Two on Two: 2006 AL West Preview
Our season previews roll on today, as we stay out on the left coast to preview the AL West. In the hot seat with Rich and Bryan today are Tyler Bleszinski (Blez) from Athletics Nation and Rob McMillin from 6-4-2. Before we begin, here's a quick look at our previous division previews:
And with that, away we go...
Bryan: Guys, in recent years this has become little more than a two-team division. Seattle and Texas have flirted with success in certain years, but neither come close to the recent consistency of the Angels and Athletics. Obviously, this speaks volumes about the abilities of Billy Beane as well as the Stoneman/Scioscia duo. This is a two-part question, first what gives those teams such great success (beyond Moneyball and Angel-speed cliches) and do you see anything over the horizon in Dallas and Seattle?
Tyler: I know Rob disagrees with me on this one, but I think Texas makes a jump this year. With Ian Kinsler coming in, a slight improvement in the rotation, Brad Wilkerson joining the team and a mashing offense that's built for that ballpark, I think they leapfrog the Angels this season. But not for long because the key to the Angels and A's success will largely be the draft and a solid farm system. And the Angels will rise again in 2007 with all of those great young kids they have.
Bryan: So success in the West is a product of proper player development?
Tyler: In the A's case, definitely. They had four players in their first full years -- Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher, Huston Street and Joe Blanton -- who were major contributors to their success last season. The Angels time is coming for their farm system to flex their muscles. In part, it will happen this year with Casey Kotchman and possibly Dallas McPherson.
Rich: I wouldn't bank on McPherson contributing much this year. He is unlikely to break camp with the club and will find it difficult unseating Chone Figgins at third unless, of course, Figgy returns to his role as a super sub again.
Rob: The 2004 and 2005 Angels won their respective divisions for almost completely different reasons; the 2004 squad because of its good offense (three players with 119 or more OPS+) and mediocre pitching, and the 2005 team almost exclusively because of its superior pitching. Unlike Tyler, I don't see the Rangers really contending until they figure out guys like Kevin Millwood aren't worth the kind of money the Rangers gave him and R.A. Dickey doesn't belong in any major league rotation until he can figure out how to get his knuckleball over the plate.
Tyler: The truth is that the Rangers have to overpay for pitching to get anyone to come to that ballpark.
Bryan: The Rangers are, like the Angels, at an advantage because of team payroll. However, this hasn't correlated to direct success. Is it just bad front office decision-making?
Rich: Well, there is a new sheriff in town -- and I don't mean Kevin Malone. John Hart stepped down as the team's general manager and Jon Daniels stepped up. At 28, Daniels is now the youngest GM in the game.
Tyler: I think the Rangers front office is making better decisions now. Getting rid of Alfonso Soriano in favor of Wilkerson was a very good move and Millwood, while they overpaid, will also help.
Rob: Yes, I think the Rangers are victims of some none-too-smart decisions. That doesn't mean they'll keep making them, though; like Tyler, I liked the move to unload Soriano to a GM dumb enough to force him to left without asking first. But I'm far from sold on the idea that the Rangers' pitching problem is mostly about money. Their park is hot -- always bad for pitching anyway -- and it has some well-known wind tunnels that conveniently happen to be jet streams in the power alleys.
Bryan: Yeah, some pitchers can succeed in the park, but it's tough to come up with a staff full of 'em.
Tyler: The Rangers major problem is that home ballpark. While it helps the offense become prolific, it's also scared off any potential pitchers since the Chan Ho Park debacle.
Rob: Even when they were a good team in the mid-late-90's, they never had superior pitching, but they had guys who could wallop the ball into Tierra del Fuego.
Tyler: One big mistake the Rangers made was letting go of Kenny Rogers. I understand why it had to be done, but he figured out how to pitch there when few have. And the Tigers paid too much to get him, but that's the market for starting pitching right now.
Rob: Totally agree on the Rogers situation, and that's why I think they won't contend -- Millwood hardly looks like a replacement for Mister Camera Smackdown Guy.
Bryan: Well, let's talk about the rotation they do have. Millwood will be an improvement at least, and Adam Eaton has big potential. At the back end, the Rangers are showing a touch of depth with Vicente Padilla and Kameron Loe.
Tyler: Eaton concerns me. He had scary bad stats last year at Petco Park, which many believe is the antithesis of Arlington. But the improvement should really come as a result of improvements in the overall team defense with Wilkerson and Kinsler there when talking about the rotation as well. Soriano was just brutal out there.
Rob: Kinsler may be an improvement -- we won't know until he actually plays at the major league level for a while. But I'll buy that, even if he's only league average, he'd be a big boon compared to the sieve that was Alfonso Soriano.
Bryan: Personally, I think the key to the Rangers will be the success of that bullpen. Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Joaquin Benoit and Akinori Otsuka all need to pitch well for great success.
Tyler: I agree because of the nature of that ballpark. So many games are decided later. But the thing is, the Rangers don't need their pitchers to be perfect unlike the A's and possibly even the Angels because of their offense.
Rob: I don't know about that, Tyler. Between David Dellucci, Mark Teixeira, and Michael Young, you've got a fine lineup, and maybe throw in Wilkerson if you think he can be a 120+ OPS+ guy. But it doesn't seem to me to be a recipe for winning anywhere else than Amerimash Park.
Tyler: You left out Hank Blalock, Rob. I know he didn't have the best year last season, but he's bound to improve this year.
Rich: It would be hard for Blalock not to improve on his numbers last year. He was just plain awful on the road (.231/.276/.335), in the second half (.236/.283/.375), and against lefties (.196/.228/.356). By the end of the year, southpaws were sending limousines for Blalock to make sure he made it to the away games on time.
Rob: PECOTA agrees with you, guys -- I guess Blalock's disappearance last year had fooled me into thinking he had peaked early, but at 25 it's unlikely.
Tyler: What could make a difference would be if the Rangers continue to play Rod Barajas over Gerald Laird. Even though Laird hasn't shown it yet (he's only played 81 games at the MLB level) he has the much higher ceiling offensively.
Bryan: The catching position is certainly their weakest position offensively. However, with 8 other solid spots in the lineup, good defense behind the plate might be more important.
Rob: Tyler -- could be. But I'm still skeptical; they have to keep runs off the board, and this is a pretty tattered pitching staff.
Bryan: Let's go from the division's worst staff to the best, the A's. With a deep rotation, 1-5, the A's will be difficult each day of the week.
Tyler: I'm not sure Rob would agree with that. The Angels have a quality rotation as well. But it's true, and the A's rotation is actually almost eight-nine starting pitchers deep now. For the first time in many, many years, the A's have replacements in case Rich Harden or another starting pitcher goes down. The A's have Kirk Saarloos, Joe Kennedy, Brad Halsey and even John Rheinecker or Chad Gaudin waiting in the wings in case of injury.
Rob: The A's have a good team this year, no doubt about it. In fact, I'm picking them to win the division. They have a good 1-4 and a fifth starter who could be a number three on some second-division teams and a young guy in Bobby Crosby who can rake in the middle of the infield. They've got three starting center fielders in Milton Bradley, Jay Payton, and Mark Kotsay, and as Tyler mentions, remarkable depth in their rotation.
Tyler: That isn't an ideal situation, but they're better equipped than last year when they were picking up Ryan Glynn off the waiver wire to take emergency starts.
Bryan: Decisions are just so, so difficult for the A's this year. Oh, who to pitch behind former Cy Young winner Barry Zito: Rich Harden or Dan Haren?
Tyler: This is Harden's year to break out. Almost all of the health reports on him this year have been glowing. He's even backed off on his weights routine. Haren will also be solid, but he can have problems with consistency because he depends on hitters swinging at that nasty splitter.
Rob: Break out? What more does he need to do? By the way, Tyler, next time you talk to Billy, you need to tell him to stop getting pitchers whose names are so similar -- Harden/Haren? That's almost as bad as Sarumon/Sauron.
Bryan: Personally I don't think the name of the hurler will matter much this season. Any pitcher could succeed with an outfield defense that will make doubles an impossibility.
Tyler: You're absolutely right about the defense, and you didn't even mention the infield. Mark Ellis and Crosby are one of the top double-play duos in baseball. Eric Chavez is a five-time Gold Glover (though we all know how much that means) and Dan Johnson is a decent first baseman. Then you add the outfield defense to that mix, some of these pitchers won't play with a better defense behind them their entire careers. The major question mark with the A's this year is health. Can Crosby and Harden stay healthy? Will Bradley be healthy? Will Chavez's ongoing shoulder issues hamper him? Notice I didn't even mention Frank Thomas.
Rob: Rate2 gives Chavez a 105 score -- he's still above average, though not as good as he was a couple years ago. Nobody expected you to mention Thomas, Tyler. It's pretty obvious that Beane doesn't expect him to necessarily be a lynchpin of the offense.
Bryan: The question, I guess, will be how health affects the offense. Still, I think it's good enough to win the division. Milton Bradley in a loving environment could be a big run producer.
Rich: The A's offense is plenty good. They scored nearly as many runs on the road last year as Texas.
Tyler: My feeling is you're going to see a Bradley close to the 2003 Cleveland Indians Bradley.
Rob: Bradley's health is far more important; if he doesn't stay in the lineup, bad things happen. I also think, having seen him play some, that he shares with Darin Erstad a tendency to injure himself from overhustling. Plus, he's just plain fragile. Remember the injury that kept him out of the Dodgers lineup last year: a busted ring finger ligament! How freakish is that?
Tyler: Still, even so, the A's have depth that they haven't had in years. If Bradley does go down for an extended time, the A's have Jay Payton.
Bryan: The A's depth will give Billy a chance to be Billy during the season. During the season, Beane can use that depth to fix the A's weaknesses. However, at this point, I'm not sure the A's have any weaknesses.
Tyler: I think they're missing a true LOOGY. And in this division with Teixeira, Blalock and even Garret Anderson, I think you need a quality LOOGY.
Rich: That's minor in the scope of things. The Angels haven't had a lefty in the bullpen in years.
Tyler: Joe Kennedy could evolve into that, but he's probably going to be more a Justin Duchscherer-type from last year.
Rob: I was astonished at how badly Kennedy performed last year, considering he was leaving Colorado. 4.45 ERA?
Tyler: Not that spring stats mean much considering their small sample size, but Kennedy seems to be thriving now that he knows his role. He's got a 0.96 ERA in Arizona.
Bryan: Still, I can't see Kennedy or any LOOGY having a large impact upon the A's chances. Oakland's division, and pennant, chances depend far more on the likes of Bradley and Eric Chavez.
Tyler: The A's season is dependent on three players to me: Crosby, Street and Harden. They lose any one of those players for an extended period of time and the drop-off in talent really hurts them.
Rob: Bryan was saying how the division has become a two-team race between the Angels and the A's in the last couple years. It's my opinion that if it becomes a three-team race, it'll be the Mariners, not the Rangers, who get there first.
Bryan: Seattle is certainly headed in the right direction, and for one reason: Felix Hernandez. There is no more exciting talent in the division than Felix, who is good health away from dominating each team's #1.
Rob: The M's have a very good bullpen -- in fact, their cumulative ERA was just a couple points behind the Angels' -- a once-in-a-lifetime starter in King Felix, but after that the story gets very unpredictable. Their 2-5 rotation guys are either old and inconsistent (Jamie Moyer) or young and inconsistent (everyone else). Outside of Richie Sexson, unless Adrian Beltre returns to something like his 2004 form, they don't have what Tyler calls a scary monster in their lineup.
Bryan: They overpaid for Jarrod Washburn, to be sure, but he will be a positive influence in the rotation. He's a similar style to Moyer, but he has a much better upside.
Rich: I think we saw Washburn's ceiling last year. Expect him to be nothing more than an average pitcher over the life of his contract, with more downside than upside.
Rob: Washburn was a mistake; he won't be healthy, he won't repeat his ability to strand the numerous runners he allows on base, and he's going to be a real albatross by the last year of his contract.
Tyler: I'm sorry, but any team that has Jamie Moyer as their opening day starter is not going to contend. They're also depending on Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro, both of whom had ERAs in the 5's last season. Truth be told, I actually like the Rangers rotation better than the Mariners right now with the natural exception of Hernandez.
Bryan: With Jeremy Reed out for two months, the Mariners will be in a pretty bad spot the first 8 weeks. Either Matt Lawton, Willie Bloomquist or Joe Borchard is going to be getting a lot more ABs than they deserve.
Rob: And I don't like that the injury appears to have been to one of the small bones in his wrist. I always think of Nomar's post-wrist-injury hitting, and cringe.
Tyler: Yes, they have a bona fide ace in Felix Hernandez and the offense will be better this year with Beltre likely improving, but you're right in that they have no depth.
Bryan: I like Beltre, too. He was one of the best hitters in the WBC, and has continued to play well in Spring Training. I have both Sexson and Beltre pegged for 30 home runs.
Rob: I dunno, Bryan. Having seen Beltre swing and miss at too many low outside sliders when he was with the Dodgers, and then hearing he's doing the exact same thing with the M's, well, I wonder if he'll ever be consistent.
Rich: Beltre will never approach his 2004 career year, but he should certainly improve upon his inaugural season in Seattle.
Rob: His early Spring Training numbers are encouraging for Seattle, though. Yeah, depth is a real problem for this club, although I confess to being surprised that the Mariners are in the middle of the pack as far as farm system rankings go. Most of their truly good players are still years away, though.
Bryan: In reality, I think the lack of depth will kill them. There are a few exciting talents at the top, but there is not nearly enough depth to really succeed. I look for a few good runs, but besides that, another last place finish from Seattle.
Rob: Totally agree. I see this division going down Oakland-LAA-Texas-Seattle, but it may be a lot tighter than that, and I could easily see the Rangers and Mariners flip-flopping if the right circumstances occur.
Bryan: Let's talk about Washburn's old team, the Angels. Signing Jeff Weaver on the cheap was a good move, I think, but I'm not sure they have the offense to succeed. Young players could definitely change that if they gel quickly, though.
Tyler: The Angels have an impressive rotation, the thing that concerns me about that team is its offense. There's Vladimir Guerrero and then there is everyone else.
Rich: Yeah, I think signing Jered to a $4 million bonus was a very cheap signing. Oh, you mean Jeff? Well, that was a good move, too.
Tyler: It usually takes a younger player a little longer to adjust to the majors. I think Casey Kotchman is going to be great, I just don't expect it to happen immediately. So, I agree, the pitching and bullpen will once again be solid, but the offense will struggle.
Rob: Even at the rate he was hitting last year, you could see him being a 20-30 home run guy. He's doing well in Spring Training. But definitely for the Angels, getting longballs out of the kids is going to be the key to the season. This is a rebuilding year, no doubt about it.
Rich: I don't think the Angels are viewing 2006 as a "rebuilding year" at all. Like the Atlanta Braves have shown more than once over the years, Arte Moreno's team is simply trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by slipping a couple of youngsters into a lineup that is still expected to contend.
Bryan: I think this is a team destined to succeed in 2008. They have to figure a few things out, for example, whether McPherson is the future at the hot corner. Or, how to get rid of Orlando Cabrera soon.
Rich: I'm not worried about these so-called problems in the least. These things have a way of working themselves out.
Tyler: Angel fans can take solace in the fact that they've got Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and all those youngsters just waiting to make a huge impact on the AL West in 2007 and beyond.
Rob: The Angels look like they have depth, but it's illusory in some ways; what happens if, as many old and melancholy Angels fans hope, Tim Salmon makes the team? With Erstad and Anderson already begging for at-bats from the DH position, they now have three DH's, and four if Kendry Morales and his non-glove make a push for the big club in midseason.
Rich: I don't believe Erstad will get many at-bats as a DH. Anderson, Juan Rivera, and perhaps Salmon and Morales (if either makes the team), but not Ersty.
Tyler: I also don't buy the argument that the Angels didn't do anything this offseason. Angel fans should be rejoicing that Stoneman didn't deal away any young talent for Manny Ramirez. Allowing the young kids an opportunity is doing something intelligent.
Bryan: Stoneman really needs to figure out the right way to blend these veterans and young prospects. It will be his success in this regard that determines the Angels W-L record in 2006 and 2007, I think.
Rob: I'm a little less concerned, having seen the pitching, that they have sufficient bullpen depth; the recent announcement that the team "wants a left-handed bat" and is willing to give up Kevin Gregg and/or Esteban Yan to get it is really code for, "here, take my junk." They're not terrible, but given how well Jason Bulger did this spring (prior to a game or two ago), and some of the other guys' success, the bullpen looks like it's set.
Tyler: Rob, is this the year that K-Rod's funky delivery lands him on the DL?
Rob: Could easily be. And, I'm going to make a prediction: he'll be out of baseball beyond 2010. He refused to change his mechanics in the minors, and now that he's in the Show, he's showing the same recalcitrance.
Bryan: Well, the Angels bullpen is so good that a short Francisco Rodriguez stint on the DL isn't the worst thing in the world. Scot Shields is probably one of the 3-4 best relievers in the division.
Tyler: I also wonder about Shields being overworked. The guy personifies rubber arm, but eventually that type of use burns you out. Bobby Crosby named Shields as the toughest pitcher he's faced in the major leagues when I interviewed him recently.
Rich: Maybe that explains why Bobby is 0-fer vs. Shields.
Rob: Shields had started to tire around the time of the late August Blue Jays series last year, when the team had something like two or three extra-inning games, including an 18-inning nightmare. He absolutely can be overworked. And Scioscia, who learned at the foot of Tommy Lasorda, a master of overworking pitchers, while not quite as bad as his instructor, sometimes has the same tendencies.
Tyler: That's exactly what concerns me about Shields and K-Rod. Scioscia and Dusty Baker both come from that school. It's also why I don't think Kelvim Escobar lasts. And, how many games before Erstad gets injured in center field?
Rob: My bet is 40 games, which ought to be enough time for Dallas McPherson to get hot in the minors, and Figgins to move back to center, where he will probably be the team's starter through 2010.
Bryan: It seems as though the Angels are totally dependent upon health. And with Vlad not even entering the season 100%, they look to be in a lot of trouble. This team has the upside to win the division, but that would be pushing it.
Tyler: Yeah, Erstad getting hurt might actually HELP the Angels. I agree 100 percent, Bryan. I think depth comes into play so much in a 162-game schedule and for once, the A's have the most depth in the division.
Bryan: Well, let's go through our projected standings. I am going to go with the A's first, with the Rangers, Angels and Mariners rounding out the division.
Tyler: I see the division shaking out this way: OAK-TEX-ANA-SEA.
Rich: I like the A's here, followed by the Angels, Rangers, and Mariners.
Rob: Here's how I see it shaping up: Oakland, LAAoA, Texas, Seattle.
Tyler: But I also think this is going to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in baseball. Each one of the teams, except the Angels, will be improved.
Rob: Tyler -- how do you get off saying that? Finley's out of center, Erstad's in a position where his bat isn't expected to produce much, and Kotchman has a real chance of being a 20-30 home run guy.
Tyler: I think we've seen the best of Adam Kennedy last year, Anderson is on the decline, the catching can be a question mark. When I said improvement, I meant win totals. I don't imagine they would top 95 wins. I think the A's will top 88, the Rangers will top 79 and the Mariners will top 69.
Bryan: But, of course, the answer to the dozens of hypothetical questions we posed today will determine who lives up to their potential, and who does not.