by Christopher Reardon
The AL West is a bit of a crap shoot. There's a lot of talent out there, and a number of winning teams, but it's a small division with no large market teams and it can sometimes be forgotten amidst monster clubs in the East and Central divisions. The fact that just one Western team (Oakland, which was swept by Detroit in the 2006 Championship Series) has made it past the first round of the playoffs since the Angels won the World Series in 2002 doesn't help matters.
1. Los Angeles Angels, 92-70
Or the California Angels of Anaheim Which is Located Somewhere Near Los Angeles, whatever they're called these days. This team has quite a bit of talent, and like the Twins are known for developing young players who know the game of baseball and play as such. The rotation features the right mix of veterans and young guns, with a perennial Cy Young contender in John Lackey, two veterans who have shown flashes of brilliance in their careers in Kelvim Escobar and newly acquired Jon Garland, and a couple young guys who have already proven themselves at the major league level in Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver (who, if you remember, forced his own brother Jeff out of the rotation a couple years ago). The offense received a boost with the addition of Torii Hunter, but this does create a logjam in the outfield with guys like Vlad Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr., Juan Rivera, and a number of prospects ready to burst onto the scene. Still, the Mariners greatly improved their rotation with the addition of Erik Bedard, which is why I have the Angels winning two less games than last year.
2. Seattle Mariners, 90-72
Few major league teams can claim to have two bona fide aces manning their rotation and an elite closer at the back of the bullpen. The Mariners, however, have just that in Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, and J.J. Putz. After those names, though, the pitching in Seattle is a bit questionable. Carlos Silva is a decent pickup from Minnesota, a durable guy who will win ten or twelve games, and Miguel Batista won sixteen games last year, but these guys aren't going to blow anyone away. The Mariners' offense is made up of one of those typical B-List lineups you see a lot in smaller market teams, with the only consistent producer being Ichiro Suzuki. Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson have been spectacular at times, but not so much since joining Seattle. Beltre got a huge contract after his monster 2004 season with the Dodgers in which he led the league with 48 home runs, but he hasn't hit more than 26 dingers since and his on-base percentage has taken a huge dip as well. Meanwhile the always strikeout prone Sexson's declining batting average would be an easier pill to swallow if his power numbers didn't go right down with it. The Brad Wilkerson pickup from Texas is looking kind of... well... medium. There's some talk of Seattle signing Barry Bonds, which would definitely add some runs to the offense, but no one knows if the Mariners want that kind of circus in their clubhouse and media events. Overall I think Seattle is a better team than it was last year, but not quite good enough to overcome the Angels.
3. Texas Rangers, 75-87
This team, while not quite as bad as Oakland will be this year, is just not very good. The pitching is somewhat up in the air, there's no clear ace on a staff that includes Vincente Padilla, Kevin Millwood, Kameron Loe, Brandon McCarthy, and Robinson Tejeda. Combined these guys won 32 games last year (just twelve less than Cy Young runner-up Josh Beckett). Other names that may pop up in the rotation in some point are Jason Jennings and Kason Gabbard. While my roommate (still bitter over the Gagne trade) seems to think Gabbard will win the Cy Young one day, I'm not quite as impressed. The fact is this pitching staff is little more than a joke. The offense shows a little more promise. Michael Young won a batting title a few years ago and Ian Kinsler is turning out to be one of the better second baseman in the league. Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be one of the best young catchers out there, but he'll have to split time with Gerald Laird. The Josh Hamilton pickup from the Reds is exciting, as at times in his career he's been one of the most promising hitters around. His comeback from drug problems last year was successful until he spent two stints on the disabled list, but the Rangers are high on this five-tooled player. Shortstop Young even compared him to his predecessor Alex Rodriguez. On paper this Rangers team simply doesn't stack up against others in the American League, but behind the run-scoring strength of that offense they will manage to overtake the Athletics into third place in the AL West.
4. Oakland Athletics, 72-90
It's official. The A's, like the Orioles, have thrown in the towel and are accepting their status as a rebuilding team. This is why Dan Haren is now a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Nick Swisher has landed in the Chicago White Sox lineup. A quick look at the Athletics roster and you might be hard pressed to find a name you recognize. Okay, so Huston Street still anchors the bullpen and Joe Blanton... well, he's still in the rotation (for now). Offense? Maybe Jack Cust will have another decent season. Maybe. Eric Chavez was once one of the premier third baseman in the league, but he's been somewhat injury prone of late and his numbers have been down as a result. Besides Cust who had 26, no member of the A's current roster hit more than twenty dingers last year, and none of them had more than 85 RBI. This team is going to have a tough time scoring runs, and they may have a tougher time preventing them with that pitching staff. Barring the occasional baseball miracle, there's no way this team does any damage in this division.