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March 29, 2005

Prospectus Today

AL West Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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Wow, there are a lot of White Sox fans out there.

I was surprised by the negative reaction to my projection of a 71-91 season for the South Siders. Taking another look today…I'll stick by it. The offense is going to be pretty bad unless Frank Thomas is both healthy and a monster, and I'm just not as impressed by the pitching staff as the readers seem to be. I expect a late-season fade to push the Sox above 90 losses, as you may see a fire sale once the playoffs are out of reach.

On to the AL West today, where the division once again cleaves into two halves. Angels and A's contending for a title, Mariners and Rangers shooting for 85 wins and maybe the wild card.

The Angels' offensive depth is tremendous, as players such as Casey Kotchman and Juan Rivera, both of whom could start for 20 or so teams, are relegated to the bench or to Triple-A. Their offensive approach won't change; in fact, the additions of Orlando Cabrera and Steve Finley will only enhance the Angels' style: put balls in play and run. As we've observed in the past, it works when you hit .280, and doesn't work when you hit .265.

This has quietly become an old team, and with Kotchman and Dallas McPherson being eased in, a small drop in offense is probable. The Angels' run scoring is largely in the hands of Mike Scioscia, who will have to get at-bats to the right guys.

While Finley has been brought in to play center field, it's likely that he's only the third-best defensive center fielder on the roster behind Rivera and first baseman Darin Erstad. How well he holds up, at age 40, is going to be a big factor in how many games the Angels win. With their flyball staff, the Angels could find themselves giving up a lot of doubles and seeing their runs allowed jump if Finley's range really is gone.

The pitching staff is above average, a collection of mid-rotation guys fronting for a bullpen that strikes everybody out. This year, Matt Hensley and Esteban Yan are the candidates to fill the Kevin Gregg/Brendan Donnelly where-did-he-come-from role, putting up 80 innings of 2.50 ball. I like John Lackey to take a step forward this year, although the outfield defense may hide his progress.

Overall, I don't see a whole lot of change for the Angels. They scored 836 runs and allowed 734 last year, and they'll be within 15 runs of both those figures this year.

The A's have been written off since the back-to-back December trades that cut the Big Three by two-thirds. Those deals, though, didn't make the team that much worse in the short term. They traded away 400-440 innings in Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, neither of whom projects well because of declining strikeout rates. Certainly the two pitchers' 2004 performances can be replaced more easily than their 2003 ones.

I'll predict that the four pitchers the A's acquired in the deals--Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz from the Braves, Dan Haren and Kiko Calero from the Cards--combine to more than replace the innings and the quality that the departed aces had.

This will be a different A's team, with a rotation designed not to carry the team, but to get games to a hard-throwing, nasty bullpen. Cruz and Calero join Octavio Dotel and Huston Street in missing bats, giving Ken Macha many options late in games. They don't have a lefty to match that heat, just Ricardo Rincon, who has been getting pounded a bit more by righties each year. It would do the A's good to further ape the Angels approach, forgoing matchups and just allowing their best relievers to throw complete innings. The improvement in the pen should serve to cut the A's runs allowed, possibly under 720.

The A's offense gets some help with Jason Kendall behind the plate and Keith Ginter replacing a black hole at second base. Unfortunately, many of the A's best hitters in '04 are unlikely to match their production: Erubiel Durazo, Scott Hatteberg and Eric Byrnes could slip by 10 or more runs each. That puts a lot of pressure on MVP candidate Eric Chavez and young A's Bobby Crosby and Nick Swisher. I don't think the offense is going to pick up many runs, and may even lose a few.

Last year, I went right down to Opening Day trying to pick between these two teams. The A's and Angels ended up separated by just one game, and they could be just as close this year. Both will make the playoffs, and with not much to pick between them, I'll give the A's the slight edge due to what could be a dominant bullpen.

The Mariners made significant upgrades of two lineup holes, adding Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to play the infield corners. While I'm not a fan of either contract, it's clear that the two players will be 10 wins better, in total, than the dreck the Ms ran out at their positions in '04.

Nevertheless, the aggregate talent here isn't enough to win me over. I love the two guys the Ms got from the White Sox for Freddy Garcia. The problem is that Jeremy Reed and Miguel Olivo are the sum total of the Mariners' young position-player talent. They're still paying Bret Boone and Raul Ibanez and Randy Winn, and none of those guys are anything special. Ichiro Suzuki's value is tied to his batting average. He hit .312 in 2003 and .372 in 2004, so you make a guess as to what he'll hit this year.

I don't like the Mariners' pitching staff at all. Even with a great park and a strong defense, they gave up 823 runs last season, and they haven't changed much. Felix Hernandez can't arrive too soon to replace the likes of Ron Villone. Bobby Madritsch was a two-month fluke who now looks like the #2 starter. The bullpen doesn't impress me, although it looks better if Rafael Soriano can get healthy and provide some innings. I could see them giving up another 800 runs this year.

The Rangers will regress. They had a ton of things go right last season with their pitching staff, and as much as I love Orel Hershiser, he's a pitching coach, not a miracle worker. His strikes-and-groundballs philosophy served guys like Ryan Drese well for a while last season, and should at least keep the Rangers from reverting to the bad old days of 2001-03. I like Hershiser's chance to make something out of Joaquin Benoit; it just won't be enough, as the bullpen slides back to average and takes the Rangers runs-allowed figure with it.

The offense could be better, as Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira meander towards their peaks. The outfield is still a bit of a mess, with no true center fielder and major OBP issues at all three spots. The Rangers are dinged a bit by the Devil's Theory of Ballpark Effects, believing their offense is better and their pitching is worse than the two actually are. Until they find a way past this, they're going to have a problem.

Projected standings:


             Record     RS    RA
A's           92-70    800   712
Angels        91-71    832   741
Mariners      78-84    765   791
Rangers       76-86    835   881

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Team Health Reports: B... (03/29)
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Prospectus Today: AL C... (03/25)
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Premium Article 2005--Setting the Stag... (03/29)

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