1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pitchers: The Angels are blessed with a ton of potential in their starting rotation. The problem is that the potential that exists has yet to be fulfilled. Bartolo Colon was signed as a free agent because of his sometimes-unhittable stuff, with the Angels hopeful that he would watch his weight and pitch with a more consistent focus. While Colon’s weight wasn’t as big an issue in 2004 as it was in 2003, his 5.01 ERA went a long way to offset his 18 wins. He was better in the second half of the season, and the organization is betting that the 31-year-old will continue to improve. While he only went 11-12, Kelvim Escobar was much more consistent than Colon, posting a 3.93 ERA. Escobar did a good job not getting frustrated over a lack of run support and plethora of no-decisions. Jarrod Washburn has to show he can stay healthy for a full season and be productive, and John Lackey needs to be more consistent out of the fourth spot. The rotation is impressive in terms of overall talent, but the Angels need more production and more consistency out of the four.
Francisco Rodriguez, the 23-year-old fireballer, takes over for Troy Percival as the Angels’ closer. The move should help Rodriguez stay fresh throughout the season after he pitched 84 innings in 2004. Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields, who are better served for the seventh and eighth innings, will be the primary setup men, with Esteban Yan also expected to pitch in key situations. The Angels need to be wary, however, because Shields logged over 100 innings last year, and Donnelly wasn’t healthy. The bullpen is talented, but Percival’s move to Detroit saps some of its limited depth.
Position players: The Angels have a lineup full of guys who love to swing the bat. Darin Erstad, Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, and Orlando Cabrera aren’t known for being cheated in their at-bats. Guerrero is best-known for his wild swings at just about any pitch his bat can reach, and he can hit just about any pitch for power. The Angels need big numbers out of young Dallas McPherson, who hit 40 home runs in the minors last year, and they also need continued success out of the seemingly ageless Steve Finley in center field. The Angels aren’t a bad defensive team, either, especially with Finley taking over in center and moving Anderson to left. Erstad is very good at first base, and Cabrera isn’t a slouch at shortstop.
Overall analysis: While the Angels are not a sure thing in the West, they are the favorites. Their status is helped by the rebuilding and subsequent uncertainty in both Seattle and Oakland. The pitching staff isn’t deep and has the potential to implode, but Colon was solid after the All-Star break, and the Angels are banking on the lineup not to miss a beat without Glaus and former leadoff man David Eckstein. Mike Scioscia is as good a manager as you’ll find in baseball, and the Angels are too dangerous in all facets of the game to not be considered the team to beat in this division, despite their stupid new name (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
2. Oakland Athletics
Pitchers: With two of the Big Three gone, the Oakland starting rotation has a completely new look. Tim Hudson was dealt to Atlanta, and Mark Mulder to St. Louis, leaving Barry Zito, 26, as the ace of the starting rotation. Zito struggled (11-11, 4.48) in 2004, but he developed a fourth pitch last season, and he seems to be relishing the leadership role he now has on this staff. 23-year-old Rich Harden (11-7, 3.99) was solid as a rookie, and he takes over the second spot in the rotation. Danny Haren was okay in a late-season stint in St. Louis, then was shipped to Oakland in the Mulder trade. Fellow youngsters Dan Meyer (brought in from Atlanta in the Hudson deal) and Joe Blanton are expected to finish out the rotation. If that is the starting five, the A’s will boast a rotation with an average age of 24.
The success or failure of the bullpen comes down to one player: closer Octavio Dotel. Dotel became a gopher-ball machine last season, posting a 4.09 ERA and making 22 saves in 28 chances after being acquired from Houston in a midseason trade. The A’s bullpen as a whole posted a horrifying save percentage of 55.6. They’re counting on Dotel to get that number closer to 70-75%, with help from some solid setup men like Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, Ricardo Rincon, Chad Bradford, and Justin Duchscherer. If Dotel returns to the numbers he put up as a setup man in Houston, the A’s bullpen could become one of the best in baseball. If not, look for the A’s to possibly bring Huston Street, drafted last year after a successful career as a closer at Texas, up from AAA.
Position players: There are some question marks in the Oakland lineup, but a healthy Oakland team should score bundles of runs. Jason Kendall was acquired from Pittsburgh and will bat behind leadoff man Mark Kotsay (.314-15-63). Eric Chavez is back after an injury-plagued season, and the A’s expect continued improvement out of Bobby Crosby, Erubiel Durazo, and Eric Byrnes. Charles Thomas, impressive in AAA last season, will take over in right field for the departed Jermaine Dye. Second base is a major question mark, as Mark Ellis didn’t play last season. The A’s brought in Keith Ginter (.262-19-60) from Milwaukee in case Ellis can’t go, but Ellis has been penciled in as the Opening Day starter.
Overall analysis: General Manager Billy Beane made some major offseason moves, dealing Hudson and Mulder and acquiring Kendall to start behind the plate. If the young starting rotation works, Beane is on to something. If Dotel doesn’t implode again, Beane is on to something. If Chavez and others can stay healthy and produce big numbers, Beane is on to something. However, if any of these three things doesn’t happen, the A’s will find themselves chasing the Angels all season. I love what Beane has done in Oakland, and it’s hard to pick against this team, but there is too much uncertainty and too much youth for them to beat out Los Angeles (seriously, this doesn’t look right…it’s ANAHEIM).
3. Seattle Mariners
Pitchers: The Seattle starting rotation is led by a 42-year-old slop-thrower and anchored by a former Northern League star. None of the Mariners’ four regular starters last year (Jamie Moyer, Gil Meche, Joel Piniero, and Ryan Franklin) posted an ERA under 4.67. The former Northern League star, 29-year-old Bobby Madritsch, was impressive in a late-season callup (6-3, 3.27) and should serve as the fifth starter to start this season. Obviously, the Mariners need better numbers out of the top four, especially Moyer (7-13, 5.21), and a healthy season out of Piniero, to have any chance in a tough division.
The team is banking on a healthy season out of closer Eddie Guardado (18 saves, 2.78 ERA), who pitched in just 41 games. Guardado needs to stay healthy, because Shigetoshi Hasegawa, 36, is the backup for the closer’s role. Hasegawa will be counted on for big innings no matter his role, and manager Mike Hargrove is hopeful he’ll turn it around after an awful 2004 (5.16 ERA). Expect J.J. Putz, Ron Villone, and Julio Mateo to work as setup men with Hasegawa. With how shaky the starting rotation is, the Mariners’ setup men could see significant work.
Position players: Seattle spent over $110 million to upgrade their lineup. Now fingers are crossed throughout the organization. Richie Sexson (.233-9-23 in Arizona) missed most of last season after shoulder surgery. He was a prolific power hitter in Milwaukee, and the Mariners hope he is fully recovered and ready to hit 40 home runs again. Adrian Beltre had a career year for the Dodgers last year (.334-48-121), but had never hit more than 25 homers or drove in more than 90 runs before that. Both Beltre and Sexson are good defensive players, so the infield should be pretty solid. Bret Boone had eye surgery to correct a vision problem that may have contributed to his slide last season (.251-24-83), and shortstop Pokey Reese can field, even if his hitting is suspect (.221 in Boston in 2004). Ichiro set the single-season hit record last year with 262 on his way to a huge season (.372-8-60). He’s joined in the outfield by Raul Ibanez and Randy Wynn. Look for youngster Bucky Jacobsen to get plenty of at-bats as a DH and part-time third baseman.
Overall analysis: The lineup is potentially prolific, but it might be asking a lot out of Sexson (injury) and Beltre (contract year syndrome?) to produce big numbers for the Mariners. If GM Bill Bavasi’s huge financial gamble pays off, and Hargrove manages like he did in Cleveland instead of like he did in Baltimore, the team will have a chance to compete. However, like Oakland, there are too many question marks surrounding the Mariners. Will Beltre return to past form and prove to be a huge bust? Can Boone rebound? Can Moyer improve at age 42? Can Meche and Franklin combine to win more than 11 games? Is Madritsch the real deal? With so many issues, it’s hard to pick them any higher than third.
4. Texas Rangers
Pitchers: The Rangers have a better rotation than people think. It’s all led by veteran Kenny Rogers (18-9, 4.76), who will need to show he can still bring it at age 40. Sinkerballer Ryan Drese (14-10, 4.20) emerged as a good second starter in 2004. Youngsters Chris Young and Juan Dominguez need to step up, as third starter Chan Ho Park (4-7, 5.46) has done virtually nothing since getting a big free-agent contract. Ricardo Rodriguez will be available if anyone falters or is injured. The odds of both Rogers and Drese pitching over 200 innings again aren’t high, especially given Rogers’ age, but manager Buck Showalter is hopeful that he can get four pitchers over 150-175 innings each.
After a strong 2004 season, the Rangers’ bullpen must prove it wasn’t a one-year wonder. Closer Francisco Cordero might get better, thanks to his three deadly pitches and the fact that he posted 49 saves in his first full year as a closer. Setup man Frank Francisco was good last year, but the team is hopeful the chair-throwing incident in Oakland doesn’t have any kind of long-term effect on him. Veteran Doug Brocail is joined by R.A. Dickey, Carlos Almanzar, Ron Mahay, and Brian Shouse in what should be a solid bullpen. Showalter hopes to cut into their workload, but the Rangers are deep here, assuming everyone stays healthy.
Position players: Though Alfonso Soriano has struggled with his health in spring training, he can still hit. In fact, just about everyone who will swing the bat for this team can hit. Soriano is joined in the lineup by Michael Young (.313-22-99), Hank Blalock (.276-32-110), Mark Teixeira (.281-38-112), and Kevin Mench (.276-26-71). Richard Hidalgo will try to rejuvenate himself after an awful 2004 (.235-25-82). Laynce Nix is expected to improve offensively as he plays every day in center field, and DH David Dellucci could put up big numbers if he gets 550 or more at-bats. Though the Rangers have a lot of power at the top of the lineup, they are taking gambles on players like Nix, Hidalgo, and Dellucci. It’s not a very deep team, and they are prone to long strings of poor at-bats (Blalock, Soriano, Teixeira, and Nix all posted over 100 strikeouts in 2004).
Overall analysis: While the frontline hitters have great power and the potential to get much better in terms of making contact and having quality at-bats, it’s not all there yet. Showalter is hoping to get solid innings out of his rotation so he can avoid wearing down his bullpen. Even though the ‘pen is rather deep, it won’t last if the starters can’t pitch deeper into ballgames than they did last year (outside of Rogers and Drese). If Rogers falters at age 40, the staff is really in trouble. Texas used 17 starting pitchers last season, and if that trend continues, the Rangers will lose more than they win. Seattle is better, Oakland isn’t as bad as some people believe, and the Angels are still a top team. The division got better overall in the offseason, but the Rangers really didn’t follow. Their overall record will likely suffer as a result.