Normally my 2007 preview articles are up every Friday so sorry for the delay. Last Friday I finished up with the National League. If you would like to read those previews, you can choose one of these:
Now we are able to move into the American League where there is still a lot of confusion as to who will rise above the others and capture the divisions.
This week’s topic: American League West
The American League West has been a giant question mark for many years now as it never seems as if a team steps up and takes charge. Every year the Texas Rangers get off to a fast start and then fizzle after the All-Star break as they did last season where they were in first place all the way up to the mid-summer classic. Oakland always seems to be in the mix despite year after year facing more and more players dropping to free agency and injury. The Angles seemingly keep finding ways to win despite prospect after prospect dropping out of the picture and disappointing. Then there are the Mariners who just can’t get their acts together in a division seemingly ripe for the taking. 2007 seems to be more of the same in all four team’s cases with little improvements across the board. Here’s how I see them breaking down:
1.) Los Angeles Angels
The big off season move the Angels made was stealing Gary Matthews, Jr. away from division rival Texas Rangers for a 5-year, $50 million contract. While Matthews did have a very good 2006 campaign posting career highs of .313/.371/.495, 19 HR, and 79 RBI, it has some people skeptical that he can accomplish such numbers again. The centerfielder turns 33 this summer and has never posted numbers even close to this strong throughout his career. So either he has come into his own or he had a fluke year. No matter which one it is, giving $10 million a year to a guy who will be 37 years old at the end of the contract is very risky. The Angels are also hoping that their aging wonder Garret Anderson (who turns 35 this June) still has some gas left in the tank and can give Vladimir Guerrero some protection in the lineup. The outfielder turned DH was able to put up .280/.323/.433, 17 HR, and 85 RBI numbers a year ago so the Angels are hoping for this and then some.
While there are question marks in the lineup, there aren’t any in the rotation. In fact many people are saying they have one of the best rotations in baseball this season and I for one can’t really argue. If you want to stretch to find a question mark in the rotation, I guess you could make a case for Bartolo Colon. Colon was limited to only 10 starts in 2006 due to injuries and posted a 1-5 record with a 5.11 ERA and hitters had a .306 average against the former Cy Young winner. If he can bounce back to the pitcher he was before last season, the Angels will be in great shape. Another key to this team’s success will be the impact of second year phenom Jered Weaver. Weaver took the league by storm last season going 11-2, 2.56 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP. In addition to veteran John Lackey, if these two pitch to their ability, the Angels essentially have three aces. You can’t go wrong with that.
Bottom Line: On paper the Angels should win this division. But any breakdowns due to injuries (especially to Vlad or Colon) will seriously hurt this club’s chances. When healthy this team’s rotation is scary. If they can get the lead into the ninth, closer Francisco Rodriguez is able to easily shut the door. Look for them to win this division easily if the next two teams struggle coming out of the gates this spring.
2.) Oakland Athletics
The Oakland A’s shocked many people last season when they quickly disposed of the red-hot Minnesota Twins in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s A’s team will have a different look as they lost the “Big Hurt” Frank Thomas to the Blue Jays and ace Barry Zito to the Giants. The A’s did go out and replace Thomas with veteran and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. The 38 year old catcher will finally be able to slide into a DH role in the American League and give his tired knees a rest. Despite having to catch for the Padres last season, Piazza was still able to put up .283/.342/.501, 22 HR, and 68 RBI numbers in a pitchers ballpark. This leads many to believe that giving Piazza a chance to DH will enable him to put up Frank Thomas numbers from a year ago.
The loss of Zito could be big for this team as it lost the final member of the “Big 3” (Hudson/Mulder/Zito) that dominated for so long. But if newly anointed ace Rich Harden can regain his 2005 numbers (10-5, 2.53 ERA) and stay healthy, the A’s won’t miss him much. Dan Haren will also be relied upon heavily to improve on this back to back 14 win seasons because the A’s will need everyone to step up their games to keep in contention with the Angels.
Bottom Line: The A’s will score runs, that shouldn’t be an issue. But the rotation will need to be stronger in 2007 than it was a year ago. This is essential for this team to compete due to the Angels having such a strong and deep group of starters. Returning to 90 wins could be difficult for this group.
3.) Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers really didn’t do anything to bolster their starting lineup. If anything they got worse in losing leadoff hitter Gary Matthews Jr. to the Angels and slugger Carlos Lee to fellow Texans, the Houston Astros. I am going to make a bold statement and say that the Rangers season will go the way of Hank Blalock. I know that this is a bold statement to put all that on one hitter, but the Rangers will not compete this season if Blalock doesn’t become more of a threat behind Michael Young and Mark Teixeira. Blalock took a major step backwards in 2006 only posting .266/.325/.401, 16 HR, and 89 RBI. If he isn’t able to regain similar numbers to 2004, the Rangers are in some serious offensive trouble.
For the first time in years the Rangers rotation isn’t the biggest problem. Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla will post 15-18 wins each as they seem to consistently do every season. The new bright spot however will be newcomer Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy came over in a trade with the White Sox this winter and brings a lot of potential with him despite a 4-7 record and 4.68 ERA in 2006. I believe he should fit in nicely as a number three starter and help solidify the Rangers rotation. Closing games this season will be former All-Star Eric Gagne. Gagne joins the Rangers after the Dodgers decided not to resign the closer due to injury problems the past two seasons which limited him to only 16 appearances. If Gagne is healthy and can regain the stuff that saw him save 52-55-45 from 2002-2004, the Rangers won’t have any worries come the ninth inning.
Bottom Line: Too much of this team’s season is relying on a weakened lineup. In past years the Rangers’ bread and butter was always that they could out-slug their opponents. This year however they may face the possibility that this isn’t an option and will need to rely more on their starters for the first time in years which could end up being a scary reality.
4.) Seattle Mariners
The Mariners look to be on their way to another fourth place finish in the AL West. There just isn’t enough consistency on their team to warrant a real shot at the pennant. Last season saw one big break through season for one of their hitters. Outfielder Raul Ibanez exploded last season posting .289/.353/.516, 33 HR, and 123 RBI numbers and giving this team a very bright spot in an other wise mediocre season. If the Mariners want to compete at all in 2007, they will need to improve on their horrible .325 team on-base percentage. If you can’t get guys on base you aren’t going to score any runs.
Like their lineup, the rotation has its issues too. One bright spot is the young starter Felix Hernandez. In his first full season in 2006, he posted a 12-14 record and 4.52 ERA. The Mariners hope that now a year younger, Hernandez will take the next step forward and become the front line pitcher they hope he can be. One thing people forget is that Hernandez will only be turning 21 years old a few days after the season begins. The youngster has plenty of time to develop into a star, especially in the pitcher friendly SafeCo Field.
Bottom Line: Basically the Mariners will have to have everything come together perfectly in order to compete in the AL West. As I mentioned earlier, the team’s on-base percentage will have to increase as no matter how many home runs the middle of that order can put together, if no on is on base, they’ll only get one run a shot. I just don’t see how they can piece everything together to compete with the Angels and A’s, but they do have a couple young players that should help them in the future.