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How the AL West Became a Deep, Dangerous Division Heading into 2014

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How the AL West Became a Deep, Dangerous Division Heading into 2014
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Two of the three divisions in the American League housed at least three winning teams in 2013. The AL West was the one that didn't, and also had the dishonor of being home to MLB's worst team.

But since spring training is pretty much here, it's really no longer too early to look at the projections. And to this end, the AL West is looking pretty good for 2014. Quite good, in fact. Shoot, very good.

FanGraphs' projections have the AL West matching the AL East with four winning teams. The projections at Baseball Prospectus have the AL West being the only division in the American League with four winning teams. Also, both projections have that one team in Houston vastly improving its fortunes.

Hard to believe? Nah, not really. Even if we focus strictly on what the five AL West clubs did to improve this offseason, it's clear enough that they were all productive.

If we go in reverse order of last year's standings, it went like this...

 

How the Houston Astros Got Better

The Astros provided a textbook example of baseball ineptitude last year, losing 111 games and allowing 238 runs more than they scored.

Credit where it's due, though: They did something about it.

Whereas Houston's list of departures consists of "meh"-worthy names like Jordan Lyles, Brandon Barnes, Carlos Pena and Erik Bedard, their list of arrivals includes Dexter Fowler, Scott Feldman, Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, each of whom is a player Houston could have used in 2013.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

That's probably no more obvious than it is with Fowler in center field when we make a simple comparison using some data from FanGraphs:

Fowler's not just what the Astros needed in center field. He's also something their lineup needed, period, as only two regulars posted a wRC+ over 100 in 2013: Jason Castro and Chris Carter.

Then there's how Feldman helps Houston's rotation. He's an innings-eater, and he's joining a starting staff that ate fewer innings than all but three other teams in 2013.

If we further illustrate the point, we see this:

Scott Feldman vs. 2013 Astros Starters
Split IP/GS Pit/GS FIP xFIP ERA
Astros Starters 5.6 96 4.42 4.32 4.72
Feldman 6.1 100 4.03 3.96 3.86

Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs

Feldman also threw 61 percent of his pitches for strikes and racked up a 49.6 ground-ball percentage, leading into this yeah-that-sums-it-up statement from Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow.

"We wanted an experienced starter to anchor our pitching staff," Luhnow said, via MLB.com. "Scott is a great fit with our club. He throws strikes and gets ground balls, and will be a great example for the rest of our young rotation."

Elsewhere, Houston's bullpen was the worst in the majors according to both fWAR and ERA. Crain, Qualls and Albers definitely could have helped:

New Additions vs. 2013 Astros Bullpen
Split G FIP xFIP ERA WAR
Astros Pen 448 5.09 4.62 4.92 -5.4
Crain 38 1.52 2.94 0.74 1.9
Qualls 66 3.32 3.25 2.61 0.5
Albers 56 3.49 3.82 3.14 0.3

FanGraphs

Crain is a wild card in light of how much arm trouble he had in 2013. But the news on him is good, as Brian McTaggart of MLB.com reported that the right-hander has begun throwing. Since Crain led all major league relievers in fWAR at the break in 2013, he'll be a huge addition if he can stay healthy.

Bottom line: The Astros added a much-needed bat, a much-needed starter and a couple much-needed relievers. FanGraphs has them winning 75 games. Baseball Prospectus has them winning 66. Either figure would be an improvement, and any improvement would bolster the AL West's depth.

 

How the Seattle Mariners Got Better

The Mariners have had one winning season in the past six, losing over 90 games four times. That includes last year's 91-loss effort (is that the right word?).

But like the Astros, the Mariners did something about it. Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Oliver Perez and Joe Saunders went out the door, but in the door came Robinson Cano, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Fernando Rodney.

Cano, the $240 million man himself, is a superstar by most measures, including everyone's favorite: WAR. By fWAR's reckoning, the former Yankee has been a six-win player in three of the last four seasons.

Want to know how many six-win position players the Mariners have enjoyed in the last four seasons? Here's the list:

  • None

Yup.

It's certainly Cano's bat that's the main attraction for the Mariners. Where Seattle hasn't had a regular do better than a 116 wRC+ since 2010, Cano has done no worse than a 134 wRC+ since then.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Cano's presence alone more than makes up for the losses of Morales and Ibanez. Health permitting, Hart and Morrison could boost Seattle's offense even further. Hart did no worse than a 124 wRC+ between 2010 and 2012 in Milwaukee, and Morrison had an OPS over .800 as late as Aug. 20 in 2013. If they don't work out as full-time players, hey, maybe they'll make a solid platoon.

And while adding Rodney wasn't entirely necessary given that incumbent closer Danny Farquhar was actually the better pitcher in 2013, Seattle now has three primary relievers who struck out over 28 percent of the hitters they faced in 2013 in Rodney, Farquhar and Charlie Furbush. There were only 29 such players last year.

Yes, the Mariners are still flawed. Their rotation has question marks after Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. And even with Hart and Morrison in tow, their offense is still hit-or-miss outside of Cano.

But just like it is in Houston, improvement is in the cards. FanGraphs sees 82 wins for the Mariners. Baseball Prospectus sees 83. If they get there, they, too, will do their part in deepening the AL West.

 

How the Los Angeles Angels Got Better

About the only thing that wasn't disappointing in the Angels' 2013 season was the continued world-conquering of Mike Trout, and even that couldn't keep them above .500.

Now, I can see how some might look at the Angels' winter and be unimpressed. They added David Freese, Raul Ibanez, Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Joe Smith, but they lost three good players in Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos and Jason Vargas.

Well, let's start by being fair in one respect: If we're going strictly by 2013 numbers, switching out Trumbo for Ibanez is a good trade. Observe:

Mark Trumbo vs. Raul Ibanez in 2013
Player PA ISO wRC+
Trumbo 678 .219 106
Ibanez 496 .244 117

FanGraphs

Ibanez wasn't as valuable as Trumbo in 2013 due to his awful defense, which helped lower his fWAR to a nice, even 0.0. But for the most part, he'll be DH'ing in 2014, putting him in a position to help the Angels with his bat without hurting them with his glove.

Freese's bat should also help. Third base was an offensive black hole for the Angels in 2013, as their third basemen combined for just an 81 wRC+. Freese has done better than a 100 wRC+ every year he's been in the majors.

The arms that the Angels brought in constitute more of a question mark. Santiago is basically stepping in for Vargas, and it's hard to call that an upgrade if we consider what the two pitchers did in 2013:

Jason Vargas vs. Hector Santiago in 2013
Player G GS K% BB% FIP xFIP ERA WAR
Vargas 24 24 16.9 7.1 4.09 4.29 4.02 1.5
Santiago 34 23 20.9 11.0 4.44 4.65 3.56 1.5

FanGraphs

Vargas was notably harder to draw a walk against. Santiago was notably harder to hit. In the end, they were about as valuable. So maybe it's best if we call this switch a push.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

That basically leaves it up to Skaggs to make the Angels rotation better, and that's fortunately not out of the question. It depends on whether the Angels can fix what ailed him in '13, and they might be able to.

Consider this from Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com:

[Angels GM Jerry Dipoto] did notice a mechanical flaw, one he believes is very fixable: In an effort to kill velocity and create more dive with his changeup, Skaggs has developed 'a little bit shorter stride length,' which may have diminished some of his other stuff.

'We think that a 22-year-old with a clean bill of health and a good performance history as a minor leaguer and the kind of physical stuff that he has really bodes well for us,' Dipoto said.

Dipoto traded for Skaggs when he was interim GM of the Diamondbacks in 2010. If Skaggs figures things out under Dipoto's watchful eye, he may return to being a promising prospect. Remember, it was only last year that Baseball America had him as the No. 12 prospect in baseball.

Lastly, there's Smith. He's essentially stepping into the relief role vacated by Scott Downs last summer, and is a fine option for it. Smith owns a 2.42 ERA since 2011, and has done well against both lefties (.201 average) and righties (.230 average).

The Angels didn't pull off a complete makeover this winter. They only addressed some needs, with only Skaggs having real upside among the additions. But since they have plenty of upside elsewhere in players like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Kole Calhoun, FanGraphs' projection of 83 wins sounds fair.

Baseball Prospectus' projection of 88 wins, meanwhile, shouldn't be ruled out with all the talent on the roster.

 

How the Texas Rangers Got Better

The Rangers won 91 games in 2013 and then watched Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Joe Nathan, Matt Garza, A.J. Pierzynski and David Murphy walk out the door. That's not a good look.

But this is: Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Choice are the big players they've added.

Making up for the losses of Nathan and Garza won't be easy, as the Rangers will need Neftali Feliz or Joakim Soria to step in and fill Nathan's shoes and Matt Harrison or Alexi Ogando to fill Garza's shoes. The additions they've made, on the other hand, easily make up for the bats they've lost.

The simplified version:

  • Kinsler, Cruz, Pierzynski and Murphy in 2013: 6.0 fWAR
  • Choo and Fielder in 2013: 7.4 fWAR

More specifically, we can look at Choo and see that his .423 OBP  out of the leadoff spot represents a very nice upgrade over the .336 OBP Texas got out of the No. 1 slot in 2013.

What Choo and Fielder both have that the Rangers needed is power from the left side of the plate.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Between 2008 and 2012, the isolated power the Rangers got from the left side never dipped below .159. Then Josh Hamilton left for Anaheim, and the Rangers' lefty ISO dipped to .144 in 2013.

Choo and Fielder can fix this. They both posted a .178 ISO in 2013 and both should like hitting in their new home ballpark. Fielder, in particular, should benefit, as I've already written that the move to Arlington could be the difference between another 25-homer season and a 30-homer season.

"I think that bringing in Prince and having Choo in front of the lineup is going to be really great for us, especially giving us more balance," third baseman Adrian Beltre told MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. "It's a big loss in Ian but in time I think the bats we added are going to be really good for us. Hopefully we can stay healthy and help us do what we want to do this year."

As for Choice, he fits as a right-handed complement to both Leonys Martin in center field and Mitch Moreland at DH. Cruz couldn't have filled both roles due to his poor defense in the outfield, and there's also the fact that his career platoon splits are surprisingly even.

We don't have an exact notion of what kind of platoon player Choice is yet, to be sure. But courtesy of MiLB.com, we do know he had an OBP over .400 against lefties at Triple-A in 2013. That bodes well.

It's not hard to see the Rangers struggling with their pitching in 2014, but their lineup should once again be one of the American League's best. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus see them finishing in the mid-80s in wins in 2014, but their ceiling is undeniably higher than that.

 

How the Oakland A's Got Better

The A's won 96 games last year. Like the Rangers, they then waived goodbye to a fair amount of talent, namely Choice, Bartolo Colon, Grant Balfour, Brett Anderson, Chris Young and Seth Smith.

But while the A's didn't bring in stars, they did fill holes with Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Craig Gentry, Nick Punto, Drew Pomeranz and Eric O’Flaherty.

Switching out Colon for Kazmir is a better move than many might realize. Kazmir is far younger, and was also the better pitcher after the break in 2013:

Scott Kazmir vs. Bartolo Colon in 2nd Half
Player GS IP K% BB% FIP xFIP ERA WAR
Kazmir 13 72 27.1 5.6 2.42 2.79 3.38 2.1
Colon 11 63.2 17.5 5.2 3.25 4.01 2.54 1.3

FanGraphs

Elsewhere, Gentry is better suited for the righty-hitting, good-glove-having fourth outfielder role that Young proved to be a poor fit for. The A's can use Punto's glove all around their infield. Pomeranz is basically a young Anderson.

Johnson and Gregerson, for their part, were actually both better than Balfour in 2013. Like so:

A's New Additions vs. Grant Balfour in 2013
Player G IP FIP xFIP ERA WAR
Luke Gregerson 73 66.1 2.70 3.37 2.71 1.0
Jim Johnson 74 70.1 3.45 3.38 2.94 0.9
Grant Balfour 65 62.2 3.49 3.42 2.59 0.6

FanGraphs

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com says O'Flaherty won't be ready until July as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but he, too, has the goods to be a huge addition. Between 2011 and 2012, only Aroldis Chapman was more deadly against left-handed batters.

The A's weren't really a team of superstars before the winter arrived. They're still not. But when I asked assistant GM David Forst this past Saturday what the A's have that the other four teams in the AL West don't, he didn't have to think very hard.

“We still feel like the makeup of the complete 25-man roster gives us a chance to repeat," said Forst, adding: "We feel like from one to 25 we’re just as strong as we were, if not stronger, in the last two years.”

So how about it, Bob Melvin? Just as deep as the last two years, or deeper?

"I think we increased the depth," said Melvin, the A's manager, adding that "the versatility and the depth get more so each and every year. I think it’s better than it was in 2012, better than it was in 2013."

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Forst noted that the A's are "certainly" stronger in the bullpen, and his new closer agrees.

When I asked Johnson if Oakland's 2014 bullpen rivals the amazing bullpen he was a member of in Baltimore in 2012, he spoke of how it wasn't just talent that the 2012 Orioles bullpen had. It had guys who could "seamlessly" pitch anywhere from the sixth through the ninth, and also had the kind of depth to ensure that no individual pitcher was asked to do too much.

And this A's bullpen has the goods to do the same thing?

"Oh, absolutely," said Johnson with a grin. "Yeah, these guys are nasty."

The projections are about as sold on Oakland's depth as the A's themselves are. FanGraphs has them down for 84 wins, while Baseball Prospectus has them right up there with the Angels with 88 wins.

Depth has made the A's one of the best teams in the American League the last two years. It could help them do that once again in 2014.

 

Final Thoughts

If it doesn't feel like it's that often that an entire division gets better in one offseason, well, think about it. How often is it that there's not at least one straggler in a division?

Which is the best division in the American League?

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Take this past winter, for example. The Cleveland Indians were largely quiet in the AL Central. In the AL East, the Baltimore Orioles have hardly done anything. In the NL East, the Atlanta Braves have been awfully quiet. In the NL Central, both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds have been quiet as well. 

There was no such silence in the AL West. All five clubs were busy, and all five made moves that either provided significant upgrades or increased depth. The division would seem to house at least two elite teams, and might house one or two more depending on how much potential is realized in Seattle and Anaheim. The division's one pushover, meanwhile, should be less of a pushover.

Only two of the 10 American League clubs outside of the division had a losing record against the AL West in 2013. Odds are that number will be coming up in 2014.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

 

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