Welcome to Part 3 of my 2013 Major League Baseball preview. So far I've crowned Toronto and Detroit division champions. Just in the past few days several members of the Yankees have been debilitated by injury and A. Rod has been pronounced dead. Today we move onto the American League West, which welcomes a new member with open arms. You would too knowing you'd play the woeful Houston Astros 18 times this season. Glad to have you, boys! The Astros Effect will pad the records of the other four clubs in this division, and good for them because even the Angels and Rangers have more than a few flaws.I should note in the interest of full disclosure... I am a lifelong Seattle Mariners fan. If my remarks on the club turn bitter, hateful, and snarky please understand my words will come from a place of pain and suffering.
1. Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim
As I write we seemingly have discovered the limit to what owner Artie Moreno will spend. Bizarrely he's low balling the second coming of Mickey Mantle. Rather than give Mike Trout a raise commensurate to his production the Angels handed him a bump barely over what the collective bargaining agreement requires for a second year player. Since Trout still lives with his parents I'm sure he'll be fine.... and I'm sure his agent won't let him forget it.
Trout is a great place to start with this club. His 2012 Rookie of the Year season was so awesome, there's little doubt that had he been with the Angels from the opening bell they would have won the division. Not to be a drag, but there's no way Trout replicates. He'll be great, but his 2012 was a season for the ages, and clubs have had all off season to figure out his weaknesses. Look for more five-tool production, but closer to earth.
Trout is the least of their concerns. Let's start with Albert Pujols, now entering the second of his baffling 10-year deal with LAA. What the Angels are paying for, of course, is Pujols playing for the Cardinals through 2010. What they have now is one of the best in baseball, but not $21-million-a year-best. Instead they'll get .290/30/100.
Enter Josh Hamilton. Early last season, while Pujols was flailing and the Angels were losing, Hamilton was off to a stunning start with rival Texas. Over his first 273 at bats Hamilton went .319/25/73 with a home-run-to-fly-ball percentage at an unsustainable 32%. The second half he collapsed, and after it was all over and the Rangers were trying to figure out how they lost the division. Team President Nolan Ryan, paraphrasing the movie Airplane, said Hamilton "picked the wrong week to quit dipping chew." I'll leave that to others. What I can say is Hamilton's contact rate is in full collapse. Always free swinging, he finished 2012 meeting ball at an awful 70%. Without going into the sabermetric weeds here, that number portends to a hitter with declining skills. Forget .300. Look .275/30/100.
When you spend the big bucks, something has give. The Angels go into 2013 with the barely serviceable Alberto Callaspo at third, the solid but unspectacular Erick Aybar at short, and Howie Kendrick at second. In center Peter Bourjos has been a disappointment and complains of hip problems at the age of only 26. DH/OF Mark Trumbo can slam 25 home runs again, but don't expect anything more than .250.
The Angels' rotation is led by 20 game winner Jared Weaver. He's a warrior, but his strikeout rate has drifted downward to league average the past couple of seasons. He'll be solid in 2013, but he's probably peaked. C.J. Wilson came over from the Rangers a year ago and turned in a fine first half, and crappy second. He has to cut the walks. The rotation rounds out with Jason Vargas (ex Mariner innings eater) Tommy Hanson (one time stud prospect with a stalled career) and Joe Blanton (meh).
With Tommy John grad Ryan Madson still rehabbing Ernesto Frieri will close to begin the season. Other than a propensity for the gopher pitch he'll be fine in the role. The Halos were smart to add Sean Burnett as their bullpen depth is a concern.
The Angels Will Sing On High If....
- Hamilton can stay healthy, turn in 550-plus at bats, and be a bit more selective.
- Pujols gets out of the gate way better than 2012.
- The bullpen overachieves.
- Weaver can reverse his concerning strikeout trend.
- Trout turns up on SportsCenter plays of the week.... weekly.
The Gates Of Hell Will Open If...
- Hamilton gets hurt and that contact rate erodes further.
- Pujols isn't locked in.
- That bullpen implodes.
- The league finds Trout's weaknesses, if there are any.
- Frieri. I could easily see Madson never closing this year.
- Hamilton. Let someone else take him in the second round.
2. Texas Rangers
The other day Rangers' manager Ron Washington expressed concern that the Seattle Mariners of all clubs would sneak up on the whole division this season. First I laughed out loud, and then I began to grasp what he was actually saying. Last season the Rangers led most of the way, only to have the beer-league Oakland A's, chew-stained uniforms and all, sneak up from behind and behead them on the final day of the season. The fear is gripping him. First off, Skip, take a deep breath. Your club will compete, and no the Mariners are not going to get you.... at least not this year.
Josh Hamilton is gone, and as you can discern from above I believe the Rangers made the right call. Nobody was giving a 32-year-old recovering heroin addict with a checkered injury history 5 years at $125 million... except the Angels. In the short term the Rangers aren't going to be quite what they were, but they'll be in the hunt regardless. There aren't many better at the hot corner than Adrian Beltre. The Rangers will look to him to lead the way. The club hopes second baseman Ian Kinsler can match his power with a batting average rebound. Two straight years of disappointment there may be difficult to turn around. Mitch Moreland will get a shot to hold the first base gig. The tools are there, and if health follows he'll be solid. Moreland will have to be as the Rangers prefer newly acquired vet Lance Berkman to DH the majority of the time. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski arrives as a free agent from the White Sox coming off a career-high 27-home-run binge. Texas will be ecstatic if he can hit 20.
Without Hamilton's power the Rangers would be served to get shortstop Elvis Andrus moving again. Over the second half of 2012 they stopped running and Andrus tallied only 5 steals, ending the year with a career low 21. I'm wondering if the still young Andrus entirely gets it after missing a spring game recently because a newly inked tattoo was too painful. Perhaps his tat is the face of No. 1 Texas prospect Jurickson Profar to remind him the 20-year-old isn't far away. Andrus could be trade bait by the deadline. Another highly touted prospect, Leonys Martin, may be ready to stick. Craig Gentry is still around to battle him in centerfield, and Martin could turn up in left too.
The rotation looks solid with Yu Darvish expected by some to make a run at the AL Cy Young this year. His only flaw is in the walk department. Matt Harrison has turned into an able young starter, but opponents do tend the put the ball in play. Derek Holland had some issues with shoulder fatigue last year. If he can stay healthy, he's set for growth. The Rangers need to stop jerking Alexi Ogando around and let him settle into a starter role. He was effective there in 2011. Colby Lewis and fading prospect Martin Perez will battle for the fifth spot. Forget flame thrower Neftali Feliz; he's on the shelf recovering from Tommy John until at least August.
Out in the pen health will be a concern. The unit is set to be helmed by two Tommy John arms in Joe Nathan and ex-Royals closer Joakim Soria. There's a lot less experience out there with Mike Adams and Koji Uehara moving on via free agency.
They'll Finally Get Over That Last Hill If...
- Moreland produces and takes pressure off Berkman.
- And thus Berkman gives Texas 450 at bats and a .300/20/75 line.
- Manger Washington cranks up the running game. The speed is there. Use it.
- Darvish keeps the K rate up and cuts the walks.
- Ogando settles in to a 2011 like season.
- Andrus gets off to a great start, but Profar is ready, and the Rangers flip Andrus for a bat and/or bullpen arm.
A Hot Texas Wind Will Blow Their Season Away If....
- Moreland can't hack an everyday role.
- Kinsler continues his quiet deterioration.
- Andrus doesn't respond well to Profar talk.
-Moreland. Now don't go crazy, but if you're looking for a young corner infielder with 20-23 HR upside that won't kill your batting average, you could do worse.
- Kinsler. Sure he has two 30/30 seasons, but don't pay for that now. It ain't gonna happen again.
3. Oakland Athletics
The 2012 Oakland A's remind that what I've been writing here may be a damned waste of time. Did anyone see them winning the AL West? Anyone? And yet they did, and in stunning fashion. On June 30 the A's were 13 games behind the Rangers. They got red hot in July and never cooled. With nine games remaining and five back it appeared too little too late. And yet on the final day of the season Oakland completed a series sweep of the Rangers and took over first place for the first time in 2012. In baseball history no team had made up five games in nine to win. Oakland was quickly dispatched from the post season, but it certainly doesn't diminish what they accomplished with baseball's lowest payroll. To repeat this fete the A's will have to have a lot go right. In 2012 they enjoyed 15 walk off wins. 15! If five of those go the other way they're out of the post season altogether. Can they do it? Probably not, but what the hell. It'll be fun to see if they can.
I told myself I'd try to make it all the way through this piece without a Moneyball reference. So much for that. I'll be brief. Forget about obsession with on base percentage above all else. That was ten years ago, and somehow became a plot point for a Brad Pitt flick (an enjoyable movie I might add.) If you should remember one thing about this oft abused cliche it's this: Moneyball means always tinkering. Big market teams don't tinker. They buy a new Lamborghini or two, but they don't put $500 down on a Corolla from the corner lot. The Oakland A's are the guy down the block that snaps up junkers with faulty wiring and bad transmissions, and fixes them evenings and weekends. What did the guy do? He found value where others didn't. If you play fantasy baseball that's your job too. At least if you want to win every so often.
Let's see what the A's drove off the lot over the winter. There's the always injured Jed Lowire. The one-time Red Sox prospect stopped over in Houston last season where something intriguing was happening before he.... got injured. Out of the shortstop position Lowrie launched 16 dingers in 253 at-bats. He's always hit the ball in the air, but the power had been lying dormant, stirring from sleep long enough to catch the eye of the A's who traded for him in the off season. If they can just keep him vertical.... Catcher John Jaso arrives via trade as well. In 2012 Jaso was like the only girl at an Siberian prom, leading the meek-hitting Mariners at the plate. Jaso doesn't have much power, but he knows how to get on base. And from Japan comes 30-year-old short stop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The Yankees tried to get him a year ago to fill out the bench, but Nakajima wanted to play everyday. He'll get that chance in Oakland. The track record of Japanese position players in the big leagues is middling at best.
Returning are players who played huge roles in the 2012 shocker. Cuban Yoenis Cespedes burst into the bigs with a .292/23/82 line in a rookie season interrupted from time to time with nagging injuries. With health there's no reason to doubt he'll be even better. Josh Reddick never got a chance in Boston. What did the A's find? Say it with me... Value! It was a bumpy second half though. Oakland will need Reddick to take the full ride. Center fielder Coco Crisp can be outstanding. Speed, average, a bit of power.... Not the best arm, and he can never seem to make it through the year without some malady. Last year he missed time with pink eye of all things. As we round out a probable regular line up you can see where the A's value approach most shows their "thrift." Josh Donaldson at third, Brandon Moss at the first, and Adam Rosales at second hardly inspire confidence. Could Jemile Weeks re assert himself at second after a dismal 2012?
Where the A's organization really shines is evaluating pitchers. Cast your eye around the bigs. How many ex-Athletic pitchers are contributing elsewhere? The new crop catches the eye led by hard throwing lefty Brett Anderson. If only the kid could make it through a year.... Behind him are solid youngsters Jared Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily. The problem is Oakland brought back Bartolo Colon after the 39-year old-served a 50-game P.E.D. suspension. Baffling. Griffin and Straily will battle for the fifth spot. As I write Griffin holds a decided Cactus League edge.
Out in the pen Grant Balfour holds the closer role, as he did last spring, only to lose the gig in 2012 to Ryan Cook. Billy Beane has always been a value maximizer with the relief corp. There's no reason to believe they won't be effective again.
They'll Be Money In Oakland If...
- Cespedes stays healthy.
- Reddick doesn't fall off another cliff.
- They get 450-plus at-bats from Jed Lowrie.
- And 500-plus from Coco Crisp.
- Brett Anderson logs 25 plus starts.
They'll Be Broke In Oakland If...
- The A's are crushed by injuries.
- The bench fails to give skipper Bob Melvin the flexibility he has to have.
-Lowrie. Be careful! Don't go early as he's a huge injury risk. If for some reason he can stay healthy, he'll return tremendous profit.
- Nakajima. 30 years old, never much of a hitter in Japan, and doesn't run.
4. Seattle Mariners
Want to have some dark fun? Pop on Wikipedia and peruse the human wreckage that is the first round of the Major League Baseball June draft over the past decade or so. Karl Marx was big on five-year plans and he had an awesome beard so let's start with 2008. The Rays selected shortstop Tim Beckman No. 1 overall that year. Scouts hailed the prep star as the best high school player in America with "five tools," etc. Today? Stalled out in Triple AAA, and scouts now hail his derriere as his best tool. He'll use it to ride the pines as no better than a major league utility man. Meanwhile the Marlins nabbed the Gatorade High School player of the year, catcher Kyle Skipworth, at No. 6. He made it to Double A in 2010 and is now missing.
Don't get me wrong, there are some serviceable big leaugers in the first round, and one star: Buster Posey. Others could still hit big (Aaron Hicks, Yonder Alonso, Eric Hosmer, Pedro Alvarez). Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak was selected 11th in 2008 by the Rangers. The jury is still deliberating on that one, and a verdict is expected by July. The point, of course, is that prospects, even top ones, often flame out. Scouts are wrong, just like the rest of us are wrong about all kinds of stuff. The problem is the Seattle Mariners are loaded with these guys. The M's lead the majors in potential it seems, and in 2013 the organization, and especially general manager Jack Zduriencik, needs to begin to see all that potential turn into production.
Smoak is a good one with whom to start. He was the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee deal of a few seasons back, and has struggled since. Manager Eric Wedge handed him first base this spring, but make no mistake; Smoak must deliver this season. Second sacker Dustin Ackley (pick No. 2, 2009) backed up a strong rookie year with some growing pains last season, hitting just .229. Catcher/DH Jesus Montero has a sweet swing, and managed a .260/15/62 line in his first full season. He seems poised for a breakout, but his defense may never come around. Seattle would like to use him as a DH as much as possible. The problem with that scenario is that Zduriencik brought in three veterans with suspect gloves. A perfect batting order has Montero, Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, and Raul Ibanez all playing DH, but as I write it's still against the rules. Instead Morse will stand like a statue in left, Morales at first and Ibanez off the bench.
Rounding out the outfield is "Death To Flying Things" Franklin Gutierrez in center and rising Canadian national Michael Saunders in right. Guti is a stellar defender marred by all manner of injury and illness. The M's will hope for a full year of his glove and take what offense comes with it. Saunders meanwhile ripped through the recent World Baseball Classic with a .747 batting average. The speedy Saunders has some pop and a good glove. Seattle has been very patient and in 2012 that patience started to pay dividends. Don't be shocked at a Saunders break out.
Kyle Seager was a pleasant surprise at third playing a steady defense and posting a .259 20/86 season. He's probably nearing his ceiling though so don't expect much more than an uptick in batting average. Brendan Ryan is still in the major leagues because he is close to an Ozzie Smith/Omar Vizquel level with the leather. The truly sublime defender can't hit a lick, but you could expect a howl of protest from the pitching staff should Seattle go in another direction.
With a fat new deal Felix Hernandez anchors a Seattle staff in flux. King Felix was brutal to opposing batters in 2012, crowning the year with an August perfect game for the ages. Down the stretch though he was hittable and fatigue was perhaps a factor. Look for him to be in top form on opening night. Behind him are the solid Hisashi Iwakuma, bland lefty Joe Saunders, soft tosser Blake Beavan, and the surprisingly decent Erasmo Ramirez. As I write this, upstart rookie Brandon Maurer has used to a strong spring to vault himself ahead of more touted prospects and into the starter conversation. If that happens Beavan is likely the odd man out. The organization waits patiently for top-flight pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton to make the jump.
The bullpen is young and filled with good arms. Ex-bartender Tom Wilhelmsen is as effective a closer as you'll find outside the top five. Carter Capps is a kid to watch as he can top 100 on the gun. Lefty Charlie Furbush has resurrected a flagging career out of the pen in 2012. He'll be one of the more important cogs. Oliver Perez is still in baseball, and was shockingly effective last season.
A spring filled with home runs and wins has kindled an ember of hope in the northwest. As they say in the Cascade Mountains though, don't sit too close to the fire. Cactus League stats are always as bloated as a beached whale. Until this club does it in a cool, damp Seattle spring it means nothing.
The Sun Will Burn Off The Elliott Bay Fog If....
- The fences coming in at Safeco will help the hitters and not kill the pitchers.
- Morales, Morse, Ibanez, and Jason Bay are more than just veteran leaders with a lot of interesting stories to tell during plane trips.
- Ackley can rebound at the dish.
- Montero can grow into a serviceable big league receiver.
- By June one of the organization's great young arms is ready to contribute in the bigs.
- Top catching prospect Mike Zumino can come up, take over behind the plate, and allow the M's to trade off one of the vets.
- Gutierrez can stay on the field for at least 140 games.
- Smoak hits. He has to.
The Fog Will Never Lift If...
- Opponents enjoy the tighter dimensions more than the M's do.
- This is as good as the kids will be.
- All those innings wear King Felix down.
- The other team hits the ball in Michael Morse's direction.
- The other team hits the ball in Raul Ibanez's direction.
- Morales. People forget that before he snapped his ankle jumping up and down on home plate (vs Seattle, ironically) he had posted a .306/34/108 season. He'll probably never do that again, but in the second half of 2012 the power returned. You could get .280/25/90 cheap here.
- Seager. I say this as a Seager owner. He's fine, and should improve slightly. It's actually hard to find a turd on this club because outside King Felix, everyone will come to you reasonably priced. That said expectations are a bit too high for Seager as a power hitter. Pay for 2012 and hope for an improvement in average.
5. Houston Astros
We might have to travel all the way back to the expansion 1962 Mets to find a club like the 2013 Houston Astros. Ironically the Astros played their inaugural campaign that same year and looked like contenders (as the Colt .45's back then) compared to the laughable '62 boys in Flushing. And that's how you have to view the Astros in 2013, their first in the American League West. This is an expansion team, one that will reach untold levels of ineptitude in an otherwise strong, balanced division.
I'll be brief. First the good news. Most any big league team would love to have speedy 23-year-old Jose Altuve at second. This kid has great plate skills including an improving eye. He can steal plenty of bags, but needs to improve his success rate there. Stanford man Jason Castro is an underrated asset behind the dish. His growth may be hindered by a balky knee however. No. 1 starter Bud Norris has a strike out rate that can stand with anyone's, but needs to continue to improve command.
Yup, that's about it. Some folks are excited about free swinging center fielder Justin Maxwell, but this kid makes less contact than Adam Dunn. That's no way to go through life, son. Matt Dominguez can flash the leather at third, but there's no pop in that bat. The Astros are tired of waiting for Brett Wallace to amount to much, and brought in Carlos Pena to play good defense, and post a .195/20/55 line. Do I need to keep going? Rick Ankiel? Chris Carter? Tyler Greene? Eric Bedard? God awful. The Houston Astros are said to have a fine farm system, but this is a dismal, depressing team with which to enter a new league. The junior circuit is glad to have them of course.
They'll Shoot Their Six Guns If....
- The beer in the park is cold.
- The Texans begin training camp early.
They'll shoot blanks if...
- See above.
50 Wins. Seriously.
-Norris. Cheap strike outs.
- Maxwell. People are projecting things on this kid he's not capable of. Avoid.