Sunday, April 5, 2009

2009 AL West Preview

We're just a couple hours away from the start of the 2009 MLB season, with the World Champion Phillies set to take on Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park at 8 p.m. With that, let's head right into the last of my three AL preview posts, a look at the West Division.

LOS ANGELES - Manager: Mike Scioscia
The Angels were the only team in baseball to win 100 games in 2008, playing Mike Scioscia's game predicated on pitching, defense, fundamentals and the occasional pop. The mid-season acquisition of Mark Teixeira gave them that pop down the stretch, sporting a staggering 1.081 OPS in 54 games for the Halos. There was no doubt, going into October, that the best team in baseball was the Angels. But they shot themselves in their collective foot over and over during their ALDS bout with Boston, and lost in four games.

They couldn't keep Teixeira, who never really showed much interest in staying on the West Coast once the season was over. They refused to spend big bucks on Manny Ramirez, the middle-of-the-order presence they really needed once losing out on Tex. They let K-Rod go to the Mets, as well as waving goodbye to stalwart Garret Anderson and starter Jon Garland. They signed on the rejuvenated Brian Fuentes to close on a modest two-year pact. And once it became clear they could sign him on the cheap, they picked up Bobby Abreu for $5 million to provide some stability at the top of the order.

I said last year the Angels would really go for it in '08 know their group wouldn't stay together. Well, they ended up not losing as much as I expected, although after '09, Vlad Guerrero, John Lackey and Chone Figgins will all be free agents. So maybe this is the year they'll really need to push if they want to win with this group.

Unfortunately for them, I just don't see it. John Lackey and Ervin Santana are both dealing with elbow injuries with varying degrees of severity. Lackey should be OK to return with a month of rest, but Santana could be looking at Tommy John surgery if his elbow issue doesn't respond to rest and treatment by the end of April. Joe Saunders was excellent for most of last season, but is dealing with his own "dead arm" issues at the present time, and Jered Weaver seems to have come around from early-spring shoulder soreness. So when your only solid, healthy starter to begin a season is Dustin Moseley, well, that's not a good sign. In the bullpen, Fuentes should be alright but look for young Jose Arredondo to continuing developing as an excellent 8th-inning option for Scioscia.

I can't help but be slightly underwhelmed by their offense. Guerro is declining, and without him there's no significant power source in the lineup. It will be good to see the continuing offensive development of younger guys like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales, who's been handed the first base job and looks ready. The outfield defense could be an adventure with Abreu, Guerrero and Juan Rivera sharing 2/3 of the duties everyday. The Angels will continue to have the most expensive fifth outfielder in baseball, with Gary Matthews set to earn $33.5 million over the next three years. Had Matthews been a free agent this past offeseason, I'd be interested to see if he could have done any better than the minor league deal Andruw Jones got from the Rangers.

Anyway, color me skeptical about this team's ability to be impressive in 2009. As you'll see through the rest of this preview, this year's AL West isn't very good, so I do expect the Angels to be in contention most of the year. Whether or not they have the goods to get into October once again is still a big question.

Prediction: 2nd place.

OAKLAND - Manager: Bob Geren
The A's went into rebuilding mode prior to last season, but hung around with the big boys all along and churned out a respectable 75 wins. Heading into the winter, GM Billy Beane set out to put together a contender for 2009, and made some surprising moves to make that happen.

Many in baseball expected the Rockies to trade Matt Holliday over the winter, but I'm not sure how many thought he'd get dealt to Oakland. Beane shipped deposed closer Huston Street, solid outfield prospect Carlos Gonzalez and young lefty Greg Smith to Colorado in exchange for the slugging left fielder. Should the A's find themselves out of contention during the summer, Beane could cut the chord and send Holliday out if he feels he can get more value than the two draft picks he'll get when Holliday signs with the Yankees or Red Sox next offseason.

Sure, Holliday can expect some regression in his numbers moving from Coors Field to a pitcher's park. But he hit .308, .301 and .280 on the road, respectively, in each of the last three seasons. He's still one of the game's best hitters, and the A's desperately needed some offense after finishing dead-last in the AL in runs, hits, batting average, slugging and OPS in 2008.

Beane didn't stop there. He brought back Jason Giambi, who will primarily play first base and can still provide some pop. After a prolonged negotiation, Orlando Cabrera was signed to be an upgrade over perennial disappointment Bobby Crosby. Beane coaxed Nomar Garciaparra out of a potential retirement to serve as the club's super-utility man. I definitely expect Nomar to see plenty of time at third base with Eric Chavez practically living on the DL the last few years. For Red Sox fans, there's a sense of irony seeing Cabrera and Garciaparra on the same team, both playing on small contracts, just four seasons after they were traded for each other in the most fateful trade in club history. I expect Nomar to get a HUGE ovation when he plays his first game in Fenway later this year.

Oakland's bullpen doesn't look quite as strong as it did earlier in spring training with the news that potential closer Joey Devine will visit Dr. James Andrews and has been put on the 60-day DL. Bob Geren will go with sidewinder Brad Ziegler at closer, who's coming off a fantastic rookie campaign that saw him begin his career with a record 39 consecutive scoreless innings. Santiago Casilla, Jerry Blevins, and new additions Russ Springer and Michael Wuertz should make up a solid crew.

They'll need to be solid, because one area where Beane failed to improve the A's was their tenuous starting rotation. Justin Duchscherer, who's pretty much always injured, will start 2009 injured. That leaves immortal names like Dana Eveland and Dallas Braden to top the rotation while highly-touted, electric-armed prospects Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill (who most agree need more time in the minors) will be thrown into the inferno immediately. Sean Gallagher, the main piece the A's got for Rich Harden last year, will start as the long man but should be back in the rotation soon.

Despite this, I'm picking the A's to win the West. I'm not sure I've ever picked a team to win its division with such a shoddy rotation, but this particular division looks like a total crapshoot. If they can get some consistency, and Cahill and Anderson find immediate success, the A's have a real shot. But those are big "ifs," no question.

Prediction: 1st place.

SEATTLE - Manager: Don Wakamatsu
A complete, unadulterated debacle. That's really the only way to describe the 2008 Mariners season. After a successful '07, and everyone riding their bandwagon during the spring, they came out and nothing went right. Injuries, ineffectiveness, bad personnel choices and more all happened in Seattle last year. On June 16, the M's finally put clueless GM Bill Bavasi out of their misery and three days later manager John McLaren was similarly shitcanned. Besides the typically-solid years from Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez and Felix Hernandez, nobody performed up to expectations for Seattle. When the dust settled, they were the first team ever with a $100+ million payroll to finish a season with 100 losses.

Jack Zduriencik, a longtime scout with tremendous credentials, was hired as GM and one of his first moves was to hire Don Wakamatsu, a former Rangers and A's coach, to be the first Asian-American manager in MLB history. Zduriencik set out to rebuild the Mariners by focusing on defense. He shipped out overvalued closer JJ Putz and in return brought back outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, both of whom are fantastic defenders that, when combined with Ichiro, should help their starters by cutting down hits and runs significantly.

On-base machine Russ Branyan will start at first base, and Ken Griffey, Jr. will return to Seattle for one last hurrah in front of the fans he wowed for so many years. The inept Kenji Johjima will remain behind the plate, but top prospect Jeff Clement is banging down the big league door.

As far as pitching goes, the Mariners need to hope Erik Bedard finds some health and can be solid behind Hernandez. They're stuck with Carlos Silva and his bloated contract for the next three seasons, but at least they'll be out from under Jarrod Washburn's slightly-less bloated deal after this season. He's certainly a prime candidate to be traded at the deadline for a team needing a lefty starter. When it was decided Brandon Morrow would be the team's closer, Ryan Rowland-Smith was inserted as the club's fifth starter.

The Mariners will not be good this year. But at least with new management, the club appears to be on the right track for their future. It may take a while, however, to fully recover from the old administration's myriad of mistakes.

Prediction: 4th place.

TEXAS - Manager: Ron Washington
People associated with the Rangers probably spent all winter touting their second-place finish in the AL West in 2008, and probably failed to mention they won 79 games and finished a robust 21 games behind the Angels. After a semi-quiet offseason, the Rangers appear to have assembled one of the game's best young offenses but a starting rotation that leaves a lot to be desired.

They dealt off catcher Gerald Laird, and he'll be replaced by the high-upside tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (23) and Taylor Teagarden (25), provided one isn't traded to the Red Sox midseason. Chris Davis (23) hit 17 bombs in 295 at bats in 2008, and people are excited to see how the first basemen will do over the course of a full season. Ian Kinsler (26) has established himself as a premiere offensive second baseman and just needs to put together a full season to enter the conversation as one of the game's best all-around players.

Elvis Andrus (20) will start the season at shortstop, and the defensive whiz might steal 40 bags this year. The outfield will be made up by David Murphy (27), Nelson Cruz (28), and Josh Hamilton (27), the latter of which provided one of the best stories in sports last year. When complemented by veterans Hank Blalock and Michael Young, who has moved to third, it's scary to think just how good this offense will be.

It's equally scary to think of how bad their starting pitching staff will be. I remember being so bummed when the Red Sox were outbid for the services of Kevin Millwood following the 2005 season. Since then, Millwood has not had an ERA for a season lower than 4.52, while many Red Sox hurlers making quite bit less have done much better. The deal that sent John Danks to the White Sox for Brandon McCarthy looks worse and worse every year, and McCarthy will be back after a couple of seasons filled with injury. Kris Benson is back, and can contribute if he's healthy. Again, a huge "if." I'll be interested to see if Neftali Feliz, the young former Braves prospect who was informed by Jeff Locke that he'd been traded to the Rangers, or Derek Holland can make it to Arlington at some point this year.

Ron Washington's bullpen is surprisingly decent, with the chair-throwing Frank Francisco entering the year as closer. They've got good mix with CJ Wilson and Eddie Guardado setting up. They're going to need to be pretty terrific considering how potentially awful their starting rotation will be.

The saving grace for the Rangers is that they have the game's best farm system, according to Baseball America, so they can hope either guys like Holland and Feliz can contribute to their big league club or they can cash in some other prospects to acquire some help. They might be in a position, with all the other clubs in the West being such question marks, to surprise some people. Their starting pitching is holding them back in a big way.

Prediction: 3rd place.

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