Wednesday, March 3, 2010

AL West preview

Continuing our series of previewing each division (we did the AL Central already) we take a look at the AL West. This is a small, but exciting division. Making the biggest splash this off-season had to be the Mariners, but when the PECOTA projections came out and the A's were on top, a firestorm was set off. Never mind that PECOTA currently (subscription required) has the A's finishing third, with the Rangers and Mariners in front. Again, we'll look at the teams in alphabetical order and then give our predictions at the end.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:

The Angels' reign at the top of the division has been almost as long as their name. But they took some hits this off-season, losing John Lackey to the dreaded Red Sox (no relation) and Chone Figgins within the division to the Mariners. It looks like Brandon Wood will replace Figgins at third and Joel Piniero will replace Lackey in the rotation. But Wood won't bat lead-off, that will likely be Eric Aybar, and Piniero won't be the ace, that will be Jered Weaver. So both positions have been downgraded.

They also lost Vlady, their primary DH, within the division to the Rangers. They signed World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to take his spot with a club-favorable contract. Starting last year with Abreu and continuing this year with Vlad, Damon, and Matsui, it seems teams are letting aging stars go to other teams at a discount. I think the trend is that the stars are unwilling to give their current team a big break to sign them, holding out for a non pay cut. So the teams are simply saying no thank you. The stars are then willing to sign for less with another team. We should call this the home town premium, juxtaposed against the more prominent home town discount (see Pujols and Mauer). Anyway, I see Matsui as an upgrade over Vlad, partly because there is no temptation to put Matsui in right field. Vlad still wants to play the field, but his days as a quality outfielder are over.

They also spent big on Fernando Rodney, who saved a lot of games last year but hasn't really pitched that well. That makes the "who's going to close" battle interesting, but shouldn't impact the team too much. Either Rodney or Brian Fuentes will be the closer and the other will be the set-up guy with Scot Shields. Fuentes provided plenty of excitement last year, but did get the job done (like Rodney, I guess).

What the Angels need is a repeat from Kendry Morales, continued growth from guys like Aybar, super utility player Maicer Izturis, and Juan Rivera and it certainly wouldn't hurt if Wood and Howie Kendrick started reaching their potential. The rotation is solid, if not spectacular. Ervin Santana having a decent year and Joe Saunders continuing to defy the odds will be keys for the staff.

Oakland Athletics:

The A's have added a couple of guys to their anemic offense, with Kevin Kouzmanoff and Coco Crisp, but there big addition is in the rotation where they went all in for starter Ben Sheets. Sheets was having a solid '08 when he went down with an injury. He was a hot free agent before '09, but injury kept his suitors from committing. This year he got a $10 mil. deal from the A's. Curious, but the A's picked up Matt Holiday last year and flipped him at the deadline, so maybe that's what they'll do here if they aren't in the hunt.

The A's have a lot of good, young pitchers, but I just don't think they can score enough to win. They play in a pitchers park and don't have any boppers. I guess they'll have to rely on the stolen base; something no one would have believed two or three years ago.

Beyond Sheets, and adding Kouzmanoff, the A's will have to figure out their outfield. They have a lot of good, not great options. Those picking fantasy guys are on their own. Probably the most valuable fantasy players will be the guys that get the at bats. They're all about the same in value.

They also need a bounce back from Duchscherer who can't seem to stay healthy, although he pitches well when he is.

Seattle Mariners:

The Mariners had a great off-season and everyone has taken note. But was it enough to improve there chances to win the division? They traded three prospects for one year of Cliff Lee. In a vacuum, this looks like the trade of the year. But if it doesn't put them in a position to win, it's a waste of prospects. It's very unlikely Lee will opt to re-up with the Mariners without testing the free agent market. They could re-sign him, but they just inked King Felix to a large, long term deal. Could they afford both?

So the Mariners have to win this year. Do they have enough offense. They signed Chone Figgins to bat near the top of the order. Between Figgins and Ichiro, the Mariners will have no trouble setting the table. But who is going to knock them in? The '08 Milton Bradley could do it. They got him from the Cubs for Carlos Silva who, in the American League is an albatross (I actually like this deal for the Cubs, too, which I'll cover when we get to the N.L. Central) and the Mariners were fortunate to get rid of his terrible contract. So if they got the '08 Bradley, there in good shape, getting a guy who led the league in OPS on a reasonable contract. But if they got the "any other year but '08 Bradley, and particularly the '09 Bradley" they merely swapped one bad contract for another. But I like the risk. My post (rant!) on Junior's complete lack of leadership in Cincinnati is long over due, but he seems to be making an impact in the Seattle clubhouse, most notably last year with Ichiro. Everyone seems to think he'll have a positive impact on Bradley, so we'll see. And speaking of Jr. will he get enough at bats this year to make a difference. Penciled in as the everyday DH, and with Ichiro, Figgins, and Bradley batting in front of him, I could see him having a big year. But I could also see him on the D/L a lot. This is a big question mark for the Mariners.

The other big question mark is who will follow King Felix and Lee in the rotation? A bunch of mediocre options will be fighting it out for the 3-5 spots. A healthy Eric Bedard would be huge for this team.

The Marlins have great defense in a pitchers' park with perhaps the best 1-2 punch of any rotation in baseball. And the bullpen seems set with Aardsma breaking out last year as a closer. I also like the Brandon League trade. The big questions are the rest of the rotation and whether or not the team can score enough runs. Jr. could be the key to the whole division.

Texas Rangers:

Like the A's, the Rangers are relying on an oft-injured but great when healthy pitcher to head their rotation. They signed Rich Harden to be their ace. Beyond that, they have a bunch of question marks in the rotation. Can Scott Feldman do what he did last year (doubtful), can Brandon McCarthy finally stay healthy and break-out (doubtful), can Colby Lewis translate his Japanese success to the big leagues (probably), and will the Rangers let top prospect Neftali Feliz start or will he spend another year dominating in the set-up role (probably)?

The bullpen seems set with C.J. Wilson setting up Frank Francisco (especially if Feliz stays put).

And the line-up should really be good. The Rangers are counting on Julio Borbon to play center and lead-off, replacing Kinsler in that role. He had a great 179 plate appearances at the end of last year, batting .312 with 4 home runs, 20 rbi's, and 19 steals in 23 attempts. This would move to Josh Hamilton to a corner outfield. The big question for Hamilton is whether he can stay healthy. He's already dealing with a bad shoulder.

The Rangers also added Vlad as their everyday DH. Historically, he's mashed in the Rangers' park, and without having to play the outfield, he should stay healthy most of the year. He's in the Jr. role this year for the Rangers. The Rangers have the best line up in the division. The big question is how far will their starting pitching take them.

Overall, I like the Mariners in this division. I look for Jr. to have a surprisingly productive year in the DH role and in the clubhouse. There is a positive vibe here. If Bedard comes back healthy and effective, they will win the division.

I like the Angels for second place. There's too much history there to take the Rangers over them with all of their question marks in the rotation. And Scoscia is tough to bet against. I think the A's bring up the rear. They just have too many question marks.

Next up: A.L. East

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