Two on Two: AL West Preview
Sully: While it seems the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels separated themselves in the American League West in 2006, a closer look at some of the Adjusted Standings indicates that this division may be a lot more tightly bunched than meets the eye. What are your thoughts on the competitive dynamics in the AL West as we head into 2007?
Rich: The AL West is generally thought of as the weakest division in the league. But how many people know that all four teams outplayed the East last year and all but the Mariners were .500 or better against the Central? This division is deceiving. It's not overly strong at the top but there aren't any pushovers like last year's Devil Rays or Royals either. The West is the only division of the three where every club goes into the season believing it could sit atop the standings at the end of the year. There's a lot to be said about that.
Jamey: And while most people who feel the need to handicap the division in mid-March like Anaheim and Oakland, those also happen to be the two clubs hit hardest by injury so far. The West has more of an up-for-grabs feel to it than any division.
Jeff: I think I've written "the Mariners are the worst team in a weak division" a million times this winter, but it seems like every time I do, I come away even less impressed with the best than I was before. Put simply, neither Oakland nor Anaheim are very good, and there might only be a five- or six-win separation between the top and bottom rosters in the group. That's a tiny, tiny gap, and the sort of thing that makes for a wild September.
Sully: I think I am on the same wavelength as everyone here. What the AL West lacks in quality at the front-end, it makes up for with a complete absence of bad clubs and general competitiveness. The Oakland Athletics are coming off a 93-win season and a trip to the ALCS. But there are some real warning signs with this club. For one, their best pitcher (Barry Zito) and hitter (Frank Thomas) from the 2006 club are gone. Further, their pythagorean record in 2006 suggested they were not as good as their record. To me, this looks like a .500-ish club. How do others feel about Oakland?
Rich: I wouldn't want to under estimate the A's. Like Atlanta, Oakland seems to always defy the naysayers. The franchise has finished first or second for eight years in a row (including four division titles), and it hasn't won fewer than 87 games during this period. Yes, the team loses Zito and Thomas, but a healthy Rich Harden - knock on wood - can make up some of the difference and Mike Piazza hit .283/.342/.501 while wearing the tools of ignorance for San Diego. Net-net, I think the A's are not quite as formidable as they were in 2006, but I don't see them dropping 12 games in the win column either.
Jeff: Every year the A's lose a critical player or two, every year they bounce back, and every year I don't think they'll be able to do it again. So maybe I just suck at pattern recognition, but I think they're going to have a whale of a time replacing everything that got from Thomas and Zito. A hypothetical full season from Harden makes up for some of the Zito loss, but the same doesn't go for the lineup. Piazza just won't be able to approach Thomas's power or on-base ability. He hasn't been that kind of player for a few years, and there's no reason to think he'll suddenly rejuvenate his career at 38. The A's will be relying on a group of players to make up for the loss of one, and that's a difficult situation to be in.
Jamey: We're of course banking down here on the loss of Ron Washington killing Oakland, the addition of Washington gilding Texas, and the departure of Buck Showalter being worth a few games. Can those three things mean a 10-game swing between the A's and Rangers? Nah. But that's the sort of thing Rangers fans - and i'm one of them - hang onto this time each year. Never know.
Sully: Isn't it all about health with these guys? To me the Oakland season comes down to three players; Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson and Rich Harden. Crosby, even when healthy, was miserable last season, hitting .229/.298/.338. Johnson hit .234/.323/.381, just abominable figures for a first baseman. Harden managed just nine starts. These guys were to be the foundation of Oakland's latest wave of talent that would carry them just as so many others who had come up through the A's system had before them. But at this point, it's hard to believe they can be counted upon for the output Oakland needs them to produce.
Rich: Eric Chavez is another player whose health is an important element here. He played through a number of nagging injuries (forearms, elbows, wrists, and hamstring) last year and his offensive production (.241/.351/.435) suffered despite making only five errors in the field and winning his sixth consecutive Gold Glove. He claims to be healthy this spring and could be primed for a bounce back year at the plate. A .270 batting average with 30 HR is certainly within the parameters of his career norms.
Jeff: I can't foresee any situation where the A's get better this year. In theory that sets the upper limit around 93 wins, but considering they beat their Pythagorean win total by eight, in reality it should be lower than that. It's a decent team, but it's not a great one, or even a particularly good one.
Sully: What about the Angels, Rich? The pitching once again looks fantastic, but is it good enough to carry what appears to be a very weak offense?
Rich: The Angels scored the fourth-lowest number of runs in the AL last year. Only the Mariners and the lowly Devil Rays and Royals plated fewer runners. The good news is that the offense should be a little bit better this year. Mind you, not a lot better. I know Gary Matthews is coming off of a career year, but he could regress and still provide an upgrade over what really amounts to Maicer Izturis. In addition, Howie Kendrick figures to put up considerably better numbers than Adam Kennedy at second base. There is no reason to suspect that Vladimir Guerrero won't be healthy, but the Angels cannot afford to lose him for any length of time. He needs to do his thing and hit .320 with 30 HR for the Angels to be respectable offensively.
Sully: So the Angels were in the market for a Designated Hitter, evaluated their available options, and decided that offering Shea Hillenbrand $6.5 million to handle the role was the right course of action. Shea has always been a low-obp / high-slug type of hitter but what will Angels Stadium do to his power? I don't think .275/.315/.430 is anywhwere out of the question. If Shea logs the majority of the Halos' DH at-bats this season, he has a good chance at being one of the very worst regulars in baseball.
Rich: I'm not going to defend that signing other than to say it was a one-year deal, mostly in response to Juan Rivera breaking his leg in a winter league game. Hey, the guy fits right in with Mickey Hacker's approach. Like most Angels, Hillenbrand has never met a pitch he didn't like. His single-season high in walks is 26. TWENTY-SIX! But who knows, maybe they acquired him for his team chemistry.
Sully: At least they no longer employ Darin Erstad!
Jeff: They might as well. I've had a sneaking suspicion for a little while that Reggie Willits has a lot of Erstad in his blood.
Jamey: The bigger question, to me, is how much Darren Dreifort it is that Jered Weaver's got in him. The health of the Angels' rotation is obviously what gives the rest of the division hope in '07, but that bully is going to keep them around no matter how many days of service Weaver and Colon and Co. rack up on the DL.
Rich: Now, now . . . I don't see any reason to lump Weaver in with Dreifort. Sure, he is dealing with tendinitis in his arm and is behind schedule. But both Weaver and Colon had "encouraging" bullpen sessions on Monday and Thursday and are expected to face hitters soon. Weaver may not make his April 6 start, but he should be starting every fifth game shortly thereafter. Colon is rehabbing his shoulder and is on a different timetable than Weaver. If everything goes according to plan, the Angels are hopeful that he could return to the rotation by late April or early May. However, Joe Saunders is a capable fifth starter so I don't think Bartolo's health figures prominently in the fortunes of the Halos this year. I see him as a potential bonus more than anything else.
Jeff: We know the Angels have the pitching; it's been like that for years. The question, as always, is whether or not they'll get enough offense to contend, and the issue, as always, is that going into the season they don't seem to have very much behind Vlad Guerrero. It sounds silly to say, but I think the Angels are going to depend an awful lot on whatever they can get from first base. If this is the year that Casey Kotchman finally breaks out (and he's having a hell of a spring), he might be enough to put them over the top in this division. If not, though, we could see an awful lot of intentional walks, and in that event they're just not going to score enough runs.
Rich: The AL West is unique in that three of the four home ballparks are known to suppress runs. Ameriquest Field in Arlington is the only park that favors hitters. When adjusted for these factors, the Rangers were actually more adept at preventing runs (102 ERA+) than scoring runs (99 OPS+). Is the pitching underrated or is the offense overrated? Or is it a bit of both?
Jeff: It's both, and it's one of those things that goes hand in hand with playing half your games in an extreme environment. This ballpark has murdered some pitchers while helping some hitters, most notably Mike Young (career OPS 134 points worse on the road), Mark Teixeira (112), and Hank Blalock (194). In one season so far, Ian Kinsler's at 254. Such artificial inflation masks problems at the plate while creating illusions of problems on the mound, and that can make it incredibly difficult to build a solid, balanced roster.
Rich: There's gotta be something else besides health that is at the core of Blalock's problems. The guy is a complete enigma to me. He has regressed every year since his first full season in 2003. I don't know if the heat wears Blalock down in the summer but his first half stats have consistently been vastly superior to his second half numbers:
First Half | Second Half AVG OBP SLG OPS AVG OBP SLG OPS 2003 .323 .375 .524 .899 .272 .319 .520 .839 2004 .303 .369 .572 .941 .240 .338 .406 .744 2005 .285 .346 .479 .825 .236 .283 .375 .658 2006 .287 .352 .443 .795 .237 .289 .346 .635
As Jeff pointed out, Blalock has been a huge beneficiary of playing home games in a hitter friendly ballpark. His road stats are well-below average. Health or no health, he just may be one of the most overrated players in the game.
Sully: The thing I like about the Rangers is that their Pythag suggests they were about an 86-win team in 2006 and I don't think they figure to regress. I understand they lost Gary Matthews and Mark DeRosa, but Blalock cannot get worse, Teixeira did not exactly light the world on fire in 2006, Kinsler is young and improving, I have to think they get something out of Brad Wilkerson this season. And on the run prevention side, they add Brandon McCarthy and Eric Gagne. I think these guys will be in the thick of it.
Jeff: I like the Rangers as a .500 team with upside, but if their season comes down to how much slack Brandon McCarthy's able to pick up as the rotation's #3, then that's a cause for concern. Awesome talent or no, a right-handed extreme fly ball pitcher in a park that rolls over for lefties is a recipe for disaster.
Jamey: One of the things that was lost in the instant analysis of the McCarthy trade was that he was actually less homer-prone in the minor leagues than Danks has been. But there is, as has been pointed out, the righty-lefty difference to take into account. And the way Danks has been dealing in camp, we may be able to measure the deal sooner than a lot of us thought.
Jeff: That makes two of us. From their steady lineup without any great individual threat to their rotation of a should-be ace and four #5's, the Mariners might be the most average of the league's average teams. An offseason of hope completely went to waste, and the result is a wholly unimpressive roster that hardly resembles that of a competitive team.
And yet, there is reason for optimism, as the team's missing something that dragged it down a year ago: black holes. They got nothing from their DH, nothing from center until Ichiro moved, and worse than nothing from Joel Pineiro. All of those issues have been addressed, and while Jose Vidro and Jeff Weaver have their question marks, there's absolutely zero chance that they're as bad as the people they're replacing. The Mariners got better by dumping their trash, and now they look like a half-decent team capable of playing meaningful September baseball.
Rich: Well, Ichiro is pretty exciting and there are worse hitters than Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, and Richie Sexson. But the overall offense looks about average. I might like it a bit more if the team would learn to take a walk once in a while. In the meantime, the pitching staff looks worse than average to me. Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez walked almost as many batters as they struck out. Weaver pitched well in October with the Cardinals but got rocked in the first half as a member of a rival AL West club. Seattle improved nine games last year and won about as many as its run differential would suggest. Bottom line, I just don't see much room for optimism beyond a .500 season.
Jamey: Speaking of Ramirez, I was thrilled to see the M's trade Raffy Soriano. Ramirez doesn't scare me a ton.
Sully: Ramirez may not scare you but he is a 27 year-old with a career 104 ERA+. If he is healthy, he is a guy the M's can feel confident handing the ball to every fifth day. He won't be a world-beater but he will be averag-ish with respect to performance and to the extent he can eat innings, he could very well be useful.
Rich: By the way, nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago. Is there anyone on the horizon who could make a quantum leap in 2007?
Jeff: Nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago because a year ago J.J. Putz didn't have a 90-mph splitter to go with his high-90s fastball. Ask Barry Bonds what it's like to face that repertoire - that one additional pitch turned him from a decent setup guy into a dynamite fireman.
As far as quantum leaps in 2007 are concerned, uh, no, none. At least not on the Mariners. Mark Lowe had a chance before his elbow went on the fritz, and Eric O'Flaherty might blow up (in a good way) if and when he gets the call, but there's no one who even comes close to matching Putz's potential in that regard.
Sully: Who might make the leap in the West? I think Kendrick and Kinsler will be two of the better 2nd Basemen in baseball. I think Felix Hernandez will challenge for a Cy Young Award. And although I would not call it a surprise, one of the most interesting AL West subplots of the season will be to see who gets less out of the DH slot, Shea Hillenbrand and the Halos or Jose Vidro and the M's.
Jeff: At least Vidro doesn't try to hack his way off a sinking ship. I, too, think Kendrick has a lot of Leap potential, and if he has a breakthrough campaign, the division race could be over pretty quick. In addition, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Gerald Laird hovering around a .900 OPS most of the year, while John Lackey finally flirts with a sub-3 ERA. Neither of these improvements would really count as a Putz-type jump, but then, few do.
What about Backwards Leaps? Jered Weaver, anyone? Anyone?
Rich: Boy, I thought we were going to talk about the AL West. But that's OK. I don't mind defending Jered. Heck, I've been doing it for more than three years . . .why stop now? No, the good Weaver is not going to win his first seven starts or rank second in the major leagues in run average again. So, from that standpoint, I guess he is going to take a backwards step in 2007.
Jamey: Texas is in some trouble if some of the young bullpen arms that they're counting on (Littleton, Wilson, maybe Rupe if he doesn't land a rotation spot) if their Cactus League struggles follow them to Arlington. The biggest backward leap concern, though, is Vicente Padilla, with his first taste of real financial security behind him.
Rich: Which players would you attach to the MVP, CYA, or ROY should any of those awards come out of the West this year?
Sully: Vlad is a top-5 MVP candidate from my vantage point, and I think John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez will all be top-10 AL starters and therefore somewhere in the Cy Young discussion. It's hard to pick out a ROY candidate from this division, though.
Jeff: The most obvious choice for MVP would be Vlad Guerrero. Ichiro's a slight possibility, and Mark Teixeira has a non-zero chance if he really breaks out. In order of odds from greatest to least, the Cy Young could go to Felix, Lackey, Harden, or (really distant) Kelvim Escobar. As for rookies, I really don't see a single one in the division having a significant impact. There's a lot of youth, but pretty much all of it is already established. Wild guess: Jarrod Washburn will not win any hardware.
Jamey: We're not giving Brandon Wood a shot at ROY?
Rich: Well, Wood has only played four games above Double-A. He's had a pretty good spring but is almost certain to start this season at Salt Lake. Wood is a tremendous talent and I can see him joining the Angels in the summer and perhaps having an impact during the stretch run. But the odds are stacked against him and any other rookie from the AL West. Outside of Wood, if there was a surprise choice, I'd look to someone like Adam Jones of Seattle, but he is just 21 years old and is still a pretty raw talent.
Jeff: I don't think Wood's going to have a real pleasant adjustment period. He could and should be pretty good, but I doubt success comes real quick. As for West, there are two issues - one, I don't think he's quite MLB-ready yet, and two, there's no room for him to break into the lineup, which does a number to his ROY chances. If the M's are competing and an outfielder gets hurt, I think they sooner go with Jeremy Reed, so Jones's only real hope for winning the award is that the team stumbles out of the gate, deals Ichiro by May, and immediately sets its focus on the future. And even in that event, I still have trouble seeing him post an OPS too far over .700.
Rich: As far as MVP and Cy Young candidates, I would go with Vladimir Guerrero and Felix Hernandez.
Jamey: Vlad and Haren for me.
Sully: OK, prediction time and I will kick off. I like the Angels over Texas in a close race, and then Oakland a smidge over .500 and Seattle somewhere in the mid-to-high 70's win range.
Jeff: Gun to my head, I'd go Anaheim/Oakland/Texas/Seattle, but it could very easily wind up in the opposite order. There's not much separating any of these teams.
Jamey: Agree with Jeff. Could go any way. I'll say ANA / TEX / OAK / SEA.
Rich: I believe the Angels are the most likely division winner of the four. It's not that they have a great team or anything, but I'm more confident predicting the Angels to win than I am any other team in any other division. I think Oakland and Texas will battle it out for second with neither prevailing as the Wild Card. Seattle will have by far the best record of any last place team in the AL and probably in all of baseball.
Sully: Thanks everybody.