Remember when the AL West was the strongest division in baseball? Good times, eh? Well, those days, like the dead-ball era and good acting roles for Tom Hanks, are gone, and the Littlest Division is a lite version of its former self.
Okay, it’s no early-‘00s AL Central over there. Every team may be flawed, but each has a strategy to bring itself back to its late-90s/early-00s/2002 form. Who’s gonna do it? Let’s find out…
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Off Katella Avenue By The Freeway.
Let me qualify these predictions by saying this is still the most balanced division in baseball (last year three out of these four teams finished within three games of each other), so there’s an even-money chance that the actual finish could be the total opposite. But that’s the fun of predictions, right? (Mind you, some apparently believe the fun is in sending nastygrams to the prognosticator. Bless you.)
The Angels lost Troy Percival in the offseason, but that’s more a demonstration of the faith they have in Frankie Rodriguez than anything, and they’re right (other teams could stand to copy their example). The Halo pitching staff isn’t amazing, but it isn’t a gleaming tower of suck either.
It’s unknown what they were thinking signing the aging Steve Finley (and counter to the example above, since Darin Erstad should by rights be playing the outfield instead of being the second-worst-hitting 1B in the league). But all in all, it’s a balanced team with the best hitter in the division (Vlad, natch). The Anaheim Fan Alert level remains at “rabid,” although we stand ready to downgrade it to “went to the mall instead” at any time.
2. Oakland Athletics
Okay, okay, so the A’s lost Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder this winter. The conventional wisdom? Same as when they lost Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada: “doooom.” But the secret to this offseason’s deals is what they brought back: not only young potential replacements for Hudson and Mulder (Danny Meyer, Dan Haren), but also a bullpen upgrade (Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero). GM Billy Beane even managed to re-sign his team’s best hitter (Erubiel Durazo), even if it was for one year.
I’m less enthralled by Beane than the stathead crowd is: the strategy behind the strategy for Oakland is that they piece together as balanced a club as they can given their financial constraints. Find good kids and play them, because a few of them will catch fire. It’s a formula that’s kept the A’s modestly successful for seven seasons now.
That modest success should continue into 2005, and a la the 2002 Angels, it only takes one postseason hot streak to make a team look like a masterwork. All we know for sure is that those infernal drums will continue to annoy us for another year.
3. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners weren’t as bad as their 99 losses would imply – they would have improved this year without making a single change. But when you lose 99 games and your ballpark revenue is as important to you as the M’s is, the only question you ask is, “do you think Barry Bonds might be on the market?”
And change they did – getting a reasonable deal on Adrian Beltre and a not-so-reasonable deal on Richie Sexson (the M’s are willing to go to great lengths for a native Northwesterner, as evidenced in their insistence upon the retention of one Willie Bloomquist). Unfortunately, they’re also still suffering the effects of their previous MO: paying a premium to keep fan favorites whose time may have come and gone (Jamie Moyer, Dan Wilson).
If Sexson, Beltre and new young hot stud OF Jeremy Reed can come through and the pitching staff doesn’t completely fall apart, the Mariners could jump a spot. If the only guy collecting hits is Ichiro, look out 98 losses.
Note I haven’t mentioned Bret Boone. Note that I’ll continue to not mention Bret Boone.
4. Texas Rangers
It’s so tempting to call the Cops the “A’s of the late ‘00s,” but there’s still a long way to go for the Texas squad. First, the young hitters have got to learn patience (while a league-third in slugging percentage, the Rangers were 10th in walks). Second, the rotation might want to try getting younger too – Kenny Rogers is about ready to fall off The Cliff, and Chan Ho Park already has.
But this is a team who’s likely to generate more runs than the 860 who crossed the plate last year, with young hot studs (I know what you’re thinking, and it’s just wrong) Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Mensch and the whole Scooby gang returning for ’05. They even coaxed the underperforming-but still-good Alfonso Soriano back for a not-outrageous sum.
The Texas dream is that Chan Ho Park finally performs as promised, Rogers holds on for another year, and the lineup can build on last year’s division-best offense. Oh, and rivers of Jack Daniel’s, but that’s for another column.
about the author
Michael Cox is better known as the inventor of the Spam™ Funnel. Investors welcome — e-mail him from our Contact Us page.