By Mike Ivcic
Time for the third and final installment of The Tenth Inning’s season preview. Today we tackle the West division of both the AL and NL. We’ve already covered the East and the Central, so be sure to check those out as well, and look for the playoff and World Series predictions as part of the first regular season column on Monday, April 1 – Opening Day!
American League West
1) Los Angeles Angels
Three most important players: Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, C.J. Wilson
Our predicted champion from a year ago may not have played the best baseball last year, but there’s really no reason not to assume the Angels aren’t going to be one of the two or three best teams in the league this season. For that to happen, though, they will need another superstar year from Pujols and the continued maturation of Trout. Second years are always the hardest for players, thus the oft-quoted “sophomore slump,” but guys like Trout and Bryce Harper are talented enough that they can probably overcome it. If the Angels centerfielder can’t, though, it’s not like this team doesn’t have plenty of depth. Josh Hamilton’s addition to a lineup that already included Mark Trumbo, Howie Kendrick, Trout, and Pujols makes this team the clear frontrunner, but the pitching behind Jered Weaver will have to be better than it was last season. That pressure lands on the left arm of C.J. Wilson, who must establish himself as the clear-cut number two. The rest of the rotation – Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, and Jerome Williams – will do just fine pitching 160+ innings to a 4.50 ERA, but Weaver and Wilson need to outduel Verlander and Scherzer, Sabathia and Pettitte, and Price and pick a pitcher if the Angels truly want to beat the other teams at the top of the American League.
Biggest question mark: Josh Hamilton
Newsflash – Los Angeles is not Dallas. Yes, there are temptations and distractions in any city in America, but if Hamilton was looking for a calmer, quieter place than Dallas, the only worse place he could have picked would have been New York. Now, the LA paparazzi will be close on the heels of a man that has battled a ton of demons throughout his big league career. The hopeful side of me prays he’s able to stay clean and continue to perform as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, but the cynic in me keeps waiting for headline that says it’s all coming crashing down.
2) Texas Rangers
Three most important players: Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison
With Colby Lewis set to start the season on the DL, the trio above becomes the collective most important player on the Rangers. All three need to outperform their career averages if this group wants to hang for 162 games with the Angels now that LA’s pilfered their best pitcher and player in back-to-back offseasons. The Texas offense will be fine – Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, and free agent signing Lance Berkman will see to that. Likewise as long as Joe Nathan can continue to remain healthy, the rest of the bullpen will fall right into place as it has in years past, and Nolan Ryan will make whatever move he needs to in order to bolster whatever part of his roster is ailing. But at least at the start of season, the rotation behind ace Yu Darvish must be lights out.
Biggest question mark: Recovery
The Rangers are like an old-school prize fighter – they’ve taken so many hard punches that each one feels the same, so they keep on trucking through it only to have a relatively weak body blow be the one that finally delivers the KO. They lost the 2010 World Series and Cliff Lee, only to find themselves right back in the championship series in 2011. They came within one strike twice of winning it all, and then David Frease happened. After that season, Wilson jetted for LA, so what did Texas do? Jump out to the best record in the league, all but burying the Angels before April was even over, before wilting to the upstart A’s and Orioles in the final three weeks of the season and watching an even bigger star in Hamilton join his buddy C.J. in Hollywood. So the question remains – at what point do the Rangers just become incapable of getting up one more time?
3) Oakland Athletics
Three most important players: Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp
Cespedes is obvious as an important, impact player on this club that made one of the most surprising runs to the playoffs in recent memory. The other two veterans are vitally important pieces to this team that need to repeat their seasons from last year in order for the A’s to have similar success. In all likelihood, this will not be a playoff team again this year – remember that through the end of May last season, this was one of the five worst teams in all of baseball. The talent is young and plentiful, but often times years where everything seems to just “come together” are difficult to repeat. Additionally, Colon will need to prove that he’s clean and capable of pitching a full season to serve as the leader of this otherwise young rotation.
Biggest question mark: Offense
Last season, players like Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Daric Barton, Jemile Weeks, and Scott Sizemore had better than expected years altogether. It’s rare that so many players began to click and perform at the same time, but now they all have to do it again. It’s completely conceivable that the entire Oakland offense could disappear for weeks at a time, because none of the expected starters after Crisp and Cespedes can really be considered legitimate everyday players.
4) Seattle Mariners
Three most important players: Felix Hernandez, Kendrys Morales, Jesus Montero
It’s like Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles once asked, “Who says you can’t go home?” Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse are back for their second tours-of-duty with Seattle, while Trail, British Columbia native Jason Bay is now a member of the team closest to his hometown. Those three all take a backseat, though, to the addition of Morales in the heart of the order. If he can even come close to maintaining his power at spacious Safeco Field, this could actually become a fairly dangerous lineup – especially if Montero continues to progress behind the plate too. The whole season, though, will ultimately be decided by Hernandez and his fellow starting pitchers. If Hernandez and new rotation-mate Joe Saunders can match the other 1-2 punches across the AL, it’s not unthinkable to see the Mariners become this year’s version of Baltimore or Oakland.
Biggest question mark: Young vs. Old
The Seattle roster has the two extremes when it comes to age – guys like Bay, Ibanez, and Morse are veteran players that are expected to all start the season as either platoon or bench players, while younger, unproven talents like Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley will begin the season as everyday starters. If the Mariners can keep everyone throughout the lineup happy and have them all receive enough at bats, it could be that the lineup becomes a force in the AL and gives opposing pitchers nightmares.
5) Houston Astros
Three most important players: Bud Norris, Jose Altuve, Carlos Pena
This is still one of the worst teams ever assembled, but the addition of a couple veteran players in Pena and Ronny Cedeno should at least make them more competitive this year. Combined with Norris and Altuve, there are at least a handful of solid major leaguers on the roster. The interesting aspect of this season for Houston will be whether or not the move to the AL helps or hurts them. Personally, I’m just glad MLB finally made the switch, and while I would have moved Colorado instead of Houston it’ll just be nice to finally have balanced divisions across the board. Still, in a league where offense tends to be of greater importance than pitching, a team like this may wind up actually doing better than they did last season in the NL because their younger, more inexperienced pitchers won’t be forced to always have to match up with some of the game’s top pitchers, who tend to gravitate towards the senior circuit more so than the AL.
Biggest question mark: Level of improvement
As alluded to above, the question is not, “Where will Houston finish?” That answer is fifth, and they’ll probably challenge Miami for worst team in the league and first team eliminated for the playoff dead list that starts Memorial Day weekend. The real question that fans of the Astros really want answered is, “Will the Astros be better this year than last?” Houston’s coming off of a 55-107 season and the transfer of leagues, combined with an ever-so-slightly better roster than last year, should at least give Houston just a couple more victories than last year.
National League West
1) Los Angeles Dodgers
Three most important players: Stan Kasten, Ervin Johnson, Ned Colletti
At this point, what happens on the field is a whole lot less important than what already happened off the field – basically, three guys got to sit around a table and combine Monopoly and Strat-o-Matic baseball for an entire six month period. The result? A roster littered with high-priced All-Star-caliber players destined to finish first. And, as much as it pains us to say this, they probably will, because typically talent, over the course of 162 games, wins out. A rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Zack Greinke, and either Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, or Chris Capuano is a good start. So, too, is a lineup that includes the names Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Andre Either, Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez. Finish that off with a bench of veterans and a bullpen chock-full of young flame throwers and experienced specialists, and the three Einsteins managed to cook up a pretty talented group that, while probably falling short of 100 wins, will be good enough to win the NL West.
Biggest question mark: Chemistry
Sometimes those lineups and rotations full of big names don’t always get along – especially when some already have a history of not getting along on a very similar-style team. Thus it will be up to manager Don Mattingly to ensure that every gets enough at-bats and innings and everyone has their ego sufficiently stroked from April all the way through September, when the games really take on a different intensity level. The worst thing for the Dodgers this year would be to find themselves desperately needing wins the final week of the regular season, a situation that would be directly counter to the expectations of the three men above.
2) San Francisco Giants
Three most important players: Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Sergio Romo
In order to defend their World Series crown, the Giants will obviously need great seasons from the likes of Matt Cain, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Madison Bumgarner. They also need the continued development of Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Brett Pill in the lineup, and older relievers like Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, and Santiago Casilla to repeat their 2012 performances. But the three names above are, without question, the three most important players. The fact that the Giants managed to win a World Series without any notable contributions from Lincecum during the regular season is borderline incredible, while Sandoval and Romo became the headliners of the postseason run. Sandoval hasn’t been able to put together two good back-to-back seasons in his career, and Romo needs to embrace the closer’s role for San Francisco to return to the Fall Classic.
Biggest question mark: Offense
Quite frankly, this offense really isn’t all that good. Angel Pagan, Pence, Sandoval, and Marco Scutaro are all average hitters that have shown a tendency throughout their respective careers to have major, prolonged slumps, while Belt, Crawford, and Pill are all still virtually unproven commodities. Posey carried this team for a good part of last year while Sandoval was hurt, but with an improved Dodgers team it may not be possible for the Giants catcher to do it again if he has to.
3) Colorado Rockies
Three most important players: Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jeff Francis
Again, reverse order – Francis may be the biggest key to the Rockies entire season. He needs to anchor the front-end of the rotation and allow guys like Jorge de la Rosa, Jon Garland, Jhoulys Chacin, and Drew Pomeranz to fill in behind him or start the season in AAA and no force the club to rush anything. If Francis can give this group an ace-caliber start every five days, then Colorado could turn some heads and surprise some teams. Likewise Gonzalez and Tulowitzki are going to need to carry the offense and allow other players around them – Ramon Hernandez, Michael Cuddyer, Dexter Fowler – to play the supporting cast as complimentary players. Only three position players on the 40-man roster (Cuddyer, Hernandez, and stalwart Todd Helton) are over the age of 29, so it’s a club that’s moving in the right direction and, if all of the pieces fall into place, could make the jump this year back into the playoff hunt.
Biggest question mark: Todd Helton’s durability
Helton’s played more than 125 games only once in the last five years and not at all in the last three. Coming off a season in which he only appeared in 69 games, it’s incumbent upon the unquestioned leader of the franchise to stay on the field for more than a majority of his team’s games. If Helton can approach that 140-game threshold, a mark he hit for ten consecutive seasons from 1998-2007, then the Rockies have a legitimate shot to unseat one of the two teams above. If, however, Helton plays like a 39-year-old with 16 seasons worth of MLB wear-and-tear on his body, then the season won’t be quite as good as it possibly could be – and that’s unfortunately the more likely scenario.
4) Arizona Diamondbacks
Three most important players: Miguel Montero, Martin Prado, Ian Kennedy
Trading Justin Upton will probably help the Diamondbacks in the long run, but it certainly won’t help them this season. In order for them to even be as competitive as they were last year, they’ll need Prado to repeat the years he had the past couple seasons in Atlanta and hope that Montero continues his development as one of the best young catchers in baseball. The rest of the position players are nice, complimentary role players like Jason Kubel, Cody Ross, Eric Hinske, and Willie Bloomquist, but none of those names really strike fear into opposing pitchers. On the mound, Daniel Hudson’s absence leaves a void in the rotation, so another 21-4 season from Kennedy like he posted in 2011 would definitely be a boost, but it’s highly unlikely, despite the hopes and dreams of everyone in Phoenix, that he’ll ever be able to duplicate that magical season and be the ace that Arizona needs him to be.
Biggest question mark: Bullpen
At first glance through the roster, it would seem strange to consider the Diamondbacks bullpen a “question mark.” After all, the presence of two closers in J.J. Putz and Heath Bell would seem to make this a strength and not a weakness. And while it probably is a “strength,” it’s also a question as to just how effective this bullpen will be with a set-up man that’s been serving as a closer for the past five seasons. Putz himself is prime example of how ineffective that formula can be, pitching poorly in his lone season as Frankie Rodriguez’s set-up man with the Mets before going down with an injury. Kirk Gibson may have a difficult tap dance to do to ensure that everyone in that bullpen is happy and content with their respective roles.
5) San Diego Padres
Three most important players: Edinson Volquez, Chase Headley, Carlos Quentin
These three players, along with Jason Marquis, may be the only four people you know from the Padres roster unless you live in San Diego or root for the Padres. As such, they will have to carry the rotation and the lineup while a relatively young team continues to mature. There’s definitely a lot to like about the rebuilding job that’s happening here, with players like Yonder Alonzo, Yasmani Grandel, and Cameron Maybin joining with starter Anthony Bass and reliever Andrew Cashner to form a good, talented, and stable core. San Diego really needs to sign Headley long term and figure out a way to attract a top-tier free agent or two next offseason (we’re talking about San Diego, how hard to it possibly be?) and they’d develop some instant credibility and become a potential dark horse for a wild card berth rather quickly. It’s almost definitely not happening this year, but it’s a nice solid foundation upon which to build.
Biggest question mark: Headley
In a somewhat similar fashion to the Twins, the Padres are facing a difficult decision on the premier player on their club. Locking him up long-term would be a big boost for the franchise, but conversely he could fetch the Padres a nice stash of young talent that potentially fills multiple holes. If someone wow’s the Padres front office, then it’s probably a deal they have to make, but otherwise the logical move here is to show that the franchise is committed to keeping its own talent and developing a winner from within. It would be a nice step forward for the fans to see that move of good faith from the organization’s higher-ups.
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