Around The Bases Vol I: AL West Preview

Around the Bases will attempt to preview each division for the 2009 season. Since it’s so cold in the Northeast part of the country this week, we’re going to start with the AL West, in hopes of talking about LA and Texas may warm us up a little.

Call it East Coast bias, or call it apathy, but very often, it seems, many of us seem to forget that there are baseball teams on the Left Coast. At least until playoff time, but since the West Coast teams have bowed out of the playoffs early the past few seasons, that has been a non-issue as well.

Maybe they can do a little better this season.

2008: 100-62 (1st)

The Angels of Southern CA started hot and stayed that way, finishing the season with the best record in baseball (100-62). But, just like the two previous seasons, they were knocked out the playoffs in the first round, both times by the Red Sox (this also occurred in ’04). The team finished the season ranked 7th in the AL in batting (.268) and 3rd in team ERA (3.99).

This season’s Angels look remarkably similar to last season’s Angels, with the noted exceptions of 1B Mark Teixiara, super-closer Francisco Rodriguez, and starter Jon Garland, who are all missing from this year’s roster.

Although Garland had the highest ERA since his rookie year (4.90), he still went 14-8, and he will be missed. But, he won’t be missed as much as K-Rod, who set a Major League record last season with 62 saves. 18 saves more than the next guy on the list, Astros’ Jose Valverde.

Teixiera will be missed also, but since the Angels only had him for part of last season (traded from Atlanta July 31), his loss won’t be devastating. His post-trade batting average of .358 along with his 13 HR, 49 RBI, and .693 slugging served his purpose for them, which was to push them into the playoffs.

The only significant addition for the Angels so far is reliever Brian Fuentes, who they picked up from the Rockies on the free agent market. Fuentes had a respectable year in ’08. He tied Trevor Hoffman for 6th in the NL in saves (30) and had a very nice 2.73 ERA (8th in NL). His 82 Ks were 8th among NL relievers (min 60 IP).

Despite losing the bat of Teixiera and the arm of Rodriguez, the Angels will still be the team to beat in the AL West this season. They still have an excellent rotation with John Lackey (12-5, 3.75 ERA), Ervin Santana (16-7, 3.49) and Joe Saunders (17-7, 3.41 ERA).

Their still potent outfield consists of Vladimir Guerrero (.303, 27 HR, 91 RBI), who although trailed off some last season, still strikes fear in the hearts of pitchers, Torii Hunter in centerfield (.278, 21 HR, 78 RBI) who earned his 8th consecutive Gold Glove last season and is still one of the best CFs in baseball, and Gary Matthews (.242, 8 HR, 46 RBI) in left field.

In the infield, 3B Chone Figgins (.276, 1 HR, 22 RBI) returns, as well as 2B Howie Kendrick (.306, 3 HR, 77 RBI) and SS Erick Aybar (.277, 3 HR, 39 RBI). Teixiera is going to be replaced at first by Kendry Morales, who has a career total of 94 hits in 377 at bats (.249), with 12 HR and 49 RBI over the past three seasons.

The always dependable Mike Napoli (.273, 20 HR, 49 RBI) returns behind the plate, and Mike Sciocsa returns as one of the best managers in the game.

Texas Rangers
2008: 79-83 (2nd in AL West, 21 GB)

Last season, the Texas Rangers finished first in the AL in team average (.283), hits (1619), RBI (867), slugging (.447) and OPS (.805). They finished 2nd in OBP (.354) and third in HR (194). So, how can such an offensive juggernaut finish four games under .500, you ask? Well, while their offense was certainly doing their job, their pitching was waaayyy at the other end of the spectrum, apparently not doing any job.

They were last in team ERA (5.37), and BAA (.288). They were 3rd from the bottom in Ks (963), but 4th from the top in BBs (625). Never a good combination. Their relievers were no better. They also had the AL’s highest ERA from a relief staff (5.15). At least they were in the middle of the pack in saves (36).

The Rangers’ only significant loss in the off-season was OF Milton Bradley, who went to the Chicago Cubs via free agency.

To date, the only serious signings they have is reliever Eddie Guardado (not to be confused with new American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi) and once superstar shortstop Omar Visquel. “Everyday Eddie” is not nearly the pitcher he was only a couple of years ago, and he is no longer even a closer, he still has more holds (25, 5th in ML) than any other pitcher on the market. Guardado, a two-time All-Star, led the AL in saves in ’02 (45). Since then, he has steadily declined. Since the ’05 season, Guardado’s ERA has climbed from a career low of 2.72 to 3.89 in ’06, to 7.24 in ’07 before dropping again last season to 4.15.

Omar Vizquel, once the premier shortstop in the American League, has moved into the role of utility player as his age has robbed him of much of his exceptional talent. Last season with the SF Giants, he batted a very low .222 with 0 HR and 23 RBI in 92 games. The season before, he played nearly a full year (145 games) and batted .246 with 4 HR and 51 RBI. As a utility player, he still should provide the depth they need at SS, if not with his bat, than at least with his fielding ability. Even as a shadow of his previous self, he’d still be better than many of the starting SS out there.

The Rangers were also taking a hard look at Ben Sheets, who has played for the Milwaukee Brewers for his entire 6-year career. As of yesterday, they have backed off trying to sign him after discovering significant elbow problems during a physical. Sheets’ elbow is bad enough that he is now considering surgery, which will put him on the shelf for at least half the season if not longer. Last season, Sheets went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA. The Rangers were actually very close to signing him. They already had a 2-year deal worked out. It’s really too bad. He could have given the Rangers pitching staff a much needed boost.

They are still going to need some sort of shot in the arm. Right now, the “ace” is Kevin Millwood, who went 9-10 with a 5.07 ERA last season. Their #2 starter, Vincente Padilla actually was a bit better, with his 14-8, 4.74 season. #3 starter, Matt Harrison may be the best of the bunch. He went 9-3 last season with an ERA of 5.49. Closer C.J. Wilson had a very high ERA (6.02), but he managed to convert 24 out of 28 chances.

At the All-Star break, CF Josh Hamilton had 21 HR and 95 RBI. He looked like a lock for MVP. But, he hit his brains out in the HR Derby during the All-Star break, and had only 11 HR and 35 RBI in the 2nd half.

The rest of the Rangers’ outfield consists of LF David Murphy (.275, 15 HR, 74 RBI in only 108 games), and Nelson Cruz (.330, 7 HR, 26 RBI in 31 games) platooning with Marlon Byrd (.298, 10 HR, 53 RBI) in rightfield.

Their infield is going to look slightly different this season. Former All-Star SS Michael Young (.284 AVG, 12 HR, 82 RBI) was moved to 3B to make room for AA sensation Elvis Andrus. Last season, while playing for the Rangers’ Double-A Frisco RoughRiders, the then 19-year old Andrus had 4 HR and 65 RBI, but stole 54 bases (2nd in Double A). Offensive force Ian Kinsler (.319, 18 HR, 71 RBI) returns to 2B and Chris Davis (.285, 17 HR, 55 RBI in 80 games) comes back at 1B to continue what he started in the 2nd half of last season. Now that the Red Sox have signed C Jason Varitek, it would seem that Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia (.253, 3 HR, 26 RBI) is going to remain on the team.

There is no reason not to think that the Rangers won’t continue to be a powerhouse offense this season. If they can pick up a pitcher to help out their rotation, and maybe a decent reliever (there are still plenty of both on the free agent market), then new team president Nolan Ryan could easily find his team in the post-season for the first time in a decade.

2008: 75-86 (3RD in AL West, 24.5 GB)

Last season’s Oakland team was certainly a tale of two seasons. In the first half of the season, they appeared poised to take over the division. At the All-Star break, they were 7 games over .500 (51-44) and 6 games behind the 1st place Angels. They were 1st in the majors in ERA (3.39), runs allowed (345), hits allowed (742), and opposing batters’ average (.235). Their team batting was a problem, however. They ranked 10th in the AL in runs scored (410), HR (70), and RBI (T-386), but dead last in the AL in average (.249).

After the break, the wheels completely fell off. Pitcher Joe Blanton was traded to the Phillies for 3 prospects, and staff ace Rich Harden and righty Chad Guadin were sent to the Cubs for righty Sean Gallagher, infielder Eric Patterson, outfielder Matt Murton and catching prospect Josh Donaldson. To make things even worse, closer Huston Street and DH Frank Thomas both spent significant time on the DL. The A’s 2nd half record plummeted to 24-42, and they fell 24.5 games out by the season’s end.

All of that being said, with the exception of the Yankees, the A’s had perhaps the best off-season out of all AL teams. They signed free agents Jason Giambi (32 HR, 96 RBI) and outfielder Matt Holiday (.321, 25 HR, 88 RBI). Just to put a little perspective on those numbers, combined, they would have accounted for 45% of last season’s team HR total (125), and 30% of their RBI (610). And, the highest batting average on last season’s team: C Kurt Suzuki, .279.

The rest of the infield is manned by all returning players from the ’08 team. Last season, 2B Mark Ellis (.233, 12 HR, 43 RBI) played in only 117 games due to extensive shoulder issues that resulted in season ending surgery in the beginning of September. This is nothing new for Ellis. In his 7-year career, he’s only played in 150 games or more twice (’07 – 150, ’03 – 154). ’08 was a typical lousy offensive year for SS Bobby Crosby (.237, 9 HR, 66 RBI). He didn’t do much better in the previous two seasons either, but he played in far fewer games (’07 – 93G, .226, 8 HR, 31 RBI, ’06 – 96 G, .229, 7 HR, 40 RBI). On the bright side, he led the team in stolen bases (14) and doubles (39). He better watch himself or he’ll find his butt on the bench watching the action.

3B Jack Hanahan showed some spark early in the season, but it faded quickly. He finished his first full season with a dismal .218 average, 9 HR, and 47 RBI. It’s expected that Eric Chavez, who went missed almost half the season with shoulder problems, will start at 3B this season. In 2005, Chavez’s last full season, he batted .269 with 29 HR and 101 RBI, much better than anything they have now. In fact, with the exception of Giambi, the A’s might be better off scratching their entire infield and starting over with some Triple-A call-ups. It probably wouldn’t be much worse.

In the outfield, Holiday joins the sometimes regular staff of Travis Buck in right field and Ryan Sweeney in center. Last season, Buck got 35 hits in 38 games (in Apr, Jun, and Sept), with 7 HR and 25 RBI. If he can give the A’s numbers like that for an entire season, they would be in pretty good shape. Meanwhile, Sweeney (.286, 5 HR, 45 RBI) played in 115 games in his 2nd year.

The one shining star the A’s had last season was DH Jack Cust (also played 78 games in LF). He led the team in HR (33), RBI (77), runs (77), OBP (.375), slugging (.476) and OPS (.851). Oh, and led the AL in BB (111).

On the pitching side, they lost closer Houston Street in the trade with the Rockies that brought them Holiday, and they also lost set-up man Alan Embree, but they picked up reliever Russ Springer off the free agent list. Springer is more than an adequate replacement for Embree, and they’ll move reliever Joey Devine (6-1, ERA 0.59, 45.2 IP, 23H, 15BB, 49K, 11 Holds) to the closer role.

Justin Duchscherer returns as the staff ace. Last season, Duchscherer led all Oakland starters in wins (10-8) and ERA (2.34). Dana Eveland was right behind him at 9-9, and led the team in Ks (118), but had a much higher ERA (4.34).

The A’s outlook for the 2009 season is very promising. With Holiday in left, and a healthy Buck in right, and both Cust and Giambi doing that thing they do, the A’s may actually give the Angels a run for their money this season.

2008: 61-101 (last in AL West, 39 GB)

Not only were the Mariners the worst team in the AL, they were the 2nd worst team in baseball. Only the Nationals had a worse record (59-102). 13 was not a lucky number for this team last season. That’s where they finished in RBI (631), runs 671, OBP (.318), slugging (.389), and OPS (.707). Oddly, they finished 7th in hits (1498), 9th in average (.265), and 12th in HR (124).

Their pitching was no better. They finished 11th in ERA (4.73) and WHIP (1.51), and 12th in average against (.276). At least they were in the middle of the pack with their 36 saves (8th). It should be no surprise, based on the above stats, that they also ranked 13th in run support (4.21).

The Mariners had a very busy off-season. They have, at least, made a reasonable attempt to better themselves. In December, they completed a 3-team deal that sent closer J.J. Putz and two others to the Mets for OF Endy Chavez and pitcher Aaron Heilman, among others, and the got OF Franklin Guiterrez from the Cleveland Indians as part of the deal. But, then they traded Heilman to the Cubs for pitcher Garret Olson and SS Ronny Cedano who is expected to be a bench player for much of the season.

Guiterrez, (.258, 8 HR, 48 RBI), should have more playing time this season than last, when he played in only 134 games. He is the projected centerfielder, with Chavez (.267, 1 HR, 12 RBI in 270 at bats) coming off the bench. Right field is locked up tight with perennial All-Star Ichiro Suzuki (.310, 6 HR, 42 RBI), one of the best rightfielders in the game. Last season, Ichiro had his 8th consecutive 200 hit season. One more, and he sets a new major league record. His 213 hits last year tied AL MVP Dustin Pedroia for the AL lead. Left field is still a wide-open position for someone to earn after it was vacated by power hitter Raul Ibanez, who went to the Phillies via free agency. It’s possible that Chavez could wind up in that position, depending on how his spring training goes.

Second baseman Jose Lopez had the best season of his 4-year career in ’08. He finished the season with career highs in several categories, including batting average (.297), home runs (17) and RBIs (89). His double play partner, Yuniesky Betancourt, finished last year slightly below his career averages in every category. He batted .279 (career .282), 156 hits (average 162), 7 HR (average 8 HR), and 51 RBI (average 56 RBI). Unfortunately, his .968 fielding percentage was the lowest in the AL among SS. New manager Don Wakamatsu has already told Benancourt that he needs to improve this spring or he’ll be out of a starting job.

3B Adrian Beltre led the team in HR last season with 25. Although he is about to start his 12th major league season, it has only been the past couple of years that he’s been considered one of the better 3B in the AL. Beltre won a Gold Glove at the position in both ’07 and ’08, in a field that has included Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Melvin Mora, and Alex Gordon. Despite his 25 HR, Beltre still had an off year at the plate last season. His 148 hits were the lowest he had since ’04 (136), and his 77 RBI were his lowest since ’02 (75).

The Mariners have a very good rotation, if they all play up to their potential. After a very good ’07 when he went 14-7, “King” Felix Hernandez went a dismal 9-11 last season. His 3.47 ERA wasn’t awful, and in fact, was his best is his 3 full seasons. When Seattle grabbed Erik Bedard from Baltimore, they thought they were getting a great deal. And, they would have, if Bedard played nearly as well on the West Coast as he did on the East Coast. After going 13-5 with the Orioles in ’07, Bedard only appeared in 15 games for the Mariners and went 6-4. And to make things even worse, his ERA went up a ½ run, from 3.17 to 3.67. If these two played like they both did in ’07, the Mariners may win 70-75 games this year.

There are a couple of interesting rumors involving the Mariners. Word on the street is that they are talking to Junior Griffey about returning. That would be interesting, letting Junior end his career in the place he spent so much of it. There are many different opinions about his actual capabilities. While everyone is quite candid about the fact that his days of hitting 35 HR and driving in 125 runs are certainly behind him, there are some camps that feel that he could be back in the form he was in ’06 when he hit 30 HR and drove in 93. Off season knee surgery will help him, but even with that, no one is talking about him being an everyday player. The last time he even played more than 140 games was in 2000, when he was 30.

The other rumor on the street is that they are looking to move some money around to make room in the budget for either free-agent outfielder Bobby Abreu or free-agent outfielder Garrett Anderson. Either would be a good fit on the team that is trying to rebound from a sub-standard 2008 season.

It would not surprise anyone if the Mariners finished in 3rd place in the division this season instead of their usual last place finish.

Overall, this division is shaping up nicely and starting to look better than it has in several year. The potential is there to have an actual division this season instead of the Angels and three other teams.