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American League Two-a-Days: Los Angeles Angels of Southern California but Specifically Anaheim

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Los Angeles Angels

2013 record: 78-84
2013 runs scored: 733
2013 runs against: 737
2013 pythag. record: 81-81

Pitching ended the Angels season prematurely in 2013, as the rotation got bombed in spring training and never quite got settled, not that the bullpen was much help.  But it’s easy to forget how loaded the Angels lineup is.  The 2013 Angels were both a horrible disappointment, and one of the best offensive teams in baseball.

No team has a better batter WAR projection than the 2014 Angels.  One of the key themes among the best teams in the AL is that they don’t have 5+ WAR stars on their roster, with the Tigers are the main exception.  This is not an issue with the Angels (or the Mariners).  The Angels have the best player in baseball: 22 year old Mike Trout.  And if they can get a full season of Jered Weaver, the Angels can make the postseason.

Who is having a good spring?

C Chris Iannetta has the best batting line for any of the Angels this spring at .385/.556/.769.  2B Howie Kendrick and SS Grant Green are off to nice starts.  And Mike Trout’s unimpressive 1.000 spring OPS just raises questions if he can do it in the playoffs.  On the pitching side, they’ve gotten quality innings from left-handed starters Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, and C.J. Wilson.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Angels

They can really hit.  They were able to upgrade the rotation without cashing in the final two years of 2B Howie Kendrick’s deal.  They were able to upgrade it without trading SS Erick Aybar.  They acquired Grant Green, another MIF, for Alberto Callaspo at the deadline last year.  And with Iannetta and Hank Conger behind the plate, it gives them multiple options with a bat to play catcher.  The Centerfielder is Trout, so the Angels can hit throughout the lineup.

There’s going to be a rebound season coming for 1B Albert Pujols and OF Josh Hamilton.  Those are long, expensive contracts, but both guys can still help a team win.

The Angels also play good defense.  They got away from this in the more recent Mike Scoscia years, but this team can go get the ball with the best of them.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Angels

The Angels treated the rotation as the one group they most needed to upgrade this offseason, which means last year’s awful bullpen is still a work in progress.  The Angels’ pitching is good enough to compete in the AL West right now given their lineup, but they’d be a severe underdog against the Rays, Red Sox, or Tigers, and a slight underdog to the Royals in any five or seven game series.  They need to add arms and if they’re in it at the deadline, will have to find a way to.

The Angels built a great farm system over the years, but it’s been depleted to the point where it’s only contributions are a college outfielder or power bat every couple years.  GM Jerry DiPoto has made it a point to trade for young middle of the diamond players, because his system is not producing them anymore and Aybar/Kendrick are set to hit free agency at the same time after 2015.

Arms are expensive when you don’t develop them and need them to compete, and the Angels tied up most of their future salary in Pujols and Hamilton.  Whatever is left is going to Mike Trout.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Angels is 38.7, 6th in the American League.  Their 25.9 Batters WAR projection is best in the AL. Their 12.8 Pitchers WAR projection is 12th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Angels to win 86 games, a 8 win improvement over last season.  Mike Trout is the Angel with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 8.0.  Jered Weaver is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.1 WAR.

The Angels vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Los Angeles Angels

Of all the teams in the AL West, I like the Angels chances the most.  The competition is more numerous than it is fierce.  And so while no team in that division has a good shot of winning it, the Angels have the best chance.  They’ll make the 90 win plateau this year, barely, at 91-71.

That will be mostly Trout driven, with help from Aybar, Kendrick, Pujols, and Hamilton.  The pitching will make a contribution, but it is only good enough to not drag them down.  And if Trout spends any time at all on the DL, this is a bad team.  But given his health and presence in the lineup, he can bring the Angels to the postseason in 2014.

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2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the American League

The American League begins it’s 113th season with a stranglehold on MLB dominance in the regular season.  However, no American League team has managed to take home the World Series since the Yankees did in 2009.  Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are with regard to rebuilding their rosters and restructuring their finances, AL teams have a ton to prove this year.

Five teams have won multiple World Series since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs in 1993: the Yankees have won five times, and the Red Sox twice.  But the other three teams: the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, and most recently, San Francisco Giants.  The remarkable thing is this has happened over a period of AL dominance.

Lacking the consensus best team in baseball for the first time in awhile, the American League looks to reclaim bragging rights over the National League as interleague play becomes an all-the-time thing for the first time ever.

The American League Central

The Detroit Tigers (2012: 726 runs scored, 670 runs allowed) enter the 2013 season as the clear favorites to represent the AL in the World Series for the second straight year — and the third time in the last seven.  The Tigers are a three man team in many ways, as the only way that Detroit can overcome a down year from RHP Justin Verlander, 1B Prince Fielder, or 3B Miguel Cabrera is for the other two to pick up the slack.  The problems facing the Tigers are numerous: the team declined from its peak in 2011 through the 2o12 season, either slightly (run differential) or significantly (wins) depending on what measure you use.  And outside of getting DH Victor Martinez back from an injury that cost him his 2012 season, it’s not exactly clear where all the Tigers’ perceived improvement is going to come from.

The reason the Tigers are favored heading into the year is because they have the clearest path to the playoffs through the AL Central: having just the White Sox, Royals, and Indians nipping at your heels gives you plenty of leeway.  The Tigers are gambling that they can score 800 runs in 2013 because of an improved outfield, featuring Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter in full time roles instead of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.  Actually, truth be told, the Tigers are gambling on a lot of things, especially a flimzy bullpen.  However, improved defensive efficiency in the outfield leads me to bump the Tigers slightly to a 91 win team.

That should be good enough to win a division where there’s unlikely to be a trio of 85+ win teams, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Kansas City Royals (2012: 676 runs scored, 746 runs allowed) could push the Tigers this year.  The Royals best profile as a 83-79 team, but that’s not totally going to take them out of contention for the second wild card, and should make things interesting with the Tigers into early September.  The Royals have a chance to do special things with their bats this year.  LF Alex Gordon enters 2013 a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, as you could make a charitable case for the two time Gold Glove winner as a poor mans* version of Mike Trout.  The Royals spent an obscene amount of money to take the variance out of their pitching staff, which really lead their team’s run prevention through the first two and a half months last year before regressing to it’s true talent level of “minor league.”  The upgrades make the Royals one of the safest, easiest teams in the AL from a projection standpoint: there’s not a ton of upside here, but the dark days appear to be over in Kansas City.

*Although Gordon will make about 22 times more than Trout will this season.

The Chicago White Sox (2012: 748 runs scored, 676 runs allowed) may be the most average team in baseball this year, as they head towards one more year of 82 wins.  The excellent run prevention unit of the White Sox is likely to stay in the ballpark, so to speak: this is a strong defensive team led by SS Alexi Ramirez, C Tyler Flowers, and CF Alejandro De Aza, and a top-level pitching staff featuring LHP Chris Sale and RHP Jake Peavy.  However, after shocking the world and putting up 748 offensive runs and leading the division in run scoring, the White Sox will have a really tough time doing that again.  Run producers like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are aging quick and there’s not much the White Sox can do to score if those two stop hitting bombs at such a high rate.  It should be easier for the Cleveland Indians (2012: 667 runs scored, 845 runs allowed) to catch the Tigers in run scoring as the Tribe features a premier lineup, headlined by C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis.  But the Indians giving up 845 runs last year wasn’t a fluke: it was just horrific pitching.  That’s a problem that went largely unsolved this offseason, shaping the Indians as a 77 win team.  And Minnesota Twins (2012: 701 runs scored, 832 runs allowed) fans still get to enjoy C Joe Mauer’s best seasons, which is awesome.  They won’t get to enjoy a whole lot a good baseball, but the Twins should be able to avoid 100 losses through some combination of dark magic and veteran contributions.  Pencil the Twins at 65 wins.

The American League East

Dynastic.  While most of the baseball universe realizes that we’re entering a year where the Red Sox and Yankees are strong underdogs against the Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 697 runs scored, 577 runs allowed), I don’t think the baseball universe much realizes how FAR the Yankees and Red Sox will have to go in order to reach where the Rays are going to be in three years.  There’s no question that the Rays — division favorites as far as I’m concerned — have holes on the current team: they tentatively will DH Luke Scott, will play Ryan Roberts at second base, and James Loney at first base, we’re talking about a team that traded away RHP James Shields to Kansas City, and may set a modern American League record for runs prevented this year.  They allowed just 577 runs last season, which is less preposterous when you consider the ballpark effect of Tropicana Field, but the Rays find a way to rank at the top in terms of defensive efficiency every single year.  That won’t change with Desmond Jennings patrolling CF.

But more than any other team in the league, the Rays are injury-proof.  Sure, they’d have just as much a problem as anyone replacing the lineup production of 3B Evan Longoria or 2B/RF Ben Zobrist in extended absence of their two best offensive players.  But they can replace any member of their pitching staff using their lush farm system.  Improving just a bit in terms of run scoring, I think the Rays are capable of a division winning 94 wins.

Their main challenger went all-in on their pitching staff this offseason, making the Toronto Blue Jays‘ (2012: 716 runs scored, 784 runs allowed) win-now tactic a sharp contrast to the win-always scheme preferred by the Rays.  The Blue Jays had two main problems last year: every pitcher got hurt or struggled, and everyone on the offense underachieved or was hurt (save for DH Edwin Encarnacion).  Similar to the Royals, the move all-in to acquire a new pitching rotation (added: RHP R.A. Dickey (Mets), LHP Mark Buehrle (Marlins), RHP Josh Johnson (Marlins))  means the Jays won’t be reliant on recovering pitching arms and prospects (such as Kyle Kendrick ->Tommy John surgery), which is a positive.  But the Blue Jays had a second problem last year which isn’t necessarily going to be fixed purely through regression: their lineup really sucked.  To fix that, they acquired a lot of the Marlins spare contracts, which made a lot of sense in theory until we consider the Marlins lineup also struggled last season.  The cause for optimism is that the Blue Jays are now spending money, which makes them competitors in the AL East this year, and their rotation has a chance to be really, really good.  But the makeover happens on a foundation that won 73 games last year.  90 wins would make them the most improved team in baseball, but the foundation would not fundamentally change unless the Jays push 100 wins, in which case a lot of things got a lot better pretty quickly.

It could be worse.  The New York Yankees (2012: 804 runs scored, 668 runs allowed) haven’t even made it out of Spring Training in a state where Brennan Boesch is not considered an upgrade.  Injuries to 1B Mark Teixiera and OF Curtis Granderson have headlined the spring in New York.  But the Yankees are about to take the field on opening day with three regulars from last years lineup only: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano.  The rotation is rather promising, and should keep the Yankees out of the cellar by a good margin, but the bottom line is that the Yankees are a 79 win team this year.  That should keep them in company of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox (2012: 734 runs scored, 806 runs allowed), also at 79 wins.  Whereas the Yankees have some semblance of a plan, the Red Sox appear to be trying to tear down to rebuild and compete at the same time.  On the positive side, the Red Sox were 5 games over .500 at the end of June last year, and this isn’t a completely hopeless ballclub.  The rotation isn’t great shakes, but it’s littered with name guys like Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and John Lackey, which will probably end poorly in a couple cases, and work out well in others.  You can say that about a lot of areas of a .500 team.  And I think .500 happens to be a bit aggressive for the Baltimore Orioles (2012: 712 runs scored, 705 runs allowed), who finished 2012 impressively, winning all the games that Boston would lose.  Baltimore shakes out as a 75 win team thanks to weaknesses in the rotation, and a team-wide issue with on-base percentage.  There’s upside on the offensive end here with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis all entering their age 27 seasons.  The bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson, doesn’t have to be as dominant as it was last year for the O’s to exceed 75 wins, but it must still be quite good.

The American League West

The AL West is the strongest division in the American League, and possibly all of baseball.  It would be even stronger if the Houston Astros (2012: 583 runs scored (NL), 794 runs allowed (NL)) didn’t move into it.  The Astros will be fighting to avoid losing 100 games all year.  I think they’ll come close, topping out at 61 wins.  But the real story is at the top of the division, where the Oakland Athletics won their final six games last season to steal the division from the Texas Rangers (2012: 808 runs scored, 707 runs allowed).  The Rangers return as division favorites in my eyes, although many others prefer the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, a California-based baseball club (2012: 767 runs scored, 699 runs allowed).

Texas has been routinely criticized for “losing” in an offseason where they allowed Josh Hamilton ($125 million) to sign with the Angels, failed to reel in Zack Greinke ($147 million) after his contract expired (hard to blame them at those price tags).  They ended up grabbing Derek Lowe on the cheap while biding their time for Colby Lewis to return from arm surgery.  Here’s the thing though: I don’t hear a lot of people arguing that Texas’ offense won’t be alright without Hamliton (they’ll survive) even as most laud the Angels’ aggressiveness in the market.  Texas is being criticized for not acquiring pitching.  But after giving up just 707 runs playing 81 games in the Ballpark in Arlington (Park factor: 112) last season, people are under-rating the quality of the Texas bullpen.  And their biggest offseason acquisition flew mostly under the radar, when the Rangers plucked Joakim Soria from the Royals at rehabilitation (torn UCL) prices.

Although there’s not a ton of pitching depth here, expect the run prevention of the Rangers to improve and they’ll lead the AL in wins this year at 98.  The Angels on the other hand may feel confident in a lineup that can make pitchers face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in the first four batters.  The issue with the Angels is that the pitching is a disaster.  They don’t have the bullpen the Rangers do.  They don’t have a bullpen that can consistently get outs.  And unlike last year, they don’t feature a rotation that can get deep into games.  The Angles jettisoned both Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales to get…something.  Hamilton and Mark Trumbo are a major improvement over Vernon Wells and Hunter, but since neither can play a premium defensive position anymore, the Angels opening day lineup will likely feature Peter Bourjos, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and Chris Ianetta playing those tougher defensive positions.  Those players will absorb about half of the team ABs for the Angels this year.  Not only is this not a 1,000 run lineup, but it’s likely not even a 750 run lineup.  The Angels are an 80 win team this year.

Does this mean the Royals are in the playoffs?  Not exactly.  The AL West is strong after the Angels as well, and the Oakland A’s (2012: 710 runs scored, 614 runs allowed) did win the division, posting a run differential exactly on par with the Rangers, and plucked the division on the season’s final weekend.  They would have made a lot of noise if they had beaten the Tigers in the ALDS, but as is, the team returns a lot of it’s pieces from 2012.  Brett Anderson will replace Brandon McCarthy (signed with Arizona) atop the rotation.  Anderson is finally healthy after missing more than two thirds of last year with the torn UCL he suffered in 2011.  The A’s don’t have the front line pitching to allow just 614 runs again, although 660 is a very reasonable expectation for a strong defensive team playing in the hitter graveyard that is the Oakland Coliseum.  I think that 83 wins is a strong expectation for the A’s.

And that will not quite make the playoffs in the AL West.  I am predicting the second wild card will fall to the Seattle Mariners (2012: 619 runs scored, 651 runs allowed), which I’m sure will make Ichiro happy.  The Mariners have done well to rebuild their outfield on the fly, acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals (in a questionable trade), to match with Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, who both came into their own last year.  With the lineup looking like something other than the worst offense in the AL this year (although still pretty bad), Mariners fans and league observers can finally appreciate the dominance of Felix Hernandez every fifth day.  But after making a lot of quietly sharp moves this offseason (possibly excluding the Morse deal, although that should help out in the aggregate), I think 85 wins might actually qualify them for the playoffs this season.  If not, they’ll at least be right in it.

2013 AL Predictions

East Champ: Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)
Central Champ: Detroit Tigers (91-71)
West Champ: Texas Rangers (98-64)
AL Wild Card #1: Toronto Blue Jays (90-72)
AL Wild Card #2: Seattle Mariners (85-77)

Prince Fielder’s deal makes more sense than Albert Pujols’ deal

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Salary data in this post courtesy of Cot’s/Baseball Prospectus.

The big problem I had with the Albert Pujols deal the day it was signed is the nature of the contract.  The Angels were described as “having plenty of cable revenue” in order to execute such a deal with the game’s biggest star, which made sense.

What did not (and does not) support that notion is that this deal is very heavily backloaded.  The Angels have a ton of salary flexibility in 2012 and 2013, but after that, Pujols is to cost the Angels between 23 million and 30 million per season on an ascending basis for 8 years.  When you look at the Angels current payroll, you can see why they would do such a thing in terms of backloading Pujols’ money as they will free up plenty of salary each of the next three years.  But the only reason it makes sense is if you are skeptical that the Angels are currently awash in cash, or that this cash is burning a hole in their pockets.

There is no question the Angels are a large market team at this point, clearly the dominant franchise within their own locale, and just behind the Yankees in terms of total spending ability, but the payroll flexibility is an illusion.  You don’t need flexibility when you have Albert Pujols in his prime, but you most certainly will when you have Albert Pujols well past his prime.  It’s particularly disturbing when you look at some of the players the 2014 Angels may feature when you assume zero payroll flexibility (probably too tough an assumption, but still):

  1. 34 year old Albert Pujols ($23 million)
  2. 35 year old Vernon Wells ($21 million)
  3. 31 year old Jared Weaver ($16 million)
  4. 33 year old C.J. Wilson ($16 million)
  5. 30 year old Howie Kendrick ($9.35 million)
  6. Arb-eligible Peter Bourjos
  7. Pre-arb Mike Trout
  8. Arb-eligible Hank Conger
  9. Arb-eligible Mark Trumbo?

A couple of those contracts look fine on their own merits (Jared Weaver’s contract still looks great and Howie Kendrick’s extension is a bargain if 2011 is a real glimpse of his talent).  But that list of nine players on the 2014 Angels exceeds $90 million in estimated salary, and simply won’t win a lot of games unless the Angels are able to add to it.  The Angels (I am guessing) will try to sit in the $150-$160 million range in payroll over the length of the Pujols deal, which means that they have enough flexibility to build a team around that core, but to stave off the effects of age, the core is almost going to have to be entirely drafted and developed.  It’s already 2012, so you might want to get started on that if you’re the Angels.

The Prince Fielder-Detroit Tigers deal makes a lot more sense for the Tigers.  The biggest argument against the deal, to me, is that it seems pretty frivolous.  The Tigers enter 2012 as a clear favorite in the AL Central, with the Royals and the Indians still about a year away from being true 90 win contenders, and needing the Tigers to decend to between 84-86 wins to be within the realm of contention.  The immediate reaction to the Fielder deal was that the Tigers accomplished this: with a Boesch-Fielder-Cabrera-Peralta-Avila middle of the order, there’s no team in the AL Central that can go blow for blow with that group, added to the fact that the Tigers were probably already going to enter the season with the most daunting rotation in the division.  But if you take Fielder out of that, you probably drop an estimated 3 or 4 wins off the Tigers total, yet, none of the things I wrote about the Tigers above are untrue.

But what I like about the Fielder deal is that it is in no way backloaded.  In the aggragate, the Tigers are going to end up raising payroll by about $15-$20 million over last season and are likely committing to hold payroll steady for the remainder of the tenure of Mike Illitch’s ownership.  They had planned to invest the money freed up by the expiration of Magglio Ordonez’ contract into arbitration raises and the backloaded portion of Justin Verlander’s contract.  The Fielder deal was most likely executed by ownership in an understanding that payroll would be raised over the life of the deal, obviously with the Franchises’ blessing.

The Tigers lose pretty much any payroll flexibility they might have had, but the first time this will even be a minor consideration for the Tigers is if/when Justin Verlander approaches free agency after the 2014 season.  The commitment by the franchise to stay in the $120-$130 million range in payroll for the forseeable future is as large a step forward as it was when they upped payroll in 2008.  But this time there is no Dontrelle Willis deal that will threaten the Tigers as AL Central favorites.  Only time can do that as the Royals and Indians attempt to join them as annual 90 win clubs.

In other words, the 2014 Tigers have more free money and overall better contracts than the 2014 Angels do.  Take a look:

  1. 30 year old Prince Fielder ($24 million)
  2. 31 year old Miguel Cabrera ($22 million)
  3. 31 year old Justin Verlander ($20.1 million)
  4. 35 year old Victor Martinez ($12 million)
  5. Arb-eligible Max Scherzer
  6. Arb-eligible Rick Porcello
  7. Pre-arb Jacob Turner ($1.1.75 + $1.0 million club option)
  8. Arb-eligible Austin Jackson
  9. Arb-eligible Brennan Boesch
  10. Arb-eligibile Alex Avila

That’s about the same $90 million dollars the Angels are in for 2014 payroll, but that is a much younger team to a man, and a more talented team in my opinion.

And the Fielder contract against the Pujols contract is emblematic of the problems that the Angels are forcing themselves into later.  The Tigers might end up being overrated in 2012, but they are not in danger of needing to dismantle their team at any point.  Even though they would be better characterized as medium-market against the large market Angels, the Tigers look like they will be a better team starting in 2014 and all else equal, through the 2020 MLB season.

Baseball’s Opening Weekend in the books, and the prediction LiveBall wants back

Jul 4, 2010; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Billy Butler (16) during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. The Angels defeated the Royals 11-0. Photo via Newscom

Four days of baseball tells you…not much about teams. What it might tell us is that we just didn’t know what we were talking about in the preseason. After the seasons’ first series, I really want to take back all those picks I made without conviction.

Specifically speaking, I feel like I just overlooked the NL Central defending champion Cincinnati Reds.  And this is an incredibly pre-mature mea culpa.  In LiveBall’s NL Central preview, I hesitantly picked the Brewers to win after expressing concern that I was picking a sucker’s bet in a weak division.  Well, the Brewers have begun 0-4, but you know, the Cardinals haven’t won either, and the Cubs didn’t get started on the right foot at Pittsburgh, while neither the Pirates or Astros can yet be taken seriously.  The team I so obviously overlooked was last years winner, the Reds, who emphatically crushed the Brewers at home in a three game set.  None of the games were close after Opening Day, when the Reds won in comeback, walk-off fashion.  The Brewers have now fallen to 0-4, and while I think they will rebound to win 80-some games easily, the assertion that there is no clear favorite in the NL Central appears wrong.  The Reds are a clear favorite.  The Brewers may be the best of the rest, but after being swept in Cincinnati, it’s the Reds that are the team to beat.

What the Brewers have shown early on is a complete lack of depth.  Corey Hart has a strained rib cage muscle, and is on the DL.  The assumption with those picking the Brewers is that the always potent Brewers lineup would “score runs.”  Of course, they traded their starting SS and potentially starting CF to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, and even though the now incumbent CF Carlos Gomez is showing some production with the bat, the Brewers simply don’t have the depth in RF with Hart out.  Even with the top four in the lineup off to a good start, the bottom of this order after Casey McGahee is dreadful.  Yuni Betancourt, an Erick Almonte/Nyjer Morgan platoon replacing Hart, and then George Kotteras and Wil Nieves at catcher.  As a 6-8 in the NL, that’s a horrendous lineup.  The Brewers will make a run when Hart and Zack Greinke come off the DL, but if the Reds play like they did last year, it’s not going to matter.  The Reds will win the division with one of the NL’s best records, and the Brewers will have to scrap for a wild card berth.  If they get that Wild Card, I still like them to go deep in the playoffs, even at 0-4 to start the season.

The weirdest series of the weekend was played in Kansas City, where the Royals won the series 3-1 winning TWO games on walkoff homers.  In the entire 2010 season, the Royals won just once on a walkoff homer, by Alex Gordon, over the Orioles the week before Buck Showalter took over.  They’ve doubled that total, and there are still 158 games to play.

One of the reason for increased walkoff homers is that the Royals never hit so many homers in a series in general.  The Royals hit six homers in the series (all but one a solo shot), and they were hit by six different players.  The Angels spent the entire series playing longball as well, going yard 9 times.  15 homers in a single series at Kauffman Stadium is a lot, even considering 4 games, and typically only happens when Royals pitching is feeling up to the task.  For the Angels to hit 7 homers of 9 homers in a three game span, losing all three games in the process says a lot about the Angels.  The weather was whacky as well, as both the Angels and Royals’ television production crews were forced to move out of “high home” position, thanks to gusting wins that blew water out of the signature fountains at Kauffman Stadium and would have potentially destroyed the cameras if left in normal position.  Water wasn’t the only thing blown around by the wind, as Bruce Chen “fastballs” also ended up traveling further than they might have otherwise, if only for effect.

The Royals’ series win could spell trouble for the Angels — the Royals rarely outscore a team in a series.  The Angels can’t trust their bullpen, can’t trust Scott Kazmir, and bat Bobby Abreu and Alberto Callaspo in a lineup of otherwise overrated hitters as they wait to bring 1B Kendrys Morales back to the lineup when he’s fully recovered from a broken leg suffered at home plate after a walkoff homer in 2010.  But the Royals feature unbelievably impressive depth in their bullpen mostly from arms under the age of 25.  Their ability to hold late leads and play defense late in games is an ability they pretty much lacked last season, and could prove to pit their decision makers in an odd dilemma: whether to push starting pitching prospects up to make a previously unfathomable run in the AL Central if they leverage a weak April schedule into a lot of early wins and a hot start.

Angels fans aren’t panicking quite like Red Sox fans after an 0-3 start.  The Rangers played longball off Red Sox pitching, and though the Red Sox will score this year, pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buccholz simply weren’t up to the task on baseball’s first weekend.  The Rangers meanwhile, threw fine in their first series without Cliff Lee on the roster, and look to be every bit the favorites in the American League this year.  The Red Sox will be fine, but maybe were exposed a bit as overrated by the masses considering better than 70% of fans expected the Red Sox to beat the other four teams in the division.  That’s a sizable majority, but the standings say: two games behind the Yankees (and three and a half behind the Orioles)!

Wrapping up, the AL East is also the place of the most meaningful early series, where the Orioles swept — yes, swept — the Tampa Bay Rays.  This blog has the Rays returning to the playoffs behind only, ahem, the Red Sox, but those chances took a big hit as all-world 3B Evan Longoria will head to the disabled list, rendering the Rays offense largely punchless.  Time to see if Ben Zobrist, John Jaso, and BJ Upton are worth the big bucks in Tampa, and it’s time for that rotation to carry them.

But the Orioles are the story of baseball in the early going, if only because their late season production last year seemed unsustainable.  At this point though, last year’s season-best finish is a reason to buy the Orioles as a potential wild card contender.  I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, but it does look like the Orioles aren’t heading to last place anytime soon, and could have the talent (particularly in the pitching staff) to hang with the Big Boys in baseball’s best division.  After all, the standings are the only thing that matters this early in the season, and we’re still waiting on the first team to beat the Orioles in 2011.  The Detroit Tigers will take another crack at pulling off such a feat tomorrow as baseball’s regular season hits high gear.

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL West

Sep 27, 2010; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starter Brett Anderson (49) reacts after surrendering a double to Los Angeles Angels left fielder Juan Rivera (not pictured) in the second inning at Angel Stadium. Photo via Newscom

The AL’s truncated division rounds out our preview of the American League.  I have the guard officially changing in the AL West after the Texas Rangers got all the way to the world series in 2010, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk.

1) Texas Rangers (projected finish: 91-71)

For an encore after 2010, I am picking the Rangers to finish 20 games above .500 and to win the AL West.  It won’t be a comfortable margin.  The 91 wins would be one game additional to their 2010 record, and they’d be doing it without their most significant loss, Cliff Lee.  Probability might actually suggest that the Rangers, who added Adrian Beltre in the offseason, would be better off than this, but there is a small adjustment in this prediction for a slow start with the unsettled pitching staff.

The offense is led by the duo of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton in the outfield, and even considering the effect of the home ballpark on offensive totals, they are in the running to be the highest scoring offense in the AL.  While it’s easy to say now, this lineup would be even more dangerous with Justin Smoak in it.  Smoak was dealt away for Cliff Lee last year.  Lee will bring pair of first round draft picks back at least due to the MLBs compensation system, but the Rangers are ready to win right now.

The rotation, at least right away, will be lead by C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Naftali Feliz.  Naftali Feliz?  The Rangers are trying to stretch him out in an attempt to replace Cliff Lee in the rotation.  This means that: the back of the Rangers rotation is absolutely wide open, and could be a limitation on their ability to compete.  As poor as manager Ron Washington’s bullpen management was in the world series, the Rangers do have a bevy of arms to turn to to make it a strength over an entire season.

This team is still better prepared to compete in the short series format than the regular season, and it won’t take much in terms of underachievement to put the Rangers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

2) Oakland Athletics (projected record: 88-74)

Another thing you probably didn’t realize about last season in the MLB: the A’s finished with 81 wins, second in the AL West, and tied with the Tigers for the 8th best finish in the AL.  Yes, the playoff-contending Detroit Tigers won just as many games as the A’s did last year.  This year the A’s take the next step.

The bar for making the playoffs in the AL, according to the projections right here, is going to be 91 wins.  At an expectation of 88 wins, the A’s may come up just short, but what they have going for them is that they have two ways of getting in if they can add help at the deadline: the AL Wild Card and AL West title look to be about equally obtainable this year.

They’ll have to get over 88 wins to do it, but with a strong season by Brett Anderson (above), or either David DeJesus or Chris Carter, and the A’s will have enough offense to support a pitching staff that just doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the youngest, and best, in the majors.

3) Los Angeles Angels (projected finish: 74-88)

The Angels have a good shot to be better than last year when they won just 80 games.  Adding Vernon Wells makes them a little better, though not by as much as you would think if you just plugged Wells’ 2010 numbers into centerfield for the Angels.  They had a comparable offensive threat in Mike Napoli who they couldn’t get a great number of at bats for, and his strong bat is who Wells will replace.

Kendry(s) Morales will be healthy this upcoming year, meaning the Angels get their best hitter back, and Alberto Callaspo should be much better as a full time second and third baseman than he was last season.  The Angels should again feature an above average lineup, although they are counting on sustained production from an aging right fielder, Torii Hunter.

The pitching staff might let them down.  Dan Haren can still get it done in this league, but his results the last two years have been closer to a middle of rotation pitcher than a top guy.  Jered Weaver is the team’s ace, and Ervin Santana is a nice no. 3.  I don’t know what the Angels are planning to do if Scott Kazmir flames out again, they simply lack the farm depth to not get drilled two out of every five games unless Kazmir can return to form.  And I think that deficiency will take them out of the running before long.

4) Seattle Mariners (projected finish: 65-97)

For the Mariners, it wouldn’t appear that a significant regression to the mean is coming for their league-worst MLB offense (impressive, for an AL team that doesn’t have to hit its pitcher).  Some improvement should come from guys like Chone Figgins.  But an aging Ichiro was already a pretty good hitter on a horrible team last year, and marginal decreases in his on-base ability might wash out regression from Figgins.

The onus will be on guys like Milton Bradley and Justin Smoak to pull the Mariners out of an offensive tailspin.  If they can, they actually have a pretty good shot at getting into the divisional race.  Credit Felix Hernandez, now unquestionably the best pitcher in the American League.

The Mariners are going to be able to prevent runs this year, but without quality pitching depth, most of that prevention will be full-season effects of playing 81 games at SafeCo Field.  This is a good defensive team, so it’s not time to cut every player on the “everyday starter” side, but they still only have 2/3 of an outfield with Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro, and the infield offers zero pop, and nowhere is that problem worse than at catcher.

The Angels are a far more talented team, but if the Mariners can do the small things much better than last season, and King Felix has another great season, the Mariners can make a push towards everyone else in the AL West this season.

Baseball’s Underachievers at the Break: Who Will Turn it Around?

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Inherently, the ‘underachiever’ label requires a certain level of arrogance on the part of the party that offers the label.  There is a difference — not always clear — between underachieving, and under-performing expectations for more substantial reasons.  Expectations aren’t offered by those who have any say in the building of teams, rather, they are set by the independent masses.  The five underachievers I have chosen to examine in this article were all expected to be well above their current win totals.  The other thing these teams all have in common is a realistic sense that if they could make a move or two at the deadline, they could make themselves relevant in the second half of the season.  None of these teams play in a brutal division, but they’ve all fallen well behind the pace of the other teams in their division.

For a team like the Twins, that means they’ve gone from 10 games above .500 in April to 4 games above .500 at the all-star break, playing essentially as well as the Royals over the same timespan.  They are only 3.5 games out.  Conversely, the Mariners are 15 games out and just traded Cliff Lee inside the division to the division leading Rangers.  One team still expects to make the postseason, the other team made it impossible on themselves.  This article will merely be concerned with the franchise of the two most likely to start playing better, not who is most likely to make the postseason.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins have a reputation of an average offensive team who gets by doing the small things, but really excels at pitching and defense compared to it’s opponents, and thats how they get their edge.  That reputation may discredit the achievements of a lot of really good players they have on their team, but it’s more or less been accurate this season.  The Twins have played typically great defense (this in spite of one of the most horrible outfields in recent memory), and it’s helped them assist their top four pitchers in having pretty good seasons, and Francisco Liriano in establishing himself as an ace once again.

Basically, if the Twins need to be a merely average offensive team and above average run prevention team to win the division, well, then they aren’t even underachieving right now.  But with the money the team invested in Joe Mauer, with the years that Justin Morneau and Jim Thome, and the  half season that Delmon Young is having, it sure seems like they need to be an above average offensive team.  It is here that the Twins’ lapses in concentration in baserunning and terrible offensive production from the left side of the infield are meaningful.

The Twins would be better off giving Michael Cuddyer’s at bats and playing time in the field to someone else, possibly anyone else.  Even with Cuddyer in the lineup, the Twins will probably play better in the second half than the first half.  But without a really aggressive trade deadline move, the Twins go from the team who was universally picked to win the AL Central to a team that has less upside at the deadline than the White Sox and must rely on the Sox and the Tigers to stop playing so well (in Detroit’s case, that’s likely, but the White Sox might not stop winning).  It would be horribly disappointing if the Twins failed to win the AL Central, but ultimately, this is just not the elite team we all thought they could be based on their awesome start in April.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are just a dreadful offensive baseball team, and trading Cliff Lee can’t possibly make them a better team, but the acquisitions of Justin Smoak and Russell Branyan will make this team a lot more bearable to watch.  They weren’t inadequate at two positions in the outfield (Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro are above average major league players), but Chone Figgins has turned out to be a dreadful signing, as the team had to decide which of their two third baseman (Figgins and Jose Lopez) would get his at bats in the lineup at second base.  Figgins’ contract will be a lot more bearable when he is playing third base next season with Lopez taking his automatic out elsewhere.

So yeah, the Mariners are going to turn it around.  They still have Felix Hernandez, and their lineup will cease to be the worst in the AL as soon as Smoak starts hitting at a big league clip.  They won’t get an automatic win once every five days anymore, but Lee wasn’t going to be pitching at that level in the future, nor would he have been doing it for the Mariners.  Branyan may or may not return in 2011, but Smoak is the future of the Mariners now, and the future is now.  They’ll be the .500 team we all expected in the second half of the year.

Milwaukee Brewers

A typical high octane offense combined with a team that gives runs away, and that was before Yovani Gallardo got hurt.  It’s still amazing that Jim Edmonds is STILL a strong offensive player in this league, but then again, it’s the National League.  It’s just as shocking that Carlos Gomez still hasn’t turned into something acceptable on offense.  Alcides Escobar is the shortstop there for better or worse, but his offense is downright putrid, and he’s no longer the premier shortstop prospect in the NL Central — that’s now Starlin Castro of the Cubs.

Yes, the defense is terrible, but the pitching is to blame for the team’s underachiving.  There are no solutions on hand either, which means that — unless the offense somehow gets even better — this is just a .450 baseball club, and is underachiving the great expectations set on it.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are almost certain to be a better team in the second half.  There’s a pretty good chance that as they start to get offensive production from all the money they’ve spent on their veteran corner infield tandem, the Cubs will have to score more than four runs a game.  It’s hard to misuse offensive personnel as badly as Lou Pinella has without having an undying loyalty to the same poor performers, and since Pinella appears to be loyal to no one at this point, the Cubs should stop playing Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome and Koyie Hill so much.

The pitching has been above average, and also figures to get better, even if the team deals Ted Lilly at the deadline.  The Cubs have the ability to be the best team in their division over the second half of the season, which would be a great accomplishment for them, but unfortunately will dump the team around .500 for the year, which figures to be a third place finish.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

You can’t blame the Anaheim offense for underachiving: they lost their most talented player to a freak injury.  This comes after losing their best baserunner to a division rival in free agency.  This has caused Torii Hunter to get even better, somehow.  Bobby Abreu is aging, but he’s still patient and dangerous enough to be valuable.  Mike Napoli is the benefit of the Kendry Morales injury, as he’s getting consistent playing time for the first time as an angel.  There’s a lot of mediocre players on this team who are getting paid to be more than mediocre, which is contributing to the true problem on this team: the pitching staff is underachieving without a typically excellent defense behind it.

The signing of Hideki Matsui has not worked out because his monopolization of the DH position without a fraction of the production that Vlad Guerrero is bringing to Texas right now has caused the Angels to have to play declining fielders to keep Matsui’s bat in the lineup.  Without him, Bobby Abreu and Howie Kendrick wouldn’t have to be full time fielders, and the overall defense would be better.

The Angels have three quality starters, including Jered Weaver who is having a breakout year that could lead him into a 5 year stretch among the elite AL pitchers.  Ervin Santana is still himself, and Joel Pinero has been a good pickup.  Meanwhile, Joe Saunders’ crafty lefty-ness is no match for most AL hitters, and Scott Kazmir has been a horrendous pitcher and an even worse acquisition from Tampa Bay.  Weaver/Santana/Pinero would be a strong playoff rotation, but Saunders and Kazmir look like they will prevent the Angels from getting there.  A bunch of small mistakes: Kazmir, Matsui, and home run celebrations look like they will keep the Angels underachiving throughout the 2010 season, although the long term prospectus is more like the past four years.  This is ultimately a one year slip up.

Struggles for Zduriencik’s Mariners not Especially Surprising

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Like pretty much everyone else, I was impressed by the work that Jack Zduriencik and his staff did this offseason in bailing out the Mariners from their poor financial situation, and starting to rebuild on the cheap.  I was quite surprised, honestly, when the Mariners became a trendy pick to win the AL West.

This is not designed to be a column where I completely write off the Mariners for the rest of the year, and with Cliff Lee back and coming off a gem of a debut, we’re going to have a chance to evaluate the Mariners in the context of how they were built, but for a team that was performing as poorly as the Mariners were just two years ago, even a .500 record would be a significant improvement.  Unfortunately, 500 is going to be a ceiling for a team that has as few major league quality hitters as the Mariners do.

The lineup is atrocious.  I mean, it’s the worst professional lineup I’ve ever seen.  It’s best hitter, through a month, has been Franklin Gutierrez, acquired primarily for his defense.  He’ll hit third as long as he’s OPSing 800, and well, as long as no one else on the team is.

It could be awhile.  Ichiro is a career 810 OPS guy, and produced at an 851 clip last season, but he’s off to a 741 start that is unlikely to significantly improve.  Milton Bradley and Chone Figgins are offseason acquisitions who have both been strong offensive performers in the past, but both are greatly underperforming.  And even if those two happen to get it turned around and have a great month or two, there’s just not much else wearing a Mariners uniform that can consistently get the ball out of the infield.

Last year, the Mariners were last in the AL in runs scored, and their best offensive weapon, Russell Branyan, is now doing his work for the Cleveland Indians.  Not only have the Mariners been unable to replace his production, they didn’t really even address this hole in their order in theory.

The thing is, the Mariners aren’t even under producing.  Their team philosophy, build around strong defense and pitching, has worked quite well.  In 25 games, the Mariners have only given up 90 runs, which comes out to 3.6 runs per game.  Last year, the Mariners actually gave up 4.3 runs per game employing a variation of the same strategy.  The truth is that there’s not a whole lot of space remaining on the run prevention side of baseball’s winning equation for the Mariners to exploit.  Right now, they are an 11-14 ballclub.  Last year, they were 35-20 in one-run games, an unsustainable figure.  This year, they are a completely sustainable 3-5.

Defense is still notoriously hard to project, and because of that, it’s the skill that figures to be the most likely to give out on the Mariners’ first.  They have talented defenders at all the key positions, but at 2B and 3B they have players who are just learning those positions and could see a regression in defensive numbers over the next two months.  Any solution that the Mariners could offer to the runs scored equation in the corner outfield or at first base is likely to drag down the defense with it.

The Mariners have an on-field product that teams across the league can respect, but the everyday lineup just isn’t good enough for the team to compete in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.  While the Rangers look like a world-beater through a month of the season, and the Angels actually have legitimate upside going forward in which you would expect their defense batted ball rates to correct over the next month or so, and probably won’t continue to give up 5 runs per game.

But Seattle can’t count on their run prevention abilities to continue at historic rates no matter how awesome Cliff Lee pitches, and while they’ll certainly finish the season among the AL leaders in fewest runs allowed, the Mariners cannot pretend to compete any longer with a lineup that wouldn’t quite set the PCL on fire.  So much of baseball is about the quality of it’s pitching performances, but ultimately, a staff without run support is just a hard-luck staff after all.