Monday, March 5, 2012

AL West: the season that will be

Moving forward, into 2012, there still two teams sitting atop the division with the other squads looking up. There have definitely been some changes in the division, however, and here’s how I see it shaking out:

1. Los Angeles
2. Texas
3. Oakland
4. Seattle

Seattle will bring up the rear once again in 2012. It will also be yet another season of trying new things and seeing just what works and what doesn’t. The lineup has already been shaken up, with Eric Wedge’s decision to bat Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot and have Ichiro bat third. This will likely fail for a number of reasons, but at least the M’s aren’t standing pat. Mike Carp in LF is a question mark, especially defensively. Justin Smoak needs to improve in a very big way and Ackley will be trying to improve on his rookie season. Recent acquisition Jesus Montero will be a big piece of the puzzle as well, and his development behind the plate will be something to watch out for. Expected CF Franklin Gutierrez tore a pectoral muscle and will be out for the first few weeks of the season. Replacements could be Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders or Casper Wells. Here’s their projected lineup:

1. Chone Figgins (3B)
2. Dusting Ackley (2B)
3. Ichiro Suzuki (RF)
4. Mike Carp (LF)
5. Jesus Montero (DH)
6. Justin Smoak (1B)
7. Miguel Olivo (C)
8. Casper Wells (CF)
9. Brendan Ryan (SS)

On the mound, Felix will be Felix, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. Jason Vargas is a serviceable starter and a nice contrast from Hernandez, but the likes of Kevin Millwood, Hisashi Iwakuma (signed from Japan) and Hector Noesi (acquire in the Pineda/Montero swap) are anything but sure bets. How much does Millwood have left in the tank? Will Iwakuma be able to transition to American baseball and culture successfully? Is Noesi ready to be a full time starter? There are clearly more questions than answers here. The bullpen is a patchwork bunch where Brandon League will be the closer once again. His strikeout numbers dropped in 2011 and you can bet he’ll be trying to get back to being a little more dominant. Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley, both journeyman guys, will some combination of the 7th/8th inning opportunities. George Sherrill is a veteran lefty who was added at low cost after seeing his effectiveness decline in recent seasons. Here’s how the rotation and bullpen should shake out initially, but expect some serious fluctuation as the season progresses:

1. Felix Hernandez (RHP)
2. Jason Vargas (LHP)
3. Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP)
4. Kevin Millwood (RHP)
5. Hector Noesi (RHP)

CL Brandon League (RHP)
SU Tom Wilhelmsen (RHP)
SU Shawn Kelley (RHP)
MR George Sherrill (LHP)
MR Chance Ruffin (RHP)
MR Hong-Chih Kuo (LHP)
LR Shawn Camp (RHP) or Charlie Furbush (LHP) or Blake Beavan (RHP)

This is a relatively uninspiring bunch, in the lineup, bullpen and the rotation. The real surprises will come whenever the M’s begin calling up prospects, such as James Paxton and Danny Hultzen. Until then, Seattle fans will have to just grin and bear it.

On the East Side of the Bay, the A’s have shaken things up. They let Josh Willingham, the only player from last year to hit more than 15 homeruns last season, escape via free agency. Most of us were wondering just what they’d do to replace that power and, for most of the offseason, it seemed they’d do nothing at all. Then, out of nowhere, they signed Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes to patrol CF, and then took a cheap flier on Manny Ramirez to play DH (after sitting out the first 50 games of the season for suspension). It’s hard to say how much better this makes them, but it certainly can’t have hurt things at all. Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp will continue to supply speed at the top of the lineup. Josh Reddick and Seth Smith will hit in the middle of the order, with Cespedes likely batting a little further down to get comfortable with American pitching. Scott Sizemore was going to be the Opening Day 3B after he had a nice 2011, but a torn ACL ended that. Replacement candidates are unclear at this time. They won’t score a ton of runs, but once again it will be a team effort in Oakland to put runs on the board. Here’s the projected lineup:

1. Jemile Weeks (2B)
2. Coco Crisp (LF)
3. Josh Reddick (RF)
4. Seth Smith (DH)
5. Deric Barton (1B)
6. Yoenis Cespedes (CF)
7. Kurt Suzuki (C)
8. Josh Donaldson (3B)
9. Cliff Pennington (SS)

The lineup isn’t very imposing and, unfortunately, neither is the rotation. The only returner is Brandon McCarthy, who really impressed last year. He’s expected to be the ace and Opening Day starter. After McCarthy, free agent signee Bartolo Colon will take his turn. He was serviceable for the Yankees last year and is your typical Billy Beane pickup. A trio of young prospects will make up the rest of the rotation. Brad Peacock and Tom Millone, both acquired from the Nationals in exchange for Gio Gonzalez, will get a lot of starts. The fifth starter is projected to be touted Jarrod Parker, the key piece in the Cahill-to-the-Diamondbacks trade. Dallas Braden may not be ready to start the season after recovering from shoulder surgery and Brett Anderson should miss most, if not all of the season recovering from Tommy John. Brian Fuentes will remain the closer with Grant Balfour setting him up. Look out for emerging star Fautino De Los Santos. He’s young and has great stuff. Journeyman like Joey Devine and Jerry Blevins will pitch in as well. The rotation and bullpen should look something like this:

1. Brandon McCarthy (RHP)
2. Bartolo Colon (RHP)
3. Brad Peacock (RHP)
4. Tom Millone (LHP)
5. Jarrod Parker (RHP)

CL Brian Fuentes (LHP)
SU Grant Balfour (RHP)
SU Fautino De Los Santos (RHP)
MR Joey Devine (RHP)
MR Ryan Cook (RHP)
MR Jerry Blevins (LHP)
LR Graham Godfrey (RHP) or Tyson Ross (RHP)

The Texas Rangers will be a powerhouse yet again. They look like legitimate contenders for a date with the postseason, and for good reason. Their truest strength lies at the plate, where the Rangers simply mash. Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz help create a lineup that you do not want to mess with. I fully expect Ian Kinsler to lead off once again, followed by an emerging Elvis Andrus. Kinsler is a functional 2B in the field and an excellent hitter with great power for the position. Hamilton and Beltre make a nasty middle of the lineup tandem for opposing pitchers. Mike Napoli will try to reproduce the magical 2011 he had and it doesn’t get any easier when Michael Young comes to the plate. This is possibly the most powerful lineup in the big leagues. David Murphy and Mitch Moreland round things out. I’m a little confused with where to put Young, but the lineup should look similar to this:

1. Ian Kinsler 2B
2. Elvis Andrus SS
3. Josh Hamilton CF
4. Adrian Beltre 3B
5. Michael Young DH
6. Mike Napoli C
7. Nelson Cruz RF
8. Mitch Moreland 1B
9. David Murphy LF

On the mound, the team is a little less imposing. Ace CJ Wilson did not re-sign with the team this offseason, so the Ranger had to look elsewhere for rotation help. Lucky for them, they won the bidding for Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. While he’s yet to throw a major league pitch yet, projections for Darvish are quite impressive and he was massively successful in Japan. The other pieces of the rotation consist of homegrown talent such as Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. Perhaps a major question mark for Texas exists with closer-turned-starter Neftali Feliz. While being one of baseball’s better closers in the last few seasons, he’s attempting to transition to the rotation for the Rangers. How successful that transition goes will determine a lot for the Texas. In the bullpen, replacing Feliz, is veteran reliever Joe Nathan. He’s set up by one of the best in Mike Adams. Koji Uehara and Alexi Ogando will also play pivotal roles. Here are my projected rotation and bullpen for the Rangers:

1. Colby Lewis (RHP)
2. Derek Holland (LHP)
3. Yu Darvish (RHP)
4. Matt Harrison (LHP)
5. Neftali Feliz (RHP)

CL Joe Nathan (RHP)
SU Mike Adams (RHP)
SU Alexi Ogando (RHP)
MR Koji Uehara (RHP)
MR Mark Lowe (RHP)
MR Yoshinori Tateyama (RHP)
LR Scott Feldman

Once again, the Rangers will score a ton of runs and hope to hold their opponents to a reasonably small total. Don’t expect them to shut other teams out very often, but with an offense like theirs, they should be all right.

The new head of the division should be the Los Angeles Angels of Aneheim. They made the biggest of big splashes by signing Albert Pujols this offseason, then stole from their rivals, the Rangers, by getting ahold of CJ Wilson in free agency. At the plate, the Angels disappointed in 2011. They’ll likely be better in 2012 (adding Pujols will do that for you) but won’t be as strong as the Rangers. Erick Aybar had a good 2011 and will try to keep it up after signing an extension in the offseason. Aging on-base machine Bobby Abreu will try to rebound, as will Torii Hunter. Howie Kendrick had a fantastic season and also got himself extended this winter. Vernon Wells has been a huge disappointment, which I can’t say is surprising, ever since he came to LA from Toronto in a surprising move last year. A trade with Colorado netted the Angels Chris Ianetta, a good pickup, and emerging outfielder Peter Bourjos is expected to continue to grow in centerfield. Here’s the projected lineup:

1. Erick Aybar SS
2. Bobby Abreau DH
3. Albert Pujols 1B
4. Torii Hunter RF
5. Howie Kendrick 2B
6. Alberto Callaspo 3B
7. Vernon Wells LF
8. Chris Iannetta C
9. Peter Bourjos CF

The rotation should be fantastic and it’s where the true strength of the Angels resides. Jered Weaver will be the Opening Day starter, but there are two others that are capable of pitching at the same level. Dan Haren is an underrated stud on the mound, perhaps statistically better than Weaver even. The newly-acquired Wilson will take the ball third after a career year in 2011. Ervin Santana is a terrific choice for a fourth starter and journeyman Jerome Williams rounds things out. Jordan Walden will attempt to improve on a successful rookie year as the team’s closer. Veteran relievers Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins will set up Walden, and the Angel’s bullpen will continue to benefit from their presence. A nice, low-cost pickup was the signing of Jason Isringhausen. Just how much he has left in the tank is questionable, but he’s another potential veteran that can stabilize the ‘pen. Things should look like this:

1. Jered Weaver RHP
2. Dan Haren RHP
3. CJ Wilson LHP
4. Ervin Santan RHP
5. Jerome Williams RHP

CL Jordan Walden (RHP)
SU Scott Downs (LHP)
SU LaTroy Hawkins (RHP)
MR Hisanori Takahashi (LHP)
MR Jason Isringhausen (RHP)
MR Rich Thompson (RHP)
LR Bobby Cassevah (RHP)

I fully expect the Angels and Rangers to battle for the division all year long, but I give the slightest of edges to the Angels, based upon their pitching. I feel they are a more balance ball club overall. They will both make Seattle and Oakland miserable.

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