Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The AL West At a Glance

The entire landscape of the AL West has changed in recent years as the competition seems to be growing with arms. Last season, the Texas Rangers dethroned the Los Angeles Angels' run of three straight division titles and even went on to the World Series. The AL  West might be the most competitive division in baseball at the moment
Dan Haren (L) and Jered Weaver
anchor one of baseball's best rotations
with just four games separating four teams. Thus far, the Angels' rotation, led by Dan Haren and Jered Weaver (left) has them rolling to an early lead at 20-15. The Rangers and Oakland Athletics follow at 18-17 while the Seattle Mariners again sit in last at 16-19. This pitching-heavy division is tight right now and is largely up for grabs. Though often overshadowed by the AL East, the West remains competitive for a four team division and has produced as many World Series appearances than the Central over the past 10 years. For the Angels, they added outfielder Vernon Wells via trade from Toronto this winter, then extended his contract for $126 million over seven years. Wells has yet to prove his worth as he has struggled mightily, sitting at around .179.  If or when Wells and Torii Hunter start hitting, it could be a fun summer in Los Angeles. Here is a far more in-depth look at the AL West and where it is heading.

4. Seattle Mariners: (16-19, 4 GB)
What's gone right: Through their downtrodden, turbulent times out west, the Mariners have some young talent for the future and have a lot to look forward to. It has been a "changing of the guard" in Seattle as newcomers Justin Smoak (.293/.393/.539), Felix Hernandez (4-2, 3.02 ERA) and Michael Pineda (4-2, 2.58 ERA) have taken the reins for the Mariners. Fortunately, there is also still Ichiro Suzuki (.308/.354/.349), perhaps the best imported Major Leaguer ever in the lead-off spot; that is always a good thing. Ichiro's constantly been "the guy" in Seattle as he has hit .331 in his MLB career.

What's gone wrong: To put it simply, a lot. The Mariners, as usual, are simply not producing enough runs to make me believe that they will stay in the race long. They average just 3.5 runs per game through 35 games so far. This does not add up in a division where pitching is king, as it will take offensive output to succeed. No offense, but when Justin Smoak is just about your only source of offense, with five home runs and 21 RBI, you're in some trouble. As a result, they continue to  sit near the bottom of the Majors in just about every major category.  The Mariners are 25th in runs scored (125), 28th in average (.230), and 29th in home runs (17).

Future Outlook: The future is more than bright in Seattle as most of their contributors are still young and they have developed a solid farm system, ranked 13th by Baseball Prospectus. However, we do live in the present and that is not favoring the Mariners' chances in the AL West. Erik Bedard, a gamble for the Mariners, has gone just 1-4 with a 4.78 ERA.  Pineda (22) and Hernandez (25) could develop into one of the game's best 1-2 punches in the league as they are both currently in their primes. King Felix already has Cy Young credentials, to boot.

T-2. Texas Rangers (18-17, 2 GB)
What's gone right: Texas may not have it all together like they did last season when they went to the World Series, but they are certainly getting there. Alexi Ogando (3-0, 2.17 ERA), another young blue chip pitcher of the AL West, has been steady for the Rangers. Also, C.J. Wilson (4-1, 2.92 ERA) has done a more than serviceable job of replacing Cliff Lee as the Rangers' ace.  Neftali Feliz (6 saves, 0.96 ERA) though returning from the DL now, has been another bright spot for this team--just like he was last season during their unexpected run. However, the Rangers' offense is where they have truly shined thus far. Michael Young, a career .301 hitter, is off to a hot (.341/.373/.493) start. The offense's big stars (Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre) have collectively been just "okay," yet the team has still put up solid numbers as a whole: they have combined for 19 home runs and 59 RBI.  Not too shabby for your key power hitters I suppose, but now Cruz has landed on the DL.

What's gone wrong: Having last year's AL MVP Josh Hamilton on the shelf certainly has not been an aid. Hamilton injured his shoulder after having played in just 11 games this season and is slowly reinserting himself back into baseball activities. Adding Cruz to that list only weakens the lineup as a whole.  And now, a very important series with the Oakland A's began last night with both teams tied at 18-17. Adrian Beltre hasn't played up to his six-year, $96 million dollar deal despite leading the team in both HRs and RBIs: he is hitting a dismal .239 with a .283 OBP.

Future Outlook:
For a team that went to the World Series in 2010, the future is very promising as a potent offense and solid pitching/defense are in place. The chips are still in place although the rotation is not what it was last season. That leaves the question: could they hit their way to a World Series? It has happened before. This team is built around young, talented hitters that are mostly under the age of 30--a major positive in the competitive AL. Elvis Andrus' future is brighter than any Ranger due to his solid play at the plate where he is more than capable out of the two-hole in a deep lineup.  However, defense is something that Andrus needs to work on as he has committed 49 errors in his first three years in the league.  His future may be better than just about any shortstop in baseball, though, at the spry age of 22.

T-2. Oakland Athletics: (18-17, 2 GB)

What's gone right: Surprisingly (to the rest of the baseball world), a whole lot has gone right thus far, as the A's are right in the thick of things in the AL West. Their starting rotation is of course the main reason as Trevor Cahill (5-0, 1.79 ERA), Brett Anderson (2-2, 2.77 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (4-2, 2.68 ERA )have been more than solid for the A's. While Dallas Braden's injury certainly has not helped matters, it has not really plagued them yet either. Grant Balfour (2-1, nine holds, 1.80 ERA) has been a pleasant surprise and a rock in the bullpen thus far. As for the offense, not a lot has gone right with Coco Crisp leading the way at .265. The team, as a whole, has hit just .237 with 21 home runs and are near the bottom in runs scored with 120. On the contrary, their pitching has allowed the fewest runs (94) in the entire league.

What's gone wrong: Here is another team that is near the bottom in many offensive statistical categories such as runs (120) and average (.230). Oakland has relied heavily on Josh Willingham as its main source of power in the lineup out of the cleanup spot. Also, catcher Kurt Suzuki has provided somewhat steady offensive production, but they are still missing several pieces in their lineup. Out of the closer role, newly added Brian Fuentes has 9 saves but also sports a 4.42 ERA. This is unacceptable in the AL West, a division that relies so heavily on pitching. Signing Hideki Matsui as DH has yet to pay off as he is 36 and has posted some miserable numbers. At least it was only a one-year deal worth $4.25 million dollars.

Future Outlook:
The Athletics are also young, at around 27 years of age on average, and should remain in contention now and in the future. However, they will need to add some pieces on offense as depending on the likes of Willingham and Suzuki can only be temporary. Though they possess a truly gifted rotation, they will look to balance that with a more formidable lineup. The A's have some good young prospects like Adrian Cardenas and Chris Carter that they will depend on in the future.

1. Los Angeles Angels: (20-15) 

What's gone right:
Again, pitching rules as Dan Haren and Jered Weaver have become way-too-early Cy Young Award candidates out in LA. These two aces are a combined 10-4 with a 1.78 ERA. The Angels have the third lowest BAA at .227. So far, mammoth closer Jordan Walden has been very good for the Angels, with 6 saves and a 2.20 ERA. Their offense is in the top tier in most offensive categories including hits (341), average (.271) and total bases (517).  Maicier Izturis has been their main offensive producer out of the three-hole, hitting .330/.380/.482. Out of the lead-off spot, Erick Aybar has been very consistent and speedy with a .356 average and 8 stolen bases.

What's gone wrong: The Angels have had a lot go right, evidenced by their lead in the AL West. However, there still are some glaring holes if they wish to reclaim AL gold. For instance, Mark Trumbo, their leading RBI producer has just 17 RBI. Hunter and Wells have not produced as they were expected to out in the outfield in the middle of the lineup. Wells, who signed a mega-deal in the winter, is off to a very poor start and has not handled the spotlight that comes with playing in a media power like Los Angeles. That is a big change from Toronto in terms of baseball. Remember, too, that this team is missing All-Star first baseman Kendry Morales.

Future Outlook:
With their pitching in order, the Angels have what it takes to contend and even win the AL West now and in the future. They will need a lot more offense if they are to a mainstay, though, and it will help their overall team balance. Wells, Hunter and others are more than capable of playing better than they have thus far. Anything is better than their 2010 season when the Angels were dethroned as AL West Champions after three years and went just 80-82. But now the future is as bright as the California sun for the Angels as they are built around pitching.

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