Monday, March 23, 2009

AL West Preview

Who starts with the American League West? It's got the fewest teams of any division in baseball, and very little of interest, right?

Wrong-o, you stupid idiot. What, it's not like you come to my blog to get complimented. Pick up your ego and let's have a look at this surprisingly interesting division.

#1 - Anaheim Angels
I'm aware that they're technically the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but give me a break. They're lucky I don't list them as the California Angels. In fact, you know what?

#1 - California Angels
Whatever name you want to call them, they're once again the class of the division. They won it last year by a staggering 21 games, wrapping up a playoff spot sometime in the late 80's. While I think the division will be more competitive this season, I still see the Angels coming through with the crown. They've still got the same solid starting rotation as last year, headed by John Lackey and Ervin Santana. The loss of Francisco Rodriguez in the bullpen will matter, but not as much as fans might think. The rest of the bullpen is still as good as any in baseball, and Brian Fuentes will pick up most of the slack in the closer role.

The hitting is a little suspect, but it was a little suspect last year until they acquired Mark Teixeira. Bobby Abreu gives them another .300-20-20 threat, and Mike Napoli flashed impressive power in limited action last season. Vladimir Guerrero isn't getting any younger, but he's still a dangerous hitter who somehow manages to hit .300 every year. Still, it'll be the pitching that carries the Angels back to the division title.

Projected record: 99-63

#2 - Oakland Athletics
Unlike my cousin, I've never been much of an A's fan. Their top players over the past few years have been guys I just can't get behind: Eric Chavez, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, etc. But after reading Moneyball, I at least trust Billy Beane a little more.

Matt Holliday is a huge acquisition, and the return of Giambi should prove to be very good value. Had they stopped there, the A's would probably pick up 8-10 wins. But they also signed Orlando Cabrera, which should really help this offense. How does adding a .271 career hitter with unexceptional power figure to help this team? He replaces Bobby Crosby, one of the least productive players in baseball last year. The new players join a team that had just one player hit over .240 last year (among qualified leaders): catcher Kurt Suzuki at .279. Jack Cust led the team with 77 RBIs. And yet, even with this anemic offense, the team managed to win 75 games. The additions should put them into competition for the division.

The pitching staff is scary thin, without a single proven commodity in the rotation. Justin Duchscherer was phenomenal as a first time starter last year, but went down in mid-August and is no sure thing to hold up for an entire season. The rest of the rotation is unproven, with the projected 2, 3, and 4 starters owning just 80 career starts between them (Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, Dallas Braden). They do boast one of the more impressive one-two punches in their bullpen with Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler, and free agent acquisition Russ Springer is a solid arm. The pitching won't be stellar, but if one or two of those youngsters can take the next step, it might be just good enough to scare some people.

Projected record: 90-72

#3 - Texas Rangers
Listen, you don't need me to tell you what the Rangers look like this year, because they look the same as they do every year. Strong hitting, weak pitching. Still, I'll give you a quick shakedown anyways.

Josh Hamilton was an MVP candidate last year, and had the Rangers been a better team, he might've been right there with Dustin Pedroia. Additionally, had Ian Kinsler stayed healthy all season, his numbers might have demanded that he be selected over Pedroia. All-Star shortstop Michael Young will likely shift over to third to make room for super prospect Elvis Andrus. Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Nelson Cruz make up the next wave of young players set to join Kinsler and Hamilton in what figures to once again be a very solid lineup, more than capable of taking advantage of their very favorable ballpark.

Of course, that means that a weak pitching staff will look even weaker. Kevin Millwood anchors a staff that doesn't have a single reason to be optimistic. Vicente Padilla was brought back, but a WHIP of 1.46 and 26 HR allowed makes you wonder why. Brandon McCarthy might end up harnessing some of his potential, but only if he can stay on the field. The bullpen features a first-time closer in Frank Francisco, who seems to have put his chair-throwing days behind him, and might just be a decent pitcher. The rest of the pen, however, is full of shattered dreams and broken promises.

I expect a similar finish to last year, hovering around .500, but the Rangers will be unable to make any real progress until they land some legitimate arms. Prospect Neftali Feliz could be a start.

Projected record: 82-80

#4 - Seattle Mariners
I know, I know, I told you the Mariners would be good last year. They duped me, duped me good. I learned my lesson a little bit, but I still don't think they'll be terrible.

Ichiro an exciting leadoff hitter, and Adrian Beltre and Jose Lopez make up a decent middle of the order. I'm not expecting much out of the returning Ken Griffey Jr., but as a #6 hitter, I'm okay with that. The real problem is that there isn't a lot on the horizon as far as hitters. They don't have anybody expected to be a new impact player this season. The closest is Jeff Clement, who probably won't have to do a whole lot to wrest the starting catcher job from Kenji Johjima. But outside of an explosion by Clement, there aren't a lot of reasons for optimism on the offense.

The pitching isn't bad, though. Felix Hernandez is a front-end starter, and it was only a year ago that Erik Bedard had 11 strikeouts per 9 innings and was the next big thing. Youngsters Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith (the first ever MLB player with a hyphenated name), with modest progression, could give the Mariners one of the deeper rotations in the American League. And if they do progress, I like Jarrod Washburn a whole lot more as a #5 starter than a #3 starter.

The bullpen, however, is a bonafide disaster. The departure of J.J. Putz via trade left, swear to god, Arthur Rhodes as the most reliable reliever on the team. That's right, the perennial fantasy punchline was the best Seattle can march out there. And then Seattle let him depart via free agency for Cincinnati. As of now, Roy Corcoran might close, but so might Miguel Batista, Mark Lowe, or Danny from the local VA. Good luck figuring out that mess, fantasy owners.

Projected record: 71-91

The AL West may be another year away from really being competitive. But there's no guarantee that this isn't the year that Vlad takes a step back, or the year those A's pitchers take a step forward. And in baseball, just a couple little swings like that and we've got ourselves a race. I think watching this division might end up being a lot more fun than most expect.

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