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February 4, 2008

Spring Training Preview

AL West

by Joe Sheehan

Yeah, great game, whatever. The long, dark winter comes to a close, and we can look forward to what really matters: pitchers and catchers reporting to camps in Florida and Arizona next week. This week, blatantly ripping off paying homage to Nate Silver's off-season previews, I'll be looking at each of the 30 teams as they head into spring training, which begins February 14. Off we go with today's division, the AL West:

Los Angeles Angels

Where: Tempe, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 94-68 (1st, AL West)
New guys: Jon Garland, Torii Hunter
Gone guys:: Orlando Cabrera, Hector Carrasco, Bartolo Colon, Shea Hillenbrand
Wow, he's still here? Juan Rivera saw his potential playing time evaporate when the Angels signed Hunter. He remains on the 40-man roster, buried on the depth chart and hoping for a trade.
Winter grade: B-
The Hunter contract is a lot of money for a player in decline. The Cabrera-for-Garland trade is about as even a swap as you'll see; Garland will benefit from playing in front of a better defense in a better pitchers' park. The Angels didn't solve the too-many-bats problem in the OF/DH spots, and may end up hurting themselves by playing contracts ahead of better hitters.
NRI to watch: With the Halos having this much depth, it's not likely that anyone can make the team as a surprise. Top prospect Nick Adenhart allowed just seven homers in 153 innings at Double-A last year, and is talented enough to have the kind of camp that pushes him in front of Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana for the fifth-starter job.
Job battle to track: Shortstop is chaotic in the absence of Cabrera. Erick Aybar is the prospect, a speedy slap hitter with good defensive tools whose batting average will be his entire offense. Maicer Izturis is the reliable choice, a good fifth infielder who has yet to be asked to take a regular role, and who might be stretched defensively as the everyday shortstop. He'd add some much-needed OBP (.365 and .349 the last two seasons) to the lineup. Prospect Brandon Wood, moved off of shortstop a couple of years ago, is the long shot.
One move to make: Gary Matthews Jr. complicates the roster in the wake of the Hunter signing, and the need to get him playing time will keep Reggie Willits-a critical cog in the 2007 offense-and Kendry Morales-finally coming into his own at the plate-out of the lineup. Trading Matthews, eating salary, and bringing back any kind of prospects would make life easier for Mike Scioscia.

The thing to keep in mind about the Angels is just how easy a path they have at the moment. Neither the A's nor the Rangers are a threat in the division, and while the Mariners won 88 games last season, they weren't quite that good a team. Even if they do add Erik Bedard, at high cost, they don't match up well with the Angels. The Halos may just be the sixth- or even seventh-best team in the league, but they have as good a chance to reach the postseason as any team other than the Red Sox. They can spend a lot of time, in spring training and in the season, focused on three weeks of baseball in the fall.

Oakland Athletics

Where: Phoenix, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 76-86 (3rd, AL West)
New guys: Joey Devine, Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney
Gone guys: Dan Haren, Mark Kotsay, Mike Piazza, Marco Scutaro, Shannon Stewart (Ed. Note. Nick Swisher, too.--JSS.)
Wow, he's still here? Joe Blanton was expected to be on the next plane out following Dan Haren's, but Billy Beane has yet to move the big right-hander.
Winter grade: C
Beane executed the plan to a point, making it clear that the A's are playing for the new park. However, he's still left with the Eric Chavez contract, with Bobby Crosby's deal, and with Blanton. The job is not yet finished.
NRI to watch: Opportunity abounds in this camp. Keep an eye on outfielder Aaron Cunningham, part of the Haren package. Despite being bounced around by a mid-season trade from the White Sox to the Diamondbacks, he performed well in three leagues, and finished the year with 51 walks and 57 extra-base hits to go with a .308 BA. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that he's the best outfielder in the organization right now.
Job battle to track: Bad teams generally have plenty of playing time to be won, and the A's enter camp with question marks in two outfield spots, and arguably at both first base and catcher as well. The best fight, however, could be in the rotation, where new A's Gio Gonzalez and Dana Eveland will put pressure on holdover Lenny DiNardo and relief-to-starter project Justin Duchscherer.
One move to make: Paying Eric Chavez $37 million through 2010 is a waste of money for a team that's trying to spend as little as possible at the moment. The A's have to leverage his first hot streak to get out from under the deal, even if it means taking a small value hit in exchange.

This is the first A's camp in nearly a decade that brings together a team without championship aspirations. That's a hard sell for Oakland fans, who never got a taste of postseason success while the team was good, and now face the prospect of watching bad teams in a lousy ballpark for a few years. There's the potential for excitement here, as Cunningham, Daric Barton and Carlos Gonzalez could form the core of a contender eventually. For now, though, the remnants of the failed Harden/Crosby A's will drift through a tough couple of years.

Seattle Mariners

Where: Peoria, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 88-74 (2nd, AL West)
New guys: Miguel Cairo, Charlton Jimerson, Carlos Silva, Brad Wilkerson
Gone guys: Ben Broussard, Jose Guillen, Jeff Weaver
Wow, he's still here? Cha Seung Baek is in his tenth professional season, all spent with the Mariners. He's never been good enough to keep a job, healthy enough to be trade bait or bad enough to be cut loose. If a trade for Erik Bedard doesn't happen, he'll have perhaps his last chance to make the Mariners' rotation.
Winter grade: I
You can't grade the Mariners with the Bedard deal hanging in the wind. Based on what they've done, I'd give them a C. Silva is just a guy, an innings sponge coming off a good year, not $40 million better than Weaver. Bringing in Cairo lets them make a bad decision on Jose Lopez if they care to do so. The Wilkerson signing was an excellent low-risk move.
NRI to watch: Just because I've always liked the guy, Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes made the Mariners' Opening Day roster last year, but never pitched an inning, going down with a torn ligament in his left elbow that led to Tommy John surgery. He's back with the Mariners this year. In his last two seasons, 2005 and 2006, he struck out 91 batters and allowed just four homers in 89 innings, so there's something left in the tank. Rhodes may not be available until midseason, but he's potentially a quality reinforcement once he gets healthy.
Job battle to track: Should Adam Jones be traded to the Orioles for Bedard, right field opens up for Brad Wilkerson. However, Wilkerson's struggles mean he could end up in a fight with assorted bench players such as Jimerson and Mike Morse.
One move to make: No, not as obvious as it looks. The Mariners' decision to chase Erik Bedard might be justifiable based on talent, but it doesn't fit their needs. Their batting-average heavy offense could use some patience and power, and a corner outfielder or DH who brings those things would be welcomed. Signing Wilkerson is a step in that direction; the M's need him to be their Jack Cust or Carlos Pena in '08. Using Jose Vidro at DH, while getting so little OBP from the infield, is a recipe for an offense that can't win.

The Mariners' record outpaced their performance in '07, which may have set expectations a bit too high in '08, pushing the team to invest in Silva and give up one of the game's best prospects in Adam Jones. Adding Bedard is attractive-he could put up amazing numbers in Safeco Field with an unbalanced schedule-but it's not clear that trading Jones for two years of him, given the team around Bedard, is a wise move. Until this situation is resolved, there will be an air of uncertainty around the Mariners.

Texas Rangers

Where: Surprise, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 75-87 (4th, AL West)
New guys: Milton Bradley, Ben Broussard, Josh Hamilton, Kazuo Fukumori, Eddie Guardado, Jason Jennings
Gone guys: Jerry Hairston Jr., Victor Diaz, Kenny Lofton (Ed. Note: He left last summer.--JSS), Akinori Otsuka, Sammy Sosa, Edinson Volquez, Brad Wilkerson
Wow, he's still here? The Rangers dumped a lot of veterans over the winter, but they retained Frank Catalanotto. The veteran lefty bat doesn't have a clear line on a job, and with the Rangers needing to make decisions on guys like Jason Botts, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy, Catalanotto is a good candidate to end up elsewhere.
Winter grade: B. The Volquez-for-Hamilton trade was a good upside play for a team that had no good center-field option. Jennings and Bradley are nice low-investment free-agent plays, as is bringing in Fukumori, the veteran Japanese reliever. One good winter isn't going to be enough for this team, however.
NRI to watch: Catcher Taylor Teagarden is in camp following a .310/.426/.586 season split between the Cal and Texas Leagues. He's not a threat to make the team. However, follow how well he throws nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and whether he's able to handle regular work behind the plate. In a system lousy with catchers, he's maybe the best of the bunch if healthy.
Job battle to track: C.J. Wilson starts the season as the closer, and his effectiveness late last year aside, his hold on the job is something shy of firm. He has the mechanics and the splits of a specialist, not a closer. Eddie Guardado lurks, and teams love giving him a shot at the job. Realistically, Joaquin Benoit or even Frank Francisco are candidates to take over at midseason.
One move to make: There's not much chance that the Rangers can hang with the Angels this season or next, so Jon Daniels needs to continue 2007's good work by dealing Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and even Michael Young as opportunities arise.

The Rangers will probably get out of the AL West cellar in 2008, if only because the A's will be free-falling past them on their way to 98 losses. Whether they can finish above third for the first time since 1999 depends on assembling a back end of the rotation, and how healthy a collection of injury cases can stay. A lightning strike-like getting 1500 PAs out of Bradley, Hamilton, and Hank Blalock while Jennings, Kevin Millwood, and Vicente Padilla all recreate their peak seasons-could make them a contender, but in the long term, they'd be better off turning whatever good first halves they get into more prospect packages in the Mark Teixeira vein.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  The Who,  Erik Bedard,  Halos

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