time play.
The saving grace for the Halos has always been their pitching and defense, and 2008 was no different, as they finished third in the league in fewest runs allowed. They should be able to keep that up in 2009, but not without some challenges. Aces John Lackey and Ervin Santana are the best 1-2 punch in the division, but there are doubts about Joe Saunders. Saunders is a popular guy, but he's also a lucky guy who cut a full run off his ERA in 2008, despite allowing 21 homers with a criminally low strikeout rate (103 K in 198 IP). Look for those lost runs to come back to haunt him in 2009.
The team's bullpen looks fine. The team was smart enough not to get too worked up over K-Rod's record-breaking save total and decided to sign free agent Brian Fuentes, who won't be much worse and comes with a cheaper price tag. Their middle relief corps is as solid as ever.
There are a lot of questions surrounding this Los Angeles team, and in most years it would be enough to knock them out of contention. Luckily for them they're in a division that, for now at least, doesn't have any team that looks like a sure-fire 90-game winner.

Oakland Athletics
Just when everyone expects Billy Beane to zig, he zags. The problem is that the shortest distance to the postseason isn't a zigzag.
A year ago, the A's were in full rebuilding mode. They traded away Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Chad Gaudin, Marco Scutaro and Mark Kotsay. The return helped revitalize their farm system, setting them up to contend starting in 2010 or 2011.
Then, all of a sudden, the team changed course. They picked up slugger Matt Holliday, despite the fact that he'll be a free agent at season's end. They signed Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra and Russ Springer to one-year deals. Just like that, the team had switched gears from giving up on 2009 to going all-out to contend.
But if they really wanted to contend this year, why did they trade everybody away last year? Can they really succeed in having it both ways? I don't think they can, but I guess you can't fault them for trying.
The A's have busted their butts to make a run at the Angels, but their starting rotation is still a bunch of question marks, led by oft-injured ace Justin Duchscherer. The A's have a lot of hope in Dana Eveland, but the portly portsider still has to bring down his walk rate and prove he can stick as a starter. The team is also optimistic about Sean Gallagher, acquired from the Cubs in the Rich Harden deal, but while he has potential, Gallagher too has yet to break through at the major league level. And behind these guys are pitchers with even less major league experience; guys like Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. They've got promise, but in my opinion, the A's are making a mistake by banking on these guys to produce.
The A's gave up closer Huston Street to the Rockies in the Holliday trade, but that wasn't such a loss. Street was a good closer, but not a great one, and relief pitchers aren't worth throwing big bucks at unless they're stars. Street becomes Colorado's problem; whereas the A's already have Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine to replace him.
The A's dismal offense will certainly be bolstered by the addition of Holliday and Giambi, but they've still got several trouble spots. Playing alongside Holliday in the outfield will (probably) be Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck. The two couldn't be any more different; Sweeney is a scrappy guy who lives by his batting average, whereas Buck relies on walks, strikeouts and homers. What they have in common, though, is a poor showing in 2008. Buck has the potential to be a quality player if you don't mind his defense, but it looks doubtful that Sweeney will develop into much more than a fourth outfielder.
The A's added Jason Giambi to an infield that limped through 2008 with gimpiness aplenty. Mark Ellis is a great defensive second baseman with decent pop, but he just can't seem to stay healthy. Bobby Crosby can't stay healthy either, which is a shame since he hasn't hit well in years. He lost his job this off-season to glove man Orlando Cabrera.
But the real tragedy of the infield is Eric Chavez. You can set your watch by Chavez's injuries, and he hasn't been an All-Star player in five years. Even worse for the A's is that his de facto replacements, Jack Hannahan and Nomar Garciaparra, offer little reassurance.
The A's are certainly better off now than they were last year, but with all the problems they're facing, it's tough to see them making it to the postseason. Was it worth it, then, to acquire Holliday and spend a few million bringing in temporary fixes if the team goes nowhere? They can always trade Holliday at the deadline, but if you acquire a player just to trade him, you haven't come out ahead.
The A's farm system has them well-set for the near future, but few of those prospects will be able to make a real impact in 2009. And that leaves us wondering what Billy Beane was thinking when he made this particular zag.

Texas Rangers
When I was talking about how bad the A's starting rotation was, I didn't mean, of course, that it was as bad as the Rangers'. The Rangers are continuing their proud tradition of fielding some of the worst pitching staffs in modern history. The good news is that their offense is fine; they led the league in runs scored last year. The bad news is that if you finish 79-83 with the league's best offense, is there any hope for you at all?
The Rangers' ship of fools – er, starting rotation – is headed by Kevin Millwood. The Rangers signed Millwood to a boneheaded contract before the 2006 season, perhaps just to celebrate the similarly boneheaded contract they gave Chan Ho Park before the 2002 season. Just to illustrate how poorly they'd learned their lesson, the Rangers made more less-than-wise investments by signing the likes of Vicente Padilla and Jason Jennings to multi-million dollar contracts. The Rangers had nine pitchers – count 'em, nine – start at least five games last season. All of them were well below-average.
They've set new highs (lows?) in the bullpen as well. They stuck marginal reliever C.J. Wilson in the closer's role last year and saw him compile 24 saves. This is surely a testament to the irrelevance of the save statistic, since Wilson's ERA was 6.02.
Is there hope on the horizon? Most certainly. The Rangers have a slew of exciting pitching prospects coming up from the minors. This is encouraging, except that the team has shown a rather poor ability to incorporate their pitching prospects into the major league team. As an example, compare the number of ex-Ranger farmhands currently pitching well for other teams: John Danks (White Sox), Edinson Volquez (Reds), Armando Galarraga (Tigers) and Chris Young (Padres), to those currently pitching well for the Rangers: Zero. Pitching prospects are wonderful, but here's hoping that this time -- when they turn into major league pitchers -- they're a) pitching well, and b) pitching well for the Rangers.
The team's offense is still strong, but not as potent as it was in '08. The team's best pure hitter, Milton Bradley, is gone to the Cubs as a free agent. The Rangers will enjoy a full season from first base prospect Chris Davis, which is good news, but they also have to find a way to keep Ian Kinsler healthy for a full year and hope they can surround Josh Hamilton with better support in the outfield. It should still be a fearsome lineup, but it will probably fall off a bit from its 2008 performance. And with the pitching staff where it is, there's just no room for that.
Lest this entry come off sounding too negative, I have to profess admiration for what GM Jon Daniels and his staff have done with their farm system. The only good pitcher the Rangers developed in the 35 years or so before Daniels arrived was Kevin Brown, who unfortunately didn't become an elite pitcher until after he had left the team. Now Daniels has seeded the farm system with a number of prospects who may not be as good as Brown, but are probably going to turn out better than the likes of Rick Helling and Jose Guzman.
But we can't just admire Daniels' work in the abstract; we have to admit that it hasn't yet translated into on-field success. The potential is there, certainly. But even if it does blossom in the majors, it will almost certainly be after 2009.

Seattle Mariners
Last year's Mariners made history, and not in a jolly sort of way. They became the first team with a $100 million-plus payroll to lose at least 100 games in a season. This was a group effort, to be sure, but most of the blame lies at the feet of former General Manager Bill Bavasi. Bavasi handled the team as if his job were on the line with every move he made (which it was). Some of his moves were short-sighted, and others simply made no sense at all (installing Jose Vidro as DH falls into the latter category).
But Seattle finally fired Bavasi in the middle of 2008. His replacement, Jack Zduriencik, came over from Milwaukee, where he had overseen the regeneration of the Brewers' farm system. It soon became clear that Zduriencik knew what he had inherited, and he quickly set out to revamp the roster.
He let Raul Ibanez, Jose Vidro and Willie Bloomquist walk as free agents. He picked up Ken Griffey, Jr. to supplement the outfield corps (and sell some tickets), and he traded closer J.J. Putz to the Mariners for a bunch of young talent.
As for the pitching staff, Zduriencik was wise enough to avoid the Bavasi pitfall of overspending on marginal starting pitchers. The team is still suffering through the contracts given to Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva. But even with that weight, management is focusing its efforts on promoting starters from within, giving prospects like Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith a chance to succeed alongside ace Felix Hernandez. Bavasi's trade for Erik Bedard may have been ill-advised, but the lefty could still offer something to the M's in 2009, even if only as trade bait.
The bullpen will be more of a work in progress with Putz and middle man Sean Green gone to the Mets. The closer spot is fairly open; it could go to Mark Lowe, or the team could convert starter Miguel Batista, who will likely be pushed out of the rotation anyhow.
Pitching is a big priority. The M's allowed 5.01 runs per game in 2008, an unacceptable total. But a large part of that was a sorry defense, which ranked the team last in the league in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER)
. The outfield defense should improve this year, with the addition of Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, and with Griffey hopefully spending more time with a bat than a glove.
The infield defense is still dicey. Adrian Beltre is great at third, but the club has dealt with maddening inconsistency from their middle infielders. Jose Lopez has developed into a good, but not great hitter; he hit 297/322/443 in 159 games last year. His previously spotty defense improved to a more acceptable level in 2008 (depending on which defensive metric you prefer). At shortstop, though, Yuniesky Betancourt is still an enigma. Offense was never supposed to be his strong suit, and indeed it is not (career 282/305/400 hitter). He was supposed to be a glove man, but it hasn't worked out like that. He did a fair job in 2006 and 2007, but defensively, he was one of the worst everyday shortstops in the league in 2008.

The Seattle outfield looks better, as I discussed previously in this article
. They're hampered behind the plate by the big contract given to the struggling Kenji Johjima. First base and DH will be handled by some combination of Jeff Clement, Russell Branyan, Mike Sweeney and Chris Shelton. That gives manager Don Wakamatsu a lot of options, although Clement is the only really good one. A nominal catcher whose defensive future may be elsewhere, Clement is one of the keys to the franchise's future. It's imperative that he gets the chance to develop in 2009, even if he is shuttling between positions.
The Mariners are in flux more than any other team in the American League. They're still trying to recover from the disastrous mistakes of the previous management team, but they've got a good enough talent base that there probably won't be a long, drawn-out rebuilding period. In a soft division, this team is capable of finishing over .500. But that would require a lot of luck, maybe just too much to hope for.

The 100-win Angels have fallen right back into the fray, with four teams all trying to construct a roster that can win the 85-90 games necessary to take home the division title. The Angels' elite talent gives them the edge, but if they want to repeat as division champions, they've got a fight on their hands.

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