MLB Preview: AL West
Though the American League’s western division is arguably the weakest in all of baseball, it is the home of the defending American League champions, the Texas Rangers. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Like the American League Central, the AL West sports a trio of decent teams that should be in the hunt for a division title, though two should separate themselves from the third.
1. Texas Rangers: There’s some concern about how the Rangers will replace Cliff Lee, but I’m not sure that it is as big of a problem as is being made out. Lee only pitched half a season in Arlington, and by the time he got there the Rangers already had a commanding lead. Losing Lee will hurt the Rangers come post-season play, but they should have enough firepower to at least make it to October.
A more significant loss for the Rangers could be DH Vladimir Guerrero. Vlad the Impaler proved to be a valuable asset to the offense, especially at home, but he has moved onto Baltimore. For all intents and purposes Guerrero will be replaced by Free Agent acquisition Adrian Beltre. With Beltre at third base, that moves Michael Young to DH. Presumably Young is over his off-season hissy fit about the move. Considering that this is the fourth position change for the guy in recent years, I can’t say I blame him. At any rate, the net effect is probably a slight diminishment in offensive production, but a huge upgrade on defense. Beltre is a plus defender, and that will come in handy for some of the contact pitchers that the Rangers have on staff. Another good addition is catcher Mike Napoli. Napoli might be moved around to first base and DH, and if he is permitted to get a decent amount of at-bats he should be in the 25 homer range once again.
The rest of the offense features of three oft-injured stars: Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Hamilton. The Rangers need all three of these guys to remain reasonably healthy if they’re going to keep the A’s at Bay by the bay (sorry, couldn’t resist). The Rangers have planned to move Hamilton from center to left in an effort to keep him healthy, though that might change by opening day. This is the year that the Rangers are going to be looking for Elvis Andrus to break out. He has performed well in his first two seasons, but they’d like to get more than just average production.
The Rangers rotation features a bunch of good, young arms. CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis had breakout seasons a year ago, and their peripherals suggest that they should remain strong. Tommy Hunter now looks to have a breakout season of his own, and the addition of Beltre should aid him along. The Rangers are also trying out their closer, Neftali Feliz, for their rotation. It looks like Ron Washington won’t make a decision until opening day approaches, but either way the Rangers figure on having a fairly strong bullpen. Another possible addition to the rotation is former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. Webb has missed almost two entire seasons, and is hoping to make a comeback in Texas. If Webb’s comeback falls short, it was worth a gamble. However if Webb can give the Rangers even half of what he produced in Arizona he’s going to make Texas a much tougher out come playoff time.
2. Oakland A’s: Has Billy Beane lost his magic touch, or have other teams caught up with the father of “Moneyball?” (The Godfather of Moneyball now resides in Queens, but more on that in the next round.) It’s easier to take advantage market inefficiencies when you’re the only one playing by a unique set of rules, but now that big market teams like the Red Sox (and hopefully now the Mets) are utilizing those same tools, the advantage has been diminished. Still, even though the A’s are no longer as dominant as they were in the early part of the 2000s, they have been about a .500 team despite repeatedly losing their established veterans. This year the A’s look to make a serious run at their first division title in five years. They will fall short, but just barely.
The A’s greatest strength is a solid pitching staff that led the American League in ERA a year ago. That’s a bit misleading as, unlike with the Rangers starting pitchers, peripheral stats suggest that the young A’s pitchers are due for a bit of regression. That being the case, this is still a very good staff with five solid starters, and if somehow Rich Harden gets it together (don’t hold your breath), this is a potentially dominant staff.
The ace of the staff is Trevor Cahill, and he’s a prime example of what I mean by expected regression. His ERA last year was 2.97, but his F.I.P. (Fielding Independent Pitching), a stat meant to normalize for defense, was only 4.19, and his his BABIP against was an astoundingly low .236. For those of you who don’t speak sabermetrics, it means he was a bit lucky and reliant on his defense. This doesn’t mean that he’s awful and will be a dud, but expect his numbers to be slightly less impressive this season. Other pitchers on the staff had similar luck, but as I said it still should be a solid staff. In particular I think Gio Gonzalez has an opportunity to have a breakout season for the Athletics. He might have the best stuff on the staff, and should be able to build upon a very good 2010 campaign.
The offense is a far cry from the
Steroid Bash Brothers days of the late 80s. This is a roster full of slightly above average players, but not one particularly stands out except Daric Barton. Barton put up nearly five wins of value a year ago. The problem is that though he is a well-rounded player, he lacks the kind of pop you’d like to see from a first baseman. If the A’s had other sluggers batting behind Barton, he’d be a tremendous asset. But there’s just no pop anywhere else, which does diminish Barton’s value ever so slightly.
That said, though this team won’t outslug anyone they’ll still put some runs on the board. This is the year they hope Coco Crisp puts it together for an entire season, as he’ll a crucial cog in that lineup. Mark Ellis flies under the radar, but has established himself as one of the better second basemen in the game. Kevin Kouzmanoff and Josh Willingham are going to be called on to provide whatever pop there is in this lineup, and if you’re interested in fantasy baseball either guy would be a nice late-round steal.
In the end I don’t think the A’s have enough to overtake the Rangers, but they should keep it interesting all year.
3. Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles California United States Earth Milky Way Galaxy: Okay, the name joke is getting a bit played out, especially now that they’ve settled on just being called the Los Angeles Angels, but it’s hard to resist. After several seasons of dominating the division, the Angels fell back down to Earth (sorry) thanks to some injuries as well as to the loss of several key assets. The Angels failed in their pursuit of several free agents, and their biggest off-season catch was a slugger who possesses one of the worst contracts in baseball history.
The Angels hope Vernon Wells will provide at least some offensive firepower. Though his contract is an albatross, and the Angels did the Blue Jays an enormous favor in trading for him, he still has some decent value. Wells did smack 31 homers a year ago, and he should be able to at least give them something close to that in 2011. On the other corner outfield spot is Torri Hunter. Hunter is one of the most remarkably consistent players in the game. He is almost a lock to provide just shy of All-Star value. Again, he’s overpriced but good enough to keep the offense afloat, even if he has lost a step defensively.
The only way the Angels can really hope to stay alive in the pennant race is if Kendry Morales can come back from the freak injury that ended his season. Certainly if Kendry does come back, he’ll be more careful about his homerun celebrations. So far it looks like he will start the season on the DL, and that is not a good sign for the Halos.
The starting rotation does feature one of the best one-two punches in the game in the persons of Jered Weaver and Danny Haren. Haren in particular has flown a bit under the rader recently, mainly because he’s been trapped on some sub-par teams and his won-loss percentage doesn’t remotely reflect his performance, another reason that won-loss record is a garbage stat for measuring an individual pitcher’s performance.
Unfortunately for the Angels things get a bit dicey after that. Ervin Santana has clearly lost something since a great 2008 season, though he’s still a decent middle of the rotation guy. The Angels are hoping that Scott Kazmir still has something left, but they may be the only people in all of baseball expecting anything of value from him (maybe the Mets were right after all about his endurance). After that it’s Joel Pineiro, who is another slightly above average type but who is battling injury concerns of his own.
Ultimately, the Angels fall flat both in the arms race and offensively compared to the A’s and Rangers. I think this will be another .500 season for the team with many names.
4. Seattle Mariners: A year ago there was a lot of hope in Seattle that the franchise had turned a corner and was on the precipice of something big. Instead, the Mariners limped to a 101 loss season. What’s worse, the Angels offense was historically bad, scoring a pathetic 513 runs. If it were not for a halfway-decent rotation the Mariners would have been one of the worst teams in baseball history, fitting for a franchise that co-owns the single-season win record.
There’s really not much to look forward to this year, though like the Royals, Mariners fans could be watching some future stars take the field come the middle of the season. It looks like Justin Smoak will start the year at first base. Smoak was the big catch in the Cliff Lee trade, and we’ll see if he lives up to expectations. The Mariners are also hoping that Chone Figgins rebounds from an incredibly disappointing first season in Seattle and shows flashes of the guy to whom they gave a (ridiculously bad) big contract. And of course there’s Ichiro, who so far shows no signs of slowing down. People have been predicting his demise since about, oh, 2002, but he continues to be one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise bland team.
The other bright spot is defending Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandex. King Felix showed that even the usually dense sports writers in America had finally figured out that won-loss record is not the best way to gauge a pitcher’s worth. His offensive run support was so bad that the Mariners would probably have benefited from Felix batting himself. The Mariners also have a couple of nice young pitchers behind Felix. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they should be decent, mid-rotation guys. There is also some hope that Erik Bedard can finally see some action after a year and a half lost to injury. It’s never a good thing to expect a pitcher to come back from injury like that and return to where he was, but if Bedard can give the Mariners some innings, than they should have a good enough staff to avoid another humiliating last place finish, although with that “offense” it will still be no better than a respectable last place finish.