Monthly Archives: February 2011

2011 Atlanta Braves: Will the winning continue without Bobby Cox?

2010 Record: 91-71, 2nd NL East
2010 Prediction: 90-72, 2nd NL East
Diff: 1
2011 Prediction: 2nd NL East

Impact Player: OF Jason Heyward
Impact Pitcher: RHP Tommy Hanson
Best Reliever: LHP Jonny Venters
Top Prospect: RHP Julio Teheran

General Manager: Frank Wren
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Scott Linebrink, LHP George Sherrill, 2B Dan Uggla, OF/1B Joe Mather

Significant Departures:
1B Troy Glaus, OF Melky Cabrera, INF Omar Infante, OF Matt Diaz, 1B Derrek Lee, OF Rick Ankiel, OF Gregor Blanco, LHP Billy Wagner, RHP Takashi Saito, RHP Jesse Chavez, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, LHP Michael Dunn

The Braves are one of those organizations that you have to love.  Not only are they built to win now with a team that could rival just about anybody in the National League, but they are built to win for years with young stars like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson.  Their minor-league system continues to churn out young stud prospects and with pitchers Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, and Craig Kimbrel ready to make an impact very soon.

GM Frank Wren has built a team that wins every year, keeping up with the tradition of the 90s and early 2000s.  The Braves have not won a division title since 2005, but they made the playoffs last year as the NL Wildcard and have posted just two losing seasons since 1990.  With one of the best rotations in the NL, the Braves should not only get back to the postseason, but could be considered a World Series contender

Starting Rotation
Even with Teheran probably at least a year away from cracking the rotation in Atlanta, The Braves are four-deep on front-line starters in 2011.  Tim Hudson came back from his injury last year and won 17 games with a 2.83 ERA, but the 35-year-old wasn’t quite as good as those numbers suggest.  He had a pedestrian 1.88 K/BB ratio and a 4.09 FIP.  He’s still a very good pitcher who, even at his worst is probably a solid number-three pitcher.

38-year-old Derek Lowe is back again in 2011 after a 16-win season with a solid 3.89 FIP.  He’s advancing in age, but is still a consistent pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground and has adjusted to stay effective with an eroding skill set.

Hanson was the best starter on the team last year despite a 10-11 record.  He had a 3.33 ERA, a team-leading 3.31 FIP and he threw over 200 innings for the first time.  Out of all the young starters that the Braves have, Hanson may end up being the best.

Jurrjens struggled last year after a breakout 2009.  He was limited to 116.1 innings of work due to an injury and wasn’t very sharp when he did pitch.  His 4.64 ERA was lessened by a somewhat better 4.19 FIP and he posted an oddly low groundball rate in 2010.  If he brings that back in line with his career-norm and stays healthy, he’s another top-of-the-rotation talent.

The fifth spot in the rotation is expected to be won by either Minor or Brandon Beachy.  Minor has the inside track after dominating at times in the majors last year.  If he becomes more consistent, he’s yet another high-ceiling talent.  Beachy on the other hand has made only a few starts above the AA-level so will have to be really good to make the team.

Non-roster invites Kenshin Kawakami and Rodrigo Lopez are each coming off of terrible seasons, but if both Minor and Beachy struggle, one of them could end up filling out the rotation.  Kris Medlin may also be an option late in the year as he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery until likely August.

Bullpen
Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez says he’s  going to platoon his closing situation at least to start the 2011 regular season with two young flamethrowers.  Right-hander Kimbrel dominated in just over 20 innings at the major-league level last season posting a 0.44 ERA and 1.53 FIP.  His most impressive stat had to be his 40 strike outs.  If Kimbrel can figure out his command issues, he could be a special reliever.  The left-handed side of the closer platoon will be Jonny Venters who could end up sticking full time if Kimbrel doesn’t appear quite ready to be a regular major-leaguer.  Venters pitched in 83 innings in 2010 and had a 1.95 ERA and 2.69 FIP.  He keeps the ball on the ground and misses a lot of bats.

Setting up the closer duo in Atlanta will be a couple of one-out-only guys.  Right-hander Peter Moylan had a 2.97 ERA in 2010, but his FIP against lefties was 9.37 so he’ll face righties pretty much all the time.  Left-hander George Sherrill was signed away from the Dodgers and is the prototypical LOOGY.  He had a 3.32 FIP against lefties and a 7.58 FIP against righties.  All of the situational options for the new Braves’ manager could be a nightmare for opposing offenses.

The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by left-hander Eric O’Flaherty who had a 2.45 ERA last season and was solid against both lefties and righties, and veterans Scott Proctor and Scott Linebrink.  Linebrink was acquired from the White Sox for prospect pitcher Kyle Coefield and is coming off two bad years on the South Side.  He’s an expensive reliever with a salary of $5.5-million for 2011, but the Braves are hoping he can improve outside of homer-happy U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago where he put up a terrible 1.58 HR/9 rate over his three years there.  Proctor posted a 7.08 ERA in AAA last year and could end up being released if he doesn’t make the team.

Other possible bullpen arms for Atlanta include Erik Cordier, Juan Abreu, and Cristhian Martinez.  Martinez looked decent in 26 big league innings with the Braves last year.

Catchers
Brian McCann has become one of the best catchers in all of baseball over the last couple years.  Even in a “down” year in 2010, he posted a .269/.375/.453 slash line with 21 home runs.  He’s also an above-average defensive player who ended up with a 5.3 WAR last season.  At 27, McCann is in his prime and could be a perennial all-star for many more years.

Backing up McCann will be David Ross who has become one of the better backups around.  Last season he put up a very good .289/.392/.479 slash line.  He is a very patient hitter who can drive the ball and is solid defensively.  At 34, he’ll likely never be a starter, but fits his role perfectly.  McCann and Ross make one of the better catcher pairings in baseball.
Infielders
Third baseman Chipper Jones is now 39-years-old and is coming off another knee injury which limited him to a career-low 95 games in 2010.  He hates the city of Toronto was still a decent player last year when he did play exhibiting terrific patience and his usual solid power.  He had a 2.7 WAR despite his lack of at-bats.

The Braves tired of Yunel Escobar’s cockiness last year and dealt him to Toronto in a trade that brought veteran Alex Gonzalez back the other way.  Gonzalez is back again this season at short, but had a .294 OBP in 2010.  He hit a career-high-tying 23 homeruns and is still a very good defensive player, but at 34 will have a hard time replicating what was an overall average 2010 season.  The Braves may come to regret that trade sooner than later.

Wren dealt utility infielder Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn to the division rival Marlins to land slugging second baseman Dan Uggla in the offseason.  Uggla has a career .488 slugging percentage and although he’s terrible defensively, he’s one of the best offensive middle-infielders in the game.  He signed a five-year extension with the Braves just a few weeks ago, but many believe he’ll have to move to third base or the outfield in the coming seasons.  Martin Prado is a better defender, but will be moved to leftfield.

At first base, the Braves are expected to go with rookie Freddie Freeman who was one of the best pure hitters in the minors last year.  In AAA-Gwinnett, Freeman posted a .319/.378/.518 slash line with 18 homeruns.  He’s an on-paper frontrunner for the NL Rookie of the Year.

Brooks Conrad and Eric Hinske are both back and should provide some depth.  Conrad can play anywhere in the infield, but has trouble defensively and Hinske can play the infield and outfield corners, but is far removed from his AL Rookie of the Year campaign with the Jays in 2002.

Outfielders
Rightfielder Jason Heyward was a 5.0 WAR player at the age of 20 in his rookie season after posting a .277/.393/.456 slash line and a .376 wOBA.  He’s a five-tool player who does everything very well and could find himself with a trophy case full of MVP awards at the end of his career.

The rest of the outfield in Atlanta is a bit of a question mark.  Prado will start the year as the leftfielder after playing mostly second and third base over the past few years but could make his way back in if Jones isn’t healthy.  Prado had another very good year in 2010 with a .307/.350/.459 slash line.

Centerfield is a bit of a problem for the Braves after Nate McLouth put up his worst season by far in 2010.  He hit just .190 with a .283 wOBA.  Combining that with his terrible defence and McLouth is probably no longer a quality everyday player.  Unfortunately, there are very few other options for Atlanta, which could lead Wren to acquire a centerfielder.  Given that Tony LaRussa hates his centerfielder Colby Rasmus in St. Louis and the Cardinals need a starting pitcher with the injury to Adam Wainwright, perhaps trading a Tim Hudson or a Derek Lowe in a deal for Rasmus wouldn’t be a terrible thing.  Just a thought.

Joe Mather was picked up off waivers from the Cardinals and could be in the extra outfielder mix along with Jordan Schafer, Matt Young, and non-roster invites Brent Clevlen and Wilken Ramirez.

For a chart breaking down the Braves’ lineup, click here.

Overview
The Braves won 91 games in 2010 and were sent packing by the World Champion Giants in the NLDS despite probably having the better team.  They are bringing back virtually the same team with the addition of a slugging second baseman to improve on a team that finished 5th in the NL in runs scored.  One of the deepest rotations in the NL and a bullpen with a very high ceiling should get the Braves back to the postseason in 2011.
Final Prediction: 95-67, 2nd NL East.

2011 American League Preview Breakdown

With the American league previews done, here’s a review of how I think things will shake down.

AL East
Boston Red Sox 98-64
Tampa Bay Rays 93-69
New York Yankees 90-72
Toronto Blue Jays 79-83
Baltimore Orioles 72-90
AL Central
Minnesota Twins 91-71
Chicago White Sox 86-76
Detroit Tigers 82-80
Cleveland Indians 65-97
Kansas City Royals 59-103
AL West
Oakland Athletics 92-70
Texas Rangers 85-77
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 83-79
Seattle Mariners 71-91

This means the American League, as a whole, will be 24 games above the .500-mark.  The Red Sox would be the one seed in the postseason with the Athletics being the two seed; the wildcard Rays the number three seed, and the Twins the four seed.

I consider picking who will win in the postseason kind of a pointless venture since it’s such a giant crapshoot, but I’ll do it anyway, because I enjoy being wrong.

The Red Sox, with a deeper team, will beat the Twins in the ALDS and the A’s with a deeper pitching staff will beat the Rays.

Then I think the A’s will beat the Red Sox in the ALCS.

Yes, that’s right; I’ll go out on a huge limb and pick the Oakland A’s to win the AL pennant.

As for the awards, I’ll pick three candidates for each in no particular order:

MVP:
Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Evan Longoria, Rays

Cy Young:
Jon Lester, Red Sox
David Price, Rays
Brett Anderson, Athletics

Rookie of the Year:
Mike Moustakas, Royals
J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays

Manager of the Year:
Bob Geren, Athletics
Joe Maddon, Rays
Ron Gardenhire, Twins

Next week I’ll preview the NL East starting with the Atlanta Braves on Monday.

2011 Texas Rangers: Do they have the rotation depth to repeat in the AL West

2010 Record: 90-72, 1st AL West
2010 Prediction: 81-81, 4th AL West
Diff: 9
2011 Prediction: 2nd AL West

Impact Player: OF Josh Hamilton
Impact Pitcher: RHP Neftali Feliz
Best Reliever: RHP Neftali Feliz
Top Prospect: LHP Martin Perez

General Manager: Jon Daniels
Manager: Ron Washington (331-317, .511)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Brandon Webb, LHP Arthur Rhodes, C/1B Mike Napoli, 3B Adrian Beltre, C Yorvit Torrealba, RHP Yoshinori Tateyama

Significant Departures:
DH Vladimir Guerrero, C Bengie Molina, INF Jorge Cantu, INF Joaquin Arias, C Max Ramirez, SS Cristian Guzman, LHP Cliff Lee, RHP Rich Harden, RHP Frank Francisco, RHP Dustin Nippert

For the first time in their history, the Texas Rangers not only won a playoff series, but they won the AL pennant.  Despite losing to the Giants in the World Series, the Rangers were clearly more successful than they had ever been before and there’s an optimism surrounding this team going forward that must feel strange for Rangers’ fans.

The optimism persists despite losing out on the team’s top free agent priority, Cliff Lee who decided to return to Philly rather than return to Arlington.  The core of the team outside of Lee still remains and the Rangers were in the midst of a solid season at the time of acquiring him, but rotation depth could be an issue this year, especially considering how much better the A’s project to be.

Reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton has a lot to do with the Rangers’ success as well and the likelihood of him repeating his 2010 performance is slim.  He also continues to have injury problems which has to concern Texas going forward.

Starting Rotation
The knock on the Rangers over the years has been their inability to pitch.  That changed in 2010 and was the chief reason that the team had so much success.  They finished third in the AL in ERA led by Lee and two unexpected successes, converted reliever C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis who returned from a hiatus in Japan and put up a solid season.

With Lee gone, the burden on those two pitchers becomes greater in 2011.  Wilson posted a 3.35 ERA and a 3.56 FIP in his first year as a starter and the Rangers weren’t shy about breaking him in giving him 204 innings in the regular season; a number that increased to 228.1 innings after the post season.  Wilson’s previous career-high at the major-league level was 73.2 innings.  The Rangers don’t believe it will be a problem, but there’s no denying the risk this entails.

Lewis also posted a career-year after returning from Japan posting a 3.72 ERA and 3.55 FIP in 201 innings.  Like Wilson, there is some risk of regression with Lewis considering he was never that good in any previous major league season.  For the Rangers to realistically contend, they’ll need those two at the top of their game.

Brandon Webb was signed away from Arizona, and the Rangers are hoping the former Cy Young Award winner can return to form despite missing the last two seasons with shoulder problems.  Apparently, he’s already experiencing problems again this spring, which is certainly not good news.

Tommy Hunter, who’s 13-4 record, 3.73 ERA, and 4.02 FIP were very solid last season, will also fit into this rotation.  At only 24, he has some serious upside and the Rangers are hoping he can take another step forward in 2011.

The final spot (or two, depending on the health of Webb) will be a spring battle between Derek Holland, Scott Feldman, and Michael KirkmanNeftali Feliz may also get a look.

Bullpen
Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz will probably end up in the rotation someday, and he will get a look there this season, but it’s likely that he’ll still be the team’s closer in 2011.  Last year, Feliz had 40 saves and a 2.73 ERA to go along with a 2.96 FIP.  If the Rangers are really having trouble with depth in their rotation, it might be smart for them to slide him into the rotation now.

The oldest lefty duo in baseball now resides in Texas with holdover Darren Oliver and free agent signing Arthur Rhodes who are 40 and 41-years-old respectively.  Both were very good last season, but Oliver, you could argue, had a career-year.  His 9.49 K/9 rate, 2.48 ERA and 2.64 FIP will all regress this season.  Rhodes has been solid for a long time and his 2.29 ERA and 3.24 FIP are much more repeatable than Oliver’s numbers.

The Rangers have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball on paper as the rest of the unit is made up of some very good assets.  Darren O’Day has now put up two consecutive excellent seasons.  Last year he had a 2.03 ERA and a terrific walk-rate.  Joining him will be Alexi Ogando who was dominant in his rookie season and could end up being the closer when the team decides to put Feliz in the rotation.

The remaining two spots will be up for grabs with lefty Matt Harrison fighting with righties Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tateyama, and Pedro Strop.  Feldman and Kirkman could also be in the mix if they’re not starting.

Omar Beltre was also expected to compete for a spot, but will miss the first half of the season recovering from spinal surgery.

Catchers
The Rangers acquired Mike Napoli from the Jays after he was sent to Toronto for Vernon Wells.  Napoli will get a lot of innings at catcher, but will also play some first base and DH.  He’s an underrated offensive player who was never really appreciated in Anaheim.

Yorvit Torrealba will also get plenty of time behind the plate this season after a .271/.343/.378 slash line in San Diego last year.

With Napoli likely to log plenty of time at first and DH, the Rangers may decide to carry three catchers which will give Matt Treanor and Taylor Teagarden a chance to compete for the final spot.  Their inclusion on the roster also has a lot to do with the Michael Young situation.

Infielders
Speaking of Young, he is no longer in the Rangers’ infield picture after the team signed Adrian Beltre to play third base for the next five years.  Young is in decline offensively and is pretty much incapable of playing anywhere in the infield besides maybe first base, where his middling offensive statistics barely stand up.

This is the third time Young has been moved in his tenure with the Rangers and each time he asks for a trade before settling down and accepting his new lot in life.  This time, however, it appears as though Young is very serious about his want to be traded.  He has reported to training camp and is saying all the right things, but it’s clear the best situation for both sides is for Young to move on.  The problem is that his contract, which has three more years and $48-million left on it, is nearly impossible to move.

If Young remains on the team going forward, he could see some time at first base, but will likely spend most of his time at DH.

Beltre is a weird player.  In his two career years of 2004 and 2010 (both contract years), he has a .328/.377/.591 slash line while outside of those two years, his slash line drops to .264/.318/.435 which is probably what you’ll see from him going forward.  That hardly seems worth the $80-million price tag attached to his name.  He’ll also be 36 at the end of the contract.  Either way, he’s an upgrade from Young, especially defensively.

Ian Kinsler returns at second base and is a very good all around player.  He doesn’t get the press that Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia get, but his numbers are at least comparable to them.  Last year he had an outstanding .382 OBP and a .357 wOBA.

Shortstop Elvis Andrus is still just 22 years old and he improved greatly at the plate in 2010 with a .265/.342/.301 slash line, although the drop-off in his slugging percentage concerns some.  He is considered a very good fielder, but last season he was merely average which contributed to his underwhelming 1.5 WAR rating.

At first base, the Rangers have four players who may all see some time at the position.  Along with Napoli and Young is Mitch Moreland, who was decent in 47 games last year and enters camp as the likely starter.  He does, however, have a very limited ceiling.

Chris Davis was almost traded to the Cubs, but he’s still around.  After looking like the first baseman of the future  in 2008 and 2009, he fell off the planet last year struggling to hit lefties and posting a .192/.279/.292 slash line.  He’s currently fourth on the depth chart at first and may find himself on another team soon.

Andres Blanco is back as the utility infielder and non-roster invite Esteban German may also get a look but will likely provide minor-league depth.

Outfielders
The Rangers outfield has the potential to be one of the better units in the AL.  Hamilton in left was an absolute beast last year posting a surreal .359/.411/.633 slash line and leading the majors in OPS at 1.044.  He also led the majors in WAR at 8.0 and wOBA at .447.  He still missed nearly 30 games with another injury and has yet to stay healthy for more than a year at time, which is certainly a concern.  There’s no denying that, when healthy, Hamilton is one of the best players in the game and will be integral to the success of the Rangers going forward.

In rightfield is Nelson Cruz who is has become a very solid major leaguer.  The late-bloomer was terrific again last year when he was healthy.  In 108 games, Cruz amassed 22 homeruns and an impressive .318/.374/.576 slash line with a .408 wOBA.  Defensively, his 10.6 UZR/150 was third in the AL among rightfielders.

In centerfield will be Julio Borbon who struggled a bit at the plate last year seeing his on-base percentage fall to .309 as a result of a very low walk-rate, but it’s expected that he will bounce back going forward to be a consistent .300 hitter with at least average patience.  He’s never going to hit for power, but he’s a very good defensive player who could be a force at the top of the order with Andrus for many years.

David Murphy is one of the better fourth outfielders around.  He’s solid defensively in the corners and can handle centerfield as well and last year was great at the plate with a .291/.358/.449 slash line.  He managed to get into a lot of games last season due to the Cruz and Hamilton injuries.  He may get more at-bats if Young is traded as he could be one of a few rotating DHs.

Craig Gentry is around as well and may also become a bigger factor if Young is traded and has to be used as an extra outfielder.
Designated Hitter
As of right now, Young and Napoli should split time at DH with both getting occasional time at first base and Napoli also catching.  If Young is dealt, the team would likely go with a rotating cast that could spell injury risks such as Hamilton and Cruz from playing every day in the outfield.  That would also allow Murphy to get the at-bats he probably deserves.

I’ve run out of creative ways to say CHARTS!

Overview
If the Rangers were able to re-sign Lee they’d have a really good chance of repeating in the AL West, but as it is, their lack of rotation depth could really hurt them against a team like the A’s.  Their lineup and bullpen will keep them moderately competitive, but expect a regression from Wilson and Lewis in the rotation.
Final Prediction: 85-77, 2nd AL West

2011 Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez can’t do everything

2010 Record: 61-101, 4th AL West
2010 Prediction: 85-77, 2nd AL West
Diff: 24
2011 Prediction: 4th AL West

Impact Player: RF Ichiro Suzuki
Impact Pitcher: RHP Felix Hernandez
Best Reliever: RHP Brandon League
Top Prospect: 2B Dustin Ackley

General Manager: Jack Zduriencik
Manager: Eric Wedge (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
C Miguel Olivo, INF Brendan Ryan, DH Jack Cust, RHP Chaz Roe, RHP Manny Delcarmen, LHP Nate Robertson, LHP Royce Ring, OF Gabe Gross

Significant Departures:
1B Casey Kotchman, 3B Jose Lopez, DH Russell Branyan, C Rob Johnson, DH Ken Griffey Jr., LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith

DISCLAIMER: The Seattle Mariners have been impossible to predict the last two seasons.  They have been my kryptonite.  Ahead of the 2009 season, I predicted them to lose 100 games only to see them surprise and win 85.  Ahead of last season, I bought in (as I’m sure many did) and predicted them to match their previous win total of 85 only to see them lose 101.  If you’re a bettor, I would wager that the opposite of what I say will happen.

2010 was a disaster for the Mariners mostly because of the worst offense baseball has seen in a long, long time.  In fact, the M’s scored fewer runs than any AL team since the introduction of the designated hitter at just 513.  They finished dead last in every major offensive category besides stolen bases where they finished 4th (again showing the uselessness of the stolen base).  What made it worse was that the team was actually very good on the pitching side.  They finished fourth in team ERA, led by AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez and a strong team defence.

The Mariners enter the 2011 season with Hernandez still in the fold, but without many other high ceiling pitchers at the major-league level.  They also did very little to improve their offense and appear willing to wait for the arrival of some decent prospects such as Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin and Guillermo Pimentel.  It’ll be hard for them to be as bad offensively as they were last year, but it will also be hard for them to be as good throughout the pitching staff as they were last year.  The Mariners are currently spinning their wheels and it may be a few years before they’re relevant again.  At least the turnaround time in the AL West is historically quick.

Starting Rotation
Hernandez will once again front the Mariners’ rotation after his Cy Young season.  The award represented a sort of victory for baseball stat-heads (such as myself) as Hernandez not only played on a bad team, but had a mediocre 13-12 record.  His 2.27 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 3.32 K/BB ratio, and 0.61 HR/9 rate all equated to him being much better than pitchers with far more wins such as C.C. Sabathia, Clay Buchholz, and David Price.  If nothing else, the Mariners have him to hang their hat on, and he’s still amazingly only 25.

Outside of Hernandez, the Mariners have a serious lack of depth.  Jason Vargas is slotted in as the number-two starter after he posted a solid 3.78 ERA and 3.95 FIP in 2010, but he’d be a number-four or five on most good teams.

Doug Fister (HA…Fister…) posted a very solid 3.65 FIP despite a 6-14 record and a 4.11 ERA.  He has terrific command, especially for someone as tall as him, posting a 1.68 BB/9 rate and he keeps the ball from leaving the park (maybe not that hard to do in Safeco Field).

After those three, things get really thin.  Erik Bedard was brought back despite being injured for the vast majority of his time with the team.  If he can regain his health he could be effective, but it’s highly unlikely that he ever returns to being the pitcher he was in Baltimore.  That trade still ranks as one of the worst in a long time.

Also in the mix will be prospect Michael Pineda who was great in AA last year and then struggled a bit in AAA.  He’s only 22 and would probably do well with another year in AAA, but if he has a good spring, he could make the rotation.  Fellow prospect Chaz Roe, who was acquired from the Rockies in the Jose Lopez trade, could also force his way onto the team with a good spring performance.

Seattle also has a number of non-roster invites with solid major-league pedigree.  Lefties Fabio Castro and Nate Robertson could be pieces in either the rotation or the bullpen; righties Yusmeiro Petit (who’s anything but petit) and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger could also get a look.  Prospect Blake Beaven, who was acquired in the Lee deal, will also be in the mix but struggled in the minors in 2010.

Bullpen
Closer David Aardsma will start the year on the DL after offseason hip surgery which could set him back slightly for the whole year as those injuries often have arduous recovery times.  His FIP was elevated last year and he was very inconsistent.  He may be better suited in a middle-relief role.

Until Aardsma comes back, Brandon League could close.  If he proves he can handle it, he might permanently take the job from him.  Last season, League was solid, but not spectacular recording a 3.42 ERA and a 3.91 FIP.  His stupid 62.8 GB% was higher than anyone who pitched more than 10 games in the American League; he also proved durable hucking 79 innings in relief.

The rest of the bullpen is basically a crapshoot with as many names of candidates as innings available.  Lefties Garrett Olson and Luke French have the inside track for southpaws but will be challenged by Cesar Jimenez, Edward Paredas, Mauricio Robles, and non-roster invites Robertson, Castro, Royce Ring, and Chris Seddon.  From the right side, the Mariners have Dan Cortes, Josh Lueke, David Pauley (who could also start), Shawn Kelley, and non-roster invites Denny Bautista, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Miller, Chris Ray, Chris Smith and veteran Jamey Wright.  Trying to figure out who makes this team in the bullpen is a wasted venture.

Catchers
After being dealt to the Blue Jays from the Rockies in the offseason only so the Jays could decline his option and collect the supplemental draft pick when he signed elsewhere, Miguel Olivo decided to take his talents to the Northwest (I managed to go 12 previews without making that joke).  Olivo is a solid every day catcher with pop and the athletic ability to not only play solid defence, but also steal a few bases.  His 3.2 WAR ranked fifth among catchers in the NL in 2010 behind only Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz, Buster Posey, and Geovany Soto.

The backup catching job will be a spring battle between Adam Moore and non-roster invites Josh Bard and Chris Gimenez.  Moore probably has the most upside and therefore the most realistic chance at making the team.

Infielders
Chone Figgins
was involved in trade rumours this offseason after only one year of his four-year contract had passed.  Figgins put up his worst season by far in 2010 with a .259/.340/.306 slash line and was terrible defensively after being moved to second base.  He’ll likely move back to third this year which will certainly help him and the Mariners hope he can return to the form he exhibited with the Angels when he averaged a 4.0 WAR from 2007-2009.

At the opposite corner, Justin Smoak struggled in 2010 at the major league level after being traded from the Rangers in the Lee deal.  Smoak is still the centerpiece of that trade and has a very high ceiling.  He could be the power bat in the middle of the order that the M’s so desperately need.

The middle infield is much murkier as Jack Wilson at short and Brendan Ryan at second are currently the top players on the depth chart.  Both are fine defensive players, but neither offers much in the way of offense.  If Ackley proves capable of sticking at the major league level out of the spring he could start at second, which would mean Ryan and Wilson would battle for the shortstop job.  Josh Wilson is best suited as a utility infielder but he could also challenge for the job at short or second.

Matt Tuiasosopo was once highly touted, but has never lived up to his potential.  If he makes the team, he can provide depth at third base and also in the corner outfield spots.  Adam Kennedy and Luis Rodriguez are also in camp on minor-league deals.

Outfielders
Ichiro Suzuki was the lone offensive bright spot on this team in 2010 and is still its best player at the age of 37.  Last year, he became the first player ever to have 10 straight 200-hit seasons.  His 4.8 WAR also by far led all position players in Seattle and he still stole 42 bases despite his age.  He also recorded a 15.6 UZR in rightfield proving that his overall skill-set has yet to erode.  His style of play could be effective well into his forties.  With his contract coming up at the end of the 2012 season, the M’s may be tempted to trade the Japanese star if they’re not contending.  My guess is that both the Yankees and Red Sox would love to have him on their team.

Does Franklin Gutierrez remind anyone else of Alex Rios?  He has a large contract (although not nearly as damning as Rios’) and never seems to live up to his offensive potential.  He is one of the game’s best centerfielders and still looks like a star on this offensively-challenged group.

In leftfield, Canadian Michael Saunders did not look great at the plate in 2010, but he will still be given a shot to win the starting job.  Milton Bradley also has a chance, but he has to prove capable of handling his personal problems which he has never been able to do.

Gabe Gross is in on a minor-league deal and could be the dark-horse in leftfield after playing 105 games in Oakland in 2010.

Designated Hitter
The Mariners signed Jack Cust away from Oakland and he could be an impact player on the Mariners.  He was limited to just 112 games last season but still posted a .272/.395/.438 slash line and 13 homeruns.  If healthy, he could easily stroke 25 dingers and get on base a ton with his ability to draw walks.  He’s routinely among the league leaders in walk-rate.  His drop-off in isolated power has to be a concern, but he’s still going to contribute a lot in this lineup.

Depth chart, lineup, and pitching staff info from me to you, can be found here.

Overview
Like I said in the opening, I’m catastrophically wrong about the Mariners every year, so don’t believe a word I say in this section.  I don’t think the Mariners are as bad as they were last year, but their pitching staff will also struggle without anyone outside of Hernandez.  With the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels all fielding much better teams on paper, the Mariners may be a punching bag for the AL West.  If they struggle really badly, look for GM Jack Zduriencik to move both Ichiro and Hernandez before the deadline.
Final Prediction: 71-91, 4th AL West

2011 Oakland Athletics: If you haven’t read Moneyball, this is the year to do it

2010 Record: 81-81, 2nd AL West
2010 Prediction: 82-80, 3rd AL West
Diff: 1
2011 Prediction: 1st AL West

Impact Player: 1B Daric Barton
Impact Pitcher: LHP Brett Anderson
Best Reliever: RHP Andrew Bailey
Top Prospect: SS Grant Green

General Manager: Billy Beane
Manager: Bob Geren (307-340, .474)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Rich Harden, LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP Grant Balfour, OF Josh Willingham, OF David DeJesus, DH Hideki Matsui, RHP Brandon McCarthy, RHP Guillermo Moscoso

Significant Departures:
OF Gabe Gross, OF Rajai Davis, DH Jack Cust, 3B Eric Chavez, RHP Vin Mazzaro, RHP Ben Sheets, RHP Justin Duchscherer, RHP Henry Rodriguez, RHP Boof Bonser

The Oakland Athletics appear to be on the praecipes of contention once again in the American League.  In 2010, they finished with the best ERA in the American League despite the fact that many of their pitchers are still very young and have yet to reach their potential.  The qualifier there is that the A’s were much further down the list in FIP and had the best batted ball average in baseball at .274; a number that will certainly go up this year and beyond.

There is, however, no denying that the future of this pitching staff is bright and they should once again be among the best in baseball this season.

The A’s hovered around the .500-mark all season last year, never being more than 4 games from it after June 30th and finished with a dead-even 81-81 record.  Their offense simply wasn’t enough to carry their terrific pitching staff.  That could change in 2011 as the A’s are the sleeper pick of many in the AL West.
Starting Rotation
Brett Anderson
and Trevor Cahill have taken their place among very good in the league.  Anderson probably has the higher ceiling of the two and the left-hander had a 2.80 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 19 starts last season.  Expect him to be among the contenders for the AL Cy Young Award in the next few years.

Cahill was being talked about in the Cy Young race last season, and although his 18 wins and 2.97 ERA were impressive, his average 1.88 K/BB ratio and 4.19 FIP were less impressive.  He still has a very high ceiling and should be a very good pitcher, but he’s not quite there yet.  Keep in mind, he’s still just 23 and could experience his real breakout year this season.

Gio Gonzalez was very good last season notching 15 wins and a 3.23 ERA, but like Cahill had an average K/BB ratio as his command was at times a problem.  If he can lower his walks even a little, he’ll be tough to beat.

Dallas Braden may be the only perfect-game thrower in history to actually be underrated, but he posted his second straight year of solid peripherals and has cemented himself as a legitimate mid-rotation talent.

The final spot in the rotation will be a spring battle between the already injured (surprise!) Rich Harden who returned to the team after a two-and-a-half-year absence, and a few other pitchers; namely Brandon McCarthy, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman, and possibly Tyson Ross who’ll probably end up in the bullpen.

Bullpen
Andrew Bailey has cemented himself as one of the top relievers in baseball after posting his second straight outstanding season.  In his short career, Bailey has posted a 1.70 ERA and 2.70 FIP to go along with a 3.59 K/BB ratio.  Only Mike Adams in San Diego has a better ERA among qualified relievers in that span.

The A’s also signed two quality relievers in lefty Brian Fuentes and righty Grant Balfour.  Fuentes opened the year as the closer in Anaheim and ended it as a valuable setup man in Minnesota.  He is much better against lefties than he is against righties and so will probably be used as a late-inning LOOGY who will occasionally face a few right-handers.

Balfour is one of the more underrated relievers out there.  Since his re-emergence in 2008 with the Rays, he’s posted FIPs of 2.22, 3.77, and 2.68 and has struck more than a batter an inning with reasonable walk-rates.

Holdover righties Michael Wuertz** and Brad Ziegler will be back and are solid, although Wuertz was inconsistent last season and left-handers Craig Breslow and Jerry Blevins should also have a spot and provide the A’s with probably the deepest bullpen outside of New York in the AL.

Joey Devine has missed almost all of the last two seasons, but if he finds his formerly dominant self, he could also provide some depth.

Other guys who’ll provide depth are Bobby Cramer, Ross, and non-roster invites Fernando Cabrera, Vinnie Chulk, and Willie Eyre.

Catchers
Kurt Suzuki was a pretty solid offensive catcher in 2008-2009 even though he never really fit the mould of an A’s player with a less-than patient approach at the plate.  Last season, Suzuki’s batting average tanked and so too did his on-base percentage.  He was a below-average fielder for the second straight year as well.  He’s still plenty good enough to be a starter and although he spent some time on the DL last year, has become one of the more durable catchers in baseball.

The backup job will be a spring battle between Landon Powell and Josh Donaldson.  Both are capable enough, but Donaldson hits for more power and has the higher ceiling at only 25.  Many think he’s eventually going to start in the bigs.  He certainly has the patient approach that the A’s front office demands and he hit 18 homeruns at AAA in 2010 in only 86 games.

Infielders
Daric Barton went from bust prospect to first baseman of the future in Oakland last year after finishing with a .273/.393/.405 slash line and leading the majors in walk rate at 16.0%.  He’s never going to hit for a lot of power, but his patience and fielding more than make up for it.  He’s got a Lyle Overbay skill-set with far more potential.

Mark Ellis is one of the more underrated second baseman in the AL and proved why again last season with a solid .291/.358/.381 slash line and 9.9 UZR rating.  He’s getting up there in years at age 34, but seems to be holding steady.  He’s the perfect number-two hitter in this lineup.

Cliff Pennington will start at short despite coming off of surgery on his left shoulder.  His solid defensive skills alleviate his so-so bat.

At third base will be Kevin Kouzmanoff, at least to start the year.  Kouzmanoff was a weird acquisition for GM Billy Beane who normally stays away from the aggressive swing-at-everything-type hitters.  His .283 OBP last season was terrible, but he was one of the better fielding third baseman in the league according to his 16.1 UZR rating and was ultimately still a 2.6 WAR player.  With no real imminent replacements coming up through the system (besides maybe Yordy Cabrera who’s currently a shortstop) the A’s may consider trading Kouzmanoff for a more suitable option long term.  They did try hard to sign Adrian Beltre to a 5-year deal, but they couldn’t convince him.

Adam Rosales is an excellent defender at all infield positions and can also hit, but he will be out until May with a foot injury.  When he returns he may challenge Kouzmanoff for the third base job.  For now the extra infielder job will go to either Eric Sogard or Steve Tolleson who’s in on a minor-league deal.  Tolleson probably has the inside track as he’s more adept at handling short and has more experience.  Adrian Cardenas may also be an option as the utility infielder if he has a terrific spring.

Outfielders
The A’s shored up their corner outfield situation in the offseason by acquiring Josh Willingham from the Nationals and David DeJesus from the Royals.  Willingham will play left and is a typical A’s hitter with a keen eye at the plate and some pop in the bat.  He’s exactly the type of player who can have a career year in Oakland.

DeJesus, on other hand, is the third outfielder Beane has acquired in a trade from the Royals in his tenure as A’s GM; the first two being Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon.  DeJesus consistently posts decent, although not spectacular walk rates and has a solid .360 career on-base percentage.  He’s still a very good fielder and accumulated a 2.6 WAR in KC last year in only 91 games due to injury; he was on his way to a career-season before he was shut down.  At only 31, he could easily pick up where he left off in 2010.

In centerfield, the A’s return Coco Crisp who may have the best name in baseball, but may also be the biggest asshole.  His repeated homophobic remarks and recent Craig’s List entry asking for a “personal maid” have made me lose all respect for him, but the fact is, he’s still a useful baseball player.  Crisp had a .279/.342/.438 slash line in 2010 and had an 8.0 UZR rating in centerfield.

Ryan Sweeney deserves a spot on this team and may end up splitting time in leftfield with Willingham.  He was hitting .294 with a .342 on-base percentage last year when he suffered a season-ending injury.  Conor Jackson is also still around after being acquired from Arizona last season and figures to be an extra outfielder and first baseman.

Designated Hitter
The A’s signed veteran Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal in the offseason and he will be the DH in 2011.  Many think he’s in full decline, but he still put up a .274/.361/.459 slash line in Anaheim last year and he also hit 21 homeruns.  He’s the classic undervalued veteran pickup for the A’s.

Charty, chart, chart, chart.

Overview
The A’s are about to surprise a lot of people.  Their unbelievable pitching staff and much improved offense with Matsui, Willingham and DeJesus are poised to lift this team back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.  People have forgotten how effective Beane’s Moneyball-style was for a decade and he can’t be faulted for suffering through the same swoons as every other franchise.  This is the year Moneyball comes back to the forefront.
Final Prediction: 92-70, 1st AL West

** – Wuertz left his bullpen session early yesterday with a “shoulder issue” although it’s not thought to be serious.

2011 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Sloppy team management is coming back to haunt them

2010 Record: 80-82, 3rd AL West
2010 Prediction: 86-76, 1st AL West
Diff: 6
2011 Prediction: 3rd AL West

Impact Player: 1B Kendry Morales
Impact Pitcher: RHP Jered Weaver
Best Reliever: LHP Scott Downs
Top Prospect: OF Mike Trout

General Manager: Tony Reagins
Manager: Mike Scioscia (980-802, .550)

Significant Acquisitions:
LHP Scott Downs, LHP Hisanori Takahashi, OF Vernon Wells

Significant Losses:
C/1B Mike Napoli, OF Juan Rivera, DH Hideki Matsui, RHP Scot Shields

The Angels aging lineup never really produced in 2010.  They struggled to play consistent baseball all season and the loss of their best player, Kendry Morales, after he broke his leg during a walk-off homerun celebration didn’t help.  The Angels finished 9th in the AL in runs scored and were 13th in on-base percentage; on the pitching side the Angels were 6th in ERA and 12th in walks allowed.  This inconsistency led to their first losing season since 2003 and caused them to miss the playoffs for only the third time since winning the World Series in 2002.

The Angels had a terrible offseason losing out on Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford and cultivated their desperation into trading for Vernon Wells and his huge contract.  The trade ranks as one of the more confusing in a long, long time, but shows you that the Angels were clearly on tilt after losing out on other big names.  If Wells can contribute along with the returned health of Morales and Joel Pineiro, the Angels could be better than they were last year and get back above the .500-mark.  However, an aging core and an inability to get on base will hold them back from really contending in the AL West.
Starting Rotation
Jered Weaver may have only been 13-12 last season, but his 3.01 ERA and 3.06 FIP suggest that he is a true number one pitcher.  His 4.31 K/BB ratio was third in all of baseball behind Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. He was also fifth in the AL in FIP.

A full season with Dan Haren in the fold should help the Angels.  He was acquired mid-season from the Diamondbacks and posted a 2.87 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 14 starts with the Halos.  Haren has a career walk-rate under 2.00 which can make him one of the more dominant pitchers in the game when he’s on.

Ervin Santana led the Angels in wins but had an average 4.28 FIP.  He’s only posted one season in his career with a FIP lower than last year’s and his strike-out rate has been down two years in a row.  Although he’s generally thought of as a very good pitcher, there’s a case to be made that he is merely average.

Pineiro missed significant time last year due to injury, but still managed a 3.84 ERA and an identical FIP.  He’s as solid a number-four pitcher as you’re going to find and although he doesn’t miss too many bats, he’s consistently solid with his command and doesn’t give up many homeruns.  He’s in the final year of his current contract.

Scott Kazmir is penciled in as the fifth starter, but at just 27-years-old could already be washed up.  After establishing himself early in his career in the Rays organization, Kazmir has fallen off the map.  He lost a ton of velocity off of his fastball last season and that hurt him a lot.  His 5.83 FIP was the highest of any pitcher in the league with at least 150 innings pitched.  I would be surprised if he’s still pitching in the Angels’ rotation by the end of the season.  Most experts believe he is done.  If Kazmir struggles, young Trevor Bell could step in and start.
Bullpen
When Brian Fuentes was traded to Minnesota last season, Fernando Rodney stepped in and provided 14 saves, but had a 4.24 ERA and 4.05 FIP and has never been a truly reliable reliever.  The Angels signed two veteran lefties in Scott Downs from Toronto and Hisanori Takahashi from the Mets.  Downs has become one of the most consistent relievers in baseball and could even close of Rodney proves incapable of handling the role.

Takahashi was the Mets’ most valuable reliever last season and filled every role you could imagine.  He started a number of games compiling at 10-6 record and also closed some when injuries hit.  He doesn’t throw hard, but still manages to miss bats and has terrific command.

The bullpen also contains two other very effective right-handers in Kevin Jepsen and Rich Thompson.  Jepsen posted a 3.03 FIP in 2010 and had awesome peripherals, while Thompson had a 1.37 ERA in 13 games after being called up from AAA.  Jason Bulger should also have a spot in the ‘pen.

The final bullpen spot could go to a number of candidates including Francisco Rodriguez (no, not that Francisco Rodriguez), Ysmael Carmona, Bobby Cassevah, or Matt PalmerMichael Kohn and Jordan Walden will also very much be in the mix after terrific stints in call ups last season.

Catchers
The Angels as an organization clearly undervalued Mike Napoli and almost refused to play him at catcher last season; he actually spent more time at first base.  Then the team traded him to Toronto in the Wells deal and he was later flipped to Texas.  This means the Angels will get to see their former catcher a lot and realize quickly what they’re missing.

When I said the Boston Red Sox may have the worst catching situation in the league, I was clearly ignoring the Angels.  Anaheim will start the year with Jeff Mathis as their starter even though he had a negative WAR rating in 2010.  He can’t hit (.195 average and .278 slugging percentage), get on base (.219 OBP) and he’s not good defensively (-1.0 UZR).  There aren’t many good starting catchers, but Mathis probably would not be starting on any other team.

If the Angles realize how bad Mathis is, they may give prospect Hank Conger a shot.  His defence is terrible, but he can hit better than any other catcher in the organization.  Bobby Wilson is the current backup and even he finished with a higher WAR than Mathis last season.

Infielders
Morales’ ridiculous broken leg shouldn’t hold him back in 2011.  The Angels need him to continue being one of the more underrated first basemen in the game to contend this season.  He got off to a slow start last year but was heating up when he got hurt.  He still finished with an .833 OPS.

Howie Kendrick puts up decent offensive numbers for a middle infielder, but is a terrible fielder at second base.  The only position he projects well at is first and he doesn’t put up the numbers to play there.  He’s also not very patient at the plate.

Erick Aybar has been struggling through injuries the past few seasons and simply hasn’t looked like the same player that many thought would be a perennial all-star.  Like most Angels’ hitters, he simply does not get on base enough and that part of his game gets exposed when he only hits .253 like he did last year.  If he’s healthy, he might be able to regain his credibility since he’s only 27.

Losing out on Beltre means that the Angels will probably use Maicer Izturis as their starting third baseman even though he’s clearly better suited for a utility infielder role.  Alberto Callaspo and former number-one pick Brandon Wood (who’s out of options) could also start at third.  At 26, Wood will probably be placed on waivers if he doesn’t finally deliver on his once lofty promise.

Outfielders
Wells will likely move to leftfield which will certainly help his defence considering he was no longer a good centerfielder.  He had a bounce-back year in 2010, but it was mostly due to a ridiculous first six weeks.  On May 9th, Wells had a .339/.406/.661 slash line and then posted a .255/.310/.475 slash line for the rest of the season.  The second set of numbers is likely what you’ll see from Wells going forward.

Another aging centerfielder will occupy rightfield this season in Torii Hunter.  Hunter is now 35, but he’s still a solid player who accumulated a 3.5 WAR last season.  A full season in rightfield will benefit him defensively.

The reason those two former gold glovers have moved to the corners is because a future gold glover will now occupy centerfield.  Peter Bourjos will soon cement himself as one of the top defensive outfielders in the game.  He may never hit well, but he should be good enough to stick as he does possess some pop.  He’ll at least be there until uber-prospect Mike Trout is ready.  Trout is considered one of the best all-around prospects the game has seen in a while and although he’s only 19, he could be major-league ready by the start of 2012.

Speedster Reggie Willits will compete for the fourth outfielder spot with Chris Pettit who’s expected back from an injury-plagued 2010.

Designated Hitter
Bobby Abreu will no longer be playing much in the outfield at 37, but should still be a solid DH.  His average fell to .255 last season, but he still walks plenty enough to get on base at a solid clip and was one of only three 20/20 men in the AL last year along with Alex Rios and Shin-Soo Choo.

A homemade depth chart that is totally worth clicking on can be found here.
Overview
The Angels appear to be in a time of transition, even if they don’t want to admit it.  They still have some quality players and a very good one-two punch at the top of their rotation, but their team lacks depth and is clearly getting older in key areas.  They won’t be a bad team in 2010, but I highly doubt they’ll be contenders.  They’ll never do it, but perhaps it’s time for a rebuild.
Final Prediction: 83-79, 3rd AL West

Acknowledging the noticable gap

So…a lot has gone on in the last week.  The Albert Pujols contract extension fallout with the Cards, the Jose Bautista craziness (that’s the only way I can characterize a 5 year, $65-million contract for a player who’s had one good season, albeit a very good one) and even the acquisition of Scott Podsednik to possibly split time in leftfield with Juan Rivera or compete for a bench spot.

I would love to comment on all these things, but unfortunately with the previews, school and two other jobs, it ain’t happ’nin’.

I refer you to my fellow bloggers for insight and candid remarks.  Enjoy the remainder of the previews!  This week will be the AL West.  Monday will be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, followed by the Oakland A’s, the Seattle Mariners, and the Texas Rangers.  On Friday, I’ll write up a brief overview of the American League.

Other places to go:
Getting Blanked
Drunk Jays Fans
Ghostrunner on First
Pitcher’s Best Friend
Bluebird Banter
Blue Jay Hunter
1 Blue Jays Way
MLB Reports
Hardball Talk
And if you haven’t yet had the time to read Moneyball by Michael Lewis, it can be found online here.