Monday, March 8, 2010

2010 AL West Preview

To those waiting on the edge of their seats for this preview I apologize for the delay. I felt under the weather most of last week and I'm just starting to pick up the pieces now. So, without further ado, here's my AL West preview for 2010:

LOS ANGELES - Manager: Mike Scioscia
Emotions ran high for the Angels throughout the '09 season. On April 9, starter Nick Adenhart, 22, was killed by a drunk driver, and the entire team rallied around his spirit for the remainder of the season. They battled through injuries, inconsistency and a difficult division to win 97 games and yet another division title. After finally overcoming Boston in an ALDS sweep, they took New York to six games in the ALCS before bowing out. The winter was not kind to the Angels, leaving major questions about the perennial AL powerhouse.

Gone are three main cogs in Scioscia's machine: John Lackey to Boston, Chone Figgins to Seattle and Vlad Guerrero to Texas. GM Tony Reagins signed Joel Pineiro to shore up the rotation and Hideki Matsui to man Guerrero's old DH spot. Free agent reliever Fernando Rodney could challenge Brian Fuentes for the closer's role, and in a bit of addition-by-subtraction, Gary Matthews, Jr. is finally gone, although the club is paying almost all of the $23.5 million remaining on his insane contract.

Reagins elected to explore in-house options to replace Figgins, and the most obvious candidate is former top prospect Brandon Wood. Wood burst onto the scene by clubbing 43 homers at Hi-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2005, and while he's averaged 25 homers over the last four seasons in the minors, he's hit .192 in 236 career Major League plate appearances. But Wood just turned 25 and has nothing left to prove in the minors, so it's a calculated risk by the Angels to hand him to third base job. Should he struggle, the versatile Maicer Izturis could wrestle up some ABs.

Despite losing Lackey, the Angels could still have the West's best rotation. Jered Weaver finally pitched like an ace in '09 with a 3.75 ERA in 211 innings. Both Weaver and Joe Saunders won 16 games last year, and if fully healthy we know what Scott Kazmir can do. Pineiro will need to prove his NL success can translate to the AL, and Ervin Santana is certainly the wild card in all this. Santana skipped winter ball this year and by all accounts his arm is healed after his struggles in '09.

L.A. needs a strong rotation because I don't see their offense improving upon last year's .792 OPS. Bobby Abreu will return to the second spot in the order, but Erick Aybar is simply not as good a table-setter as Figgins. Kendry Morales can't be expected to perform as well as last year, and younger guys like Wood and Howie Kendrick are big question marks. Matsui and Torii Hunter are both a year older. There's a chance things could turn out in their favor after the turnover in personnel, but luck is going to play a part.

Perhaps the Angels we're used to no longer exist. This is still a solid all-around crew, and Scioscia's always been great at coaxing excellent performances from unusual characters. Over the course of the season, anything can and will happen, but the glory days in L.A. might be a thing of the past.

Prediciton: 2nd place.

OAKLAND - Manager: Bob Geren
Remember that time I picked the A's to win the '09 AL West title but they wound up losing 87 games and came in last place instead? Good, me neither. My bad predictions aside, the A's struggled out of the gate last year and traded away Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera and Oakland is about to enter yet another rebuilding year.

GM Billy Beane, who can't really be considered anything close to a "genius" after three straight below-mediocre seasons, used a similar philosophy to the Holliday and Cabrera acquisitions with his biggest move of this past winter. The perennially-infuriating Ben Sheets will begin the year in Oakland after missing all of '09 following elbow surgery. His $10 million contract for this year is mind-blowing, especially since it's Beane that gave it out. Either way, if he can prove to be healthy, Beane will flip Sheets to a contender for some prospects well before the deadline. They might be forced to pick up some of the tab, unfortunately.

Otherwise it was a nondescript winter for Oakland. The A's should have a stellar defensive outfield with the addition of Coco Crisp to speedsters Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney, which is obviously helpful at their cavernous home park. The moves, or lack of moves, left the A's with a team that will struggle on offense. They finished dead last in the AL with a .397 slugging percentage in '09, and besides Jack Cust, nobody's a power threat, or even close to one.

Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill both enjoyed solid campaigns as 21-year-old rookies in '09, so they could improve and form a good rotation if Sheets and Justin Duchscherer (who also missed all of '09) are healthy enough to contribute. Andrew Bailey, who earned Rookie of the Year honors after posting a 1.84 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 83 1/3 innings, returns as closer.

But like I said, this team won't hit at all. In a division with three other good teams, the A's will be left in the cold. This is a prediction I don't think I'll get wrong this time around.

Prediction: 4th place.

SEATTLE - Manager: Don Wakamatsu
Has any team had more ink spilled over their winter exploits than the Mariners? GM Jack Zduriencik went from "MLB executive on the rise" to "bona fide cult hero" in the course of one offseason after a bevy of terrific moves. After winning just 61 times in '08, the M's improved 24 games in the standings and should be even better after their winter of excitement and improvement.

Not only did the signing of Chone Figgins to a team-friendly four-year, $36 million contract allow Wakamatsu to team up Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins atop the order, but it also hurt their division rival Angels in the process. Jack Z traded three mid-level prospects for one year of Cliff Lee, a coup unlike anything we've seen in baseball in a long time. He turned Carlos Silva (aka "Bavasi's Folly") into Milton Bradley, the potential impact bat this team needed.

Casey Kotchman will get another chance to prove himself as an everyday first baseman, and he came at the small cost of utilityman Bill Hall. Eric Byrnes was signed for the MLB minimum after his release from Arizona, and he'll provide an energetic presence off the bench. Also, the enigmatic Brandon Morrow was moved for the more effective Brandon League as Zduriencik shored up his bullpen.

However well Seattle did this offseason, there are still plenty of questions. Certainly, teaming Cliff Lee with Felix Hernandez gives Seattle one of the best top-of-the-rotation tandems in the game. But beyond those two, it'll be a bit of a crapshoot. Ian Snell will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs in an AL rotation, while Erik Bedard won't be back until May at the earliest. Ryan Rowland-Smith was excellent in 15 starts last year (3.74 ERA), so they need him to prove his worth over a full season. Still, with Lee and Hernandez up top, teams won't want to face Seattle in the playoffs.

There's some question over the starting catcher job, with unproven prospect Adam Moore and longtime backup Rob Johnson set to share duties. It's no doubt a risky proposition, and I wouldn't be shocked to see them address this via trade during the season. Elsewhere, David Aardsma went from journeyman reliever to closer extraordinaire, converting 38 of 42 save chances with a 2.52 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings. Is it too much to ask for Aardsma to duplicate that success, given his lack of consistency in the past? The M's will find out, with League, Mark Lowe and Sean White waiting in the wings should he falter.

You'll be hard pressed to find a better defensive crew in baseball this year than these Seattle Mariners. It appears Figgins will be moved to second base so Jose Lopez can get the hang of third, a masterstroke for Wakamatsu and his coaching staff. Plus defenders litter this squad, with Jack Wilson at short, Kotchman at first, Ichiro manning right field and Franklin Gutierrez, who's quickly established himself as the best defensive center fielder of his generation, patrolling the vast expanse of Safeco Field. The questions in the pitching staff might not matter considering how good the Mariners will be defensively.

Offensively, the M's should be alright, and they can mask deficiencies with strong pitching and defense. A lot hinges on Bradley, now on his eighth different team in 11 seasons. Ken Griffey, Jr. has taken Bradley under his wing, and at the very least, his on-base abilities will be more appreciated by the forward-thinking Seattle front office. I expect a huge year for Bradley.

In any case, this is a Mariners team that can beat you any of a variety of ways. It's amazing how far they've come in just two years, and if everything breaks right, this is a team set up for continued success.

Prediction: 1st place.

TEXAS - Manager: Ron Washington
Last season went about as expected in Arlington, with the Rangers scoring a ton of runs but unable to sustain solid pitching. They spent most of the year in the Wild Card hunt but faltered down the stretch, finishing with 87 wins. It's not outlandish to expect a similar result in '10 for Texas, and given how much Seattle improved themselves, that's probably not going to be good enough for a postseason berth.

GM Jon Daniels elected to sell high on Kevin Millwood, who posted a 3.67 ERA at age 34 last year with one season remaining on his contract. But all he could extract from Baltimore was former closer Chris Ray. In Millwood's place will be Rich Harden, signed to a sensible $6.5 million contract with an $11 million option for '11. If they can strike gold with Harden, the Rangers have the chance to sport a top-notch rotation rounded out by young guns Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland. There's also lots of risk attached to each of those guys, and the Ballpark is far from an easy place to procure outs.

The offense was largely untouched, and despite the loss of Marlon Byrd to the Cubs, the Rangers don't feel like they've lost much with rookie speedster Julio Borbon likely to supplant him in center and rack up 50 steals. Vlad Guerrero comes on board, and should benefit from hitting in Arlington. Chris Davis gets another crack at first base, but he's struck out in nearly a third of his MLB plate appearances and that must end or prospect Justin Smoak will steal his job. Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz round out the relentless crew of hitters.

Get ready to hear the name Neftali Feliz a lot if you haven't already. To describe his pitching prowess as "electric" doesn't really tell the entire story. He throws 100 mph as consistently as Daniel Bard but when you see him pitch the ball simply explodes out of his hand.

A starter throughout his minor league career, he was converted to reliever and called up by Texas in August. From there, he struck out 39 and walked just eight in 31 innings, allowing just six runs and 13 hits. Even though the Rangers long-term plan is to use Feliz as a starter, he's still just 21 and he will likely start '10 in the bullpen. Before long, he'll be starting in the big leagues and blowing away the world. I can't wait to see it happen.

But the Rangers won't be in the postseason, yet again, in '10. Until they put together a starting rotation predicated on power arms, they won't be leap-frogging Seattle or Anaheim for playoff contention. Feliz is a good start, but it's not enough.

Prediction: 3rd place.