Sunday, March 16, 2008

The AL West: Weak is the West

I'm not exactly a slave to statistics, but for this preview we'll pretend I am, because it lets me make predictions based on someone else's science. In this case, "someone else's science" are the predictions of Baseball Prospectus, encapsulated in depth charts the company has put together for 2008. However, it's not cheating, exactly: I'm looking at their numbers and analyzing why the American League West will stack up in a slightly new order this year, and throwing in some surprised commentary along the way. Let's do this.

Fourth Place: Seattle Mariners
This pick surprised me, too. Or maybe it just surprised me, and no one else. Anyway, I figured that the Bedard trade, which gives Seattle a second quality starter, plus a quality closer like J.J. Putz has to be more than enough to give the Mariners third place, with some hopeful looks at second. And it would - Seattle's projected runs allowed far outstrips those of third-place Texas - but there's one problem: the Mariners field some pretty anemic hitting. Not just any anemia, either: we're talking myelophthisic anemia, where a disease gets inside your bones and starts killing bone marrow, Rambo style. In fact, Baseball Prospectus predicts Seattle's offense (as measured by the Runs Scored statistic) to be so bad, it's not only the worst in the American League, but second worse in baseball, beating out the Giants by a mere 34 runs. A long way to fall from last year's 88 and 74 second place finish, but that number isn't too surprising when your offense's (offensive) Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) averages out at a crappy 11.4, and your two offensive stars are Ichiro and Beltre. Enjoy the cellar, fellas.

Third Place: Texas Rangers
Somewhere out there, there's a joke about pitching that has the Texas Rangers' staff as the punchline. Twelve seasons removed from their only playoff win, the Rangers continue to struggle to find the pitching they need to match the consistently strong hitting they've fielded over the years. This year is no different; anchored by *snort* Kevin Millwood and his stellar predicted VORP of 16.5, the Rangers are setting out to become the antithesis of the Mariners by posting the second highest runs allowed in the majors, right above the Rays. It's too bad, because a decent Texas team would probably blow the rest of the AL West out of the water. However, there's one consolation: by outslugging the Mariners to end up just one full game higher in the standing at the end of the season, the Rangers will become one of those beloved exceptions to the baseball maxim about pitching always beating hitting.

Second Place: Oakland Athletics
Athletics manager Bob Geren may not think the A's are in rebuilding mode - or at least he won't admit it - but if there was ever a year where the retooling philosophy of Moneyball underlies team-building decisions, 2008 is it. Slated to finish the year two games under .500 (80 and 82) after last year's injury plagued 76 and 86 finish, the A's have a surgically repaired third baseman (who's fallen so far in the esteem of fantasy owners, by the way, that he went in the reserve round of my league's draft. Ouch.), the mighty Joe Blanton, a converted reliever (Justin Duchscherer) as their third pitcher and an average team age of somewhere in the neighborhood of your local little league.

Of course, that's been Oakland's way for more than a few years now; 2008 just happens to be a particularly extreme example because it feels like Billy Beane had his annual fire sale before the season started, instead of halfway through. 2008 won't be the year that the A's return to prominence, but barring any major upsets, I expect them to overtake Los Angeles in 2009.

First Place/Division Champion: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Baseball on the West Coast seems like it's going to have a particularly weak year in 2008, with division winners in both leagues posting win-loss records that would merit second or third place finishes anywhere else in the country. The Angels epitomize this weakness: their projected runs allowed isn't bad - in fact, compared to the top two teams in the other divisions in both the AL and NL it's pretty good - but once again, their offense rests on Vlad Guerrero and whoever the Angels find to bat behind him. This year it's Torii Hunter, whose projected VORP of 25.1 puts him in the lower middle of cleanup hitters in the American League, but the story is the same: Vlad, Howie Kendrick, and a cleanup hitter do not an offense make. The Angels will win the division - their strong array of starters and the consistently powerful K-Rod will see to that - but they'll once again be a first-round knockout for whichever team is fortunate enough to draw them as an opponent.