Monday, March 4, 2013

BASEBALL IS BACK!!! American League West Preview

This is going to be an interesting year in this brand new division. You have one team who brought in what some think was the most coveted free agent on the market. At the same time, a different team in the division lost that same player. The division winner could end up in last place, and last year's last place team is spending a ton of money to try to keep up with the big boys of the division. Then you have a team that is spending it's first season in a division that is much better than the one they left. The AL West is going to be a fun show to watch. It looks like it will be a 162 game dog fight.

Excluding Houston, the division as a whole went on a spending spree. Over $210 million has been spent in free agent dollars between the original four teams in the division.  Yes, a good chunk of that money is the money that LA gave to Josh Hamilton, but it is still a ton of money.  It has been over a decade since the AL West has brought home a title.  In that time, every single other division has had a representative win a World Series.  Since the 2002 Angels who beat Barry Bonds and the Giants, the division has disappointed when it matters most.  Is this the year that all changes, or will it just be another season of money spent and hype lost?

Houston Astros
2012 Record: 55-107
This team is lucky the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were so bad, because this team could be historically bad.  In its debut season, this Astros team has the look of an expansion team.  They will win more than 20 games on the season, but that is clearly only because of law of averages.  This team is just plain bad.  They have four people on their entire roster that make over one million dollars.  To compare, the Arizona Diamonbacks (hardly known as a big spender) has fourteen players of the same distinction.   To be blunt, there won't be many Astros on your fantasy team (and if there is then expect to get as many wins as they do).  This is a professional baseball team by name only.

It isn't all bad.  Jose Altuve is a great young second baseman.  He was an All Star in 2012, and it wasn't only because of the every team must be represented rule.  He is looking towards becoming one of the better second basemen in the game.  They have a lot of potential on this team as far as young talent.  They brought in Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel to help this team when they have so many players with minimal professional experience.    They traded away one of their better players in Jed Lowrie and didn't seem to replace him.  After that trade, their projected payroll is under 25 million dollars. 5 million of that is going to Wandy Rodriguez who is now playing for the Pirates. Their highest paid player is playing for another team. That means that their entire roster comes in at under 20 million. For less than you can get Vernon Wells, you can have the entire Astros roster. That isn't going to buy you a very good roster.

Their pitching staff is definitely nothing to go home about.  Like I said, they are going to be historically bad.  their plus/minus may hit numbers over -300.  Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell are fighting for the opening day starter's job.  Eric Bedard is the only name on the staff that people may know, and he is way past his prime.  He may only be 33, but injuries have transformed him from a dominant force to a shell of his former ace self.  Then they also have Phillip Humber who you may have heard of in passing.  He pitched a perfect game on April 21st of last year.  Afterwards, he could not get a groove.  In his next three starts he allowed a total of 20 runs and it never looked up from there.  This rotation is trouble and an injury will only make it worse.  

Projected Finish: 5th Place

Reason for Projection: Do I really need to get into this any more?  The team is going to break history with how bad they are.  There is no chance that this team will end up in any place besides last place.  In fact, there is no chance that there will be any team worse than them in baseball.  It is a combination of bad hitting, terrible pitching and bad ownership that has turned a once very good franchise into this atrocity to my eyes.  It is sad that this was once a franchise who held on to both Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell for their entire year.  They once outbid the Yankees for Andy Pettitte.  They went to the World Series within the decade.  Now there is no worse team.

Los Angeles Angels
2012 Record: 89-73
What if I told you that a team saw the best rookie season in decades happened on the same team that they just signed the best player in baseball on top of a World Series pitcher?  You would think this team would be unstoppable, right?  Well they weren't.  They didn't even make the playoffs.  It was a huge disappointment from a team that many picked to win the World Series.  Somehow this team got even better.  They added the best hitter on the market, with the added benefit of stealing him from their division rival.  Josh Hamilton will bring a whole new look to an already potent lineup.  He is already one of the best players in the game, and is wildly inconsistent.  This sounds crazy, but look at the stats.  Hamilton will hit .359 one year and then .298 the next.  He will smash 25 home runs one year then 42 the next.  He has been called into to question for his well known addiction problem, and his ability to keep himself under control.  Is this going to be the purchase that brings a title to Los Angeles, or a 123 million dollar mistake?

Their pitching staff had a little bit of an overhaul.  They turned Zach Greinke, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana into Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas.  There are more than a few questions when it comes to this pitching staff.  Will Blanton be able to do well in the American League, when it has shown that ERA's always go up when going from NL to AL.  Will Vargas be able to recreate the success he had in two of the last three seasons, or will he turn into the model of inconsistency that we all know him for.  Then there is the fact of why would the Braves be so eager to get rid of Hanson?  Two years ago he had the chance to be one of the best pitchers in baseball.  Now he is expendable for a closer who couldn't get the job done?  Something doesn't seem to add up.  Yes, Hanson had a down year in 2012, but it was that easy to quit on him?  There has to be more to the story than this.  If Hanson can live up to the pitcher he was always supposed to be then the Angels have a chance to have a historically good pitching staff.  Even if he is an average pitcher then it will be a major win for LA.  If there is a reason he was traded, well then we have the answer to the question we have been looking for.

All in all, the Angels will be many people's favorites to win it all.  They have the best young player in the game in Mike Trout.  They have arguably the best player of the last decade in Albert Pujols.  Their offense looks like it has little to no easy outs from top to bottom.  Between Trout, Pujols, Hamilton and Mark Trumbo the Angels are projected to get 115 home runs.  That would be more than the World Series champion Giants had all season.  The starting rotation may have some questions near the bottom, but having Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson at the top makes you feel better about any uncertainty you might have.  This team will be something to watch.  It will be a major disappointment if they can't get it together and be something great.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

Reason for Projection:  Have you seen this squad?  I understand that last year they underachieved, but it had a lot to do with the absolute terrible start that they had.  If you take out the 8-15 start that they had in April, they would have been 81-58 for the season.  That would put them at a .582 winning percentage and would have won them the division.  The Angels had all the tools last year once Trout came up and became a world beater.  If he can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump then this team will be on the fast track to the playoffs.  Looking at the AL East, the Tigers and the Angels only tells me that this October will be one of the most unforgettable playoffs in history.  Let the games begin.

Oakland Athletics
2012 Record: 94-68
Even though so many clubs are getting into the Moneyball craze, last year showed that there is no better than the original.  This is a team that its highest paid player was a rookie.  They don't have big name players, they win on heart and guts.  Their manager, Bob Melvin, showed he is still one of the best in the game in his first season running the roster.  They took on the Angels and Rangers and came from behind and took the division from the both of them.  They didn't even go quietly once in the playoffs as they took the eventual American League champs to a decisive fifth game in the Divisional Series.  This team showed the kind of guts that we want from all of our teams.  They did it all while at points having a starting rotation of five rookies.

That fact says that they have talent in the most important position in the sport.  The A's upgraded their lineup when they traded for incumbent outfielder Chris Young.  He was an All Star in 2010, but has regressed in the last two seasons.  If they can get 25+ home runs and 25+ steals, then they are going to get a gem in an outfield that is coming in stacked.  Add him to an outfield of Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick and you have one of the deepest outfields in the game.  They seem to have an overall good team with no holes.  The trade that brought Jed Lowrie from the Astros did two things for the team.  They brought in a great infielder who can hit for power and be a great fielder, and they got rid of the log jam they had at first base.  The A's seem to have the least amount of problems when it comes to overall team.  The funny part of this is they are doing it all with the second lowest payroll in the league.

This may be the greatest front office in the league, if not in all of sports.  While teams like the Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays are showing that there are still teams trying to throw money at losses and turn them into wins, the Athletics show you can still win with good scouting and intricate moves.  Only time will tell whether all of them will work out, but it looks pretty good.  The big question is whether or not there many rookies can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  Will this team be everything more we could expect, like they are every year?

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Reason for Projection:  The Angels are just too good this year.  There is too much margin for error with these starting pitchers as we still don't know too much about them. Oakland is set for the future as they have talent at nearly every position, but the here and now is going to belong to LA. They have a chance to take a Wild Card spot, but that's about it.

Seattle Mariners
2012 Record 75-87
The Mariners are long removed from the days of Griffey, ARod and Randy Johnson. It has been a while since the Mariners have seen post season action. Most of the moves that Seattle makes is because the other three teams that have been in the division have been so good. Unfortunately for them, the moves never seem to work out.  This offseason they once again made moves.  This will be the first season started with a new right fielder in over a decade with Ichiro Suzuki now sporting pinstripes.  The whole team now has a change in philosophy.  They still aren't going to out hit many teams, but they definitely did all they could to get better.  They signed on to their ace for a record deal that will keep him in Seattle for a long time, even amid so many trade rumors.  The Mariners are trying to turn their luck around for the first time since the Lou Pinella days.

In an injury shortened campaign, Michael Morse still showed promising power out in Washington.  He brings that to an outfield that could become either a lethal trio, or out there for defensive purposes.  Next to Morse is Franklin Gutierrez in center.  He has shown promise in spring training as he already has three home runs out of the leadoff spot.  Having a guy who has power and speed out of the leadoff spot is something not to take for granted.  Speaking of power and speed, in right you have Michael Saunders.  He is more of a question mark as his power seemed to come out of the blue.  Being one home run away from a 20-20 season.  Is he capable of duplicating the feat?  You also still have a developing Justin Smoak at first base.  He started out the year on a God awful pace, but finished it promising hitting .341 down the stretch.  If he can make 2013 the same as the end of 2012 then he could be someone the Mariners can build around.  The addition of Kendrys Morales to platoon with Jesus Montero is an underrated move that will provide dividends.

The rotation is going to make or break this team throughout the season.  You know what you're going to get from Felix Hernandez.  He is a legitimate ace and is a top five pitcher in the majors.  Second year Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma will be leaned on to build on the good season he posted in 2012.  He will look to become a legitimate number two in this rotation.  Joe Saunders is looking to recreate the magic he found after his trade to the Orioles last year.  Saunders was the winning pitcher in the two wins against the Yankees in the postseason.  Maybe a return to the AL West can help him become what he was during his Angels tenure.  The bottom two pitchers will be a large question mark.  Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan are 22 and 24 years old respectively.  Both have very limited experience in the majors and will look to play a major role in the staff that is looking to get back into the playoff picture.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Reason for Projection:  The Mariners do have some questions in regards to rotation, but when you have an ace like Hernandez holding down the fort every fifth day then you're in pretty good shape.  As long as the back end could combine for twenty wins you should be in pretty good shape with the front three.  The hitting will be much better than last season when they ended up in dead last in batting average.  The slumping young sluggers will bounce back and the veteran presences will be a positive to push these hitters in the right direction.  Expect Seattle to surprise some and end up a contender for a good part of the season.  Barring injury, it should be a season in the right direction for the Mariners.

Texas Rangers
2012 Record: 93-69
Last year, the Texas Rangers became a first.  Unfortunately for them, they were the first team to lose in the newly minted one game playoff.  Losing to heavy underdog Baltimore for a chance to go against the Yankees in the Divisional Series is not what Texas envisioned.  The Rangers are in a tough spot.  They have five star prospects that seem to be ready to play in the big leagues, but players who already play at those positions.  Sounds like a problem we should all have, but the log jam could cause an unneeded distraction.  You have Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus sporting the middle infield positions like they have been for the past few years.  You have top prospect Jurickson Profar still waiting in the wings.  The second either one of them get into a slump the entire world will be calling for Profar to start.  Also, you have Mitch Moreland at first base, where Mike Olt has been waiting to take over for quite some time now.  It can only be a matter of time that these great talents make their way into the starting lineup. 

Then there is the elephant in the room that president Nolan Ryan has refused to address.  Josh Hamilton spurned the Rangers to go to division rival LA.  Texas didn't do anything to replace him as they still have 25-year-old Cuban defector Leonys Martin as the starting center fielder.  Will a kid who has proved nothing in the majors be enough to replace a superstar?  He wasn't the only loss.  Michael Young was dealt to the Phillies in exchange for a relief pitcher.  Not only did they lose a very good hitting middle infielder that could play all four positions, but they lost their captain.  That kind of impact is impossible to project.  How will a team react to not having their voice of reason in the locker room?  I believe it will have a bigger impact than one may think.  They did get veteran Lance Berkman to replace his offensive production, but the leadership may be the issue.

Their starting rotation still seems to have holes.  Will Yu Darvish be able to compete at the high level he showed in his first year in the majors?  Derek Holland doesn't seem like he is the future ace the Rangers were hoping for (especially with a 5.14 home ERA.  Not the kind of guy to get a home crowd excited).  If he can't get back on track that puts a lot of pressure on Darvish and Matt Harrison to perform at last years levels.  With Alexi Ogando transferring back to the rotation from the bullpen for the second time it is safe to say you shouldn't rely on him to light the world on fire.  Slated fifth starter broke his forearm in spring training and is looking towards at least a month on the shelf.  That leaves a glaring hole in the rotation that doesn't seem to be getting fixed quickly. 

Projected Finish: 4th Place

Reason for Projection:  The Rangers will once again be a very good offensive team, but in a ballpark like they are in they are going to need better pitching than they have.  Too many questions when it comes to the rotation and Joe Nathan on the back end isn't the lock down closer he was five years ago.  The team will be pressing to show they can compete without Young and Hamilton and the pressure will eventually drown this team.  Expect some salary dumps to open positions for big name prospects by the trade deadline as this will be a throw away year for Texas.

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