Saturday, February 21, 2009
Mike Bradley: AL West Preview
The AL West was so bad in 2008, the division was decided nearly a month before the season ended. And it wasn't even THAT close. The outright dominance of revived starter Ervin Santana and lefty Joe Saunders, coupled with new saves-record holder Francisco Rodriguez, helped the Los Angeles Angels finish 21 games in front of the second place Texas Rangers. While the division did boast the aforementioned best record in baseball, as well as a revived Rangers team, it's hard to see much more competition for the Angels this year.
While the Angels are the only team truly worth mentioning, there are three other teams playing baseball in this division. The Rangers have a very bright future, led by prodigy-turned-druggy-turned-prodigy Josh Hamilton, 5-tool-stud Ian Kinsler, and super-slugger Chris Davis ready to bring Texas back from the dead. Meanwhile, the last two teams in the division are feeling nostalgic these days, with the Seattle Mariners' signing of Ken Griffey, Jr., and the Oakland Athletics' signing of Jason Giambi. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL West:
1. Los Angeles Angels 99-63
Despite the losses of Rodriguez, slugger Mark Teixeira, and 14-game winner Jon Garland, the Angels are in an enviable position. They are still the most talented team in a poor division. With a starting rotation consisting of three ace-quality starters (John Lackey, Saunders, and Santana), an established, young gun (Jered Weaver), and a stud prospect ready for the majors (Nick Adenhart), the Angels are head and shoulders above the AL West competition in the pitching department. With ex-Rockies closer Brian Fuentes prepared to take over the lucrative position of Angels' closer, as well as the set-up jobs held by flamethrower Jose Arrendondo and vet Scot Sheilds, there should be little drop off from the K-Rod days. If star Vladimir Guerrero can play like the 2007 model instead of the 2008 version, Bobby Abreu can provide stability to left field, and Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick can stay healthy and get on base, the Angels should be able to cruise their September schedule with the division on lock. Look for X-Factors Mike Napoli and Kendry Morales to influence the early success of the team as the pitchers get back into the swing of things. The two young sluggers need to provide protection for Guerrero and Torii Hunter in order for the Angels to score their runs. Even if they don't, the Angels will still be in fine shape in 2009.
2. Texas Rangers 86-76
Everyone knows the story by now. Top Rays prospect falls into a life of drug addiction, gets suspended, resumes his career in Cincinnati, gets traded to Texas, takes the world by storm, puts on a show at the Home Run Derby, becomes a role model for anyone battling addiction, solves world hunger, brings peace to the Middle East, etc. Maybe the last two haven't happened yet, but I'm sure Rangers right fielder Josh Hamilton is working on it. His sensational first year in Texas ended in him leading the AL in RBI, but he did more than just drive in runs. His ability to overcome his adversities served as motivation for the rest of a usually-bottom-dwelling Rangers club. In turn, second baseman Ian Kinsler turned in an All-Star season, Michael Young performed at his consistent level, and the Rangers ever-so-closely to the .500 mark. With their incredibly stable of young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez) the anticipated debut of shortstop Elvis Andrus, and the expected progression of midseason call-up Chris Davis, the sky is the limit for the Rangers offense. And that is without mentioning up-and-coming left fielder David Murphy (a Nolan Ryan favorite) and minor league masher Nelson Cruz. Pitching is, of course, the problem in Texas. Since team president Nolan Ryan looks reluctant to come out of retirement, another year of Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Scott Feldman headlining the rotation is less than appetizing. The bullpen is even less glamorous, with ex-chair hurler Frank Francisco leading an underwhelming group of relievers in the competition to be the Rangers closer. It's fair to see, if something drastic isn't done about this pitching corp in the near future, the Rangers may waste the best years of their offense. If only they could get someone to take one of their catchers *coughBostoncough*.
3. Oakland Athletics 84-78
Billy Beane has long been admired for his ability to stock pile young talent, develop that talent, and then trade it away for more young talent. Moneyball was the book that revolutionized the world of scouting and player development, and everyone can thank Beane for that. However, this offseason marked an incredible shift in Beane's offseason approach. In the biggest trade of the offseason, Beane packaged young pitchers Greg Smith and ex-closer Huston Street, along with top outfield prospect Carlos Gonzalez in a deal for Rockies slugger Matt Holliday. This surprising move was followed by the signing of aging slugger and former A's fan favorite Jason Giambi. While the out-of-character signings make the team better in the short term, it doesn't do enough to turn the team into contenders now. Holliday's home/road splits were disturbing as a Rockie, and moving into a pitcher's park like Oakland Coliseum is downright terrifying. With no idea as to how much ex-star Eric Chavez will give the team this year, the A's will have to rely on swing-or-miss slugger Jack Cust and right fielder Travis Snider for backup run support if Holliday and Giambi falter. Last season's emergence of n0w-ace Justin Duchscherer does little to calm to the worries of the Oakland faithful as far as the rotation goes. After Duchscherer, a combination of journeyman Dana Eveland and once-top prospects Sean Gallagher, Dallas Braden, and Gio Gonzalez look to be the next Mulder's, Hudson's, and Zito's of the organization. While ERA masters Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler look to replicate last year's performances, the team needs to have a lead in order to protect it. Unless two or more of the pitching prospects pans out, it might be a long year for the team in green and yellow.
4. Seattle Mariners 67-95
With all of the money tossed around the past few years, Seattle ownership had to be expect a little (OK, a lot) more than a 100 loss season and clubhouse turmoil. The team pulled the plug on the Richie Sexson disaster and appear on the verge of doing the same to the equally disappointing Adrian Beltre. However, the superstar causing the most trouble in the clubhouse (according to reports) is perennial 200-hit man Ichiro Suzuki. If the Mariners want to right the ship, the first step is fixing all the kinks. Whether that means trading the worldwide superstar or clearing the air and moving forward, no amount of rebuilding can fix disgruntled teammates. If nothing, Mariners fans can rejoice in the return of the golden child, Ken Griffey, Jr. The Kid is back in town, albeit slightly older and slightly rotund. With budding superstar Felix Hernandez and his blazing fastball keeping hope alive for the future, the sweet stroke of Griffey should be a nice distraction for the time being. The development of former closer Brandon Morrow into a starter will be one of the keys to this season, as well as the development of outfielders Wladimir Balentien and Franklin Gutierrez and catcher Jeff Clement. Aside from the few young players that can get some playing time, the Mariners to endure another year of highly-paid, underperforming pitchers Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard and catcher Kenji Johjima. But did I mention Junior is back?!
AL West MVP: Josh Hamilton
AL West Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
AL West Rookie of the Year: Nick Adenhart
AL West Diva of the Year: Ichiro Suzuki *