MLB Baseball Preview 2013: American League West
The AL West is packed with talent and one team that probably already wishes it were September.
Both divisions out west look to be battles for the entire 162 with both LA teams making waves this winter while the surprise Oakland A’s appear strong yet again and the Texas Rangers have become a stable force. The Seattle Mariners are on the rise, but likely still a year out.
As with the NL West, the other teams have a punching bag bringing up the rear as the Astros will have a rough year by design as they are rebuilding from the absolute bottom.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Strength: Let’s see: baseball’s best player in 2012, baseball’s best player for the entirety of the 00s, and an MVP contender in four of the last five years (including a 2010 win of the award) make up three of top four in LA’s lineup. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton will give opposing pitchers nightmares all season long. Plus, as I wrote here back in February, that’s not all they have making it impossible to pitch around anyone.
Weakness: For a divisional favorite, they sure have a shaky rotation behind ace Jered Weaver. They desperately need CJ Wilson to return to the guy he was in Texas while Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas will be the keys to their rotation. I actually like Blanton to have a strong season while Vargas will likely still be a good-at-home, struggle-on-the-road guy. Tommy Hanson certainly doesn’t look like the ace-in-the-making we saw in Atlanta. Beyond all that, they have almost no reinforcements should someone go down.
Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Erick Aybar looks to be the prime benefactor of this high-powered lineup as he sits smooshed between Trout and Pujols. Pitchers will be forced to go after him and he crushed fastballs last year so he should be able to make them pay.
Player/Pitcher on the Decline: The Braves don’t usually trade future aces if they are still future aces. Hanson was essentially dealt for a middle reliever meaning he is likely broken. His numbers imploded last year, his shoulder is a mess, and command has deteriorated the last couple of years.
Prospect to Watch: Part of the reason they don’t have any backup starters is because their farm system is among baseball’s worst. Nick Maronde got a cup of coffee with the club last year skipping Triple-A in the process and throwing six strong innings. He could be someone who helps down the line, but that may be out of the bullpen. While bullpen is a need, losing any of their five starters would put a major burden on this club. I still think they mash their way to success.
Prediction: 91-71, AL West Champions
Strength: Even without Hamilton, that lineup remains their strength. A healthy Lance Berkman and another full season of David Murphy should mitigate some of the sting from the Hamilton loss. Of course, the former is a big “IF” as Berkman managed just 32 games a year ago and has topped 136 games just once in the last four. Staying out of the field as a DH should help keep him intact, but the 37-year old is brittle in the twilight of his career.
Weakness: A couple of injuries have really decimated their rotation leaving them with some uncertainty after ace and future AL Cy Young winner Yu Darvish. Matt Harrison is solid and both Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland have the talent to be strong in the middle of the rotation, but Ogando is shifting to starting after another year in relief and Holland has been terribly inconsistent throughout his young career.
Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Big things are expected of Leonys Martin as inherits the centerfield role full-time now with Hamilton gone. The 25-year old tore Triple-A apart last year with a .359 average, 1033 OPS, 12 homers, and 10 stolen bases in 260 plate appearances. He has just 54 MLB plate appearances so while his OPS is a meager 612, the sample is far too small to worry.
Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Yu Darvish. I absolutely think he is ready to explode.
Prospect to Watch: Jurickson Profar – baseball’s top prospect according to many outlets – will be waiting on hand in Round Rock, Texas playing for the Triple-A Express should the Rangers need his high-impact skill set at any point this season. His primary position is blocked by Elvis Andrus, who just signed an eight-year deal, while second base – a position he played some during his MLB debut last year – is blocked by incumbent Ian Kinsler. It’s a nice problem to have and speculation remains that a trade is the eventual outcome.
Prediction: 91-71, AL Wildcard
Strength: They have built a lineup around a few potential studs like Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and Coco Crisp while the rest is a series of platoons that should make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Add on top of that the fact that they several major league-ready players in Triple-A should things not work as planned.
Weakness: There isn’t a glaring weakness on this ballclub, but if I have to pick one, I’d lean toward Brett Anderson’s health or the complete lack thereof. Anderson hasn’t reached even 115 innings in the three seasons since his strong 2009 debut. His talent isn’t in question during the spells when he does pitch, they just can’t keep him on the field. Keeping him upright will be key to a repeat of 2012’s success.
Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Dan Straily rose seemingly out of nowhere last year blitzing his way through Double- and Triple-A en route to a minor league strikeout title (190) before coming up and putting together a nice 39-inning MLB debut.
Player/Pitcher on the Decline: This team is too young to have guys on the career decline, but one guy I think will slide back from a big 2012 is Brandon Moss. He came in with a .236/.300/.382 line and 15 homers in 749 plate appearances split among three organizations in five seasons only to explode for a .291/.358/.596(!) line with 20 bombs in just 296 plate appearances with Oakland. The power is more believable than the batting average, though his rate of home runs is likely to slow as well.
Prospect to Watch: Michael Choice is a quality outfield prospect who fared OK at Double-A, but his 22 percent strikeout rate is problematic and needs to be shaved down before he can be seen as a reliable MLB asset. He is the highest ceiling prospect who is close (apart from Straily who obviously has made his debut) and yet he truthfully isn’t that close. The earliest we’d likely see him is mid-to-late summer.
Prediction: 90-72, a razor-thin division first to third
Strength: Prospects. While it is a fun strength, it isn’t particularly useful since it is essentially untapped potential. Alas, the Mariners have a lot to look forward to that should start trickling up to the ballclub soon. A throng of arms headlined by Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton plus some potentially impactful position players in Mike Zunino and Nick Franklin.
Weakness: The offense should definitely be better than last year, but it is still a sore spot for the club. Power additions like Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales add a huge boost to the middle of their lineup while Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders appeared to breakout last year and Franklin Gutierrez appears healthy for the time since 2010.
Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Jesus Montero still has a few levels to go, but I like Seager to take another step in 2013. He was amazing on the road and against righties, so if the newly moved in fences help and he improves against southpaws, he is going to be at an All-Star level.
Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Blake Beavan was so fortunate to only post a 4.43 ERA last year. His skills said he was a 5.00 or worse guy. He doesn’t walk anyone (career 4% BB rate) which is great, but he doesn’t have any command within the zone, either, so he also gives up far too many home runs (career 1.3 HR/9). Erasmo Ramirez has to get that spot sooner or later.
Prospect to Watch: The pitchers are intriguing, especially Walker, but Franklin is a guy I’m particularly intrigued by as the Mariners middle infield was a black hole offensively last year with Brendan Ryan – whose glove alone makes him a major leaguer – and Dustin Ackley who just hasn’t progressed as expected yet. Franklin has played both second and short in the minors so if he can hit in his second go at Triple-A, he’ll force his way up at some point in 2013.
Strength: The jokes are easy, but let’s avoid them for a moment and be serious. The middle of their lineup has some really nice pop. Now, it will strikeout nearly 600 times between Chris Carter, Carlos Pena, and Justin Maxwell, but they are going to knock the ball around Minute Maid Park, too.
Weakness: Just about everything else.
Player/Pitcher on the Rise: You’d never know that Jose Altuve spent just 35 games at Double-A before making his MLB debut in 2011 and yet despite a modest showing those 57 games, he has stuck enjoying a solid league-average year in 2012. Now 23, he is ready for another step forward and should have no trouble being Houston’s best player. And that isn’t just because of the depressed talent Houston, but because he is a damn fine player who would be a contributing asset to any team.
Player/Pitcher on the Decline: I think their oldest guy is like 24. Some of their “best” candidates for this one already hit rock bottom or close to it last year so despite how rough of a year they are in for, I don’t think anyone is really set to slide precipitously.
Prospect to Watch: It would’ve emphatically been Jonathan Singleton had he not been suspended 50 games for marijuana as he could’ve broken camp with the team. It is still Singleton, but I’m a bit more measured with my excitement now since he’s docked a third of the season. He is the first baseman of the future and if he can prove himself quickly at Triple-A, that reign will start later this summer.