3-26-10: 2010 MLB Preview - AL West

Hello again everybody...

It's Friday already? Amazing how quick a 4-day week can go by! Well, technically, it's not a 4-day work week for me, since I'm putting in some OT tomorrow. But it's a brief appearance and shouldn't be too difficult (wait, where's that wood to knock on?!).

Still, I'm looking forward to the weekend, since one week from tonight, I'll get my first chance to partake in the wonder of Target Field. Next Friday night the Twins take on the St. Louis Cardinals in the first of their final two exhibition games. Needless to say, I'm giddy. I've considered doing a RGC for the game, but I have a feeling I'm going to be too busy taking it all in. No worries though, my first regular season game will be April 17th, so I'm sure I'll be taking notes for that one.

But before we can get to the games, we've got to continue the 2010 MLB Preview columns! Today, we take a look at the only 4-team division in baseball, the AL West. Don't be fooled. Just because there are only four teams, doesn't make it any easier to predict. In fact, this might be the toughest division to call this year.

Did I lower your expectations sufficiently? I thought I might have...

Let's do this!

”No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.”
- Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915), American writer, publisher, artist, and philosopher

I'd promise you that this would be the last time I'd mention my recent vacation, but I try my best to lie to you, my fine readers, as little as possible... and that would be a whopper.

«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»

With that... let's get to my...

2010 MLB Preview: AL West

My 2009 column on the AL West can be read here

I went four-for-four in my AL West picks last year. I fear that won't be the case this year. You could make a case for three of the four teams to win the division. And you could easily make a case for Oakland not to finish last. Add all that together, and it gets really hard to make picks. I've been mulling this column since I wrote Wednesday's Preview and I must have changed my mind about half-a-dozen different times... including immediately prior to sitting down to write.

The Mariners are the fashionable pick to win the division this year. There's no question the Angels have come back to the pack a bit, and the M's have added a couple of big pieces in Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins.

But the Angels finished 12 games ahead of Seattle last year, and I don't think L.A.'s decline/Seattle's improvement is enough to close that gap all the way.

So my picks start with...

1. Los Angeles Angels: Last year the Angels went 97-65, won the AL West, beat the Boston Red Sox (whom I hate) in the ALDS, and were defeated by the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

I said the Angels have taken a step back this year, and I truly believe that. You don't lose John Lackey to Boston, Chone Figgins to Seattle and Vlad Guerrero to Texas and improve. Even if you manage to add Hideki Matsui and Joel Pinero.

But they've still got a solid line-up, and one of the best managers in all of baseball. Give Mike Scioscia a line-up that can score some runs and a rotation with some depth to it, and I like his chances of winning a sixth division title in the last seven years.

Let's break them down...

Chone Figgins' loss means a big hole at the top of the line-up. My guess is that SS Erick Aybar gets the first shot to replace him. But if he doesn't work out, their options are limited. Macier Izturis figures to be a role-player, but the Angels may have no choice but to play him more if he gives them a better on-base percentage in the lead-off spot. RF Bobby Abreu looks like he'll move up in the order after the addition of Matsui. Abreu was a steal for L.A. last year, and has shown no signs of slowing down this Spring. Former Twin CF Torii Hunter hits third. Hunter's not getting any younger, and his mouth is still capable of getting him in hot water (Caribbean players are “phonies”, i.e. “not really black” players? Really Torii? Oof.), but the guy can hit. If he stays healthy, the middle of the Angels' order will be just fine. DH Hideki Matsui hits 4th. Last year's World Series MVP was let go by the Yankees, and the Angels were all too happy to scoop him up. No, he can't really play in the field anymore, and the thought of him staying healthy all year is probably a pipe-dream. But when he's right, the guy can flat out rake, as anyone who watched the World Series last year could see. 1B Kendry Morales will likely hit fifth. Last year was Morales' first full year in the big leagues and he responded with .306/34/108. Those are easily good enough to hit clean-up, but why put that pressure on a young kid when you've got options that are just as good? LF Juan Rivera hits sixth. His .285/25/88 last season was sneaky-good, and solidifies the middle of the L.A. line-up. 2B Howie Kendrick is a youngster trying to solidify his hold on that position - as I mentioned earlier, he may end up platooning with Izturis. C Mike Napoli and another kid 3B Brandon Wood round out the order.

Losing ace John Lackey sets the Angels back, but they still have more depth in their rotation than any of the other AL West teams. Jered Weaver becomes the de facto number-one starter. Weaver was 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA last season. While I'm not sure I trust any pitcher named Weaver (brother Jeff has been something of a basket-case), he's probably the best option for the top of the rotation. Joe Saunders slots in the number-two spot. Joe's record (16-7) was as good as Weaver's last year, but his ERA was nearly a full-run higher. If he can lower that a bit, the Angels' staff will be just fine. Ervin Santana slots third. Santana was limited to just 23 starts in 2009 after getting going late thanks to an injury. His stuff is wicked, however, so if he's back to 100%, he'll be a force for L.A. this season. Former Rays stud Scott Kazmir will likely be fourth in the rotation. That's a combination statement of how far his stock has fallen and how deep the Angels' rotation really is. Joel Pinero comes over from St. Louis to be the likely 5th starter.

In the bullpen, the Angels are anchored by Brian Fuentes. Fuentes was a hot free agent a year ago, and came through for L.A. with 48 saves and an All-Star appearance last year. Fernando Rodney comes over from Detroit to set Fuentes up, and provide insurance should something happen to L.A.'s closer. Scot Sheilds, Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen will help fill out the middle innings.

Bottom Line: They're not as good as they were in 2010, but the Angels are still the deepest, most balanced team in the AL West, and that's why I think they'll repeat.

But let's just say I won't be floored if the winner is...

2. Seattle Mariners: Last year the Mariners finished 85-77 and finished third in the AL West.

Certainly a third-to-first move is possible in the AL West, but I don't think it's as likely as some people do. Adding Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins will help, but there are still a lot of questions about Seattle that are yet to be answered. Plus there's a gigantic red flag that I'll get to in a moment.

RF Ichiro Suzuki leads things off for the Mariners. He's one of only a handful of guys that I'll go out of my way to see play. His approach at the plate... the way he plays in the field... it's a 9-inning clinic every night. Chone Figgins comes over from L.A. to play third-base instead of his usual shortstop. Every indication is that the switch won't be a problem. CF Franklin Gutierrez hits third, and this is where I start to have a problem with Seattle. Gutierrez hit .283/18/70 last year. Those aren't bad numbers... if you're a 6-hitter. But that's Seattle's best option in the 3-hole? Not good. 2B Jose Lopez hits fourth. How many teams have their 2nd baseman hitting clean-up? I can't think of any. Hitting 5th is the “gigantic red flag” I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Milton Bradley. Yes, my pick for “AL Player Most Likely to Kill a Teammate” was traded to Seattle in the off-season after napalming his bridge to Chicago. And lest you think that he's mellowed with age, or even matured a bit, take a gander at this article where Milton compares himself to Kanye West and Ron Artest. He even drops the “bad guy” line like he's Tony-freaking-Montana or something. Bradley's presence on this club, more than anything, soured me on picking them to make the post-season. Ken Griffey, Jr., returns as the Seattle DH. He can still provide some pop, but like Matsui with the Angels, can't be counted on to go 162, not even close. Casey Kotchman plays 1B and hits seventh. C Rob Johnson and SS Jack Wilson round out the order.

The Seattle rotation looks great... early. Felix Hernandez retains his spot at the top of the rotation. King Felix went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and would've won the Cy Young except for an even sicker year from Kansas City's Zack Greinke. Hernandez should be a force for Seattle for as many years as they can afford to keep him around. The aforementioned Cliff Lee was traded to the Mariners in the off-season and slots in as the number-two starter... eventually. Lee was suspended for the first 5 games of the regular season (essentially one start) after throwing at Arizona catcher Chris Snyder's head in a Spring Training game. Equally troubling are reports of an abdominal strain coming out of Peoria over the last week or so. Between the suspension and the injury, it's doubtful that Lee will make his Seattle debut until late in April. But that's not exactly the worst thing in the world. Plenty of pitchers have started a season late and gone on to great years. Right now, there's no reason to think that Lee won't be just fine. After those two All-Stars, the rotation gets sketchy. Ryan Rowland-Smith went 5-4 in just 15 starts last year, yet it seems like Seattle will count on him as their third pitcher. Ian Snell came over from Pittsburgh where he spent the first five years of his career in baseball purgatory. It'll be interesting to see what he can do with a better team. Doug Fister likely rounds out the rotation.

David Aardsma collected 38 saves in his first year as a closer in 2009 with the Mariners. If he maintains that quality, then Seattle has a shot. But with the number of close games they're likely to play, there's going to be a lot of pressure on him to shut the door. I say that A) because the Mariners aren't going to score a lot of runs, and B) because there's virtually nothing of quality between the starting staff and him.

Bottom Line: The Mariners were out-scored by their competition to the tune of 50+ runs last season. That's not a recipe to win a division. But they do play terrific defense, they have a terrific manager, and there's no doubt that they've improved their starting staff. Like I said, I won't be shocked if they win. I just think the Angels are still better.

3. Texas Rangers: Last year the Rangers went 87-75 and finished second in the AL West.

Oh, those vexing Rangers! They have enough talent to compete for the division, and yet they somehow always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot. This year, they got started early with the revelations that manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine use in 2009. He claims to only have tried it once. But that's like saying you went to the ballgame and only had one peanut. Not bloody likely. For now, the Rangers are standing by him. But if Texas gets off to a rough start, don't be surprised if that “vote of confidence” turns into a “thanks for all your service”.

CF Julio Borbon will lead-off for the Rangers. Not an easy spot for a rookie, but Borbon seems to have the chops to handle it. 3B Michael Young will probably hit second. I've gushed about Young in the past and even wrote an Open Letter begging the Twins to make a trade for him. He's well into his 30's now, but still flashes a great glove and provides plenty at the plate. LF Josh Hamilton hits third. Hamilton struggled with injuries last year after a break-out 2008, and has been nicked up here and there this Spring. Texas desperately needs him to remain healthy if they're to stay in contention. DH Vladimir Guerrero comes over from the Angels to clean up. If Vlad's not at the end, he can at least see it from where he's standing. He's still a great contact hitter, but I'm concerned that his power has slipped. 2B Ian Kinsler is slated to hit fifth... eventually. Kinsler's struggled with a high-ankle sprain in the Spring, and those don't heal quickly. If he's not available early in April, then RF Nelson Cruz likely takes that spot. And with his power, it won't surprise me if he stays in that spot even after Kinsler returns. 1B Chris Davis hits 7th. Davis doesn't do a ton at the plate, but is fantastic defensively. I lost track of the number of gems he had during the games I saw him play. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits eighth and still has the longest name in baseball. SS Elivs Andrus tries to avoid the sophomore slump and hits ninth.

Pitching, as always, is the question mark for Texas. Gone is veteran Kevin Millwood, leaving Scott Feldman to take over the number-one slot. Feldman went 17-8 last year, but did so with a 4.08 ERA. Rich Harden joins the staff, and would be another candidate for the top spot, except he's never been able to stay healthy, and there's exactly zero reason to think he'll go all year without getting hurt in 2010. Colby Lewis has shown flashes, and under the tutelage of Mike Maddux - one of the top pitching coaches in the majors - should only get better. Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland likely round out the rotation. Plenty of potential there, but plenty of questions too.

Frank Francisco isn't a lights-out closer, but he's not a disaster either. With Neftali Feliz setting up, the Rangers should be okay in the back-end of their bullpen. C.J. Wilson would like to be a starter, and may very well win one of those spots. But if he doesn't, he'll add some depth to a pen that sorely needs it.

Bottom Line: Texas is a team that could win the division, or be mired in controversy and blown-apart by injuries. You just don't know. I'll hedge my bets and pick them to finish third.

And that leaves us with...

4. Oakland Athletics: Last year the Athletics went 75-87 and finished fourth in the AL West.

There were folks last year that though Oakland was a sleeper team to watch. It turned out (as I predicted), Oakland just slept. There's some young talent on this club to be sure. But there are 3 quality teams that are clearly ahead of them in the West.

LF Rajai Davis leads off for the A's. He doesn't walk as much as you'd like, but he hit .305 last year and swiped 41 bases. Not too shabby. CF Coco Crisp comes over from Kansas City and will hit second. Crisp ended last season on the DL, but seems to be healthy this year. C Kurt Suzuki is the only other catcher I know other than Joe Mauer who hits third... and Kurt Suzuki? You're no Joe Mauer. DH Jack Cust cleans up. Cust has power, no doubt, but his career .239 batting average is more than a little worrisome. 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff has escaped San Diego to come play for Oakland, but needs to improve his hitting numbers to justify hitting fifth. RF Ryan (don't call me Mike) Sweeny hits sixth. 2B Mark Ellis enters his 432nd year (that may not be accurate) in the big leagues and hits seventh. 1B Daric Barton and SS Cliff Pennington round out the line-up.

The rotation is full of questions. Ben Sheets was signed as a free agent this past off-season after missing all of 2009 with an arm injury. Is he healthy? Can he regain his All-Star form? We won't know til he gets out there and gets after it. Justin Duchscherer had a 2.54 ERA starting for Oakland last year, but a lack of run support doomed him to a 10-8 record. Can he repeat that performance, or will the lack of scoring get to him? Dallas Braden has a ton of potential, but limited experience. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill likely round out the rotation.

Strangely, the bullpen may be the Athletics' strength. Andrew Bailey is the closer and is coming off a 2009 rookie season that saw him collect 26 saves. Not a big number, but for a rookie? That's damned impressive. Michael Wuertz backs him up and will be a target for many teams looking for relief help come tread-deadline time. Brad Ziegler, Joey Divine and Craig Breslow provide solid depth. If Oakland was able to carry leads late into games, they'd be in great position to capitalize.

Bottom Line: Unfortunately, I don't think they're going to have many of those late-game leads. There just isn't enough in that line-up to think that they will. If Oakland can hold onto the core pieces, there's reason to have hope for the future. But the future isn't now for this club.

So there you have them. My picks for the AL West in 2010. That leaves us with only two divisions to go. And just like last year, they'll be the two divisions containing DFT's. Strap yourselves in folks. This is where it gets fun!

Until Monday, have a safe weekend, and thanks for reading!

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