Two on Two: AL West Preview
Our third Two on Two segment (AL Central, NL Central) takes us westward, as in the American League West. How will the West be won this year? We asked Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation and Jeff Shaw of U.S.S. Mariner to join us in a roundtable discussion.
Will the Angels repeat? Are the A's in transition? Can the Mariners come back? And are the Rangers for real? Let's find out what our panelists have to say...
Bryan: Blame east coast bias if you want, but every single year the AL East is drastically favored to take the Wild Card. Yet, the West has had two teams make the playoffs twice in the last four years, and they've been right there every season. Is the West disrespected generally and, if so, why?
Blez: I think there is a tangible disrespect for the West. That's what happens when almost all national media outlets are located along the eastern seaboard. But overall, the West is the most competitive division in the American League, especially now that Texas isn't a cakewalk any longer. Seattle was bad last year, but they should have a mashing offense this year, although I'm not sold on Richie Sexson's health and whether or not Adrian Beltre's was a one-hit wonder. I'm always suspicious of guys in their contract years.
Jeff: I wouldn't call it "disrespect" necessarily because the term is overused by folks looking for controversy or bulletin board fodder, but I do believe there is something to this. East coast bias is too easy to blame (though I think that's because it's generally true and, hence, an easy fallback).
Rich: Well, let's face it, the AL East perenially sports two of the best teams in baseball so I don't think you can attribute the lack of respect in the West solely to east coast bias.
Jeff: I think what's truly at work is economics. Until Arte Moreno brought his princely checkbook to Anaheim, the Mariners were the financial big dog in the division. The East has the Yankees and the Red Sox, who are not only the most high-profile teams in baseball, they are also the biggest spenders.
Bryan: Jeff, good point about the economics issue. I think the West has gotten a little more press since Moreno took over, and the Mariners definitely were helped by the publicity from the Ichiro signing. The Rangers didn't get much out of Alex Rodriguez, so they are almost an economic joke.
Blez: The West doesn't feature a Tampa Bay, Toronto or Baltimore to beat up on and, with the in-division weighted schedules, Boston and New York have a distinct schedule advantage from day one. Not that they need it. If the truth be told, Boston looked like a far superior team to the Angels last year in the playoffs.
Bryan: Blez, what do you think the new owner will do for the A's -- from both a payroll and PR sense?
Blez: I think people are approaching Wolff right now as you would embrace a new stepfather. You don't really know what he's all about just yet. I also think that the financial constraints will remain with the team for now and not just because Wolff is as frugal as Schott, but because that's when Billy Beane is at his creative best.
Bryan: I don't know, Blez, that seems flawed to me. It almost sounds like an insult to Billy, like he couldn't operate under a $60-70 million payroll. I like to think he'd be even better, but I could be wrong. I'll tell you what I do know -- moving the club to Sacramento was not the bad idea that some made it out to be.
Rich: Gosh, I must be out of it. I knew there was an NBA team in Sacramento but hadn't realized that the A's had moved there.
Bryan: You are out of it, but you're right, the A's didn't make it to Sacramento. Between this post by Blez and the article he links to, I was sold on the idea. The Kings do quite well there, and I think success there could give Beane more to work with. Imagine that...
Blez: That's pretty funny, Jeff. I wasn't implying that Billy is better with a small payroll, I was just saying that you get a chance to see his genius because of the limited payroll. Trust me, I think the team would be better if it had Hudson, Tejada, Mulder, Damon, Foulke and company. But watching Billy manuever within the unofficial cap is like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in a phone booth. You know it will be beautiful regardless of the constraints and it makes it much more fascinating to see how he works with the limitations.
Jeff: I wonder if the A's GM sees his limits as a kind of gift? It's analogous to that old double-bind discovered by working class folk who prosper: growing up broke teaches values and skills that you might not learn otherwise, but you work your whole life so your kids won't have to learn 'em that way.
Rich: Limits or no limits, Beane has put the A's in a position to go to the playoffs nearly every year since he has been in charge.
Blez: The truth is that being an A's fan you have to realize that we're going to lose stars, so don't get too attached. Beane is often heard saying that people root for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name behind.
Bryan: Well, with that being said, let's talk about the group of players that will be wearing Oakland uniforms. Is there reason to trust Billy still, after what may have been his most controversial offseason yet?
Rich: Man, speaking of disrespect...I don't understand the pre-occupation with questioning Beane as if he was a rookie GM without a track record. I think the moves he made this offseason were nothing short of brilliant. I like the fact that they were proactive rather than reactive.
Jeff: When evaluating someone, you can't just look at the last few moves they made, regardless of the fact that those are most fresh in your mind. Beane's track record is such that you have to believe he knows what he's doing.
Blez: I completely agree. Beane has shown he knows how to be ahead of the game on a consistent basis. While it hurts to lose talent like Mulder and Hudson, you have to realize he has a vision. 95 wins per season is nothing to sneeze at.
Bryan: Yes, I agree with those comments. While mainstream media is quite harsh on the A's this year, talking about how much they've gotten worse, I'll think they'll be OK. Is a prospect guy the only one that thinks that rotation could be better overall than last year?
Blez: Well, they don't have that much to live up to...at least in the second half. Mulder and Hudson were both average. And Hudson was out for six weeks. I'm also not convinced that Mulder is 100 percent right yet. I read an advance copy of Aces and it sounds like he's having a mind problem more than anything.
Jeff: Could the rotation be better? Sure. Will it be? The jury is out from my perspective. I believe that Beane made the team better for sure in 2006. If Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are ready for prime time, maybe 2005 as well.
Blez: I think Haren and Blanton are going to surprise some people. Dan Meyer will probably start the season in AAA unless he's stellar the rest of the spring.
Rich: Have we forgotten about the new ace of the staff...you know, a guy by the name of Rich Harden?
Bryan: No, I don't think any of us have forgotten about him. He is more of a given in my mind. I'm guessing he takes a big step, and replaces Hudson in that rotation. 4.24 was the staff ERA last year. Barry Zito is going to need to be a lot better if they get under that.
Blez: All the reports say that Zito believes in himself again...which if you know much about Zito, he thinks 95 percent of pitching is mental.
Jeff: Zito is one of my favorite players in baseball, and not just because he got with Alyssa Milano. But I'm not sure he's going to be as good as he once was again. His strikeouts are down, walks are up, and I'm not sure any kind of visualization exercises, surfing of lefty guitar strumming is going to help him strike out Adrian Beltre.
Blez: Don't forget yoga.
Jeff: I'm going to yoga tonight, baby! Maybe I'll see Barry there. Hope, against all odds, he brings Alyssa.
Blez: Jeff...I hate to break this to you. It's as painful as Brad and Jennifer, I know. But Barry and Alyssa are no more.
Bryan: OK, gossip squad, unless Alyssa is in his head while pitching, the break-up won't do much. One thing that shouldn't be in any starter's head this year is worrying about who they give the ball to. I love how Billy has set that group up.
Blez: I personally love the pen, although losing Chad Bradford to back surgery hurts. At the same time, it opens a spot for Huston Street, who appears ready to go. To me, the main question mark in the pen is actually going to be Dotel. Can he really close? Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, Huston Street. Billy's been paying attention to those Angels Angels of Anaheim.
Jeff: At this point, the A's bullpen looks ridiculously good. That's likely true for the foreseeable future, given that Jairo Garcia is probably going to start the year at AAA. The Oakland 'pen is stacked like 3 a.m. hot cakes.
Rich: I like Dotel a lot and think the A's bullpen will rival the Angels as one of the best in baseball this year.
Bryan: Well, I know dumping Dotel if he falters won't be too hard. My Cubs are more than willing to take him off your hands.
Blez: That actually could come quickly if the A's falter out of the gate.
Bryan: I think the concern with the A's is that the lineup doesn't have a lot of pop. With pitching so reliable on 25-year-olds, don't they need more power to win from the LAAoA?
Blez: The offense actually does concern me a bit. Although Bobby Crosby did hit 22 bombs as a rookie, Erubiel Durazo could hit more than he did last year and if Eric Chavez stays healthy the entire season, I wouldn't be shocked to see 40 from him.
Bryan: And that's before you get to the Rookie of the Year...
Rich: Nick Swisher? Michael Lewis would be happy about that.
Blez: But I agree with Jeff, the Angels should be the favorite to take the division, despite their silly name.
Jeff: I think baseball writers should just agree to start calling the Angels by random city names, cities they aren't from. The Fresno Angels. The San Luis Obispo Seraphim. The Rancho Cucamonga Cherubs.
Bryan: This division just seems weird to me. Every team has a serious issue. That Angel rotation is so bad, unless Bartolo changes a lot...
Jeff: Blez is correctamundo, as the Fonz would say. All the teams have issues, but relatively little has to go right for Omar's Army compared to the Mariners, A's and Rangers. Better than the Giants? I don't know about that. Good enough to be a playoff favorite? Yup.
Bryan: The Angels can sure pound the ball from top to bottom. Is that lineup better than the East Coast giants?
Blez: Actually, it scared me a lot more with Troy Glaus than Dallas McPherson and Steve Finley. And I'm just glad to be rid of that pest David Eckstein. Better than the Yanks or Sox though? Probably not.
Bryan: So you guys actually do agree with the mainstream about the division favorite. What bothers me most about popular opinion is the praising of the Rangers. Does anyone else think they could be the '04 Royals?
Blez: Yeah, Kenny Rogers isn't going to get 10 runs of support again this year.
Jeff: Under no circumstances. Counting on the emergence of Ryan Drese, the triumphant return of Chan Ho Park and the continued ability of the Gambler to draw to repeated inside straights is a sucker bet.
Blez: Who's the best offense in the AL West, since you brought up the Rangers?
Bryan: Top to bottom, it has to be the Angels.
Rich: The Angels have the best offense in the division. The Rangers may put up comparable numbers but remember that they benefit by playing half their games in a hitter's ballpark.
Blez: Better than the Rangers and the suddenly potent M's? The A's will also on-base you to death.
Jeff: It's gotta be the Angels, doesn't it? Assuming McPherson gives them anything at all, even if he doesn't break out. I think Texas' home park makes us think they're a hair better than they actually are.
Blez: The Rangers infield is ridiculously good. Does anyone think Michael Young can duplicate his 04 campaign?
Bryan: I think Young will have a small dropoff, but not the kind I'm expecting for Carlos Guillen. He's a solid player, a great sign by the Rangers. The real issue up the middle should be when Hart pulls the trigger on an Alfonso Soriano trade.
Jeff: The Rangers' infield is seriously young and seriously good. Even if Young regresses -- which I believe he will -- he will be a valuable element, surrounded by emerging gems.
Blez: Hank Blalock will be monstrous this year, I think.
Bryan: Yes, me too. But I tell you guys, with Ian Kinsler coming up, it would be idiotic not to deal Soriano for pitching.
Blez: Here's a quick question...do you think it's predestined that A-Rod steals Chavez's gold gloves? I think East Coast bias plays into this too. I think if A-Rod stays healthy, there's no way Chavez wins the Gold Glove this year. But I'm a bit biased.
Bryan: Well, I think that all depends on whether Chavez gets to that 40-HR plateau you mentioned earlier. And whether the A's shock the world in the win category. Offense and team wins, that decides the Gold Glove.
Jeff: Even if Chavez wins the Gold Glove, A-Rod will just run up the third base line and try to slap it out of his hand.
Blez: Jeff, that's a classic line that should be framed and inducted into the blogging hall of fame right now.
Bryan: But wait, there's a new man to that argument...Jeff....
Jeff: Adrian Beltre should be a perennial Gold Glove candidate. I truly haven't watched him enough to know how compares to Chavez, but his reputation and performance in defensive stats is superlative.
Rich: I've watched Beltre for a half dozen years, and the guy can pick it. Outside of Scott Rolen, he was as good as any third baseman in the NL defensively.
Jeff: Can I just say how thrilled I am about the Beltre deal? With the way the market went, the M's got a steal. His deal isn't far off from Glaus', and Beltre a) is young, b) is better, and c) has an arm that may stay attached.
Bryan: Yes, that deal was one of the three best of the offseason, without question. Bavasi went from game's most questionable GM, to serviceable. It's like Neifi Perez's performance with the Cubs last year.
Jeff: Truly. It goes back to what I said about Beane and his record of performance. One good offseason -- and Bavasi did have one -- does not wipe out seven mediocre efforts.
Rich: Let's not forget, it's also a function of how much cash your owner lets you spend.
Bryan: Which third basemen will lead the AL West in Win Shares?
Jeff: Man, the Win Shares question is a stumper. Both Chavez and Beltre are exceptional, and you have to consider that guy who allegedly gets up earlier and works out harder than anyone else, too.
Bryan: Don't forget Blalock, my friend.
Blez: Well, I'd say Chavez easily, but he might not get too many pitches to hit unless Durazo or someone else provides adequate protection. I'll actually say Blalock because he's got that offense around him.
Jeff: Fair enough. If pressed -- and Bryan is pressing -- I am going to homer out and say Beltre. He is young, does everything well, and bats behind Ichiro! I would not be surprised to see any of the others take that honor, though. so much can happen.
Bryan: I think that Beltre is going to kind of be Paul Konerko in the sense that he goes back and forth into greatness and simply being solid from year to year.
Blez: I'm not 100 percent sold on Beltre not being a one-year wonder either. Players can be very motivated by contract status, as we've seen many times in the past.
Rich: This isn't saying much but put me squarely in the camp that says Beltre winds up somewhere between last year's numbers and those from his first five years. In other words, he won't be as good as he was in 2004 or as indifferent as he was prior to that.
Bryan: The other stumper question I could throw is which AL West player wins Rookie of the Year? Dallas? Swisher? Jeremy Reed? Stacked group there, too.
Blez: I gotta be a homer here and say Swisher. The kid played all last season with a busted thumb. He's got the attitude combined with ability.
Bryan: I agree with Blez, even though I ranked Dallas the highest in prospect rankings. Though I think there is a possibility that Reed adjusts to major league pitching faster than the power hitters.
Jeff: Yes. Hey, you're the prospect guy. I am higher on Reed than a lot of my cohorts, and I think his line-drive power to the gaps will serve him better in Safeco than some believe. He won't have the power that McPherson will, though.
Rich: Are we talking raw numbers or ballpark adjusted? Reed and Swisher play in tougher hitting environments than McPherson but the latter is more likely to break the strikeout record than win Rookie of the Year honors, if you ask me.
Blez: And don't forget Blanton. I wouldn't be surprised to see him jump in the mix somewhere. Although it's tough for a guy who isn't playing every day.
Bryan: So Jeff, you are positive on Beltre and Reed. What about the rest of that offense?
Jeff: Fair to middling. I think Sexson has the potential to be a real disaster: an aging first baseman coming off two major injuries entering a park that's tough on righthanders. Given that, I think the offense will still be much improved. If Sexson just stays healthy, he will dramatically improve output from that position. Any injuries, though, and this team is hosed. They have no bench.
Rich: Well, if Sexson tanks, I don't think you can say Bavasi had a good offseason. In fact, if he doesn't hit .275 with 30+ home runs, I think it is safe to say that the Mariners overpaid for him.
Bryan: I, personally, find the M's to be a bit overrated. I think they have .500 potential, but then its about plus or minus five after that I think.
Jeff: I think they're a low-80s win team. I predicted 82 victories, but I see substantial variance possible around that number. It would not shock me to see them contend, but it would shock me less to see them falter and slip below .500.
Blez: To me, the M's variables are whether Sexson can stay healthy, Beltre isn't a contract-year phenom and whether or not that rotation can hold up. To quote Tony Montana, "Jamie Moyer's like 103 years old."
Bryan: Jeff, what's your take on the M's and how they should handle the Phenom?
Jeff: I think they should baby King Felix as much as possible. If he forces the issue with a Goodenesque spring, so be it. But you still have to watch his pitch counts closely and keep tabs on his health above all else. The M's have a terrible record with pitching prospect injuries, as I'm sure you know. I would rather delay his debut by a year than turn him into Ryan Anderson 2: electric surgeroo.
Bryan: Yes, they do. As do pitchers who get called up at 19. There aren't a lot of things that bodes well for Felix's health. He does have one amazing arsenal, that's for sure.
Bryan: OK guys, let's get some predictions...
Blez: I think the Angels win 93, the A's 90, the Rangers 83 and the M's 78. The West could be the most competitive division in the majors. But whoever wins it this year better enjoy it because the A's will be reclaiming it for many years to come.
Rich: A's are my surprise pick this year. The Angels will finish second and probably not make the playoffs. The Mariners edge out the Rangers for third with both teams struggling to win 80.
Blez: I truly believe that Beane looked at 2006 as a new age of A's baseball, and that's why he made preemptive moves. It also wouldn't shock me though to see the A's struggle this year while some of the newer players figure out MLB pitching.
Jeff: After consulting the I Ching, divining for sweet water, getting my palm read and counting the frosted blond hairs on Bret Boone's head to arrive at numbers, here's what I got: Angels win 92, A's 85, M's 82 and Rangers 75. The beauty of baseball is the ample surprises, of course, so I may look silly -- er, sillier -- at the end of the year.
Bryan: I'll say Angels 93, A's 92, M's 80, and Rangers 72.
Jeff: I think every team but Texas could win the division, but a ton has to go right for the M's, a bit less for the A's, and not much for the Angels. If I were laying odds on the division title, it'd be 70 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent.
The consensus is pretty clearcut. Rich is the lone dissenting voice this time, making it three-for-three that a Baseball Analysts panelist diverges from the others. The A's are picked to finish second, the Mariners third, and the Rangers fourth or, ahem, last -- but fourth sure sounds better, doesn't it?