Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Division by Division Preview - AL West

“What does the future of sports look like? This magazine has spent its whole short life trying to figure that out. But as we learned long ago, forecasting the future is futile. Predictions are a reflection of a single perspective: the present’s.”

-Luke Cyphers in ESPN The Mag, March 24, 2008, Page 48.

I couldn’t have said it better. Forecasting what humans will do in the future is impossible. In Fantasy Land, by Sam Walker he decided that his fantasy draft would take into account each and every variable when ‘scouting’ players. From what that players diet includes to spousal relations or as Sam and Nando referred to throughout the book as “The Hunchmaster”. Attempting to quantify what an uncontrollable object will accomplish is nearly impossible and is the reason why Tom Tango created the MARCELs projection system-as in Marcel the Monkey from Friends. In short, the projection system is the most simplistic of all player forecasters out there yet has a comically close reliability.

AL West

Consider the AL West, a top heavy division where last year’s bride’s maid sold its future in an attempt to take control of the division for the upcoming season. The class of the division is being butchered by injuries to their pitching staff. While the two basement dwellers of the division are working out their individual rebuilding plans. And I have always wondered why there are only four teams in this division while there are six in the NL Central which could easily loan the Houston Astros.

1. Seattle Mariners

This was actually my pick for the division in 2007 and even if they hadn’t gone out and spent a fortune acquiring Erik Bedard I still would have picked the forgotten coastal team. I like a lot of the players they have to improve on their 2007 seasons and I think Bedard-Felix will prove to be the best 1-2 combination in the majors.

With Bedard I like this rotation as every player now appropriately can slide into their specific slots. Even though Felix has had an outstanding xFIP the last two seasons he is not yet a number one so the number two spot is perfect for him. Then not one of Washburn, Silva or Batista is any better then the third spot they will occupy and thus are better suited to match up with their competition. The issue with the rotation then, lies in the fact that outside of the Opening Day five, the club is not well suited to handle injuries. While there are arms that are capable of handling some spot starts, this clubs is going to have to hope the injury bug does not bite them.

The Mariners bullpen is an interesting collection of talent and quite different from the rotation, can afford an injury or two. However, with the value of JJ Putz (he was the #1 win share creating reliever in the majors) the Mariners bullpen is appropriately top heavy. For a team looking to win the division, I wonder what it would have taken to keep Sherrill around and thus cushioning the blow of any of their top relievers. This bullpen is not outstanding, but it is solid nonetheless.

Offensively one has to worry if the Mariners can be good enough to make the playoffs. The team replaced Guillen and his steroid allegations with Brad Wilkerson and his hospital bill. However, keep in mind that Wilkerson was the centerpiece of the Rangers trading away of Alfonso Soriano, so much so, that many considered the Rangers the winner of that trade. Richie Sexson is the key to the Mariners offense as no one is quite sure what to expect from the once feared slugger. Two youngsters to watch out for are Wladimir Balentien and Jeff Clement. Both have gross amounts of potential, but are blocked by veterans. More often then not I am against blocking young players with potential, but in this case, it does not appear as if Balentien or Clement could out produce those ahead of them.

Breakout Candidate: Brandon Morrow – The wild 23 year old is more about stuff then location. If he is able to develop some control, he and Putz could make for one of the most dominant 8th/9th inning combinations in the league. If he is more second half then first, Morrow may be on track to turning things around. Given the sample size it is difficult to trust.

Major Addition: Erik Bedard – The trickle down effect in the rotation alone will make this one of the biggest acquisitions of the year. This also provides the Mariners with superior pitching depth. The cost, however, no matter how long Bedard signs for, will probably be a negative affect long term, but the Mariners have a legitimate shot this season, so why not?

Major Subtraction: George Sherrill – While the Bedard trade deepens the rotation, it provided a thinning effect for the bullpen. The Mariners will definitely miss Sherrill’s reliable innings, but the team is better in 2008 despite this loss.

2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

This club is the reason why I waited until the week before (/of) the season to begin writing the division by division previews. A lot can happen and it is too difficult to project things in the beginning of March. Consider that as recently as March 7th the Angels were still considering John Lackey as their Opening Day starter. Ten days later, Lackey is now being considered as out until at least mid-May.

With Kelvim Escobar already ruled out for an undetermined amount of time, the Lackey injury is that much more devastating. Fortunately, the Angels created a back up plan when they traded for Jon Garland, whom is leaving hitter friendly US Cellular for pitcher friendly Angel Stadium. Young ‘veterans’ Weaver, Santana and Saunders will be relied on to come up with big innings while Escobar and Lackey attempt to get healthy. Each has the potential to be a valuable starter, but need to prove themselves before anyone can write them down as legitimate. It will be interesting to see how Adenhart performs in triple A and whether or not the Angels need him in the case of an emergency.

The bullpen is finally beginning to show its age, however one can never rule out this group. Like the Twins, the Angels defy logic by continually pumping out stellar bullpens. Scot Shields, an annual anchor of the pen is hurt and it is questionable whether or not he will start the season on the disabled list. While the club has a ready (and possibly even superior) substitute in Justin Speier, two quality arms is always better than one. The rest of last years bullpen remains in tact, although this is not entirely good news as that were the worst group the Angels had put together since at least 2001.

The hitting is not going to be a problem unless the clubs age begins to catch up to them. Vlad, Torii and Matthews may make for the best fielding outfield in recent memory, but with each one getting up there in age, a drop off offensively can begin to be assumed. Fortunate for the Angels, however, is the fact that they have offensively ready hitters in Willits and Rivera that could step in and perform at a high level at any moment. Additionally, the club is young enough at enough positions where development is very likely.

Breakout Candidate: Mike Napoli – One of the many young hitters that I mentioned that can be relied on for improvement. Napoli is a catcher who in the low minors clubbed 60 home runs in 2004 and 2005 combined, so the power is there. What is missing for the 26 year old is the ability to remain healthy. If he does so one can expect 25+ home runs from the backstop.

Major Addition: Torii Hunter – Signing Matthews Jr. for the 2007 season was obviously a mistake. Hunter will come in and immediately provide quality protection for Vlad. Although the future does not look bright for the Angels outfield, for 2008, Hunter will provide a needed boost for the club. A close second, due to the injuries of Lackey and Escobar would be the addition of Garland, however the cost…

Major Subtraction: Orlando Cabrera – Despite being on his last legs offensively, Cabrera is still a reliable top of the order bat. The swap worked out for the Angels, but they will nevertheless miss Cabrera.

3. Oakland Athletics

Most are chalking the Athletics up for a disastrous season but I am actually thinking the 2008 club will not be much worse then the 2007 club if they can happen upon some luck. Consider the club was essentially without Harden last season; if he can remain healthy, his performance should actually be superior to the pitcher they lost (Haren). This exercise could essentially be done top to bottom with the 25 man roster, and although the club will need to be lucky, they could easily exceed their win total from 2007.

The rotation will be fine in 2008 as long as Harden can stay healthy (as I type this, he is absolutely dominating the Red Sox while using only his fastball, change up and sparingly the split finger dropping the slider altogether) and Blanton remains with the club. The injury to Gaudin may have a negative effect, but watch out for Dana Eveland to be a major contributor to the rotation.

I love this bullpen. It is deep, youthful and talented with one of my favorite all time relievers, Andrew Brown. I see Brown as a future closer, if, like Morrow, he can harness his control. Aside from Brown, everyone knows the current closer Houston Street, who missed about half the 2007 season due to injury. All signs are pointing to him being healthy, despite getting lit up by the Sox in his first outing of the year. Essentially, full seasons from Street and Brown will be like adding an entire reliever (both pitched half a season in 2007). The addition of Keith Foulke gives a veteran presence to the bullpen and the rest of the arms are talented enough to simply fit into the required spots.

The A’s hitting is not going to be that bad either. The team is young enough where improvements can be expected and Billy Beane did an excellent job acquiring cheap, talented veterans such as Mike Sweeny and Emil Brown. If both can come close to their career averages, they will come as two of the most efficient signings of last off season. In addition to the added veterans, youngsters such as Daric Barton and Kurt Suzuki will provide offensive improvements over what the club had for the majority of 2007. Thus, the loss of Nick Swisher will not be felt as much as one would expect.

Breakout Candidate: Kurt Suzuki – While I am enamored with Andrew Brown, I recognize he has a bunch of pitchers to hurdle in order to get there. I also expect Barton to be the superior long term player; however, Suzuki will have an incredible impact on the A’s in 2008 as he will handle the pitching staff far better then last year’s majority catcher, as well as improving the overall team defense. Suzuki was also terribly unlucky in 2007 and will definitely improve upon his numbers against left handed pitchers.

Major Addition: Ryan Sweeney – While Sweeney may have lost much of his prospect luster, keep in mind the outfielder is still only 23 years old. He won’t be pushed into fulltime action until he is entirely ready, watch out for this kid.

Major Subtraction: Dan Haren – I suppose with Haren the A’s have a shot at being a 90 win team. That still would not put them in the playoffs, so really, its tough to consider anything they could have lost as major.

4. Texas Rangers

Despite possibly having the best team top to bottom, the Rangers are the worst team in this division. The club still has no real starting pitching and adding more fire power wasn’t really the most pressing need. However, the future does look bright for the club as they are incredibly strong up the middle.

The rotation is terrible, but the additions of John Patterson (again, why I don’t do these things too early) and Jason Jennings will help the mess of a rotation the Rangers put together in 2007, but this is still far from an elite group. There is, however, hope for the future…An ongoing theme with this club.

The Rangers bullpen is another one that I like, young, talented and deep with Francisco and Benoit as two of my favorite relievers. The bullpen could be of a major assistance to a winning club, but will simply be used to prevent the Rangers from being blown out of the water with regularity.

Offensively the Rangers are assisted by a hitter friendly ballpark. But with some quality youngsters in Hamilton and Saltamacchia there is, like the rotation, hope for the future. Milton Bradley was brought in this off season and looks to be one of the best signings. Jason Botts is a player whom I think with enough at bats, could be a quality everyday designated hitter. And everyone, but me, has high hopes for Ian Kinsler, it must be because of how close his name is to Ray Kinsella.

Breakout Candidate: Jason Botts – I found it difficult to find a player whom truly fits the mold. Botts has some great power potential but it is questionable as to whether or not he gets the appropriate at bats. Keep an eye on him in the opening weeks of the season to see if the Rangers go with performance or pay.

Key Addition: John Patterson – For a team without any pitching, Patterson could be a legitimate ace. He may start the year in Oklahoma City, but once he is up with the club, there is little reason to believe he won’t be the team’s number 1 starter. Milton Bradley is a close second, but for a team not desperate for offensive help, he is on the outside looking in.

Key Subtraction: Edinson Volquez – This guy is going to be a future ace and shouldn’t have been dealt for anything outside of a sure thing 22 year old. Hart may have been thinking that his fly ball tendencies would not fit with ‘The Ballpark at Arlington’ while Hamilton’s would fit perfectly. Either way, the team would be better served with Volquez in the coming years then Hamilton (how long before Hamilton’s nick name is ‘Hammer’?).

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