Handicapping the future of the AL West

Mike Trout is excited about being the future of the Angels. Image Credit: Mark J. Terrill, AP

 The Angels have made moves this offseason to make them a legitimate contender in the 2012 season. Signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson will go a long way in putting the Angels in the hunt of the AL West and a World Series title, but if the Angels fall short, which 29 teams will do this season, there’s always next year, right? Well, how does the future prospects of the Angels stack up to the rest of the AL West? While the Rangers have come up in the last few seasons to take control of the West, the Angels have been the leaders of the division for much of the last decade. Is the foundation there for the Rangers to sustain success or will the Halos be able to push their way back on top and take the division back from upstart Texas? ESPN Insiders Jim Bowden, Keith Law, and Buster Olney took a look at the future of all 30 MLB franchises and came up with a Future Power Rankings (Insider required). How did the Halos stack up against the rest of the West? Let’s break it down.

Before we begin, let’s break down how they came up with these rankings. It went much deeper than picking names out of a hat or throwing darts at a board. Bowden, Law, and Olney were asked to rank all 30 teams in five different categories: the quality of the Major League roster, the quality of the Minor League roster, the finances they have available to spend, the value and stability of the management of the team (ownership, front office, coaching staff), and the mobility of the roster, meaning is the team filled with easily movable assets (young, cheap players) or old, immovable roster blocks. They then weighted the categories, giving full weight to Major and Minor league roster quality, 2/3 weight to finances and management, and 1/3 weight to the mobility of the roster. Then each team was assigned a grade out of 100, which is the percentage of possible points they received. The rankings were designed to give a glimpse into the success of the team over the next five years.

Texas Rangers

Score: 91.1 MLB Rank: 1st

The Rangers run away with the top spot in the league as they received high grades across all five categories. They return everyone in the lineup last season which finished in the top-5 in the Majors in runs scored (3rd), batting average (1st), on-base percentage (5th), and slugging percentage (2nd). While they lose the ace of their staff for the second year in a row, the pitching staff reloads with the addition of Yu Darvish and returns four 10-game winners with Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and rookie sensation Alexi Ogando. Losing C.J. Wilson, who led the team in ERA, wins, and strikeouts, will undoubtedly be a bump in the road for them. The return of four quality starters and the addition of the international star Darvish, along with the return of their very solid offense, should soften any possible fall-off. The Rangers are still the defending American League champions for two years running, and this roster is largely made up of the guys responsible for it.

The team has been built for long term success through the careful planning of general manager Jon Daniels, who has stuck to his blueprint of building a strong organization through scouting and development. He has stockpiled their farm system with good, young talent to take over once the big league roster starts to turn over and had the Rangers farm system ranked 7th in Keith Law’s organizational rankings earlier this month. The Rangers have four players in Law’s top-100 prospects, including SS Jurickson Profar (7) and power lefty Martin Perez (20). Most impressive about the Rangers build to success is the lack of big, immovable contracts which have made organizations like the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees extremely top-heavy.

To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Angels will have plenty of chances to go head-to-head with one of the best franchises in baseball right now for years to come. Texas will be a popular pick to win the World Series this year (and for the foreseeable future), so there’s no question that the battle in the West is going to be hard-fought as the Rangers are building themselves to be more than a flash in the pan success.

Los Angeles Angels

Score: 68.3 MLB Rank: 7th

With Texas hogging up most of the top rankings, the scores seem to fall off pretty quickly. The Angels get high marks for their Major League roster and for the finances available to them, as owner Arte Moreno has proven he is not shy about spending money to bring big pieces to Los Angeles. The acquisition of Albert Pujols gives the Angels a presence in the middle of the order, which they were sorely missing last season, and addresses some of their offensive questions for the upcoming season. The addition of C.J. Wilson adds depth to one of the best starting rotations in baseball last season (2nd in starters’ ERA), and makes them one of the best starting rotations in baseball this season. With the return of Kendrys Morales to the lineup at DH, and the possibility of Mark Trumbo working in at third, the roster should be markedly improved offensively, which will complement the stable of starting pitching.

Where the Halos get knocked a bit is in the categories of Minor League rosters, management, and mobility. It’s not so much that there isn’t talent in the Minors (Mike Trout is a pretty big deal), it’s that there’s a lack of depth to the talent. After Trout, there’s oft-injured shortstop Jean Segura, future 30-homer first baseman C.J. Cron, and strong armed righty Garrett Richards, but there just isn’t the wave of talent brimming, ready to jump in and replace outgoing stars at every position in the next few years. The front office is going through a transition, with new GM Jerry Dipoto in his first year, it’s still unclear if this new front office’s leadership will work positively for the Angels. So far, they look like they’re on a good road. The mobility of the team is a big weakness as the team is saddled with several big contracts for older players that will difficult, if not impossible, to move via trade. Most notably, the albatross in left field, Vernon Wells, and his $26 million price tag this season.

The Angels have brought in some big pieces to make the team competitive now and for the near future. If Morales can come back to his 2009 form where he was in the running for MVP, the bullpen holds together better than last season, and Wells improves on his worst offensive year in his career, there is a legitimate chance for this team to push the Rangers this year for the AL West. Some questions will have to be answered for the long-term success of the team, like what to do about third base, but they have the tools to be an excellent team going forward.

Seattle Mariners

Score: 45.7 MLB Rank: 18th

The Mariners kick off the start of the “also-ran” category of the AL West. The M’s finished dead last in pretty much every offensive statistical category last season and finished in the cellar of the AL West at 67-95. The team was young in a lot of places and their veteran leadership let them down. Ichiro failed to get 200 hits for the first time in his MLB career, Chone Figgins has forgotten what the piece of wood they keep handing him is for, and Milton Bradley finally crazied his way out of the Emerald City. However, all that youth they had to play is what will help them down the line. Dustin Ackley looks like a future star at second, Justin Smoak showed flahses of being worth the trade for Cliff Lee at first, and Trayvon Robinson showed some fine leatherwork out in left field. The potential in the young players is very high, which could set up the M’s for some success down the line.

The only problem for them is the time it will take to reach that point in the line and the growing pains of the young players to get there. The addition of Jesus Montero will help the offense, and the pitching staff will be very good as young arms like Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker develop in the minors. However, the position player depth is sparse, so the M’s will need to work a trade or use some of the money freed up after Ichiro’s massive contract expires next offseason to lure a bit of offense to the Northwest. If they fail to do that, expect a lot more 1-0 losses for the M’s as the run support continues to be non-existent.

The West is going to be a 2-team division for the near future, but if the Mariners can develop the talent in their farm system and trade a couple of their seemingly endless supply of quality pitchers, Seattle could make a push in four or five years. Not great news for M’s fans this season, but some light at the end of the tunnel for you.

Oakland A’s

Score: 34.3 MLB Rank: 23rd

The A’s are in the middle of a tumultuos dispute over a new stadium that has been draining the energy from the team and its fanbase for years. They have very little talent on their Major League roster who will have a huge postive impact for them, but the A’s have made provisions for the future. During the offseason, Oakland traded away Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez for prospects and made sure their farm system was solidified for the future. Add in the addition of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and the fact that this stadium fight can’t possibly last forever (right?), and the A’s are positioned to put out a strong team by as early as 2014.

However, they need to do things well during their reconstruction to keep that plan in place. Right now, the team is probably one of the worst in the Majors, which means they’ll have an opportunity for a top-3 draft pick the next few seasons. If they are able to land stars with those picks, it could inject some much needed talent into the club. They also really need to make this move happen, because right now, they are strapped for cash. The Oakland Coliseum is not helping this team compete and the sooner they can get to San Jose and infuse some much needed cash into the team, the better.

The A’s, much like the Mariners, are in a rebuilding phase that could put them in position to contend within three or four years. That will be important for fans to remember this season when they’re begging something to be done about the product on the field in 2012. Someone has to finish fourth this year, but it will cycle back to help this team down the road.

Houston Astros

Score: 21.8 MLB Rank: 29th

Since Houston is slated to join the ranks of the AL West in 2013, it’s only fitting we take a look at them when talking about the long-term forecast of the division. The 2012 forecast for the Astros, and their goodbye tour in the National League, is bleak to put it mildly. The big league roster has been gutted, with only one major contract left on the roster with Carlos Lee in the final year of his six-year $100 million deal he signed in 2007. This team is a rebuilding project from the ground up, as the cupboard is not much more stocked in the farm system. Years of trading picks and prospects to rent a player for a late season push for a playoff spot that they couldn’t reach hasn’t done new owner Jim Crane or his new GM Jeffrey Luhnow any favors as far as giving them a lot to work with.

On the bright side, they also don’t have to do much of the dumping of players to turn over the roster. All of the Houston’s big contract players of the last few seasons, like Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn, are gone. Lee will be off the books after this season, and Wandy Rodriguez is the only player currently signed for 2013. The slate is clean for the new management to rebuild this team in their image, which is going to take some significant time and patience.

Any Astros fans dismayed at the prospects of watching this team for the foreseeable future can take comfort in the owner’s dedication to building the team the right way, through scouting and building the farm system, rather than trying to buy a bunch of big names to win right now. That may be little comfort this season, or the next several, but it’s something to hold on to through some brutal times ahead.

So what are your thoughts about the future of the West? Will Texas continue to beat back the Angels and establish long term dominance of the division? Did the Angels add enough this offseason to be contenders? How will Seattle and Oakland develop their young talent and will it be enough to push for a division title in the near future? Does Houston have any hope of being more than a cellar cushion for the rest of the West when they join in 2013? Only time will tell for sure, but your best guesses will have to do for now.

Topics: AL West, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A's, Power Rankings, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers

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