Game 1, Mariners at Angels
King Felix vs. Jered Weaver, 7:00pm (ESPN2/ROOT Sports TV)
Happy Felix Night, and I hope you’re all enjoying a pleasant Opening Day 2014.
I can’t think of a more wide-open AL race in years. Certainly, the AL West is more tightly-bunched than it’s been in recent memory, and the super-teams – the Tigers and Red Sox – have also come back to the pack a bit. It’s not just that there are more teams bunched more tightly around 81 wins, within the margin of error (or the margin of luck). It’s that there seem to be reasons to believe that the variance of these forecasts is somehow higher. Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka are two of the bigger off-season signings, and we don’t have minor league or major league data to generate a projection. Or, looking at MLB veterans, think about how vital bullpen performance has been to so many recent “out-of-nowhere” contenders. The Royals were fringe contenders last year not because of their great young position players, but because no one could touch their bullpen. Not their closer, not their set-up guys…no one. Baltimore pulled this off in 2012 (without all of the strikeouts…even weirder), and then the group fell back to earth in 2013. The Blue Jays were awful in 2012, and then pretty good in 2013 (though every other facet of the team was awful). The point is, bullpen performance is perhaps more important than it’s been in quite some time given the narrower spread in talent. But bullpen performance is notoriously hard to project.
The M’s have holes throughout, but we can be reasonably sure that their team wRC+/wOBA will be better than it was in 2013*. The question remains: will it matter? Tonight’s just one game, but it’s an important early look at another really difficult team to project, the Angels. Mike Petriello had a good article on them today at Fangraphs, and I see that Dave and others have picked them to win the division (gun to my head, they’d be my pick too, but hopefully that won’t be necessary). Albert Pujols’ plantar fasciitis and Jered Weaver’s ailing elbow sidelined two of their best players for a short while, and contributed to poor-by-their-standards performance while they played through pain. Especially on the pitching side, more innings went to replacement-level and below arms, and the depth that they’d acquired blew up in their face.
Now, the Angels rely on a very different Jered Weaver. Since 2011, his average four-seam fastball has fallen from 90mph to 87.5mph last year. This spring, it’s in that same vicinity or a bit lower, and it looks like he’s mixing in more of a sinker around 86mph. Weaver was never a big velo guy, but he’s having to adjust to very different stuff than he had when he came up. With that pop-up generating fastball, he hasn’t had much in the way of platoon splits, but using a sinker more often is usually a way to see platoon splits rise. Thanks to a minor league system bereft of good pitchers, and the departure of guys like Tommy Hanson or Joe Blanton (which most Angels fans applaud) has left them short of good depth. They have Mike Trout though, so…
1: Almonte, CF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Ackley, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: King Felix
* This is not a case of projecting growth off a prior season, or mixing up true talent and observed performance. This is about a full year of Brad Miller/Robby Cano and not dealing with Brendan Ryan/Dustin-Ackley-at-2B. It came at a very high cost, and the future’s uncertain, injuries, blah blah blah, but the M’s added one of the 5 best hitters on the planet and subtracted one of the five worst hitters (among everyday players) on the planet. That has an impact on true talent.