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March 20, 2003

Prospectus Today

AL West Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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This piece was originally scheduled for today because the A's and Mariners were to open the 2003 baseball season Tuesday morning in Tokyo. With the threat and now the start of war in Iraq, those games were cancelled, meaning the season will now begin March 30 in Anaheim, conveniently for me between two AL West teams.

So I'll kick off a six-column preview--one division per day--with the AL West, and continue through both leagues next week, no doubt making an egregious error in judgment along the way that you're all encouraged to remember come August.

Oakland Athletics

Are the A's the best team in baseball? Maybe, although you'll get arguments from a few Northeast cities. What they are, without a doubt, is the team with the highest upside in baseball, the team with a real chance to start the season 25-6 or something and bury the league, chasing 105-110 wins. A couple of years ago, when the A's were beginning their run and had "surprise team" status, Billy Beane famously said that his 2000 team would be the worst he put on the field for years to come. He was right, and it's possible that the 2003 version will be the peak year that brings a flag to Oakland.

The A's current run started when Beane collected undervalued talent like John Jaha, Matt Stairs, and Olmedo Saenz to put runs on the board. That team gained a reputation as a softball team, the poster children for OBP. Since then, the A's have developed three of the top starters in baseball and changed the team's image from one of slow sluggers to sleek slingers, making the current A's an excellent match for the Braves of the 1990s, right down to the disappointing Octobers.

This year, the two versions meet. The Big Three are set for another big season, joined by a better edition of Kent Mercker in Ted Lilly. For the first time in three years, though, the A's have an offense that's a threat to be the best in the league. Erubiel Durazo will be the 35-homer guy they lacked with Jason Giambi gone, three players are reaching the theoretical peak age of 27, and only Miguel Tejada is a candidate to decline from his 2002 performance. Nine-hundred runs is a reasonable target.

The biggest improvement is in the defense, which missed Johnny Damon in center field last year and now has a reasonable defensive facsimile in Chris Singleton. That allows Terrence Long to slide to a position he can actually play, left field. Singleton won't be a great hitter, but the defensive upgrade he provides over Long is probably worth 2-3 wins to a team that plays in a park with a spacious outfield.

The A's aren't perfect, but the combination of established studliness and players coming into their prime is hard to resist. While dependent on big seasons from the trio of Zito, Hudson and Mulder, they also have the depth to withstand an injury to any one of the three, and enough tradable chits in the system to patch the roster on the fly. If they don't win the division, it will be an upset.

Key player: Long. He's a left fielder now; will moving back to a position he can handle jump-start his stagnant bat, or will his contract finally have to be called a failure? The A's need him to be a .280/.340/.450 hitter.

The next two teams are hard to separate, being quite disparate in shape and style. That I've placed them in the order I have reflects my belief in the Plexiglass Principle as much as specific qualities of the teams involved. They could very well tie for second this year.

Texas Rangers

The last two seasons, I've expected the Rangers to score enough runs to make up for their lousy pitching staff, and both times, it hasn't happened. Their brutal rotations the last two seasons have gotten most of the attention, but the real problem has been the underachieving offense. It's hard to see 890-run and 843-run seasons as "disappointing," but in the context of The Ballpark in Arlington, and what expectations were going into each season, they were.

This year, I again see a lineup that could score 950-1000 runs, with perhaps the best infield in baseball and more depth than Sartre. They'll miss Ivan Rodriguez's bat, to be sure, but no team in baseball has two hitters like Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira knocking on the door.

It will behoove the team to give up some of that offensive edge, though, because what has been seen as a pitching problem the past two years has, at least in part, been a defensive one. The Rangers haven't had a real center fielder, and that's hurt them with a staff that was in the middle of the pack at striking guys out and getting ground balls. This year, the defense might be better, with Doug Glanville getting the nod in center field instead of Carl Everett, and that would make a significant difference to the team's run prevention. It would cost some runs on offense, but the Rangers must focus on run prevention right now, having allowed more than 1,800 runs the past two seasons.

The Rangers play in the AL's version of Coors Field, and now have the deep bullpen to survive the 8-7 games they play three nights a week. Adding Ugueth Urbina on the cheap pushes everyone forward in the game and keeps hard-throwing Francisco Cordero from being wasted in one-inning save situations. Cordero was arguably the best reliever in the AL in the second half last year.

Investing $65 million in Chan Ho Park was a mistake, but they'll have to live with it, and at least he should provide innings. They've filled in with some low-cost innings guys--John Thomson, Ismael Valdes--to support young arms like Joaquin Benoit and Colby Lewis. The rotation doesn't need to be the 1993 Braves; it does need to keep the team in games with 5-6 good innings a night, because while Todd Van Poppel may be a punchline to some people, having him as your fifth right-handed reliever is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Buck Showalter has built two teams to the point of winning championships, only to wear out his welcome before the champagne was poured. He has the roster and the resources to win here, and there are few managers I'd rather have running my team. It might not happen in 2003, but it's not going to take long, either.

Key player: Alex Rodriguez. If the disk injury costs him even 100 at-bats, the Rangers won't be a factor. He's that important.

Anaheim Angels

The World Champions were a different team in October than they had been up to that point, slugging .512 in the postseason vs. .433 prior to that. I'll submit that if they can keep that pace up, they'll win 100 games and have a great shot at serving as the filler in between Boston Public promos this fall.

That's tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the real question is the Angels' ability to put the ball in play. They struck out fewer times last year than any full-season team since 1992. It's clearly a team approach, and probably one that can be replicated. If so, can the Angels keep the extra 100-200 balls in play they're getting from hitting too many gloves, and their ground balls from ending up as 4-6-3 double plays? It's one of the most interesting questions of the season.

I think the Angels can sustain a good chunk of the offensive benefit they got from their unorthodox strategy last year, but they certainly will be working on the margin. They walked just 462 times last year, 11th in the AL, and that's not a number you can expect them to raise. They have to hit .280 to sustain a league-average OBP, and score enough runs to win. If they hit, say, .270--and 10 points of BA is a mild swing, even over a full season--the resulting lack of baserunners could hamstring the offense. As I pointed out in a newsletter article last fall, the Angels' offensive mix was rare, and teams with that mix tended to see their runs scored decline the next season.

The Angels allowed the fewest runs in the AL last year, largely on the strength of a tremendous defense. All of the principal players are back, and of those, only Tim Salmon in right field is someone you might expect to be less effective with the glove. The defense will be the best thing about the Angels this year, good enough to keep them in the top five in run prevention all by itself.

The pitching staff is almost an afterthought, because more than with most teams it serves as a mechanism for letting the defense work. They'll start the year behind the eight ball with an injured Jarrod Washburn, although the rest of the rotation is intact, and should be reasonably effective. Mike Scioscia does great work in letting performance, not reputation, history, or service time, dictate roles. It's his signature skill, and you can expect him to continue with that this year. If Francisco Rodriguez or Brendan Donnelly doesn't pitch well, Scioscia will not hesitate to find a replacement, so you can expect the bullpen to once again be strong.

The Angels clearly can be in the mix for a wild card, although I'd put the loser in the AL East ahead of them for sure, in part because they'll play an easier schedule. They'll be between 82 and 88 wins, disappointing only to people with unrealistic expectations. Everything can't go right every year.

Key player: Darin Erstad. Love the glove, but a .320 OBP in the #2 slot is a recipe for disaster. He needs to show that he's more than the .254 EqA hitter he's been for the last two seasons, or the Angels have to find a more appropriate offensive role for him.

Seattle Mariners

It's hard to believe that we're just two seasons removed from 116 wins, but the Mariners are now a fading team, aging rapidly and victimized by a series of injuries to their best prospects. In another division--a Central one--they might be a contender. Like the Rangers of the past two seasons, they may find their weaknesses exploited early and often by better baseball teams, with a long, lonely season in the cellar to follow.

The lineup is in decline. Only two hitters, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez provide both OBP and power, with the rest of the lineup lacking either one or the other (and in some cases, both). It is an incredibly old lineup, with just three regulars (Ichiro Suzuki, Randy Winn and Carlos Guillen) under 30, so it's hard to see where improvement over last year's 814 runs is going to come from.

The Mariners' rotation filled with question marks. Freddy Garcia was ineffective down the stretch last year, and behind him are a 40-year-old who fits the Tommy John mold and a 24-year-old with John's strikeout rate. Check Joel Piniero's splits: He strikes out less than six men per nine as a starter, as opposed to almost nine per nine out of the bullpen. It's entirely possible that the final two spots will be an open audition all year, but Ryan Franklin and the living ghost of Gil Meche should start the season as the #4 and #5 guys.

The M's will put a great defense on the field, essentially playing three center fielders in the pasture. The bullpen should still be excellent, with the trio of Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson making games six innings long. Those attributes, however, aren't enough to hang with the bigger boys in a division that keeps getting tougher every year.

Key player: Mike Cameron. He's been a tremendous hitter away from Safeco, but overall, his high strikeout rate has dragged down his batting average and OBP. If he can hit .270, he can be the third big bat in this lineup, the one they desperately need.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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