AL West spring preview: New faces worth watching for top contenders
AL West spring training preview (cont.)
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2012. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: Have the A's put too much stock in Brandon Moss?
Okay, the really big question is "Can the A's contend again?" but the quality and depth of their young pitching, both in the rotation and bullpen and the superstar potential of Yoenis Cespedes are very positive indicators that they can. So, too, is the fact that the Angels and Rangers treaded water, at best, this winter. What the A's success, or lack thereof, in 2013 seems likely to come down to is the strength of the lineup around Cespedes, and in 2012 no member of the A's posted a higher OPS than Moss's 160.
The concern is that Moss did that in a mere 296 plate appearances in his age-28 season with a troubling 3.75 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio after hitting .236/.300/.382 across 749 PA over parts of five previous major league seasons, then went 2-for-15 in the postseason with seven strikeouts. Moss's volatility wasn't a major concern when the A's had 26-year-old slugger Chris Carter around to platoon with or replace Moss, but now that Carter has been shipped to Houston for injury-prone middle infielder Jed Lowrie (a career .250/.326/.417 hitter) Moss has lost his safety net, potentially leaving the A's understaffed at a key offensive position.
The Big Battle: Fifth starter
Bartolo Colon has five more games to serve on his performance-enhancing-drug suspension from last year, so, with the A's playing seven straight games without an off-day to start the regular season, A.J. Griffin and Dan Strailey could take this competition right into the first week of April. Thereafter, one of them will likely be headed back to Triple-A (Colon will prepare for the season with the rest of the team in spring training).
Both righties made their major league debuts last year and both pitched well for Oakland. Straily, now 24, had four quality starts out of seven and struck out 16 Angels and Rangers in 13 1/3 innings across two road starts in September. Griffin, now 25, went 6-0 with a 1.94 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 4.8 K/BB ratio over his first 11 major league starts, a run capped by eight scoreless innings against the Angels. He suffered some correction in his final four starts, though he did rebound with a solid effort against the Tigers in the Division Series (5 IP, 2 R, ND).
Strailey dominated at Triple-A last year (2.02 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.1 K/9 in 11 starts) throwing in the low-90s with a fantastic curve and slider combination and good control, but he proved a bit wild and homer-prone in the majors, possibly the result of fatigue. Griffin had a similarly strong minor league campaign (7-3, 2.82 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 5.06 K/BB in 17 starts split between Double- and Triple-A). His fastball is in the upper 80s, but he has a changeup, curve, and slider, all of which miss bats, and outstanding control. Ultimately, the A's would like to have both of them in the major league rotation, and given the injury histories of Brett Anderson and Colon, they may not have to wait that long for them to be reunited there.
The Big Prospect: SS Addison Russell
The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Russell raked across three levels in his first professional season in 2012, finishing up with a .310/.369.448 performance in 66 plate appearances in full-season A-ball at the age of 18. Russell is a five-tool talent, though some suspect his speed (he stole 16 bases in 18 attempts last year) won't make it to the majors with him. It's telling that the A's are already inviting him to major league camp despite the fact that he's still a teenager who will likely have to earn his way up to High-A this year. ESPN's Keith Law just ranked him as the 10th-best prospect in all of baseball. Get excited.
The Big Question: Can Lance Berkman stay healthy enough to compensate for the loss of Josh Hamilton?
Berkman had a tremendous season at the plate for the Cardinals in 2011, but that was sandwiched in between two seasons in which his production was significantly undermined by knee injuries. Last season, Berkman's legs gave out on him twice before the end of May, limiting him to 13 games in the first half of the season, and continued issues with his right knee sent him back to the disabled list in August, ultimately requiring a second surgery on the knee less than fourth months after the first. Berkman appeared in just 32 games on the season, nine of them as a pinch-hitter only.
Looking at Berkman's injury data on BaseballProspectus.com, there are 23 separate entries from the last three seasons alone, including surgeries on both knees (two on the right one last year) and problems with his left calf, right ankle, groin, back, left elbow, and right shoulder, side and wrist. Berkman turned 37 this past Sunday, but his body seems far older. His 2011 season proved that he can still rake when his aches and pains are limited to the day-to-day variety, and the designated hitter role he hates so much should help limit his opportunities to get hurt, but sometimes players' bodies get to a point at which they can no longer handle the strain of playing at the major league level. There's reason to be concerned that Berkman's may have gotten there.
The Big Battle: Centerfield
Even if Berkman is able to replace Hamilton at the plate, the Rangers will still need to replace him in the field. The plan going into camp is to have Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry battle for the centerfield job, though there are a number of alternatives to one of those two winning the job outright. First of all, Martin is lefthanded and Gentry is a righty, so a platoon of the two would be a natural. Then again, Gentry could also serve as a platoon partner for corner outfielder David Murphy, as he did last year, which would allow Martin to play every day without completely eliminating Gentry from the picture.
Not that the 29-year-old Gentry is anything particularly special. He actually profiles fairly well as a fourth outfielder given that his game is built around speed and defense and he isn't a total zero at the plate. He can hit for a respectable average and will take his share of walks. Add that to above-average centerfield defense and speed on the bases, and you have a valuable player despite his lack of power.
Martin, on the other hand, could be something special. The Cuban defector is a five-tool player who turns 25 in March and raked in half a season at Triple-A last year (.359/.422/.610) despite missing time with a torn thumb ligament. He's not going to put up those numbers in the majors -- in fact he's more likely to be a good player than a great one -- but his potential is clearly greater than Gentry's, which should make this his job to lose.
The Big Prospect: RHP Cody Buckel
With Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, Martin, Martin Perez and Justin Grimm all having appeared in the majors last year, this designation falls to Buckel (pronounced BYOO-kel), who dominated High-A as a teenager last year before turning 20 and holding his own in Double-A in the second half of the season. Buckel, a second-round pick in 2010, is on the small side (6-foot-1, 185 pounds), has a delivery that has been described as "max-effort" and "whip-like," neither a compliment, and lacks a clear out-pitch, but he has four pitches that are solid (low-90s fastball, slow curve, slider, change), a good idea of how to use them, and the ability to execute his plan. That's probably a back-of-the-rotation starter in the majors, but there's value in that, too.
The Big Question: Is Tommy Hanson damaged goods?
Before to the 2009 season, Baseball America rated Hanson the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball. As a 22-year-old rookie for the Braves that season, Hanson went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA (143 ERA+) in 21 starts. The next year he threw 202 2/3 innings at the age of 23 with a solid 117 ERA+ and an average fastball velocity around 93.5 miles per hour. Since then, however, he has fought back and shoulder injuries and seen his effectiveness and velocity decline.
Prior to the 2012 season, Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein (now a member of the Astros' front office) listed Hanson ahead of Jason Heyward as the most talented Braves player age 25 or younger. Less than a year later, Atlanta shipped Hanson to Anaheim straight-up for Jordan Walden, a nice late-game reliever, but one who wasn't going to close for the Angels and won't close for the Braves, either. In between, Hanson altered his delivery to protect his ailing shoulder only to see his velocity erode further, falling a full three miles per hour below his 2010 mark.
If all of that doesn't raise a bunch of red flags, our Jay Jaffe explains why it should. The Braves are a smart organization that has had a lot of success with young pitchers. They wouldn't be giving Hanson away if they thought he still had the potential prospect watchers saw in him just a few years ago. The question is if he can still be a solid third starter behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, or if things are even more dire than that. Hanson's 4.48 ERA (89 ERA+) and 1.45 WHIP from a year ago certainly aren't encouraging, nor are his steadily rising home run and walk rates.
The Big Battle: Bench/Bullpen
The Angels' lineup, rotation and primary relief roles are largely set coming into camp. The only real variable at play in those spots is the small possibility that Peter Bourjos could play his way out of the centerfield job, making room for Mike Trout to return to the position and Vernon Wells to take over in left. They may also need to address the closer role if Ryan Madson, who was signed coming off a season lost to Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown in two weeks due to soreness in his elbow., continues to be sidelined.
As a result, the primary battles in Angels camp will be over bench roles, particularly backup catcher and infielder (now that Maicer Izturis is a Blue Jay) and the last few spots in the bullpen. Among the notable players on the bubble are catcher Hank Conger, infielder Andrew Romine, extra starters Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards (both righties), and lefthanded pitching prospect Nick Maronde.
The Big Prospect: 3B Kaleb Cowart
The 18th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Cowart is a slick-fielding, switch-hitting third baseman with a strong arm who reached High-A in his age-20 season last year and should force his way up to Double-A in the coming season. Per Baseball Prospectus's Jason Parks, Cowart shows a different offensive profile from each side of the plate, with potential to hit for high average as a righty and for power as a lefty. The total package is a potential All-Star at the hot corner for the Angels, but despite his invitation to major league camp this spring, he has a long way to go, in part due to the fact that he's developing two distinct swings.
The Big Question: How close are the kids?
Of the top 10 prospects in Seattle's system as ranked by Baseball Prospectus, the top six are scheduled to arrive in the majors this season. The big names on that list are the starting pitching trio of righty Taijuan Walker and lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, and the third-overall pick in the 2012 draft, catcher Mike Zunino. All four of those players could significantly upgrade the Mariners' 25-man roster when they're ready (with Zunino pushing Jesus Montero out from behind the plate).
The only question is when exactly they'll be ready.
Hultzen and righty starter Brandon Maurer are on the 40-man roster but Walker, Paxton, Maurer, second baseman/outfielder Stefen Romero and shortstop Brad Miller have yet to play above Double-A. Both Miller and fellow shortstop Nick Franklin project to be better fits at second base, where they would appear to be blocked by Dustin Ackley (then again, Ackley hit .226/.294/.328 last year and incumbent shortstop Brendan Ryan, as great as he is in the field, hit .194/.277/.278).
All these prospects will likely start the season back in the minors, but one imagines the temptation to promote at least a few of them will be pretty strong after the Mariners spend another couple of months in fourth place. Doing so might not necessarily to improve Seattle's outlook for this season, but would put the prospects in question in position to be full-blown major leaguers next year in the hope of finally turning the Mariners' ship around.
The Big Battle: Left field/first base/designated hitter
The Mariners were very proud of adding some big bats to their roster this winter but they forgot to spread them around the diamond. All four of the bats they acquired -- Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibañez, and Jason Bay -- play some combination of leftfield, first base and designated hitter, positions that are even more crowded when you consider that Seattle is still hoping for signs of life from incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak and that Zunino will likely push Montero into that first-base/DH picture at some point during the season.
The plan heading into camp is to make first base Smoak's job to lose with Morse in leftfield and Morales the DH. Given Ibañez's age (he'll be 41 in June) and the decline of Bay's skills over the last three seasons, that's a reasonable expectation, but the M's didn't give Ibañez and Bay major league contracts not to play, and Smoak, who is now 26 and a career .223/.306/.377 hitter in 1,421 major league at-bats, seems eminently capable of losing that first base job.
The Big Prospect: C Mike Zunino
Zunino takes this in a squeaker over Walker, in part because of the novelty factor. Zunino, who will turn 22 in late March, was the third-overall pick in last year's draft and has played in just 44 regular season games as a professional. However, 15 of those came at Double-A, where he hit .333/.386/.588 (after posting a 1.210 OPS in Low-A). He won't hit like that in the majors, but he should hit for power, draw walks and play solid defense behind the plate. He could also be doing it for the big club in the second half of the coming season and putting down signs for Walker and Hultzen when he does.
The Big Question: Can the fresh start symbolized by the team's new uniforms, move to the American League and new, first-time manager set the Astros up to overachieve in the coming season?
Probably not, but we're grasping at straws here. The Astros' front office is doing the right things. The once-barren farm system has made great strides and will be supplemented with yet another top overall pick this June, and with the ownership situation and league-switch now resolved, Houston can finally look forward to building a competitive American League team.
Rookie manager Bo Porter looks like the right man for the job. At 40, he's the youngest manager in the majors, is well-regarded after six years as a major league coach, and is striking exactly that "fresh start" tone this spring. The Astros remain the favorite to land that top pick again next year as they bring one of the weakest rosters in baseball to a division that saw three teams win 89 or more games a year ago, but one of the nice things about low expectations is that they're easy to exceed.
The Big Battle: First base/Designated hitter/Outfield
Only two hitters on the Astros' 40-man roster, second baseman Jose Altuve and first baseman Carlos Peña, qualified for the batting title last year, and the latter hit .197, so there are very few players who have their position nailed down coming into camp. Altuve is one. Matt Dominguez and Jason Castro enter camp as the de facto third baseman and catcher, respectively. Tyler Greene and Marwin Gonzalez will battle over the shortstop position vacated by the Jed Lowrie trade. The real intrigue, however, is over the team's apparent glut at first base and designated hitter, which could spill over into the outfield.
The one thing that's clear is that Peña, the team's big offseason free agent addition, will start at one of those two positions. The best fit would put him at first and Chris Carter, the key piece acquired in the Lowrie trade, at DH, but word is the Astros are considering trying Carter in leftfield in order to create playing time for incumbent first baseman Brett Wallace and Rule 5 slugger Nate Freiman, a 26-year-old first baseman out of the Padres' organization who hit .298/.370/.502 with 24 home runs and 105 RBIs in Double-A last year.
The Astros' incumbent left fielder, J.D. Martinez, is coming off surgery to remove the hamate bone in his left hand. If Carter proves capable in the outfield -- a big if -- Martinez could challenge former Mets prospect Fernando Martinez for the rightfield job, a prospect which has led the latter Martinez to decline participation in the World Baseball Classic in order to stay in Astros camp and fight not only for the right field job, but for a roster spot. Justin Maxwell would seem to have centerfield locked up, but the Martinezes' holds on the corner jobs are weak enough that even a hot spring from a non-roster candidate such as Rick Ankiel or a minor leaguer like Robbie Grossman could break them.
The Big Prospect: 2B Delino DeShields Jr.
Last year, in a season split between the Sally League and High-A, DeShields, son of the former major league second baseman, became the first minor leaguer in the modern era to compile a triple-digit stolen base total and a double-digit home run total in the same season, and he did it during a year in which he didn't turn 20 until mid August. The eighth-overall pick in the 2010 draft, DeShields could follow fellow speedster Billy Hamilton of the Reds by moving to centerfield before reaching the majors, likely late next year. For now, though, he's a second baseman with a unique offensive profile, high marks for both his physical tools and attitude toward improving them, and the potential to reach Double-A before reaching drinking age.