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2013 MLB Preview: AL Central

Chris Covatta/MLBPA/Getty Images Mike Trout

2013 MLB Preview: AL West

Our road to Opening Day takes us to Texas, Washington, and Mike Trout's second act

The A’s try to repeat 2012’s Cinderella story, the Rangers grapple with a big loss, the Angels load up again and hope it goes better this time, the Mariners wait for the kids to join King Felix, and the Astros try to stay respectable while prospects marinate in the minors. Grantland’s countdown to Opening Day continues with a look at the AL West.

OAKLAND A’S

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Coco Crisp (.263/.325/.400)
3B Jed Lowrie (.246/.328/.410)
LF Yoenis Cespedes (.273/.338/.452)
1B Brandon Moss (.236/.307/.426)
RF Josh Reddick (.243/.303/.430)
DH Seth Smith (.242/.327/.411)
C John Jaso (.259/.364/.398)
2B Scott Sizemore (.233/.314/.361)
SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (.271/.320/.366)

Playing in one of baseball’s toughest parks for offense (and especially home runs), the A’s turned on the power last year anyway, blasting 195 homers, the seventh-highest total of any team. A breakout season for Reddick, a big debut for Cespedes, and unlikely contributions from some cheap pickups helped push Oakland to a shocking division title last year. Regression is probably coming for at least one or two of these guys. For instance, Moss hit .291/.358/.596 last year, with 21 homers in 296 plate appearances; thank Bob Melvin for deftly platooning Moss and several other A’s and getting the most out of their talents, but you’re not getting Nintendo numbers again here.

Credit Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi, & Co. for not standing pat. The A’s acquired Lowrie and Jaso this offseason, strengthening two of last year’s weakest offensive positions. The starting double-play combination of Sizemore and Nakajima projects as one of the league’s worst, but Melvin will no doubt mix and match, maybe giving Eric Sogard some run, maybe getting Jemile Weeks back up to the big leagues, maybe giving Josh Donaldson time at third with Lowrie sliding to short, or exploring the trade market for something better. The A’s have a young, dynamic core (especially on the pitching side), as well as one of baseball’s smallest payrolls, giving them both a contender’s upside and enough wiggle room to upgrade in July if they’re in the race again in 2013.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Brett Anderson (83, 3.81)
Jarrod Parker (196, 3.52)
Tommy Milone (173, 3.46)
A.J. Griffin (171, 4.23)
Dan Straily (170, 4.44)

Is this the year Anderson finally gives the A’s 200 innings? His healthiest and most productive season was actually his first, when he made 30 starts, logged 175 innings, and was nearly a four-win pitcher. Everything’s broken down since then, capped by Anderson tossing just 35 innings in 2012. He did look very good in those 35 innings, pitching well immediately upon his return from Tommy John surgery. But a right trapezius injury this spring presents a new challenge, and there are questions about whether Anderson will be ready by Opening Day.

The good news is the A’s will have plenty of pitching depth again this year, after that depth played a huge role in their ride to the playoffs in 2012. Minor league star Straily is penciled into the no. 5 spot for now, but Bartolo Colon has only five games left on his PED suspension, Travis Blackley1 is standing by, and there’s some pitching talent left in the high minors even after last year’s promotions in case the A’s need to dig deeper. The bullpen’s in good hands, too: Even with Grant Balfour out after knee surgery, Ryan Cook should be fine in the closer role, and converted position player Sean Doolittle has blossomed into a star as a top lefty setup man. It’s been six years since fan favorite and avid card collector Pat Neshek has dominated for a full season in the big leagues. But last year’s numbers suggested a possible return to form, and Neshek’s submarine motion could prove a capable right-handed complement to Doolittle’s southpaw goodness.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Power and pitching are the answer again, as the A’s best the diminished Rangers and either repeat as AL West champs or slot in as a feisty wild card behind the Angels. The addition of the Astros to the AL West alone could be good for a couple of extra wins for the A’s (and every other team in the division), if you like to play over/unders.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The median ZiPS prediction for the A’s this year is just 78 wins (but the projection system also has Oakland as the single toughest team to predict in the majors). There are plenty of regression candidates on the roster, and a .500 or worse season isn’t impossible.


TEXAS RANGERS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
2B Ian Kinsler (.266/.348/.443)
SS Elvis Andrus (.276/.347/.356)
DH Lance Berkman (.262/.366/.476)
3B Adrian Beltre (.296/.339/.516)
RF Nelson Cruz (.264/.322/.476)
LF David Murphy (.275/.344/.427)
C A.J. Pierzynski (.277/.314/.430)
1B Mitch Moreland (.264/.325/.435)
CF Leonys Martin (.270/.327/.415)

There’s addition by subtraction with Michael Young gone, but also big losses with Josh Hamilton taking his 43 homers to Anaheim and Mike Napoli leaving for Boston. The Rangers did well to snag Berkman and Pierzynski cheap; Martin and Craig Gentry could form a cheap and reasonably effective (and speedy) center-field platoon; and Kinsler’s a good bounceback candidate after a mysterious down year.2 But you also wonder about Berkman’s health and productivity at age 37, about Moreland’s ability to hit lefties now that he’s no longer being platooned, about how Cruz will fare now that he appears to be past his prime, and whether the lineup in general can approach some of the Rangers’ recent, potent starting nines.

Of course Texas also has a potential season-changer in all-world prospect Jurickson Profar. The 20-year-old switch-hitter is so skilled at every facet of the game that he might already be ready to seize a starting job in the big leagues, presumably bumping Kinsler to another position. He’ll start the year in the minors to finish his apprenticeship and save the Rangers some arbitration bucks down the road. But if this diminished Rangers team gets off to a slow start, the pressure to recall Profar could be substantial.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Matt Harrison (191, 4.11)
Yu Darvish (193, 3.19)
Derek Holland (171, 4.49)
Alexi Ogando (135, 3.84)
Nick Tepesch (147, 4.61)*
*Based on Oliver projections

Making Harrison the no. 1 starter is silly given Darvish is already one of the league’s five best starters and could get better, but that will make little to no difference in the standings. This is a strong top four, with the Rangers’ home park inflating ERAs and obscuring the quality of the staff a bit. The fifth starter spot could be an adventure, though. Martin Perez has a fractured ulna, Colby Lewis is trying to make it back after flexor tendon surgery last summer, and Neftali Feliz will likely return to short relief when he makes it back from Tommy John surgery. The hope is that Lewis will be back by late May or early June, that the off days that dot the April calendar will let the Rangers skip the five spot a couple times, and that Tepesch can deliver 50 workable innings until reinforcements arrive; a soon-to-be-40-year-old Derek Lowe pitching in Arlington probably isn’t the answer.

Meanwhile the bullpen’s been recast, with Jason Frasor and Josh Lindblom nabbing setup roles ahead of Joe Nathan. Feliz’s return should help, and newly acquired Joakim Soria could be back by late May after Tommy John surgery last April.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: This team should look a lot better in two or three months’ time, with Lewis, Feliz, Soria, Perez, and Profar on the way. If the Rangers can hold their own early on, they could stage a hellacious stretch run and vie for the AL West crown.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The weakened lineup proves too much to handle, the pitching staff’s injuries linger, and Texas drops to third place, missing the playoffs in the process.


LOS ANGELES ANGELS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
LF Mike Trout (.282/.364/.507)
SS Erick Aybar (.276/.317/.393)
1B Albert Pujols (.285/.362/.516)
RF Josh Hamilton (.267/.333/.481)
DH Mark Trumbo (.263/.310/.481)
2B Howie Kendrick (.272/.315/.405)
3B Alberto Callaspo (.265/.332/.376)
C Chris Iannetta (.224/.337/.384)
CF Peter Bourjos (.248/.304/.396)

First, the bad news on Josh Hamilton: He struggled mightily after a terrific start last year, completely losing command of the strike zone. He struck out more often than ever before last year, his defensive value is fading, he turns 32 in May, and he’s got a history of missing a bunch of games every year due to injuries. If we’re talking straight one-to-one replacements, Hamilton takes over right field from Torii Hunter, who was a five-win player in 2012; per FanGraphs, Hamilton hasn’t delivered that much value in a season since 2010. Still, Hamilton’s a better bet to remain a very good everyday player over the next couple years than the 37-year-old Hunter, and the Angels will deal with the tail end of Hamilton’s $125 million later.

At any rate, this is a team that’s going to hit. Pujols isn’t quite the player he was at his peak, but still a big threat assuming he replicates the final four months of 2012. Trout might be in for a little regression after posting one of the best seasons by any hitter in half a century, but he’s still a superstar and short-list MVP candidate. Trumbo makes too many outs, but he might be on the verge of a 40-homer season at age 27. The Angels should be great on defense again this year, too, with Bourjos and Trout both expected to play every day and nearly everyone else back for another run.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jered Weaver (203, 3.35)
C.J. Wilson (193, 3.64)
Joe Blanton (130, 4.04)
Jason Vargas (186, 4.40)
Tommy Hanson (170, 4.09)

Remember that seemingly unbeatable starting rotation, the one that was supposed to include four aces? As dominant as the post-trade deadline Angels rotation looked on paper last year following the acquisition of Zack Greinke, it wasn’t enough to get the Halos into the playoffs. Now Greinke’s gone, Dan Haren’s gone after a disappointing, injury-filled season, and the three-through-five options are functional but far from spectacular. Actually, calling Hanson functional might be a stretch: He came up as one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but pitched poorly last year and remains an injury concern. An optimist would say that Wilson is a positive regression candidate after a merely decent 2012, that Vargas is good for reasonable bulk innings every year, and that Weaver is one of the most reliable no. 1 starters in the game. But this Angels team is built to win with its lineup, not its pitching. If the Angels are in the race come July, another Greinke-like trade wouldn’t be surprising — and would make a lot of sense.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The back of the rotation and bullpen, both expected to be shaky, offer enough support to Trout, Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver, & Co. to propel the Angels to a division title. If Arte Moreno is aggressive again this summer, the finished version of this team could be a bear in the playoffs, too.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: All of the above doesn’t happen. Worse, Weaver’s declining strikeout rate; his average fastball below 88 mph; and a performance record propped up by a pitcher-friendly park, great defense, and aberrant batting average on balls in play and strand rates all catch up to him, leaving the rotation in dire shape heading into next winter. If you’re looking for one piece of fantasy advice for this team, it’s don’t pay an ace’s price tag to get Weaver in your draft.


SEATTLE MARINERS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
RF Michael Saunders (.231/.303/.381)
3B Kyle Seager (.264/.321/.396)
DH Kendrys Morales (.265/.321/.446)
LF Mike Morse (.253/.308/.415)
1B Justin Smoak (.230/.318/.383)
C Jesus Montero (.263/.313/.407)
2B Dustin Ackley (.247/.324/.373)
CF Franklin Gutierrez (.243/.296/.364)
SS Brendan Ryan (.227/.296/.305)

ZiPS, like most projection systems, regresses the hell out of most players’ performances and spits out fairly modest projections. Still, the Mariners have to hope for better than this, especially after a truly miserable season for the team’s offense last year. Even discounting his WBC coming-out party, you have to figure Saunders will trounce that forecast — or else get knocked out of the leadoff spot in a hurry. Ackley and Montero bring substantial upside after rough seasons last year, while Smoak likely gets his last chance to stick in Seattle this season. Acquiring Morales to bolster the middle of the lineup made sense, given Jason Vargas offered little long-term value and Seattle has plenty of pitching talent on the way.

But the Morse pickup was a puzzler, with management overemphasizing the long ball without realizing that John Jaso’s recent track record trumped Morse’s, that Jaso was the younger player, and that he offered far more positional value. You want to clear a full-time spot for Montero’s potentially big bat?3 OK. Ditching Jaso for one year of Morse wasn’t the best way to do that.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Felix Hernandez (228, 2.93)
Joe Saunders (165, 4.52)
Hisashi Iwakuma (128, 3.99)
Blake Beavan (184, 4.59)
Brandon Maurer (106, 4.45)

We’ve covered the pros and cons of Felix’s seven-year, $175 million extension: The M’s win credibility with their fans by making the move, and also lock up one of the five best pitchers on earth when he’s just 26 years old … but also place themselves at the mercy of the pitcher attrition monster, while locking out a big chunk of money from other potential moves. More puzzling was the team’s recent announcement that Erasmo Ramirez would not crack the rotation. Check out the Ramirez vs. Beavan statistical comparison cited by Dave Cameron, then explain how and why this happened. The Mariners are a long shot to contend this year one way or another. But Eric Wedge has made enough puzzling roster and lineup moves over the past few years to make you wonder if he’s the right man to lead the next successful Mariners team, whenever that team arrives. The arrival of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen, possibly as soon as this year, could hasten that timetable.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Felix wins the Cy Young (again); Saunders, Ackley, Montero, and Smoak come through as hoped; the kiddie pitching corps arrives with a flourish; and the Mariners are the surprise team in baseball this year.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Moving the fences in has no effect, as the M’s offense sputters again. The rotation behind Hernandez craps out, and Seattle struggles to match last year’s 75 wins.


HOUSTON ASTROS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
2B Jose Altuve (.287/.332/.403)
1B Brett Wallace (.242/.313/.387)
DH Carlos Pena (.214/.344/.432)
LF Chris Carter (.237/.325/.466)
RF Fernando Martinez (.241/.299/.408)
CF Justin Maxwell (.211/.298/.407)
C Jason Castro (.238/.318/.344)
SS Ronny Cedeno (.239/.289/.353)
3B Matt Dominguez (.251/.298/.383)

This is all about sorting out what you have. Dominguez was once a promising third-base prospect and retains a good glove, so you see what he can do with 600 at-bats. Carter’s power is tantalizing enough to potentially negate a .230 average and 175 strikeouts, so you see what he’d look like in the middle of the order every day. Wallace, Martinez, Maxwell … most of these guys have shown flashes of impressive talent at one point or another. The Astros have made no secret of their plan to strip the team down to its foundations and start all over. They’ve got lots of smart people in the front office working on the task, plus a rebuilt and now robust farm system cooking up future talent for the 2015, 2016, and 2017 teams. In the meantime, throw some spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks. Well, except Cedeno. No idea what that’s all about, unless Houston’s super-secret defensive metrics say he’s the second coming of Rey Ordonez and we all missed it.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Bud Norris (168, 4.16)
Lucas Harrell (153, 4.29)
Philip Humber (123, 4.76)
Brad Peacock (126, 5.30)
Erik Bedard (86, 4.48)

The Astros have received praise in analytical circles for not settling for mediocrity, instead trading everything not bolted to the wall for players with zero to three years of service time (preferably zero to one, really) and building a new team from scratch. It all sounds good in theory. But with such a thin roster, we’ll start to see the real-life results of those trades. Peacock and Carter came over in the Jed Lowrie deal with Oakland, and both will have starting jobs on Opening Day. Norris is one of the few Astros making real money4 and doesn’t have star upside, which means he, too, is probably trade bait. By Labor Day, Peacock and Harrell might be the only ones still in the rotation, with top prospect Jarred Cosart leading a new generation of Astros pitchers on the verge of making the Show.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: All that matters is that the kids get better. A best-case scenario involves Wallace, Carter, Martinez, et al. putting up strong post-hype seasons; the high-minors pitching prospects cracking the rotation; and the world’s measurement systems all getting converted into Altuves.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The Astros lost 107 games last season. Expectations are already about as low as they can possibly get.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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