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March 5, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Outside Help, AL West

by Jay Jaffe

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The AL West was the American League's weakest division last year, finishing with a .487 winning percentage and a .475 Hit List Factor. The Angels won an MLB-best 100 games, but they were the only team in the division to finish above .500, and they reached the century mark only by setting a record by outdoing their third-order Pythagenpat projection by a whopping 16 wins. All told, the division's HLF was just a single point ahead of the basement-dwelling NL West's mark, and the 12th-lowest of the Wild Card Era.

As with much of baseball beyond the East Coast, it's been a relatively quiet offseason in the AL West when it comes to flashing the cash around. The four teams have spent an average of $13.7 million on free-agent contracts, a bit ahead of the AL Central's mark ($12.4 million), and with the dollar amount of Oakland's Nomar Garciaparra deal still pending. But beneath the surface, a handful of trades have shown that these teams aren't standing still this winter, and PECOTA now foresees a typically tight division race between the two teams that have dominated the division during this millennium.

As we move the Outside Help series on to the AL, we've got a revised set of PECOTA projections to deal with. Some of the player values won't reconcile directly with the ones from the NL series, though perhaps I can ply a willing intern into getting some final numbers once the series is complete. Teams are listed in order of their 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

IN: OF Bobby Abreu (3.2, .294), RP Brian Fuentes (3.1, 3.52), RP Matt Palmer (0.6, 5.74)
OUT: LF Garret Anderson (1.3, .260), SP Jon Garland (2.3, 4.85), SP Nick Green (0.2, 6.12), RP Darren O'Day (1.2, 4.23), RP Francisco Rodriguez (5.7, 3.02), 1B Mark Teixeira (5.1, .308)
NET: -8.9 WARP

The Angels are a most interesting paradox during this winter of discontent. They're a perennially successful big-market club coming off of their fourth division title in five years, a 100-win season in which they had the sixth-highest payroll (according to both Opening Day and final reckonings). Among AL clubs, only the Yankees have outspent them in the free-agent market this winter.

Then again, that was by a mere $400 million or so, which helps to explain why the Angels have taken such a hit in the talent department. They were outbid on Teixeira, who ranked as the most valuable hitter on the market according to PECOTA and who came away with the winter's biggest contract ($180 million), and they decided not to spend that savings elsewhere. They've replaced Teixeira with the inadequate Kendry Morales, the latest in a long line of highly touted infield prospects who haven't really lived up to their hype (Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick); the system says Morales will be worth 0.2 wins below replacement level. They let Rodriguez depart after he set the single-season saves record, and while they struck a reasonable deal for a replacement in Fuentes at less than half the total price tag, the latter doesn't have quite as strong a track record or a forecast. A perennial bullpen powerhouse-with the top four team WXRL finishes in six of the past seven years-they could have chosen to fill from within with Scot Shields or Jose Arredondo, but instead they spent for Fuentes, while letting Garland walk and banking they could replace him with surgically repaired Kelvim Escobar, bruised prospect Nick Adenhart, and Grade D staff filler Dustin Moseley. They made a solid upgrade by replacing Anderson with Abreu, but that was only after re-signing Juan Rivera to a three-year, $12.75 million deal at a time when they've got outfielders coming out of their ears, somewhat neutralizing that gain. All in all, it's a mix of defensible decisions and odd lapses, one that winds up being less than the sum of its parts, unless some of the youngsters on hand live up to their billing.

Texas Rangers

N: SP Kris Benson (0.4, 5.86), SP Casey Daigle (0.6, 5.28), RP Brendan Donnelly (0.6, 4.51), CF Gregory Golson (1.3, .239), RP Eddie Guardado (0.8, 4.5), CF Andruw Jones (1.1, .261), C Adam Melhuse (-0.3, .182), SP Guillermo Moscoso (1.1, 5.27), SP Elizardo Ramirez (0.1, 6.17), RP Derrick Turnbow (0.1, 5.78), SS Omar Vizquel (-0.1, .199)
OUT: RF Milton Bradley (3.9, .311), SP Kameron Loe (1.1, 5.01), OF John Mayberry Jr. (0.4, .235), C Gerald Laird (1.8, .249), RP Wes Littleton (1.2, 4.37), INF Ramon Vazquez (0.9, .26), RP Jamey Wright (1.0, 4.87)
NET: -4.6 WARP

The Rangers are one of two teams who eschewed the free-agent market almost entirely this winter except for minor league deals (the Blue Jays are the other), though it wasn't for lack of trying. An apparent deal with Ben Sheets was scuttled when an MRI confirmed his torn flexor tendon, but that was probably for the best as far as the Rangers are concerned. PECOTA's grim assessment shows them declining from 79 to 73 wins, with a pitching staff lacking a single starter projected to put up an ERA below 5.00; closer Frank Francisco is the only pitcher on the depth chart with an ERA below 4.00. Barring a Steinbrenner-sized outlay on pitching-and perhaps a giant fan in center field selectively employed to blow gusts of cool air against opponents' fly balls-nothing was going to move the needle very much.

Not helping matters is the fact that the offense is forecast to feature OBPs of .335 or below in seven of the nine spots, which simply doesn't cut it in the Rangers' high-offense ballpark. Bumping Hank Blalock to DH from third base in favor of a declining Michael Young, all to make way for the tandem of 20-year-old Elvis Andrus (0.7 WARP, .230 EqA) and the 42-year-old Vizquel-the raw and the cooked-creates subpar offense at three positions in one fell swoop, which is a pretty neat trick as player resource management goes. Still, given the presence of six players on our Top 100 Prospects list, it's clear that better days lie ahead for the Rangers. Clearing out dead wood like Laird to let the youthful catchers (Taylor Teagarden, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Max Ramirez) have their day, and avoiding messy entanglements-such as the one in which Milton Bradley became somebody else's problem-is in their best interest. As one former Rangers owner liked to say, "Mission accomplished."

Oakland A's

IN: SS Orlando Cabrera (1.7, .252), RP Kevin Cameron (0.6, 4.81), 4C Joe Dillon (0.6, .242), 1B Nomar Garciaparra (0.7, .263), 1B Jason Giambi (1.4, .285), RP Edgar Gonzalez (1.0, 4.78), LF Matt Holliday (4.3, .305), RP Chris Schroder (0.8, 4.74, RP Russ Springer (1.4, 3.76), RP Michael Wuertz (1.0, 4.25)
OUT: RP Andrew Brown (0.9, 4.54), OF Emil Brown (0.5, .254), RP Alan Embree (0.7, 4.88), RP Keith Foulke (0.5, 4.38), OF Carlos Gonzalez (1.2, .249), INF Donnie Murphy (0.6, .244), OF Matt Murton (0.9, .255), SP Kirk Saarloos (0.5, 5.68), SP Greg Smith (2.0, 4.88), RP Huston Street (2.2, 3.68), DH Frank Thomas (0.1, .259)
NET: +3.4 WARP

Don't let it be said that Billy Beane hasn't earned his keep during the latest Hot Stove season. In a bleak economic landscape, even as his team's stadium deal crumbled, Beane significantly closed the gap on the Angels and-spoiler alert-wound up as the only AL West team to emerge with a net talent gain. The A's traded some considerably overvalued assets in Street, Smith, and Gonzalez to Colorado for Holliday, a pending free agent whom PECOTA projects to be around the 30th most valuable hitter in baseball in 2009. They brought back Giambi, creating an interesting three-position logjam that the team could parlay into a longer-term gain if they choose to buy more development time for the still-not-ready Daric Barton. They added Cabrera at a significant discount this week, and while the upgrade over Bobby Crosby (1.0 WARP, .243 EqA) isn't huge on paper, the latter has become one of the most thorough disappointments in baseball over the life of his five-year, $12.75 million deal; other than crushing the A's dreams, he's failed to demonstrate aptitude at anything since a productive half-season in 2005. They added some potentially useful middle relief in Springer and Wuertz, and unlike the Angels, avoided buying a closer off the rack. The initial PECOTA projections had the A's ahead of the Angels, and while moves since then have pulled the Halos back ahead, the three-win gap is hardly insurmountable.

Seattle Mariners

IN: RP David Aardsma (1.0, 4.29), 4C Russell Branyan (1.9, .289), 1B Mike Carp (1.2, .262), MI Ronny Cedeno (0.7, .241), OF Endy Chavez (0.8, .249), OF Ken Griffey Jr. (1.1, .272), CF Franklin Gutierrez (1.4, .263), RP Tyler Johnson (0.2, 5.64), SP Garret Olson (1.0, 5.32), RP Luis Pena (-0.2, 6.6), 1B Chris Shelton (-0.3, .238), DH Mike Sweeney (-0.1, .248), RP Jason Vargas (0.5, 4.98), RP Tyler Walker (0.5, 5.08)
OUT: UT Willie Bloomquist (0.1, .234), INF Miguel Cairo (0.1, .238), SP R.A. Dickey (0.7, 5.53), RP Sean Green (1.4, 4.25), INF Tug Hulett (0.9, .249), LF Raul Ibanez (2.2, .285), RP J.J. Putz (3.3, 2.89), OF Jeremy Reed (1.0, .265), 2B Luis Valbuena (1.4, .242)
NET: -1.4 WARP

New GM Jack Zduriencik has been a busy man this winter, and well he should have been, given that last year's Mariners bore the dubious honor of becoming the first 100/100 team in major league history-100 losses with a $100 million payroll. Some GMs might have taken that as a license to spend, spend, spend, but the Mariners have been extremely conservative in the free-agent market, laying out a mere $3.4 million in guaranteed free-agent money for one-year deals with Branyan and Junior Griffey. Where Zduriencik has been busy is in the trade market, striking two major deals. The first was a three-way affair in which the M's shed their increasingly pricey closer-a luxury lost on a 100-loss team-and some other minor goodies for a very mixed bag of assorted parts, including a potential center-field solution in Gutierrez and Chavez, and the outbound player in the second deal, Aaron Heilman (1.3 WARP, 4.54 EqERA). Trading Heilman netted them Cedeņo, an infielder who might end Yuniesky Betancourt's reign of error, and Olson, another hurler in an already-crowded rotation, but one whose development could push the team to trade a more expensive starter somewhere down the road. It still doesn't add up to anything close to a contender, and it isn't even obvious that they'll come out ahead on either deal, but PECOTA has them pegged for just 72 wins at this writing, so as an effort to stop some of the hemorrhaging, it's a solid start.

All in all, the West is one division where the winter's player-acquisition activity has produced a real race for first place as far as PECOTA is concerned. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, and it's particularly important to note that the Angels still have a Teixeira-sized chunk of change in their pockets to spend on an in-season upgrade if needed, while the A's may have a player or two to spin off in a deal to be named later.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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