MLB 2014 Preview: American League West

Albert Pujols may return to form in 2014, but will it be enough for the Angels to contend?

RANGERS

Texas won 91 games last year but missed the playoffs. In a reversal of past fortunes, their pitching has become top notch (2nd in team fWAR last year) as their offense has fallen into mediocrity (16th in team fWAR).

To rectify the situation, the Rangers inked OF Shin-Soo Choo (7 years/$130MM) and traded 2B Ian Kinsler to Detroit for 1B Prince Fielder. Fangraphs covered the economics of the Fielder exchange, and but the trade makes sense from a talent perspective. Kinsler can still play, but Texas has uber-prospect Jurickson Profar to pair with SS Elvis Andrus up the middle. The Choo deal should be looked upon with similar thinking; he is a great hitter, but the deal is going to get ugly by the end. As with most big time free agents, Choo is a the tail end of his prime, making it a near certainty that the Rangers will be paying him for the last several years of his contract to produce very little. He does struggle against LHP (career wRC+ of 92), but he absolutely destroys RHP (wRC+ of 154 for a career).

Although the Fielder and Choo acquisitions have major warts, this is a contending team and Texas is now a favorite to make the playoffs. Losing SP Derek Holland (60-day DL with microfracture surgery) is a downer, but this is still the most talented team in the division–and maybe the entire league.

ATHLETICS

Against all odds, the 2013 A’s won 96 games and repeated asAL West champs, in spite, or perhaps because, of a bottom five payroll. Everybody is constantly looking for the “new Moneyball”, and there’s a compelling argument that the A’s have been superior in finding value in their 7th through 25th roster spots. Don’t take it for granted that teams can easily run out a guy who will post a 0 WAR over the course of the season without doing too much harm. Every single team has players that drag down its expected wins at some point in the season. The A’s have done a great job of finding guys who thrive as non-stars.

The A’s made a lot of moves this offseason, but the most noteworthy signing was SP Scott Kazmir (2 years/$22MM) to replace Bartolo Colon. Kazmir pitched effectively in a MLB uniform last year but for the first time since 2009, so this deal is not without risks. Nonetheless, a team like the A’s ought to sign high risk/high reward guys at prices that won’t devastate the team if they fail. The A’s also acquired RP Jim Johnson in a very non-A’s type move, but for the purposes of projection, he will adequately replace the departed Grant Balfour and not much more.

While the Rangers are the most talented team in the West and will win the division, Oakland is in prime shape to snag a playoff spot.

ANGELS

The 2013 Angels were nothing short of a disaster. Winning just 74 games, they finished 24th in team pitching fWAR. The silver lining is that the offense finished 7th in team fWAR (fueled by the 10.4 fWAR by OF Mike Trout).

To improve their pitching, the Angels moved OF Mark Trumbo to Arizona and received SP Tyler Skaggs and SP Hector Santiago from the White Sox). These guys won’t make immediate huge impacts (and Santiago’s ceiling is probably as a 2 WAR-type starter, which has value), but Trumbo is in arbitration (and is therefore getting expensive) and is fairly overrated due to his ability to hit HR. Trumbo has a career wRC+ of 111, and that just isn’t worth paying a guy to produce if he is playing 1B or lumbering around the OF. Considering Skaggs has FOR upside, this was a good move for the Angels.

If the Angels improved their long-term outlook this offseason, they did not do enough to address the current team. The additions of Skaggs and Santiago should provide some help, but to contend, OF Josh Hamilton and 1B Albert Pujols must rebound to the form that earned them their huge contracts. Hamilton’s decline is largely due to a drop in his ISO that was 53 points off his career average. If this was a temporary downturn due to injury or fatigue, he will rebound to his previous form. Pujols posted a BABIP of .258 last year, which is 48 points below his career average, but this figure has trended downward since 2009. Nonetheless, this number figures to be higher next year and will allow him to reclaim at least some of his value.

MARINERS

Seattle finished a distant fourth in the division last year with just 71 wins. Finishing 10th in team fWAR for pitching, and 27th in team fWAR hitting, the Mariners did the logical thing and attempted to retool their offense. Unfortunately for them, they did so in an illogical manner.

The Mariners apparently outbid themselves to sign 2B Robinson Cano to a 10-year/$240MM contract. Just about everybody can agree on the dangers of this contract. Cano will be a great player in the short term (expect him to post a 5+ fWAR this year), but the Mariners have so many holes to fill that he will make them only marginally more competitive. Third baseman Kyle Seager was their only league average position player last year (nobody else posted a fWAR above 1.7), and Cano displaces one of their best young talents, Nick Franklin. Seattle made really good deals for 1B/OF Corey Hart (1 year/$6MM) and 1B/OF Logan Morrison (acquired for RP Carter Capps), but either player could conceivably post a fWAR from 0-4.

Only the most optimistic of projections have the Mariners finishing higher than fourth, and that’s not much bang for your buck when spending so much cash.

ASTROS

The 2013 Astros were one of the worst teams in recent memory (51 wins) and of all time (their 111 losses are the eighth most since 1901). They are going to be greatly improved (projected +18 fWAR), but they were so bad that they will still finish last in the division.

The Astros did not spend a lot of money in the offseason, but they spend it rather wisely. I love the acquisition of OF Dexter Fowler (arb2) for two reasons. For one,he turns 28 this month and the Astros could easily extend him if he improves from his current 2.5 fWAR form. For two, his contract is a reasonable value and he could easily be moved for prospects if the Astros go that route. Scott Feldman is a league average 2 fWAR SP, which makes his 3 year/$30MM price tag reasonable. These deals legitimately improve a bad club without hindering the club at all in the medium and long term (payroll projects to only $49MM). The Astros are ramping up for an infusion of young talent that will hit in the next few years. The Astros have a top-tier farm system, and the owner has promised to spend money once the prospects start hitting the big leagues.

There’s a lot to love about what the Astros are doing. They are terrible now, but rather than making stupid long-term commitments, they are trying to build a sustainable club. This last place team has a bright future.

Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Ty Whetstone

Ty Whetstone is a lifelong baseball fan that was turned on to Sabermetrics by posting on baseball message boards. In his real life, he works as an accountant. He enjoys traveling with his family and playing golf in his free time.