Sign in to comment!

Menu
Home

Baseball

Solid, adaptable Angels the pick of AL West

With Seattle making a major step forward a year ago and the Angels losing key players in the offseason, the popular notion is that the Mariners will take charge in the AL West this season.

Warning: Don't get caught up in trends.

The AL West is still the Angels' division to lose, as has been the case in five of the past six seasons.

Yes, they have lost players, but they still have the consistency of leadership provided by manager Mike Scioscia. And they have managed to fill lineup holes in the past, so there is no reason to think they can't do so again.

When shortstop Orlando Cabrera, DH Shea Hillenbrand, and starting pitchers Kelvim Escobar and Bartolo Colon departed after the 2007 season, the Angels regrouped with the insertion of Erick Aybar at short, Juan Rivera at DH and Jon Garland in the rotation.

A year ago, they went to spring training minus left fielder Garret Anderson, first baseman Mark Teixiera, closer Francisco Rodriguez and Garland, but manged just fine with the addition of right fielder Bobby Abreu, Kendry Morales taking over at first base, a mix-and-match replacement in the rotation with the addition of Scott Kazmir, plus the signing of closer Brian Fuentes.

That record of talent selection and adaptation puts them at the head of the division.

1. LOS ANGELES

Instead of wondering how they can survive after the free agent losses of Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and John Lackey, the Angels spent the spring working Brandon Wood, Hideki Matsui and Joel Pineiro into the routine. Matsui even played some innings in the outfield, which would be a regular-season blessing, since Scioscia can then keep some bats in the lineup while easing defensive demands on regulars and giving the outfielders a few days of rest. If there is one concern on the team it is that Rivera, Abreu and Matsui will average 34 years of age on Opening Day.

With the offseason signing of Pineiro, along with the in-season addition of Kazmir from Tampa Bay last year to go into the rotation behind Jared Weaver, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana, the Angels may have the game's strongest starting five. They also added Fernando Rodney to provide right-handed support for Fuentes in the bullpen.

And pitching is key for Scioscia, who builds his team around solid fundamental play, emphasizing throwing strikes and making plays.

2. TEXAS

The spring was disrupted by the revelation that manager Ron Washington tested positive last summer for cocaine use. The feeling among the Rangers is the announcement actually brought the organization together. It created a stronger bond between team president Nolan Ryan and GM John Daniels and became a rallying point for the players, who were outspoken in their support for Washington.

On the field, the Rangers are known for being an explosive offensive team. The arrival of hitting coach Clint Hurdle, over from Rudy Jaramillo, figures to put more emphasis on patience and working counts. More importantly, though, the Rangers have a legitimate rotation. It may be young, but it is talented, and deep enough that it could cover Tommy Hunter starting the season on the disabled list. Rookie right-hander Neftali Feliz has intimidating, late-inning stuff. Now if either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden would take the step forward and claim the No. 1 catching job, this would be a fully-settled team.

3. SEATTLE

The Mariners were the surprise team of the American League last year, but still only finished in third place. They were active again this offseason, but history shows there is usually a stumble the year after a major improvement, serving as a reminder that it's not as easy to succeed as it initially seemed.

Chone Figgins will fit nicely at second base, a better position for him than third, where he played with the Angels, and Jose Lopez will be better defensively at third than he was at second.

Mariners are looking for a quick return from lefty Cliff Lee, sidelined with a strained abdominal muscle that is concerning because it's a common occurrence. Seattle is also counting heavily on the influence of Ken Griffey Jr. to help avoid a Milton Bradley implosion.

4. OAKLAND

Once the darlings of the AL West, the A's have struggled with a farm system enduring a prolonged drought. Young players, however, are starting to emerge, and this spring some hope was found when lingering injuries didn't surface for Eric Chavez, who is adjusting to first base, and right-hander Justin Duchscherer.

The A's might want to also remind folks that spring doesn't count, particularly in the case of $10-million-man Ben Sheets, who failed to retire any of the 10 batters he faced in a spring game against Cincinnati.

The offense needs some power in support of Jack Cust, which is why fingers are crossed that Chavez's surgically repaired back and shoulder will handle first base better than third, and that offseason addition Kevin Kouzamnoff, who takes over at third, can build off his efforts in San Diego last year.