AL West Preview

The AL West is a monster all its own. Somewhat hidden from the world by 10 PM starts, recent Angels hegemony and the lack of commercial sexiness of the Oakland A’s, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, the AL West is poised to be a really fun division this year. You have the always-competitive Angels, the rising Rangers, sexy-semi-sleeper Seattle and Overachieving Oakland. Alliteration aside, there is a lot to like about this division and I think some of the teams will take a lot of people by surprise and rack up a pretty impressive campaign. Usually, the division is close with the Angels being the best and the others sort of fighting for table scraps, but this year, every single team in the West is ready to sit at the table with the Angels, which should make for a fascinating campaign. And by every team is ready, I mean every single team in the division could potentially win the division or get dead last.

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim          Projected Record: 86-76

Batting: B-  |  Starting Pitching: B  |  Relief Pitching: B-  |  Defense/Speed/Other: B-

Not this year, but just in case you forgot, the Angels are the last West Coast team to win a World Series.

Many people are expecting change at the top this year in the West with the Rangers and Mariners making so many moves, but the Angels still have some things those two teams do not have. Most notably. they have an outstanding manager in Mike Scioscia and money. That is neither a slight toward Ron Washington and Don Wakamatsu, nor is it saying that neither team has money, as Seattle proved this offseason, but it is clear that in those two areas the Angels hold a distinct and clear advantage. With these advantages comes the ability to close down the stretch and close out their competition. Going into August, the Rangers might be on top of the division, but the Angels will finish the season atop it because of this advantage. It does not hurt to have good players as well, and although the Angels have a new look to them, that does not mean they are worse. Losing Chone Figgins will certainly be felt, and losing talismanic figure Vladimir Guerrero (both to division rivals) will hurt the fans a bit, but Brandon Wood is ready to step up at 3rd, and nothing cures missing your old guy like winning with your new guys. Hideki Matsui may not have the MVP hardware as Vlad, but at this point of his career he is just as clutch and will outperform Guerrero this year, even on a per game basis. Write it down if you don’t believe me. The staff also lost a talisman in John Lackey, who was their big game guy, but they have several guys who are #2 starters on most teams to help offset their lack of a true ace. This will torture them once again come playoff time, but the multitude of #2 starters is a great way to at least make it to September baseball. With so much change, it is sometimes most helpful to see what will be the same. The Angels will still run, they will still hit, both for power and to fit the situation, they will still play small ball, and they will still play excellent defense. Again, it seems the loss of Figgins will hurt most in these areas, but I trust Art Moreno and Mike Scioscia enough to trust that they knew they could still win without him. The lineup is going to be:

  1. Aybar (6)
  2. Abreu (9)
  3. Hunter (8)
  4. Matsui (DH)
  5. Morales (3)
  6. Rivera (7)
  7. Kendrick (4)
  8. Napoli/Mathis (2)
  9. Wood (5)

I realize there are a lot of guys on this team who are getting up there in age, but Abreu was outstanding last year with a .293 average, .825 OPS 15 home runs, 30 SB and improved his K;BB ratio. As a 35 year old. These are the things a 25 year old does, not a 35 year old. You could take this as being his last hurrah or his late bloom, but I tend to just blame it on him being underrated for most of his career (excluding directly following his Home Run Derby performance in Philly). I think a .300ish average with 15 HR and 20+ stolen bases is not at all out of the question again this year. Torii Hunter is another one of those guys who you keep expecting to fall off and just does not. .299 average, .873 OPS, 22 HR, 18 SB, and 90 RBIs is not supposed to happen from a 33 year old gold glover who feels like he is 36 he has been around so long.But he does it anyway, and that is a trend with these Angels. You expect them to fall short, to not live up to their expectations, but it happens anyway because of management, the manager, and some damn good players. In case you didn’t catch on, Hideki Matsui fits this mold too, although putting his numbers up is not especially helpful with the Yankee-flation of last year. Mike Napoli is somewhat outside this group since he is not so old, but he does not get his appreciation as a top-notching slugging catcher, which he quietly is. His defense could use a little work, but that is why Jeff Mathis is there. The Angels are just solid all over the field. They will not blow you away with talent, but they will get the job done night-in night-out.

Even the rotation fits that mold. Jered Weaved has quietly become a really good pitcher who was a legitimate Cy Young contender for the first half of last year. Ervin Santana, if he finds it again, is really good. When he doesn’t find it, well he is bad, but I think he can at least find it to some degree this year. Joe Saunders has been decent in the past but I am not a big fan so my thumbs down to Saunders my be biased. However, Matt Palmer showed very well last year and new addition Joel Piniero could fall flat or pick things up. I feel like the Angels are the Cardinals of the American league. They get guys you think are done and make them work, and they win no matter who is on the field for them. Joel Piniero would be a lock to be a bust if he was playign for most other teams, but you get that feeling that he will come out and be at least decent because he has a halo on his hat.

The bullpen is a little bit shaky, but not without options. It is hard to have a ton of faith in Brian Fuentes to be  shutdown closer at this point, but if he falls short, they at least have options in offseason signing Fernando Rodney. I am not a huge Rodney guy, but he is at least an option if Fuentes gets lit up. The rest of the bullpen revolves around a group of vets and youngsters in Scot Shields and Rodney, and a couple less proven guys in Sean O’Sullivan, Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger. None of these names inspire confidence, and perhaps my trust in Angels management is misplaced, but I can see this group of guys at least holding up their end of the game. The Angels do not look quite the same as they did last year, but still should be able to win the division on the back of good baseball and underrated veterans.

2. Texas Rangers          Projected Record: 85-77

Batting: A-  |  Starting Pitching: C+  |  Relief Pitching: B  |  Defense/Speed/Other: B-

New owner Nolan Ryan is looking to put the beatdown on opponents once again.

The Rangers this year will walk a fine line. On the left side of the tight rope is a shallow starting rotation without much experience and on the right side of the tight rope they have a competitive division that they cannot sneak up on like last year. However, when balanced and walking this tight rope correctly, they have an absolutely murderous lineup and a bunch of talented and quietly good pitchers who can lead them to wild card and AL West contention. Walking this line for the entire year will be just about impossible, but walking it for enough of the year is more than possible, and could result in playoff baseball in Arlington for the first time in a long time.

The lineup needs no criticism:

  1. Borbon (8)
  2. Young (5)
  3. Kinsler (4)
  4. Cruz (9)
  5. Guerrero (DH)
  6. Hamilton (7)
  7. Murphy (3) (Chris Davis until he is healthy)
  8. Teagarden/Saltalamacchia (2)
  9. Andrus (6)

There are few few, if any, weak spots there. Teagarden could be better offensively, but keep in mind that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is more than capable of hitting from the catcher position. There are really no weak spots if experts are to be trusted. Andrus and Borbon might struggle early on, but I would expect them to play very well for most of the year. The lineup will not be the problem for the Rangers, so let’s move on to more interesting and nuanced elements of the Rangers.

The starting pitching could surprise people, but could also fall to shambles. Steadying hand Kevin Millwood is gone, but Scott Feldman steps into a similar role and is accompanied by Rich Harden, CJ Wilson, Colby Wilson, and Matt Harrison. Derek Holland sits in the minors in case he is needed, and Neftali Feliz, who is currently in the bullpen, can step in if need be. The guys I really want to talk about in this group are Rich Harden and CJ Wilson. Harden’s former team, the Cubs, kept him on a strict innings count last year because while he has outstanding stuff, he has been known to spend plenty of time on the DL and is typically not the same after returning. His health will be key to his success, and the team’s success, to say the least. CJ Wilson was a guy who used to be in the bullpen that I got to see while in Arizona against the Cubs. The start was made by Neftali Feliz, who was scheduled to take the first 4 innings, with CJ taking the next 4 and someone filling in for the 9th. At the time, the battle was for the 5th spot in the rotation and both guys knew it. Neftali came out and struggled to command his pitches and only ended up going 3 innings because of the abundance of pitches he threw and getting knocked around a little bit. CJ Wilson came in in the 5th and it was lights out. He had command of all his pitches (it looked like 4 to me), was not drawing almost any contact, and when guys were touching it, they were not hitting it hard at all. He was everything the Rangers could ask for. If he is that guy the entire year, rather than your typical bullpen-to-rotation guy who falls apart after a few innings, then the Rangers’ chances will be greatly increased of walking their aforementioned tightrope.

Neftali Feliz did not impress in that game, but the sky is the limit for the flamethrower. He will start in the bullpen, but again could jump into the rotation if reinforcements are needed. If he comes back to the rotation, here is what you should look for to see if he is going to be good for the year. His problem was not throwing strikes so much as throwing too big of strikes. His slider was not going over and no one was biting, so all of a sudden his electric fastball was getting timed up and since it was catching too much of the plate, he was getting hit hard. If he can get that slider up to snuff and throw it for strikes, it should go a long way towards his success as a starter.

The bullpen is quietly very good too. The Rangers took part in the Angels plundering too, swiping Darren Oliver, the veteran lefty specialist, from the Halos. He strengthens an already sneaky-good unit with Neftali Feliz and Darren O’Day in short relief and Frank Francisco at the back. That is a surprisingly solid unit for a team that usually has bullpen trouble, but it will need to be if guys like Harden are going to “test the bullpen” (translation, get hurt or struggle). The Rangers could win the division, but too much ahs to go right for me to put them there to start with, but no one should be surprised if the Rangers take first.

T-3. Seattle Mariners          Projected Record: 81-81

Batting: B  |  Starting Pitching: A-  |  Relief Pitching: B-  |  Defense/Speed/Other: A-

The best player I have ever seen. Without the injuries he would be consensus best player since Aaron.

Looking purely at the grades above, the Mariners should win the division. They have two legitimate aces in King Felix and Cliff Lee that will probably combine for 35 wins, two outstanding leadoff guys in Ichiro and Chone Figgins, and really good defense with guys like Jack Wilson, Franklin Gutierrez, Figgins, and others. There is a lot to like about this team, especially their aggressive, but measured, offseason. Not many mid-market teams get to add an All-Star quality utility man (Chone Figgins), a former Cy Young winner coming off two World Series victories (the only 2 victories of his team’s World Series appearance) in Cliff Lee and add glue guys like Casey Kotchman and Jack Wilson (last trade deadline). Mariners management looked at the division and saw that the time to make a move was now. There was no dominant team, the Angels were being disassembled, and the players were available to win now. The M’s struck and they did so presciently.

You might notice that I did not mention Milton Bradley above, who was another offseason addition. We will get to him in a bit because he is the one player that will determine the Mariners’ fate.

The staff, as already discussed, should be very good. We know about King Felix and Cliff Lee, but Erik Bedard (though currently on the DL with Lee), the always interesting Ian Snell, and the young bullpen convert Ryan Rowland-Smith make for one of the better rotations in the majors. The Mariners finished atop the AL in Team ERA last year and they have clearly gotten better. The only thing Seattle has to worry about is the bullpen. If David Aardsma can do what he did last year (be lights-out and post 30+ saves) then the Mariners will coast on their pitching to contention. However, I, along with much of the country, am skeptical of Aardsma’s chances of an encore, and with a less than perfect crop of setup guys and no one really waiting in the wings, the bullpen could become the boogry-man for the M’s. The bullpen will be the 2nd most important factor in deciding the M’s destiny this season.

The defense will be good, but is worth talking about because, paired with the pitching, it represents a league-wide movement away from run production and toward run prevention. Just going through the infield, you have a gold-glove caliber guy at Shortstop with Jack Wilson, a gold-glover at Third with Figgins, a future gold-glover in center with Franklin Gutierrez, and, just for good measure, a 9 time gold glover in right with Ichiro. Good luck hitting King Felix, and when you do, good luck getting the bal safely to the ground before one of those hawks swoops in to take that hit away.

The lineup is solid, but could ultimately be their fatal flaw:

  1. Ichiro (9)
  2. Figgins (5)
  3. Bradley (7)
  4. Kotchman (3)
  5. Lopez (4)
  6. Griffey Jr. (DH)
  7. Gutierrez (8)
  8. Johnson (2)
  9. Wilson (6)

There is no doubt that the Mariners will get guys on base with Ichiro and Figgins at the top of the lineup, but who is going to drive them in? Small ball can absolutely work, but at some point, someone is going to have to drive those runs in, and leaving such a large burden to Casey Kotchman and Milton Bradley is risky. The Mariners do not run too much (though they should), and it may end up that Figgins and Ichiro get stranded far more often that they would if they had more reliable guys driving them in. I do like Kotchman, but he has hardly inspired long-term confidence throughout his career. Griffey Jr. and Jose Lopez can hit too, but are really not the run-producers that you would like if you are the Mariners. The Mariners would look AMAZING with Adrian Gonzalez at first, but their minor league system is depleted after acquiring Cliff Lee and they do not have what it takes to pull Adrian out of San Diego. The Mariners’ season will depend largely on if they can drive in runs, and more specifically on…

Milton Bradley. The board game himself will be the main guy that has to step up if the Mariners want to live up to their lofty expectations. That cannot sound good to Mariners fans as the extremely talented Bradley sometimes gets everything right except the inches between his ears. Ask any fan who has had Milton Bradley on their team and they will tell you “He is really good when he is on, but he is a headcase”. If I am a Mariners fan, I am dreading having to depend on a headcase to get me where I want to go. If he plays well, which is he more than capable of, and the pitching staff stays healthy, another thing I am skeptical of, the Mariners coudl run away with the division. However, I have a feeling Cliff Lee’s injuries will linger and that when Bedard comes back it will take him a little too long to get things sorted out. Add to their pitching injuries a volatile run producer (in the bad way) who implodes like the Kingdome the moment he gets inside his head, and unbelievably high expectations and you have a team that could go up or down in a hurry. I like the Mariners on paper, but between injuries and the enigmatic Milton bradley, I think the Mariners will disappoint this year, but still finish .500 (a good indicator of how high expectations are). The Seattle Sports Curse is not doing them any favors either. Like all the teams in the West, the M’s could win it or finish in last, but I feel they are more the latter than the former this year.

T-3. Oakland Athletics          Projected Record: 81-81

Batting: C  |  Starting Pitching: B  |  Relief Pitching: B  |  Defense/Speed/Other: B+

The A's may become the elephant in the room in the AL West.

Thinking that the grades listed for the Mariners above and the grades listed for the A’s could result in matching records is hard to believe, but prepare to believe it. I have been bullish on the A’s and I feel like I am one of only about 5 people who are. No one knows what Ben Sheets will do, so we will assume he is the guy I saw in Goodyear, AZ where he recorded no outs, faced 10 batters, allowed 10 runs, and didn’t have the velocity in an absolute thumping by the Reds. Let’s assume he is a disaster just for argument’s sake, which he very well may be. The A’s next guys are Dallas Braden (who, when healthy, unlike last year, is a really good young pitcher, Brett Anderson, a kid who really impressed last year in limited time and has all the tools to become an ace, Justin Duchscherer who has shown brilliance in his career if he can stay healthy, and Gio Gonzalez, a sleeper favorite of mine who hides the ball beautifully and has all the tools to be a solid to above average starter. If any of those guys does get hurt the A’s have Trevor Cahill waiting in the wings to step in and take over. When I see Braden-Anderson-Gonzalez I honestly think of the past A’s pitching trios including the likes of pre-contract Zito, Dan Haren, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and the pitching greats of the early 2000s A’s glory days. These guys have a shot to sneak up on everyone, and I think they will do just that.

The lineup will not strike fear, but I think it will do enough to lift the A’s to .500.

  1. Davis (8)
  2. Barton (3)
  3. Sweeney (9)
  4. Kouzmanoff (5)
  5. Suzuki (2)
  6. Chavez (DH)
  7. Ellis (4)
  8. Buck (7)
  9. Pennington (6)

That is not a very scary lineup, but it will be sneaky-good this year. Kurt Suzuki is going to have a really good year, Rajai Davis can pick up where he left off last year and guys up and down this lineup will do just enough to get it done. Call it the A’s Way. Mark Ellis can still hit close to .300 (he was on fire all spring) and if any of these guys significantly outperforms expectations, the A’s could climb much higher than .500. This does seem to be assuming a lot, but sometimes you just get a feeling about a team. Everything is set up for them: A large park for a pitching-oriented team, low expectations, a group of guys who like each other, guys in the minors and on the bench if someone gets hurt or someone’s season goes in the tank, and just that X-factor that you can’t really describe. I realize that his X-factor is completely subjective analysis, but the A’s can surprise people this year, they just have that feel.

The lineup is unimpressive, the staff is young, but talented, and the defense is well above average. What about the bullpen? Well, the bullpen is good too. Andrew Bailey established himself as the closer last year and help solidify roles for the rest of the guys too. Brad Ziegler is still a good short relief guy, Chad Gaudin can work in short or long relief, and Edwar Ramirez can be solid. The bullpen will be solid to clean up the starts of the young guys, which means very few wasted performances out of their young arms. That sounds good to me if I am an A’s fan.

This team will not blow anyone away, nor will they lead the league in much except for guts, but the A’s can really impress people this year. They might be a bit young to actually win the division (explaining why I have them tied for last despite all my raving), but they are ripe for contention. I am not sure exactly who to single out as the rising star on the team, but keep an eye on Rajai Davis as a guy who can assert himself as a top-notch player and any of the young pitchers to become Billy Beane bargaining chips. We have been assuming that Ben Sheets fails as a project (and I think he will), but if he does pitch well, the possibilities are endless because they now have a real ace at the top to take pressure off the young guys.

It is also worth mentioning that the A’s bench is deep with guys who can step in should one of the young guys struggle. Gabe Gross is a more-than-serviceable guy, Adam Rosales at short if Pennington does not impress, and Michael Taylor waiting in the minors should Chavez struggle at the plate. The A’s have options, which is a very underrated aspect of a team when trying to project them. If X goes wrong, can Y fill his spot? The A’s have many “Yes” answers to that, as compared to the Mariners who have a lot of “I am not sure” answers. Fear the A’s, Moneyball is back in Oaktown.

And for the record, I liked the A’s before their hot start.

Division Awards

MVP- Ian Kinsler

Cy Young- Felix Hernandez

Disappointment- Seattle Mariners (blame it on Bradley)

Surprise- Any Oakland Athletic

Young Players to Watch- Not many rookies, so keep an eye on Neftali Feliz, and any young A’s pitcher.

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