Monday, April 1, 2013

2013 Predictions: AL West

I didn’t quite finish this series before opening day like I wanted, but I still intend to finish it. There are several other stories I would like to cover-most notably Johan Santana’s injury and possible retirement. Those will still come; but first, this.

The AL West may be the best division in baseball this year. It might have been last year, when the A’s, Rangers, and Angels all topped 89 wins. Although the Astros have joined the division, the only other division with that accomplishment (the AL East) seems to have gotten worse, while the AL West seems to have only gotten better. With the three teams at the top again looking to be in a dogfight in 2013, how will it all shake out?

Oakland Athletics
Record Last Season: 94-68
Key Additions/Retentions: Chris Young, Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jed Lowrie, John Jason, Bartolo Colon, Fernando Rodriguez (not that one, and this one is injured anyway)
Key Losses: Johnny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Chris Carter, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Inge, Cliff Pennington, some prospects
Anything Else: Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss will both play more than last year, barring injury
The A’s had an abnormally good streak calling up young pitchers last year

I really don’t know what to make of the Athletics surprising run last season. They look like a solid team, although they lack a definite star/MVP-type player at the moment. That’s not to say they won’t have one at season’s end; they just lack the established player with an all-star track record that most other good teams have. And if nothing else, it means that they have great depth. Their outfield is a little overcrowded at the moment; barring a trade, they should probably use some combination of Chris Young, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, and Seth Smith in the outfield, as all three were better fielders (by Ultimate Zone Rating) and worse hitters (by weighted Runs Created+, see last time) than the other option, Yoenis Cespedes. And when you have four outfielders, no real DH, and one player that hits much better and fields much worse than the others, it makes the most sense to play him at DH. Or, they could rotate all of them around depending on the match-up; Cesedes is supposed to have tools, he probably just needed an adjustment. Worst-case scenario, they have some built in trade bait.

Where could they use said trade-bait? Well, the infield looks shaky. Catcher should be fine; bringing in John Jaso to combine with Derek Norris looks like a great move. The rest of the infield, though? New infielder Jed Lowrie can man second, short, or third, but has injury concerns. He only played 97 games last year, but had a 111 wRC+ and put up 2.6 Wins Above Replacement in that shortened time. Also in the middle infield is Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima, but Nippon League players are definitely not a sure thing. First baseman Brandon Moss had a breakout campaign, hitting a 160 wRC+ in only 84 games, but can he keep it up over a full year? Can recently demoted second baseman and former prospect Jemile Weeks return to his successful ways following his call-up in 2011 (110 wRC+), or will he again look lost (73 in 2012)? How will Scott Sizemore and Josh Donaldson fair? Even as the defending division champions, there are a lot of questions.

Texas Rangers
Record Last Season: 93-63
Key Additions/Retentions: AJ Pierzynski, Lance Berkman, Joakim Soria
Key Losses: Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Ryan Dempster, Josh Hamilton, Mike Adams, Michael Young
Anything Else: Yu Darvish is entering his sophomore campaign
Prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt are waiting in AAA should anyone falter
Ron Washington can’t give Michael Young 651 plate appearances at DH again (78 wRC+. -1.7 WAR last year)
Derek Holland had an odd down year after a promising 2011
Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz will be back from injuries partway through the year

I’m not sure if any team had as disappointing offseason as the Rangers. I was actually a big fan of their plan to chase Zack Greinke at the cost of Josh Hamilton...until they wound up with neither. They decided not to go after Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher after that (which I was almost positive they would do), couldn’t swing a trade for Justin Upton, and didn’t trade any of their excess infielders other than Michael Young. Granted, that’s still an improvement, but it’s not exactly the monumental deal that any of those other things would have been.

It might be a good plan for how the Rangers can make the post season, though; a bunch of small improvements rather than a big one. Say Berkman can stay healthy as a DH and be a 2-3 win player; that 4 to 5 wins over last year, more or less the loss from Josh Hamilton by itself. Outfielder Craig Gentry has, through a combination of decent hitting and good fielding, provided value (2.8 WAR in 121 games and 269 plate appearances). He should get a starting job this year. Elvis Andrus will be 24 and another year closer to his prime. Yu Darvish, in his sophomore season, leads a solid top three of Derek Holland and Matt Harrison; all three of them have shown promise. Alexei Ogando is back in the rotation, where he was an all-star two years ago before being pushed back into the bullpen for depth reasons. Maybe center fielder Leonys Martin can be a two-win player, offsetting the loss of Mike Napoli (2 WAR). Maybe AJ Pierzynski can’t repeat his career year (118 wRC+, by far the best in his career without any normal signs of luck; 3.2 WAR), but the Rangers’ non-Napoli catchers were pretty abysmal last year; he doesn’t have to be that good. A starter-level performance (say, two wins again) would mean nothing lost.

And if they can survive until mid-season, they’ll get back Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz, both solid starters. At some point, they might also call up one of those young stars or swing a trade with their surplus depth. I definitely think they have a good chance to win the division; they might not seem as strong as they did last year, but I think they’re being underrated now.

Los Angeles Angels
Record Last Season: 89-73
Key Additions/Retentions: Jason Vargas, Josh Hamilton, Joe Blanton, Ryan Madson, Tommy Hanson
Key Losses: Maicer Izturis, Torii Hunter, Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, Dan Haren, Jordan Walden, Zack Greinke, Vernon Wells
Anything Else: Can Mike Trout be a 10-win player again? They’ll get twenty more games out of him, but how much more room is there for him to improve?
Will Albert Pujols bounce back?
Josh Hamilton has some worrisome performance trends.
Peter Bourjos will be the starting center fielder
CJ Wilson had a down year in 2012 as well

I think the Angels are being overrated about as much as the Rangers are being underrated. Maybe I’m just being the contrarian here, but I think their improvements are less apparent than everyone thinks. Starting with Mike Trout; yes, he’s playing 20 more games or so, and he was a 10-win player in 2012. But at the same time, there’s a limit to how good you can get. There’s a reason that 10-win seasons are so rare. And even then, he could easily be the most valuable player in the league while being worth less (an 8 or 9 win season could still be an MVP year for him). There are some many ways he could lose some value, the two subtlest being that he had a .383 BABIP, which could fall in through luck; and that he’s moving to left field, which hurts his positional value.

Replacing Torii Hunter with Josh Hamilton may not be an upgrade, either. Torii Hunter had a career year last year, posting a 130 wRC+, saving 11 runs in the field (by Ultimate Zone Rating), and contributing 5.1 WAR. Hamilton isn’t a lock to replicate either of those-the past two seasons, his corresponding figures have been 140 wRC+/-12.5 runs saved/4.1 WAR and 126 wRC+/4.8 runs saved/3.9 WAR. Add in worrisome trends of him swinging at more pitches outside the zone and hitting fewer and I’m not sure he’ll be the upgrade most people think.

Albert Pujols is having similar trends in his patience, although they’re less drastic. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him improve on last year’s numbers (132 wRC+, 3.6 WAR), but I think his days of 170-180 wRC+ and 7-8 WAR are a thing of the past. Peter Bourjos can probably pick up some of this value with his glove, but there are still questions about his bat. And for as disappointing as their rotation was last year, between unusually mediocre performances from CJ Wilson, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke (once he replaced Jerome Williams), I’m not sure their new back three of Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton, and Tommy Hanson fixes things. Hanson and Wilson still have lingering questions about their health, too. Barring improvements from those two or Jered Weaver, I see the rotation being as big of a disappointment as last year. I still think the Angels will be a good team, but I’m not positive they’ll automatically improve over last season, despite what their record might do thanks to more games against the Astros.

Seattle Mariners
Record Last Season: 75-87
Key Additions/Retentions: Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Joe Saunders, Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, Hisashi Iwakuma
Key Losses: John Jaso, Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood
Anything Else: They also lose half a season of Ichiro
Former #2 pick Dustin Ackley followed up his solid debut in 2011 with a bad 2012
Prospect Jesus Montero also disappointed
The Mariners will be moving in the fences slightly at Safeco Field
First baseman Justin Smoak has not lived up to his expectations at all since coming over in the Cliff Lee trade

The Mariners aren’t really to the point of contention yet. They have talent coming through the minors, and they can keep trying their young hitters until they’ve for-sure flopped. Maybe moving in the fences will help some. Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders were both not bad and Felix Hernandez was great, but outside of that, there really aren’t many other definite bright spots on this roster. There is potential, though.

I’m not really sure why they got rid of John Jaso, since he hit better than anyone else on the roster (143 wRC+). And I’m not really sure why they went out and got so many corner fielders (Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Kendrys Morales) since they already had Montero, Saunders, and Smoak. I like some of those moves individually to work out, but I’m not sure why all of them were necessary. But at this point, they weren’t going to drastically impact 2012 anyway. Best case scenario, the Mariners might make it to the mid-80 wins, but I think a high-70s is much more likely.

Houston Astros
Record Last Season: 55-107 (in NL Central)
Key Additions/Retentions: Chris Carter, Jose Veras, Carlos Pena, prospects
Key Losses: Jed Lowrie, Fernando Rodriguez (still not that one, the one mentioned earlier)
Anything Else: They lose partial seasons from Carlos Lee (which amounts to more or less nothing) and Wandy Rodriguez

There isn’t a ton to say about the Astros. They’re going to lose, although they won’t be as bad as many people seem to think. 100-losses might happen, but that’s pretty close to the worst likely scenario. I wouldn’t put them as noticeably worse than the Twins or Marlins, in any case.

Young players like Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez, Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, and Jose Altuve will be given every opportunity to succeed. Useful-but-oldish players like Justin Maxwell, Bud Norris, and Lucas Harrell will help out some, possibly being traded for better prospects in July. And the minors continue to improve, maybe even sending in late-season help. This won’t be a historically bad season, at least, and may provide several interesting stories.

Final Predictions: 
Texas Rangers
Los Angeles Angels
Oakland Athletics
Seattle Mariners
Houston Astros

I wouldn’t be shocked for the top three to turn out in any permutation of those three. A major injury or unexpected break-out/slump could easily flip it all. And I would feel much more comfortable picking the Rangers if they had made a bigger improvement, even in the form of someone like Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher. But as it is, I think the Rangers have a strong enough core to overcome their loss of Josh Hamilton. As it is, I expect all three of Texas, LA, and Oakland to be around 90 wins, although there is enough concern around each team that I wouldn’t be shocked if any of them missed the mark.

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