It's anyone's game in the AL West
Mariners could challenge Angels to shake up division
The American League West has followed a formula over the past three seasons.
While the challengers -- Seattle, Texas and Oakland -- have either made intriguing offseason acquisitions, kick-started heady rebuilding programs, completely altered organizational philosophies or dabbled in all three strategies, no one has touched the Angels.
For three years running and in five of the past six seasons, the juggernaut from Anaheim has won this division as the clear favorite or tepid choice while running away from the pack early or pulling ahead in September after a protracted stretch battle. With veteran stars manning the Major League roster, a well-stocked farm system filling in the cracks and one of the game's best managers, Mike Scioscia, running the show on the field, it's been a lethal combination for the rest of the West.
Then again, that was 2004, '05, '07, '08 and '09, and this is now.
The winter brought discontent to Angels fans when free agents John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver all bolted for other AL destinations, with Figgins heading to division rival Seattle and Guerrero and Oliver to AL West pursuer Texas.
The Angels haven't had problems making up for losses before. They plugged in Kendry Morales for departed first baseman Mark Teixeira last year and got MVP-caliber numbers from the young slugger in his first full season of at-bats.
This time around, highly regarded prospect Brandon Wood will finally get his chance at third base to replace Figgins, Joel Pineiro was signed to pitch in Lackey's spot, free-agent acquisition Hideki Matsui fills in at DH for Guerrero and another winter signee, Fernando Rodney, helps bulk up the bullpen in Oliver's absence.
General manager Tony Reagins has done his best to remodel his roster in the wake of all this turnover, but 2010 won't be a summer stroll for the Angels, not with the rest of the division seemingly improving by the day.
Seattle got most of the publicity for a great offseason, plucking Figgins, trading for lefty Cliff Lee to co-ace the rotation already led by Felix Hernandez, adding a potent bat in the form of Milton Bradley, trading for defensive-whiz first baseman Casey Kotchman and hard-throwing reliever Brandon League, and signing key reserve players such as Eric Byrnes and Ryan Garko. The Mariners' already-potent defense might have improved and their run production, which ranked last in the AL in 2009, should get better as GM Jack Zduriencik continues to tailor the roster to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
The Rangers have been hoarding young talent for years as GM Jon Daniels and his astute staff have taken advantage of positioning in the First-Year Player Draft and quietly built an impressive player development system. All the while, the big-league club worked on finding a winning identity, and things began to crystallize in 2009, when an improved pitching staff and potent offense helped the team to an 87-75 record. Now they've got Guerrero and Oliver, new starter Rich Harden, and what they hope will be full, healthy seasons from slugger Josh Hamilton and emerging bullpen phenom Neftali Feliz.
Oakland's strategy isn't difficult to pinpoint. For years, their payroll parameters have forced GM Billy Beane to be creative and go young. The result has been a few recent down years with an eye on the future. Entering 2010, the core of the A's is hugely talented and somewhat untested, although the starting rotation simply overflows with proven talent (free-agent signee Ben Sheets, All-Star Justin Duchscherer, Dallas Braden) and the promise of golden arms (Brett Anderson, Vin Mazzaro, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman). If the offense can jell with the help of newcomers Coco Crisp and Kevin Kouzmanoff, the A's could make a surprise run for October in what appears to finally be a wide-open AL West.
Losing Figgins changes the dynamic of the Angels' lineup slightly, but the potency remains. The team can still go from first to third and steal bases with Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick coming into their own, and they have well-balanced pop and patience with Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Matsui, Morales, Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli. We'll see how Wood takes to a starting role. That group gets a slight nod over Texas, which brings serious home-run lumber with Hamilton, Chris Davis, Guerrero, Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz but will be more speed-conscious with Julio Borbon entering the lineup and Elvis Andrus a year better.
Our selection: Angels
The A's could very well have the best rotation in baseball in 2012 or even '11, but for this year, it's looking like either the Mariners or Angels for tops in the division. Seattle has one of the best 1-2 punches in the game with last year's Cy Young runner-up, Hernandez, and 2008's Cy Young winner (with Cleveland), Lee. An abdominal injury will likely have Lee starting the season on the disabled list, however, and behind those two, the quartet of Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister will have to step up, but the Mariners' overall defense is so good, particularly for its home park, that the pitching numbers might be deceptively stingy. The Angels lost a lead dog in Lackey but still look solid, if not spectacular, from 1-5 with Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir and Pineiro. We'll go with Seattle's star power for now, but a month without Lee could eventually be enough to tip this in the Angels' direction.
Our selection: Mariners
One of the reasons the Mariners had a winning record in 2009 despite the lowest-scoring offense in the AL was its bullpen, which posted a 3.83 ERA, got a breakout season from closer David Aardsma (2.52 ERA, 38 saves), and continued to mature with solid work from Mark Lowe, Sean White and Shawn Kelley. That unit might be even better after adding hard-throwing League as a back-end piece. But Seattle might not be quite as good as the A's relief corps, which led the AL with a 3.54 ERA and 514 strikeouts in 2009 and could improve if Joey Devine returns to health for most of the season. And don't discount the Angels, who added Rodney and get back one of the game's best setup men in a healthy Scot Shields.
Our selection: A's
The Mariners rebuilt their team before the 2009 season by committing to run prevention as the one commodity they could stockpile quickly and at a relatively low cost. It paid off with much-improved pitching and what the devotees of the new defensive statistic called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) considered to be one of the best defensive teams ever. They added plus defenders in Kotchman and Figgins, whom they've moved to second base in hopes of also getting better defense from Jose Lopez, who will now man third base. They still have outstanding gloves in the outfield in Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez and at shortstop in Jack Wilson, making them a standout in this category once again.
Our selection: Mariners
Predicted order of finish
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.