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Thursday, March 24, 2011

AL West not AL's best

As I begin my second post previewing each division , I will look at the division that fielded a club in the ALCS for the second straight season, and three in the last five years; the AL West. In 2009 the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim came a couple wins short of the Fall Classic, and in 2010 it was the Texas Rangers who won the ALCS. Before that, in 2006 Nick Swisher and the Oakland A's came up short against the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. Even though this division isn't the best in baseball or best in the American League, it is still a good division with three good, but not great, teams.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Last year the Angels suffered a crushing blow on May 29th from the Seattle Mariners. It looked like a bittersweet win for the Halos as Kendry Morales hit a walk off grand "salami" against the Mariners. Once he reached home plate he broke his ankle by jumping into the mob pile at the plate and since then, he has yet to play in a game. Since then, Angels manager Mike Scoscia has announced that Morales will start the 2011 season on the disabled list. In the off season, the Angels added a key offensive peace to their lineup when they signed Vernon Wells. Last year, Wells bounced back with a 30 homerun season after going three straight seasons without hitting more than 20 homeruns in a season. In addition, Wells has always played spectacular defense, which includes his 2010 season in which he didn't commit a single error. The Angels are loaded in the outfield, as they bring back fan favorite Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and youngster Peter Bourjos. However, the infield is a little shaky. Morales will start the season on the DL, so he will probably be filled in by youngster Mark Trumbo--who is batting .340 in 47 spring at bats. The Angels have a number of light hitting speedsters in their infield that include the off-injured Howard Kendrick, Macier Izturis, Alberto Callaspo, and Erick Aybar. The Angels are still feeling the effects of allowing Chone Figgins to leave via Free Agency to the Seattle Mariners. His replacement, Brandon Wood, batted .146 with a .174 on base percentage in 226 at bats. The Angels also lost catcher Mike Napoli in the Vernon Wells trade, so Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson will be the team's primary catchers. However, the strength of this team is in their pitching. American League strikeout leader Jered Weaver leads the way, behind veterans: Dan Haren, Joel Pinero, Ervin Santana, and Scott Kazmir. If all of those guys pitch to their potential, which I think they will, look for the Angels to win another AL West title. In the bullpen they aren't quite as strong, but they aren't weak. The Angels lost in the Rafael Soriano sweepstakes, their consolation prizes are: lefties Hisanori Takahashi, and Scott Downs. Although Downs may start the season on the DL with a broken toe, he'll be a good piece for this ball club. The Angels still have hard throwing closer Fernando Rodney, and reliever Kevin Jepsen. The question for the Angels is; what will they get offensively out of their infield? They have a lot of light hitters in the infield spot, and with the Kendry Morales injury, they'll be looking for some pop from an unexpected source. Look for the pitching to carry this team in the beginning, but when Morales comes back look for a lot of power in that lineup.

Oakland Athletics: The A’s have missed the postseason every year since 2006; and the sole reason why is due to their lack of offense. It clearly wasn't the pitching, as they have been in the top half in ERA in the major leagues since then, including a fourth place mark in 2010. The A's feature a tremendous starting rotation featuring Trevor Cahill who posted an 18-8 record with a 2.97 ERA, and earned his first AL All Star bid. The rotation also features Gio Gonzalez, who went 15-9 with a solid 3.23 ERA. Also, you may want to consider that these two starters may be the best 1-2 combo in the American League. I say this because in the 63 starts between them, 43 of those starts were quality starts. And in the 397 innings between them, they allowed just 326 hits. Look for these two to continue to grow; Cahill and Gonzalez are just 23 and 25 years old, respectively. Behind the two aces are Brett Anderson, and “Mr. Perfect,” Dallas Braden, who reached baseball immortality on May 9th, as he pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. But, that wasn't his only good outing because he had 18 quality starts in 30 overall starts. And in 192.2 innings pitched, he allowed just 180 innings, while posting a solid 3.50 ERA. Equally impressive, In 19 starts Anderson impressed with a 2.80 ERA, while having just a 1.20 WHIP in 112.1 innings pitched. This rotation may be a strength for the A’s, but its bullpen may be better. In the 'pen the A's brought in veterans Grant Balfour (former Ray), and Brian Fuentes, former Colorado Rocky, Angel, and Minnesotta Twin, to join All Star closer Andrew Bailey, who suffered a forearm strain, which will hold him out a few weeks going into the regular season, but, don't expect him to miss too much time. The A's also have sidewinding righty Brad Ziegler to go along with righty Michael Wuertz, and lefty specialist Craig Breslow. The question is obvious for the A's; how much production will they get out of their offense? The A's added former Yankee Hideki Matsui to be the team's DH. The "Swingin' A's" also have catcher Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff who combined for just 29 homeruns. They'll need to get more out of those two hitters, to go along with corner outfielders Conor Jackson and Ryan Sweeney, who combined to play just 142 games between them. If they can get good production out of those two, expect the A's to win the division, however, I don't believe they will. Expect Oakland to finish second in the AL West.
Texas Rangers: Last season's Rangers team was the best team in franchise history, but that was last year when the Rangers had Cliff Lee. The Rangers were also successful last year due to starting pitchers C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. This year the American League has seen those guys and should be able to handle them better. Obviously, the Rangers don't have Cliff Lee, thus they don't have a bonafide ace. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis are good, but neither one of them is a number one starter. Last year Wilson, who converted from a set-up reliever, pitched 204 innings after pitching just 73.2 innings out of the 'pen. Although I don't like to predict injury, I think that big of a jump will take a toll on his arm this season. But, not only did he pitch 204 innings in the regular season, he pitched 24.1 innings in the postseason. And last year Wilson had a solid 3.35 ERA, but he lead the league in walks with 93. Expect that ERA to shoot up in the fours this year. And the other Rangers surprise was right hander Colby Lewis, although he had a losing record at 12-13, he did post a quality 3.72 ERA. Similarly, like Wilson, Lewis had pitched over 200 innings, with an even 201 innings pitched mark. He struck out 196 batters in that time frame and also pitched 26.1 postseason innings. I don't expect much out of Lewis this season. Lewis pitched in Japan for a few seasons, and had a career 6.75 ERA in the big leagues before returning to America. I would expect Lewis to have an ERA closer to that 6.75 mark than the 3.72 mark. These two guys will be heavily depended on and I do not believe they will come through. The Rangers bullpen is still pretty good, with AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz in the fold. But, not so fast, Feliz has been used as a starter this spring. Nothing is official, but don't be surprised if he makes the rotation. Thus far this spring, the hard throwing right hander has pitched in four games, three starts with a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings with 12 strikeouts. I think this would be a very idiotic move on the part of the Rangers if they move Neftali Feliz out of the bullpen. Feliz has a fastball that often touches 100 mph. This guy empties the tank each time he pitches, thus he can blow hitters away with a 100 mph fastball. Plus, this guy has a closers mentality that no one else on the Rangers likely has. The main contender for the Rangers closing job could be Alexi Ogando, probably the favorite for the closing job if Feliz becomes a starter, posted an impressive 1.30 ERA in 44 games, while striking out 39 batters. But, the Rangers do have a stacked bullpen. Last year they were second in the American League with a 3.88 bullpen ERA. The Rangers bullpen this season includes the aforementioned Ogando, along with Darren Oliver, Darren O'Day, and Pedro Strop, and a couple of former Seattle Mariners Mark Lowe and Arthur Rhodes as additions. The bridge to the closer shouldn't be a problem, but if they take Feliz out, the closer spot will be a problem. But, the offense for the Rangers shouldn't be much of a worry. The Rangers still have American League MVP Josh Hamilton, who batted .359, with 32 homeruns and 100 RBIs. But, the slugger missed 29 games due to a rib injury last year. With that in mind, the Rangers moved Hamilton from center field to right field. The Rangers do have sluggers Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler to go along with the AL MVP, both of whom combined for just 31 homeruns, but they combined for 211 games. They'll need to stay healthy in order to have a chance in this division. The Rangers also added third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Mike Napoli. Beltre had a great year last year, earning an All Star bid by batting .321, and belting 28 homeruns and driving in 102. Napoli, who was with the Angels last year, had 26 HRs with just a .238 average. But, Napoli proved he can play first base, as well as catch and since the Rangers have a weakness at first base, look for Napoli to spend some time at first. The question for the Rangers is; how will their starting rotation perform? I expect the stats of both C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis to drop off this season, I've been wrong before, but I wouldn't be surprised one bit if last season will take a toll on these two arms. The Rangers aren't great after these two. They added two time NL Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb, but injuries have plagued him as he has made just one start the last two seasons. Also, the Rangers have veterans Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, and Matt Harrison that could all contend for rotation spots. No one out of that group blows me away. I believe this Rangers team will have a hangover effect and slip into 3rd place in the AL West.

Seattle Mariners: These days the Seattle Mariners only have three good things going for them; one of those being Ichiro Suzuki. In Ichiro's first 10 seasons in the majors he has had at least 200 hits, a Gold Glove, and an All Star berth in each one of them. In his career he has collected 2244 total base hits and in 2004, he set the record for most hits in a season with 262. In his rookie year, he won the AL Rookie of the Year and the AL MVP, and what's even more amazing is that he has led the majors in base hits in five consecutive seasons, and seven of his ten seasons in his illustrious career. This guy is a sure fire first ballet Hall of Famer, and Mariner fans are definitely happy to have him in town. It's great for the game. The second thing going right for the Mariners is ace Felix Hernandez. King Felix won the 2010 AL Cy Young award, despite only winning 13 games. But, Hernandez had a major league best 2.27 ERA and 249.2 innings pitched, while facing the most batters in the game with 1001. And, in 2009 he could have easily won the Cy Young that year as he won 19 games, while having a 2.49 ERA. At just 24 years old this guy is clearly the best pitcher in the game, in my opinion. King Felix is a total work horse who has three well above average pitches to strike batters out. He has an electric fastball that is consistently in the upper 90's, a wicked curveball that can fool both lefties and righties, and a Bugs Bunny changeup that has the best bats fooled. Look at what this guy did against the Yankees last year; in three starts he pitched 26 innings, two complete games (one of which was a shut out), and an eighth inning performance. But, in those three games he allowed just one run, a Nick Swisher home run and struck out 31 batters, while allowing 24 base runners. He performs at his best when he pitches against the best, which is truly something Mariner fans love. Finally, the last parts going well for the Mariners are those clever commercials. The Seattle Mariners have been airing new commercials every year since 1994, and they never disappoint. My personal favorite is the mustache growing contest with Felix Hernandez in 2008; it gets me every time. But, other than those three things, the Mariners don't have much at all and this is especially true with their offensive numbers. The Mariners were near the bottom or at the bottom in every major offensive category. After Ichiro, the Mariners have zero offense 2-9. Chone Figgins was a big disappointment last year as he batted just .259. The Mariners had Matt Tuiasosopo start at third base for them a few times this year. Why is that worth mentioning? Because that is the first time he has started a game in his entire life. Before this year Tuiasosopo had not started a game even going back to little league, which should tell you how putrid this Mariners offense is. The Mariners power bats this season could be Milton Bradley and Jack Cust, who combined for just 21 homeruns last year. The Mariners will struggle mightily for offense throughout the year, so the question for the Mariners is; will they trade Felix Hernandez? Let's not kid ourselves. This team is a lock for last place, and as close as a lock as you can get to losing 100 games this year. King Felix is locked up until 2015, and if the Mariners want to re-shuffle the deck, they'll trade this guy right as he is peaking. The Yankees are obviously interested, as they called for the King after they missed out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. Look for the Mariners to demand five very good prospects for this guy. So, the Yankees would probably have to give up catcher Jesus Montero, pitcher Manuel Banuelos, pitcher Ivan Nova, infielder Eduardo Nunez, and probably pitcher Andrew Brackman or pitcher Dellin Betances, which is a steep price to pay for one ace pitcher.

There you have it. Although this division could be the worst in the American League, there are three teams that could make the playoffs. But look for the Angels to run away with it in August. The A's don't have enough hitting, the Rangers don't have enough pitching, and the Mariners don't have enough of either of those. Look for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to win the AL West for the sixth time in eight years. Up next in my division previews, the National League Central. Stay tuned!


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