Division Preview: AL West

A competitive division race appears to be in store out west this season. Everyone but the A’s made major noise this off season with high profile moves, though the A’s did can Nick Swisher in one of the Moneyball, minor rebuilding efforts. Also, this division has four teams while the NL Central has six teams. I would not mind MLB making the simplest realignment in its history by moving one more team to the AL West for the sake of symmetry. Enough of that sidebar, we’ll get to the teams.

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California of Gray Davis (2007 Record: 94-68 1st)

The Angels will repeat as AL West champions this season. The best team in the AL West got better when they acquired Gold Glover Torii Hunter to replace Gary Matthews Jr., who was statistically the worst fielding center fielder in 2007 with 5 errors and an AL-low zone factor. Matthews should be a solid fourth outfielder though who can also DH. Removing his glove from the equation will be beneficial for the Angels and this allows them to watch Torii Hunter make at least 162 Web Gems this season.


Though this was a great acquisition, it is not what makes them great. They were just fine without Hunter because of ace/behemoth John Lackey. Lackey (6’6″ 245) had a 3.01 ERA last season along with career highs in wins (19) and innings pitched(224.0). In addition to Lackey, Jon Garland, Jered Weaver, and possibly Ervin Santana who needs to rebound from a poor 2007 season (5.76 ERA), will help fill out a very talented pitching rotation. Veteran setup man Scot Shields provides a worry-free 7th or 8th, sometimes both innings to get to star closer Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez. Rodriguez has stated that he strongly considering leaving Los Angeles following the season. This would be a huge blow to the Angels, and the possibility of a great closer like Rodriguez leaving means that they need to make either a monstrous offer to keep him at the end of the season, or just try to win now, save money and bid him adieu in 2009.

From a lineup standpoint, the Angels did not change too much from last season’s lineup (minus Danny Hemmerling). Chone Figgins returns this season from an injury-shortened 2007 in which he batted .330 and had 41 stolen bases. I am sure manager Mike Scioscia would like to have Figgins around for more than 115 games this season because he is one of the best young players around and is bringing the stolen base back. What sticks out with this LA Angels lineup is their stacked outfield. The underrated Garret Anderson, Torii Hunter, and the always dangerous Vlad Guerrero fill the outfield. These three mixed with perhaps the best fourth outfielder in the league, Gary Matthews Jr., will give pitchers trouble all year long. The defensive improvement has already been mentioned, but it is a marked difference. On a final note, Howie Kendrick should have a breakout year after batting .332 in 88 games last season. He is 24 years old and should make a mark in a starting role at second.

Angels beat Francisco Rodriguez in salary arbitration; reliever to make $10 million (ESPN.com)

2. Seattle Mariners (2007 Record: 88-74 2nd)

Expect another good season from the Mariners who made arguably the biggest transaction of the off season when they acquired ace Erik Bedard from the Baltimore Orioles. Another addition to the rotation is Carlos Silva, who played with the Twins in 2007. The Mariners have built up a rotation that will be able to compete in the AL West this season. Felix Hernandez, who is a rising star, rebounded from a sub par 2006 with a commendable 2007 effort will be a vital component of the Mariners’ success this year. Coupled with a strong bullpen that stars all-star J.J. Putz, the Mariners look to be in shape on the rubber.

Not much has changed on the offensive front for the Mariners. They still have Ichiro who hit .351 last season like he seems to every year. Adrian Beltre brings a powerful bat and a nice glove to third base. Jose Vidro is still hanging around with a good contact bat, while Yuniesky Betancourt is making a name for himself at Vidro’s old position, shortstop. The wild card for Seattle this season will revolve around whether or not Richie Sexson decides to get his average over .205 with more than 21 homers. Sexson finished with an OBP below .300, which is simply atrocious (cough, Pudge Rodriguez in Detroit).

3. Oakland Athletics (2007 Record: 76-86 3rd)

This is an Oakland team who, barring injuries, will contend for a higher standing this year, but ultimately be overpowered by the Angels and Mariners. The AL West is always a competitive division and I am expecting the same again. Oakland finished 76-86 last season, a main reason being that 3B Eric Chavez and SS Bobby Crosby played in 90 and 93 games, respectively. Chavez brings some power from the left side of the plate, and has won six Gold Gloves at third base. Crosby has been disappointing since his 2004 season when he won the AL Rookie of the Year. This guy really doesn’t seem to fit the Moneyball system with his low batting average, high strikeout total, and abysmal on base percentages. This could be an important year for Crosby in deter ming what kind of role he will fill for the A’s or whoever he is with in the future. He is Brandon Inge but a shortstop, and that is not a good way to prolong a career, especially at a marquee position.

Oakland has some reason to be concerned about their pitching staff. RHP Rich Harden has started 13 games over the past two seasons. He pitched like an ace in 2005, had an off, but still effective 2006, and had a nice 2007 before returning to the DL early again. Harden is an ace, but he needs to have a injury-free season to prove that he can still lead a rotation and take his team to the playoffs. Joe Blanton is back this season following a 2007 season where he pitched a beastly 230.0 innings. Oakland will count on him to duplicate his 2007 success and keep devouring innings to get to closer Huston Street. This season, keep an eye on DH/OF Jack Cust. He hit 26 homers in 124 games last season. It will be interesting to see what he can do with a full season. If he reduces his 41% of striking out, he will be force to reckoned with in the AL West.

4. Texas Rangers (2007 Record: 75-87 4th)

Texas will finish last again this season, but this does not mean that they did not make strides to improve their team this off season. Texas GM John Daniels realized his 2007 team was not going to be a winner, so they decided to be buyers and not sellers this time around. Rangers fans have reason to be excited for Japanese import P Kazuo Fukumori, the resurrected OF Josh Hamilton, and loose cannon OF Milton Bradley. Hamilton and Bradley will be adequate replacements for the now unemployed Sammy Sosa. Fukumori is a 31 year old rookie so he could win the award by way of the Ichiro Clause, but his numbers in Japan show some fluctuation from season to season. With a fastball that hovers in the very low 90s, he will certainly not be an overpowering reliever, but he has generated some buzz with his shootball, which darts down and in on right-handed hitters.

The player to watch this year for the Rangers is P Kevin Millwood. He laid an egg in 2007 with a career high 5.16 ERA but did manage to pull out 10 wins with a mediocre squad surrounding him. It is yet to be seen if he can return to his old form as an Atlanta Brave and his incredible 2005 season with Cleveland where his 2.86 ERA got him a 9-11 record. If his bullpen and surrounding cast doesn’t fail him, he could duplicate his past success.

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