Monday, April 2, 2012

2012 MLB Season Preview Part 1: AL West

Yu Darvish, the newest Texas ace (photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
I wanted to avoid following baseball closely this year.

It takes up far too much of my time and mental energy.

Then the Angels, Rangers, and Tigers had to go and sign big-time players and suck me back in. Then Major League Baseball had to go and add another Wild Card team to the playoff scenario and modify the overall outlook of everything. The American League is stacked. Now it's impossible not to be invested in the outcomes.

The 2012 major league baseball season follows perhaps the greatest conclusion to a baseball season ever, and that's really saying a lot (2011 was, after all, the 108th season in baseball's rich history). Now with the American League's top franchises all making big additions to their teams (with the exception of the Red Sox who stayed put on the player acquisition front), we're primed for another exciting year.

Adding another Wild Card team to the mix completely changes everything. The expanded gates to the postseason stretch out to bring us a whole new swath of teams that will harbor October aspirations, while we'll have a one-game playoff (in each league) at the end of the year that might send one of the best teams in the league home packing. It could get weird.

This looks to be a season in which, more than ever, fans and experts alike can only watch it all unfold with rapt anticipation and appreciation. So much has changed about the participants and their fates that it's harder to predict than ever. Therefore, don't take mine or anyone's season predictions too seriously (that caveat always exists but is amplified now). Who in the hell knows what things will look like six months from now?

As we have in the past, we will go through each division using the win projections provided by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system which tallies up the expected performances of every player and simulates the season to spit out baseline projections of how it should all end up. PECOTA is usually quite close in its assessments relative to other similar projection systems and yet it's guaranteed to be far off in some of its estimates. That's just the nature of the game, of course. That's why we watch baseball.

My goal is to determine for each team whether they're more likely to over- or under-perform these estimates and why. It's not all that serious, really. Just a basic way to go through each team and assess their overall characteristics and chances for 2012.

These pieces have been very lengthy in the past (this is the third time around), but since the season begins in less than three days I'll do my best to keep them brief this time. We start with the AL West as it's the most talked-about division coming into the season (and they're the only ones to play any games thus far).

Note: Asterisk denotes predicted Wild Card team.

AL West

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
PECOTA:  89 wins
My take: Over

Having formed what is almost guaranteed to be the best starting rotation in the American League (led by three ace-level pitchers), and acquired the best hitter of our generation, the Angels are ready to be a good team again.

Their run prevention should be elite as they've not only got a great staff but the game's best defensive centerfielder manning the vast green pastures. The one weakness they might have is an unproven bullpen, but the longevity from the starters and a flame-throwing closer in Jordan Walden should render that moot.

With a completely revamped front office making decisions and a roster nearly overflowing with talent, they're my pick to win in the battle of powerhouses against the Rangers. I think they'll win at least 90 games and if all breaks right should be somewhere around 95 wins when it's all said and done.

2. Texas Rangers*
PECOTA: 91 wins
My take: Over

The Arlington nine have officially added themselves to the ranks of perennial elites. They've got money, a deep farm system, tons of major league talent, and a brainy GM. They've made the World Series twice in the last two years, while continuing a steady uphill climb in performance (from 90 wins to 96 with a much better run differential) without relinquishing much in terms of talent. Last year's ace C.J. Wilson departed to the rival Angels but they've brought in Japanese megastar pitcher Yu Darvish and moved reliever Neftali Feliz (always a highly touted prospect as a starter) to the rotation.

The lineup remains strong (though they're once again opting to sacrifice offense for defense at the centerfield position), the bullpen is potentially one of the best in the game, they're arguably the best all-around team in baseball. And yet I think they'll fall back down to earth just a little bit after achieving such lofty heights last year (the best season in franchise history) while running into a new and improved rival on their way down. They are my pick for the second AL Wild Card, though, and certainly a good World Series bet.

3. Oakland A's
PECOTA:  74 wins
My take: Over

I discussed the A's at length in my last post. Lots of youth here. The pitching and defense looks to be excellent once again, but the offense has some major question marks. I'm optimistic that a big performance will arise out of the mass heap of hulking first basemen they've collected, but until Manny Ramirez returns from suspension in early May, the only proven above-average major league hitter on this team is Seth Smith.

26-year-old Cuban emigre Yoenis Cespedes looks to be a player whose raw strength and athletic ability will demand that you learn how to properly say his name ("Yo-EN-iss Sess-ped-ess"). Right fielder Josh Reddick could be promising as he roped nothing but line drives during the season's first two games in Japan. At 25 years old he might be ready to burst out and establish himself as a good hitter.

There's an enormous amount of starting pitching depth with prospects galore. Bringing back pitching coach Curt Young ought to be beneficial as he oversaw the last A's renaissance of young starting pitchers. I'm eager to see if Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, and Jarrod Parker can become yet another strong trio.

That's a lot of optimism for a team many analysts are predicting to finish last. That can certainly happen with this group. But my guess is somewhere around .500 with lots more excitement than they've had over there in years.

4. Seattle Mariners
PECOTA: 70 wins
My take: Over

The Mariners have some good starting pitchers in the minors but the major league rotation, aside from King Felix, looks abysmal. A big ballpark and strong defense ought to mask that a little but there's a lot of junk here.

On the flip side, the offense looks better than it has in any year of Jack Zduriencik's regime thus far. A full season of Jesus Montero hitting major league pitching should be fun to watch. PECOTA has him hitting .276/.327/.459 but I'll bet the over on all of those numbers. Justin Smoak is a prime candidate to have a big breakout. He was handed the full-time first base gig at age 24 last year, and played poorly while injuring both of his thumbs, then he took a groundball to the face, and then lost his father to lung cancer. Give the kid a break. He was heralded as a switch-hitting Justin Morneau for years and I think he'll remind us all of those comparisons this time around.

Second baseman Dustin Ackley is also a very interesting player. At 23, he came up and hit for a .296 True Average (a stat that combines all offensive contributions into one number) while playing a solid second base. His peculiar plate approach strikes me as similar to that of his teammate Ichiro and other Far Eastern hitters though he's a North Carolina kid. Definitely an enjoyable player to watch.

As many have pointed out, they'll suck but at least they might be fun to watch. Between 70 and 72 wins sounds about right.

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