Thursday, January 28, 2010

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

Angels fans have become spoiled. With six playoff appearances in the last eight years, it seems almost a given that at the least the Angels will make it to the first round. This year, however, the view is mixed: many sports writers think that the Mariners are the cream of the crop in the AL West with big-name offseason acquisitions Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins; at the least we can say that the division is tightening up, as the Rangers will continue to be a solid team and the Athletics look to improve somewhat. That said, with a 10 game lead last year—12 over the Mariners—the Angels have a fair amount of room to lose.

How do the Angels and the Mariners compare? Has Seattle’s offseason changes and expected player development bridged that 12-game gap? Let’s take a look at the two teams, position by position, to try to get some semblance of an answer. I am using’s depth charts as a primary resource, for the Mariners and Angels. This is pretty long, so if you don’t want to wade through lot of stathead analysis, skip to the end for my final analysis.

I will go through each position and give one team or the other an “edge” from +1 to +5, or 0 if they are basically even.

+1 - slight advantage, or roughly the difference between a quality regular and a marginal regular.
+2 - solid advantage, or roughly the difference between a borderline star and a quality regular.
+3 - strong advantage, or roughly the difference between a star and a quality regular.
+4 – huge advantage, or roughly the difference between a superstar and a quality regular.
+5 – massive advantage, or roughly the difference between a superstar and a marginal regular.

SEA –Rob Johnson, Josh Bard, and Adam Moore
LAA – Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis

Seattle’s catching corps is comprised of two backups and one prospect. To be fair, Rob Johnson is only 26 and has enough potential to be a serviceable starter, yet like many catchers it might take him a couple years to grow into that. Adam Moore, who will be 26 next year and only has 6 major league games to his name, not enough to make a judgment of how good he is. His AAA performance was solid at Tacoma (.294/.346/.429 in 91 games), although hardly awe-inspiring from a 25-year old, and speaks of a similar offensive player to Johnson (who hit .305/.363/.441 in 2008 at age 24 in Tacoma). 

Barring an unlikely but oft-speculated trade, the Angels will once again platoon Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis; to what degree this is a “platoon” versus Mathis backing up Napoli depends on two things: Whether Mathis follows up his Campanella-esque postseason with at least a step forward with the bat (a .700 OPS would suffice), and whether Scioscia thinks Napoli can play a few more games. We may also see Napoli get some time at DH, especially given Matsui’s injury history. Chances are we’ll something like 110-120 games from Napoli and 80-90 from Mathis; regardless, the Angels have a strong edge here because of Napoli’s bat.

Edge: Angels (strong +3)

First Base
SEA – Casey Kotchman and/or Mike Carp
LAA – Kendry Morales

Who saw this coming? I’m not sure what Seattle plans and they may not know themselves until Spring Training. There is a chance that Kotchman thrives in Seattle, with park dimensions that could go well with his “gap power.” He is capable of reproducing his 2007, or at least producing an .800 OPS (.290/.360/.440?), and Carp may be a similar type of player, although a few years younger (he’ll be 24 next year). But Morales is a legit .900 OPS player; even if he takes a step back (which is unlikely, considering that he continued to improve throughout last year), and Carp and/or Kotchman steps it up, the Angels have a slight to solid advantage. But I see Carp’s or Kotchman’s improvement more likely than Morales’ decline, and a .800 to .900 OPS still gives the Angels a strong advantage.

Edge: Angels (strong +3)

Second Base
SEA – Jose Lopez
LAA – Howie Kendrick

Last year they were about equal in value and age (25), both with a 102 Adjusted OPS (via, although with very different lines, Lopez hitting .272/.303/.463, Kendrick .291/.334/.444. I give the advantage to Kendrick because he seems to have more unrealized potential; Lopez could still improve, say by combining the average of ’08 with the power of ’09, but he has established similar performances over the last two years in complete seasons, whereas with Kendrick there is the sense that he has been circling his potential, with various set-backs keeping him from actualizing it. He may never be the perennial batting champion that many (including myself) believed he would be, but I see no reason to believe that he shouldn’t be able to put up numbers similar to 2007 (.322/.347/.450), probably better. Look for a breakout from Kendrick and solid improvement from Lopez, but with a slight edge to the Angels.

Edge: Angels (slight +1)

SEA – Jack Wilson
LAA – Erick Aybar

Erick Aybar could be on the verge of stardom or he could simply have played to the top end of his potential last year; 2010 will tell us a lot, but either way he is a quality player. Jack Wilson is the definition of mediocrity; he has had a couple solid seasons with the bat in ’04 and ’07, and at that pace is due for another one in 2010, but his lifetime averages of .268/.310/.374, and his below average Range Factor, bespeaks of an average to below average player. I’m only giving Aybar a +2 edge because has but one good year to his name and there is always the chance that 2008 is more the norm than 2009. But if Aybar equals or improves upon his 2009 performance, the gap could get much wider.

Edge: Angels (solid +2)

Third Base
SEA – Chone Figgins
LAA – Brandon Wood

It is weird seeing that, huh? Angels fans have been clamoring for Wood for a couple years now, and the time has finally come. It seems that the shine has lost its luster a bit on Wood since he had that ridiculous 2005 season in A+ Rancho Cucamonga. The talent is still there, maybe just tempered a bit, so there is no reason to believe that Wood can develop into a 30-HR, .850 OPS type of hitter. But he probably needs a full year of learning, so don’t expect those numbers. Yet.

Chone Figgins is coming off of perhaps his best season ever and should do well in Seattle, forming a potent table-setting combo with Ichiro Suzuki. Yet he is 32 and players of similar skill sets tend not to age well, so he won’t be getting any better and could start showing signs of decline, although chances are that he’ll perform at a similar level for another year or two. There is a small chance that these two will be equal players in 2010, but until we see more from Wood, Chone gets the strong advantage. Soon-to-be supersub Maicer Izturis is a solid backup plan if Wood flops.

Edge: Mariners (strong +3)

Left Field
SEA – Milton Bradley
LAA – Juan Rivera

Juan Rivera is a solid player with an established track record of being an average left fielder and thus an above average major league hitter. Milton Bradley is a terrific hitter when his head is on straight, which is rarely the case. Some Angels fans might take issue with my calling this even, but they need to remember that it was only a year ago that Bradley had the highest OPS in the American League (feel free to re-read that). Bradley is a much better hitter than Rivera when healthy (in mind and body), emphasis on “when.” With Rivera you know what you’re going to get, although his overall numbers last year were marred by a terrible second-half slump, so if he can limit that  he could improve a bit from last year. Given the risk factor of Bradley, I’m calling this even.

Edge: Even.

Center Field
SEA – Franklin Gutierrez
LAA – Torii Hunter

Gutierrez is a solid player and young enough (26 last year) that he might take another step forward next year. Torii is one of those over-/under-rated players in that he’s no longer as good of a defender as he was four or five years ago, and his bat, while good, is not great; but he is one of those players that is better than the composite of his individual parts (or his stats) show, not that different from someone like Derek Jeter, who is a very good hitter and a solid defender, but somehow a great player. Some players are just more than the sum of their parts, and Torii Hunter is one of them. But Gutierrez is solid enough—and with a good enough chance of improvement with his age-27 year coming up—that the difference isn’t huge.

Edge: Angels (solid +2)

Right Field
SEA – Ichiro Suzuki
LAA – Bobby Abreu

Mariners fans would scoff at only a +2 edge, but we have to look at the total picture of Ichiro: He hit .352 last year, but with a .386 OBP—very good, but not as awesome as his batting average. According to, his Adjusted OPS (OPS+) was a very good, but not great, 127, to go along with a lifetime 118 OPS+. His OPS+ over the last five years have been 127, 102, 122, 106, and 113—hardly terrifying numbers, and not quite as good as Abreu’s 116, 120, 113, 126, and 126. If you weight these numbers in a 5-4-3-2-1 ratio, Ichiro gets a 115.6, Abreu a 118.5, which are reasonable predictions for next year. Abreu actually had a slightly higher OBP last year (.390) and his influence upon the Angels offense is obvious. But Ichiro is a terrific defender and has declined less than Abreu, so he still gets a solid edge.

Edge: Mariners (solid +2)

SEA – Ken Griffey
LAA – Hideki Matsui

If Branyan re-signs with the Mariners this might be even, but Griffey is a shadow of his former self, even the much-reduced Cincinnati version. Matsui is also no longer in his prime, but still good for an OPS close to .850. Chances are Griffey isn’t going to be only option at DH, with Mike Sweeney also possible, but Matsui is more of a sure thing.

Edge: Angels (solid +2)

Angels +8

Starting Rotation
SEA – Felix Hernandez (+3), Cliff Lee (+2), Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, Doug Fister.
LAA – Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Ervin Santana (+1), Joe Saunders (+1), Joel Pineiro (+1).

This is harder to quantify because lining the starters up is somewhat arbitrary (e.g. I’m not sure why has Santana listed first). Hernandez and Lee are better than any Angel pitcher, perhaps significantly so, with Felix establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball last year and Lee just a step behind. Yet the Angels are stronger with their 3-5 slots, and given the overall solidity of the Angels—and the question marks in Snell and Fister—I am hard-pressed to give the Mariners an edge at all, but their first two starters are so strong and Rowland-Smith is a sleeper to have a breakthrough season; plus all of the Angels starters except Weaver have some degree of uncertainty, so the Mariners get the edge.

Edge: Mariners +2

SEA – David Aardsma
LAA – Brian Fuentes
Aardsma established himself as a 2nd tier closer last year, solidly better than Fuentes, who really should be a set-up man and is probably the worst Angels closer since Donnie Moore (going back through F Rodriguez, Percival, Lee Smith, and Bryan Harvey).

Edge: Mariners (solid +2)

LAA – Fernando Rodney, Scot Shields, Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger, Matt Palmer (or Brian Stokes)
SEA – Mark Lowe, Sean White, Brandon League, Chad Cordero, Jason Vargas

This is a really tough call, as a lot depends on what sort of form Shields comes back with, and whether Jepsen can continue his rise to excellent, Chad Cordero could also be a difference maker if he comes back strong. Overall I’m calling this even.


Mariners +4

Offense – Angels +8
Pitching – Mariners +4
Edge: Angels +4.

I am not sure exactly why many, even most, analysts are predicting the Mariners to win the AL West, but I think it has a lot to do with the flashy free agent signings of Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee and the Angels’ loss of Figgins, Lackey, and Guerrero. What these analysts seem to forget is that Lee is effectively replacing Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn, who combined for a 2.71 ERA in 216 IP, which was actually better than Lee was in the National League (3.22 ERA in 231.2 IP). Lee is healthier than Bedard and better than Washburn, but he’s not going to best their numbers last year, so we can call the difference there a wash.

Figgins is a major improvement over Beltre, at least offensively, so the Mariners get a gold star there, and overall we can call them a somewhat improved team, but we must remember also that they had a Pythagorean Record of 75-87, which means their run differential wasn’t that great, and a sizable 17 wins less than the Angels.

As for the changes in Angels personnel, John Lackey is a loss, but they are getting a full season of Kazmir, a hopefully healthy season of Santana, and the addition of Pineiro (not to mention possible continued minor improvement from Weaver and a more consistent year from Saunders). So overall the starting pitching should be better than the injury (and death) depleted Angels staff of 2009.

Matsui should at least equal Guerrero’s numbers from last year, and Brandon Wood shouldn’t be written off yet as a possible star, although the Angels would be happy if he held his own with the glove and bat next year.

Regardless, the AL West is tightening up and the objects in the rear view mirror are now much closer than they appear. If the Angels have another year of bad luck and everything breaks right for the Mariners, the Angels could lose their first division title in four years, but I wouldn’t bet money on them. Either way it is going to be a much harder (and more interesting!) pennant race next year, but the Angels are still the team to beat in the AL West.
Love to hear what you think!


Abner said...

perhaps you might want to take defensive statistics into account considering the fact that you are only comparing the two teams by offense and pitching leaving out one major aspect to winning which is defense. the mariners are arguably one of the best defensive teams in the baseball if not the best. second it seems you are comparing the players by their stats from last year leaving out the option of break out years, improvements by players of either team. not to mention the possibility of decrease in performance by aged players like abreu, matsui and hunter. last i could be wrong but i dont think you have seen the end to mariner acquisitions. with Z at the helm you never know what he might pull out of his hat next.

Patrick said...

It appears the mariners have improved their pitching -

Felix? He has a likelyhood of getting even better. Scary.

Lee? Likely peaked, but should be great.. Unlikely to repeat amount of innings pitched.

RRS - 3.74 ERA - 150+ ip - Could push 200 - sub 4 ERA very likely

The back of the rotation is where things get blurry.

Ian Snell - good stuff, kind of retarded. 4.5 ERA isn't out of the question here.

Vargas/Fister/French? 4.8 ERA
Anything worse and I'll get in there.

The Mariners have a significant advantage in the rotation -- It might get even more stark if they pick up someone like Washburn or Smoltz.

Our bullpen might just be better too. Hell of a lot cheaper, that's for sure. League is a badass- perhaps you'll have to wait and see.

The Angels have the advantage offensively-- but will it be better than last year?

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