Record – 87-76*(*tiebreaker w/LAA)
Improved player – Josh Willingham (had a brilliant first half in ’10 before injuries ruined the season; looking for the ~30 HR power and .400 OBP skill again in ’11.)
Improved pitcher – Brett Anderson (a playing time breakout as Anderson offers nearly 200 innings of the excellent work we saw for 112 innings last year.)
Regression player – David DeJesus (if only slightly off the pace of his ’10 OPS+ of 127, but that will be mitigated by the fact that he will play more than 91 games.)
Regression pitcher – Trevor Cahill (like Clay Buchholz of Boston, this is obvious, but I’m not projecting the complete drop off that many seem to believe is coming. He has devastating stuff, good enough to get Ks, but if he wants to focus on groundballs, then he needs to trim the walk rate significantly to get a 2.0+ K/BB. He had a great K rate in the minors, so don’t be surprised starts adding Ks in 2011.)
Why they will win – …because they have amazing pitching staff ace to closer and everything in between. There is upside, there is proven and there are reinforcements in case things go awry. Quality pitching isn’t especially new in Oakland, but they have supplemented it with solid hitting. Not great hitting, but the power additions of Hideki Matsui and Willingham are underrated especially because now they don’t need to rely on Daric Barton for power he doesn’t have, he can sit in the 2-hole and just get on base 40% of the time.
Why they might not win – …because their offense is equal parts likely to breakout or likely to breakdown. There is a lot of injury risk tied up in their starting nine and their primary backups aren’t bastions of health, either. Their cross-town rivals showed that excellent pitching can mask a lot of hitting deficiencies, but the Giants eventually added a bona fide star to the middle of their lineup in Buster Posey while Oakland doesn’t have that guy on the way.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – The combination of this excellent staff with the upside of their offense assuming health might even be worth more than the five win (a sixth with the tiebreaker) jump I gave them over last year, but I will play it conservatively because this is hardly the first time that Oakland has been a preseason darling.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS:
Record – 86-77* (*tiebreaker w/OAK)
Improved player – Bobby Abreu (he fell below .800 OPS for the first time since 1997 when he played 59 games for Houston. His batting average returns and he remains an OBP force in the middle of that lineup.)
Improved pitcher – Dan Haren (already showed improvement after the trade to LA; he’ll have a full season around where his 94-inning debut with the Angels was: 2.90-3.15 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP.)
Regression player – Vernon Wells (he will still be a useful piece, but around 25 home runs as opposed to the 31 outburst from last year.)
Regression pitcher – Fernando Rodney (stats might not recede, but a similar season will lose him the closer’s job pretty quickly opening it up for rookie Jordan Walden, who I love this year.)
Why they can win – They have a strong rotation even with Scott Kazmir being a part of it along with a solid bullpen in the non-Rodney division. The lineup isn’t excellent, but it won’t need to be in that division and I think it is being underrated as a whole because it is a lot of unsexy veterans. I’m obviously projecting a relatively quick return from Kendrys Morales here, too.
Why they won’t win – I have them losing a game 163 to Oakland which is essentially crapshoot, but why they might not even contend would be a mass regression from the veterans and a lack of improving youngsters to make up the difference.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – The team is being overlooked despite one of the best 1-2 punches in all of baseball and a lineup filled with capable veterans. They aren’t without flaws, but so are the other two contenders in this division.
Record – 85-77
Improved player – Elvis Andrus (acquitted himself well throughout the minors as a teenager all four seasons so I’m not ready to pigeonhole him as an all glove, no hit shortstop because of a weak sophomore campaign.)
Improved pitcher – Derek Holland (look for a really nice debut season as a starter for Holland, though it won’t be enough to make up for the loss of Cliff Lee and regression of other starters.)
Regression player – Josh Hamilton (the obvious pick, but the reigning AL MVP isn’t hitting .359 again.)
Regression pitcher – C.J. Wilson (if he doesn’t markedly improve his control, he will have a very hard time posting another 3.35 ERA.)
Why they can win – Holland and Matt Harrison emerge and Brandon Webb returns for 150 innings to absorb Lee’s departure and any Wilson/Colby Lewis regression while the offense gets better thanks to complete seasons from Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz Hamilton and newly-added Mike Napoli.
Why they won’t win – …because only Holland is likely to emerge while and the bullpen leading to Neftali Feliz is shaky, especially after Alexei Ogando inexplicably won a spot. Meanwhile their lineup is laced with consistent injury risk.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – Everything went right and it is unlikely to happen again while their chief competitors improved themselves making a repeat difficult. I like this ballclub and it’s not unreasonable to project a scenario where they win again, but I like the pitching of LA and Oakland more.
Record – 63-99
Improved player – Justin Smoak (I believed in him prior to last year and I’m not going to let 100 games completely dissuade me, though the new home park is an unfortunate development to his offensive potential.)
Improved pitcher – Erik Bedard (the skill is there and it’s elite, but it’s all about getting on the field consistently. After back-to-back 15-start seasons, I think combines them for 30 big ones in ’11.)
Regression player – Can anyone really get any worse than they were last year?
Regression pitcher – Jason Vargas (because those skills don’t deserve a sub-4.00 ERA regardless of the home park and defense.)
Why they can win – …because a perfect world scenario includes rookie Michael Pineda having an amazing debut and combining with Felix and Bedard for a great top three taking pressure off of the offense which should improve significantly on regression alone after last year’s historically bad season.
Why they won’t win – …because their offense is still bad and Bedard staying healthy and Pineda immediately excelling would be major upsets.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – The offense just can’t be that bad again this year, but it won’t matter much because even at its peak, it’s bad, but the rotation should offer a glimmer of hope and maybe older parts like Milton Bradley and Jack Cust shine and can be traded for useful parts by July.