I had in my mind to start a preview of the NL Central teams leading into spring training but Friday's post by AZ beat me to it. I decided not to jump in and take his steam away from him so I thought that, beginning today, I'd preview each of the 6 divisions - ending w/ the NL Central. Today I'm going to start w/ the AL West. Secretly, I'm hoping the Twins figure out Santana's new home fairly quickly so I can incorporate that into my previews of the AL Central, AL East, and NL East.
Here is a summary of the most important team stats from '07:
The Anaheim/San Bernadino/Escondido/Chino/Rancho Cucamonga/Big Bear City Angels won this division last year before receiving their 3-game beatdown from the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox last October. Most observers believed that the A's would be the Angels' toughest competitors but it turned out that it was Jeff Weaver's Mariners who were able to masquerade as a legitimate contender for most of the season.
These teams went through many changes this offseason. The Angels have attempted to get over the hump and return to their 1st world series since David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy, Scott Spiezio, and Troy Glaus manned their infield. The A's have decided that their best opportunity has come and gone and so now it is time to rebuild again. The M's seem to believe that their 88 actual wins are a better predictor of this season than their 79 pythagorean wins are and have tweaked their roster to that effect. The Rangers, for the 75th consecutive offseason, spent it searching for a pitching staff. Maybe this is the year their quest finally pays off!
Starting at the top, the Angels once again appear to be the class of the division. Their starting pitching depth is impressive - w/ Lackey, Escobar, Garland, Jared (the other) Weaver, Saunders and Cards' fans' favorite - Ervin Santana. They still boast a very strong bullpen w/ K-Rod closing it out, buoyed by Shields, Speier and others.
The knock against the Angels last year was that they had trouble scoring runs. In fact, they finished 4th in the AL in scoring, despite a league average .762 OPS. The two primary factors for this appear to be their 139 SB's (71.6%) and their .315 BABIP. Still, if they're to get past the Sox and Yanks and return to the fall classic, they're going to have to figure out how to increase their slugging % from .417.
To that end, this offseason they added Torii Hunter by signing the 32 year old CF to a 5 year, $90 M contract. The wisdom of this is certainly questionable considering that Hunter has never had an OBP above .337 or an OPS above .860. The idea that this guy, who's played CF on turf all his career and is entering his age 33 season is going to push their offense past the Sox and Yankees is pretty far-fetched. There were whispers all offseason that everyone from ARod to Miguel Tejada to Paul Konerko to Scott Rolen would end up in Southern California. Instead, they ended up w/ Hunter. Oh well. It oughtta be enough for them to win the west.
The Mariners surprised most observers by hanging around and becoming Castroville's primary challenger for most of the summer. They did this despite being outscored for the season and having the worst defense in the division. The Mariners' two main changes this offseason were to allow Jose Guillen to take his sideshow to Kansas City and to discard Jeff Weaver in favor of Carlos Silva. Replacing Guillen in Seattle's OF will be top prospect Adam Jones - their version of Colby Rasmus. While Silva is most certainly overrated, he is also a distinct improvement from Weaver.
The other good news for the Mariners is that this is their last year to be paying for Richie Sexson - a horrendous free agent signing back in 2005. Jones becomes either the RF or CF, depending on what they do w/ Ichiro, unless he is moved to Baltimore in a long-rumored deal for Erik Bedard. Bedard would certainly improve a pitching staff that includes Miguel Batista, Jarrod Washburn, and Horacio Ramirez but I'm not sure that trading 6 years of Jones + others is worth 2 years of Bedard. You could argue that the M's are close enough to Los Gatos to justify the trade but it still seems an awfully steep price.
One reason the M's were able to outperform their run differential last year was b/c of the strength of their bullpen. It's led by the best closer that most people have never heard of - J.J. Putz. George Sherill is a very tough lefty but the pen will lose Brandon Morrow as he makes the transition to the rotation. The M's are hardly a complete team, what w/ Jose Vidro as their part-time DH, Yuniesky Betancourt and his 15 BB's in more than 550 PA's at SS, and Raul Ibanez butchering balls in an expansive LF but with the Rangers being, well, the Rangers and the A's in transition, they seem almost a lock for 2nd behind Carmel.
The A's had the most eventful offseason of the teams in the AL West. They traded Dan Haren for half of Arizona's farm system w/o having the decency to offer him back to us for Mark Mulder. Then, just 3 weeks ago, they traded Moneyball-hero Nick Swisher to the White Sox for 3 prospects - the best of which has been traded 3 times in 2 years. Some have criticized the prospects they received in these two trades but they got some pretty good names. Carlos Gonzalez projects as a very good CF and Chris Carter, though very young and very raw, has big-time power. I mocked Gio Gonzalez but he's a solid LHP prospect as is Brett Anderson. Did they receive several stars? Perhaps not but they did get some who should be solid players and a couple who just might become stars. Still, most of these players will see little, if any, playing time in Oakland this summer - one that appears to be a very long one for a team that has had a pretty good run over the last 7-8 years.
That brings us to the Rangers. When one of your team's big offseason acquisitions is to add Everyday Eddie Guardado to bolster (for lack of a more accurate yet, potentially, slanderous word) your bullpen - well, Rangers' fans will probably be paying a lot more attention to the drama between Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson than they will the team in Arlington. They flirted w/ adding one of the free agent CF's this offseason - coming close to landing Torii Hunter before Sunnyvale was able to land him w/ their outlandish offer. The Rangers responded with what I believe is a pretty good trade. They sent Edinson Volquez, a hard-throwing pitching prospect, to the Reds for one Josh Hamilton. The Rangers won't have a lot to watch in those 105 degree days in the Ballpark in Arlington but the 20,000 or so who turn out every night should enjoy watching Hamilton. He's young, can play CF, and will hit a lot of bombs in one of the best hitting environments in baseball.
Besides adding Guardado to their pen, the Rangers made Jason Jennings their #3 starter by signing him to a 1 year contract following his scintillating half season w/ the Astros. The good news is that they're only paying him Kip Wells-money. They spent some time trying to unload Kevin Millwood or asylum-destined Vicente Padilla onto some poor, unsuspecting GM but no one (as of yet) has fallen for it. Millwood's not a terrible pitcher, despite last year's 5.16 ERA but he does have 3 years and more than $45 M left on his contract. At least he's not certifiable! The Rangers' pitching last year was positively horrendous as Brandon McCarthy's 4.87 ERA was the best of the starters. He, actually, may turn into a pretty good pitcher but he's probably too much of a fly-ball pitcher to have any real success in Arlington.
There's not a whole lot to like in Arlington. They'll score some runs, what w/ Kinsler, Young, Saltalamacchia, and Blalock (assuming he comes to the plate more than 208 times in '08) but they'll, as usual, have a terrible time getting anybody out.
It seems pretty clear to me that the Angels will likely bring another division title back to Oxnard but they're still at least 1 hitter from overtaking the Sox, Yanks, Tigers, or Indians for the AL title. Perhaps Brandon Wood or Casey Kotchman can finally become the hitter they've been hoping for but they're still a little short, IMO. Still, unlike in previous seasons where they and the A's were locked in some pretty good pennant races throughout September, I don't see the other teams in the division mounting a significant challenge. That could change, of course, if Felix Hernandez turns into a Cy Young candidate (certainly possible) and/or the M's add Bedard to their rotation. Even so, the Angels are still probably too strong. At least the M's will get to watch Adam Jones go from top prospect to very good major leaguer. Hopefully, the Cards will get to do the same w/ Rasmus this year.