March 25, 2003
Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: AL West
AL West W L Win% GB
Oakland 103 59 .636 ----
Anaheim 99 63 .611 4.0
Seattle 93 69 .574 10.0
Texas 72 90 .444 31.0
This year's prediction:
1) OAKLAND ATHLETICS
103-59 (.636) | 1st Place
800 Runs Scored (8th) | 654 Runs Allowed (2nd)
In the span of just a few seasons, the Oakland A's have transformed themselves from the Matt Stairs/John Jaha/Jason Giambi slow-pitch softball type team to one that revolves around their pitching staff.
The A's gave up the 2nd fewest runs in the AL last year and did so because of their big 3 (or "The Big Three") starting pitchers, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Hudson is the oldest of the group at 27, so they should still be getting better, if that's possible.
Check out their numbers for the past two seasons:
Player IP ERA W L
Zito 444 3.10 40 13
Hudson 473 3.18 33 18
Mulder 437 3.46 40 15
TOTAL 1354 3.24 113 46
That's just sick.
The A's will once again ride their 3 horses as far as their arms will take them. Oakland has been very careful with how they handle them. Zito, Hudson and Mulder combined to make 99 starts and pitch 675 innings last season and threw 120+ pitches in a start exactly one time between them - a Zito start in early June, in which he threw 123 pitches.
Compare that 99:1 start to 120+ pitch ratio that The Big Three had to A.J. Burnett, whom I talked about in my preview of the NL East. Burnett started only 29 games last year and threw 120+ pitches in 10 of them!
The A's scout well and identify college pitchers that they feel can advance quickly through the minor leagues, they coach them extremely well and get them ready to make immediate impacts in the majors and, once the players get to the majors, they are very cautious with them.
There are two more young Oakland pitchers that are poised to join The Big Three and possibly make it The Big Five. Ted Lilly, whom Billy Beane acquired in a 3-team deal with the Yankees last year, and Rich Harden, Oakland's top minor league prospect.
I ranked Harden as the 13th best prospect in baseball back in January when I wrote my "Top 50 Prospects" article for BaseballPrimer.
Here's what I said about him:
Call it luck or scouting or whatever you want, but the A's have a unique ability to churn out high quality starting pitching prospects and the newest member of that ever expanding group is Rich Harden. The A's took Harden in the 17th round of the 2000 draft as a "draft and follow" and eventually signed him after he had a great sophomore season in junior college.
Harden has a great fastball that resides in the 93-95 range and a very good changeup. In addition to those 2 plus-pitches, Harden also works with a slider and splitter/sinker that are improving.
Right now, Harden's lack of control is his biggest problem. He started 28 games last season, but only managed to pitch 153 innings (5.4 per start) because the A's have strict pitch count limits and Harden often reached them very early in games.
Harden appears to be on the same path as Tim Hudson and Barry Zito - start the season in Triple-A and, if all goes well, make a second half Major League debut, pitch around 100 innings with the A's and then join the rotation full-time the next year.
Rich Harden is a legitimate #1 starter in the making, which would give the A's 4 of those, I guess.
John Halama will start the year as Oakland's #5 starter, but I really wouldn't be shocked if Harden takes his spot in the rotation sometime around mid-season. I also really like Ted Lilly. He's a lefty, he has good K rates and Billy Beane obviously saw something in him that he really liked, which is good enough for me.
So, Oakland's starting pitching should once again be among the best in baseball and could get even better as the year goes on. Their bullpen, which was right around average last season should be improved in 2003.
They have a new closer in Keith Foulke, whom they got in exchange for sending Billy Koch to Chicago. Koch has the 99 MPH fastball and the big save totals, but Foulke was a better pitcher in 2002 and has been for the last several seasons.
Billy Beane understands that "closers" are very highly valued in today's environment and he also understands that a closer is manufactured thing, the result of opportunity. Keith Foulke saved 76 games in 2000 and 2001 for the White Sox, but fell out of favor with Jerry Manuel after a rough week last year. Now he's back as Oakland's closer and he'll rack up another 40+ saves and once again be one of the better relievers in baseball.
Alongside Foulke in the Oakland pen is Chad Bradford, a right-handed sidearmer that pitched 75 innings with a 3.11 ERA last year for the A's. Bradford will serve as the righty setup man, while Ricardo Rincon does the same from the left-side.
Over the past 3 seasons, Oakland's pitching staff has ranked 2nd, 2nd and 3rd in runs allowed and I would be shocked if they aren't among the top 3 again in 2003.
So, the big question for Billy Beane and the boys will be their offense. After scoring the 3rd most runs in the AL in 2000 and 4th in 2001, the A's dropped all the way to 10th last season. That is what losing Jason Giambi will do to a team.
While not signing Giambi to a massive long-term deal was probably the best thing for the organization in the long-term, it no doubt hurt their offense last year. Scott Hatteberg stepped in at first base and had a very nice season, hitting .280/.374/.433 and providing the A's with an above-average first baseman. Hatteberg was a great low-cost/low-risk pickup, which is what Beane is best at (besides developing #1 pitchers), but he was still a far cry from Giambi, who hit .314/.435/.598 and was one of the best offensive players in the AL.
Hatteberg was probably worth about 45 runs less than Giambi was offensively last season. In addition to the big offensive drop-off at 1B last year, the A's had several everyday players that simply had awful seasons.
Terrence Long hit .240/.298/.390 and got over 600 plate appearances. Ramon Hernandez hit .233/.313/.335 and, if not for his good defense behind the plate, would have been a complete disaster. Jermaine Dye, who had been so great for the A's after they picked him up at mid-season in 2001, hit only .252/.333/.459.
That said, I think Beane recognized that the strength of the team has become pitching and that their offense slipped quite a bit last season and needed a boost. So, he went out and acquired everyone's favorite slugger-in-need-of-a-full-time-job, Erubiel Durazo. Erubiel has been doing a lot of sitting on the bench the past few years in Arizona, but his bat is for real. In 901 career plate appearances he is a .278/.390/.528 hitter, with 47 homers, 38 doubles and 137 walks.
Durazo will likely DH for Oakland this year and will look to try to replace the power/OBP threat that they lost in Giambi.
Durazo has struggled in his career against lefties, but he has such limited playing time against them that I don't think you can completely dismiss him as strictly a platoon player. Oakland will probably give Durazo a chance to player everyday, but, if he struggles against lefties, they have my favorite lefty-masher, Ron Gant, available to platoon at DH.
If Durazo stays healthy (which has also been a problem for him) and gets 600 plate appearances, I think he could put up a .270/.390/.540 season, with about 35 homers, 25 doubles and 90-100 walks. That's not quite Jason Giambi, but it's pretty darn close.
If Jermaine Dye can bounce back and re-establish himself as the type of hitter he was from 1999-2000 and the second half of 2001, he could give the A's a dangerous middle of the lineup, with Tejada, Chavez and Durazo.
Another area of weakness last year for the A's was outfield defense, particularly in centerfield. As I said, this is no longer the softball league team that didn't care about defense that the A's were a few years ago, this is a team built around pitching and Beane felt that they needed an upgrade over Terrence Long in CF defensively. So, he brought in Chris Singleton, one of the last guys I thought Billy Beane would ever want. Singleton almost never walks, but he plays very good outfield defense, which is something Beane obviously felt was important for the team this year.
Here is how I see the Oakland lineup shaping up this year, along with some rough estimates for their performances:
2B - Mark Ellis - .275/.360/.400
1B - Scott Hatteberg - .275/.370/.425
SS - Miguel Tejada - .285/.335/.500
3B - Eric Chavez - .290/.370/.550
DH - Erubiel Durazo - .270/.390/.540
RF - Jermaine Dye - .275/.350/.475
LF - Terrence Long - .260/.325/.415
CF - Chris Singleton - .275/.325/.415
C - Ramon Hernandez - .250/.330/.375
That is potentially a very strong lineup. It is still quite weak in the 7-8-9 spots, but Long and/or Hernandez will probably improve quite a bit over last season, just because it'll be hard to play that bad again. Singleton is never going to be a great hitter and I don't think the A's expect him to be, but he has been talking a lot this off-season about trying to draw more walks and make himself into a better hitter, which is good to hear.
I think the key to the lineup will be Dye. If he plays like he did a couple years ago (he hit .321/.390/.561 in 2000) he gives the A's four players that are very capable of hitting 30+ homers and slugging .500+. Ellis and Hatteberg will get on base a lot in front of the big boppers and, if Long and Singleton can provide any sort of decent offense, the A's could easily score 60-70 more runs than they did last season.
I think the A's will have their 3rd straight 100+ win season in 2003 and will win the division somewhat easily.
2) SEATTLE MARINERS
93-69 (.574) | 3rd Place (10.0 GB)
814 Runs Scored (6th) | 699 Runs Allowed (5th)
2002 was a tough year for Mariner fans. After winning 116 games in 2001, the M's declined by 23 games last season and finished in 3rd place. Okay, so they still won 93 games, which is one less than my beloved Twins, but I still think it must have been tough going from winning just about every single game to finishing in 3rd place.
Why did they drop 23 games in the standings?
Well, the first reason is that, no matter how well you play, a team cannot be expected to win 116 games. There was some luck involved in them winning 116 in 2001 and that is not to take anything away from what they did in any way, it is just a fact (at least in my opinion). Even if they had returned every player from that 2001 squad and every single guy played exactly the same as he had in 2001, they would probably have seen their record drop by 5-10 games, simply because winning 72% of the baseball games you play is damn near impossible.
Beyond that, there were some key reasons for their decline...
Edgar Martinez was healthy enough to get 581 plate appearances in 2001, but only 407 last year. He was also a slightly better hitter in 2001 (he had a 161 OPS+, compared to 144 last year), but the thing that hurt was having to fill about 175 PAs with another DH.
Bret Boone came back down to earth from whatever planet he was on in 2001. Boone had a very good season in 2002, hitting .278/.339/.462 with 107 runs batted in. He was the 2nd best second baseman in the AL, behind only Alfonso Soriano, but that still didn't come close to the value of his 2001 season (.331/.372/.578 with 141 RBIs!).
Like Boone, Mike Cameron was among the best at his position in 2002, but it was still quite a bit less than what he contributed in 2001. His batting average dropped about 30 points, his OBP dropped 15 and his SLG dropped 40.
At third base, the Mariners replaced David Bell and his modest .260/.301/.415 with good D contribution with Jeff Cirillo, whom they felt would give them a big lift offensively. Cirillo was a huge bust and one of the worst hitters in baseball last year, hitting .249/.301/.328 with only 6 homers in 485 ABs.
Ichiro!, John Olerud, Dan Wilson and Carlos Guillen provided basically the same value that they did in 2001 and the 2002 LF platoon of Mark McLemore and Ruben Sierra was about as good as the 2001 LF platoon of McLemore and Al Martin.
On the pitching side of things, quite a few players had much worse seasons than they had in 2001.
The ace of the staff, Freddy Garcia, saw his ERA climb from 3.05 to 4.39.
After getting solid back-of-the-rotation work from Aaron Sele and Paul Abbott (combined 378 IP with a 3.88 ERA) in 2001, the Mariners struggled to find starters behind Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro. Abbott pitched horrendously early in the year (26 IP, 11.96 ERA - and no, that's not a misprint) and finally shut it down with an injury, finishing with only those 26 horrible innings. James Baldwin, a free agent pickup expected to replace Sele in the rotation, pitched 150 awful innings with a 5.28 ERA.
The Mariners had a very good team in 2002 and they won 93 games, which is the amount a very good team should win. It is simply extremely difficult to approach 116 wins 2 years in a row, even if you get identical production from all key players, which the Mariners did not get.
Winn is not a great player, but he is good defensively, should provide a nice OBP and has good speed. The addition of Winn as the everyday LF allows the Mariners to move Mark McLemore around the diamond more and he'll probably see quite a bit of time at 3B, playing instead of Cirillo.
I see no reason why the Mariners can't win 90+ games for the 4th season in a row. Well, okay, I see one reason: age.
That is a whole lot of old and Moyer and Edgar are particularly iffy because one is a pitcher and one is a oft-injured DH.
Still, I think the M's will once again have a very good offense, built around a lot of good plate discipline and OBPs and a solid pitching staff, which will include what I think will be a bounce back season by Freddy Garcia. Seattle seems to be a forgotten team in the AL this year and I think they could surprise some people.
You didn't think I'd finish my Mariners preview without discussing one of my favorite players, Ichiro!, did you? Of course not.
Ichiro!'s 2002 and 2001 seasons are really quite amazing because they are seemingly very similar, but actually quite different.
Let's take a closer look...
Year PA OBP SLG HR 2B 3B
2001 738 .381 .457 8 34 8
2002 728 .388 .425 8 27 8
Looking at those two stat lines, you see a guy with almost identical playing time and on-base percentages and someone who hit a few less doubles in 2002 and had a slugging % that was about 6% lower.
Those are the similarities, now let's look at the differences...
Ichiro! hit .350 in 2001 and "only" .321 last year.
He stole 56 bases at an 80% clip in 2001 and only 31 at a 67% clip last year.
Ichiro! had a non-intentional walk once every 36.9 plate appearances in 2001 and more than doubled his non-IBB rate last year, walking once every 17.7 PAs.
He was intentionally walked 10 times in 2001 and 27 times last year (and this is a leadoff hitter, remember).
But here's where it gets really interesting...
In 2001 Ichiro! hit .362/.396/.480 against right-handed pitching.
In 2002 Ichiro! hit .308/.377/.403 against right-handed pitching.
In 2001 Ichiro! hit .318/.343/.396 against left-handed pitching.
In 2002 Ichiro! hit .356/.416/.483 against left-handed pitching.
Basically, Ichiro! completely flip-flopped his platoon splits, which is a very tough thing to do for someone that got over 700 PAs in both seasons.
Some more fun with splits...
In 2001, Ichiro! dominated when he had runners on base:
Runners on = .420/.464/.559
Runners in Scoring Position = .449/.509/.544
That is really amazing. He hit .420 when he had people on base and almost .450 with RISP!
But then check out what he did in the same situations last season:
Runners on = .301/.402/.375
Runners in Scoring Position = .361/.494/.445
With runners on base, his batting average fell by over 100 points and his slugging % dropped almost 200 points. With RISP his average fell 90 points and his SLG dropped almost 100.
One more fun stat...
"Close and Late":
2001 = .400/.442/.526
2002 = .308/.387/.375
My uncle is the person responsible for getting me so into baseball and we often chat about the sport. He is more of the "old school" baseball fan, while I obviously am into more advanced statistics and stuff like that. One thing I like about talking with him is that he is genuinely interested in hearing about some of the newer stats and theories that I am into.
We have talked about Voros McCracken's DIPS work and I am always trying to convince him of the value of on-base % and slugging % instead of batting average.
Another thing we talked about was the idea that such a thing as a "clutch hitter" does not exist. I explained that there have been studies done that have determined that there is no relationship between how a player hits in the "clutch" (roughly defined as late in ballgames and/or with runners on base) one season and how he does the next season.
Obviously, a good hitter is likely to be a good hitter in any situation. But, if a player hits 150 points of OPS better in the clutch than in other situations in one season, he is no more likely to do so again the next year than a guy that hit 150 points lower in the clutch. It is sort of like the theory of flipping a coin. No matter how many times it turns up heads, it is no more or less likely to do so the next time.
The idea that such a thing doesn't exist interested my uncle, as I am sure it would interest many baseball fans who grew up listening to announcers tell them that "so and so is a clutch hitter" or he "steps up when it matters." I haven't been able to completely convince my uncle yet, but I think maybe him taking a look at Ichiro's stats from the last 2 years might sway him a little bit.
All throughout the 2001 season I kept hearing about what a "clutch hitter" Ichiro! was, as he smacked hit after hit after hit with men on base and late in ballgames. He was awesome in those situations and it was a key reason why the Mariners were able to win 116 games.
And then last year he was a completely different (and worse) hitter in the exact same situations. Like I said earlier, a good hitter will likely be a good hitter in any situation and that is what Ichiro! was in 2002. However, I also said that just because he outperformned his "normal" level of performance by a huge amount in certain "clutch" situations in 2001 did not make him any more likely to do so in 2002 - and he didn't.
This is by no means a scientific study and I don't want to draw any big conclusions from looking at two years of a single player's performance, but I think it is interesting nonetheless. (By the way, if any of you know of the study (or studies) on clutch hitting that I am referring to and you know where I can view it on the internet, please let me know)
3) ANAHEIM ANGELS
99-63 (.611) | 2nd Place (4.0 GB)
851 Runs Scored (4th) | 644 Runs Allowed (1st)
Anaheim fans, I anxiously await your angry emails. I'm really sorry to put a buzz kill on your championship, but I just don't think the Angels will be able to repeat what they did last year. But don't worry about it, it's not like I have the authority to take away the World Series trophy or anything.
And I formed this opinion before I heard the news about Troy Glaus possibly having some wrist problems.
Anaheim's offense was almost entirely based on batting average last year, which is great when it is all clicking and the whole team gets hot like they did last year. The Angels led the AL with a .282 batting average and were 11th in walks and 10th in homers. I just don't think they can keep that up.
Player 2002 2001 +/-
Salmon .286 .227 +.059
Kennedy .312 .270 +.042
Erstad .283 .258 +.025
Anderson .306 .289 +.017
Fullmer .289 .274 +.015
Spiezio .285 .271 +.014
Eckstein .293 .285 +.008
Glaus .250 .250 .000
Molina .245 .262 -.017
Those are the starters from last year, all of whom return for 2003. 6 of them had a better batting average in 2002 than they did in 2001, one was the same and one was worse.
I see the Angels' offense as sort of like a house of cards. It can be very good, while being completely unstable at the same time. But once it gets disrupted in any way, it could all come crashing down.
Batting average is one of the least stable stats for hitters and I just don't think they will hit .282 as a team again.
Their pitching staff was also very good last season and they allowed the fewest runs in the league, in no small part because they had the best defense in the league at converting balls in play into outs. The D will be the same, so the pitching should once again be very good.
I really love Francisco Rodriguez and think he'll be one of the best relievers in baseball this year, but I don't think the offense will score enough runs for the team to repeat last year's success, particularly in what figures to be a very tough division once again.
I'll definitely be rooting for them though, because they were a lot of fun to watch all year (well, except for the part where they demolished my Twins!).
4) TEXAS RANGERS
72-90 (.444) | 4th Place (31.0 GB)
843 Runs Scored (5th) | 882 Runs Allowed (12th)
As always, the Texas Rangers' season is going to come down to pitching.
Their offense was once again very good last year, ranking 5th in the AL with 843 runs and they ranked 3rd in scoring in 2001. Assuming Alex Rodriguez is healthy, their offense will be among the best handful in the league this year too.
ARod was the best player in the American League last year; hitting .300/.392/.623 with 57 homers and 142 runs batted in and playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop. Rafael Palmeiro had his 8th straight season with 35+ homers and hit .273/.391/.571 with 43 homers and 105 batted in. They will once again be the 3-4 hitters in a Texas lineup that has made quite a few changes.
Juan Gonzalez had a poor 2002 season, hitting "only" .282/.324/.451 and staying healthy for only 70 games. Juan Gone is getting up there in age and is always an injury risk, but he hit .325/.370/.590 in 2001 for Cleveland and, if healthy, has shown himself to be a consistent .300 hitter with awesome power. He could potentially give the Rangers the best 3-4-5 in the American League.
Texas will be adding some new blood to the lineup this year, in Hank Blalock (who struggled in limited ABs last year) and Mark Teixeira, whom I think will be one of the best hitters of his generation. I ranked him as my #1 prospect in all of baseball in my article for Primer. Here's what I said:
I smell superstar.
The Texas Rangers selected Mark Teixeira with the 5th pick in the 2001 draft after he had an injury plagued final season at Georgia Tech.
Teixeira's pro debut was delayed quite a bit because he signed too late to play in 2001 and then had elbow and shoulder problems that kept him off the field for the beginning of 2002.
Texas played it very conservatively with Teixeira, choosing to start him at Single-A.
After 150 at bats, the Rangers decided to do the Florida State League's pitchers a favor and they promoted Teixeira to Double-A Tulsa.
Single-A, Double-A, it doesn't really matter. Mark Teixeira will hit wherever you put him. A big, strong, switch hitter, Teixera has the ability to hit for a good average while combining extraordinary power and great plate discipline with a highly advanced and mature hitting approach.
On defense, he is a great hitter. Okay, it isn't that bad. Teixeira is never going to win any Gold Gloves, but he is capable of playing a passable third base for sure. He has a strong arm, decent hands and the Rangers are hoping he can handle the hot corner, but, if not, he can always move across the diamond.
Texas may decide to start Teixeira at Triple-A in 2003, but he is more than ready to begin feasting on Major League pitching. Teixeira is a .300+ AVG / 40+ HR / 100 walk switch-hitting third baseman, which doesn't come around very often (and when it does, it sometimes gets moved to left field by the Braves).
He and that Rodriguez guy will make a pretty nice left side of the infield and a decent 3-4 combination in the Rangers' lineup for the next dozen years or so.
They'll have no problem scoring runs, despite a couple of complete dead-spots in the lineup (I'm looking right at you Mr. Glanville!)
I am not as confident in their pitching staff, obviously.
Once out of the friendly environment of Dodger Stadium, Chan Ho Park struggled big time last year and was also injured a little bit. Still, he should definitely be able to give Texas 180+ innings of league-average pitching, which is exactly what they need. Their #2 and #3 starters, Ismael Valdes and John Thomson, should also be able to give them a lot of decent innings, and I think Thomson is potentially a breakout player, capable of 15 wins or so with this offense.
The pitching will be improved over the last couple years, but it still won't be enough to seriously compete in what is the toughest division in baseball and has been for quite a while.
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