Today I will look at my last reason Angels fans could be pessimistic about their team’s chances in the upcoming season. These aren’t necessarily apocalyptic, worst case scenarios (Pujols busted for deer antler spray and begins fawn mutation, Weaver retires and starts a garage band, etc.) but are things that could negatively impact the ball club and wouldn’t take a large stretch of the imagination. For Part 4, click here.
5) The AL West is Going to be Brutal
Even with the addition of the doormat Houston Astros, the AL West, in my mind, will be the best division in baseball. In Parts 1-4 of this series, I wrote about some internal reasons the Angels could struggle to live up to their lofty expectations this year. The scary thing, though, is that even if everything with the season goes fine (Trout replicates 2012, the bullpen holds up, the starting rotation is OK), it still might not be enough to overcome the A’s and Rangers for the AL West crown. Had the Angels won 92 games last year (they won 89), they would have still missed the playoffs. And 92 wins is a great year! So even if the Angels improve by three wins, it’s entirely possible Angel fans are living vicariously through other teams come October.
Of course, we need to assess the Angels competition in the West, so let’s start with the reigning division champs, the Oakland A’s. As you know, the A’s were expected to place a distant fourth in the division after trading staff stalwarts Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez in the offseason. Then, shocking everyone, they stormed to the title after sweeping the Rangers in a 3-game home series to conclude the regular season. The circumstances to their success are even more shocking: 10 pitchers started at least four games, and they hit the sixth most home runs in the AL (the powerful Angels finished seventh) despite featuring an offense that was stocked with no-names, youngsters and retreads.
The season was was a masterful display of utilizing depth and platoons to one’s advantage while having a blini thin payroll. Given their unexpected 2012 resurrection and remaining lack of star power, it may be tempting to write off 2012 as a fluke and project the 2013 A’s as a roughly 80-win team. It wouldn’t be surprising if the A’s faltered, but I wouldn’t bet against them. Their position players, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, are still young and developing. Reddick, 26, took advantage of his first year as a full time big leaguer and posted a team best 32 home runs and 4.8 fWAR. The slash line is nothing impressive (.242/.305/.463), but a low .269 BABIP may have had something to do with that. Cespedes, 27 and entering only his second year in MLB, had an impressive rookie year that earned him a second place finish in Rookie of the Year voting.* Cespedes flashed the prodigious power he was known for in Cuba, hitting 23 homers and slugging .505, 12th best in the AL. The .326 BABIP could dip a bit this year (although Cespedes has good speed that could make up for any lack of luck), but another year of big league development could offset regression.
* There is no shame in finishing second to Mike Trout’s 2012.
While Oakland’s power certainly surprised everyone, the 2012 A’s made their bones with pitching. Similar to the offense, the staff wasn’t led by stars, but depth. The A’s staff had the third best FIP in the American League (3.89), trailing only AL champ Detroit and near-playoff team Tampa Bay. That’s more impressive considering the staff was beset by numerous injuries (de facto ace Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson) and a Bartolo Colon PED suspension, it’s astounding they managed to stay in the race, let alone win the division. The revelations on the staff were a pair of rookies: Jarrod Parker (acquired in the Cahill deal) and Tommy Milone (acquired in the Gonzalez deal). The two combined for 6.4 fWAR and were the two reliable constants for the rotation all year. Like the two young offensive stars, these two Oakland pitchers** will continue to develop and improve with maturation. That third best AL FIP suggests that regression may not be too severe — the 4.20 xFIP is less friendly, but remember, the A’s pitch in one of the best homer suppressing environments in the league and play ample road games in two others (Anaheim and Seattle), so home run regression also likely won’t kill the staff.
** Not to mention the other young Oakland pitchers that played well last year: Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin.
And, man, did I love what Billy Beane did this offseason. In October they dealt light hitting SS Cliff Pennington to the Diamondbacks in a 3-team trade and acquired centerfielder Chris Young, an elite defensive player with 25-homer type power (Beane just loves rooking Kevin Towers, doesn’t he?). In January, the A’s acquired catcher John Jaso from the Mariners in another 3-teamer (they sent some prospects to the Nationals). Jaso will likely platoon with Derek Norris and face right handed pitchers, who he absolutely mashed last year to the tune of a .401 wOBA (.350 career). And finally, in February, the A’s traded Chris Carter (a poor defensive first basemen who struggles against right handers) to the Astros for shortstop Jed Lowrie. Lowrie is a lock to get hurt, but when he plays he’s effective (2.5 fWAR last season in only 97 games).
None of those moves had the sex appeal of the Angels’ last two winters, but they may be just as effective. The A’s have built impressive depth and upside at every position. If, say, Albert Pujols or Jered Weaver went down with a significant injury, that would be a major blow to the Angels playoff chances. The same can’t really be said for the A’s. Top to bottom, they might just have the deepest roster in baseball. It’s an interesting contrast to the Angels, who might have the best top heavy talent in baseball. Which philosophy wins out this year?
The Rangers, surprisingly, came out of the offseason as the big losers, at least for teams with a realistic goal of winning a championship. They failed to sign Zack Greinke or acquire Justin Upton via trade. Their best move was probably trading Face of the Franchise Michael Young to Philadelphia. Gone are solid pieces like Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Scott Feldman. And, you may have heard, they also lost their best slugger Josh Hamilton to a division rival, prompting a minor hissy fit from GM Jon Daniels* (although receiving the Angels first round draft pick this June has to relieve the sting a bit).
* Admittedly, I loved Daniels’ subtle jab that the Angels “were a great team on paper beforehand” and are “a great team on paper now.” That’s 80-grade trash talk.
Despite the winter shortcomings, the Rangers still might be the most talented team in the American League. The offense led the AL in runs scored last season — Hamilton’s departure will hurt, no doubt, but the club has a litany of other options to keep the offense afloat. Adrian Beltre, the one that got away, has accrued 12.1 fWAR in his two seasons in Texas. Elvis Andrus, despite his inability to hit for any power (.092 ISO, 6th worst in MLB in 2012), has become a top five shortstop in baseball. Ian Kinsler, after enduring his worst season since 2007, is probably going to play better. Newly added A.J. Pierzynski had a more productive season than Napoli, anyway.
The bullpen lost some crucial arms, but the back end of the pen is still deep. Joe Nathan regained All Star form last summer, former Royal Joakim Soria will return after missing 2012 due to Tommy John surgery and Neftali Feliz will return to the bullpen after flirting with the rotation for a brief period last year. There are question marks with Soria and Feliz (also recovering from TJ surgery), but there’s questions with every bullpen in baseball. Imagine the potential, though. Soria-Feliz-Nathan shortens the game to six innings. With the a still well above average Rangers offense, they will race out to plenty of early leads before turning the game over to that lethal trio.
The Rangers rotation has taken some heat this offseason, which seems a bit misguided. I may be alone in this belief, but by the end of the season, I think the Rangers will have the best 1-2-3 starters in the AL, led by Yu Darvish (spoiler alert: Darvish is my Cy Young pick). In his first season in the majors, Darvish made Rangers brass look pretty smart for choosing him over C.J. Wilson. Darvish 3.90 ERA isn’t particularly impressive, but his 3.29 FIP is (fourth best in the AL). Darvish had the second best strikeout rate in the AL, trailing only Max Scherzer. His 4.19 walk rate is worrisome, but in the second half he reduced his walk rate to 3.65 per nine innings while also improving his K rate a tad. Darvish may always walk some batters, but his ability to strike out scores of hopeless hitters with his vaunted arsenal will reduce the damage of those walks. This is, of course, assuming Darvish doesn’t improve, an unlikely prospect given he is only entering his age-26 season and has a full year of experience under his belt.
Behind Darvish are lefties Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. Harrison is almost Darvish’ anthithesis, striking out less than six batters per nine (which he makes up for with more groundballs) but also limiting walks. Holland disappointed the Rangers, who extended him following his excellent 2011 season. His peripherals were more or less in sync with his 2011 numbers, but Holland struggled with the long ball, allowing 32 in only 175.1 innings. That should be positively regress a bit and Holland is only 26; like Darvish, there is still room to grow. I like Holland more than most (just not the creepy, pubescent mustache) –he’s a fine #3 in a rotation, especially when the top two guys are stalwarts like Darvish and Harrison.
Rounding out the rotation now. Alexi Ogando is being converted back to the rotation, thus probably prompting Faye Dunaway-type confusion** for him. When the Rangers converted Ogando to the rotation in 2011, he excelled, posting a 3.51 ERA and was worth 3.7 fWAR. If he replicates that, he’s the best #4 in baseball. As for the 5-hole…well which team doesn’t have question marks there? Prospect Martin Perez was an early favorite to land that gig before suffering a broken forearm on Sunday. The alternatives, then, aren’t very appealing. Colby Lewis (another TJ surgery victim) and Perez won’t be back until May, so the Rangers will have to make due with whatever they can find.
** “Reliever! Starter! Reliever! Starter!” It’s a poor Chinatown reference. If you for some reason have never seen Chinatown, stop reading and do it.
The thing is, the Rangers have the assets to pursue a pitcher if they want. They have a top five farm system in baseball. If at any point during the season the Rangers see an opportunity to improve their club via the minor leagues, they can do it — the same can’t be said for the Angels. Texas has a dangerous roster as currently constructed, one certainly capable of winning a World Series. Except, unlike most teams, they also have the capability to acquire premium talent before July 31.
The Mariners won’t qualify for the postseason, but they’re going to be a pain in the ass for their division rivals. They were overlooked last year playing in a division with three teams that won at least 89 games, but the fact is they were the best fourth place team in baseball.* The pitching was stellar (3.76 team ERA), partially thanks to Safeco and partially thanks to Felix Hernandez’ desire to wreck your shit.
* They won one fewer game than the Padres, but their run differential was 27 runs better and they played in a tougher league.
The offense was terrible again, finishing last in the AL, 48 runs behind 13th place Cleveland. This offseason, though, they did acquire some big-ish bats. Michael Morse and our old friend Kendrys Morales should help in the power department. Jesus Montero and his .298 OBP was embarrassing, but he did flash that 80-grade power that shot him up prospect rankings a year ago. He’s only 23, he has plenty of time to figure it out. Dustin Ackley and his .265 BABIP should positively regress and, hell, maybe former elite prospect Justin Smoak will finally deliver on past promise — this is his make or break year, assuming he can find playing time.**
** I swear, two years ago I said Alex Gordon’s 2011 season was his make or break year. And what happened? Only 12.8 fWAR in the two seasons since. I am the Underachieving Elite Prospect Whisperer.
Point being that the offense will at least kind of maybe make pitchers sweat this year. It will still be bad — it’s a bunch of slow guys that don’t get on base regularly and aren’t exactly elite power hitters. But it should be better. If the Mariners’ pitching can replicate last year’s form, then the Mariners will be a tough team to defeat. If anything, the Mariners might be the most important team in the AL Wild Card race; their performance could hinder the other AL West teams from qualifying for the postseason.
Lastly, we come to the Houston Astros, the official AL sacrificial lambs. If they don’t lose 100 games, I’ll eat my hat. This hat, but still. The Astros will be bad, and they’re ok with that. They’ve traded away all their veterans for prospects, probably the smartest thing a team years away from contention can do. They want to get the #1 pick in the draft again — the last time a team had consecutive #1 picks in the draft, they turned into Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Astros are hoping to emulate that. The other AL West teams don’t have to worry about the Astros contending, but they do have to make sure they beat them. Given that the top three teams are so even, whoever plays the best against the Astros may win the division. If the Angels stumble to like a .500 record against Houston, that might be the death knell.
And, really, after Angel fans have applauded the Astros’ arrival and said things like “lol looks like 20 more wins,” missing the playoffs due to struggles against the Astros would be the most fitting thing ever.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.