I want to start this by thanking everyone who showed up Saturday afternoon for the first SoCal Pizza Feed. It was a great thrill to meet so many BP supporters, and I hope all of you enjoyed it as much as Dave and I did.
I've been spending a lot of time writing about baseball's economic issues. I still have to do a few columns on that, and I will return to the topic later this week. Today, though, I want to focus on the game on the field. Hey, it's 80 degrees and sunny here; I'm all ready for the season to begin!
One of the things I'm really looking forward to this year is the American League West. The two best teams in baseball played here last season, and both the A's and Mariners can be expected to break 90 wins in 2002. Add in the much-improved Texas Rangers, and there's the potential for a three-team race among very good teams that will provide suspense even with the wild card guaranteeing two of them spots in the postseason.
The Mariners are coming off a season in which they tied the single-season record for wins. They ran away with the AL West by scoring more runs and allowing fewer runs than any team in the AL. They had young players develop as expected (Freddy Garcia), some pleasant surprises in Bret Boone and Ichiro Suzuki, and a core of veterans who helped drive the offense with good plate discipline and high batting averages (Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, and Mark McLemore).
The Ms return this season with essentially the same cast that romped last year. David Bell has been replaced at third base by Jeff Cirillo, a move that should be worth about 10-20 runs at the plate, with little or no dropoff in the field. Ben Davis takes over behind the plate, with Dan Wilson moving to a backup role; that should also be a positive change. Ruben Sierra has been signed to play left field, and will share time there with McLemore. The Mariners didn't get much from their left fielders last season, and it's unlikely they'll do much better this time around. Aaron Sele left as a free agent, but the Mariners shouldn't feel the loss much, what with Joel Piniero ready to take his rotation spot.
Essentially, this is the same Mariners team we watched last year, which means their shot at repeating will hinge on the performance of the returning core. Let's see what Wilton projects for the top five hitters in the Mariners lineup, and shortstop Carlos Guillen:
Player AVG OBP SLG EqA EqR Chg 2001 - 2002 Ichiro Suzuki .362 .417 .518 .325 124 +3 Mike Cameron .271 .364 .488 .295 87 -14 Bret Boone .282 .342 .512 .287 94 -32 Edgar Martinez .279 .392 .504 .309 95 -17 John Olerud .284 .389 .462 .291 101 -11 Carlos Guillen .285 .372 .416 .279 62 +5
Overall, we can expect these six guys to be off by about 60-70 runs. With Cirillo and Davis making up some of that, it's not unreasonable to suggest that while the Mariners won't match last year's performance at the plate, they could again have one of the best offenses in the AL. Combined with a deep pitching staff and a defense that should be just as good as it was in 2001, the Mariners are hard to dismiss as a one-year fluke.
There are two reasons to worry about this team. One is the age of their core. The decline projected above is fairly mild, but given that Boone, Martinez, Olerud, Sierra, McLemore, and Cirillo are all 32 and above, it's possible that the collective dropoff could be more steep. If any of the 3-4-5 guys fall off a cliff, the Ms are going to have a major hole in the middle of the order.
The other, related, issue is the health of the team. The Mariners were fairly lucky in this department last year, with only Edgar Martinez and Carlos Guillen missing significant time to injuries. Jay Buhner did miss virtually the entire season, but it's not likely that he would have been a positive contributor, especially if forced to play left field for any length of time.
Again, with so many past-prime players in the fold, it's possible that the Mariners will be less fortunate in 2002, and they don't have the kind of depth that will allow them to survive an injury to a key regular. Mark McLemore is a great Band-Aid, but he's not big enough to cover the scab that would be created if Cameron, Olerud, or Martinez were to miss significant time.
The A's had one of the best runner-up performances of all time, winning 102 games and still never sniffing the Mariners' exhaust fumes. Many people are writing them off this year due to the departure of free agents Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. However, the A's have imported younger, less expensive versions of two of those players in Carlos Pena and Billy Koch.
Pena won't match Giambi's MVP-caliber numbers; he will be a contributor–Wilton projects a .281 EqA–and will save the team $15 million in the process. Koch has a live arm and the opportunity to work with Rick Peterson; he could well be better than Isringhausen going forward, and will certainly be less expensive for the next two years.
While the A's have been popular in analyst circles for their emphasis on plate discipline and power, the real keys to last year's team were the great performances by the young starting pitching and the improved defense behind them, especially in the outfield. This is where they'll miss Damon; he didn't hit last year, but having him in center field, with Terrence Long in left, was a significant upgrade over the 2000 outfield defense. Long moves back to center field this season, with some combination of David Justice and Jeremy Giambi in left. That's a significant hit, one likely to show up in all the pitchers' numbers, especially those of Erik Hiljus and Barry Zito.
Like the Mariners, the A's were lucky last year in the health department. They used exactly six starting pitchers all season, and only saw Jose Ortiz miss any significant time to injury (about a month). They go into this season already carrying one big concern–Jermaine Dye's knee–and having added the aging David Justice. The A's have more offensive depth than the Ms do, and are better prepared to weather an injury to a key contributor.
The relative good fortune each of these teams had in 2001 is a stark contrast to the dark cloud under which the Texas Rangers played their season. Having added a peck of aging veterans in an effort to win immediately, the Rangers were riddled with injuries; other than stalwarts Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, no Ranger appeared in more than 133 games. Neither manager Johnny Oates nor general manager Doug Melvin made it through the year.
Simply having better luck with keeping players healthy should be worth a few wins to the Rangers. However, like the Mariners, the Rangers have an aging lineup, and expecting all their key players to stay off the disabled list is wishcasting. When they are healthy, though, the Rangers are going to rake. Here's their lineup, along with Wilton's EqA and EqR projections:
Player AVG OBP SLG EqA Rusty Greer .286 .372 .474 .279 Ivan Rodriguez .335 .376 .578 .302 Alex Rodriguez .329 .413 .641 .333 Rafael Palmeiro .266 .378 .555 .298 Juan Gonzalez .298 .358 .553 .291 Carl Everett .301 .364 .542 .292 Gabe Kapler .293 .379 .480 .284 Mike Lamb .294 .345 .453 .261 Mike Young .282 .344 .431 .258 Frank Catalanotto .320 .383 .500 .291
Yummy. This doesn't include the game's #1 prospect, Hank Blalock, a human doubling machine who might blow past Mike Lamb and Frank Catalanotto in the next few weeks. Wilton projects him to hit .305/.373/.475.
Of course, the Rangers had the second-best offense in the AL last year, and it didn't do them much good. Hope comes in the form of a rebuilt pitching staff: the Rangers added a new front of the rotation in Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes, and shored up the bullpen in front of Jeff Zimmerman with Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell, and John Rocker.
Even with an improved mound cohort, the Rangers are going to have trouble keeping runs off of the board. Not only is their park the best hitters' environment in the American League, but their starting outfield of Gonzalez, Everett, and Rusty Greer may be the worst defensive unit in the circuit. While the new bullpen strikes out a ton of guys, the rotation outside of Park doesn't, leaving open the possibility of the Rangers being doubled to death.
Enter Oscar Acosta. Acosta was the Cubs' pitching coach last season, and presided over the greatest strikeout staff in the history of the game. As Rany Jazayerli noted last summer, nearly every pitcher on the Cubs' staff increased their strikeout rate, some by two or three per game.
Acosta is the key man for the Rangers. If he can work the same magic in Arlington that he did in Wrigley, the shaky defense and great hitters' park can be partially taken out of play by the pitching staff. This team is going to score 900 runs. If it can hold everyone else to 800, it will put a scare into the other contenders.
It's only February, a bit early for even pre-season predictions. I can say, though, that this division has all the makings of a great battle. Right now, I believe the A's have a slight edge on the Mariners, who have a larger edge on the Rangers. Any of these teams can win the division; they might have the two best pitching staffs and the three best offenses in the league. The A's have the most upside in 2002, but also the most risk, relying on a young rotation and replacing the second-best player in the league on the fly.