Athletics and Angels

Posted: 12/26/2013 by levcohen in Baseball

Now we move on to the AL West, which, in my opinion, has the makings of the strongest division in baseball, and the one with the most story lines. There are the Athletics, led by Billy Beane, who was the mastermind behind Moneyball. The A’s have less money to spend than nearly other team in the MLB, but, like the Rays, they find subtle advantages that help them stay competitive while teams like the Rangers and Angels, and now even the Mariners, are spending much more than they are. There are the Angels, so hyped up last season but such a letdown. Can they bounce back? They have talent, but they also haven’t done much in free agency to fill up their gaping holes from last season. There are the Rangers, who now have to be considered the top candidate for the AL West crown after their signing of Shin-Soo Choo. Their lineup will be dynamic, with Prince Fielder replacing Ian Kinsler and Choo replacing Nelson Cruz. They are also in the running for Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, and could be considered the frontrunner because they have Yu Darvish, a fellow Japanese pitcher who could give Tanaka an added sense of security and comfort. Then, there is Seattle, who signed the best player on the market, Robinson Cano, to a huge deal. It looks like they are finally trying to contend now, but with the talent in their division, they could well finish 4th again. Lastly, there is Houston, who have put together one of the worst teams in MLB history. But now even the Astros are surprisingly into bidding in free agency, as they have been connected to the many free agents still available. So yeah, this division is stacked and interesting. Let’s go through team by team. Because the AL West is so interesting, I’m going to split it up into two parts. Today is Oakland and LA.

Oakland Athletics:

The Athletics won an incredible 96 games last season, despite having a terrible ballpark (the MLB isn’t letting them move to San Jose, which would be better for the players and fans), low attendance, and a miniscule payroll. They did it because they were able to spend their money wisely and played their best lineup. They hit their best hitter (Josh Donaldson) 2nd in the order, which is where the best hitter should be (the best blend of chances and RBI opportunities). They pack their lineup with power and on base percentage. They maximize the use of platoons. They pick up pitchers (e.g. Bartolo Colon) off the scrap heap and make them stars again. The Athletics just do everything right, so it’s hard to criticize any move they make.

With that being said, I found it interesting that the Athletics decided to trade for an expensive closer rental (Jim Johnson). Johnson wasn’t great last year, and he is the type of player that is overrated by most teams. Again, it’s hard to criticize the A’s, and they didn’t have to give up much (Jemile Weeks), but Johnson isn’t usually the type of pitcher they invest huge payroll chunks in.

It’s clear that the A’s have identified another competitive advantage: the bullpen. Apparently, the bullpen is more important than they are given credit (and paid) for, so the Athletics added Johnson and Luke Gregerson, who has a 2.88 career ERA. They add those two to an already above-average bullpen that features Ryan Cook (2.55), Sean Doolittle (3.09), and Danny Otero (2.45).

That stellar bullpen will really help the A’s out, partly because they don’t have any elite starting pitchers. What they do have is youth. Four of their five starters are 24 or 25, and the fifth, Scott Kazmir, looks like another good candidate to bounce back in a big way with the Athletics. In fact, Kazmir turned it around last year with Cleveland, and now moves to more of a pitchers park. He’s been around for a while, but he is still just 29 years old, so I think he could post a near 3 ERA at the top of the Athletics rotation.

Bottom Line: The A’s lineup is nearly unchanged, which is a good thing. They did add Craig Gentry, a speedy outfielder who should start in left, and they can also expect bounce-back seasons from sluggers Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. They don’t spend much, but they have back to back AL West titles and there is no reason that they can’t add another.

Los Angeles Angels:

It’s hard to discount a team with the best player this century (Albert Pujols) and the best player in the game right now (Mike Trout), but it seems like a lot of people are doing it. I get it. They didn’t add a big name to the rotation. The bullpen is filled with no-names. Their biggest free agent add was Raul Ibanez, who is a DH at best and is 41 years old. So yeah, it’s tough to get too excited about a team that went 78-84 last year and added… Raul Ibanez.

The Angels have, if nothing else, reworked the back of their rotation. They traded for Hector Santiago from the White Sox and Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks (Mark Trumbo was the cost for those two), and they should really improve the rotation. Now they really need Jered Weaver to turn it around.

This team was really unlucky last season, with Pujols and Weaver banged up, among others. And Ibanez and David Freese (the new third baseman) should at least add some stability to the middle third of the lineup. But what the Angels really need is for their huge contract guys, Pujols and Josh Hamilton, who was terrible last season, so get back to their pre-Angels selves. Trout can take a team to 78 wins on his own (nearly.. His WAR was about 11, marking the second consecutive year at over 10), but not much more.

Mike Trout is making the MLB minimum for a player of his experience. Around half a million dollars. He is making pennies compared to Pujols and Hamilton. And, as he edges closer to free agency (he is still a while away, as he enters arbitration next season), the focus has to be turned to this question: if the Angels don’t extend Trout, how much could he get in free agency? He will enter free agency after 2017 at the age of 26. Assuming he continues to improve or even stays at a 10 WAR level, he will have amassed 60 WAR. He has a spotless history when it comes to injuries. His swing is smooth and fast. His defense is impeccable. The hitters he is most similar to through 21 years old are Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams. He compares favorably to all of those hall-of-famers, and it isn’t even close (his 20.8 baseball reference WAR through two years was highest of that group by more than 5 wins). He will, and I don’t think is a jump, be the best free agent in the history of baseball. So the 275 million dollar contract signed by Alex Rodriguez has to be the floor. I think he could, and should, get a 10 year deal that would take him through his age 36 season (the 10-year deals that have gone wrong have mostly been signed by guys already at 30 or older. Trout will be four years younger). As for the value of his contract, consider that 1 WAR is worth about $5 million on the market. So if Trout were a one-year rental, he could plausibly get $50 million. But he isn’t going to get 50 million a year for 10 years. Give him 45 million for the first five years (through his age 31 season) and then 35 million for the next five (through age 36). That assumes a WAR of around 9 through age 31 (probably conservative) and a WAR of 7 for the five years after (reasonable). That would lead to a contract of.. 10 years and $400 million. It’s unheard of, and would be the biggest contract in the history of the game by more than a hundred million dollars. But Trout it worth it.

Bottom Line: Anyway, the Trout tangent was pretty much meaningless, but fun nonetheless. The Angels need a lot more from their pitchers, and more from Pujols and Hamilton.

Projected standings:
1. Athletics
2. Rangers
3. Angels
4. Mariners
5. Astros

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