Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2013 MLB Season Preview Part 1: AL West



And another new season begins.

This will be the fourth time in this blog's history that I'll be writing up a division-by-division baseball preview. Each time in the past I've gotten at least a couple predictions dead wrong. Last year, for instance, I had the Nationals finishing in last place and the revamped Marlins winning the NL East. Instead, the Nats won 98 games and the division while the Marlins imploded with a 69-win last-place disaster season.

All of which is to say: don't take this too seriously. No matter how well you know baseball, it's impossible to predict the outcome of a six-month-long season with any sort of accuracy. This format is merely the most convenient for discussing each team's chances. I like to yap about baseball and looking at each team's projected record represents a good starting point.

As usual, I'll be using the numbers churned out by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system* which spits out a baseline expected performance for every player on every team and uses those numbers to come up with an expected Won-Loss record. Then I'll give my pick for whether the team will over- or under-perform that expected record and briefly explain why.

*The numbers are expected to change a bit whenever they make any minor updates to team rosters. I'm sticking with the projected standings as they look on March 26th. 

We'll start with the AL West as they've got what I think will be the American League's most exciting team to watch, as well as the junior circuit's totally unwelcome newcomers, the Astros.

AL West

1. Angels
PECOTA: 91
My pick: Over

During the last month or so, as I've pondered the reshuffled rosters for the upcoming baseball season, it's the Angels who've most frequently popped up in my mind as most likely to take off into the stratosphere this year (moreso than the Blue Jays who everybody really likes, me included).

Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton. That's all you need to know. Trout was not only the best player in baseball last year (despite losing out in a silly MVP vote), he had one of the best seasons for a rookie player ever, leading the league in runs scored despite being in the minors for the first month of the season. Pujols and Hamilton have seen better days but they're still undoubtedly two of the best hitters in the game of baseball.

Even beyond those three, there really aren't any glaring weak spots in the lineup at all. The starting rotation has some uncertainties but with an outfield covered by three centerfielders at the same time, one of them being Peter Bourjos (about whom Baseball Prospectus 2013 states, "it can't be said enough that he's a generational talent in the outfield"), pitching issues will always be mitigated. The fact is this is one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the American League.

2. Oakland A's
PECOTA: 83
My pick: Over

The A's over the Rangers is perhaps the most daring pick of any I'll make. It's certainly the biggest difference I have with PECOTA (I've got the A's at 93 wins). In the first season after Moneyball officially Hollywood-ized their organization, the A's were an out-of-nowhere shock last year when they managed to overtake Texas on the final day of the season (in a head-to-head game that was decided on a botched fly ball), winning 94 games and the division crown. The wealth of talent on the Rangers remains gaudy while the A's will once again look to scrape by with a patched-together lineup and young pitching.

Question marks abound for the A's, as usual. The players they got the most out of last year (Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, Brandon Moss, A.J. Griffin the list goes on), had never succeeded in the majors prior to that and could easily see some natural regression. Other expected contributors like Brett Anderson and Jed Lowrie are dependably solid but only during the rare stretches when they can remain healthy.

What makes me so confident in this team is that they've finally got a competent manager in Bob Melvin to go along with what's always been one of the smartest (and certainly most daring) front offices in baseball. There's an immense amount of variance in the expectations for just about everyone on this roster but you can bet Billy Beane and his cohorts will be quick to make changes if their initial experiments fail. They always have a seemingly endless supply of pitchers in the system, it's just a matter of fielding a competent lineup. John Jaso is a perfect Beane/Moneyball pick-up as he's always been a walk-heavy OBP guy but last year experienced a power explosion after altering his batting stance. He'll fit right in with the homer-dependent A's offense.

On that note, I was disappointed to see them part with slugging first baseman Chris Carter (traded to the Astros) but the trade just makes too much sense for them. They don't have a single dependable infielder right now and Jed Lowrie, despite being ridiculously brittle, can at least field a bunch of positions and hit a little.

3. Texas Rangers
PECOTA: 91 
My pick: Under

This is a bit of a stretch as they've won 96 and 97 games the last two years and are still a pretty stacked team. Baseball's #1 prospect, Jurickson Profar, is just about ready to contribute if they can only find a spot for him. Same with Mike Olt, a slugging minor league third baseman who would be starting on most other teams by now but who remains blocked.

Subtracting Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton from this lineup makes them look a little less imposing than usual. They picked up 37-year-old Lance Berkman to make up for some of the lost offensive firepower and he'll certainly get on base if he plays but he's old and lacks power (his strong Spring Training suggests otherwise, for what it's worth). Their starting rotation also looks like the weakest of any serious AL contender.

You can bet they'll be in the mix for the AL Wild Card, though. Even if they completely tank, they're still good enough to win 88 games. There's definitely a ton of talent here, it's just not properly balanced at the moment. I expect this roster to look significantly different this time next year and that alone makes this an interesting team to watch this year. I can see them finishing with a disappointing 90 wins and outside of the playoffs for the first time in 4 years.

4. Seattle Mariners
PECOTA: 78
My pick: Over

Seattle has been host to the American League's most pathetic offense for a few years now. They've simultaneously finished last in the division three years running. With the pitiful Astros joining the AL, both of those things are sure to change.

At the same time, the Mariners should see some uptick in their scoring after the organization opted to bring the Safeco Field fences in an effort to alleviate the hitting difficulties in the American League's toughest hitter's park. They also acquired a couple of hitters with some pop, Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales. More importantly, the offense has a bunch of guys in their mid-20s who've largely disappointed thus far but shown enough promise to be considered top prospects in the past. Out of Dustin Ackley (age 25), Jesus Montero (23), Michael Saunders (26), and Justin Smoak (26), somebody is gonna put it together and learn how to hit this year. You just know it.

While the pitching staff is essentially King Felix and a lot of spare parts right now, their farm system is positively loaded with pitching talent. Look for right-hander Taijaun Walker to join Felix atop the rotation sometime this year and a .500-ish team to finally flash some signs of hope for Seattle fans.

5. Houston Astros
PECOTA: 65
My pick: Under

There aren't many teams in baseball that I find reason to dislike. The Yankees are hate-able almost by default. They're the most hate-able team in all of sports. Dumb teams like the Royals and Rockies I often find fun to root against. The Texas Rangers reek of George Bush oil tycoon stank and they've been a dominant team, so fuck 'em.

I'm also blocked from watching any games involving a team from Texas because of MLB.tv's outrageous blackout rules, so I manage to ramify my disdain for this broadcasting scam toward the local teams themselves. And now the DisAstros had to go and switch leagues, completely fucking everything up. Thanks to the Houston Astros, there will be interleague play every day this year. I'll also be blocked from watching the Oakland A's (one of my favorite teams) and the Angels (one of the most exciting teams) a bunch more times than previously. Thanks a lot, Astros.

Regardless of my contempt for them, the Astros really do suck. Playing in baseball's weakest division the last two years, they lost 107 and 106 games, both times finishing 6th in the only 6-team division. Fortunately for them, they can't finish any lower than 5th anymore as their move to the AL gives all six divisions 5 teams. But you can bet good money on this team finishing in last again and they might even lose 110 games having to play in the much tougher American League.

(With all that said, I love Chris Carter's game and wouldn't be surprised at all to see him bash 40 homers if he plays a full season in that ballpark.)

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