Proving that great minds think alike, Niall and I both chose similar formats, as I’ll also be asking discrete questions about each of the AL West teams. Given that the AL West has four teams to the NL Central’s six, I'll ask and answer three for each team.
The #6 organization has reasons for optimism, but 2012 will be another rebuilding year behind King Felix and a much-hyped young “catcher.”
1. Will Ichiro reach 3,000 major league hits?
Last year was Ichiro’s first truly forgettable season in the majors. The aging outfielder who, however overrated he may or may not have been, was one of the most fun players to watch in his prime, set career-lows in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and nearly every other offensive statistical. In 2011, he hit .272/.310/.335 with a BABIP of .295. Having posted a WAR (on Fangraphs) of at least 4.5 in every major league season but one, he posted a 0.2 mark in 2011.
Last year was the first time that Ichiro’s BABIP had been below .300 and likely reflects Ichiro’s gradual loss of speed as he aged. However, Ichiro still stole 40 bases at a relatively good percentage and some people smarter than me have used an expected BABIP formula to suggest that the thesis that Ichiro’s low BABIP was the result of a loss of speed is overrated. However, he is a 38-year-old outfielder who has relied heavily on fantastic hand-eye coordination and speed as part of his offensive game and I’m just not convinced that’s going to work going forwards. Ichiro may rebound some from 2011, but I don’t think he’ll ever be his old self and I wouldn’t be surprised if 2011 is his new baseline going forward.
However, Ichiro could still be one of the most interesting players in the majors to watch this season because of Eric Wedge’s decision to have Ichiro bat third. Ichiro has stated publicly that he’s going to try to hit for more power because of his new spot in the batting order and Mariners reporters have noted that his batting stance is notably wider in spring training. For years we’ve heard of Ichiro’s famous displays of batting practice power and Ichiro himself stated a few years ago he could hit 40 homers if he wanted to hit for power. This year it will be time for him to put his money where his mouth is and it will be fascinating to see if Ichiro does display noticeably more power this year, even acknowledging that 40 homers is not realistic. Whether he’s toast or sacrificing average for power, Ichiro is 38 and currently sitting at 2,428 major league hits. So, no he'll not reach 3,000 hits in America. However, he won’t need to in order to get a plaque in Cooperstown.
2. Where will Jesus Montero play?
Jesus Montero came over from the New York Yankees in the biggest trade of the offseason, as Seattle swapped a 23-year-old 6’7” right-handed starter who was coming off a rookie season where he put up a sub-4 ERA. In return, Seattle acquired a 22-year-old DH masquerading as a catcher who has torn up Triple-A for two seasons and put up a .996 OPS in his cup of coffee. Montero’s hitting prowess isn’t in doubt, although his raw numbers may take a hit in Safeco, but the question is whether Montero can pull a Mike Piazza (whose reputation was probably worse than the reality) and become a serviceable but below average defensive catcher or whether his defense will force him to become a career DH.
A lot of electronic ink has been spilled on whether it is better for Seattle to keep Montero at DH or C. The argument for the latter is that catcher is such a poor hitting position, Montero’s value with the bat – assuming it is the same or close to what it would be as a DH – would be so valuable than it would more than offset his defensive losses. Given that Seattle won’t be contending this year, there is also the advantage of allowing Montero to sink or swim in a no-pressure environment where it won’t matter if he costs them a few games behind the plate. They would also suggest that Montero could transition from behind the plate if he suffered an injury at some point in his career, such as may happen with Joe Mauer. Proponents of moving him to DH would suggest that the defensive losses take away most of Montero’s offensive gains and that, given the wear and tear of catching, if Seattle views Montero as a long-term asset, it’s best to maximize his best skill for as long as possible. I suspect Seattle with have Montero roughly split the time behind the plate with John Jaso and DH on his days off and the team will re-evaluate his future after the season.
3. How long will Seattle have to wait for their trio of promising pitching prospects?
One of the reasons that Seattle was willing to trade away Pineda is because they have Felix Hernandez under contract until the end of the 2014 season and one of the best collections of top pitching prospects in the minor leagues. Aside from the Arizona Diamondbacks, no team has a trio of pitching prospects that compare Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
We’re all familiar with Paxton’s story. Hultzen was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft behind Pittsburgh’s Gerritt Cole and Walker was a supplemental first round pick in 2010. Walker and Hultzen were ranked as the 20th and 21st best prospect, respectively, in the sport by Baseball America, while Paxton sat at 52nd. Although Walker is only in Single-A will likely need at least a couple of years to reach the majors, Hultzen is said to be almost major league ready and is expected to be in the majors by the second half of the year. Baseball America is also bullish on Paxton, predicting the B.C. native, who has only made 7 starts at Double-A, to also make his MLB debut in 2012.
Baseball America is not unusually high on this trio of pitchers, as Marc Hulet, of Fangraphs and Batter’s Box, ranks Paxton as the 45th best prospect, Walker as the 20th best prospect and Hultzen as the 19th best prospect and other sources are similarly high on them. If Paxton and Hultzen live up to their potential, Seattle could have a very strong 1-2-3 punch very soon, supplemented by Jason Vargas, with Walker coming up strong behind them. Given the organizational pitching depth, trying to acquire an impact bat for Pineda was an intelligent shifting of assets.
Oakland traded away two young starters to begin another youth movement, but surprisingly ended their offseason with the second biggest international free agent signing of the winter.
1. What does the pitching staff look like without Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill?
The A’s traded away two of the three mainstays of their rotation last year in Gonzalez and Cahill. What was surprising about these trades was not that Oakland, given their payroll restrictions, would eventually try to get young controllable players for major league assets, but that Gio and Cahill were both players with several years of team control remaining and still had a very reasonable cost. However, Oakland seemed to be looking a couple of years down the road, when those two pitchers may be more expensive, may have regressed or may be less valuable with fewer years of team control. This leaves one of the most statistically-aware and funniest players in baseball, Brandon McCarthy, leading the pitching staff.
However, given the loss of Brett Anderson to Tommy John surgery until late August, the staff will be entirely new behind McCarthy. Also gone are Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman, with 30 starts between them, who were dealt to the Rockies for Seth Smith. Rich Harden took his 15 starts and an annual injury elsewhere, leaving Tyson Ross and his 6 starts in 2010 as pitcher with the second-most starts last year to remain healthy and in the organization
While Oakland’s staff may not be strong, I don’t think it will be as poor as some expect. The A’s signed veteran Bartolo Colon to eat innings behind McCarthy and take some of the pressure off the young arms. From what I understood, the last three spots will be taken up by youngsters Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock with Ross waiting at Triple-A Sacramento. Parker is a hard-throwing right-hander who was a first round pick and was the centerpiece of the return package for Cahill. Milone and Peacock came over from Washington, along with pitching prospect AJ Cole and catching prospect Derek Norris. Peacock is the much more heralded of the pair, but Milone is a crafty lefty who should do quite well in Oakland’s pitcher-friendly park. ZIPS actually predicts Milone to have the best ERA of the three youngsters, although all 3 are bunched between 4.02-4.22. Colon’s predicted ERA is the worst at 4.23.
Although ballpark effects have to be considered, Oakland has 5 starters who are predicted to have ERA’s in the low 4’s, which shows the surprising skill of the staff. While one of the young pitchers may experience growing pains, Oakland has Ross as immediate backup and Dallas Braden will be back before too long from his injury. While devoid of recognizable names for many, this is a staff that may be underrated.
2. Why did the A’s sign Yoennis Cespedes?
Last year, David DeJesus and Conor Jackson logged the most defensive innings in right field for the Oakland A’s. In center field, Coco Crisp and Ryan Sweeney, in that order, logged the most innings. In left field, it was Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui. Five of those six players are no longer A’s. Four left via free agency and Sweeney was dealt to the Red Sox in the Andrew Bailey trade. Coco Crisp became a free agent, but surprisingly returned to Oakland on a 2-year $14 million deal.
The departed have been replaced by Colin Cowgill, who came over in the Trevor Cahill trade; Josh Reddick, who was acquired in the Bailey deal; Seth Smith; Jonny Gomes; Manny Ramirez and Yoennis Cespedes. It was recently announced that Cespedes will open the season as Oakland’s center fielder. This has moved a disgruntled Coco Crisp to left field and it looks like Reddick will win the right field job. Gomes and Smith should make a neat platoon at DH, assuming Oakland hasn’t ticketed one of their eighteen first basemen for the position, until Ramirez is eligible to play. It’s not clear if Cowgill will make the roster or if the A’s will carry another reserve infielder.
One reason for signing Cespedes is clear: Oakland’s offense is terrible. Aside from the Cuban import, the highest projected OPS+ for any of the other five opening day outfield options is Smith’s 97 and then Crisp’s 92. On the bright side, Beane could have found a cheap and effective platoon in Smith and Gomes, as they each have very noticeable splits. However, Crisp loses some of his value when not patrolling centerfielder and now looks like a strangely expensive good-defensive, weak-bat corner outfielder.
In the end, it’s far from clear what sort of major league hitter Cespedes will turn into, but he’s a rare potential impact free agent who the A’s could place a competitive bid on and who was willing to play in Oakland. He reported turned down more money per year and a longer contract offer from the Cubs, as he wanted to hit free agency sooner. The A’s know the next couple of years will be spent rebuilding, but Cespedes should still be under control as Oakland hopes to transition into contenders again and, if not, he’ll either be a tradeable asset or a low-cost bust.
3. Why has Billy Beane decided to collect Quad-A first basemen?
Brandon Allen. Chris Carter. Daric Barton. Kila Ka’aihue. Can you tell the four of them apart? Their projected OPS+ are 94, 91, 88 and 85. Take a moment and see if you can match the OPS+ with the player? Answer below.
The A’s have a collection of first basemen who have hit relatively well in the minor leagues, but not outstandingly and do not, at least anymore, possess bright prospect shine. As the first question indicates, I’m probably more bullish on the A’s chances than some, but this is a prime example of the offensive weakness that will prevent them from being true contenders in a tough division.
As the ZIPS projections indicate, there isn’t a lot to separate them offensively and they have all been disappointing in their brief major league experiences so far. Barton is the best defender of the bunch and Carter is supposedly close to a butcher with the glove. Allen is reportedly below average and I haven’t heard a lot about Ka’aihue’s defense, either positively or negatively. The A’s have seemed keen on Barton in the past and willing to cut him some slack, but it has been announced he won’t be travelling with the team to Japan for their two-game mini-series with the Mariners. He may a victim of the options game, as he has options remaining and Ka’aihue doesn’t. It looks like Allen will get the job and Ka’aihue will make the team as the backup and sometimes DH.
Unfortunately for A’s fans, they don’t have any first base prospects in the minors – their best is probably Miles Head, who came over from the Red Sox in the Bailey deal – so they have this year to sort through these four players and determine whether any of them can be the answer at 1B, either in the short or long term.
In descending order, the answer is Barton, Ka’aihue, Carter and then Allen.
Two big free agent signings have helped Anaheim bridge the gap between them and the incumbent two-time AL champions, but will it be enough?
1. Does Mike Trout have a starting spot in Anaheim’s outfield?
Unfortunately for fantasy owners who gambled on the youngster, Mike Trout looks slated to begin 2012 in Triple-A. Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter and Peter Bourjos will likely patrol the outfield and Bobby Abreu looks to be a disgruntled backup, although how often Anaheim lets the 38-year-old patrol the outfield is another matter. Mark Trumbo can also serve as a backup as a corner outfielder, which would be no problem for the Angels who could easily shift Hunter to the center in such a scenario. One would presume that Anaheim would want to play Trout everyday upon his promotion to the majors, so he’s not going to come up to sit on the bench as a reserve.
If there’s no injury during the first couple of months of the season, it will be interesting to see what the Angels do if Trout looks to be ready in the minors. Bourjos is no great shakes offensively, but should be an asset with his speed and his defense in center fielder. Meanwhile, Hunter, while no longer the player he was with the Twins, is still an above-average player. That leaves our old friend Vernon Wells, who showed no signs of rebounding in 2011 and increasingly looks as if he may be done as a starting major leaguer.
His price tag is onerous and may encourage Anaheim to stick with him longer than they should, but the playoffs are a very real possibility for the Angels, if not in the AL West then as one of the two wild cards. If it comes down to a couple of games at the end of the season, Anaheim’s playoff hopes could be determined by whether they bench Wells after a couple of months and turn to Trout (or another option) or whether Vernon keeps his starting spot because of his contract. One thing is for sure, ignoring every other positive move he’s made, AA would have a long leash in my books simply because of the fact he unloaded Vernon’s contract.
2. With a change of scenery, will Chris Iannetta revive his career?
A fourth-round pick from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chris Iannetta rose steadily through Colorado’s farm system, posting a .950 OPS in Single-A in 2004 and an .848 OPS in 2005 between High and Double-A. He came onto prominence in 2006 with a .996 OPS between Double and Triple-A. Although Colorado Springs is a friendly hitting environment, this still made Iannetta stand out at a position where steady bats are hard to find. That campagin put him on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list in January 2007 and he posted a solid .804 OPS in Colorado Springs during the following season.
Iannetta had cups of coffee in the majors in 2006 and 2007 and didn’t do much in either stint, but as he had under 325 plate appearances combined over the two seasons, it wasn’t particularly concerning. In 2008, Iannetta looked like he was on his way to living up to his potential, posting a .390 OBP and a .505 slugging percentage for a 125 OPS+. However, he went backwards the next year with an .804 OPS and a 101 OPS+. In 2010, Iannetta struggled and hit .197 over 223 plate appearances. Although he maintained his strong plate discipline, posting an OBP over .300, Iannetta wound up in the minors for part of the season, where he posted a 1.146 OPS at Triple-A. Iannetta rebounded in 2011 to a .788 OPS and a 102 OPS+, but Colorado felt they’d be better served with Ramon Hernandez and Willin Rosario and Iannetta was traded to Anaheim this offseason.
Iannetta is not a strong defensive catcher and has a .707 career OPS outside of Coors. The last two years it was .587 and .574, respectively, as Iannetta had a huge home-road split in 2011. Anaheim is hoping he can revive his career under Mike Scoscia or, at least, provide a bridge until Hank Conger takes over behind the plate. Perhaps a change of scenery is all that Iannetta needs. However, it’s looking increasingly like Iannetta’s 2008 was an aberration and he’s never going to be the offensive force 2008 promised.
3. How strong does CJ Wilson make their rotation?
If not the best in the majors, which Fangraphs believes, then it clearly is the upper echelon along with Philadelphia, Tampa and Texas. The Angels already had two ace-calibre starters in Jered Weaver and Dan Haren and added a third in Wilson, who signed a very reasonable five-year deal for $85 million. Ervin Santana is now one of baseball’s best fourth starters and Anaheim is now rumoured to be in the market for a guy who would clearly be baseball’s best fifth starter. Currently, the leading contenders for the five spot are San Francisco’s former top prospect Jerome Williams, who experienced unexpected late-season success with Anaheim last year, and youngster Garrett Richards, with Brad Mills in the picture, as well.
As for Wilson, I didn’t really think his conversion from reliever to starter was going to go particularly well. I thought maybe Wilson would settle down as a #4-type league-average starter who’d be able to eat some innings. I didn’t expect him to turn into a pitcher who posts ERA+s of 134 and 152 in his first two seasons as a starter. Wilson made a big step forward in 2011, by cutting his BB/9 rate from 4.1 to 3.0 and upping his K/9 rate from 7.5 to 8.3.
The big difference for Wilson is that he’s moving from the hot summer heat of Texas and the friendly confines (for hitters) of the Ballpark at Arlington. Wilson may have been pitching a bit above his true talent level last year, but I think the new ballpark may encourage Wilson to challenge hitters more directly and make it less likely his walk and home run rate will creep upwards to their old levels.. Angel Stadium gives up .56 runs per game less and .71 home runs per game less than the Ballpark in Arlington. That benefit will be partially, but I don’t think entirely, offset by not having Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on the left side of the infield defensively. However, Anaheim’s outfield defense is hard to beat, and could even get better if Trout replaces Wells. Of the big free agents this offseason, Wilson has a good chance of being the best value for money signing and, if your fantasy league mates write him off as a candidate for regression, I’d be ready to pounce.
The two-time AL Champions lost a front-of-the-rotation starter, gained another and added an aging closer to replace their old one, who is converting to a starter. Will it be enough?
1. Is Matt Harrison baseball’s best number five starter?
While Anaheim may put their first four against anyone’s, it would be hard for them to find a fifth starter as good as Matt Harrison. All the southpaw did last year was post a 3.39 ERA, after putting up a 4.71 ERA in 2010 as a reliever. He’ll still sit behind Yu Darvish, Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland in the rotation (acknowledgement that all this numbering of starters is somewhat artificial). However, Harrison didn’t just come from nowhere. He was one of the pieces in the Mark Teixeira trade, coming over from the Braves system where he was one of their top pitching prospects.
Harrison took a jump last year, improving his K/9 rate from 5.3 to 6.1 and decreasing his BB/9 rate from 4.5 to 2.75. He also halved his home run rate. Now that we know why he did so well last year, the question is whether that’s sustainable. As Fangraphs pointed out, his first-strike percentage would suggest that Harrison’s jump in BB rate was probably unsustainable.
However, that interpretation was also perhaps pessimistic. Harrison has improved his average fastball velocity half a mile an hour from 2010 and two miles an hour from 2009. Furthermore, he showed a noticeable increase in the percentage of pitches a batter swings at (25.4% to 29.2%). At the same time, he still relied upon his fastball primarily, but he threw his slider about half as often and threw his curveball nearly twice as often as he had in 2010. This may indicate a change in his repertoire or development of his pitches has allowed Harrison to induce the opposition to be less patient, which, along with increased fastball velocity, may keep his BB rate around this new level.
2. Will they sign Josh Hamilton to an extension?
Josh Hamilton is one of the most interesting extension candidates in baseball. He’s a free agent after this coming season. Hamilton’s an extremely talented player. He’s been an all-star for the last four seasons. He won the 2010 AL MVP award winner. He has a career .909 OPS and he’s a center fielder. However, he’s played 89, 133 and 121 games in the last three seasons, respectively. He’s going to be 31 this season. And, he has a history of drug abuse and has had two well-publicized relapses from his avowed abstinence in the last two years. He’s a free agent at the end of this year. What do you do?
Only a couple of hitters of this calibre reach free agency per season, let alone one who is as old as Hamilton and with his injury and checkered history. But the talent is undeniable. I don’t have an answer because it’s going to come down to contract length and money and a range of outcomes are possible. However, it’ll be one of the more interesting cases of the past few years, as there is a unique mixture of variables in play here.
3. How will Yu Darvish transition to the majors?
Well, the most likely outcome is probably….Ah, forget it. We’re all tired of speculative Yu Darvish talk by this point.
What will the final standings look like in the AL West?
Same as last year. The Angels will get the second wild card and Oakland will be more competitive than most think, but the end result won’t be any different.