AL Preview: Pacific Coast Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season.
By Bob Toth
Anyone who thought the Oakland Athletics would claim the American League West Division last season with their low budget roster overcoming the high price payrolls of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, you deserve a round of applause. Seriously.
Granted, the game of baseball has certainly changed over the years. Oakland and Tampa have proved time and time again that you can at least compete with a roster half as expensive as those of your counterparts. While competing may be good enough for some, and making the playoffs a few times may be even better, the final goal of winning the whole darn thing has yet to be accomplished.
How will the West be won this year?
Oakland (94-68) had an incredible run through the 2012 season, especially over the course of the final month. On the final day of the season, they found themselves facing the Rangers, with whom they were tied for the lead in the AL West. A 12-5 drubbing of Texas gave the West to the A’s and the Wild Card to the Rangers.
The A’s easily played their best ball in the second half. At the beginning of July, the team was 37-42 and a season-high 13 games out of first place, despite having just completed their first winning month of the season. They went on a tear in July, posting a 19-5 record, and kept that hot streak alive while playing well above .500 in every month through the end of the season. They were effective against all divisional opponents, taking the season series from the Angels (10-9), Rangers (11-8), and Seattle Mariners (12-7).
In the playoffs, an exciting American League Divisional Series between the A’s and Tigers ensued, with Oakland losing each of the first two on the road in Detroit. With the series returning to the Bay Area, the A’s won the third game of the series on a four-hit shutout, 2-0. On the brink of elimination in the fourth game, down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the A’s rallied off of Tigers closer Jose Valverde and stole a 4-3 walk-off win on a two-out, RBI-single by former Indians outfielder Coco Crisp.
Game five would not be as close, however, as the Tigers would ride the cannon of starting pitcher Justin Verlander to a complete game, four-hit shutout in Oakland, 6-0.
Moving into 2013, the Athletics remained consistent with the status quo, spending money only where needed and not necessarily taking in much in terms of new contracts. General Manager Billy Beane did what he does best, retooling with minor tweaks to a roster that was able to sneak into the playoffs and nearly advance beyond the first round.
The 2012 postseason was not even completed before Beane was making his first moves. He dealt Single-A shortstop Yordy Cabrera to Miami and infielder Cliff Pennington to Arizona in a three-team trade that sent Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young to Oakland.
Young batted .231 last season with 14 home runs and 41 RBI after missing a month early in the year with an injury. He had been the every day center fielder for Arizona for the last six seasons and joins an otherwise crowded outfield that includes Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Seth Smith, and Crisp. His numbers have not been able to match those of his 2010 season, when he hit career-highs in batting average (.257) and runs batted in (91) while slugging 27 home runs and making the All-Star team.
Just prior to the start of Spring Training, they bolstered their infield in a trade with the Houston Astros for shortstop Jed Lowrie. In exchange, the A’s dealt first baseman Chris Carter, pitcher Brad Peacock, and a minor league catcher, Max Stassi.
Lowrie missed two months of last season while in Houston, but was on pace to topple several career-highs in various offensive categories. In 97 games with the Astros, he batted .244 and had 16 home runs and 42 runs batted in. He had spent parts of the previous four seasons with the Boston Red Sox.
The A’s also acquired reliever Fernando Rodriguez in the deal with Houston. He was 2-10 with a 5.37 ERA in 71 games for the Astros last season.
Pitcher Tyson Ross was traded with a minor leaguer to the San Diego Padres in November in exchange for infielder Andy Parrino and left-handed starter Andrew Werner. Parrino spent time at three different infield positions for the Padres in 2012. Werner spent two years pitching in independent leagues before joining with the Padres organization, where he spent time last year at Double-A and Triple-A before getting a call-up in late August.
Catcher John Jaso was acquired from Seattle in January as part of another three-team trade that included the Washington Nationals’ Mike Morse. A pair of minor leaguers were dealt by Oakland to Washington. Jaso spent last season in Seattle after coming up with Tampa Bay. He batted .276 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 108 games in the Pacific Northwest.
Free agent Bartolo Colon resigned with the club after the season. The 39-year-old starter rejoins an otherwise young pitching staff as its veteran leader. He missed the second half of last season after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. He was 10-9 at the time of his suspension with a 3.43 ERA. This offseason, he was again linked to PED’s, this time through the Miami Biogenesis scandal.
Oakland also signed a 30-year-old free agent from Japan, Hiroyuki Nakajima, to a two-year contract. The popular Japanese shortstop has shown an ability to hit consistently around .300 and has several times in his career exceeded 20 home runs in a season. He comes to Oakland after eleven years in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
The offense runs primarily through the outfield. Crisp, Reddick, and Cespedes were all amongst the team leaders in every offensive category. Crisp stole 39 bases. Reddick led the team in home runs (32) and RBI (85). Cespedes enjoyed a solid “rookie” campaign with 23 home runs and 82 RBI, both second-best on the team, and a team-best .292 batting average.
The Indians lead the all-time series against the Athletics organization, 1,015-893. The A’s have played the seventh-highest number of games against Cleveland in the history of the franchise. Oakland easily took the season series from Cleveland last year, winning eight of the teams’ ten matchups. The A’s scored twice as many runs as the Indians and swept Cleveland in four games at Progressive Field. They were the only such team to keep Cleveland winless at home and they owned the second-best record against the Indians on the season.
Familiar faces to Indians fans on the Oakland roster include Crisp and Colon, who combined to spend parts of ten seasons representing the city of Cleveland.
The A’s will have to look to replace the production lost in the rotation with the departure of McCarthy with one of several young arms on the horizon in the organization. The additions of Young, Lowrie, and Nakajima should exceed the production lost in the departures of Gomes, Inge, and Pennington. They will need some good fortune, just as they had last season, and will need to again win the head-to-head divisional matchups to remain in the mix in a very hotly contested AL West.
Just like the stark financial contrasts between Texas and Houston, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The Angels, unlike the A’s, underachieved last season. Making it all the more painful for Los Angelinos was that they expected to be in the mix after spending a boatload of money to bring in the services of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols in the previous offseason.
Los Angeles (89-73) stumbled badly out of the gate. An 8-15 month of April had the team nine games in back of Texas. They cut the deficit down to five and a half games by the end of May with an 18-11 month, but a strong Rangers team would not give up enough ground to let the Angels back into the divisional picture.
The Angels did not take advantage of the close game, posting an even 18-18 record in one-run games. Against a strong, young Tampa Bay team, they were an abysmal 1-9 on the season.
There were questions as to just how much money the Angels would inject into their roster for 2013 after the previous season’s spending spree. Several keys players were at the end of their contracts, including midseason acquisition Zack Greinke and outfielder Torii Hunter. Several other key players were let go, including pitchers Dan Haren, whose contract option was declined and was bought out, and Ervin Santana, who was traded to Kansas City less than a year and a half after throwing a no-hitter in Cleveland against the Indians on July 27, 2011.
The team entertained the idea of bringing back Greinke, but lost out on his services to the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, who have shown that money is not a concern under their new ownership group.
Hunter, with an already crowded outfield in Anaheim with Mike Trout, Vernon Wells, Mark Trumbo, and Peter Bourjos, was not resigned and left for a multi-year deal in Detroit. His replacement, in a move once again under the radar and rarely even discussed throughout the offseason, involved stealing away All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton from the rival Rangers.
The 31-year-old Hamilton, a former AL MVP and All-Star for each of his five seasons in Arlington, signed in December on a five-year, $133 million contract. Hamilton ended his final year much like the rest of his career in a Rangers’ uniform – driving in runs and crushing the long ball. His 43 home runs, 128 runs batted in, and .577 slugging percentage were all good for second-best in the AL.
The move supplied the Angels with another big time run producer in what already appeared to be a scary lineup, even after the loss of Hunter and the eventual trade several days later of first baseman Kendrys Morales, who was sent to Seattle in exchange for starting pitcher Jason Vargas.
Vargas, a 30-year-old left-hander, was just one part of several moves to rebuild the starting rotation around mainstays Jered Weaver and Wilson. Vargas had become a valuable workhorse for the Mariners, averaging 204 innings per season in each of the last three years. He finished 2012 with a career-best 14 wins in 33 starts. He maintained a 3.85 ERA and career-low 1.18 WHIP while working a new best 217 1/3 innings.
In addition to Vargas, the Angels acquired starter Tommy Hanson from the Atlanta Braves in late November for former closer Jordan Walden. Hanson had spent each of the last four seasons as a starter for the Braves. He earned a career-high 4.48 ERA last season, but won a career-best 13 games. He has a 45-32 lifetime record with a 3.61 ERA.
Veteran starter Joe Blanton and reliever Ryan Madson were also added to help shore up the pitching staff. Blanton split the 2012 season between the Phillies and Dodgers, where he compiled a 10-13 record in 31 appearances and 191 innings. Madson hopes to become the team’s closer by the start of the season, but is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. He missed all of last season while under contract with Cincinnati after signing in early 2012. He closed out 32 games in 2011 for the Phillies.
In addition to Hamilton, the Angels return several big boppers to the ball club.
Pujols, after his slow start, got his bat back on track in his first season away from St. Louis. He led the team with 105 runs batted in and was second on the club with 30 home runs. The three-time MVP in the National League was also second in the AL with 50 doubles, making him a potent extra-base machine.
In just his second full season in the big leagues, the position-less Mark Trumbo earned his first career All-Star birth. He supplied his team with a team-high 32 home runs and was second on the team with 95 RBI. He spent the majority of his time in left field for the Angels, but also saw significant time in right field, at designated hitter, and at first base. He even played a handful of games at third base, but committed four errors in 63 innings of work. He caught the league’s eye during the Mid-Summer Classic, when his monster shots left jaws dropped across the country.
Twenty-one-year old Mike Trout provided an almost immediate jolt to the struggling Angels’ lineup when he was called up in late April in time for a series against the Indians. After a 0-for-7 series against Cleveland, his offense erupted. One month later, his batting average was over .300 and he was well on his way to an All-Star appearance, a Rookie of the Year Award, and second place in the AL MVP voting. The speedy center fielder is as all around a threat as can be – he slugged 30 home runs, drove in 83 RBI, and led the league with 129 runs scored and 49 stolen bases in just 139 games.
The Angels lead the all-time series versus Cleveland, 315-292. The Indians, however, took the season series last year from Los Angeles, winning five of the nine matchups between the teams while outscoring the Angels, 45-34. The Angels were the only AL West team the Indians posted a winning record against.
A pair of former Indians are in camp with the Angels as non-roster invitees on minor league deals. Catcher Luke Carlin spent time in Cleveland and Columbus over the last two seasons. He appeared in ten games with the Indians and batted .286 with a pair of home runs. Reliever Fernando Cabrera was a 1999 draft pick of Cleveland and spent parts of four seasons with the club at the big league level (2004-2007). He has not appeared in the major leagues since 2010 with Boston.
The Angels have an offense to be reckoned with. Adding Hamilton to the already potent lineup featuring Trout, Pujols, and Trumbo should make them a feared matchup. The pitching staff will hold the key to their season, as the revamped rotation will depend on the returns provided by its three new pieces, and the bullpen’s success will depend on the health of Madson and continued success from former closer Ernesto Frieri.
Next week, a look at two teams whose histories will forever be linked via their entries to the league in the expansion of 1977.
Photo: Getty Images