State of the AL West, March 2012
The season kicks off tonight/tomorrow morning with an AL West battle. Sure, it’s not the AL West battle most baseball fans are interested in, but it’s a divisional game nonetheless. The experts are split on the particulars, but everyone’s got the Angels and Rangers very close together at the top, and the Athletics and M’s very close together 15 wins or so back. Let’s take a quick look at the division as the curtain rises on the 2012 season – we’ll look at each team’s projections, their top prospects, and what could go wrong/right in this campaign.
(Note: The composite runs scored/runs against and wins are simple averages of PECOTA, CAIRO and Davenport projections. You could certainly quibble with the inclusion/exclusion of one or many of these, but I had them at hand.)
Los Angeles Angels:
Composite RS: 721
Composite RA: 657
Composite Wins: 88
The Angels rode strong pitching to a surprisingly good 2011 season, as Dan Haren and Jered Weaver both notched top-five seasons by FIP in the American League. Their run production was mediocre, as the disastrous acquisition of Vernon Wells combined with Mariner-esque production from the catcher spot prevented the Angels from fully taking advantage of their pitching. They looked like a pretty good team with a top-heavy but thin farm system and poor management, but this off-season produced a massive overhaul that, coupled with a lucrative TV deal, puts the Angels on (essentially) even footing with the two-time AL Champion Rangers.
First, the Angels fired the man responsible for the Wells deal (Tony Reagins) and replaced him with Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto flipped hard-throwing but hittable pitcher Tyler Chatwood to Colorado for C Chris Iannetta, who’s nothing special but represents a massive upgrade over 2011 starter Jeff Mathis. To ensure that this move produced tangible results, Dipoto then traded Mathis to Toronto to prevent manager Mike Scioscia from being tempted to use his beloved, hitless wonder. Then, utilizing the new TV revenue, Dipoto acquired the biggest FA hitter AND pitcher on the market, bringing in a 1B named Albert Pujols along with the Rangers top starter in 2011, CJ Wilson.
The addition of Wilson makes their top three starters the envy of baseball, as only the Phillies and Rays (and possibly the Giants) can boast similarly talented troikas. THis is reflected in their composite runs-allowed which is easily the best in the division. There’s still some question marks on the offensive side, though adding Pujols helps answer many of them. Wells was atrocious last year and Torii Hunter will turn 37 this season. Mark Trumbo, the surprise of 2011, no longer has a position (he’s playing a lot of 3B, where he may share time with Alberto Callaspo). Erick Aybar had a great year, but he’s been wildly inconsistent, following a 3.8-win 2009 with a 1.4-win 2010. Overall, they figure to improve on last year’s runs scored, and they project as an average to above-average defensive group.
Last year, I mentioned that Peter Bourjos’ was something of an enigma at the plate, and could turn into an elite, Franklin-Gutierrez-in-2009 level hitter, or add a bit of value as a disappointing Franklin-Gutierrez-in-2010 hitter. Unfortunately for M’s fans, Bourjos had a fantastic 2011, and is poised for the career we all thought Guti would have back in March of 2010. Bourjos is a phenomenal defender and he projects as a bit above an average hitter. Factor in the positional adjustment, and that makes Bourjos a 4-6 win player. The Angels also have one of the best prospects in all of baseball in CF Mike Trout. Trout struggled a bit in his call-up to the Angels last year, though the Angels cannily gave him several starts against an awww-F#%@-it Mariners team; he made his MLB debut against Seattle and then featured in a late-season series at Safeco where he was able to feast on Anthony Vasquez pitching. Trout’s the classic five-tool player and while he’ll begin the year in the minors, he could rack up several WAR spelling all three Angels OFs over the course of the year.
After Trout, however, things get a bit muddled. The Angels 2nd best prospect, Jean Segura, missed most of 2011 with hamstring issues. He’s a solid 2B/SS with contact skills and surprising pop, but the 22-year old hasn’t played above the High A California League (brief fill-in stint in AAA notwithstanding). Scouts seem to love his potential – and he ended up in the middle of BA’s top 100 prospect list – but there are a lot of question marks there. To be fair, the same could be said of the M’s Nick Franklin, who lost much of 2011 to a head injury and mononucleosis. Behind Segura, the Angels have starting pitcher Garrett Richards, a hard-throwing righty who made his debut in 2011, and then made his debut on the DL shortly thereafter. Presumed 5th starter Jerome Williams has battled injuries this spring, so Richards could end up starting the year in the Angels rotation, but his projections are pretty bad for 2012.
If everything goes right, this is an elite team – a 95-100 win behemoth that will go toe to toe with the Rangers and Yankees for the AL crown. The rotation’s top-heavy, but solid production from Williams/Richards/Ervin Santana would give them a league-leading runs-allowed, and if the Angels get some growth from Bourjos and Trout along with continued contributions from Trumbo and Hunter, the offense could score quite a bit more than they did last season. Vernon Wells could bounce back, and the bullpen could be better as the Angels allocate high-leverage innings away from Fernando Rodney and towards Jordan Walden. The Rangers get quite a bit of (deserved) credit for building an organization the “right” way, while the Angels have been harder to get a handle on – they swing from dumping Mike Napoli for one of the worst contracts in baseball to drafting and developing Bourjos and Trout.
If things go wrong, the back of the rotation will become an anchor, and a moribund Vernon Wells could become a distraction. Mark Trumbo could struggle at 3B and Iannetta’s hit tool could mean he’s not quite as big of an upgrade over Mathis as many thought. If any of the starting pitchers goes down, the team could suffer. The starters (and back-ups at certain positions) are neck and neck with the Rangers; it’s really only depth that separate the two teams. With Dipoto at the helm – and their revenue – this is an elite team, and one that can compete with Texas in every facet of the game except for the farm system. Damn it.
Composite RS: 666
Composite RA: 717
Composite Wins: 76
There’s more uncertainty in the A’s projections than anywhere else. Their #1 starter, the guy facing off against Felix tonight/tomorrow/whatever was a minor free-agent pick up just a year ago. Their starting CF has never played pro ball, and is famous for his viral video than anything. Their starting 3B may be a guy who was primarily a catcher last season (in AAA). Their starting rotation includes a number of prospects who’ve put up good minor league numbers but have either stuff or injury questions dogging them.
GM Billy Beane traded two of the Athletics’ best starters in Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill for prospects as the A’s attempt to reload their system to contend around 2015. These moves, combined with the failure of the team to secure a new stadium in Oakland, Fremont or San Jose has made for a dispiriting off-season for Oakland fans. The constant moves of arb-eligible (Moneyball‘s discussion of letting free agents like Jason Giambi go seems almost quaint now) players, the development of two powerhouses in Arlington and Anaheim, and the knowledge that the status quo is as profitable for A’s ownership as it is frustrating for the fans… I admire and almost pity A’s fans. The best thing to happen to the franchise in the past five years has been the collapse of the M’s.
After completely restocking their farm system, the A’s have quite a bit of depth in the outfield and in pitching. Jarrod Parker came over from Arizona and the righty should see quite a bit of time with the A’s this season, possibly as soon as April. Tom Milone came over from the Nats, and while he won’t see action in Japan, he’s in the A’s opening day rotation. A lefty without a big fastball, his MiLB numbers produce a gorgeous projected FIP, but some still see him as a Yusmeiro Petit type who overwhelms MLEs by dominating lower-level hitters with a solid change-up. The biggest pick-up of the year was clearly CF Yoenis Cespedes, however, who solidified an outfield in flux and adds some upside to a team that’s looking to replace the production of 2011 hitters like Josh Willingham and David DeJesus. Cespedes has power, but scouts seem divided over how his contact tool will play in the majors. He’ll put up some strike-outs, but he could be an all-star this season for the A’s.
The team’s top prospect heading into the offseason was Michael Choice who hit 30 homers in the Cal League while lowering his K rate from “horrifying” to merely “worrying.” He also played in the Arizona Fall League, where he showed he was able to limit Ks and hit HRs, albeit over only 17 games. The A’s also feature C prospect Derek Norris, who came over from Washington in the Gio Gonzalez deal – which helps solidify the position behind starter Kurt Suzuki; the A’s cut Landon Powell, moved Josh Donaldson to 3B and are waiting on Max Stassi who’s only reached the Cal League. The A’s also feature a number of pitching prospects from Brad Peacock to 2011 draftee Sonny Gray who can fill in as soon as 2012 should any of the starters falter. This is suddenly a very deep system, albeit one without the upper-level talents that Seattle and Texas possess.
If everything goes right, Yoenis Cespedes is a .350-370 hitter with solid defense in center field, Brandon McCarthy’s congenital shoulder injury doesn’t flare up allowing the ace of the staff to make it to 190-200 IP, and Tom Milone proves he’s able to succeed in a major league rotation without an above-average fastball. Tyson Ross could bounce back from oblique troubles and put together a full year at something approaching the rates he put up in 2011. Donaldson (or Eric Sogard) could be average at 3B, and 2B Jemile Weeks could take a step forward at 2B to make the offense a touch above league-average. Weeks battled injuries in the minors, but put up a league-average 2 wins in 2011 despite playing less than 100 games in 2011.
On the other hand, this team could easily go into a tailspin if McCarthy’s shoulder fracture re-occurs, if Cespedes struggels to make contact, and if Milone, Gray and Parker aren’t quite ready to be MLB starters quite yet. They could get replacement-level production at 3B, SS, and 1B, and Kurt Suzuki could continue hitting at a .290-.300 wOBA level, which isn’t RL thanks to positional adjustments, but must be disappointing as hell for A’s fans who saw him post three years of nearly league-average hitting from 2007-2009. To me, this is a 4th place team, though their projection is so volatile that they could blow past the M’s without really shocking anyone.
Composite RS: 820
Composite RA: 686
Composite Wins: 94
The Rangers were a strike away from a World Series title last year, and yet they may be better in 2012. They lost CJ Wilson but replaced him with Yu Darvish, the NPB sensation who throws between 5-9 pitches with freakish movement and velocity. They can slide CF Josh Hamilton to LF and count on one of Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry or prospect Leonys Martin to fill in with above-average defense. They have perhaps the deepest starting rotation in baseball, as last year’s ROY candidate and 3.6 WAR performer Alexi Ogando finds himself without a rotation spot. Their bullpen includes Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Joe Nathan and the aforementioned Ogando. Their infield includes above average players everywhere except first base, and their defense projects to be above average. Oh, and they’ve got more depth than any team in the division.
CJ Wilson walked in free agency, but the Rangers made a huge bid to secure the rights to Yu Darvish and then signed him to a six-year $56 million deal. The Rangers obviously felt that Darvish is a better bet going forward than Wilson, and, NPB-to-MLB translations be damned, that’s not a hyperbolic forecast. Darvish is one of the most talented hurlers in the world, and while he may need to adjust to the ball, the umpires and the hitters in the AL, he’s got better pure stuff than any Japanese pitcher to hit the US.
The Rangers feature one of the top prospects in the minors in SS Jurickson Profar who’s years away from the majors but shows impressive tools across the board. They’ve also got pitching depth in Robbie Ross (who’s still in the running for a bullpen spot), fireballing reliever Tanner Scheppers, control-artist Cody Buckel and hard-throwing starter Neil Ramirez. The top of the Rangers pitching pyramid is lefty Martin Perez, who’s been a Baseball America top 100 prospect for four seasons now. Scouts rave about the movement he gets on his pitches, and his easy low-90s velocity, but he’s yet to post a great statistical line. If he’s able to put it all together, he’s another major league starter for a team that’s going to stash one or two in the bullpen. If not, they can move him to the bullpen and cash in on commodities like Mike Adams. 3B Mike Olt dominated the Arizona Fall League and the powerful hitter has the defensive chops to stay at the hot corner. They probably won’t need him this season, but given the number of games Adrian Beltre’s missed in recent years, it’s nice to have someone with his upside cooling his heels in the high minors. Like Michael Choice, he’s got contact issues to work through, so it’s not like he’s MLB ready right now, but he’s another high-upside talent for a system that hardly needs another.
If everything goes right, SS Elvis Andrus improves at the plate, Yu Darvish doesn’t miss a beat in MLB and lives up to his gaudy projections. Everything else is simply a matter of staying healthy. This is the two-time defending pennant winner; they don’t need things to go right as much as they just need things to keep going. The Rangers new TV deal puts their past financial uncertainty behind them and makes them unquestionably one of the elite teams in the game.
If things go wrong, they can probably adapt fairly well. They essentially got nothing from several of their top prospects last year and saw closer Neftali Feliz and starter Colby Lewis regress significantly. None of it mattered. Same story in 2010 – Elvis Andrus was bad and Julio Borbon played himself out of a job, but they had enough hitting that the Cliff Lee addition put them over the top. Injuries to one or two players – even key ones- won’t necessarily sink this team. It might be enough for the Angels to pass them, but I’d still suspect that the AL West 2nd place team gets one of the wild cards.
Composite RS: 633
Composite RA: 710
Composite Wins: 72
The M’s needed bats, and so they traded All-Star Michael Pineda to get one. The M’s obviously think that pick-up changed the line-up because they haven’t done a whole lot to supplement it. Beyond upgrading the C/DH positions (which were terrifyingly bad), the M’s seem content to see which of their young position player prospects steps up and lays claim to a starting role. We’ve all been following the battle at 3B, where Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Vinnie Catricala fight to replace the remains of Chone Figgins. In the corner outfield positions, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, and Michael Saunders will try to hold off Trayvon Robinson, Chih-Hsien Chang, Catricala, and Mike Wilson. And, of course, the back of the M’s rotation in 2012 seems to be keeping the seat warm for one of the M’s four SP prospects.
The biggest moves of the offseason – after the big Pineda trade – have been in the line-up, where Figgins “won” the lead-off spot before camp started and Ichiro moved to 3rd. While this was another example of sporting pop-psychology trumping performance and projection, I’ve got to admit that anything that could lead to a Figgins trade is worth a try. I’m not convinced that Ichiro in the 3rd spot is ideal, though it’s probably not worth arguing about. The signing of Hisashi Iwakuma’s gone from one of the better bang-for-the-buck acquisitions to a major question mark as arm troubles (whether physical or mechanical) have rendered Iwakuma largely ineffective this spring. The glowing reports on Hector Noesi from the Winter League and his very strong velocity early in camp have been replaced by so-so velocity and fewer missed bats later in March. Both have time to turn things around, but if the M’s were going to contend, both needed to be ready to excel on opening day, and that looks doubtful at this point.
That said, a non-contending year’s exactly what the M’s expect, and that gives them the opportunity to really see what they have on the MLB roster (in guys like Noesi, Mike Carp, Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager), and in the minors. Sure, the top three of Tai Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton’s impressive, but Erasmo Ramirez, Alex Liddi, Carlos Triunfel, Nick Franklin, Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala give the M’s impressive hitting depth in the high minors. Sure, none of the hitters’ upside approaches that of Trout or Profar, but whose does?
If all goes right, this team could get to 80 wins or above through above average pitching and defense (the loss of Franklin Gutierrez hurts, but the defense is easily above average even without him) and decent/improved hitting. The projected run totals include low projections for Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp and Justin Smoak, and if they’re able to get to league-average or above wOBAs, the team should score 650 runs with relative ease. Blake Beavan could put up a Josh Tomlin-esque year behind a good defense and Hector Noesi could average 93-95 as a starter.
If Mike Carp struggles against lefties, if Ackley’s power takes another year to develop and if Justin Smoak hits like his projections assume, this team will struggle again. The back of the rotation doesn’t look good, and while the M’s have replacements ready, they’d be replacing question marks with question marks. Their hitting depth all have serious contact issues to work through. We’ve heard glowing reports about Liddi’s swing/approach, but he K’d 160 times last year, so making adjustments is a necessary step in his becoming MLB-caliber. Casper Wells struck out in well over 30% of his M’s plate appearances, which would’ve looked worse if it wasn’t for Trayvon Robinson K’ing in nearly 40% of his.
Overall, I think the Montero addition allows the M’s to finish just ahead of the A’s in 3rd. I’ve got Texas winning the division by about 1 game, with Los Angeles getting a wild card berth. Thoughts/critiques/arguments? Don’t forget to check out the divisional rival previews at LL, and keep an eye out for the M’s in Fangraphs organizational rankings.
As weird as this is on-again, off-again start to the season is, I’m really glad that baseball’s back. Go M’s.