Sunday, March 16, 2008

2008 AL West Preview

Sorry for taking so long to get to this. I was very busy the last few weeks at school and I also started a new political blog called Blue Musings. Please check it out if that stuff interests you. Onto the AL West preview:

LOS ANGELES -- Manager, Mike Scioscia
There wasn't much to complain about during the regular season last year for Angels. They finished the year with 94 wins and the AL West title. They saw offensively strong years from stalwarts Chone Figgins, Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson while starters John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar earned 19 and 18 wins, respectively. But Mike Scioscia's crew ran into Boston at the start of the playoffs without regular CF Gary Matthews and with Guerrero and Anderson both at less than 100 percent. Their offense was anemic, especially during Josh Beckett's sterling Game 1 performance. The Sox easily dispatched LA in three games and longtime GM Bill Stoneman resigned on October 15. Taking over the franchise would be Tony Reagins, and he set out early to make some changes for 2008.

Reagins dealt Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox in exchange for starter Jon Garland, who may be the Angels' Opening Day starter given some injuries (more on that later). Garland has pitched at least 208 innings each of the last four years, and even though he's one year away from free agency I think LA definitely got the better end of the deal. Two days later the Angels pulled one of the more interesting moves of the winter when they inked free agent CF Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract. Most expected that LA would bring in some offense, but I would have guessed they'd make a run at Alex Rodriguez or cash in their young pieces for Miguel Cabrera. Instead they opted to bring in Hunter, who is probably on the back end of career and is DEFINITELY not an $18 million-a-year player. He brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but the acquisition creates and even bigger logjam in the outfield than they already had.

Besides those two moves the Angels are set to enter this season with much of the same team they had last year. Many of those players are entering the final guaranteed years of their contracts, like the aforementioned Garland and Figgins. Closer Francisco Rodriguez will be hitting the open market after earning a record $10 million in arbitration this season. There are option years for 2009 for Lackey, Guerrero (both likely to be picked up) and Anderson (not likely to be picked up). So one can see the Angels are definitely trying to go for it this year, but they have run into some problems this spring.

Escobar's chronic shoulder woes returned and he just threw for the first time this spring this weekend. He won't return to the big club until May at the earliest. Word came down this week about Lackey and a bum right triceps, which will also keep him out until May. Expect the Angels to go with a rotation of Garland, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley until then. Santana struggled mightily last year and while many are predicting a bounce-back year in 2008 I'll believe it when I see it. Weaver experienced some injury troubles but was relatively effective in his sophomore campaign and could see a big improvement this year. I think most teams would be happy even to have that rotation for a full season, and having Lackey and Escobar hopefully fresh for the stretch could be a big plus for the Angels. Offensively, they will pick up some with Hunter but look for a trade of Juan Rivera, Reggie Willits, or maybe Matthews if Reagins can find some team dumb enough to take the $44 million left on his deal. I'm looking for a big year out of my boy Howie Kendrick. He played only 88 games last year but still hit .322 and with a full season I expect big things.

Despite missing Lackey and Escobar early, I think the Angels will still be the third-best all around group in the AL behind Boston and Cleveland. They will benefit greatly by having so many players in contract years and the knowledge that if they don't win the year, this group won't stay together past 2008.

Prediction: 1st place.

OAKLAND -- Manager, Bob Geren
The A's went into last season attempting to get back to the ALCS but an incredible rash of injuries ruined any of their chances. Mark Ellis, Shannon Stewart and Nick Swisher were the only members of the 2007 A's to play in over 145 games. Huston Street earned only 16 saves while the potential of Rich Harden once again spent most of the season on the shelf. Bob Geren's club finished ten games under .500 and GM Billy Beane set out to rebuild for the future this winter.

The A's went from having the 27th-best farm system in baseball to the 9th-best as a result of the trading away Swisher and Dan Haren. In those trades Beane acquired, amongst others, outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, Aaron Cunningham and Ryan Sweeney, the high-upside young 1B Chris Carter, and three burgeoning pitching prospects in Gio Gonzalez, Fautino de los Santos and Brett Anderson. While on their faces each deal doesn't seem like a huge win for Oakland, it can be argued that combined they definitely provide an opportunity for the A's to start over. There has been some talk recently that Beane has spoken with Street about a possible long-term contract, but that seems to fly in the face of Beane's expressed philosophy about closers and I could see Street pitching for someone else before this season is over. If that happens look for promising reliever Joey Devine (acquired from Atlanta for Mark Kotsay) to take over as closer. Their current #1 starter, Joe Blanton, will also be sold to the highest bidder come deadline time.

The A's will look to start youngsters at first base (Daric Barton), catcher (Kurt Suzuki), center field (Chris Denorfia) and left field (Travis Buck). If the injury woes continue for the likes of Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby and Dan Johnson, look for even more young guys to get a shot. They also added ex-Royals Emil Brown and Mike Sweeney to infuse some life in the offense, but I'd expect Jack Cust to get most of the starts at DH this year. Beane got the burley Cust from the Padres for peanuts in May and then proceeded to mash 26 home runs and get on base 40 percent of the time (sounds like Billy's kind of guy). Who knows if he'll keep it up but he's at least fun to watch.

I'm presently re-reading "Moneyball," the book that forever changed my outlook on baseball and made me want to become a baseball writer. It is fascinating to look back and see how revolutionary Beane's thinking was for the time, and in six years his influence has spread to many other franchises. Three of the final four teams in contention for the 2007 title adhere to some form of the Beane doctrine on player personnel and development (Boston, Cleveland and Arizona). It will be fun to watch how Beane uses his model for success with this new young group of players. 2008 won't be a great year for the A's, but they have a strong future to look forward to.

Prediction: 4th place.

SEATTLE -- Manager, John McLaren
2007 was a pretty wild year for the Mariners. They started slow, then picked up strong as the summer began. During the midst of a strong winning streak, manager Mike Hargrove shockingly resigned and John McLaren became the manager for the rest of the year. Under McLaren, the eclectic group of players earned 88 victories and a 2nd place finish in the AL West standings. The Mariners made several moves setting themselves up for a playoff run in 2008, but I don't really see it.

The most important move made by the M's this winter was trading for Erik Bedard. GM Bill Bavasi has completely mortgaged the future of the club by dealing off four young players and their primary 2007 setup man, George Sherrill. I have mentioned several times in this space that I think Bedard is a great pitcher but his injury history means he's far from a sure thing. The main piece they relinquished was outfielder Adam Jones and I do think it's possible he could make Seattle regret dealing him away. Bavasi also threw $48 million at Carlos Silva, which was perhaps the most laughable contract in a winter full of laughable contracts. Color me shocked if Silva ever earns lower than his career 4.31 ERA in any of his four seasons for the Mariners. The M's also replaced the upside and potential Jones with the mediocrity and frustration of Brad Wilkerson.

Discussing the relative fortunes of any Mariners club begins and ends with Ichiro. The best leadoff man in baseball agreed with Seattle on a 5-year, $90 million extension last summer. If you take a look at his stats through his seven years in the Bigs, he's been ridiculously consistent. Check out his numbers for runs, doubles, steals, walks and strikeouts. They have been virtually the same every year. The M's will need another year like that in order to contend in 2008. This is a very good offensive club, with fellow veterans Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez and Kenji Johjima anchoring the lineup. This is thankfully the final year of Richie Sexson's bust contract, and after his OPS dropped an incredible 150 points in 2007, the M's would be more than happy if some team was willing to take him off their hands even if it meant they'd have to swallow most of the $14 million he will make this year.

The one big thing the M's have going for them is their pitching. I always knew the Red Sox would do well in 2004 because it was the first time they'd ever had not one but two #1-type pitchers in Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. A case could be made the M's now have this with Bedard and Felix Hernandez. If both are healthy and effective I think they could provide the best 1-2 punch in the AL alongside Sabathia-Carmona and Beckett-Matsuzaka. We should not forget the Mariners also have one of the top three closers in all of baseball in J.J. Putz. For a pitcher to get a WHIP of 0.68 over the course of an entire ML season is truly astounding.

All this said, I still feel like the Angels will be the better club, especially since there's a chance their starters will be more fresh at the end of the season. Getting Bedard will help this team, but I think their other moves have actually set them backwards. 88 wins sounds about right once again.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TEXAS -- Manager, Ron Washington
The Rangers haven't been very good since the heyday of the Johnny Oates era in the late 1990s. They've gone through several managers and the biggest contract in baseball history, and manager Ron Washington's first year on the job led to a 75-87 season. GM Jon Daniels decided to try and build for the future by dealing away Mark Teixeira for a bevy of young Atlanta talent. They also traded Eric Gagne for three young players, but if I talk about it further I might hurl my computer against a wall. (Of all the things in life I can be certain about, the young kid the Sox gave away in the trade, Engel Beltre, WILL be an All-Star and could have a Hall of Fame career. I'm absolutely, 10,000,000% certain of this. Moving on.)

Daniels made a few nice, low-risk moves this winter by signing starter Jason Jennings, outfielder Milton Bradley, relievers Eddie Guardado and Kaz Fukumori, and trading for infielder Ben Broussard all at low costs to the club. Their most important move was trading away perennial headache and starter Edinson Volquez to the Reds for former #1 overall pick Josh Hamilton. As you may recall, Hamilton was the feel-good story of 2007, as he turned his career and life around and lived up to some of his lofty potential in 90 games before dealing with myriad injuries. Hamilton should get in a full season as the Rangers CF in 2008 and could hit 30 homers.

Some of their 2007 deadline acquisitions will play a role on the 2008 club, beginning with catcher/1B Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty has a world of potential and should find himself behind the plate for the Rangers for many years to come. You will also find Red Sox castoffs Kason Gabbard and David Murphy playing a key role on this team. Elsewhere, look for solid campaigns out of veterans like Michael Young, Frank Catalanotto, and the emerging young 2B Ian Kinsler. The pitching for this (pretty much every) Rangers club is a big question mark, however. None of the Rangers' starters were anything close to good in 2007, with "ace" Kevin Millwood going 10-14 with a 5.16 ERA. They didn't do a drastic amount to improve their chances this time around. Unless the Rangers push back the fences at the Ballpark, their pitchers will never have any form of success.

With that, I can't say I expect a whole lot from the Rangers this year. They will battle with the A's for third place in the West in 2008, and I think they will come out on top.

Prediction: 3rd place.

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