What a year it was for the AL West. For the first time in recent memory, the AL West fielded three teams with records better than .500 (Angels, Rangers, Mariners), allowing them to challenge the vaunted AL East as the best division in the American League. The good karma continued into the postseason, when Anaheim was finally able to get the monkey, pun intended, off their backs when they beat the Red Sox in three games to advance to the ALCS, before losing to the eventual champion Yankees.
So what does 2010 hold in store for the western inhabitants of the American League? Can Anaheim continue their dominance? Did the huge off-season for the Mariners swing the power in the division enough? Can Texas build upon its surprise season?
Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim
2009 Record – 97-65 – First Place
No team in baseball had a more difficult off-season than the Angels. They went into the Hot Stove season with five impact players hitting the free agent market in Vladimir Guerrero, Darren Oliver, Bobby Abreu, John Lackey, and Chone Figgins, and knew right off the bat that they would only be able to retain two of those players. Still, its doubtful that they foresaw themselves being able to only resign one of those players when they were able to get Abreu to extend before he even hit the open market.
The biggest loss for the team was watching Figgins sign with Seattle. It’ll create a huge hole at the top of the line-up, where the Angels now lack a true leadoff hitter. Sure, they could plug Maicer Izturis into that slot, but that isn’t likely to happen, as Anaheim really wants top prospect Brandon Wood to win the job in camp. Wood is out of minor league options, so the Angels are hoping for him to realize his potential much like Kendry Morales did in 2009. If he does, he’ll give the Angels a true corner infielder with power that will also help offset the loss of Guerrero. If he doesn’t, the pressure gets added on to Hideki Matsui, who was signed as Guerrero’s replacement at DH.
In regards to pitching, the Angels were perhaps one of only a few teams that could withstand the loss of a top of the rotation pitcher like John Lackey. Jered Weaver takes over as the staff ace and hopes to build off of his career year in 2009 that saw him win a team high 16 games a year ago. Rounding out the rotation will be Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir, who are both looking for rebound years, Joe Saunders who also won 16 games in 2009, and free agent acquisition Joel Pineiro, who is coming off a good walk-year in St. Louis. Still, the biggest impact of any player on this pitching staff will be felt in the loss of Darren Oliver, who served as the Angels best bridge to closer Brian Fuentes last season and was able to fill into any roll.
Make no doubts about it; this Angels team is not going to be the same squad you’ve seen over the last few years. Still, they must be regarded with the same level of respect within the division because they have the quality of players to capture the flag yet again, not to mention the best manager in the game.
2009 Record – 75-87 – Fourth Place – 22.0 Games Back
The Athletics were sort of the biggest enigma in baseball in 2009. Everybody sees Billy Beane’s teams dig themselves a hole early in the season, then put on the perennial run to challenge for a playoff spot. Everyone watched for it in 2009, but the young A’s never responded to the challenge. And while they are another year older in 2010, it remains to be seen if they have something special going on over there or if they are just seeing what they’ve got themselves.
On the offense, the only real additions were the trade acquisition of Kevin Kouzmanoff from San Diego and the free agent signing of Coco Crisp to play center field. Kouzmanoff finally allows the A’s to move past the “will he or won’t he play” status of Eric Chavez, who himself hasn’t played a full season since 2005 and at this point, has to be labeled a bonus if he can get on the field and be productive for 100 games or more this season. Aside from that, there is the curious acquisition of Jake Fox from the Cubs. At 28, Fox is an intriguing power option, if he can adapt to major league pitching, but he’s never really been given the chance to at this level. He could push incumbents Daric Barton for playing time at First Base and Jack Cust at DH.
Perhaps the most daring signing for the A’s was picking up Ben Sheets to help mentor the young pitching staff, as well as serve as staff ace. Sheets didn’t pitch at all in 2009 after surgery and is looking to show he can again be a top of the rotation starter. After Sheets, Dallas Braden will take the ball as the number 2 starter coming off a fine season, followed by Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson. The final spot in the rotation will be fought for between Vin Mazzaro and Justin Duchscherer, who himself missed all of 2009 with various maladies. In fact, the only known quantity on the entire pitching staff is returning Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, who saved 26 games in 2009 after taking over as the closer.
As stated above, the A’s are a mystery team, and as such, are likely a few years away from truly contending again. Still, they have the ability to make like miserable for other contenders along the way.
2009 Record – 85-77 – Third Place – 12.0 Games Back
For every loss the Angels felt, karma seemed to swing in the Mariners direction during the 2010 off-season. A change in General Manager’s position to Jack Zduriencik also meant a change in mentality for the team. The team was active in both the free agent and trade markets during the winter, making them perhaps the most improved team in the game.
This is still an offensive unit that flows around Ichiro Suzuki, and rightfully so. Still, the addition of Chone Figgins gives them a whole new dynamic in the line-up, speed outside of Ichiro, giving them the flexibility to either move him down into a run producer role, or have the double lead-off scenario with Figgins batting ninth, allowing for better turnover of the line-up. Perhaps the one thing that could make or break the Mariners season though was the trade acquisition of Milton Bradley from the Cubs. Essentially a salary trade off for Carlos Silva’s albatross, Bradley can’t be a huge boon on the power side of the offense. However, he could also be what sinks the ship if he isn’t happy in his new home. The Mariners are hoping that Ken Griffey Jr. can be the level head that Bradley needs as a teammate, and that the low-pressure environment in Seattle will lead to a productive season.
For all the talk of the Figgins signing, the biggest move was the surprise trade involvement as the third piece in the Roy Halladay trade between Toronto and Philadelphia. That trade sent prospects to Toronto and in return delivered Cliff Lee to Seattle. Sure, Lee is in a walk year, but having him line up behind last year’s Cy Young runner-up in Felix Hernandez gives Seattle the best one-two punch in the division. If Erik Bedard can be healthy and Ian Snell captures his previous promise in Pittsburgh, this could be a very good rotation. The biggest question on the pitching staff is whether or not David Aardsma can possible repeat his stellar 2009, which saw the journeyman reliever save 38 games last season.
Seattle has all the pieces it needs for a playoff appearance to fall into their laps. The Bradley variable is their biggest obstacle in taking the division crown, but if they reel him in, this could be a very dangerous team.
2009 Record -87-75 – Second Place – 10.0 Games Back
I’m not sure if I understand what the Rangers were trying to do during this past winter. Coming off a season where they made a serious run at the postseason, they had a solid block to build off of. However, financial troubles with the team, that is leading toward its sale possibly made a good team dormant in a year when the previous division winner was beaten up and another division foe jumped up to seize the title.
Offensively, this has always been a team that could score runs. 2010 will be no exception, because if anything, they made themselves stronger. A year that saw Nelson Cruz breakout and keep the Rangers in contention, despite the injuries to Josh Hamilton and the fall-off for Chris Davis was followed up with the signing of Vladimir Guerrero to serve as the team’s primary designated hitter. Coupled with expected improvements by Elvis Andrus at shortstop and the return of a healthy Hamilton, and the Rangers have the makings of a dangerous offensive ball club.
Despite the success of the offense, the pitching staff has always been what will make or break the teams in Arlington. That said, the Rangers chose to part ways with the workhorse of the staff in Kevin Millwood, and instead replaced him with an unknown quantity in the ever-injured Rich Harden. Sure, Harden can be dominant when he’s on the mound, but he’s never shown the ability to take his turn ever five days. Scott Feldman will look to build on his stellar 2009, but his low strikeout numbers likely mean he’ll decline at least slightly in 2010. The rest of the rotation is rounded out by Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter, who both had up and down seasons, and Colby Lewis, who is on his second stint with the club after pitching recently in Japan. Perhaps the best thing going for the starting rotation is the signing of Darren Oliver, who will possibly see quite a few innings in middle relief this season.
As much as I want to like the Rangers, there has yet to be a General Manager during the Tom Hicks regime that has figured out that this team needs to win with ground-ball pitchers. Until they learn that, they will be nothing more than a placeholder and a minor nuisance in this division.
1.) Seattle Mariners
2.) Los Angeles Angels
3.) Texas Rangers
4.) Oakland Athletics
AL West Standings, MLB.com
Sortable Pitching Stats, MLB.com
Los Angeles Angels, MLB.com
Oakland Athletics, MLB.com
Seattle Mariners, MLB.comTexas Rangers, MLB.com