Two on Two: 2008 AL West Preview
This week's edition of the annual Two on Two series focuses on the American League West. We were thrilled with the way last week's discussion on the NL West went, and we think we have assembled a similarly excellent ensemble for readers this week.
David Cameron of one of the very finest team blogs out there, USS Mariner, joins us. So too does Sean Smith of "Anaheim Angels all the way". David and Sean are two of the brightest baseball analysts writing regularly on the web.
Sully: Rich, you're in Southern California, a west coast guy, I want to start with you. What are some immediate thoughts that come to mind when you think of the AL West in 2008?
Rich: Although it's difficult to try and compare a division with four teams to another with six, the AL West isn't much stronger than the NL Central. I like the Angels and Seattle ain't half bad but Oakland is in the process of rebuilding and Texas is – what do you call it when a team has had just one winning record in the past eight seasons? – well . . . Texas. Long gone are the years in which the AL West sent two teams to the playoffs like in 2000-2002. While the Angels appear to have the clearest path to the postseason of any AL club, there is zero chance that the Wild Card will come from this division this year.
Dave: I see where Rich is coming from here. The AL West, at first glance, might look a little boring for 2008. Texas is rebuilding, Oakland is selling off talent, and the Mariners are banking on their starting pitching to help them chase down the Angels. For most people, they'll just decide whether they think Eric Bedard and Carlos Silva are enough to put the M's over the top, and if not, they'll default to LAA as the choice for the division.
However, I think that overlooks a lot of variables. Texas has quietly put together a potentially terrific offense with a lot of young talent, and despite the sell-off, Oakland's still got a quality club capable of putting together a good streak of wins. While I'm not disagreeing that the Angels are the presumptive favorites, I will say that I think there are a lot more possible outcomes in this race than just the Mariners and Angels fighting to the death in September.
Sully: I agree, Sean. I want to go against the grain here but no matter how much I squint, the Angels still come out on top. What excites me about following this division in 2008 is the intriguing young talent coming of age in it.
Sean: Well that's just it, if we're not expecting a close race, the excitement comes from seeing which young players can establish themselves as major leaguers. This time next year, we should know if Brandon Wood and/or Erick Aybar are capable major league shortstops. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, will he become a run producer? Will his defense be acceptable at catcher? If yes to either one, he'll be a useful player, but if the answer is yes to both, he'll be a superstar. The A's are unsettled in the outfield, in the pitching rotation, and will start rookie Daric Barton at first. Only the Mariners seem to rely almost exclusively on veterans, though Wladimir Balentien may take some playing time away from Brad Wilkerson or Raul Ibanez in the outfield.
Sully: The most decisive strength on the best team in the division is the pitching of the Angels. Los Angeles had a 108 ERA+ in 2007, a fine figure before taking into account specific circumstances. When you take the 250 innings of 5.99 ERA pitching that Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana contributed, you really start to get a good sense for how strong this Angels pitching staff is.
Rich: The Angels have a deep pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The depth, aided by the acquisition of Jon Garland this winter, is going to come in handy once again with Kelvim Escobar expected to be out of action until May. John Lackey, a healthy Escobar, and Jered Weaver form a solid 1-2-3. Garland is a dependable, if unspectacular, No. 4, and Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders are certainly capable at the back end of the rotation. There are worse things than turning the ball over to Justin Speier, Scot Shields, and Frankie Rodriguez for the late innings.
Dave: From my perspective, this Angels team has a lot of downside potential on the run prevention side of the ball. Even beyond Escobar's injury, this isn't the dominating pitching staff they've had in recent years. Jon Garland is nearing the end of his usefulness, and while Rich might not want to hear this, Jered Weaver is more innings eater than ace. Importing Torii Hunter and shifting Gary Matthews to a corner outfield spot should keep the defense good enough that it won't cause the pitching staff to implode, but this isn't a team of guys who are going to create extra outs with their gloves either.
The key here will be the performance of Saunders and Santana - both will probably spend a solid amount of time in the rotation, and both are good enough pitchers to solidify the back end should Escobar not get healthy.
Sully: Pretty harsh, Dave. Weaver is a 25 year-old, career 137 ERA+ Major League pitcher. [Dave responded to this and his thoughtful remarks are posted at the bottom of the piece.]
Sean: The Angels' defense is pretty ordinary, but the pitching is outstanding. If only the Halos had Hunter five years ago. He's still a good center fielder, but most observations I've read suggest he's lost a step or two from his peak. This is to be expected with a 32 year-old who plays the most speed intensive position in the field. If Aybar is the starting shortstop I expect to see a lot of errors. In 35 games in the Dominican winter league he made 19 errors.
Sully: The Angels offense was dead average last season, and that was with Garret Anderson going bananas. The addition of Hunter helps but I still don't love this offense. What does everyone else think?
Dave: For years, if you pitched around Vlad, you could hold the Angels offense down and be okay. This looks to be the year that changes. I see Kendrick and Kotchman both ready for prime time and if that's the case, the team has two impact young bats that can produce runs even when Guerrero's not terrorizing fastballs. I wouldn't be surprised if the Angels sent these three to the All-Star Game, and along with Hunter, Gary Matthews, Mike Napoli, and the role players, the Angels should actually be a threat to win their games with the bats for once.
Sean: The Angels should be able to produce about as many runs as last season. Anderson is unlikely to hit as well as he did in the second half, and Figgins is not going to hit .330 again, but the young trio of Kotchman, Kendrick, and Napoli should improve the team some, even if just by playing more than they did last year. Hunter adds a 25 homer bat to the middle of the order. While he's not the dominant hitter that Mark Teixiera, Adam Dunn, or Miguel Cabrera are (the mythical big bat behind Vlad) he certainly won't hurt.
Rich: A lot was made out of the fact that Arizona scored fewer runs than it allowed last year, but how many folks know that Seattle did the same while going 88-74? It wasn't that the Mariners offense (with an OPS+ of 104) let the club down as so many people tend to think; rather, it was due to the fact that the defense (ERA+ of 91, third-worst in the AL) gave up a lot of runs. Well, the good news for Seattle fans is that this problem has been addressed in a big way by acquiring one of the game's best pitchers in Erik Bedard. A starting rotation of Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and three league-average innings eaters coupled with arguably the most dominant closer in baseball last season gives Seattle a competitive advantage in the pitching department for the first time in five years.
Dave: One of the main themes I've been hammering on our blog for the past couple of years is the contribution of defense in run prevention. In general, people attribute almost all of a pitcher's ERA to his own ability, but I think we realize more and more that there's significant contributions from his teammates involved in his performances. Well, the Mariners seem bound and determined to do the opposite of whatever we preach, and so they've decided to build a team around a starting rotation and put a group that is mediocre-at-best defensively behind them. Yes, Erik Bedard is awesome, and I'm as high on King Felix as I have ever been, but are two terrific arms enough to contend?
Sully: Interesting stuff, Dave. How do you see the lacking defense impacting the M's?
Dave: Both Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn are highly dependent on their fielders, and the Mariners are going to run out two of the worst defensive players in baseball (Ibanez in left, Richie Sexson at first) on a daily basis. The organization has spent about $30 million on the back-end of the rotation to try and avoid any more Jeff Weaver / Horacio Ramirez / Joel Pineiro disaster type seasons, but perhaps someone in that front office should consider spending a fraction of that on some better defenders? Don't be surprised if the M's are at a loss to explain the sudden collapse of one of their proven veteran starters; my money's on Washburn.
Sully: I think I see this one just as you and Dave do, Sean. Having two premier strikeout guys at the top will go a long way in masking problems with a particularly defense-dependent back end. All in all, it's probably nothing more than an above-average run prevention unit. As for the offense, I see a considerable step back coming in 2008. As Rich mentioned above, the offense was actually quite good in 2007. I think Ibanez and Ichiro will both regress a bit this season.
Rich: Change out Guillen for Wilkerson in right field and this is basically the same offense as last year. Betancourt and Jose Lopez are the only two players under the age of 29 and both are in the lineup more for their defense than offense. As such, it is difficult to see how the offense will produce more runs in 2008 than in 2007. Oh, I guess Sexson could bounce back a bit and Jeff Clement could be of some help on the margin, but the bottom line is that the team is deficient at drawing walks (last in the majors in 2007 with 389 BB) and hitting home runs, hardly the recipe for scoring runs. These are your guys, Dave. What do you think?
Dave: Watching this team hit, there are times when I wonder if the Mariners purchased this offense at Costco; why buy just one right-handed free-swinger with gap power who can't hit a curveball when you can have four? Jose Guillen's departure takes away some of the repetition of this player type, but it's still hard to find a line-up that has four guys more similar in approach than Beltre, Kenji Johjima, Lopez, and Betancourt. If you can bury a slider in the dirt in the left-handers batters box, odds are you can get these four to get themselves out with very little effort.
Beyond those four, the team is counting on production from Ibanez (36 years old, can't hit lefties, clearly in physical decline), Jose Vidro (33 years old, zero power), Sexson (33 years old, already collapsed), and Wilkerson (31 years old, body of someone three times that age). Intimidated? Not unless you're worried they're going to steal the remote from you to watch Matlock or take your spot at the early bird table at the cafeteria.
And, as the cherry on top, this already questionable line-up is built horribly for Safeco Field, which destroys right-handed power hitters and is quite friendly to lefty flyball hitters with pull power. Ibanez and Wilkerson are good fits for Safeco offensively (defense is another story), but Vidro and Ichiro pound the ball into the ground, nullifying the short fence down the RF line, and the rest of the roster swings from the right side, watching their long fly balls turn into outs in the alley.
I can't help but look at this offense and think that advanced scouts for opposing teams look at writing this team up as something of a vacation. The offense is both simultaneously not good and easy to match up with; Bedard is going to have to be pretty fricking awesome to win 20 games with this bunch providing run support.
Sean: The Mariner offense will struggle in 2008. Last year they had seven regulars play 147 or more games. Their catcher played 135 games. They were lucky to stay as healthy as they did last year, and I would be shocked if they can repeat it. Especially as this is not a young team. As Rich mentioned, their only young regulars, Lopez and Betencourt, are also the team's worst hitters.
Sully: It seems to me that the M's made moves as though they were building off of the foundation of a legitimate 88-win team again in 2008. Add Bedard and Silva and look, "we're a 95-win team." Unfortunately, it does not appear to be that simple for Seattle. Oakland is another team that might struggle but at least they have come to grips with their identity. They are rebuilding. Dan Haren is gone now, so what do we make of Oakland's pitching and defense?
Dave: While the Mariners seem to have no idea how big of a role defense plays, on the other end of the understanding the importance of defense, we have the Oakland Athletics. Mark Ellis continues to be one of the more underrated players in the game, as he gets very little credit for being a premium defender. Perhaps one of these years, he'll get the recognition he deserves as one of the prime reasons the A's keep shuffling pitchers through their rotation while still preventing runs with the best teams in the league. With Haren off to Arizona and the health of Chad Gaudin, Rich Harden, and Justin Duchscherer all up in the air, Oakland will have to continue to rely on their defense to help keep runs off the board. Don't be surprised if they continue to perform better than expected, and hopefully, one of these days people might give Ellis some of the credit.
Sean: It's very hard to predict how the A's will do this season keeping runs off the board. Joe Blanton is the only starter they can count on. They have a lot of potential starters, and I expect to see a lot of auditions for spots. In past years the A's defense was good enough to make ordinary pitchers look good, but this may not be the case in 2008. The infield defense is still strong, especially Ellis, but the outfield has no true center fielder, and the possibility of Jack Cust playing outfield (to get the bats of Mark Sweeney or Dan Johnson in the lineup) does not bode well for the young pitchers.
Rich: With the additions of Barton, Travis Buck, and Kurt Suzuki, the offense is getting younger. The question is whether it will be better. The A's traded away Nick Swisher, their most productive offensive player, and the left side of the infield is once again struggling with back problems in March. If Cust turns out to be a one-year wonder, Oakland is going to have a difficult time finding a power source this season. The sleeper here is Buck, a first round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2005. As a 23-year-old rookie, the lefthanded-hitting outfielder, who put up a .325/.398/.510 line over three seasons in the minors, hit .316/.407/.538 on the road. He is an All-Star in the making and will anchor this club's offense in the years to come.
Dave: On the offensive side of things, the view isn't quite so pretty. Long gone are the days of the A's sitting around and waiting for the three run homer, because this offense is seriously short on power. Yes, Jack Cust can hit a fastball a long way, Travis Buck has some pop, and Eric Chavez can still pull pitches off of right-handed pitchers, but beyond that, the position players are going to struggle to do much besides slap the ball around and try to draw walks. It's the kind of line-up that pitchers aren't afraid to attack, and with a bottom of the order that could include some combination of Bobby Crosby, Emil Brown, Suzuki, and Chris Denorfia, it's easy to understand why.
Sean: Their offense should be below average. They traded their best player, Nick Swisher. If Barton develops quickly they might be able to maintain the offensive level of the last few seasons, but the chances of that aren't especially good. If Barton struggles and Cust proves a fluke (hard to keep producing like that while striking out over 40% of the time) the offense could be ugly. In any case, it leans strongly to the left. They have 5 hitters who I project to be above league average - Barton, Cust, Buck, Chavez, and Johnson, and all five bat from the left side.
Sully: So it looks like the A's might struggle in 2008. I would have to agree. But the news isn't all bad for A's fans and it sure seems like Billy Beane is comfortable with a down-tick this season. The Swisher and Haren deals both netted them considerable returns and the future figures to get better in Oakland before long. The same goes for the Texas Rangers, whose farm system Baseball America ranks as fourth best in MLB. They are not there yet though, are they?
Rich: Texas doesn't do a very good job at preventing runs. The Rangers had the AL's second-worst road ERA in 2007. Among the six likely starters, only Kason Gabbard (100) had an ERA+ better than 93. Three of them had ERA in the fives and sixes. The bullpen isn't all that great either. Overall, Texas just gives up too many walks (4.1 per game, second to last in the AL) and gets too few strikeouts (6.02/game, dead last), putting way too much pressure on a mediocre defense to save runs.
Dave: Thanks to their ballpark, the Rangers could assemble a veritable all-star rotation and people would still talk about their struggles in finding good pitchers. Between the dimensions and the weather, trying to keep run scoring down in Arlington during the summer is basically impossible. However, I can say with some confidence that the 2008 Rangers have not assembled an all-star rotation. Kevin Millwood is a solid bounce back candidate, and I think Texas could get some positive contributions from back-end starters Jason Jennings and Gabbard, but when Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy are your #2 and #3 starters, well, you're probably not going to make the playoffs.
Sean: What run prevention? They will bring back the same group of pitchers. Last year, only McCarthy (4.87) started at least 10 games and had an ERA under 5. They had one pitcher, Edinson Volquez, who appeared to make progress last season and might have improved the staff, but he was traded to the Reds. Like usual, the Rangers are not going to prevent many runs.
Sean: They will score quite a few runs, and not just against Baltimore (I'll never forget watching that 30 run outburst). The Rangers will look good offensively thanks to their ballpark. Assuming they stay on the field, Bradley and Hamilton should put up impressive numbers this year, assuming they stay on the field.
Sully I think the big surprise in the West this season is just how bad the Rangers will be. I think they battle injuries and horrendous pitching all year long en route to a sub-70 win season.
Dave: I am going against Sully here. Because Texas doesn't have any marquee names and are assumed to be rebuilding with young players, the national assumptions I have seen have them winning 70-75 games. In reality, I think this team is going to be quite a bit better than that, and it's not hard to envision a scenario where the Rangers put up 82-86 wins. In a division where the top of the division looks relatively weak in comparison to other divisions and the bottom of the division is apparently underrated, there may not be a huge gap between the teams at the end of the season, and while it may appear a major surprise considering the preseason narrative, there's a realistic chance for each team in this division to take the title and sneak into the playoffs.
Sean: My surprise is that Brandon Wood will win the starting shortstop job for the Angels, and most of the talk about him will not be about his power, but about his defense as he proves that he does indeed have the range to stick at the position, and then some.
Rich: I don't see many surprises in the AL West this year, yet I think the division could play a factor in the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards. I mean, as far as the MVP goes, the voters would eat it up if Hunter hit .300 with 30 HR and 100 RBI while playing a Gold Glove center field for an Angels club that won the division. Given that Hunter has never hit .300 means that probably isn't gonna happen. If it did, I guess that would be my surprise. Otherwise, I would go with Guerrero as the MVP or perhaps Suzuki should the Mariners beat out the Angels. The CYA could go to Lackey, Bedard, or King Felix. Barton would be the favorite to win ROY if it went to a player in the AL West.
Sean: I don't think the MVP will come from the West, but Guerrero is the #1 choice, and Torii Hunter #2. For Cy Young, I'll pick Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and Francisco Rodriguez. Daric Barton for Rookie of the Year.
Dave: The two best position players in the A.L West are Ichiro and Vladimir Guerrero, and you have to start any potential MVP discussion from this divsion with those two players. However, there's a second tier of quality role players who all have some breakout potential and are capable of having an MVP caliber season. Among this group are Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, and Adrian Beltre, while Michael Young and Ian Kinsler could get votes from those who don't adjust for park effects (and, in Young's case, defense).
Rich: I will be surprised if the Angels and Mariners don't finish 1-2. Put me down for the A's in third by the slimmest of margins and the Rangers in fourth – that sounds better than last, doesn't it?
Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone. I am taking the same order as Sean, with the Rangers a good bit back of Oakland.
David Cameron on Jered Weaver:
While ERA+ is a fun little toy for historical comparisons of past events, I don't find it particularly useful for projecting pitcher's future performance. There are a host of variables that go into ERA that have little or nothing to do with the actual talent level of the pitcher, and I'm not interested in assuming past events that were outside of the pitchers control will continue on in the future.
And, let's be honest, quoting Weaver's career ERA+ is not exactly giving people accurate information. People would be better served by actually looking at what he's done in his short time in the majors.
In 2006, Jered Weaver posted an ERA+ of 173. This is, of course, a tremendous number. There were few pitchers better at keeping runs off the board. What was the key to his success? As many others have shown (and I've covered in my Evaluating Pitcher Talent article at http://ussmariner.com/2006/08/29/evaluating-pitcher-talent/), run prevention is influenced essentially by five things; walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate, batting average on balls in play, and runner stranding. Or, statistically, BB%, K%, HR/F, BABIP, and LOB%. By looking at these five metrics, we can easily determine why a pitcher was successful in keeping runs off the board.
So, what was so great about Jered Weaver in 2006? His strikeout rate was very good (8.3 K/G), his batting average on balls in play was very low (.236), and his runner stranding rate was very high (86.2%). As has been shown in various studies, the latter three events aren't nearly as predictive as the first two from year to year. Considering the shaky foundation of Weaver's 2.56 ERA in 2006, it wasn't any surprise to watch him take a significant step back last year as both his batting average on balls in play and his strand rate regressed heavily to the mean.
So, when Weaver wasn't posting the lowest BABIP and the highest LOB% in the American League, he was actually just a bit above average, and not a world beater as quoting his career ERA+ might suggest. If we look at his FIP, we see that the 3.99 mark in 2006 wasn't that much different than his 4.14 mark in 2007; in other words, Jered Weaver didn't pitch that much worse, as his ERA might imply, but instead his run prevention performance just regressed to more closely match his actual abilities.
Jered Weaver is essentially a strike-throwing flyball machine with a good enough breaking ball to miss bats a little more than average. When those flyballs aren't flying over the wall or are being chased down by his outfielders, he'll look just fine. When the wind is blowing out or Garret Anderson or Vladimir Guerrero are chasing that same flyball, he's going to look pretty mediocre.
This isn't to say Jered Weaver isn't an asset. Having a healthy pitcher who can put the ball in the strike zone with regularity without giving up 30+ home runs a year means that you've got a pretty solid pitcher, but let's not be deceived by the fact that his ERA in 2006 was artificially deflated by things outside of his control. Weaver's a nice pitcher to have, but he's a huge step behind the good pitchers in this division.