MLB Divisional Previews: AL West

This is the sixth and final installment in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.  As mentioned before, if you would like to see a full write-up on your favorite team, sound off in the comments and we’d be happy to oblige.

Contenders

Oakland Athletics

Why they could win the division: Pitching Staff

Some might be surprised to see the A’s up here in the “Contenders” category.  However, if you follow Major League Baseball closely, that shouldn’t be the case.  The A’s have assembled one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball.  The rotation is young, deep and talented.  This stable of arms in reminiscent of the one GM Billy Beane put together in the late 90’s (Zito, Hudson, Mulder et al).  Lefty Brett Anderson and righty Trevor Cahill are the headliners.  Anderson came over in the Dan Haren deal a few years ago and has since shown the same excellent control and command, only with improved stuff.  He was limited to 19 starts last year because of injuries, but if you take a look at what he did in those 19 starts, you can get a pretty good idea of what he is capable of.  Cahill broke out last season, winning 18 games and posting a sub-3.00 ERA.  He’s good, but he’s not that good.  He’s got an excellent two-seamer, which produces a ton of ground balls, and his curveball showed a lot of progress last season.  I expect a slight regression, but he’s still an excellent young pitcher.  Gio Gonzalez is really the key to this group.  If he performs how I think he can perform, this threesome could rival the Zito/Hudson/Mulder rotations of ten years ago.  Gonzalez has a fantastic curve (possibly one of the best in the game), a good fastball and his change showed a lot of progress last season.  He’s got the potential to be a frontline guy.  The very capable and underrated Dallas Braden will fill the fourth spot and there’s a host of capable arms vying for the fifth spot.

Why they might not: Lineup

It’s not as bad as it has been in past years, and it might not even be as bad as the offense that the Giants won the World Series with last year, but it’s still not good.  There’s some solid talent here as Beane has done a good job of putting together a lot of post-hype sleepers and solid bats to form a decent offense.  Kurt Suzuki is a capable catcher, both offensively and defensively.  Connor Jackson and Daric Barton, while they probably both have 15 homer ceilings in this park, will both provide a good average and excellent OBP.  Between Coco Crisp, Ryan Sweeney and new acquisitions David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, there are some solid outfielders to work with. Also, youngsters Chris Carter and Michael Taylor figure to be up at some point this year.  The A’s are really just missing that one big bat in the middle of the lineup to pull it all together.

Game on: 1B Daric Barton

Barton, once a top catching prospect in the Cardinals organization, came to Oakland in the Mark Mulder deal.  It was a consensus within the organization that he was eventually going to need to move to first, but it was thought that his bat would be strong enough to offset the loss in positional value.  Unfortunately, Barton never experienced the power spike that most thought he would.  He made it to the majors on the strength of his average and OBP (which were both very good in the minors) and showed both in his cup of tea at the end of 2007.  The future looked bright, but in 2008 he struggled mightily at the plate and in 2009 he bounced between the majors and Triple-A, struggling at both levels.  However last season, something clicked with Barton.  He showed the excellent plate discipline (110 BB, 102 K’s) that made him such a sensational prospect.  He’s probably got a 15 home run ceiling, as mentioned above, but there’s a place in any lineup for a kid who can put up a .400 OBP.  He’s a good defender at first and if he can keep his average moving in the right direction and at least incrementally improve his power, he’s going to be a very good hitter.

Brett Anderson’s got the all the tools.  The question is, can he stay healthy?

Quantum Leap: SP Brett Anderson

Health.  That’s the only question mark here.  If Anderson gets 30+ starts, I’m expecting a monster year.  He gets praise heaped on him for his control, command and mound presence (which are all phenomenal), but I think people really undersell his stuff.  He was more of a finesse pitcher when he was in the Diamondbacks’ organization (sitting in the high 80’s with his fastball), but showed increased velocity after the trade to Oakland (now sitting around 92).  That’s no small increase.  And when coupled with his excellent slider and curve, and solid change, it makes for quite a repertoire.  Expect big things.

Texas Rangers

Why they could win the division: Lineup

This lineup is deep and talented.  There’s going to have to be some rotating, because there are actually too many good bats to settle on an everyday lineup (assuming Michael Young isn’t traded).  C Mike Napoli was a solid upgrade behind the plate and 3B Adrian Beltre should thrive in the hitters’ paradise that is The Ballpark at Arlington, assuming he doesn’t go in the tank with another fat new contract.  Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton bring a ton of power in the middle of the lineup and the continued progress of SS Elvis Andrus at the top should provide a solid leadoff man.  The only thing that could hold this lineup back is injuries, which unfortunately are quite likely in a few cases, namely Hamilton and 2B Ian Kinsler.

Why they might not: Rotation

The loss of Cliff Lee makes this rotation look incredibly different.  The Rangers are looking at a possible Opening Day rotation of Colby Lewis, CJ Wilson, and some mix of Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland.  It’s striking how much better that rotation would look with Lee at the top.  Lewis experienced a renaissance in his first year back from Japan and Wilson transitioned very well to the rotation from the pen.  However, I’m expecting regressions for both pitchers.  Lewis just doesn’t have the track record to back up that kind of production, Wilson has serious control issues and both are pitching in a park that can be very humbling for pitchers.  The rest, besides Holland, are innings eaters at best.  They are toying with the idea of moving CL Neftali Feliz back into the rotation (he was a starter in the minors), but the likelihood of that transition going smoothly, at least initially, isn’t great.

Game on: SP Derek Holland

As you can see above, I didn’t lump Holland in with the other trash that could potentially end up in the Rangers’ rotation.  Holland, unlike the rest of those guys, has a ton of talent.  His 2007 and 2008 seasons in the minors were excellent.  Even his 2009 season, which he spent mostly getting shelled in the majors, was much better when you look at the underlying numbers.  His FIP (5.10) and xFIP (4.38) were considerably lower than his ERA (6.12) and his K and BB rates were still respectable for a kid his age (22 at the time).  He spent half of last season in the majors and the other half at Triple-A, posting solid numbers at both.  He’s got a good fastball that sits around 92 mph with good movement and a very nice slider.  His change has shown improvement and if he puts it all together, he’s got the makings of a very nice young starter.

Slipping: 2B Ian Kinsler

Kinsler is a phenomenal talent, but in his five years in the majors he’s never played more than 144 games in a season, averaging about 123 per.  He’s improved his plate discipline, but his power dropped off the table last season and with all of his injuries, you have to think they are going to more hesitant sending him on the base paths.  If he can play a full slate of games, we could see a very solid season, but there’s nothing on his track record that would indicate that scenario is even a possibility.

Los Angeles Angels

Why they could win the division: Rotation

The Angels are barely hanging on to their status as contenders, but the rotation is the main reason why.  Jered Weaver was sensational last season, looking like one of the best pitchers in the AL, and I loved the Dan Haren acquisition at the trade deadline.  They didn’t give up a ton for Haren and his inflated numbers from last season look like a fluke when you check out the underlying statistics.  Ervin Santana probably isn’t the ace he looked like in 2008, but he’s also not as bad as he was in 2009 either.  I think the numbers he put up in 2010 seem like a reasonable projection moving forward, which makes him a rock solid #3.  Joel Pineiro wasn’t fantastic last season, but when healthy he’s a solid innings-eating #4 and if Scott Kazmir can somehow become even a shell of what he once was with the Rays, he could be a decent #5.

Why they might not: Lineup

So you need proof the Angels lineup wasn’t very good?  They traded for Vernon Wells.  That’s how bad it was.  Wells, who Toronto gladly surrendered for next to nothing, is owed $86 million over the next four years (Toronto is paying $5 million of that in 2011).  He had a decent season last year at the age of 31, but he hasn’t been an elite level player since at least 2006.  He’s clearly on the downside of his career as a hitter, is a liability defensively and is still owed a mountain of cash.  The Angels clearly didn’t reel in the big bopper they were looking for this offseason, panicked and stupidly traded for Wells, and his hefty contract, to try to fill the void.  With the exception of 1B Kendry Morales, who is trying to come back from a very serious (and comical) ankle injury, the rest of the lineup is either over the hill (OF/DH Bobby Abreu, OF Torii Hunter), underperforming (2B Howie Kendrick, 3B Brandon Wood) or simply not that good (SS Erick Aybar, 3B Alberto Callaspo, C Jeff Mathis).

On the way: C Hank Conger

There are questions about his defense, but if he can stick behind the plate, his bat is good enough to provide a big upgrade over Jeff Mathis.  His power is just okay (.463 SLG% in AAA last season), but he’s got very good plate discipline and will hit for a good average.  Like I said, the key with him is improving the defense, because the bat probably won’t provide enough power to play at first.  Depending on which direction the Angels decide to go initially, he could start on the major league roster or at Triple-A.  If he’s sent down, don’t fret.  Just take one look at Mathis’ career batting line and you’ll see that it won’t be long before the Angels realize they have a black hole behind the plate.

Don’t believe the hype: OF Peter Bourjos

The Angels really like this kid and if you look at his minor league stats, you’ll see a very interesting power/speed combination (27 steals, .498 SLG% last year at AAA).  However, that power and speed comes with a very poor approach at the plate.  Bourjos, 24 in a few weeks, struck out 78 times with only 24 walks in 414 at-bats at Triple-A.  He was even worse in his short stint in the majors, posting a 6/40 BB/K ratio.  It sounds like the Halos are planning on giving him regular at-bats in the outfield, with Abreu, Wells and possibly Hunter rotating through the DH spot for a day of rest.  However, I think they are going to be sorely disappointed when Bourjos struggles to hit major league pitching.  As they say, you can’t steal first base.

Slipping: OF/DH Bobby Abreu

Abreu has proven his critics wrong before, coming off poor seasons.  But in his age 37 season, I’m less than confident in his ability to bounce back.  He hit .255 last year, and it wasn’t because of bad luck (.296 BABIP).  His BB and K rates both continue to move in the wrong direction and his power will continue to decline as well.  His defense, which was never great in the first place, continues to struggle.  He’ll still steal 25+ bases and probably have a solid OBP, but he’s clearly a shell of his former self.

Bobby Abreu needs a drink from the fountain of youth.

Rebuilding

Seattle Mariners

What’s to like: SP Felix Hernandez

With all due respect to Roy Halladay, this guy was the best pitcher in baseball last year.  Ignore the meager win total, his run support was historically bad, his peripheral stats tell a whole other story.  His K rate was a career best and his BB rate wasn’t far off.  He’s an absolute horse on the mound (he’s averaged about 244 innings the past two seasons) and his stuff is phenomenal.  He’s got a great fastball that sits around 94 with good movement.  He combines that with a very good slider and curve, but his big weapon is his devastating changeup.  Hovering around 90 mph, it acts about as much like a splitter as it does a change, and is his best out pitch.  Unfortunately, the rest of the roster is in tatters right now.  As such, it might be in the Mariners’ best interest to eventually trade him for a pile of prospects to put alongside 2B Dustin Ackley, 1B Justin Smoak and SP Michael Pineda who are all on the verge of being very good major leaguers.

Not so much: The major league roster

You’ve got Hernandez, an aging Ichiro Suzuki and a lot of young kids and slipping vets.  The rotation is a mess past Hernandez and there’s no one behind Ichiro in the lineup to get him across the plate.  CF Franklin Gutierrez is very good defensively, but he’s merely average at the plate.  2B Chone Figgins completely went in the tank last year after getting his big payday.  SP Erik Bedard returns, but he can’t be counted on for anything more than a lengthy DL stint.  The best thing the Mariners could do right now is clean house and acquire as much young talent as they can to put alongside the talented youngsters I mentioned above.

On the way: SP Michael Pineda

Most think Dustin Ackley is the best prospect in this system, but he’s been more hype than production since he came to the organization from the University of North Carolina.  Pineda on the other hand has been nothing short of stellar.  He’s been excellent at every level, topping out at Triple-A last year.  He’s got great stuff (9.9 K/9 last season) and good control (2.2 BB/9).  His one concern right now is injuries.  He hasn’t had any majors ones, but they’ve kept him under 140 innings in all of his minor league seasons so far.  He’s only 22, so don’t expect him to set the world on fire right away, but he’s an excellent talent and (assuming good health) should be a top of the rotation starter in the near future.

Game on: 1B Justin Smoak

I think some people are getting a little ahead of themselves in projecting plus power for this guy, but there’s one thing he’s proven for sure: he knows how to take a walk.  In his 275 plate appearances with Texas last season, Smoak walked 13.8% of the time.  That’s very good, especially when you take into account that he was a 23-year-old getting his first hacks in the majors.  His average should rebound substantially (.238 BABIP last season) and if he can reign in the strikeouts a bit, he should really have a nice season.  If the power comes around eventually, he could be a monster.

Slipping: RF Ichiro Suzuki

If I asked you if you wanted a 37-year-old outfielder who doesn’t walk and doesn’t hit for any power, you’d probably say “no thanks”.  However, if I offered you Ichiro Suzuki, you’d probably jump at the chance.  Well guess what?  Ichiro is the guy I’m describing in the first sentence.  I think most still believe he is an elite player, when in reality he is basically Juan Pierre with a better outfield arm at this point.  His lack of walks has always made his OBP very reliant on his sterling batting average and the closer his average dips to .300, the further down his OBP goes.  He ended up with a .359 OBP last season, which is only slightly above average.  That just doesn’t make for an elite leadoff man.

Predicted Finish

1.  Oakland A’s
2.  Texas Rangers
3.  Los Angeles Angels
4.  Seattle Mariners

Next up: Playoff and Awards Predictions

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