AL WEST PREVIEW:
WHO IS THE BEST IN THE WEST?
A position-by-position analysis
By Jonathan Northrop - AngelsWin.com Columnist
Since their World Series victory in 2002, the Angels have dominated the AL West, making the postseason in six of those eight years, and winning the division in five of the last six. For those newly joining us in Angels fandom, you might not realize what a special run it has been: Before 2002, the Angels had only made the postseason in three out of forty-one seasons (1961-2001), and not since 1986, a span of 16 years (unless you count the debacle of 1995, also known as The Year That Shall Not Be Mentioned). Not only have postseason berths previously been few and far between, but those earlier three appearances took place in a span of eight years: in 1979, ’82, and ’86; before ’79, the franchise was without a postseason appearance for its first eighteen years.
The point being, the Mike Scioscia years have been the Golden Years of Angels baseball. Scioscia is, without a doubt, the best manager the Angels have ever had as he, and the Stoneman-Reagins tandem, have turned the Angels into one of the marquee franchises in baseball, if not quite on the level of the Yankees and Red Sox, then in the next group down with the Braves, Phillies and Cardinals. Given the business savvy of Arte Moreno, their location in a large market, and an overall vibrant farm system, the Angels should remain competitive for the foreseeable future. But by anyone’s account, their competition is improving, to the point that many analysts are favoring the Mariners in 2010; the Rangers continue to improve, and it seems that the Athletics have turned the corner and are on the upswing.
So how do the four AL West teams actually compare for 2010? The following article will look at all four teams in depth and compare them position by position, ranking them accordingly. But before getting started, a few notes:
I will be rating each player using a tier system, as described below. For position players I am focusing mainly on hitting but trying to factor in defense as best I can, although mainly as a tipping point when they are borderline between two tiers; in some rare cases, a player’s defense is so good to warrant them moving up an entire tier (see Franklin Gutierrez).
Starting pitchers are also ranked on the same scale, although closers don’t hold quite the same value; an elite closer would rank as a 3 or 4 rather than a 4 or 5; and other relievers max out at 2, with 0 being average, 1 being good, and 2 being excellent. The idea being that any team can fill out their bullpen with adequate relievers, but to get points in this system they have to be more than adequate.
Superstar (5) – One of the truly elite players in the game; a perennial MVP or Cy Young candidate and arguably the best at their position (e.g. Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Tim Lincecum, Joe Mauer, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, etc).
Star (4) – One of the better players at their position, a perennial All-Star, and occasional MVP/CY candidate; an elite closer (e.g. Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, David Wright, Troy Tulowitzi, Justin Verlander, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon).
Borderline Star (3) – An occasional All-Star, although unlikely an MVP/CY candidate; a very good closer (Justin Morneau, Brian Roberts, Andre Ethier, Torii Hunter, Chone Figgins, Mark Buehrle, Jonathan Broxton).
Quality Regular (2) – An average or above regular for their position; a good closer (e.g. Juan Rivera, Shane Victorino, Freddy Sanchez, Johnny Peralta, Hunter Pence, Bronson Arroyo, Heath Bell, David Aardsma).
Adequate Regular (1) – A league average player for their position; an average closer (e.g. Jeremy Hermida, Melky Cabrera, Hank Blalock, Joe Blanton, Kevin Gregg).
Marginal Regular (0) – Stretched as a regular, below average; might be a good platoon player.
Obviously this is a highly subjective process, but my hope is that it will all even out to some degree (so that if, for example, I over-rate a player by one tier, I’ll under-rate another by the same amount). These tiers are my best guess for the 2010 season, and based upon their performance the last couple years, their age, and likely projection, of which there is always a range, but I’m trying to ascertain the range of likely performance levels and rate them based upon the median (in other words, and by way of example, it is possible that Kendry Morales improves upon his breakout season and hits .315/.380/.600, but he could also hit .280/.320/.490; I’m assuming he hits something like .295/.350/.540).
I relied heavily on ESPN.com’s depth charts, so if I’m wrong about a given starter it is likely because ESPN.com is wrong and/or the team was simply undecided at the time I wrote this. I will also be making liberal use of Baseball-Reference.com’s “Adjusted OPS” (or OPS+), which translates OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) into a context-free number, with 100 being average, 120 being very good, and 140+ being MVP caliber. Fangraphs.com and Baseball Prospectus 2010 were also very helpful.
I am an unabashed Angels fan and have been for thirty years. That said, I tried to be as unbiased as possible, but also tried not to over-compensate too much. I know far more about the Angels than any other team, so I have a better sense of Howie Kendrick’s potential than I do Jose Lopez’s. That said, feel free to take my opinion with a grain of salt: This article is just that: An opinion piece, albeit one informed by a lot of thought, analysis, and an attempt to be as unbiased as possible.
A WORD OF WARNING!
This is a very long article. I could have made it more concise (in fact, I tried to and then gave up), but felt that the topic deserved in-depth discussion. If you’re not interested in a position-by-position overview, just skip to the end for my final analysis and projected standings.
The Mike Napoli/Jeff Mathis (Meff Nathpoli?) tandem, probably with a bit of Bobby Wilson sprinkled in, should be good for another year of above average or better performance. The general consensus is that Mathis is slightly above average defensively, and Napoli slightly below average; this does not make up for the vast difference in their offensive value, however, and Scioscia’s obvious preference for Mathis—despite an OPS below .600 last year—seems to be a slight spot of tarnish on the otherwise shining armor of the Angels skipper. By giving Mathis nearly half the plate appearances at catcher, the net effect seems to be one step forward defensively, but two steps back offensively (Angels catchers hit .239/.317/.408 last year, compared to Napoli’s line of .272/.350/.492). Supposedly Napoli has been trying to get “back to basics” with his catching this spring, but if he doesn’t improve, expect to see him take on a bit more DH duties with Mathis and Wilson starting the majority of games at catcher.
That said, Mathis could take a moderate step forward with the bat; many catchers bloom late, and Mathis has always had it in him to be better than he has been (which isn’t saying much); Scioscia would be thrilled by a .700 OPS; if he does hit that well, and Napoli puts up his usual .850 OPS, this will be an even stronger platoon on the borderline star level. But until Mathis takes that step or if Napoli’s defense work this spring pays off to warrant more starts, their average offensive gestalt coupled with average defense makes for a Quality Regular (2).
Kurt Suzuki is probably the best overall catcher in the division, although he doesn’t have the bat of Napoli. Still, he’s a deceptively valuable player and just coming into his own. He could continue to improve but unless (or until) he takes a big step forward, he should still be a Quality Regular (2).
Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s star has faded quite a bit after never (or not yet) hitting as hoped. Yet he is still young enough (25 this year) that he should improve, and Taylor Teagarden is a strong defensive catcher who should at least hold his own with the bat. Best-case scenario for the Rangers and this becomes a tandem similar, even slightly superior, to the Angels, although until Saltalamacchia becomes the hitter he’s supposed to become, they’re rated lower as an Adequate Regular (1).
For the Mariners, Rob Johnson will likely get the majority of playing time; he is a classic all-defense, little-offense catcher who could develop to at least the mediocre level offensively. Josh Bard is a solid back-up, but the Mariners’ best option may be Adam Moore, who will likely be relegated to AAA to start the season. Overall the Mariners catching corps looks like the weakest in the division, a Marginal Regular (0).
How good was Kendry Morales in 2009? Well, .306/.355/.569 good, well-surpassing even the most optimistic expectations of Angels fans. His .924 OPS translated to an OPS+ of 137, good for 9th best in the AL. It is also worth noting that his season, if placed within the over-rated but still very good Justin Morneau’s career, would be the second best performance, only slightly below Morneau’s 2006 MVP year (.321/.375/.559, 140 OPS+). The point being? Kendry Morales had a great year, and even it he drops off to a more modest .290/.340/.530, the Angels still have their best first baseman in years, possibly ever, if not quite among the sub-Pujolsian elite (Teixeira, Fielder, Howard, Votto), then in the next group of borderline stars (Morneau, Dunn, Lee, Pena). While there is no reason to believe that Morales will significantly decline in 2010 entering his age-27 season, and is a good bet to put up a .900 OPS, until he repeats his 2009 performance I’d rather veer on the side of caution and call him a Borderline Star (3).
Daric Barton has been a huge disappointment for the Athletics, sort of the Oakland version of Casey Kotchman, although is still young enough (24) that there is reason for them to be hopeful, plus they like his .372 OBP in 54 games last year. His upside is that of a healthy Nick Johnson, which is formidable indeed, but we’ll know more after 2010 what sort of career he’ll have, and if he stumbles the Athletics have one of the top first base prospects in the game in Chris Carter, either of whom should perform at least as a plus Adequate Regular (1.5).
I’ve been a big fan of Casey Kotchman’s for years, although have lowered my expectations each of the last few years as he continued to not meet them. He has shown promise all along although, after hitting .296/.372/.467 in his first full season at age 24 in 2007, has slipped into Mientkiewiczian mediocrity the past couple seasons. It is unclear what the problem is, but it seems more psychological than physical, and it may be that he will thrive in the laid-back atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest and spacious Safeco Field that his gap power could benefit from. I’m going on record to predict a year similar or at least close to 2007. Coupled with Gold Glove-caliber defense, Kotchman could be underrated this year. If he flops the Mariners have Ryan Garko and Mike Carp as backups, both in the marginal-to-average range, but I’m expecting Kotchman to be a Quality Regular (2).
Chris Davis has power—38 of his first 177 major league hits left the park; the problem is that if he doesn’t make contact, his poor plate discipline leads to an ugly line (.238/.284/.442 in 113 games last year, including 24 walks and 150 strikeouts). To put it another way, if the Rangers had let Davis play 162 games, he would have struck out 215 times. After being sent down last year, Davis showed improvement and is young enough that he should hit closer to his 2008 numbers (.285/.331/.549), with 40-HR potential. If he falters the Rangers have a good prospect in Justin Smoak, who may be a better player in the long-term. Davis could be anywhere from a marginal regular to a borderline star, so I will split the difference and call him a Quality Regular (2).
2010 will be the year that Howie Kendrick either proves himself as a star, or he joins Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, and Darin Erstad in the growing list of recent homegrown Angels position players who didn’t live up to early promise. Kendrick’s hand-eye coordination and bat speed is so good, however, that the lower end of likely performance is that he hits for a good average with some doubles and a few HR, although few walks (maybe .300/.330/.450); the high end is that he fulfills his potential as a perennial batting title contender and extra-base hit machine (.330/.370/.500 or better). The talent for that is still there, but as we know baseball isn’t only about talent. Until we see sustained performance over an entire year, I’m not quite ready to add any variation of “star” to his rating, but he’s at least a plus Quality Regular (2.5).
A few years ago, Mark Ellis looked like a breakout borderline star, hitting .316/.384/.477 in 2005 as a 28-year old after missing a whole year to injury. Since then he has been merely adequate, yet another Oakland infielder to disappoint at least partially due to injury (to go along with Bobby Crosby and Eric Chavez). Yet Ellis is solid defensively and offensively, and thus an Adequate Regular (1).
Jose Lopez is a good player and similar in value to Howie Kendrick, although without the upside. Still, there is some chance that he could improve a notch and be a borderline star, but for now he’s a Quality Regular (2).
Ian Kinsler may be over-rated at this point; his 2009 season last year was similar to Curtis Granderson’s in that he hit a career high in HR, but his OPS+ dropped a significant amount (from 133 to 107). If you look at the OPS+ of his four year career, there is an obvious outlier: 105, 108, 133, 107. Still, given his age (28 this year), at least some of that 2008 performance is legit, so he should perform at 120-130 level, making him a borderline star at 2B, perhaps a legit star if he fully recaptures 2009. Don’t be surprised if his place as the best second baseman in the division is challenged by Howie Kendrick as soon as this year. Kinsler’s most likely performance in 2010 is that of a Borderline Star (3).
It is difficult to know what to think of Erick Aybar. On one hand his 2009 season looked like the breakout season of a borderline star: above average offense combined with flashy, if still erratic, defense. He could just as easily improve upon last year as take a slight step backward, although the Angels would be happy with more of the same, plus evened out defense and improved baserunner, although what they really want (and need) is increased on-base skills. As with Morales and Kendrick, we still don’t know what sort of sustained performance to expect from Aybar, but he should at least be a Quality Regular (2).
Cliff Pennington, a former first-round draft pick, should be solid if unspectacular, a player whose greatest strength, as Baseball Prospectus puts it, “might be a lack of weaknesses” and “can hold the job down and not hurt the team.” That, my friends, is the definition of an Adequate Regular (1).
Jack Wilson may be the definition of “useful mediocrity”: a good defensive shortstop who won’t kill the lineup. He seems to occasionally have a good season with the bat, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule, and overall he’s an Adequate Regular (1).
Elvis Andrus held his own last year with a .267/.329/.373 line, which is all the more impressive when you realize that he was only 20, which bodes well for his future. At this point he’s still behind Aybar, but the gap should narrow over the next couple years with Andrus eventually being the premier shortstop in the AL West. But that’s in the future, not now, although with his stellar defense, he’s a Quality Regular (2).
Finally, Brandon Wood gets his chance. At this point expectations have been lowered to the point that the Angels would be happy if he produces a .750 OPS with the predicted very good defense, although I think Wood may do much better than that, even hitting closer to an .850 OPS, especially considering that his strikeout rates dropped significantly last year in Salt Lake. If Wood struggles, super-sub Maicer Izturis will get the lion’s share of starts at 3B, with a few by Freddy Sandoval. The upside for Wood this year is that of a borderline star (.270/.330/.500), but he could just as easily be sub-par (.230/.290/.450); I’ll split the difference and be both cautious and conservative, calling him an Adequate Regular (1).
It remains to be determined who exactly will man the hot corner in Oakland, although given Eric Chavez’s injury history it will likely be Kevin Kouzmanoff, who is solid both offensively and defensively (he actually set the NL record for fielding percentage at third base last year), although this is tempered by his poor OBP (.299 and .302 the last two years), and is thus overall an Average Regular (1).
Despite what Rob Neyer says, Chone Figgins is not a superstar (although, mysteriously enough, ahem, he wasn’t so high on Figgins before 2009, and before he played for his hometown Mariners). He did have a terrific year, his best overall both with the bat and glove, although with declined baserunning from the norms set earlier in his career. It remains to be seen which career path of two recent similar offensive players he will follow: Bip Roberts, who was out of the game at age 34, or Brett Butler, who was effective into his late 30s. Chone’s career-best walk rate in 2009 bodes well for him to at least be a solid contributor for the entirety four-year contract and perhaps beyond. While he is not a superstar, or even a legit star really, he is a solid Borderline Star (3).
At age 32, Michael Young had his best offensive season since his career year of 2005, hitting .322 with a 128 OPS+. Young has a career line of .302/.349/.449 in 1351 games; I remember some discussion, in the early part of the previous decade, about who would be the better second baseman: Young or Adam Kennedy (.277/.330/.391 in 1356 games). I think we can safely say that Young has been the far better player, although he was pushed over to third base a few years ago by the even better Adam Kinsler. Young should continue to perform well next year, although will likely take a step back to his ’06-’07 performance levels which, if he recaptures his Gold Glove defense of ’08 as he likely will, makes him a Borderline Star (3).
Juan Rivera may be the definition of a league average left fielder, which makes him a pretty good player. There is a slight chance that he sustains his first half performance (.312/.351/.527) for an entire year, but given that he has only performed at that level for one season (2006) and that his 2009 numbers (.287/.332/.478) were so perfectly in line with his career averages (.285/.331/.470), in terms of predicting performance for 2010 we have to go with more of the same, which still makes him a Quality Regular (2).
A (former) backup outfielder, Rajai Davis put up a line that looks like a hybrid of Erick Aybar and Chone Figgins (.305/.360/.423 with 41 SB). Whether he can continue at that level remains to be seen, but according to Baseball Prospectus, much of his batting average was due to a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and 22 infield hits; with top prospect Michael Taylor on deck, Davis will be given a short leash and will likely end up as the 4th outfielder or platooning with Sweeney. Depending upon how he performs, and how quickly Taylor takes to the big leagues, the likely range seems to be that of marginal to quality, with an outside chance of borderline star performance from Taylor, although the median as a plus Average Regular (1.5).
Milton Bradley may be the most important player in the AL West this year. If he performs to his ability, as represented by his stellar numbers in 2007-08 (.316/.425/.557 in 187 games), then the Mariners have the big bat they need amidst their two leadoff men and other complementary players. But a key number there is 187 games—that’s over two seasons. Bradley’s ten-year career is littered with injury-plagued seasons—only once has he played in over 140 games, and that was six years ago, and only three times has he played in 120+, although the other two were in ’08 and ’09. The other problem is Bradley’s attitude, which is notoroiously pouty. Given his high-risk, high-reward potential, overall Bradley is a plus Quality Regular (2.5).
For whatever reason, ESPN.com’s depth charts have Josh Hamilton in RF and Nelson Cruz in LF, even though Cruz was primarily in RF last year. I’m guessing they know something I don’t, so I’m putting Cruz here, where he should continue his strong, if not quite elite, power performances (33 HR and .524 SLG) and be a Borderline Star (3).
As I said in my article comparing the Angels and Mariners, Torii Hunter is one of those players—like Derek Jeter, although a notch down in performance—who is better on the field than on paper. And of course Hunter has all those intangibles, most notably a winning personality. That said, Hunter also be somewhat over-rated by Angels fans, both due to the fact that he is no longer an elite defender and has never been more than a good-to-very good hitter. His 2009 defensive stats did improve from 2008 and it is possible although unlikely that his career-high rate stats (.299/.366/.508) are the signs of a late-career offensive spike. At his age (34 next year), there is always the concern that he could start declining rather quickly, although for now, all tolled his still a Borderline Star (3).
Covelli “Coco” Crisp never developed into the borderline star that his ’04-’05 seasons foretold and unless he returns to at least ’08 adequacy (.283/.344/.407), he could be supplanted by or platooned with Rajai Davis, with Michael Taylor taking over left field. He is, at best, an Adequate Regular (1).
According to Baseball Prospectus, Franklin Gutierrez was beyond stellar defensively, “in Willie Mays territory”—saving 25-30 runs more than the average center fielder. High appellations, indeed. He was solid, if not awe-inspiring with the bat (.283/.339/.425); still, he is entering his age-27 season, perhaps the most common age for players to have major performance level spikes. If Gutierrez takes another step forward with the bat and continues his “Platinum Glove” level defense, he could be a real player. Given his defense, age, already-competent offense, and the fact that this isn’t fantasy baseball, I’m going to call him a Borderline Star (3).
Julio Borbon performed quite well (.312/.376/.414 with 19 SB) in 46 games after he was called up in August, yet until we see more playing time we can’t call him more than an Adequate Regular (1).
Bobby Abreu was a life-saver for the Angels last year, not only bringing a .390 OBP into the lineup, but having a positive effect on the other hitters and, perhaps more importantly, showing the organization just how potent a disciplined batting approach can be. Even though Abreu is not the player he was five or six years ago in his prime, he still puts up good numbers and works the counts. That said, we should hope that the third year option on his generous contract doesn’t vest as he’ll be going into his age-38 season and likely not worth the $9 million salary. If he can continue to perform at his current level through the life of the three year contract and lead the Angels to another World Championship, his case for the Hall of Fame will be a controversial discussion topic. While decline is inevitable at his age (36), for now he’s still a Borderline Star (3).
The common view on Ryan Sweeney is that his low power numbers (11 HR over the last two seasons, .387 lifetime SLG) don’t match his large frame (6’4”, 220 lbs). While he’s still young enough to improve—he just turned 25—chances are he’ll never be more than a quality regular. With Michael Taylor ready to contribute, he may platoon with Rajai Davis, which will even out as an Average Regular (1).
A Gold Glove outfielder who regularly produces more than 220 hits a year? I’ll take two, thank you very much. Ichiro Suzuki will be the first Japanese balllplayer enshrined in the major leagues, but when? As long as he keeps some of his speed and handeye coordination he’ll be able to hit .300—maybe well into his 40s. That said, he’s not quite an elite player—more in the second tier of stars. Like his new counterpart Chone Figgins, Ichiro displays the limitations of OPS+; his career OPS+ is 118, 47th among active players, behind good-but-not-great players like Cliff Floyd, Richie Sexson, and Troy Glaus, yet Ichiro is a much better player, and in the AL West, unless Morales equals his 2009 performance and Hamilton rebounds, the only position player that is a legit Star (4).
Three years ago Josh Hamilton was the feel-good story of the year, a former number one draft pick and superprospect who had conquered his demons and broken through at 26. He followed that up with a stellar 2008 season, hitting .304/.371/.530 with 32 HR and an AL-leading 130 RBI, establishing himself as one of the game’s elite players. Now, coming off an injury-plagued season in which he hit .268/.315/.426 in 89 games, with some of those demons seeming to resurface in internet party pictures, it is anyone’s guess which Josh Hamilton will show up next year. He still has star-talent but given the question marks I’m calling him a Borderline Star (3).
The ex-Yankee takeover of the Angels continues, which isn’t a bad thing as Hideki Matsui is also a skilled, disciplined hitter whose batting skills have shown little sign of deterioration, even if his body—in particular his knees—is showing his age (36 this year). If Scioscia resists the temptation to over-play him or give him too many games in the outfield, he should be good for 130 games of .850+ OPS hitting, which makes him a Borderline Star (3).
An interesting tandem in that both Jack Cust and Jake Fox were late-bloomers. Neither will ever be a star, but both can crush mistake pitches, giving the Oakland DH spot a Quality Regular (2).
Was the Ken Griffey Jr extension meant as more of a psychological boost or does he still have some gas left? Probably more of the latter, but his last two seasons have certainly displayed a Hall of Famer at the end of the line. Still, great players have a tendency to have random good seasons even in their decline phase, so I’m going to at least call him an Adequate Regular (1).
Oh Vlad, it was good while it lasted. In Vladimir Guerrero, Chone Figgins, and Casey Kotchman, three former starting position players for the Angels will be facing them in other lineups in the AL West this year. Vlad certainly still has the ability to be a productive player, and every Angel fan knows just how effective he has been in Arlington (.394/.471/.705 in 50 games!). While Vlad will never be the great player he was for a decade from 1998 to 2007, he may still be able to reproduce his still very good 2008 numbers (.303/.365/.521). I look forward to watching who has the better season this year, Matsui or Guerrero; I wouldn’t bet on either and it may come down to who is healthier. I still think he is a Borderline Star (3).
Maicer Izturis is one of the most useful bench players in baseball and really could be an adequate-to-quality regular, and may very well be if Wood is whiffing in every third at-bat come June. Beyond Izturis the bench is merely adequate: Freddy Sandoval could be useful but is unproven; the same goes for Terry Evans. Reggie Willits has disappointed since he posted a .391 OBP in 2007. If Mathis still can’t hit, don’t be surprised if Bobby Wilson takes over as the backup in 2011 (unless Conger is ready). Adequate (1).
It is strange that while the Athletics’ lineup is so week, their bench is rather strong, with a wealth of options. Eric Patterson could be a real standout, who Baseball Prospectus calls Oakland’s (perhaps successful) attempt to “develop their own version of Chone Figgins,” that is the early super-utility version. Landon Powell is a strong defensive backstop with some power, Adam Rosales is a versatile infielder who has disappointed with his bat, Gabe Gross is a solid outfielder, and Travis Buck—if he regains any of his former ability—could be a good fourth outfielder. Overall Good (2).
In Kotchman, Ryan Garko, and Mike Carp, the Mariners have a lot of similar first basemen, although none that are true standouts. Michael Saunders is a very good prospect although will likely begin the season in AAA until Bradley inevitably gets hurt. Matt Tuiasosopo is another good prospect who is now stuck behind a free agent signing (Figgins), but should be valuable off the bench. Jack Hannahan is a dime-a-dozen bench player. Eric Byrnes looks like he doesn’t have much left and Ryan Langerhans is decent. Overall Adequate (1).
The Rangers bench may be weaker than the Angels’, at least beyond the moderately useful David Murphy and Brandon Boggs. Esteban German, a former top prospect for the Athletics, could be a solid bench player if given a chance, but Joaquin Arias, Craig Gentry, and Greg Golson all seem stretched as major leaguers. Marginal (0).
The problem with the Angels rotation is also its potential strength: Aside from Jered Weaver, we just don’t know how the starters are going to perform. Will Scott Kazmir return to his pre-2009 form? Will Ervin Santana be healthy and build upon his breakout 2008 performance? Who is the real Joe Saunders? And can Joel Pineiro maintain the low walk-rate (1.1/9 IP) that was the key to his success in 2009?
There are reasons to be optimistic. Weaver seems to be a stalwart and should continue to improve in little ways or, if not, at least maintain his very strong 2009 performance. Kazmir, after returning from an injury, had a strong second half (3.27 ERA in 14 starts), although there is some concern in that he never recovered his strong strikeout rates from 2006-08 (10.1 per 9 innings); this may be a mechanical problem that can be corrected. However, it also bears noting that Kazmir has only surpassed 200 IP once.
Ervin Santana may be to the Angels what Milton Bradley is the Mariners: the key to their success. If Ervin is healthy and builds upon his 2008 season, he could one of the best starters in baseball and will anchor the rotation. If he doesn’t, the Angels are without a “staff ace.”
I was among those that was surprised with Joe Saunders’ 2008 performance, and even more surprised when he continued it through the first couple months of 2009. Then he collapsed and it looked like the stat-oriented naysayers—who kept on pointing at his mediocre strikeout and walk rates—were right. But then it turned out that he was hiding an injury and, when he returned, he pitched better than ever, posting a 2.55 ERA over his final eight starts. If you look at his ERA over his last four years, 2008 (3.41) is the clear outlier. Yet if you look at his last two seasons, his only two complete ones in which he started 31 games each, you can break it up into four parts:
2008 – 31 starts at 3.41 ERA
2009 – first 15 starts, 3.66 ERA
next 8 starts, 9.63 ERA
final 8 starts, 2.55 ERA
Which is the outlier? And is it unreasonable to expect Saunders to at least be an above average starter with a 4.00 ERA?
Finally, Joe Pineiro. It would be overly optimistic to expect that he can maintain his miniscule 1.1 bb/9 IP walk rate or that he will give up only 11 HR next year, but the Angels will be happy if he pitches close to 200 innings of low 4.00s ball, which is what they’ll likely get. Pineiro is a pitcher who has remade himself at the age of 30 and should continue with moderate success for a few years, giving the Angels something they didn’t have last year: a solid, reliable 5th starter.
If any of the above five falter, the Angels have tons of adequate replacements—from mopup man Mat Palmer, to a bunch of young starters in the high minors who, while not quite ready for the big leagues now (or last year), might be closer to ready by the second half: Sean O’Sullivan, Trevor Bell, Anthony Ortega, Trevor Reckling, and even Jordan Walden.
Overall, the Angels have a rotation of five very solid, average to very good starters, with a couple (Santana and Kazmir) who could be better than very good, if things go well.
Jered Weaver – Borderline Star (3)
Scott Kazmir – Borderline Star (3)
Ervin Santana – Borderline Star (3)
Joe Saunders – Quality Regular (2)
Joel Pineiro – Quality Regular (2)
The Athletics rotation may surprise in 2010. Fragile Ben Sheets hasn’t pitched since 2008 or eclipsed 200 innings since 2004, but is throwing well in spring training by all accounts. Justin Duchscherer is another salvage job, a former excellent middle reliever who made a successful transition the starting rotation in 2008, when he started 22 games with an excellent 2.54 ERA. He then missed all of 2009 with some combination of aching elbow and depression, but looks to be ready this year.
Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill were risks in 2009; neither 21-year old had pitched above AA, and both only 6 starts. Both were successful to varying degrees, Cahill starting 32 games with a 4.63 ERA, 72 walks and 90 strikeouts in 178.2 innings; Anderson was better, starting 30 games with a 4.06 ERA, 45 walks and 150 strikeouts in 175.1 innings. Cahill’s line doesn’t bode well for 2009, when his ERA could go up to better reflect his rate stats, but Anderson could vie with Sheets for staff ace.
The Athletics will choose their fifth starter from among Vin Mazzaro, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden, the latter of whom pitched the most with the lowest ERA last year (22 starts, 3.89 ERA) but has the least ability. Given the fragility of of Sheets and Duchscherer, and depending upon how successful Cahill is, all three should get plenty of starts. Josh Outman is another talented young starter who could start some games after he comes back from Tommy John surgery in the second half.
Overall a talented pitching staff with a lot of upside, but with a high degree of risk.
Brett Anderson – Borderline Star (3)
Ben Sheets – Quality Regular (2.5)
Trevor Cahill – Quality Regular (2)
Justin Duchscherer – Quality Regular (2)
Vin Mazzaro/Gio Gonzalez/Dallas Braden – Adequate Regular (1)
King Felix has certainly arrived; in 2009 he was 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 238.2 innings, deservedly finishing second in Cy Young voting. The scary thing is that he was only 23 and may actually get better. Along with Tim Lincecum and Zach Greinke, Hernandez is one of the three best young pitchers in baseball and should be contending for Cy Young awards for the next decade.
A lot is made of the fact that the Mariners now have two aces with the acquisition of Cliff Lee. Certainly, Lee is an excellent pitcher, following up his AL Cy Young 2008 season (22-3, 2.54 ERA, 34 walks and 170 strikeouts in 223.1 IP) with a strong 2009 with the Indians and Phillies (14-13, 3.22 ERA, 43 walks and 181 strikeouts in 231.2 IP). Lee should continue to perform at a star level in 2010, but he is also replacing 20 starts of Jarrod Washburn at a 2.64 ERA, so the improvement isn’t as great as many are sayign it is.
Beyond Hernandez and Lee are lots of question marks. Ryan Rowland-Smith pitched well in 15 starts (3.74 ERA), but is still largely unproven over the course of a full season. Ian Snell is now a couple of bad years away from his breakout 2007 season. Ignore his improved ERA in 12 starts with the Mariners (4.20) after 15 starts with the Pirates (5.36) last year—he walked 39 and struckout 37 in 64.1 American League innings and was simply lucky to post a decent ERA. Jason Vargas is another mediocre option and is really stretched as a starter. Doug Fister is a similar marginal-to-adequate option.
Erik Bedard won’t be available until around the All-Star break but is a terrific pitcher when healthy. “When healthy” is an infrequent affair, as he’s started 15 games in each of the last two seasons and never pitched 200 innings in a season.
The best-case scenario is that King Felix and Lee anchor the rotation, with Rowland-Smith being an adequate number three, and two of Snell, Vargas, and Fister pitching adequately until Bedard returns in the second half, giving them a stellar Big Three and a strong top four for the postseason. But there are no assurances in this rotation between Hernandez and Lee.
Felix Hernandez – Superstar (5)
Cliff Lee – Star (4)
Ryan Rowland-Smith – Quality Regular (2)
Ian Snell/Jason Vargas – Adequate Regular (1)
Doug Fister/Erik Bedard – Adequate Regular plus (1.5)
Here’s a trivia question for you: Who is the best Rangers starting pitcher ever? Is it Nolan Ryan? Probably not, considering Ryan pitching only the tail-end of his career for the Rangers (51-39, 3.43 ERA, 129 starts). It is probably either Charlie Hough, Dick Bosman, or latter-career Ferguson Jenkins, although Ryan and Gaylord Perry were better for shorter periods of time, and there have been short stints by other quality pitchers--Bert Blyleven and Ken Hill were both good for short periods for the Rangers. All of this goes to show that the Rangers have a long tradition of lousy pitching, especially in the last couple decades.
This was compounded when the Rangers traded away their best starting prospect, Edinson Volquez, for a hitter, albeit a very good hitter in Josh Hamilton. Both went on to have terrific 2008 seasons, and both were injured for much of 2009.
Even without Volquez, the Rangers may have their best starting rotation in quite some time. But there are some big questions. Their number one starter will be Rich Harden who is as about as talented a pitcher as there is in the major leagues but hasn’t pitched more than 150 inning since 2004. He has been a bit healthier of late, starting 25 games in 2008 and 26 in 2009, but his ERA almost doubled from 2.07 to 4.09, partially due to a greater propensity to give up the long ball (from 11 to 23). But his strikeout rates remained consistently excellent and his ERA should return to at least his career level (3.39).
Scott Feldman was to 2009 what Joe Saunders was to 2008: a previous unimpressive pitcher who garnered some notice by winning 17 games. Feldman is probably at least somewhat legit, which means that at worst he should pitch 30 starts of league average performance, something the Rangers don’t take for granted.
Then come the three little Hs (after the big H, Harden): Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, and Matt Harrison, the former two being the likely rotation starters on Opening Day. Holland is the most talented of the bunch, despite his 6.12 ERA in 2009. He and Hunter were only 22 last year, Harrison a year older. All are talented, but none are proven.
Finally, Brandon McCarthy. Remember about five years ago when he was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball? Then he entered a phase where his name was mentioned in just about every trade rumor, as the White Sox realized he wouldn’t be as good as they originally thought, but hoped no one else realized that. He was traded to the Rangers for John Danks, who has turned out to be a much better pitcher, the second excellent starter the Rangers have traded away in the last few years. McCarthy is still only 26, but at this point he’ll probably be nothing more than a solid back-end-rotation pitcher.
So one oft-injured but Cy Young talented pitcher, one solidly average but solid starter, three talented but unproven youngsters, and one has-been prospect, now 5th starter. Sounds like a good rotation by Texas standards.
Rich Harden – Borderline Star (3)
Scott Feldman – Quality Regular (2)
Tommy Hunter – Adequate Regular (1)
Brandon McCarthy – Adequate Regular (1)
Derek Holland/Matt Harrison – Adequate Regular (1)
Angels fans may be a bit harsh on Brian Fuentes because of a tendency to go through cold spells where he gives up tons of runs, thereby inflating his ERA. That 0-2 count home run to Alex Rodriguez in the ALCS might have something to do with it as well, but come on: It is Alex Rodriguez we’re talking about, not Melky Cabrera. Fuentes is actually a solid closer: He’s not in the top tier with Rivera, Papelbon and Nathan, nor is he in the next tier down with ex-Angel Francisco Rodriguez, but he’s in the third tier of “serviceable closers,” which essentially means he’s an above average reliever assigned to a very hard, high-pressure position, and thus rated as an Adequate Regular (1).
Given his minor league numbers, Andrew Bailey might step back a bit, but he was so good last year that not only did he earn the Rookie of the Year award, but his future looks promising. At the least he’s a Quality Regular (2).
In fantasy baseball leagues, every year there is a random reliever that is picked out of the free agent pool and becomes one of the better closers in the league; last year it was David Aardsma, and I enjoyed his services due to a timely pick up, just as the Mariners will continue to enjoy his excellent performance next year. Quality Regular (2).
A very good setup man turned merely good closer, Frank Francisco will hold down the job until Neftali Feliz is ready. Adequate Regular (1).
For the first couple months of 2009 the Angels bullpen, formerly one of their strengths, was in shambles. Not only was “K-Rod” gone, but Scot Shields was terrible and then ended up on the DL for most of the season, and everyone else, to put it crudely, sucked. But, as the Buddhists say, it isn’t only the good things that are impermanent and this ship eventually righted itself, with Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen both emerging as above average relievers, the latter with the potential to be very good or better.
This year the bullpen should be better, if not as good as it was a few years ago. Fernando Rodney’s ERA isn’t all that exciting, nor are his walk totals, but he’s intimidating and may due well because Scioscia knows how to utilize relievers to optimal effect. The Angels are crossing their fingers that Shields is healthy and back to form; even a return to his down-year 2007 would be welcome. Jepsen could emerge as the best reliever on the team, and Bulger should be good for a whole year. Matt Palmer is the Angels secret weapon…okay, not really, but this article is getting really long. He’s okay and a solid mopup guy. There are a few decent arms in Salt Lake, waiting for an injury, including Rich Thompson (who may be under-rated), flamethrowing Robert Mosebach, and a couple guys named Rodriguez. The Angels may regret giving up on Jose Arredondo. Very Good (3).
Michael Wuertz had a terrific year in 2009, walking 23 and striking out 102 in 78.2 innings with a 2.63 ERA, about a run lower than his usual performance. He’ll probably drop back down a bit but is still a valuable reliever. Both Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow are good relievers and should continue to perform well. Jon Meloan has pitched in only six major league games, and Brad Kilby pitched 17 terrific innings (4 walks, 20 strikeouts, 1 ER), but that’s not a lot to go on. Overall at least Good (2).
The Mariners bullpen could be very good or it could be just adequate; a lot depends upon how former Nationals closer Chad Cordero, who has barely pitched since 2007, comes back. Mark Lowe and Brandon League are both good pitchers, Shawn Kelley shows some promise, and Sean White and Jason Vargas merely adequate. Very Good (3).
The obvious comparison to Neftali Feliz last year was Franscisco Rodriguez in 2002, although Feliz may be even better. The Rangers are still undecided about whether he will be a reliever or starter, but he just has dominant closer written all over him and has a chance to be one of the greats. The Angels will miss Darren Oliver, and CJ Wilson is an excellent reliever whom the Rangers were dabbling with making a starter. Chris Ray and Colby Lewis are place-fillers. Overall Good (2).
It is hard to rate managers, even more so to assign a number figure that represents their value to a team. But with a manager like Mike Scioscia, one realizes that when assessing how good a team is, you cannot cut the manager out of the equation. Every serious Angel fan can name one or more controversial plays that they disagreed with, whether at the time or in hindsight, but no Angel fan will argue with the composite result of what Mike Scioscia has accomplished in his ten-year tenure with the Angels: a .556 winning percentage, six playoff appearances in eight years, one World Championship, five division winners in the last six years, and continued “over-achieving” according to various metrics, from Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA to Pythagorean Record (in the last four years, the Angels have outperformed Pythagoras by a total of 26 wins). Scioscia may be the best manager in baseball; at the least he’s in the discussion; at best he ma be building one of the greatest managerial careers in recent memory. Excellent (3).
Nothing truly stands out about Bob Geren, who seems neither above or below average, although it is hard to ignore minor factors like the fact that his Athletics have consistently performed under their Pythagorean record, by ten wins over Geren’s three-year reign. That said, he doesn’t over-work his pitchers and he seems to skipper a solid running game. So far he’s Average (0).
After one season as a major league manager, it is a bit early to get too excited about Don Wakamatsu, who is already highly regarded. The Mariners did manage to win 85 games last year, despite scoring only 640 runs; that, coupled with 692 runs allowed makes for a Scioscian +10 wins over Pythagorean record. It may be that analysts have a thing for him because, as Baseball Prospectus mentioned, he brought up sabermetrics in an early press conference, inspiring the arousal of stat-geeks every where (including Baseball Prospectus). Still, the low-end seems to be at the very good level, so the sky is really the limit for Wakamatsu’s leadership. Very Good (2).
Ron Washington is a good, if unspectacular manager. A bench player in the 80s, Washington was what most managers were: a marginal player, not a star. Maybe it has something do with understanding how difficult the game of baseball is that makes lesser players greater managers (Ted Williams was a terrible manager, but whether that was because he was a great hitter or a jackass is unclear; probably a bit of both). It might have a lot to do with the fact that bench players tend to spend hours upon hours doing just that: sitting on the bench, watching the game of baseball, where the better players are so busy playing it that they don’t have (as much) time to reflect upon it. Washington has potential, but for now he rates as Good (1).
Adding it all up, here are the totals:
TEAM Players Pitchers Sub-Total Manager TOTAL
Angels 22.5 17 39.5 3 42.5
Athletics 13 14 27.0 0 27.0
Mariners 17.5 18.5 36.0 2 38.0
Rangers 21 11 32.0 1 33.0
WHAT DO THE NUMBERS MEAN?
These numbers are an abstraction; they are representative and relational, which means that they only mean something in relation to each other. To put it more concretely, the Angels have the best lineup, followed closely by the Rangers. Then it is a jump to the Mariners, who are still better than they might seem on paper. The Athletics are significantly behind. As for pitching, the Mariners have the best staff overall, but the acquisition of Lee doesn’t put them as far ahead as many pundits are saying; the Angels are just a step behind. The Athletics have an up-and-coming pitching staff, but they’re still a notch below.
As I said in the Scioscia entry, rating managers is problematic to say the least, but is almost a necessity. But I included both a pre-manager subtotal and a final total that includes manager ratings.
But what does it all mean? Well, under this system a league-average team will have a total score of around 30, and a playoff-caliber 90-win team will rate around 40, with 45+ score being championship-quality (95+ wins). To put these numbers in context, a preliminary rating of both the Yankees and Red Sox has them rating at 52 and 50, respectively.
As I said earlier in this overly long article, the ratings are subjective—they are based upon my own opinion of how a player will perform this coming year, based upon previous years, age, performance trajectory, and simple gut feeling. I may be wrong on many of them, but hopefully it evens out in the end. It isn’t exact, but the ratings, if added to the number 50, give an approximation of win total, which I’ve adjusted slightly and put into a predicted standings. Here it is:
PREDICTED AL WEST STANDINGS
I’ll stand by that as my official prediction for the 2010 season.