The Angels have won the division the last two years, by six games in 2007 and a whopping 21 games in 2008. Well, case closed, right? There's no way the rest of the division can make up more than 20 games on the Angels, even with their loss of Teixeira. Well, it's not likely, but among the additions by the other teams in the division are the NL West's best hitter and a new general manager who was one of the best scouting directors in the game. Here are the answers to ten questions about the 2009 AL West, presented by Matthew and Thomas.
Is it significant that the AL West has only four teams in it?
Short answer: Maybe. Slightly longer answer: Maaaaaaaybe.
Even longer answer: This division has had only four teams for fourteen years now. Not much of a sample size, but we can at least see if it looks like anything's going on. And we can compare it to the NL Central, which has had six teams for eleven years now.
What we might expect to see is a) AL West teams finishing first more often than NL Central teams, and b) being able to do so with lower win totals. Specifically, on the first point: if there are four teams in the division, then each team has (all other things being equal) a 25% chance of winning that division. If there are six, that chance drops to 16.7%. Now, there's no arguing with this math, but the question is, does this difference have an effect in real life, or is it lost in noise?
The first thing I did was to look at the ten teams involved and see how many times they won divisions in the periods in question:
AL West: LAA/ANA (won 4 times in 14 years), OAK (won 4 times in 14 years), SEA (won 3 times in 14 years), TEX (won 3 times in 14 years).
NL Central: CHI (won 3 times in 11 years), ST.L (won 5 times in 11 years), HOU (won 3 times in 11 years), MIL (won 0 times in 11 years), CIN (won 0 times in 11 years), PIT (won 0 times in 11 years).
I don't want to say this proves anything. That AL West sure couldn't break down any more evenly, though, could it? On the other hand, when I look at the NL Central standings over the past decade-plus-one, my reaction isn't exactly that the Pirates, Brewers and Reds were being kept out of the postseason by overcrowding in their division.
So then what I did was look at each year and see how many wins it took to take each division. Then I took the average. My idea was that the numbers might be lower in the AL West. I figured it two ways: number of wins recorded by the first-place team, and number of wins recorded by the second-place team, plus one. Two different ways of thinking about how good the first-place team needed to be, see?
AL West, avg # wins for first-place team, 1995-2008: 95
NL Central, avg # wins for first-place team, 1998-2008: 95
AL West, avg # wins for second-place team, plus one, 1995-2008: 90
NL Central, avg # wins for second-place team, plus one, 1998-2008: 89
So there you have it. If there's an effect, it doesn't look like a big one. (A couple of notes: I prorated the number of wins in the '95 season out for a 162-game season. Also, take note of the 2001 AL West: the first-place Mariners had 116 wins and the second-place Athletics had 102. If I wished to cling to my theory, I'd say that this year was pulling up the averages. But I don't.)
2. Was there a more unexpected move this offseason than the A's trading for Matt Holliday?
No, although it makes perfect sense in retrospect. With the A’s trading Dan Haren, Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin for prospects the team had simultaneously shed a bunch of salary and replenished their minor league system. The Rockies were looking to deal Holliday, as he had made it clear he wanted to test free agency at the end of the 2009 season. Beane also recognized that the Angels are somewhat vulnerable, despite having won the division four of the last five seasons and never being seriously challenged last year. The A’s have some of the best prospects in baseball, but when Beane saw that he could acquire Holliday without damaging the cream of their minor league system he acted fast. Huston Street was becoming expensive and was replaceable with the emergence of Joey Devine, Brad Ziegler and Santiago Casilla. Greg Smith is a fungible back-of-the-rotation starter with thoroughly mediocre stuff and Carlos Gonzalez has a high ceiling, but is held back by a lack of control of the strike zone and, well, you couldn’t acquire Holliday without giving up something with upside.
Holliday won’t hit as well in California as he did in Colorado, but he gives Oakland a legitimate number three hitter with 30 doubles, 20 homers and a line of something like .280/.370/.500. Oakland’s free agent bats, Orlando Cabrera and Jason Giambi, should hit at the top of the lineup and in the cleanup position respectively and give Oakland a decent offence. The biggest key for Oakland at the plate may be whether Daric Barton comes through on the promise that he’s shown throughout his minor league career or repeats his massive 2008 slump.
The other question concerns what the A’s are going to do with Holliday in the future. If the team is contending I think they’ll keep him for the stretch drive and take two minor league picks when he leaves at the end of the season. If the A’s have faltered and are looking up at the Angels in the middle of July they’ll probably look to trade him and will pull the trigger on the deal if they can get something they feel is worth more than the picks. It wouldn’t shock me, but I would be surprised if Holliday is in Oakland for Opening Day 2010. This paragraph isn’t unexpected, but teams don’t pull Holliday-sized shockers that often.
3. So. The Angels. 100 wins... again?
I first tried to answer this by looking at all the 100+-win teams since 1995 and seeing how many of them won 100 games again the next year. These teams did win 100 games in consecutive years:
Oakland 2001-2002 (102, 103)
Yankees 2002-2003 (103, 101)
Yankees 2003-2004 (101, 101)
Atlanta 1997-1998 (101, 106)
Atlanta 1998-1999 (106, 103)
Atlanta 2002-2003 (101, 101)
St. Louis 2004-2005 (105, 100)
And these teams didn't:
Cleveland 1995 (100 (in a shortened season!), 99)
Yankees 1998 (114, 98)
Seattle 2001 (116, 93)
Oakland 2002 (103, 96)
Yankees 2004 (101, 95)
Houston 1998 (102, 97)
Arizona 1999 (100, 85)
Atlanta 1999 (103, 95)
Atlanta 2003 (101, 96)
San Fran 2003 (100, 91)
St. Louis 2005 (100, 83)
So, seven of eighteen. Those are actually pretty good odds. And the average number of wins for the teams who didn't win 100 games in the second year is 93, still very good, and the low number is 83, which still would put the Angels among the favourites to win this particular division. But I suppose to be really responsible I should actually take a look at the Angels' roster before giving a final word.
Well, first of all, the Angels' Pythagorean record was 88-74 last year. So that's one thing. They didn't take any major steps backward or forward with their talent level (Fuentes cancels out K-Rod, Abreu replaces Anderson and/or Teixeira, etc.), so that's another. How 'bout we put them down for 90 wins this time around?
4. Will Joe Saunders repeats his success from 2008?
The short answer is no. Joe Saunders was drafted 12th overall in the 2002 draft out of Virginia Tech. He progressed rather quickly through the lower levels of the minors, putting up good but not spectacular numbers. Saunders spent about two full seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake City over the course of three years from 2005-2007. After a small cup of coffee in 2005, Saunders spent parts of the next two seasons with the Angels, posting a 4.71 ERA over 70.2 innings in 2006 and a 4.44 ERA in 107.1 innings the following year. Last year, at age 27, Saunders spent his first full year in the big leagues and led the team in wins with a 17-7 record and a 3.41 ERA in nearly 200 innings. Well, this seems relatively straightforward, doesn’t it? A somewhat raw southpaw drafted in the first round takes his time progressing through the minors, but after some early struggles in the big leagues he turns into a solid starter capable of repeated All-Star appearances.
Not so fast. A closer look at Saunders’ stats reveals several red flags, which aren’t difficult to detect. He only struck out 103 batters in 198 innings, while issuing 53 free passes. Combing a 5.2 K/9 and a 12.8 K% with a 1.94 K/BB is not a good sign. Saunders gave up 26 homers for a 2.6 HR% and had a 6.57 BB%. None of these stats are terrible, but they do not equate to the seventh-best ERA in the American League. Saunders isn’t a bad pitcher, but with a healthy Angels rotation he’s probably the fifth best pitcher behind Lackey, Santana, Escobar and Weaver. As it is, with Escobar still recovering from surgery last year and Santana out for a month, he’ll start the season as the number two starter behind Lackey. Saunders is good at pounding the strike zone with an assortment of different pitches, but an ERA in the low-to-mid 4’s is much more likely than another in the mid 3’s and he’ll likely be leapfrogged by Weaver on the Angels depth chart before too long.
5. Texas. Worst pitching, best hitting. Is the pitching going to get better, or the hitting drop off? (Or both?)
Oh, probably. Probably both things will happen. They lost Milton Bradley and Ramon Vazquez, for one thing, which won't help, and it's hard to not improve your pitching at all if you're trying to. But I don't see any dramatic changes in either aspect of the team happening this year, which I suppose makes it just another year for the Rangers.
6. Who is batting cleanup for the Texas Rangers and why does he only have slightly more than 500 hundred big league at-bats?
Nelson Cruz has had a long ride to the majors. Drafted over a decade ago by the Mets, he was dealt on August 30, 2000 to the Athletics for Jorge Velandia, who was a Blue Jay once, but if you blinked you missed it. He spent four years in the A’s system, before appearing to break out in 2003 when he split 500 at-bats between Single and Double-A, posting a .982 OPS and a .917 OPS, respectively. The A’s packaged him with reliever Justin Lehr at the trade deadline in 2003 to acquire Keith Ginter in a move that didn’t quite work out. Cruz spent two seasons at Nashville posting OPS’s of .872 and .906, before being dealt again. Cruz was packaged with Carlos Lee in the trade that brought the Brewers Francisco Cordero, Laynce Nix and former Blue Jay Kevin Mench. Over the last two years Cruz spent his third and fourth seasons at Triple-A with OPS’s of 1.126 and 1.124.
However, Cruz is not the Dominican Val Pascucci. Cruz had over 440 plate appearances in the majors during 2006 and 2007, with OPS+s of 64 and 76. The third time was the charm for Cruz though, as he posted a .421 OBP and .609 slugging percentage for a 170 OPS+ in over 130 plate appearances last year. Was this the real Cruz or was it a Quadruple-A slugger getting hot for one hundred bats? The Rangers clearly believe the former is closer to the truth, as Cruz isn’t going to be a strict cleanup hitter, but he’ll likely hit cleanup against lefties and fifth against righties, with Blalock doing the reverse.
The main reason for pessimism is that Cruz had a .388 BABIP on balls in play. That is not sustainable over a full season, especially not for someone who strikes out that much. However, I would think few people are expecting Cruz to hit .330, something which he has never done in his career prior to last September. There are reasons for optimism, which are mainly that Cruz has shown year-to-year improvements in his batting eye, progressing from a 10.2 BB% to 12.8 BB% at Triple-A since 2006 and cutting his K% from 27% to 22.7%. BP projects Cruz to hit .260/.335/.484 this year and this seems fairly reasonable, which is approximately an .800 OPS, heavy on the slugging, and he should fit in nicely to the heart of the Texas order with Josh Hamilton, Hank Blalock and Chris Davis and provide the Rangers with some cheap outfield production for a couple of years.
7. Mariners. Hope?
Actually, yes. They've got a better starting rotation (on paper) than the Blue Jays do, they have some youth, they have Ichiro Suzuki and some other things going for them. Of course, they also have a lot of ground to make up. Just remember, hope is not enough: the Blue Lanterns don't have any power without Green Lanterns around.
8. How did Jack Zduriencik attempt to build a bullpen and is that a good sign or a bad sign for the rest of the AL West?
According to USS Mariner, the Mariners bullpen will likely have the following seven pitchers to begin the season: Mark Lowe, Tyler Johnson, Roy Corcoran and Miguel Batista, as well as Jose Lugo, Tyler Walker and David Aardsma. Lowe will begin as the closer, with Batista in long relief and the other five acting as middle relief and setup men. The latter three names – Lugo, Walker and Aardsma – are all players who were brought to Seattle by new GM Jack Zdurniencik. Seattle’s bullpen wasn’t the team’s biggest problem last year, but Zdurniencik has spent the winter collecting arms that have the potential to turn into valuable relievers.
As USS Mariner points out, these three relievers, along with recent acquisitions Luis Pena and Jesus Delgado, are all groundball pitchers with high strikeout rates who struggle with their control. All have high groundball rates, ranging from Aardsma’s 44% to Lugo’s 56%, all have K percentages over 20% and their BB percentages range from Lugo’s 19.3% to Walker’s 9%. This rough profile is one that fits a number of relievers who never pan out, but it’s also a profile that applied to both Grant Balfour and Hong-Chih Kuo before the 2008 season. Balfour and Kuo were, as you probably know, two of the big league’s best setup men last year.
The Mariners have clearly identified a type of reliever that they believe can turn into a good major league pitcher and have collected a quantity of them, hoping that one or two of them will turn into a replacement for J.J. Putz. What Zduriencik’s many offseason moves, including his approach to spare arms, have revealed is that the Mariners now have a very smart and aggressive front office, which includes Tom Tango and Mat Olkin, and it won’t be long before they’re contending again in the AL West.
9. What is the state of Oakland's rotation?
How far we have fallen from the days of Hudson, Mulder and Zito. How far the A’s have fallen even from 2007 and the days of Haren, Blanton, Gaudin and the annual prayers for Rich Harden’s health. None of those seven pitchers are with the Athletics anymore, being dealt in various deals to acquire minor league pitching and restock a diminished farm system. The A’s now have one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball and this might be the year that some of that young pitching begins to show dividends.
Justin Duchscherer, Oakland’s two-time All-Star starter, is suffering from elbow issues and is unlikely to be ready for opening day. Duke might be ready by the second week of the season, but he might not be ready to be inserted right into the rotation. So, with Duchscherer out it looks like Dallas Braden will be the opening day. That is Dallas Braden of the 144 career major league innings and the 5.44 career ERA. Braden has a 8.06 career BB% and a 15.17 K%. For all my criticism of Saunders, his major league rate stats are better than Braden’s. Nevertheless, there’s hope for Braden, as he put up a 2.36 ERA at Sacramento while striking out a batter an inning and walking less than two per nine. Braden won’t ever be anyone’s idea of an ace, but it’s not his fault the A’s are asking him to play one on TV. He should settle into a solid middle-to-back of the rotation starter.
Sean Gallagher, acquired from the Cubs in the Rich Harden deal, will follow Braden, but he sported a 5.15 ERA for the A’s last year and has a spring ERA over 6.00. He is likely the best current pitcher on the team, especially if he improved his control. Gallagher struck out nearly a batter an inning for Oakland last year, but the problem is that he walked over 5 per nine innings. He posted a 3.10 ERA in Triple-A for the Cubs last year and, if he can fix his control problems, could become a middle of the pack starter. Southpaw Dana Eveland will be the third starter (or second if the A’s stack the lefties, or first if he beats out Braden for the gig). That is Dana Eveland of the 7.02 K/9 and 4.59 BB/9, which, much like Braden and Gallagher, makes him a serviceable starter with some room to grow, but nothing spectacular. Despite all the problems with the Jays rotation, Halladay, Litsch and Purcey have these guys beat by quite a bit.
The back of the rotation is where it gets interesting. What looked to be a five-way battle between Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro, Josh Outman and Edgar Gonzalez has become a four person fight with Mazzaro’s demotion to the minors. If you haven’t heard of the first two names on this list, you better get used to the possibility of hearing them a lot over the next few years. There’s always caveats attached to pitching prospects, but if they reach their potential the only pitcher with a ceiing that high in the Oakland system is Michael Ynoa. Anderson and Cahill were the seventh and eleventh best prospects in baseball, according to Baseball America, and without having thrown a professional pitch Ynoa was 54th.
While A’s fans go to sleep dreaming that Anderson and Cahill’s future won’t be derailed by injuries, the question of how to handle the 2009 rotation is one that Beane and his staff have been kicked around for a while. With Outman’s velocity looking much better out of the pen, many A’s fans are advocating that Anderson, the more advanced of the two, start the season in the rotation with Edgar Gonzalez holding down the fifth spot until Duchscherer returns. BP forecasts a 5.08 ERA for Anderson in the majors, so it might be a rocky transition initially, but that shouldn’t take the shine off Anderson’s long-term potential.
Thus, it appears quite possible that the A’s will begin the season with three lefties in the rotation, only one of whom has ever posted an ERA below 5 in the majors, to go along with a starter who has a career ERA+ of 78 in over 250 innings and another who has walked 5.4 batters per nine innings in his big league career. And you know what else? This is a team that could win this division. The Angels are the favourites and have a larger margin for error, but the A’s are more contender than pretender.
10. Is there going to be any kind of a race this year?
I don't think the Angels are so good that they can just run away and hide, and at least one of the other teams ought to have a strong enough year that it'll at least look like a race. But when it's all over the Angels ought to have about a six-game lead over whoever's second.