Taylor's Twins Talk

Focusing on the Twins, with a few ramblings on other things that catch my attention

Monday, February 04, 2008

Pre-Pre-Season Predictions: AL West

This is the fourth in a series of posts providing an extremely early look at the 2008 MLB season. My previous posts covered the NL West, the NL East, and the NL Central. While I recognize that there is still much to be done this off-season (free agent signings, trades, position battles during spring training), it is still interesting to see the shape of teams as they stand now.

This series will continue each Monday through February 18, which is also the day that the Twins will hold their first pitchers and catchers workout. I hope you enjoy reading the series, and when my predictions are woefully wrong 10 months from now, you can make fun of me mercilessly if you so desire. The actual numerical predictions for the AL West can be found at the bottom of this post, after a capsule summary of each of the teams.

American League West

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Projected Rotation

1.) John Lackey
2.) Kelvim Escobar
3.) Jon Garland
4.) Jered Weaver
5.) Ervin Santana

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Francisco Rodriguez
2.) Scott Shields
3.) Justin Speier
4.) Darren Oliver
5.) Chris Bootcheck

Position Players
C - Mike Napoli
1B - Casey Kotchman
2B - Howie Kendrick
3B - Chone Figgins
SS - Erick Aybar
LF - Garrett Anderson
CF - Torii Hunter
RF - Vladimir Guerrero
DH - Gary Matthews, Jr.

The Angels have a very solid corps of starters from top to bottom, beginning with ace and potential Cy Young winner John Lackey, who was 19-9 with an ERA just over 3.00 last season. The rotation was bolstered by the addition of Jon Garland, who could benefit from the change in scenery and the warmer weather outside of Chicago. Jered Weaver should continue to improve, and could have a breakout season. If he does, and if Ervin Santana rebounds from a relatively poor 2007, the Angels will be potent. The bullpen is also a strength, largely because of the potent force that is Francisco Rodriguez at the back end. Shields and Speier provide two solid options to bridge the gap from the starters to K-Rod.

The lineup was much improved with the addition of Torii Hunter in CF, but it moves the incumbent CF (Gary Matthews, Jr.) to primarily a backup outfielder/DH role. Juan Rivera and Reggie Willits will also see playing time. With Matthews and Hunter now both locked up long-term, it looks fairly likely that Matthews will eventually end up in either LF as a replacement for Garrett Anderson, or in RF if Vlad Guerrero needs to move to a more regular DH role. The young infield squad, including Aybar and Hendrick, should continue to develop -- and at some point, the highly touted Brandon Wood may figure into discussions in the middle infield for the Angels. Top to bottom, this is a solid, well-balanced offense and defense that should score a lot of runs consistently for the Halos.

Oakland Athletics
Projected Rotation

1.) Joe Blanton
2.) Rich Harden
3.) Chad Gaudin
4.) Justin Duchscherer
5.) Lenny DiNardo

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Huston Street
2.) Santiago Casilla
3.) Ruddy Lugo
4.) Alan Embree
5.) Kiko Calero

Position Players
C - Kurt Suzuki
1B - Daric Barton
2B - Mark Ellis
3B - Eric Chavez
SS - Bobby Crosby
LF - Emil Brown
CF - Chris Denorfia
RF - Travis Buck
DH - Jack Cust

The biggest move the A's made this off-season was shipping Danny Haren off to Arizona for a boatload of prospects. That move is expected to be followed up at some point with more trades of established starters. The bottom line for the A's is that, while there are a few solid players in their rotation, there are no can't-miss players. Joe Blanton steps into the role of the A's ace, and he's probably as sure a thing as they have to post an ERA around (or just under) 4.00 in 2008. In terms of pure stuff, Rich Harden is the best of the bunch, but he's coming off of a mostly wasted year in 2007, when he was injured and pitched in just 7 games. How he'll pitch in the first full season after that injury remains a question mark. The A's will also be relying on Duchscherer and DiNardo to make the switch from the bullpen (although DiNardo started a lot of games last year as well), which can be a bit dangerous. Things get worse when you look to the bullpen. Huston Street is a very good closer when he's healthy, but will he be? After that, it's largely a black hole, with mostly unproven players or aging veterans like Embree. Don't expect to see a lot of Holds coming from this crew.

The lineup is interesting but very faulty. Guys like Jack Cust, Eric Chavez, and probably Daric Barton will get their fair share of homeruns and RBI's, but the outfield overall is brutal. Emil Brown as a starter? Really? If Bobby Crosby can stay healthy, and young players like Denorfia, Buck, Barton, and Cust can contribute in 2008, things won't be terrible -- but on paper, this does not look like an offense that I'd want to take into battle (even if there are a few nice pieces). In a division where the other teams seem to be improving, that will likely be problematic for the A's.

Seattle Mariners
Projected Rotation

1.) Felix Hernandez
2.) Jarrod Washburn
3.) Carlos Silva
4.) Miguel Batista
5.) Horacio Ramirez/Cha Seung Baek

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - J.J. Putz
2.) George Sherrill
3.) Brandon Morrow
4.) Eric O'Flaherty
5.) Sean Green

Position Players
C - Kenji Johjima
1B - Richie Sexson
2B - Jose Lopez
3B - Adrian Beltre
SS - Yuniesky Betancourt
LF - Raul Ibanez
CF - Ichiro Suzuki
RF - Brad Wilkerson
DH - Jose Vidro

This post could become obsolete as early as tonight or tomorrow, as the Mariners are reportedly on the verge of acquiring Baltimore Orioles ace Erik Bedard in exchange for a package of players centered on top outfield prospect Adam Jones. If that happens, the Mariners will bolster an already reasonable rotation. Felix Hernandez is already the undisputed ace, even though he'll just turn 22 a few days after the season starts. His excellent K-BB ratio and extremely high ceiling would look very good in combination with Bedard. Behind Hernandez, for now, are a number of veteran pitchers who should be at the very least consistently mediocre, which is more than can be said for some rotations. Twins fans are, of course, very familiar with Silva -- and he should be helped out significantly by the relatively homer-unfriendly confines of Safeco Field. The battle for the fifth spot (which also includes Rule 5 Draft pick R.A. Dickey, who was very briefly the property of the Twins before he was drafted in December) will be somewhat interesting to watch -- unless, that is, the Mariners actually get Bedard, in which case it will be largely a moot point. The bullpen, meanwhile, is actually quite good -- especially at the top. J.J. Putz, George Sherrill, and Sean Green might not be household names (although Putz has to be getting close, I would think), but they're solid pitchers who should help hold down leads.

When I look at the lineup that the Mariners have, I get excited -- but they never seem to deliver on expectations. Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre are once again the key; if they can can start to hit as they were expected to (Sexson hit .205 with just 21 homers last year, for Pete's sake!), then they should be able to join with the always productive Ichiro Suzuki to form a solid core group of productive players. Even better, the Mariners should continue to get solid production from players like Ibanez, Johjima, and hopefully Jose Lopez, who struggled a bit last year. The biggest head-scratcher for me, however, are the continued employment of Brad Wilkerson (.234 with 20 homers last season -- maybe the 20 homers are the key), who I don't trust as an everyday player in the big leagues at this point. Somehow, Jose Vidro produced very well last year for the Mariners (.314 in 548 AB's), but I could see him crashing at any time as well (even though his career batting average sits at .302, I just don't trust him in the AL long-term). Still, this lineup looks reasonably potent, and I hope for the sake of Mariners fans that they all get it together this year. That could make for a fun showdown with the Angels for the division title.

Texas Rangers
Projected Rotation

1.) Kevin Millwood
2.) Vicente Padilla
3.) Jason Jennings
4.) Brandon McCarthy
5.) Kason Gabbard

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - C.J. Wilson
2.) Eddie Guardado
3.) Joaquin Benoit
4.) Frank Francisco
5.) Wes Littleton

Position Players
C - Gerald Laird
1B - Ben Broussard
2B - Ian Kinsler
3B - Hank Blalock
SS - Michael Young
LF - Marlon Byrd
CF - Josh Hamilton
RF - Milton Bradley
DH - Frank Catalanotto

I wish I could give Rangers fans some hope by saying nice things about the pitchers in the team's starting rotation. I would love to say that there's a good chance for everything to come together just right, and for the team to be competitive. Honestly, however, I can't commit to that, because there are just far too many unknowns. For one thing, the top two guys in the rotation each had ERA's over 5.00 in 2007 (5.16 for Millwood, 5.76 in somewhat limited action for Padilla). Then, there's Jason Jennings -- a reclamation project in his own right who missed time due to injury as well and posted a 6.45 ERA in 19 games (99 innings). Brandon McCarthy and Kason Gabbard, meanwhile, are both so inexperienced that it's hard to predict exactly what they'll do this year. While any one of these players could improve (and I especially expect Millwood and Jennings to be better than they were last year), I doubt there will be enough improvement to make this anything other than a lackluster rotation. The bullpen is interesting, with C.J. Wilson and Eddie Guardado battling for the closer role and with Joaquin Benoit a solid third man out of the 'pen. If they get any leads, they'll have a legitimate chance to hold them -- but how many leads will they inherit?

The lineup is interesting, but seems a bit cobbled together (especially in the outfield). Josh Hamilton was brought in from the Reds after a great comeback season in which he hit .292 with 19 homers, and Milton Bradley was brought in to patrol right field. But do Rangers fans really want to stake the franchise on either of them? The Rangers also need Hank Blalock to rediscover his power stroke, as his numbers have nosedived since 2004 (32, 25, 16, 10). Of course, his reduced numbers in 2007 were due to an extended injury absence, but whatever the reason that's a trend that the Rangers need to see reversed. Perhaps most interesting, however, will be seeing how Ben Broussard adjusts to being an everyday player in 2008, and whether Ian Kinsler can pop his batting average back up into the .280 range from the .263 he hit in 2007. This is not an overwhelming offense, but there is some potential here -- if things come together perfectly. More than likely, the Rangers will hit a fair number of homeruns, but will struggle to get enough guys on base to make that a significant factor.

1.) Los Angeles Angels (93-69)
2.) Seattle Mariners (86-76)
3.) Texas Rangers (77-85)
4.) Oakland Athletics (70-92)

As much as I'd like to see a close race in the AL West, and as interesting as things might get if the Mariners pick up Erik Bedard, I'm expecting the Angels to clearly be the superior team in this division again this year, thanks to a combination of great pitching and a solid lineup. That said, I could see a scenario playing out where the Angels and Mariners go down to the wire, and I hope that's what happens. The A's should be the worst team in this division this season, but the Rangers might contend for that dubious honor if the starting pitching goes into a funk, which is certainly possible. Nonetheless, I expect this to be a fairly clearly stratified division, with no real question as to who's going to finish in what position by about late July. I hope I'm wrong, just for excitement's sake!



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