Monday, March 27, 2006
2006 AL West Preview
1. Oakland A's
Once upon a time, in my earlier days as a Giants fan, I hated the A's more than anything in the world. Just hated them. I would have rather listened to Wanda Sykes do standup for all eternity than pick the A's to finish first in a preview of this sort. In the "Bash Brother" days they had such a collection of hideous mullets and grotesque beards that they were just impossible to even look at, much less root for. Watching a guy like Ron Hassey lumber up the first base line was just amazingly brutal. It was bad enough that they beat up on the Giants in the '89 World Series (how the hell do you give up a home run to Walt freaking Weiss??!?!), but the fact that they were so consistently good burned my soul to no end. When a collection of Damon Mashores and Ariel Prietos conspired to bring them down in 1997-98, I took great pleasure.
However, the times they are a becomin' quite different. As the A's have become the symbol of low-budget success and managerial competence, my hatred has fizzled considerably, to the point where I pretty much root for Oakland over anybody except the Giants and Twins. I've done such a 180, in fact, that the A's are now my preseason World Series pick. They have the best five man rotation in baseball, a solid bullpen, and an improved lineup that could be stellar with a physically healthy Frank Thomas and a mentally healthy Milton Bradley. We should probably expect the usual first half swoon and second half blitzkrieg, so look for the A's to come out on top in the West after a two year layoff.
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (wild card)
Here's a quick lesson in mediaspeak for you. Whenever a talking head announcer like Tim McCarver describe's a team's offense as good at "scratching out runs" or manufacturing runs, its code for "that team's offense sucks". One of the things that drove me up the wall at the end of last year was all the praise being heaped on the Angels for their scrappy offense. They fought, they bunted, they got runners over, they weren't afraid to give up outs to get one run. This inevitably led to a discussion of the A's and their supposedly inferior "Moneyball" offense, culminating in an inane rant by McCarver during one especially uninsightful broadcast. The A's didn't bunt or steal bases, the mantra went, so they must be worse than the Halos because they don't know how to get runs in, right? One problem: the A's scored more runs than the Angels. 11 more, to be exact.
The Angel offense isn't bad necessarily, but there's one reason and one reason alone that their offense was middle of the pack in 2005: Vladimir Guerrero. They can bunt and slap the ball all over the yard, but in the end Darin Erstad, Orlando Cabrera, and Garret Anderson are still bad hitters. Their pitching is what won them the division last year, and it is what will keep them near the top in 2006. They have a killer bullpen, maybe the best in the majors, and they have five solid starters. They'll be right up there battling the A's until the last weekend of the season, and the offense will get better when their stud prospects in the minors start to show up on the major league diamond.
3. Texas Rangers
This winter I read a book called Seasons In Hell by Mike Shropshire, a sportswriter who was assigned to cover the Texas Rangers in 1973, a year they lost 105 games. The team was so boring and unwatchable that Shropshire would usually mosey on over to the mini-bar in the press box in the early innings and get nicely sloshed for the rest of the game, and then get even more wasted with the players in the hotel bar afterwards. It's basically 200 pages of this. Needless to say, it's a great book.
Thanks to Ameriquest Field, the Rangers these days will never be unwatchable, because all hitters have to do in that ballpark is hit the ball in the air and it has a 90% chance of going out. Because of this, Ranger hitters are perpetually overrated. They hit .278/.341/.509 at home in 2005, but .258/.318/.430 on the road. No hitter exemplified this extreme split than Alfonso Soriano, who was Joe Dimaggio at home (.315/.355/.656), but Joe McEwing on the road (.224/.265/.374). These kinds of statistical shenanigans make it hard to figure out which players are truly great and which are overrated. Are hitters like Kevin Mench just creation of the park? Was Chan Ho Park really as bad as his numbers attested?
It's hard to tell, but in the middle of summer, those 11-10 games can equate to a lot of fun, but not a lot of winning. Unfortunately, the Rangers will once again be relegated to being the one-trick sideshow of the AL West. I like the improvements they made to the pitching staff, and the Soriano/Wilkerson deal was a heist of epic proportions, but they stink so bad on the road it's hard to believe they'll challenge the A's or Angels. A run at 85 wins seems to be the upside here.
4. Seattle Mariners
In the 1980's there was a band called The Church, a group who had one big hit before fading away like so many Right Said Freds and Naked Eyes. That one hit was a song called "Under the Milky Way", a brilliant, haunting piece, and one of the best things to come out of the '80's. Everything else that The Church did is pretty much sordid crap, but the pure beauty of that one song makes them worth mentioning, and perhaps worth buying a greatest hits album.
The '06 Mariners are kind of like this. They have two guys, Felix Hernandez and Ichiro, who are worth the price of admission. Everything else here is just unwatchable. Ichiro slaps singles and creates mayhem on the bases, only to get stranded when Adrian Beltre wails away at a slider five feet off the plate. King Felix throws an 8-inning beauty, only to lose the win because of a crappy offense that can't plate runs for him. The Mariners will be like this all year, continuing to periodically dazzle their fans with their two stars while simulaneously fading away in the AL West.