If there’s one thing I like here at FanGraphs — well, there are many things, but this is just one of those things — it’s our Depth Charts, which are fueled by manual inputs of playing time (the NL West is my beat, so you know who to yell at if you’d like to argue about, say, Marco Scutaro‘s projections) and get funneled as part of the input into our projected standings. And if you look at the projected standings, they’re more or less what you’d expect. The Dodgers are expected to be the best team, the Astros the worst. The Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals are projected to win the three NL divisions. The Red Sox and Tigers look to win the most games in the American League. This all makes sense, even if that’s all but certainly not how it will really play out. Maybe that’s not exciting, but projections aren’t supposed to be exciting. It’d be a lot more interesting if the Twins were projected to win the AL Central and then face the Marlins in the World Series. It’d also be proof of a projection system that wasn’t worth looking at.
Like with any projection system, you can quibble around the edges, but in five of the six divisions there are clear leaders, ranging from projected leads of two games (Red Sox over Rays) to seven (Nationals over Braves, because like every media site, we are biased against the Braves).
Then there’s the American League West:
Well, look at that.
That the Rangers and Athletics are projected atop the division is no surprise; after all, they’ve split the last four division titles and added names like Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, Luke Gregerson, Jim Johnson and Scott Kazmir to rosters already full of talent. But what really stands out here as being unexpected, perhaps more than any other projection we have — Reds fans, I imagine, may disagree — is the appearance of the Angels right in the mix for a three-way tie among the leaders. That’s despite a disappointing 78-win season last year, another year of tread on Jered Weaver‘s arm and Albert Pujols‘ foot, and some offseason moves that were not exactly universally beloved.
And the fancy science computers aren’t totally alone! In our staff picks last week, 8 of the 31 writers picked the Angels to win the division, as compared to 19 for the A’s and just 4 for the Rangers. Four more chose them to be a wild card, meaning that along with Tampa Bay, the humans at this site think the Angels will be a playoff team in 2014, despite a lower-third starting rotation that is projected to be similar in value to the rebuilding Cubs and the “more Edinson Volquez, less A.J. Burnett” Pirates.
Is that crazy? It feels crazy. This team wasn’t competitive last year, and many of the same issues remain. But while we need not blindly accept the projections, nor should we ignore their fine-tuned hard work. Let’s put on some red-colored glasses and investigate why the Angels might have a shot.
The competition has been weakened
I don’t have historic versions of what our projections were, though I imagine it’s safe to say that a month ago, the Angels were not tied for first place, or probably even second place.
I briefly wrote about this at ESPN last week, but no matter what’s happened in Detroit and Atlanta — the Tigers are still the favorites in the AL Central, and the Braves were at best going to be seen as close competitors to the Nationals in the NL East even with their rotation intact — there’s not a division race that has been impacted more by injuries this spring than AL West, particularly the Rangers. Just look at the Texas rotation: Derek Holland is out for half the season with a knee injury, Matt Harrison isn’t yet recovered from his back injury and Yu Darvish will miss at least his first turn or two with a neck problem. It’s likely that all three of them are in the rotation in August, plus maybe Colby Lewis, but right now, the rotation is Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers, Nicholas Martinez, Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross. Three of them have never started a big league game, and one is Joe Saunders heading from Seattle to Texas after a 5.26 ERA in a great pitcher’s park. That is… problematic, to say the least.
No, one shouldn’t make too much over an early game or two started by Martinez instead of Darvish, and they’re still our No. 3 overall rotation, though probably with some overvaluation on Scheppers and Ross. But then, in a division this tight, there’s not exactly a lot of wiggle room to drop an extra game or two — and having to get by with Donnie Murphy or Josh Wilson instead of Jurickson Profar, and Geovany Soto‘s knee injury giving more plate appearances to J.P. Arencibia, and worrying about Elvis Andrus‘ sore arm, and wondering if Neftali Feliz‘ velocity will come back, and hoping that not only that Joakim Soria can replace Joe Nathan but that those behind him, without Scheppers, can step up to perform before the ninth, well, these things are all not helping. Texas is still a very good team, as any lineup with Choo, Adrian Beltre and Fielder in the top four would be. They’re just seeming a whole lot more vulnerable now, and for as bad as Houston figures to be, it’s difficult to see a somewhat improved Astros team losing 17 of 19 to Texas once again. Those 17 wins were nearly 20 percent of Texas’ 2013 total.
It’s not quite as bad in Oakland, though the loss of Jarrod Parker to elbow surgery, along with a month or so without A.J. Griffin, doesn’t help. Jeff Sullivan, writing about the No. 13-ranked Oakland rotation last week, noted that the depth provided by former No. 6 starter Tommy Milone helps stave off Parker’s loss, and he was absolutely right. But that’s it for the depth, really; Jesse Chavez is already in the rotation, and he’s a 30-year-old veteran of seven organizations with two (terrible!) career starts under his belt. Scott Kazmir is already in the rotation, and he’s Scott Kazmir, talented yet never to be relied upon. The rotation is still fine for now, but if projections should rightfully take into account expected requirements to dip into depth, the A’s are suddenly thin there. Plus, while we’re not going to suddenly start talking about how spring training stats mattering, it’s worth noting that a big part of the Oakland offense depends on Yoenis Cespedes bouncing back from a .294 OBP last year, and he did little in Arizona to show that he’s figured himself out.
Were I to pick a roster of the three right now to spend a season with, it probably wouldn’t be the Angels, but the door has swung wide open as compared to where it was a month ago.
The offense could be very good
As with everything else in the world, this is due in no small part to the presence of Mike Trout, of whom we are legally obligated to praise at least twice a week. Even without the departed Mark Trumbo, the Angels hitters (and, since it’s by WAR, defenders) are projected to be neck-and-neck with the Dodgers for the best in baseball, That’s the case even though our 8.0 win projection for Trout falls short of the dual 10-win seasons he just put up, meaning we just might be underselling him, if that’s even at all possible.
Those are just projections, but the real 2013 Angels scored the seventh-most runs in baseball on the fourth-highest wRC+. They did that despite Pujols and Josh Hamilton each having the worst (by wOBA) seasons of their careers, along with a third base situation that was a trouble spot all season long. If we’re trying to see how the Angels are making the playoffs, it starts with these two. Since he took the last two months of the season off to heal an injured foot, Pujols has had a longer offseason than usual, and doctors deemed the foot healthy way back in December. He’s not ever going to be the monster he was in St. Louis, but if the foot isn’t a problem — and when the FG staff saw the Angels play the Cubs two weekends ago in Arizona, he looked great — the 3.3 WAR projection we have on him doesn’t seem unreasonable, which would be nearly full three wins higher he contributed last year. Hamilton doesn’t have the same injury excuse to hang his hat on, and was in fact slowed by a strained calf this spring, but if we’re giving the Angels the benefit of the doubt here, it’s this: his poor .302 wOBA in the first half last year went to .344 in the second half.
There’s also David Freese, if we’re trying to look on the bright side, because even though most of us disliked the deal that brought him from St. Louis — Peter Bourjos is cheaper, younger and almost certainly more valuable, and the Angels also had to kick in maybe-still-a-prospect Randal Grichuk — the Angels can at least argue that third base is a much bigger hole than an outfield that starts with Trout and Hamilton. Freese was terrible last year, but was very good in 2012. Our projections think he can split the difference. The Angels badly need him to. But if only due to Trout alone — and Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, both above-average at their positions, and some rebound out of Hamilton and Pujols — this may still be one of the majors’ more productive offenses.
The pitching could be, ah, not as bad
The 2013 Angels rotation was brutal, really. By WAR, 23rd. RA9-WAR, also 23rd. By ERA, 22nd. Those numbers are consistent, and they are bad. Yet they’re also partially due to Joe Blanton, Jerome Williams and Tommy Hanson, all of whom are gone. In their place at the back of the rotation are Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, each acquired in the Trumbo deal. Skaggs in particular offers some excitement, since the Angels have tried to undo the mechanical changes that Arizona put upon him, and the results this spring have been encouraging. From Pedro Moura in the Orange County Register:
Skaggs, finishing up his first spring with the Angels, has been pleased with his velocity. His fastball reached 95 mph several times Saturday.
Skaggs has thrown 521 four-seam fastballs in his brief MLB career and, according to PITCHf/x data, none of them has been clocked at more than 93.
“This is the hardest I’ve thrown in a long time,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs is still only 22, and just a year ago was considered a top-20 prospect by every major prospect ranking. This is not a guarantee of success; it is, at least, not Blanton. Santiago is less exciting, because his strikeout skills comes with too many walks and not enough grounders, but a move to Anaheim from Chicago ought to at least help his homer numbers. He is also not Joe Blanton.
Otherwise, much has been written about Weaver’s declining velocity, and I will not disabuse you of that notion other than to say this: it hasn’t yet prevented him from being an above-average pitcher. He’s no longer an elite starter, but he consistently beats his FIP, and if we’re simply talking about winning games, keeping runs off the board is paramount. C.J. Wilson continues to be C.J. Wilson; Garrett Richards showed some life in 2013. This still isn’t a good rotation, and it won’t be a strength, but if the offense is as good as it could be, then this just needs to not be a detriment. It’s at least possible to dream on that. One might add, however, that a bullpen that is Ernesto Frieri, Joe Smith, and cover-your-eyes isn’t helping either.
So can the Angels win the West this year? Sure, it’s possible. Anything is possible, especially now that the A’s and Rangers may have come back to the pack a bit. But a whole lot has to go right here. Trout has to be Trout, Pujols and Hamilton have to be some approximation of their former selves, and the back end of the rotation really has to be considerably better than last year’s version. I’m not sure I’d pick them, and in our predictions, I didn’t, though I gave them some thought as a wild card choice. But our projections like them, and so do many of our writers. That alone — as though Trout by himself wouldn’t do this — makes them one of the more interesting teams to follow in what should be a fascinating AL West.
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