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October 18, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

Offseason Plans, AL West

by Nate Silver

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This is the third of a six-part preview of the impending offseason. Today, we cover the AL West, because it's kind enough to have only four teams, none of whom remain in the playoffs.

Part I: AL Central
Part II: NL Central

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2007 Record: 94-68, first place
2007 Attendance: 3.4 million, second in the AL
2007 Payroll: $109 million, fourth in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): RHP Bartolo Colon
Key Free Agents (2008): RHPs John Lackey (club option) and Francisco Rodriguez, SS-R Orlando Cabrera, RF-R Vlad Guerrero (club option), LF-L Garret Anderson (club option), OF-R Juan Rivera, LHP Darren Oliver
Key Long-Term Commitments: CF-S Gary Matthews, $10.5M/year through 2011; RHP Kelvim Escobar, $9.25M/year through 2009; RHP Scot Shields, $4.9M/year through 2010; RHP Justin Speier, $4.75M/year through 2010
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: 3B-R Brandon Wood, MI-S Erick Aybar, 1B-S Kendry Morales, RHP Nick Adenhart, LHP Joe Saunders
Needs: 1. LF; 2. DH
What They Should Do: Strong Buy. The philosophical question the Angels must ask is whether they're competing with the Mariners, Rangers, and Athletics-or the Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians. If it's the former, the team is probably strong enough to win the division unimproved. There are a few options for the corner slots that would be somewhere between league average and replacement level: make Reggie Willits your right fielder, endure another year of Garret Anderson in left, and Vlad becomes your DH, or permute that by moving Chone Figgins back to the outfield, and handing third base over to Maicer Izturis or Brandon Wood. Still, the incumbents are relatively weak-maybe not George W. Bush in '07 weak, but at least Carter in '80 weak-and the marginal gain from bringing on superstar talent is therefore relatively high. Nor are the Angels any longer a team whose future is ahead of it; a lot of prospects have either graduated (Howie Kendrick, Casey Kotchman) or burned out (Jeff Mathis, and now perhaps Wood), and the total talent stock is probably peaking right about now. Coming off five straight years of three million-plus in attendance, the Angels are at a crossroads, where they can massively inflate their franchise valuation and become Red Sox West with a World Series title, while still having some bailout options as a lot of money is coming off the books in 2008 or 2009. Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds should be target numbers 1 and #1A.
What They Will Do: Strong Buy. It's perhaps the best individual fit for both Rodriguez and Bonds. I'd give 50-50 odds that the Angels snag at least one of them, with a decent chance that they go after both.

Seattle Mariners
2007 Record: 88-74, second place
2007 Attendance: 2.7 million, sixth in the AL
2007 Payroll: $106 million, seventh in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): RHP Jeff Weaver, RF-R Jose Guillen (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): C-R Kenji Johjima, LF-L Raul Ibanez, 1B-R Richie Sexson, 1B-L Ben Broussard, LHP Horacio Ramirez
Key Long-Term Commitments: CF-L Ichiro Suzuki, $17M/year through 2012; 3B-R Adrian Beltre, $12M/year through 2009; LHP Jarrod Washburn, $10.1M/year through 2009; RHP Miguel Batista, $9M/year through 2009; DH-S Jose Vidro, $8.5M in 2008, plus a 2009 option that will almost certainly vest; RHP J.J. Putz, $4.2M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt, $3.4M/year through 2011, plus 2012 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: CF-R Adam Jones, C-R Jeff Clement, RF-R Wladimir Balentien, OF-L Jeremy Reed, RHPs Brandon Morrow and Cha Seung Baek, LHPs Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Frierabend
Needs: 1. Two quality starting pitchers; 2. 2B
What They Should Do: Weak Sell. You take some of that goodwill that you generated by re-signing Ichiro and call it a consolidation year, and play for 2009, which means being willing to trade useful players like Kenji Johjima and Raul Ibanez. The Mariners were a 79-83 Pythagorean team, and even that record was established with some unlikely performances from the likes of players like Vidro and Batista. They'd need to acquire at least two second-rank quality starters to have a tangible shot at the playoffs, and those sorts of players will be prohibitively expensive this winter if they're available at all. On the other hand, things look pretty good for 2009; Jones, Balentien, and Clement will have full-time roles nailed down if they don't get them in 2008, while several bad contracts come off the books.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. The Mariners are in a relatively dangerous position, coming off a year in which they were speciously close to the playoffs, and led by a GM who understands neither the value of young talent nor things like Pythagorean records. I envision a trade involving either Balentien or Jones for starting pitching, which may actually fetch something, but at too high a price.

Oakland A's
2007 Record: 76-86, third place
2007 Attendance: 1.9 million, 12th in the AL
2007 Payroll: $79 million, 17th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): LF-R Shannon Stewart, DH-R Mike Piazza
Key Free Agents (2008): 2B-R Mark Ellis, CF-L Mark Kotsay, RHP Rich Harden (club option), LHP Alan Embree (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: 3B-L Eric Chavez, $11.3M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; SS-R Bobby Crosby, $8.75M/year through 2009; OF/1B-S Nick Swisher, $6.1M/year through 2011, plus 2012 club option; RHP Dan Haren, $4.75M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: DH-L Jack Cust, 1B-L Daric Barton, RF-L Travis Buck, OF-L Chris Snelling, C-R Kurt Suzuki, LHP Dallas Braden
Needs: 1. LF; 2. Relief Pitching; 3. SS
What They Should Do: Strong Sell. Sorry, but there's not enough here to reach the playoffs in a league where it could require 95 wins to do so. The best reasonable-case scenario is that two out of the three of the Harden/Chavez/Crosby group comes back strong, two out of three from the Haren/Blanton/Cust group sustain their 2007 breakouts, and two out of three of Barton/Buck/Suzuki develop faster than expected. All that happens, plus some Billy Beane mojo, and I still think you're looking at 87, 88 wins, tops. All that happens and you've signed Barry Bonds and well-maybe. But realistically, the A's 79-83 Pythagorean record is a pretty fair representation of their true talent level, and there are just as many scenarios where things get a little ugly.

The A's have quite a few pitchers who could fetch a ton in trade: Harden, Blanton, and maybe even Dan Haren for the right offer; second baseman Mark Ellis has value as well. They also have a lack of superstar-caliber prospects in the system. If the 2010 versions of Barton, Buck and Suzuki are the third-, fifth-, and seventh-best players on your team, you're probably a playoff club, but not if they're one-two-three. So I blow things completely up, bear the consequences of a 100-loss season, and turn in my Get Out of Jail Free card when Crisco Field opens in 2011, or perhaps the year before.
What They Will Do: Weak Sell. A lot of this is going to depend on whether Billy Beane has the energy in him to do another reboot.

Texas Rangers
2007 Record: 75-87, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 2.4 million, eighth in the AL
2007 Payroll: $68 million, 21st in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): OF/1B-L Brad Wilkerson, Bobblehead-R Sammy Sosa
Key Free Agents (2008): 3B-L Hank Blalock (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: SS-R Michael Young, $14.1M/year through 2013; RHP Vicente Padilla, $11.5M/year through 2009 plus 2010 club option; RHP Kevin Millwood, $10.5M/year through 2010; LF-L Frank Catalanotto, $4M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: C-S Jarrod Saltalamacchia, RHPs Eric Hurley and Edinson Volquez, LHPs Matt Harrison and Kason Gabbard, OF-R John Mayberry Jr., DH-S Jason Botts, 2B-R German Duran
Needs: 1. two quality starting pitchers; 2. CF; 3. Big bats at the corners
What They Should Do: Hold. It's a lame answer, but as presently configured the Rangers are a lame team. Although the Rangers underperformed their Pythagorean record, they also outscored their equivalent runs total by 50, which means that they actually overperformed their third-order wins total. Much of that was with players like Mark Teixeira and Kenny Lofton in the lineup, guys who won't be around next year. The reason I term this a "hold" rather than a sell is because:

  1. The Rangers don't have a lot of tradable commodities. It's hard to move pitchers that have ERAs that begin with a five, and Hank Blalock, their most attractive asset, is coming off injury;
  2. I worry about the brand's value long-term if you trade a guy like Blalock. Dallas/Ft. Worth is inherently one of the weaker markets as far as baseball avidity, and you don't have the built-in reset of an new ballpark opening, the way you do in Fremont or Minneapolis. There's too much chance that you go into the Springfield Mystery Spot if you punt and never come back. With that said, if Jon Daniels could do as well for Blalock as he did for Mark Teixeira, you throw caution to the wind.
What They Will Do: Strong Buy. Evan Grant actually addressed this exact question in an article a couple of weeks ago. The Rangers will adopt an all-or-nothing approach, he says, either targeting premium free agents or letting things play out organically, but not just signing players to fill holes. That's certainly the right line of thinking (or rhetoric); a big buy is much superior to a small buy, although probably inferior to a hold. I'm guessing that the Rangers do get past that tipping point and go the big-buy route. For one thing, their needs are very well aligned to this market, which is heavy on outfield talent. For another, if Daniels is playing for 2011, he might not be around to see it. For a third, Tom Hicks may believe that the brand needs a kick-start, as the Rangers lack marketable players. The truth is that a big buy wouldn't be too bad so long as the currency is cash rather than prospects. It's only Mr. Hicks's money, after all, but it's still unlikely to get the Rangers into the playoffs.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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