AL West: offseason check-in

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics will open the 2012 major league season with a two-game series at the Tokyo Dome in Japan, March 28-29. If you are thinking that this is not exactly a riveting and interesting matchup chosen by MLB, you are exactly right, given how the two teams look at that moment.

Most baseball fans will react to the remaining 17 meetings between these two teams in the coming season with extreme indifference. However, those first two in March should generate a great deal of excitement in Japan.

For the host country, the two-game series will represent a homecoming for Seattle right fielder—and Japan’s most famous and successful baseball export—Ichiro Suzuki. Unfortunately, the matchup has taken a slight hit since another former Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star, Hideki Matsui, doesn’t look like he will return to Oakland’s roster for the 2012 season.

But even without him, fans in and around Tokyo likely will be more interested in the series than folks in and around Seattle and Oakland. In fact, it might be that only the staunchest supporters of the green and gold would notice if the A’s if they never came back at all.

But they will come back. After they play in front of exuberant crowds in late March, they will return to a park the owner doesn’t want to play in anymore, and they probably will play in front of sparse crowds. General Manager Billy Beane is, with the exception of a confusing Coco Crisp signing, whittling the Oakland payroll down to a sliver, and the few recognizable names that were due back from last year’s roster will be gone in 2012.

Crisp is a 32-year-old outfielder who is below average with the bat, even if he is above average in the field. In an offseason that’s featured trades of Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, and seemingly anyone else who is within five years of free agency and not currently injured, the Crisp move doesn’t fit in with what has turned into a complete rebuild in Oakland.

It is a plan that Oakland ownership feels is partly due to much-needed roster reconstruction. It’s also partly, and very publicly, a declaration that they believe they cannot compete while playing in their current stadium. Oakland owner Lewis Wolff has repeatedly cited the team’s current facilities and location as an albatross that will continue to force low payrolls and, subsequently, poor records for his team.

Wolff feels that a move to the very affluent area of San Jose would boost team revenue and allow him to actually keep his good players and even sign better free agents than Crisp now and then. But the San Francisco organization currently has the rights to the San Jose market. For any move there, Wolff will need his fellow owners’ approval.

Wolff hopes a move to a new stadium would prompt several years of sellouts and a vast improvement in revenue. Beane hopes he could convert that revenue into results like those the Cleveland organization enjoyed when they moved into Jacobs (now called Progressive) Field. The Indians rode the gate receipts that came with their new stadium to five consecutive playoff appearances.

Without such a move, and barring another innovative strategy that garners results with even smaller budgets than he’s had in the past, Beane’s chances for inspiring a Moneyball sequel seem slim.

In addition to the revenue problems, Oakland management also knows that the strength of its divisional rivals means the A’s probably would fall short of the playoffs even if they had their pick of locations.

The 2010 and 2011 Division Champion Texas Rangers are coming off of back-to-back World Series appearances. While they lost valuable starter C.J. Wilson to free agency, they reinforced their rotation by adding their own Nippon All-Star, starting pitcher Yu Darvish. Darvish hopes to become the biggest thing in the majors since Ichiro, while Texas hopes he lives up to the huge posting fee it had to pay to get him.

Texas paid big because Darvish dominated his competition in Japan. Last season, he posted a 1.44 ERA and struck out 276 batters in 232 innings. Everyone knows the competition is not the same in Japan. Most also know the league used a new type of baseball that sent offensive numbers plummeting across the board.

But even with the benefit of facing inferior hitters and the use of a dead ball in 2011, his numbers in other seasons were still spectacular and give the Rangers reason to believe he’ll be successful in the U.S., particularly when several of his starts will come against the struggling offenses of Oakland and Seattle, which feature inferior hitters of their own.

Texas was rumored to have been an aggressive bidder back in 2006 when the Boston Red Sox eventually won the rights to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka, another Japanese starter with a ton of hype. Despite a solid beginning to his major league career, Matsuzaka has not lived up to his contract.

While their paths to the majors and previous successes are similar, Darvish differs from Matsuzaka in both size and pitch selection and more resembles a prototypical major league pitcher than does his predecessor. Texas is banking on a successful transition for Darvish that, combined with a continuation of the offensive success the Rangers have enjoyed the past few seasons, will go a long way toward making them World Series contenders once again in 2012.

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THT Forecasts is bullish on Darvish and has him as a 7.0-WAR player for the next six years, and more specifically a projection of an ERA of 2.40, a 0.97 WHIP, and 223 strikeouts in 208 innings pitched in his debut major league season.

Yes, this is just a projection. Yes, that would put Darvish among the best pitchers in the game, and it’s not likely he’ll post results nearly that high. But it’s interesting in that while the forecast is clouded by his lack of innings in the majors, Darvish’s numbers dwarf those predicted by the same system for Wilson. It is possible Darvish will significantly outpitch Wilson in the coming years.

Texas’ offense remains intact, and as briefly alluded to earlier, it is formidable. If Darvish pitches anywhere close to what Oliver projects as his major league equivalent forecast, about the only knock on the Rangers’ offseason will be that there wasn’t enough money to make a run at free agent Prince Fielder. Of course, if reports of Fielder’s contract with Detroit are accurate, Darvish’s contract wasn’t as big an impediment as the demands for Fielder were.

Scott Boras had taken his clients deep into the offseason without a deal before, and once again he was able to get a team to meet his exorbitant demands. Even though Fielder would have been a significant upgrade for one of the very few average spots in Texas’ lineup, the cost was ultimately too high. That is a good thing for the other teams in the AL West.

Seattle, another of Texas’ divisional cohabitants, was also thought to be a possible fit for Fielder. There is little doubt that the slugger would have made a big difference to the Mariners’ punchless lineup because it was a lineup that finished last in several important offensive categories last season—hits and runs, among others.

Seattle has worked to improve its offense for next season by trading starting pitcher Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for their top prospect, catcher Jesus Montero. Montero’s bat is so good, and his catching so suspect, that he may play the designated hitter role in Seattle right away in hopes that he can boost the Mariners’ run-scoring totals. He will fit in with other young bats that the Mariners have high hopes for, like Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp.

Then there is the final team in this puzzle, and the team that’s made the biggest moves so far. As every baseball fan knows, the Angels signed baseball’s best player this offseason and dramatically improved their own moribund offense. While the contract for Albert Pujols is one of the largest in baseball history, and like Fielder’s may become a burden in its final years, the immediate payoff is a chance to narrow the gap that has grown between the Angels and the Rangers.

Angels owner Arte Moreno decided to spend big after he hired new general manager Jerry Dipito a few months ago. In addition to Pujols, the Angels were able to improve their already daunting pitching staff (and strike a blow to Texas’ own pitching) by signing the aforementioned Wilson.

With those two huge signings—and a trade for catcher Chris Iannetta, who will no doubt improve the production from that position over what they’ve had the past couple of seasons—the Angels figure to have enough talent to compete with Texas for years to come.

Unfortunately for their other competitors, the big-money additions Texas and Anaheim made have widened what was already a large gulf that separated the Mariners and A’s from the top two teams in the division.

We know Oakland will probably not be adding any proven major league talent before the season starts. The Mariners are a candidate to rebound a bit from last season’s 67-95 record, but as constructed, the A’s may have a hard time reaching even 60 wins, which is a total that Texas and Anaheim may be nearing by the All-Star break.

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Oakland is doing the Montreal thing that worked out so well – “the ballpark sucks, we can’t compete, maybe you shouldn’t come”, as a marketing message, is a sure way to kill the franchise. I hope the ownership doesn’t get rewarded with a shiny new stadium by taxpayers elsewhere, but like Boras and contracts, the owners generally know how to play that game.