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AL West Preview
By Joe Sheehan
Special to RotoWire


AL West Preview

In March, there's nothing so important as having a strong opinion about a baseball player. So over the next few weeks, starting today with the AL West and working my way around the leagues, I'll be offering opinions on players who I think can help - or will hurt - your fantasy teams. As Opening Day approaches, I'll shift focus to the real MLB teams, with a complete set of predictions for every team's record. Think of it as a veteran actor doing an eight-episode arc on a great TV show, my William H. Macy to Rotowire's "Sports Night." That would make Jeff Erickson Josh Charles, Pete Schoenke Peter Krause, and Chris Liss Felicity Huffman.

Wow, that went off the rails quickly.

The AL West has experienced a resurgence over the last two years, as the rebuilding projects in Arlington and Oakland bear fruit, and new management in Seattle turns that franchise around. It's possible, just possible, that the four teams in this division are better than all the teams in the AL Central. It won't look that way in the end because of the unbalanced schedule - and the White Sox rotation may have something to say about it - but this has quietly become one of the tougher groups in baseball, largely due to improved pitching and defense on the three non-Angel teams.

That factor needs to be considered when you draft or bid on AL West players. As a group, AL West hitters have slightly decreased value due to strong pitching and defense throughout the division, two good pitchers' parks and one decent one, and the unbalanced schedule that exposes them to those elements in nearly a third of the time. It's a small factor, but something to consider on the margins when you're choosing between, say, David Murphy and David DeJesus as an extra outfielder.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Do not want: Kendry Morales. Coming into 2009, Morales had a career line of .249/.302/.408 in 407 PA, with just 24 unintentional walks. He'd hit for average and power in the minors, so much so that he was high on sleeper lists, with the Angels' trade of Casey Kotchman and subsequent loss of Mark Teixeira opening first base for him. Morales exceeded expectations with a .306/.355/.569 campaign that featured 34 HR and 108 fantasy-friendly RBI, vaulting himself into the top tier of first basemen. So why so negative? Morales' numbers have nowhere to go but down, given that better than one of every six of his fly balls left the yard last season-well above his career rate and the league average (about one in ten). He's still not a disciplined hitter, with 117 strikeouts against just 36 unintentional walks. The step up last season and him being 27 are going to lead to expectations he can't match: Morales is a .275/.335/.480 guy, 25 homers and 90 RBI, someone you take when everyone else already has a first baseman in a 5x5 league.

Brandon Wood. If it's March, Brandon Wood is probably tearing it up in Arizona. (Sure enough, he went opposite field yesterday for his first spring training bomb.) Wood turned 25 last week and has a career line of .192/.222/.313 with strikeouts in a third of his at-bats. Take the thin air out of his Triple-A numbers and you see a guy who strikes out 25% of the time and walks a bit more than once a week, and whose BA (.287) and SLG (.547) aren't impressive in the context of Salt Lake City. He's not a shortstop any longer, either; Erick Aybar won that fight. So what you have is Kevin Kouzmanoff's profile without any track record of success. He's not the best third baseman on the roster, either.

Joel Pineiro. Pineiro didn't get anyone out in 2005, 2006 or the first half of 2007, all in the AL. Landing in St. Louis, he bought into the Dave Duncan program and posted a 4.14 ERA in 426 innings over 2 years. Now, he leaves the NL and Duncan behind. That usually goes well, right Braden Looper? Right, Jeff Suppan? Matt Morris? Storm Davis? Anyone?

Underrated: Maicer Izturis. There is very little Izturis doesn't do, filling up the stat sheet last year with a .300 BA (and .359 OBP), eight homers and 13 steals in about two-thirds of a season and being eligible at both middle-infield slots. He's a switch-hitter without a huge platoon split - although he does bat better from the left side, which is what you want - and he can legitimately play every infield spot. He's so clearly a better player than Wood that it should not take Mike Scioscia long to give him the third-base job on a full-time basis.

Pay attention! The Angels' starting outfielders, from left to right, are 31, 34 and 36 years old, and they signed a 36-year-old DH who may play a little out there. Whether through injuries or decline, there is going to be opportunity here. Reggie Willits took advantage of a similar situation in 2007 to get full-time play and 27 steals. He's still here, but may be lapped by Terry Evans, who was trapped at Triple-A the last two seasons by the Gary Matthews Contract. Evans is a strong late-round/reserve list sleeper in AL leagues.

Got Tums? The Angels have tremendous raw talent in their starting rotation in Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir. In 2008, those two combined for 28 wins, 380 strikeouts and a 3.49 ERA in 371 innings. In 2009, those numbers were 18, 224 and 4.95 in 287 innings. Both pitchers fought injuries last year, and in Kazmir's case, injury issues have become chronic, though not always related to his left arm. I'd rather have Santana, who is more likely to throw a complete season. Kazmir has both the higher upside and higher implosion potential. Note: Kazmir's late-season success in Anaheim was a fluke driven by a microscopic HR/FB rate. Don't project from that.

CloserWatch: Stay away from this bullpen. Brian Fuentes would have lost the closer job last year had there been anyone to find it. With the Angels having signed Fernando Rodney, and with Scot Shields expected back by Opening Day, there's every chance that the Angels could split 46 saves three ways in a manner that leaves half of them on benches and causes at least one manager to walk into traffic. Don't be that guy.

Oakland A's

The Ghost of Rickey! My favorite stat from 2009 is that the A's, whose image remains a softball team due to the book Moneyball, were fourth in the AL in stolen bases and fourth in stolen-base attempts. Yes, this is where you look in the AL for speed, where even the catcher runs 10 times (at an 80% clip!). With Rajai Davis (41 SB/12 CS) returning, Coco Crisp (13/2 in just two months) added and Michael Taylor (44/16 in as a professional) in the wings, the A's could be a great source of speed so long as Bob Geren remains in charge.

Do not want: Kevin Kouzmanoff. Moving from Petco Park to McAfee Coliseum is actually a net negative for him, as the slight upgrade in home park is washed away by the league and division differences. Even giving him full credit as a .284/.328/.477 hitter - his career road stats - doesn't exactly turn him into Evan Longoria. Throw in the need to get Eric Chavez some at-bats and that the A's aren't brimming with baserunners atop the lineup, and Kouzmanoff is at best a safety corner play, and may not be viable in shallower formats.

Intriguing: Coco Crisp was improving last season before shoulder injuries ended his campaign. He was walking more than he ever had, and in fact, posting more walks than strikeouts for the first time ever. That he was batting .228 was hiding the fact that he was a fairly productive player for the Royals, and if he retains the walks while bumping that average back into the .270s-manageable with any kind of regression on balls in play-Crisp could be one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. Veteran sleepers aren't easy to find; Crisp is one.

Also, Jake Fox doesn't start the year as catcher-eligible, but there's a chance he'll get there by midseason. Fox's bat is marginal on all the corners; if he were to add the magic C to his name, that would make him a nice second-half play.

CloserWatch: Andrew Bailey was great in winning the AL Rookie of the Year award; however, it's hard to repeat a year like that, in part because much of his hit prevention came thanks to a .239 batting average allowed on balls in play. The A's have a bunch of options, including the returning Joey Devine - who was tabbed as the closer a year ago before Tommy John surgery wiped out his year. The A's have rarely been married to a single closer, so look for Bailey to share save opportunities with Devine, Brad Ziegler and Michael Wuertz, particuarly as his ERA climbs from below 2.00 to above 3.00.

Upside: Brett Anderson may have been the best rookie starter in the AL last year, a fact that went mostly unmentioned when awards time came around. His 150/45 K/BB, strong groundball tendencies and fantastic stuff have many predicting another step forward in 2010. I'm not one to disagree; however, I'm as high on Trevor Cahill, whose 2009 stat line fell short of expectations, but who retains the skills that caused the A's to have him skip Triple-A a year ago. Cahill was largely a two-pitch pitcher last year, throwing fastballs and change-ups 90% of the time. With a year under his belt, you can expect him to work in the great breaking stuff that made him such a strong prospect, and in doing so get more ground balls and strikeouts than he did during his rookie campaign. The gap between Anderson and Cahill on draft day will be much greater than the gap during the season. How much do I believe? I drafted Cahill with my first-round pick (#19 overall) in a Strat-O-Matic rookie draft this past weekend.

From Hero to Zero to...: Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer were two of the best pitchers in baseball for the first four-and-a-half months of 2008. Neither threw an MLB pitch in 2009. They're expected to be 40% of the A's rotation in 2010. The thing about these two is that neither has ever been bad: the two have either been effective or unavailable. That's a pretty good A/B switch for your fantasy team; these guys won't hurt you, they'll either be pushing you towards a title or on your DL. You'd much rather players like that than someone like, oh, Joe Saunders, who could impale your WHIP and ERA as you wait for him to find that 2008 form again.

Seattle Mariners

An organization that has done so many things right over the past 18 months seems to be losing its way a bit, in the manner that successful entities sometimes do. Having rebuilt the Mariners around a fantastic defense, GM Jack Zduriencik may be asking a bit too much of some players in an effort to make the offense better.

Mistake No. 1: Trading for Milton Bradley and making money in the deal is a great move; asking Bradley to play left field on a regular basis isn't. Bradley's problems in Chicago last year were less interpersonal than they were performance-based - and completely predictable the moment he signed. Bradley can hit, he can field, and he can stay in the lineup-but he can do just two of those things at one time. The Cubs, lacking a DH slot, had to ask him to do all three, and hilarity ensued.

For this transaction to work for the Mariners, they have to do what the Rangers did, which is turn Bradley into a full-time DH. His body holds up that way, he hits better, and everyone is happy. Making Bradley play left field - so that The Ghost of Kingdome Past can suck up DH at-bats - is a terrible waste of resources. If the Mariners insist on using Ken Griffey Jr. as anything more than a spokesperson, they should make him play in the field; the defensive hit relative to Bradley isn't that great, and the effect on Bradley will outweigh it. The optimal alignment is Bradley at DH and a cast of dozens (Griffey, Michael Saunders, maybe Eric Byrnes (ugh) or Corey Patterson (eep)) in left. Anything else is a problem. For every two games Bradley plays in the outfield, lop a buck or a round off his value.

Mistake No. 2: Signing Chone Figgins, who gets on base, plays excellent defense at third base and possesses skills that usually mean a gentle aging curve, was a sweet move. The price was actually a bargain. Taking Figgins and moving him back to second base, however, is addled. Figgins wasn't a particularly good second baseman when he played their regularly, he hasn't done so in years, and second basemen get hurt at a high rate. Jose Lopez is actually a good defensive second baseman - his glove provides much of his limited value - and his bat will be below-average at third. The Mariners are making their defense worse and adding injury risk for no benefit at all, and they should stop doing so immediately. If Figgins opens the season at second base rather than third, he drops significantly because of the added risk and wear on his legs.

Mistake No. 3: Minor top 40 hit in 1984 for Culture Club.

Do not want: David Aardsma came off the scrap heap (5.29 career ERA in 144 2/3 innings over four seasons and four teams) to be credited with 38 saves in 2009. Now for the bad news: Aardsma was a better pitcher in '09 than previously, but not nearly that much. Improvements in his strikeout and walk rates were small. The real drivers of his 2.52 ERA were a dip in BABIP (.271 last year) and a vanishingly small HR/FB (4.2%). Aardsma gave up more fly balls last year than ever before, but just four home runs. Safeco's big, but it's not that big. His ERA could double this season without any underlying change in his skills. Someone - I love Brandon League, although Mark Lowe is first in line - will have Aardsma's job by July 1.

Erik Bedard might pitch in June. Or July. Or August. As far as I'm concerned, he can spend the intervening time as a touring member of "YPNM: The Musical." Tremendous talent, for six starts at a time.

Intriguing: Ryan Rowland-Smith. It's Australian for "wins." The big lefty cut both his strikeout and walk rates last year as he pitched around a triceps injury. I think he's Doug Davis, circa 2004, but with a bit more talent and in a much better environment in which to develop, and more durability issues.

If Safeco and the Mariners defense can turn David Aardsma into Joe Nathan for a year, what can it do for a better pitcher in Brandon League? The Brendan Morrow trade was silly, the Mariners cutting loose a problem of their own making, but at least in League they got back a pitcher who can be a strong contributor in the bullpen. League has that great combination of strikeouts and groundballs that leads to low ERAs and high salaries. He still needs to address lingering problems with left-handed batters, but we've seen many closer with big platoon splits, so that's not likely to stand in his way.

Texas Rangers

This is going to be a consolidation year for the Rangers, who exceeded short-term expectations a year ago in part because players who actually aren't a part of the long-term future-like Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter and Marlon Byrd - played above their heads. 2010 is going to be about the continued process of integrating the true future while suffering a bit on the field as some of last year's heroes slip back a bit and take some wins with them. Eventually, this team will be about Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland and Justin Smoak, but maybe not soon enough.

Do not want: Josh Hamilton. Reality check: we've just been through Josh Hamilton's peak. He hit .292/.356/.508 in fantastic hitting environments while missing nearly half of two separate seasons and proving that he's not really a center fielder. This isn't to say that he's useless, but there's a pretty massive gap between perception and reality for a player who is more famous than he is productive at the moment.

Scott Feldman:2009::Jeff Ballard:1989. Do they still put those on the SAT? Loved those. Feldman's rates are better than Ballard's were, in part because his league strikes out more often, but the general principle holds: pitch-to-contact starter meets a team with a vastly improved defense and rides it to nearly 20 wins. The Rangers' defense should still be good in '10, just not enough to support a 4.08 ERA for Feldman. All of the above applies to Tommy Hunter as well. The Rangers will eventually replace these guys with the cream of their prospect crop.

Chris Davis. To survive with Davis' strikeout rate you need to hit .390 and slug .800 when you make contact, and very few players can do that over a period of years. In any given season, a Mark Reynolds or a Jack Cust will do so, but over a period of years it just doesn't happen for any but the greatest hitters in the game. Justin Smoak is a better player than Davis, although it may take most of 2010 for the Rangers to give in to that idea.

Intriguing: Derek Holland. I would have bet anything that Holland would have gone in the first round of the draft I took Cahill in last weekend. So I was surprised to have the choice between the two, and absolutely thrilled that Holland was available with my second-round pick. Holland's poor stat line in '10 seems to have scared off some people, so let's acknowledge that Holland was rushed a bit by the Rangers. Holland had five appearances above High-A when he made his MLB debut last year, and he's still learning command of all his pitches. This guy was right there with Neftali Feliz a year ago, and the perceived gap between them now is pretty much the difference between how each was handled last year. Holland will knock two runs off his ERA this year.

Julio Borbon is a fairly rare thing, a prospect with true leadoff-man skills. His steals (19 in about two months of play last year) make him fantasy-ready, but it's the potential for a .400 OBP that will make him truly valuable. If there's one player I'm likely to overpay for in my two AL-only leagues, it's Borbon, who might score 110 runs this year.

Matt Harrison is another of the "real" pitching prospects who should be replacing Feldman and Hunter and their ilk. Early reports from Arizona have him throwing in the mid-90s, which is more like the guy the Rangers made one of the key pieces of the Mark Teixeira deal.

Hush! C.J. Wilson, who has a career ERA of 4.30 and who posted a 6.02 the last time he was given a major role, has made noise about how he's a lot better than the guys who have more prominent roles on the team. Perhaps - Wilson has very good stuff - but when they make you the closer and you spit the bit, and you've always done your best work in medium- and low-leverage spots, it becomes hard to take you seriously. Wilson's point is best made on the mound.

We'll be back Friday with the NL West.

 

Article first appeared 3/9/10