1) Anaheim Angels: We 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? We’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 in that role again. 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 7. What most people ignore is their 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 As: 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. 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 As 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 catching veteran Jason Kendall coming aboard to handle their young gunners, and a line-up that includes Eric Chavez, Kendall, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher (who’ll contend with McPherson for AL Rook of the Year), and reigning AL Rook of the Year 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: We really like Texas here, and all their young stars, but it’s hard to pick against a team that went out and grabbed the MLB 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 create more than 63 victories. The pitching is young, which also means “untested.” Bobby Madistrich could be a fantasy steal and win 14 games (think Jake Westbrook in CLE last year), and Jamie Moyer, while 42, is only two years removed from winning 21 games. 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 lineup is stocked with diverse 24-year old hitters (and playoff savvy NYY 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, 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.