Sunday, March 01, 2009

MLB Preview #2
American League West

Los Angeles Angels

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Chone Figgins 3B
Bobby Abreu LF
Kendry Morales 1B
Vlad Guerrero RF
Mike Napoli C
Juan Rivera DH
Torii Hunter CF
Howie Kendrick 2B
Erick Aybar SS

John Lackey
Ervin Santana
Joe Saunders
Jered Weaver
Dustin Moseley
Nick Adenhart
Shane Loux
Anthony Ortega

As usual, the Angels lineup won't blow anyone away on paper. But once again, it's a solid collection of players that will win quite a few games. With the loss of Mark Teixeira, Kendry Morales will be asked to step in at first base. The Cuban refugee's development has been slower than expected, so it will be interesting to see if he's finally ready for a full time spot in the majors. The other addition for the Angels is Bobby Abreu. Abreu's defense may have worsened over the years, but he's still phenomenal at getting on base, and 20 home runs will be a good complement to the power players like Guerrero, Napoli, and Rivera bring to the table.

The Angels have always had a deep bench under Mike Sciocia, and this year is no different. Gary Matthews, Jr. and Reggie Willits can fill in at all three outfield spots. Macier Izturis will once again be the utility infielder. Rob Quinlan will backup both corner spots in the infield, and may find himself a starter if Morales falters again. Meanwhile, Brandon Wood, LA's "other" shortstop prospect (after Erick Aybar), will try to find playing time at third and short. And Jeff Mathis should see decent playing time at catcher when Mike Napoli is called on to DH, or when Napoli simply needs a day off.

Ervin Santana looked like a bust in 2007. But he bounced back strong in 2008, giving Los Angeles their second legitimate ace with John Lackey. As I've mentioned before, having two aces is important to playoff success. Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver would probably be number two starters on some team, but in this deep rotation they slide down to the third and fourth spots. The final rotation slot appears open to competition. After a rough introduction to the majors in 2008, top prospect Nick Adenhart will try to bounce back to take that spot in 2009.

In addition to a deep bench, the Angels have always had a deep bullpen. Gone is Francisco Rodriguez, but LA was quick to replace him with Brian Fuentes. Fuentes has an excellent veteran support staff in Scot Shields, Justin Speier, and Darren Oliver. However, at 34 Shields is the youngest of that group, so durability may be an issue.

Oakland Athletics

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Mark Ellis 2B
Bobby Crosby SS
Matt Holliday LF
Jason Giambi 1B
Jack Cust DH
Eric Chavez 3B
Kurt Suzuki C
Travis Buck RF
Ryan Sweeney CF

Justin Duchscherer
Dana Eveland
Sean Gallagher
Dallas Braden
Gio Gonzalez
Josh Outman

Oakland's offense took two huge steps forward with the trade for Matt Holliday and the free agent signing of Jason Giambi. Holliday, Giambi, and Jack Cust are Billy Beane's dream players - pure machines that get on base and hit for power. The questions come from the rest of the lineup. Eric Chavez is a great player when healthy, but that "IF" gets larger and larger every year. Kurt Suzuki and Travis Buck are good on base guys, but Mark Ellis, Bobby Crosby, and Travis Buck struggle at it. In Ellis's defense, at least, he's probably the best-fielding second baseman in the game.

The bench features some no-names that began 2008 as starters, and would be again this year if not for the return of Chavez and the acquisitions of Holliday and Giambi. Namely, they are Darric Barton, Jack Hannahan, Rajai Davis, and former Cubs farmhand Eric Patterson.

The A's have always found a way to grow pitching talent, trade it away, then replace it with more talent. That needs to be the case again this year, after they traded away both Rich Harden and Joe Blanton during the 2008 season. The player to watch is Gio Gonzalez, a former first round draft pick who has been traded three times in five professional seasons.

Oakland traded closer Huston Street to get Matt Holliday. Brad Ziegler ended the year as Oakland's closer, but this year he will relinquish that role to Joey Devine. Devine will be supported by Ziegler and Russ Springer.

Texas Rangers

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Ian Kinsler 2B
Michael Young 3B
Josh Hamilton CF
Nelson Cruz RF
Hank Blalock DH
David Murphy LF
Chris Davis 1B
Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
Elvis Andrus SS

Kevin Millwood
Vincente Padilla
Scott Feldman
Matt Harrison
Brandom McCarthy
Dustin Nippert
Jason Jennings
Kason Gabbard
Luis Mendoza
Eric Hurley
Tommy Hunter
Warner Madrigal

The masthead on the Rangers website says they are "Built for Fun." That's an apt description, but perhaps a bit of a backhanded compliment. Texas has retooled its batting order, but again has done little with its pitching. New to the lineup this year is Nelson Cruz, who at 28 last year wasn't considered a prospect, but who still absolutely obliterated AAA pitching. Also new to the lineup is the organization's number one prospect, Elvis Andrus, who will move Gold Glove shortstop Mike Young to third base. Third base was vacated by Hank Blalock due to injury issues. Blalock will take over the DH spot this year.

Texas went into the offseason with four MLB-ready catcher, but after trading Gerald Laird are now left with three. All three are solid players, but each comes with the smallest of asterisks. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who looks to win the starting role, has always been an offense-first catcher, but now his offense looks a little suspect. Taylor Teagarden, conversely, may be the best defensive catcher this organization has seen since Ivan Rodriguez, but only recently has his hitting been considered up to the task. And Max Ramirez tore up the low minors, but was always a little old for his class. The Texas bench also features Frank Catalanotto, who now looks to be a super sub, and Omar Vizquel, brought on to mentor Andrus.

As mentioned above, little was done to improve the Rangers rotation. Like the last few years, it's Millwood, Padilla, and a bunch of question marks.

Frank Francisco has been promoted to closer after several years as a setup man for the Rangers. He'll be supported by a bevy of experienced bullpen arms, including CJ Wilson, Eddie Guardado, Brendan Donnelly, and Derrick Turnbow.

Seattle Mariners

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Jose Lopez/Ronny Cedeno 2B
Ken Griffey, Jr DH
Adrian Beltre 3B
Russell Branyan 1B
Kenji Johjima/Jeff Clement C
Endy Chavez/Waldimir Balentien LF
Franklin Gutierrez CF
Yuniesky Betancourt SS

Felix Hernandez
Erik Bedard
Brandon Morrow
Carlos Silva
Ryan Rowland-Smith
Jarrod Washburn
Garrett Olson

The Mariners had a stunning fall from grace in 2008, but perhaps we should have seen it coming with an aging lineup and questions in the rotation. The lineup has been retooled with a combination of defense, youth, and power. The defense comes from Ichiro and new acquisitions Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez. Individually each could claim the title as best center fielder (or best outfielder) in the game. Together, they'll help save quite a few hits for Mariners pitching, even if (in Gutierrez and Chavez' cases) they aren't offensive powerhouses. The youth comes in the form of Wladimir Balentien and Jeff Clement. Both are known as plus bats and minus defenders. Some have suggested a combined Johjima/Clement and Chavez/Balentien platoon, wherein one day the poor hitting/good defensive catcher would play with the good hitting/poor fielding outfielder, and vice-versa, to offset all four players' deficiencies. The power comes from scrap heap acquisition Russell Branyan and what the Seattle front office hopes to be the triumphant return of Ken Griffey, Jr.

Seattle's rotation should improve significantly with the health of Erik Bedard. The continued development of Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith will help as well. Jarrod Washburn was 5-14 last year, but with an ERA under 5, that record may have just been the result of being an unlucky player on a bad team.

After trading away JJ Putz, Seattle's closer position is still up for grabs. Among the contenders are Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista, Tyler Walker, David Aardsma, and Roy Corcoran. Lorain County's Ryan Feierabend was expected to be this year's long reliever. But unfortunately he has been lost for the season with an elbow injury.