1) Anaheim Angels
I don’t know what to call these guys. The Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles? The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim? The Angels of Los Angeles and Anaheim? Rally Monkey and the Pips? I’ll just go with this: damn good.
Vlad Guerrero, the reigning AL MVP, is the best player in the league. His hand-eye coordination is unmatched, and he could repeat this year. Darin Erstad, Chone Figgins, Garrett Anderson, Steve Finley, and Orlando Cabrera have all been producing for years (well, maybe not Figgins) and are vital cogs to the lineup. The team can produce six runs a game with no problem, and if you factor in a healthy Dallas McPherson (preseason favorite for AL Rook of the Year), you might bring that up to seven.
What most people ignore is the Halos’ pitching. It’s not the best in the AL, but it’s definitely solid enough to hold the leads it’ll be given. Bartolo Colon is losing his fastball, so he’s compensating by throwing his other stuff better. Kelvim Escobar, 2002 playoff stud John Lackey, and veteran Paul Byrd will all contribute. Jarrod Washburn won 18 games in ’02, then lost over a month last year. If he’s healthy, look for 15 wins again. Byrd has a rebuilt elbow, but we always liked his hurling in KC and ATL, so in this situation — which may be right for him — look for a hot start.
The loss of Troy Percival is a big one, but Francisco Rodriguez should be ready to fill his shoes. A playoff race with Oakland might give him the seasoning he needs to get this team to the ALCS (which is where it rightfully belongs).
2) Oakland Athletics
There’s a big discrepancy in California baseball. In Oakland, the GM gets all the attention. Same in LA (ironically, one used to work for the other). In Anaheim, where the GM is doing a tremendous job bringing in stars and role players, the manager (Mike Scioscia) gets all the attention.
This was another off-season where Billy Beane’s methods of execution were highly scrutinized, as he dealt away 2/3 of his aces and retooled his rotation around a bunch of young guys. Our favorite headline was ESPN Magazine, declaring the new quartet of Joe Blanton, Dan Meyer, etc. as “Beaney Babies.” Clever popular culture references aside, the A’s consistently win because they have a system. The hitters know they need to work counts, and everyone basically understands that when you become a star, you leave, and Billy’s alright with that.
The Athletics will benefit this year from veteran C Jason Kendall coming aboard to handle their young gunners, and a lineup that includes Eric Chavez, Kendall, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher (who’ll contend with McPherson for ROY), and reigning ROY Bobby Crosby. The As are silently becoming the AL’s answer to the Braves — every year you look at them and scoff, saying “No, not this time,” and every year they pull it out and win 90 games, contending right down to the wire.
Even with injuries, I suspect this team wins 90-94 games. They don’t have the top-to-bottom consistency of the Angels, or the experience and stuff in the rotation. The Angels probably top 100 victories and win the division, but again, it could come down to the final weekend of the season.
3) Seattle Mariners
I really like Texas and all their young stars in the three-spot, but it’s hard to pick against a team that went out and grabbed last year’s homer king (Adrian Beltre) and another big banger (Richie Sexson) while keeping all-time single-season hit king Ichiro and consistent producers like Bret Boone and Raul Ibanez. Mike Hargrove comes aboard as manager, which should provide leadership and help create more than 63 victories this time around.
The M’s pitching is young, which is basically an euphemism for “untested.” Bobby Madritsch could be a fantasy steal and win 14 games (think Jake Westbrook in Cleveland last year), and Jamie Moyer, while 42, is only two years removed from winning 21. Did you know Jamie Moyer is married to Digger Phelps’ daughter? Wow. I just learned that, and the first thought in my mind was “what does Moyer think of the tie highlighter?”
Ryan Franklin had an awful 4-16 record last year, but also had the worst run support of any starter. He shared the same ERA as Texas’ Kenny Rogers, but Rogers won 14 more games than Franklin did. If the youngster can shake off his 2004 campaign, he’s got the heater to win double-digits, instead of losing them.
The book on Seattle is this: with Ichiro leading off, and Beltre and Sexson in the heart of the lineup, they’ll produce a lot more runs than they did last year. The pitching staff should be able to hold some of the leads, but not all. The Mariners aren’t yet at a level where they can compete with the “big two” of this division (a group that changes annually), but with a free-agent pitcher grab, they’ll get there.
4) Texas Rangers
If you’re a wise betting man, go to Vegas right now and lay down $10 on the Rangers to win the World Series in 2009 or 2010. I don’t know what the odds for that are right now, but the payoff will be nice, and isn’t it good to know you’ve got money in the bank down the road?
The Texas lineup is stocked with diverse 24-year old hitters (and playoff-savvy Yankee retread Alfonso Soriano), and GM John Hart won’t start selling the farm anytime soon (although Soriano could exit at some point this season). The pitching is questionable — Kenny Rogers is “the ace,” as horrifying as that sounds to the untrained ear (ask Mets fans about Kenny producing in pressure situations), but he does get good run support from Hank Blalock, Laynce Nix, Michael Young, and co.
Ryan Drese won 14 games last year, and benefits from throwing sinker-conducive stuff at homer-friendly Ameriquest Field in Dallas. Chan Ho Park is in here, another snippet that should terrify Texas faithful. He does have decent stuff; he just needs to live up to previously-held expectations.
Buck Showalter is a workaholic and one of the best in the game. He’s a big reason the Rangers were as good as they were last year. Right now, with a suspect rotation and a still-maturing offense, the Rangers can’t win a very competitive division. In a few years, though, the picture here will be entirely different.
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