Saturday, February 23, 2002

2002 AL West Preview

You know, there's a lot to love about Ohio: the $600 rent, the eleven-minute commute. But even so, I sometimes find myself wishing I lived in California, or Washington, or even Oregon, or anywhere I could see games in the AL West -- the best division in baseball -- up close and personal.

Here in the heartland, we only get the West Coast highlights on the ESPN 2:00 AM wrap-up, and unfortunately even famous baseball writers have to get up in the morning and slave for The Man. So until I can afford a summer home in Eureka, Yakima, or the greater Eugene, Oregon Metroplex, it looks like I’ll be satisfying my jones for the deep pitching, patient hitting, and solid defense of the AL West by surfing the boxscores over my morning coffee.

Oakland A’s:

Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the game, the A's just keep on winning. To understand why, you need to know something about a relatively new school of baseball analysis called sabermetrics. Here's the Cliff Notes version.

In the early 1980's, former school teacher, boiler-room attendant, and night watchman Bill James started to think hard about what makes a baseball team successful. He tossed out the conventional wisdom, dug into existing statistics, invented several of his own, and published his findings in an annual publication called Baseball Abstracts. These books, along with his other writings, represented a huge advance in the use and understanding of baseball statistics.

Before James, people generally assumed that a player hitting .300 was a good offensive performer, and a player hitting .250 a mediocre one. James showed, among other things, that on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not batting average and RBI, were the best measures of a player's offensive ability.

This observation led him to some surprising conclusions: that walks are just as important as hits, that strikeouts are ok if you compensate with home runs, and that stolen bases, bunting, and the other one-run strategies known as "small ball" are vastly overrated, and even counterproductive.

James's work inspired a legion of followers, often called "sabermetricians" after the Society for American Baseball Research, an organization of amateur stat-heads. If you imagine a bunch of skinny guys carrying 20-sided dice around in little pouches, you wouldn't be far off, especially since many of them got bitten by the sabermetric bug while playing what is in effect a baseball role-playing game called Strat-o-Matic involving dice, imagination, and, yes, a total absence of women. Until recently, the undeniable nerdiness of the sabermetricians, along with their sometimes-confrontational rhetoric, tended to keep them on the margins of respectable baseball commentary.

But while sabermetrics has slowly gained acceptance in the mainstream media, it still hasn't found its way into most professional baseball organizations. Few teams employ sabermetric analysis when scouting, drafting, and training ballplayers. More often than not, scouts still evaluate players on their speed or physiques rather than their ability to get on base or hit for power, and most teams continue to ignore park effects -- the sometimes profound impact stadium configuration and elevation can have on player performance -- when signing free agents. If these teams have a lot of money (and some good luck), they can outspend their shortsightedness and still put a winning team on the field (e.g. the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks). If they don’t have much money, they find themselves struggling to score runs and wondering why they keep losing year after year (i.e. the Kansas City Royals).

The Oakland A’s have neither a lot of money to spend nor management willing to wait around for good luck. But they have had great success applying sabermetric principles when scouting and developing players. Led by general manager and self-professed James-disciple Billy Beane, the A’s have managed to turn a low-revenue club into a consistent winner by stressing plate discipline in their hitters and never being afraid to pass on an established veteran when a lower-paid but sabermetrically sound player was available for the same job. Not surprisingly, the A’s have become the darlings of the sabermetric community.

While I'm not a certified stat-head myself (too much math), I’m a big fan of sabermetrics. Still, the cult of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's is getting to be a bit much, even for me. It’s as if the stat-heads idolize Beane just because he acknowledges their existence and likes the same books. It’s similar to the way Trekkies like the guy who played Tuvok better than the guy who played Chakotay, because the guy who played Tuvok actually shows up at the conventions and shakes their hands.

It got to the point where I started fantasizing that the A’s would crash and burn. And for a while there, it looked like they might. When Beane let all-star and former MVP first baseman Jason Giambi go to the Yankees as a free agent, I seriously started to wonder whether the admirable work Beane had done over the past few years was about to come undone, and the A’s would sink back into mediocrity. Truth be told, the prospect of the A’s falling and bringing the cult of Beane down with them kind of jazzed me up for a while just before Christmas.

It isn't going to happen. Not long after losing Giambi, Beane pulled off one of his patented heists in trading a couple of average minor leaguers to the Texas Rangers for Carlos Pena, a stud of a first baseman who is going to tattoo the ball all over the East Bay for years to come. Giambi will be better than Pena for the next year or so, but Pena will be putting up Giambiesque numbers long after the goateed one has started making withdrawals from Boss Steinbrenner’s pension plan. Add in the maturation of Beane’s army of Giambi-lite players such as Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, and little brother Jeremy Giambi, and the presence of perhaps the best rotation in the American League, and it looks like the A’s are set for another fantastic season.

All in all, I suppose it’s a good thing that the A’s are winning and look to keep winning. The longer Beane’s boys stay on top, the more old-school baseball men will start to see the world the way I do. Already, the Toronto Blue Jays have hired former Beane assistant J.P. Ricciardi to be their general manager, and Ricciardi looks to be doing the things I like to see GMs do (e.g. cleaning out overrated veterans and signing solid young prospects who know how to take a walk). Even better, Ricciardi hired one of the writers of Baseball Prospectus -- Keith Law -- as a full-time assistant to aid in player evaluation. Did you hear that? A lowly baseball writer with no practical experience has been hired to help run a Major League baseball team. It’s like Captain Kirk picking some geek out of the crowd in the Sheraton convention room to help fly the Enterprise. Meanwhile, guys like me sit back by the action figure displays trying to look cool while desperately hoping that we get beamed up next.

Seattle Mariners:

Wow, they won a lot of games last year. No, they won’t win that many this year. You know, statistical regression and all of that. Ichiromania and Brett Boone’s previously dormant slugging ability will both fall back toward the mean, leaving the Mariners a pretty damn good team rather than a dominant force. That's still impressive when you consider that their best hitter (Edgar Martinez) is approaching 142 years old, their first baseman suffers from the lingering effects of a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage, and their manager was once cut from the terrible Seattle Pilots team that Jim Bouton made famous in Ball Four.

Still, even beyond the recent renewal of Frasier, Seattlites have plenty of reason to worry.

Reason one is that they lost starting pitchers Aaron Sele and Brett Tomko. Tomko spent most of last year in the minor leagues, but he is a legitimate major league starter, and having him available in case of an injury helped Lou Pinella sleep at night. Sele is being replaced by journeyman James Baldwin, which is not too terrible a downgrade, but again, if something happens to Baldwin -- or even more likely, if something happens to ancient Mariner Jamie Moyer -- there isn't as much pitching depth available to pick up the slack.

Reason two is that between the seemingly unlimited talent of the A’s organization, the seemingly unlimited cash flow of the Texas Rangers, and the fact that even the Anaheim freakin’ Angels look to be at least respectable this year, the AL West figures to be the toughest division in baseball. In other words, the Mariners don’t have much margin for error, and despite last year's 116-win season, they are an injury and a run of bad luck away from third place.

The Mariners' long-term prospects are bright, however. The young prospects down on the farm are poised to start contributing to an already talented club and the new stadium has transformed the Mariners from a perpetually struggling franchise into a financial juggernaut. If they stumble in 2002, you can bet the plantation that they’ll right the ship in 2003 and beyond. When I was younger, I never thought I’d live to see the day the Mariners would be among the strongest franchises in baseball. But then I never thought Pearl Jam would end its career spinning out covers of 1960's rock tunes, either.

Texas Rangers:

Last year’s Texas Rangers (along with the Orioles, Mets, Dodgers, and Red Sox) are proof that the Bud Selig-spun conventional wisdom holding that low revenue clubs are doomed to failure while high revenue clubs are guaranteed success is hooey. If the Rangers’ dismal record means anything, it means that just because a team spends nearly $100 million on payroll, that's no guarantee they'll walk away with all the post-season hardware. Despite plunking $250 million into A-Rod and several million more into veterans like Andres Galarraga, Ken Caminiti, and a cast of thousands, the Rangers stank last year. This was because the Rangers, like so many teams, didn’t understand the difference between a player with a great reputation and a player who can actually still play. Galarraga showed every bit of his 40 years last season, and Ken Caminiti’s performance made his post-season arrest for possession of crack cocaine seem a little less shocking than it should have been. Throw in a complete absence of effective pitching, and it’s little wonder the Rangers finished in last place.

Of course, the highest-profile move of last year was the quarter-billion the Rangers gave to Rodriguez. But lost in all the hoopla over the amount was the fact that last year Rodriguez was probably the best player in baseball not named Bonds, and that while it is shocking to say so, he may prove to be worth that money over the life of his contract. The kid really is that good.

What about this year? Well, for starters, the Rangers hired former Cleveland Indians GM John Hart. Hart isn’t my favorite GM in the business, but he will do a much better job of spending owner Tom Hicks’s money than his predecessor. At the absolute worst, Hart won’t bring in expensive, washed-up players to fill the roster; all his washed-up players will be cheap, which, truth be told, is an improvement. To be fair, Hart has done a good job of signing as many pitchers as he can with the hopes of cobbling together a staff that will improve upon last year’s (not a tall order). None of these new faces are sure things, but the law of averages should be on his side; none of them can be worse than the pitchers Texas ran out to the hill last year.

Among these new acquisitions is the infamous John Rocker. Rocker may find life easier in Texas, and not simply because he finds himself south of the Mason-Dixon line once again. Having watched Rocker -- an immensely talented pitcher when his mouth isn’t getting him into trouble -- pitch for the last several years now, it is clear that he has a very fragile ego. His on-the-field struggles last year may have had a lot to do with being shuffled from Atlanta to Cleveland in mid-season, and the feelings of rejection a trade can instill in a young player like him. The fact that Hart sought him out as a free agent this off-season may actually make everybody’s favorite redneck feel wanted; feeling wanted may make Rocker comfortable, and a comfortable John Rocker is an effective relief pitcher.

Even if Rocker goes into full meltdown mode in mid-season, at least he'll have company. Hart also traded for volatile outfielder Carl Everett (you may recall that he head-butted an umpire during a game a couple of years ago), notorious clubhouse cancer Dan Miceli (Miceli got his manager fired last year after complaining to the media for weeks), and historical sulker Juan Gonzalez. I have never believed those who say that a team has to have good chemistry in order to win games. Indeed, the fact that no one ever talks about losing teams with good chemistry makes me think that winning causes good chemistry rather than the opposite. This crowd in Texas, however, is going to test my assumptions. The Rangers may score a thousand runs this year, but they may also lead the league in restraining orders. Either way, they’ll be entertaining.

Anaheim Angels:

Though they get little respect in their own division, it should be remembered that the Angels were in the thick of the wild-card race last year. At least for a while. For some reason they swooned terribly in September, finishing with a record (75-87) that was far worse than it should have been, given their talent.

The good news is that the Angels appear to be on the right track. The Halos traded over-priced, out of shape, and oft-injured first basemen Mo Vaughn in January, unburdening themselves of an $80 million headache while bringing them workhorse starting pitcher Kevin Appier in return. With Mo’s money freed-up, they were able to sign another reliable starting pitcher in Aaron Sele. Adding Appier and Sele to a rotation that fronted three up-and-comers last year (Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, and Scott Schoeneweis), and the Angels have what looks to be an above-average starting five. Even better, the fact that Angels’ owner ABC/Walt Disney -- a conglomerate who had no idea what to do with the club beyond pimping it out in a bad Tony Danza movie a few years back -- is looking to sell the team. Fans can only hope the eventual owners want to bring back the glory days of the late 70s and early 80s when singing cowboy/Angels owner Gene Autry spent like a drunken sailor, fans flocked to the Big A to see Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and Fred Lynn, and the Angels actually won a lot of games.

But don’t get too excited too soon. The Angels have some holes in their lineup and several everyday players like Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson who seem to be on the decline. (Not that Anderson has that far to come down; he’s never been as good as everybody thought he was) They don’t have a first baseman either, but decent-hitting first basemen aren’t that hard to find if you’re willing to take a chance on a kid or a minor league veteran. The upshot is that the Angels offense is a work in progress.

Finally, the killer for the Angels is that neither the A’s nor Mariners seem to have lost much in the off-season, and the Rangers can’t be worse than they were last year (and if they are, they will likely spend big bucks to improve). If the breaks go Anaheim’s way and the younger 60% of the rotation matures as expected, they could surprise some folks. Unfortunately, given the competition, they are unlikely to surprise their way into anything other than third place.

PROJECTED FINISH: Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim, Texas.