Monday, March 10, 2008

Benjamin's Annual Baseball Preview: Part 4

AL West:
The AL West, baseball's smallest division, was an odd one last year. Some of baseball's most exciting and underrated players play in the AL West, yet not for the good teams. By far the best team in the division, the Angels, spend like a powerhouse that can only be rivaled by the beasts of the east in Boston and New York, yet they played like a small-market small ball team. The Rangers continue to ignore their pitching woes, even though it has been their biggest issue since Nolan Ryan retired in the early 90s. Still, despite these oddities, we should expect more of the same this season.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim-
The Angels Angels of an Angels Suburb were once again baseball's most ridiculously named team. While they may be challenged in that category this year by the newly minted Tampa Bay Rays, one place they probably won't be challenged is the standings. The Angels were easily the best team out west last season and improved this offseason, albeit at an expensive rate. In addition, many of the Angels injury issues will now be able to be filled by their deep farm system which finally has a crop of big league-ready talent.

Mike Napoli is slated to be the catcher. When he played, Napoli showed himself to be quite adept with the stick, hitting 10 HRs with a .351 OBP and .443 SLG. However, Napoli did miss over 40 games because of injuries and has had trouble staying healthy his whole career. In addition, he will likely be forced out of his position whenever top prospect Hank Conger, one of the best catching prospects around, is ready. At third base, Chone Figgins was one of the more consistent offensive players for the team last year. A super-utility type player who's a pretty good fielder at 6 positions, Figgins can fly (41 SBs last year; at least 34 every year as a full-time player). He's much more useful as a player who rests a different starter every day, but he has hit too well and the rest of his team has hit too poorly for him to do that. That may change this year as Brandon Wood, who has been the organization's top prospect for what seems like a century, should finally be given a chance. Wood has incredible power and is a very good fielder at third. It is absolutely mind-boggling as to why he hasn't been given an oppourtunity yet, as keeping him in the minors has only led to regression as he strikes out more and more. For a team that usually handles their prospects well, they really seemed to have messed this up. Over at first base is an example of how the Angels usually handle their top players: Casey Kotchman. Kotchman played very well in his first full season. He gave the team 11 HRs, a .372 OBP, and a .477 SLG along with stellar defense. His power numbers are likely to increase as he gains more experience. The middle infield is a young combo of former super-prospects Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. Kendrick missed a lot of time last year with finger injuries, but performed well when healthy. He had a .450 SLG and 24 doubles in only 88 games and was a good defender. If he can stay healthy and increase his plate selectivity (only 9 walks last year), he should be one of the best 2nd basemen in the AL. Erick Aybar, who was once nearly trade along with Ervin Santana for Miguel Tejada (and inside, I die a little), was another player who spent a lot of time on the DL. When healthy, he is a 4-tool prospect with developing power. He has consistently graded as one of the best fielders in baseball and he runs very well. He is still kinda raw as a hitter, but he should continue to develop into one of the finer SSs in baseball. The outfield and DH situation is a rotation of various players of various repute. The Angels best player is right fielder Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero was, only a few years ago, the most impressive athlete playing the game with an abundance of all 5 tools. Unfortunately, the years spent on the harsh turf in Montreal early in his career and his generally agressive play have left Guerrero's knees and back in shambles. His still is one of the best all-around hitters in the league and still has an absolute cannon in the outfield, but his limited mobility has reduced his utility in the outfield and he now must platoon between right and DH to remain effective. In left, Garrett Anderson is the longest tenured Angel. He's still reasonably effective but is clearly in decline and soon will not produce enough to merit an everyday corner outfield role. In center, big free agent signing Torii Hunter replaces last year's big free agent signing Gary Matthews. Hunter is a rich man's Matthews. Both are very good defenders. Hunter is a better hitter and baserunner. Both are grossly overpaid. Hunter should be worth his paycheck for maybe two seasons, but it is unlikely he'll make it through his entire contract at the expected production level. Still, he's a much better option that Matthews, who gets paid almost as much as Hunter but does everything a little to a lot worse. The Angels do have one of, if not the, best benches in MLB. IF/OF Reggie Willits is a poor man's Figgins. He was extremely useful for the team last year, filling in for the numerous injured players the Angels had last year. Willits has almost no power, but he does work the count well and can steal a base. Juan Rivera, Robb Quinlan, Nathan Haynes, and Maicer Izturis fill out the rest of the bench.
The pitching staff got the team through last year by keeping the sporadic offense in games. It should once again be very effective and one of the AL's best. Ace John Lackey was one of the best pitchers in the league last year. He threw 224 innings and struck out 179 with a 1.21 WHIP. He keeps the ball low and uses his 6'6" frame to always throw on a downward plane, which induces a lot of groundballs for the Angels superior defense. #2 Kelvim Escobar has been very good since coming to the Angels. Last year he threw 195.2 innings and struck out 160. Escobar has 5 pitches, including a very good slider, that he can use to get outs. The new number three is Jon Garland, who was acquired for Orlando Cabrera. Garland is an above average pitcher who eats a lot of innings. He doesn't strike out many batters but he generates a lot of poorly hit balls by placing his pitches well. Jered Weaver will be the 4th starter. A tall, powerful pitcher, Weaver gives up a lot of baserunners but he usually scatters them and gets outs when he needs to and should improve with another year of experience under his belt. The final starter spot will be filled by either Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana. Saunders doesn't have great stuff but he doesn't walk many and can get outs. Santana has great stuff but walks too many and gives up a lot of HRs. He struggled last year but if he can make the necessary adjustments he should be an above average pitcher. He may be put in the bullpen for some seasoning. The bullpen is solid. Francisco Rodriguez has electrifying stuff and struck out 90 in just 67.1 innings. He is one of the best closers in the league. Setup man Scot Shields is one of the leagues best as well. He has a devastating slider/splitter combo that creates a lot of strike outs as well as ground balls. The rest of the bullpen is filled by Justin Speier, Darren Oliver, and Chris Bootcheck.

Seattle Mariners-

The Mariners, in a fair uneventful offseason with a poor free agent class, were one of the busiest teams out there. They certainly improved themselves with the acquisitions of players like Carlos Silva, Brad Wilkerson, and especially Erik Bedard, but once again (as is all too often the question to be asked of the Mariners these days) one must question if the Mariners gave up too much. Still, this is a team with a lot of talent (albeit a lot of overpaid talent) that should be in the hunt for a playoff berth for most of the season.

Catcher Kenji Johjima has been pretty average since coming over from Japan before the 2006 season. He hit 14 HRs last year which was good enough to tie for 10th amongst catchers in the Majors. But he had only a .322 OBP, a horrendous number, no matter the position. Despite little in the way of offense other than the HRs, Johjima does give the team very good defense, as he threw out almost 50% of baserunners last year. The is no corner tandem more viciously over-payed than the Mariners' Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. Beltre is the better of the two. He gives the team good defense with pretty good power numbers (41 doubles, 26 HRs, .482 SLG in 2007). However, Beltre does have poor on-base numbers (.327 career OBP) and he has little in the way of plate selectivity and motivation is always a huge problem for him. Sexson was arguably the worst regular player in the AL last year. At a premium power position, Sexson had only 21 HRs (a great number for catchers and shortstops, average at first) and slugged a miserable .399. In addition, his .295 OBP would have tied him for 10th worst in the Majors had he garnered enough plate appearances to qualify. Whenever his contract is up, Sexson will be replaced by top prospect Jeff Clement, currently listed as a catcher. The middle infield is a traditional light-hitting, great-glove duo. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, in addition to having one of the better names in baseball, gave the team decent offensive production including 9 HRs and 38 doubles. Like so many Mariners, he didn't have good on-base numbers. Still, he is a very solid option for the team. Jose Lopez, the team's second baseman is a poor man's Betancourt who is acting as a filler until Carlos Triunfel is ready. The outfield is the team's offensive strength. Centerfielder Ichiro Suzuki is one of the best players in baseball. He's never hit for great power (although he's had flashes that have shown he can, but he probably avoids swinging for the fences to keep his absurd contact numbers up), but Ichiro is lighting fast, incredibly intelligent, a wonderous fielder, and has never hit below .300 in a full season at any level of pro-ball. LF Raul Ibanez is a solid, productive veteran. He's averaged 22.5 HRs since coming to Seattle and has hovered around a solid .353 OBP. His defense is nothing to write home about, but he is fine in left. In right, free agent signing Brad Wilkerson is looking to bounce back after two injury-plagued years in Texas. Wilkerson at his best is a guy who works the count well and has good pop while providing good defense in left and right who can also play a decent center and first. Wilkerson is probably only a part-time player right now who could be supplanted by prospects Mike Morse, Michael Saunders, or Wladimir Balentien. The DH spot is filled by Jose Vidro. Vidro doesn't hit for power, but has good-not-great on-base numbers and he doesn't strike out a lot. His knees limit his movement so he can't do much in the way of play defense other than a few innings each year at second or left. Morse should also be in the mix. The bench is versatile with players like Morse, Willie Bloomquist, Miguel Cairo, Jamie Burke, and Greg Norton.
The pitching staff should strength with the additions of Bedard and Silva, who allow other players to get pushed back in roles their more suited for. Erik Bedard, acquired from the Orioles for hefty amounts of prospects, including uber-stud Adam Jones, immediately becomes the team's ace and is the best lefty in Seattle since Randy Johnson. Bedard was leading the AL in strikeouts until he went down with an oblique strain in late August. He has gotten better every season he's been in the league, posting a WHIP of 1.08 in 2007. He does give up a lot of homeruns, but the move to a better pitchers' park should remedy that and Bedard must be considered a CY Young candidate every year until he proves otherwise. Felix Hernandez combines with Bedard to form an extremely potent 1-2 punch. The King is still only 21 (22 in April) and already has two and a half seasons under his belt. Few pitchers have better stuff than the young right-hander, but, as with many young players, Hernandez hasn't always been consistent in utilizing it. He needs to cut down on his HRs allowed, but he should only progress and fulfill his ridiculous potential. Jarrod Washburn moves to the #3 slot in the rotation. He's a good innings eater who doesn't strike out many but doesn't walk many. New addition Carlos Silva is a very similar player to Washburn (right down to being paid like a much better player than he actually is). Silva was with the Twins last year and should benefit with a better offense and defense supporting him. Their 5th starter is Miguel Batista, who is, again, a solid innings-eater. If any of these guys go down, Horacio Ramirez, acquired from the Braves in the offseason, will be asked to step in and provide some solid innings. Closer JJ Putz is no putz (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA). Putz posted an absurd 0.69 WHIP with 82 strike outs in 71.2 innings. He only blew two saves and was often called upon to make a multi-inning appearance. The rest of the bullpen is a little unsettled but should be filled from the group of Arthur Rhodes, Chris Reitsma, RA Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Eric O'Flaherty, and Sean Green.

Oakland Athletics-
Nobody gets more out of their dollar than Oakland GM Billy Beane. Year after year, despite constantly being in a full-blown rebuilding project, the Athletics are always in the playoff hunt. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for them last year as many of the team's top players missed time with injuries. So during the offseason, Beane decided to trade away top players Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, and Mark Kotsay for a bevy of talented prospects that will accelerate the team's ability to contend.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki debuted in June of 2007 and soon was the full-time catcher, hitting 7 HRs in only 68 games while playing pretty good defense. Suzuki was never thought of as a star prospect while in the minors, few Beane prospects are, but he played well and should be a solid contributor for the team. The corners were ravaged by injuries last year. Eric Chavez missed about half the season last year to a torn labrum. If Chavez is healthy he is one of the game's finest defensive players at the hot corner who hits for good power and can draw a walk. If Chavez isn't ready to go, the team will look to either utility player Jack Hannahan, possibly move Dan Johnson or Daric Barton over, or even go with veteran Mike Sweeney. Hannahan doesn't project well as a full time player and Johnson and Barton aren't very comfortable at third. Sweeney is an intriguing possibility. Once thought of as an elite player in Kansas City, he has been plagued by injuries since 2003. But he's a potentially powerful, selective bat who could end up being a steal as only a minor-league contract obligation. Over at first base, Dan Johnson got hurt and opened up the door for Daric Barton. Johnson has never played a full season at the big-league level. He is not a high-contact hitter, but he is pretty patient and has good power. Still he will likely only be in the DH/bench mix because top prospect Daric Barton finally made his debut and should become an immediate threat. He is exactly the kind of prospect that Beane covets, a patient, powerful hitter who can do everything with the bat. Up the middle should be pretty set with Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis. Crosby missed time last year for the 3rd season in a row. He has only played one full season since making his debut in 2003. But if he can stay healthy, Crosby hits for good power for a shortstop but doesn't show much in the way of patience. 2nd baseman Mark Ellis has alernated every season between being slightly below average and above average. Last year he was above average hitting 19 HRs with 33 doubles, and .441 SLG. He provides pretty good glovework and can play short if Crosby goes down again. We'll see if he can be good this year. The outfield is young and unsettled. The only veteran in the mix is the frustrating Emil Brown. Brown has all the physical tools to be a great player but is highly impatient at the plate and swings at far too many bad pitches. Still, he is passable as a fourth outfielder and will be probably be asked to stretch and be the team's left fielder. RF looks to be set with youngster Travis Buck, who made his debut last year. Playing in 82 games, Buck hit 7 HRs, 22 doubles, walked 39 times and had a .377 OBP and .474 SLG. He was limited from playing a full season due to injuries but Buck projects well over a full season and should be one of the team's key players for at least 5 years. The other two players in the mix will be two rookies: Chris Denorfia and Carlos Gonzalez. Denorfia missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery. He's a player who projects reasonably well, but he's been slow to develop due to injury. Gonzalez was the centerpiece of the Haren trade. He is a 5-tool prospect who is probably a year or two away from the bigs but should be a high-level player for the next decade. DH will be filled by Jack Cust, an on-base and power machine who has no discernable talents in the field or on the basepaths. Still, he is an asset for the team and a model Moneyball player. The bench will be filled by Sweeney, Johnson, Hannahan, Matthew LeCroy, and Donnie Murphy; a versatile group that allows for not too large a drop off from the starters.
The pitching staff is also in transition. Joe Blanton becomes the de facto ace with the trade of Haren to the Diamondbacks. He's a workhorse starter who posted a 1.21 WHIP with 140 strike outs in 230 innings. Blanton has pretty good stuff and should continue to pitch at an above average level. The team's potential ace and the team's greatest unknown is Rich Harden. Harden has some of the best stuff of any pitcher in the majors, but he cannot stay healthy under any circumstances. He strikes out a lot of batters and doesn't walk many, but he only once has made more than 25 stars in a season. If he can be healthy he will allow the A's to develop some of their young pitchers. If the A's fall out of contention (or really, even if they're in first place), expect him, Blanton and closer Huston Street to all be on the trading block. Chad Gaudin is the third starter. He posted an unimpressive 1.52 WHIP walking about a batter per 2 innings. But Gaudin gets by scattering his baserunners. The rest of the rotation will be filled by Lenny DiNardo and Justin Duchscherer. DiNardo started the season as a reliever, but injuries forced him into the rotation and he performed about as well as could have been asked. He pretty much has maxed out his potential, but he can be very effective in short spans, so he'll likely be a placeholder until top prospects like Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, and Fautino de los Santos are ready and then be moved back into a swingman role. Duchscherer has been a reliever his entire big league career but pitched in over 53 appearances in 2004-2006 before a hip injury last year. Duchscherer has good stuff but has never been tested as a starter and unless he really impresses likely is also just a placeholder for the minor leaguers. The bullpen is pretty set. Huston Street missed 2 months with injury in 2007, but should be healthy and will be the closer. He's the team's best pitcher and he posted an impressive 0.94 WHIP. There seems to be a boom or bust feel to him as he blew 5 saves last season in only 21 attempts. Still, he is very valuable to the team and is the top trading chip for the team if they fall out of contention come late July. The rest of the bullpen is a healthy mix of vets and youngsters like Santiago Casilla, Alan Embree, Kiko Calero, Dan Meyer, and the gentlemen from the minors who earn a job out of camp.

Texas Rangers-
For what seemed like centuries, the Texas Rangers have been all offense and the pitching talent equivalent to the NWLL 16U Thunderbolts. This has changed somewhat over last season and this offseason as the team has looked for a more balanced approached. It didn't work out too well. Still, the team is trying to assemble a fairly low-cost, high-impact team in an attempt contend in the competitive AL West.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia replaces Gerald Laird at catcher. This should not be a difficult task. Saltalamacchia was the top prospect in the Braves system and the centerpiece of the midseason Mark Teixeria trade. He's a complete hitter and a good defensive catcher, though he has been tested out at first base and will play there from time to time to save his knees. Just 22 on Opening Day, Saltalamacchia should be a stalwart for the team behind the plate that they haven't had since the heyday of Ivan Rodriguez. The corners are a veteran tandem of players who are coming in as question marks. Hank Blalock headed into 2007 coming off two below average years. He missed much of last year with injuries but he showed signs of what made him an elite 3rd bagger in 2003 and 2004. If he can proudce at that level again, he becomes a middle of order threat and should help the team immensely. First base is occupied by career platoon player Ben Broussard. Broussard can mash...assuming you give him a fastball and are right handed. He's a free-swinger who should hit his fair share of HRs but won't provide much else. Watch for Chris Shelton to perhaps get some playing time at first. Shelton was a solid player for the Tigers in 2005 and 2006, but missed all of last year with injuries. Up the middle, the Rangers have one of the better double-play combos in baseball. SS Michael Young hits for a very high average and plays pretty good defense. He's capable of hitting for good power as evidenced by his 2004 and 2005 with 22 and 24 HRs, respectively, but he's much more likely to hit 10-15 with 30-40 doubles. His compatriot up the middle is Ian Kinsler, who played very well in just his 2nd season. He slugged 20 HRs and stole 23 bases last year. Kinsler plays good not great defense and can work the count, making him a key part of the Ranger's lineup. The outfield will have a new look this season. The only hold-over will be Marlon Byrd in left. Byrd had his best season as a pro last year when given the opportunity to play regularly hitting 10 HRs and slugging at a very respectable .459 clip. Pretty much the same can be expected from him in 2008 with a slightly lower SLG. If he were to become more selective and walk more, he could would be considered a high-quality player, especially at his current price tag. Over in right will be Hall of Fame head case Milton Bradley. Bradley is an incredibly physically gifted player but he can never stay healthy or in the good graces of his managers and league officials. If he's healthy and not suspended he should provide good defense and with a good combination of speed and power. In center is the feel-good story of last year, Josh Hamilton. The former #1 overall pick for the Rays, Hamilton was at one point the best prospect in all of baseball, hands down. But he struggled with injuries, depression, and drugs, and even went missing for a while. But last year, it appeared that he finally got his act together and was a great player for the Reds before getting hurt. He slugged 19 HRs in only 90 games with an impressive .554 SLG. Numerous knee injuries have reduced Hamilton's speed, but he is still a 4 tool superstar who should be one of the best pickups of the offseason. DH will be filled by Frank Catalanotto who has been the same player for 10 years now. He should hit 10 or so HRs, 30 doubles, and have a .350 OBP with a handful of stolen bases. Other players in the mix for starting and bench positions include Laird, Shelton, Ramon Vazquez, Jason Botts, David Murphy, Nelson Cruz, Adam Melhuse, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Kevin Mench.
The pitching staff, long a eyesore for the team, looks to finally be turning around. Kevin Millwood once again should be the staff ace, although likely only in name. Millwood is a pretty average pitcher who eats a lot of innings and limits his walks. He's only had 3 really good seasons (all in contract years), and has not pitched very well at all since coming to Texas. He posted a not-so-hot 1.62 WHIP in 2007, but that's on the high side for his career so he should rebound and be better. Vincente Padilla is scheduled to be the team's number 2 though he's better suited as a 4th starter. Padilla is like a poor-man's Millwood who occasionally has some excellent starts that are surrounded by a lot of mediocre or worse ones. Still, as long as he stays healthy, he should provide the team with 150-200 decent innings. Jason Jennings was signed in the offseason to be a potential third starter. Jennings had a bad year in 2007 for the Astros before getting shut down with an injury. This was a departure from his career up to that point, where he had been an average to even above average pitcher with the Rockies (no easy feat). If Jennings can return to form, he'll be a solid low-cost pickup. The final two spots will be filled by the winners of the competition consisting of Brandon McCarthy, Kason Gabbard, and Eric Hurley. McCarthy was former top prospect in the White Sox system who has never put all his considerable talents together. At 6'7", it is very difficult for McCarthy to repeat his throwing motion, similar to the problems faced by other very tall pitchers like Daniel Cabrera, Jon Rauch, and the young Randy Johnson. McCarthy does have good stuff though, and if he can figure out how to give a consistent delivery, he could beome a very good starter. Gabbard has pitched well in limited duty. He doesn't strike out many but he limits the number of hits he gives up and that allows him to go pretty deep into games. Hurley is the team's top pitching prospect and at only 22 years old, he probably is a couple years away. But he has great stuff, highlighted by a filthy slider and could make an impact. The bullpen has a lot of arms, but the pecking order seems to be out of whack. CJ Wilson came on strong last year and saved 12 of 14 while striking out nearly a batter an inning. But Wilson did walk a lot of batters, a death sentence for any pitcher but especially so for a short reliever. Still, he is the front runner for the closer's job. Eddie Guardado was signed to be a veteran presence in the pen in case Wilson and others falter. A good plan in concept, except that Guardado is no longer an effective pitcher. He hasn't been healthy in a few years and has seen his strike out rates decline. At 37 years old, he's unlikely to recapture the form that made him on of the better lefty relievers in baseball earlier in his career, but he still could be useful in a reduced role. Probably the team's best reliever last year was Joaquin Benoit, who struck out 87 in 82 innings while only walking 28. Unfortunately, he blew 7 saves in 13 chances. Still, he may be given a chance to redeem himself. The final contender for the closer's job is Japanese import Kazuo Fukumori. Fukumori has three good pitches but was known for his poor control in Japan. If he can somehow show more consistency than he did in Japan (unlikely), Fukumori could be a great signing. The rest of the pen will be filled by Frank Francisco, Wes Littleton, Bill White, and perhaps even Sidney Ponson (great googly moogly).

No comments: