July 8, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
In these waning days before baseball's 82nd annual All-Star Game, I figured that this would be as good a time as there will ever be to take a page out of Michael Jong's playbook and run through the most valuable contributors on each club in the AL West—but with a few modifications.
First, because there are only four teams in this division, and because some very worthwhile contributors would be overlooked if I focused on only the top first-half performer from each team, I've opted to highlight both the best pitcher and the best hitter from each AL West ballclub. Second, I decided to inject a bit more subjectivity into the mix by listing my own picks, which at times vary from the WARP leaders on each team. You may not agree with every pick, but let's give it a spin anyway and see where it takes us:
On its surface, the case for Aybar (.281/.315/.421) over Kendrick (.307/.364/.474) here seems tied almost entirely to the fact that the former plays shortstop and the latter plays second base. I'm more than well acquainted with how positional adjustments work, and I don't want to demean Aybar's very solid offensive accomplishments, but it really is impossible for me to look past the reality that Kendrick is arguably the best-hitting second baseman in the American League this year (Ben Zobrist and Robinson Cano are also in the conversation), whereas Aybar seems to be more along the lines of only the fourth- or fifth-best hitting shortstop in the league.
Now, clearly, I don't know that you can count on Kendrick being able to continue lacing 24.4 percent of his batted balls for line drives, but his improved batting average, patience, and pop this season have sent him well on his way to the breakout year that the baseball community has been anticipating for many years. I just can't look past that when trying to determine one player's worth relative to that of another.
I'd like to concoct a newer, more imaginative way of stating the same old tired truth that Dan Haren and Jered Weaver are the sickest one-two punch in the American League, but it's not coming to me. Perhaps after an episode of “Doctor Who” and a bit of imbibing... nah, forget it. They're both nothing short of amazing, but Weaver still ends up with a leg up on Haren on the basis of his superior homer (0.34 HR/9) and strikeout (7.81 K/9) rates. The fact that Weaver also boasts the lowest ERA (1.92) among all American League starting pitchers is icing on the cake. It's a little too soon to freak about what his price tag will be once he hits free agency in about 16 months' time, but he's making a spirited run at nine-figure territory.
Another six weeks in the lineup might have afforded new franchise second baseman Jemile Weeks (108 PA, .300 TAv, 1.1 WARP) a better chance of toppling Crisp and his rather pedestrian numbers, but I'm not sure it matters so much—in three months' time, Weeks will probably reside atop this list, in no small part because Crisp will likely end up as part of a sell-off by the Athletics. Though he hasn't been bad by any stretch (.266/.307/.389 is usable in center field in this offensive climate), I hesitate to say that he's really been all that great, as his overall value has been undercut by a sharp decline in his walk rate (5.5 percent) relative to the past few years, and he's banking a cool $5.75 million this season. That he's the one who ends up topping this list for Oakland is, um, a bit unsettling to say the least.
It’s a fairly simple choice for a couple of reasons: First, Gonzalez is the closest thing Oakland has to a legitimate power starting pitcher, as his talent for missing bats (8.75 K/9) ranks at the top of the American League pitching leaderboards; it’s one of the primary drivers of his value. Second, the only potential sources of competition, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy, either don't measure up to Gonzalez from a performance standpoint (Cahill), or don't have enough innings amassed to compete with the value Gonzalez has furnished this season (McCarthy). Things are looking dismal in Oakland lately, but having Gonzalez under club control for four more years provides some reason for optimism.
Let's be brutally honest here—this is a fairly tight three-way race between Ryan, Smoak, and Adam Kennedy for the title of "Least Cruddy Position Player In One of the Majors' Worst Lineups," which more closely resembles a backhanded compliment than it does a distinct honor. Ryan, for his part, has compressed decent on-base ability from a shortstop (.317 OBP) and reputed quality defense into a nice, useful, but completely punchless (.309 SLG) package, whereas Kennedy (248 PA, .274 TAv, 1.4 WARP) has boasted more respectable power (.410 SLG) and useful positional flexibility between first, second, and third base.
That said, I shudder to think about where this offense would be right now if it was rolling out the equivalent of 2010 Casey Kotchman (.217/.280/.336) at first base every day instead of Smoak (.244/.346/.444), whose walk rate (13.1 percent) ranks among the best individual marks in the division, whose 20-25 homer pace is priceless in a lineup that's been frightfully low on power, and who may become a more obvious choice as the Mariners' best overall position player of 2011 going forward. (Granted, Dustin Ackley's making a hell of a run at that title already.) Perhaps I'm overvaluing Smoak's offensive contributions in part because of his teammates’ struggles, but there's definitely some wiggle room when you have three candidates this close to each other, and I'm not sure you could go all that wrong picking a single one of them over the others.
Water is wet, grass is green, King Felix is the Mariners' best pitcher... and so it goes. While both the Rangers and Angels have to concern themselves with the potentially impending departure of a frontline starter within the next two years, Hernandez is contractually squared away through 2014. It's very difficult for me to fathom him landing on the trading block unless the Mariners' youth movement has gone horribly awry by the summer of 2013 or so, which is nice from the standpoint of writing this column because, well, his consistency is just so damn fun to watch. From 2009-present, his K/9 has swung from 8.18 to 8.36 to 8.80, his BB/9 from 2.68 to 2.52 to 2.76, and his HR/9 from 0.57 to 0.61 to 0.53. That's even more ridiculous than Michael Pineda has been this year (108.0 IP, 3.36 SIERA, 1.6 WARP); his candidacy for most valuable hurler is stunted to some extent by Hernandez's overwhelming innings total.
There's been an ongoing debate within the Rangers' blogosphere and Twitterverse—oh, how I loathe using those terms—concerning Kinsler's value to Texas this season. His detractors cite his sub-.250 batting average (?!) and seeming propensity for poor bat-on-ball contact at inopportune times as reasons why he has been one of the Rangers' most disappointing properties this season. Setting aside the absurdity of the batting average argument (his .361 OBP is, after all, the best on the team among full-time regulars), I think you could justifiably bring his struggles with runners on base this season (147 PA, .185/.319/.294) to the table if you really wanted to build a heavily context-driven case for another of the Rangers' top position players. That said, I'm rolling with Kinsler as the Rangers' top position player to this point, and doing so with a clear conscience.
But if one did elect to go down that more context-driven path with a better "clutch" performer, the logical next-best choice would be Adrian Beltre (369 PA, .289 TAv, 2.7 WARP), the $80 million man who the Rangers desperately hope will prove capable of locking down their hot corner for the next half-decade. It is somewhat troubling that he's only in the first year of said deal and dropping a meager .317 OBP (and while on the wrong side of 30 to boot), but he's furnished ample middle-of-the-order pop and strong defense at a position where defensive range was a glaring deficiency over the last few years. For the time being, the Rangers are getting what they paid for.
Long a mercurial, frustrating talent, Wilson seamlessly transitioned from a monster high-strikeout set-up man in 2009 to a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in 2010, and has enjoyed even further improvement in 2011, with both his strikeout (7.9 K/9) and walk (2.8 BB/9) rates meaningfully improving, his SIERA plummeting by more than half a run, and his overall body of work being rewarded by way of his first All-Star appearance. The problem for Texas, of course, is that he can walk via free agency after this season, which would leave a sizable dent at top of their rotation. For his part, Wilson insists that he wants to remain in Texas for the long haul, but I'm not assuming much of a hometown discount. There's a real case to be made here for Alexi Ogando as the top pitcher (97.2 IP, 3.94 SIERA, 2.1 WARP), but I can't bring myself to eschew Wilson’s credentials here.