AL West: Battle Royale

Here they come, the annual predictions from the Confines staff. I'll start it off with what may be the toughest division to predict. This may turn from the three-way brawl it was last year into a four-way dogfight. But it could just as likely turn into a two-team slugfest. Only one way to find out.

Texas Rangers: 89-73, 3 games back

Without a doubt (besides the complete collapse of the Phillies) the biggest surprise of the season was the Rangers. Previously the whipping boy of the west, Texas had a strong showing late in the season and was legitimately considered a contender for the pennant until the last week of the season.

Clearly, they relied on their offense, scoring the most runs (860) of any team in the division, achieved through a team slugging of .457. Barring injury, the Rangers should be able to run the same lineup out on the field this year, and injury shouldn't be a problem as only one player in their starting lineup is 30 or older, and the average age of their lineup is less than 27.

Where Texas has issues is with their pitching. Only Rodgers and Ryan Drese had more than 10 wins, and they were the only two Texas starters with winning records. While Chan Ho Park could pull himself back together, he's been a mess since he went to Texas, and while R.A. Dickey threw some good games, this is not a staff that is going to see a drastic improvement. The staff was rescued by the bullpen. The relievers who threw the most innings for Texas last year all logged sub 4 ERA's and three were sub 3. To give you an idea of how important this was for the Rangers, the team ERA 4.53.

The Rangers were fourth in the AL for runs scored last year, five back of the White Sox and trailing only the Yankees and Boston. There will probably not be a lot of improvement in the hitting, but there is no reason to think that they will decline. With the departure of Hudson and Mulder, however, and the development that young hitters go through, the team could conceivably hit better than last year. It also bodes well for Texas that they didn't burn out the young bullpen arms that carried them last year.


This is a team that is one or two quality starting pitchers from genuine contention in the playoffs, not just for the West. As long as the organization is smart enough to hold onto Soriano and the corps of young hitters they have, and to let their pitchers develop, they could be a real force in a few years, with a couple of smart signings.

85-77, 7 games back, 3rd place finish.
They'll be close in June and July, but their pitching will start to fall apart down the stretch.

Seattle Mariners: 63-99, 29 games back

The Mariners were a joke last year, with the worst offense in the AL, and fourth worst in baseball. They've reloaded their offense with Sexon and Beltre are hoping to get back into contention for a division they used to dominate.

It's hard to come up with any real strengths this team has. Sure, Sexson and Beltre add some pop from the corners and will send little Ichiro scampering around the bases, but there are still huge holes and huge risks. Betlre had a season that resurrected his career, but hitters who switch leagues sometimes lose their stroke, and Beltre does not seem to be the most together player, even with the rest of the Dodgers as a contrast. He'd never hit higher than .290, never hit more than 23 HR, never slugged higher than .475 until last year. He has no pedigree, and is a huge risk, especially in a new market and a new league.

Sexson is a risk for other reasons. His numbers were great, until last year when he was hurt. Still, Sexson has never played on a team that has been anywhere near winning anything for about a decade. He has been used to being a show more than a star. The only reason to go see the Brewers in the 90's was to see Sexson.

Sele will help out a beleagured staff. If (big if) he can put together the type of 18-9 season that he once did, and can manage to eat some innings he could be a nice pick-up. However last year, he only threw about 5 or 6 innings a start, which is a recipe for disaster for Seattle. Full seasons from Madritsch and Pineiro could help, but this is a team full of 'ifs' right now. Guardado was the only competent pitcher in the pen and was the only pitcher on the staff with an ERA below 3. That is saying something.

Now, while I've made the Mariners out to be a gang of lepers and club-footed mountain men, there is hope this year that was nowhere to be found. Everyone is glad to get out of Arizona, and Sexson is likely no exception. If he stays healthy, he may be thrilled to be playing for a team that could win three to four times as many games as his team won last year. That sound like motivation to me. Also, with Beltre, he might do better in a smaller market, out of the LA limelight, in a town where an 80 to 90 win season would be met with a parade.

Still, this is a team with more holes than pieces. If Beltre, Sexson, Ichiro and the rest of the lineup hit like they're capable of, and the starting staff puts good innings together, this is a team that could stay in the hunt.


They'll never get back to 116, but they don't have to. Seattle would be happy with a winning season, which they will have, barely.

83-81, 9 games back, 4th place finish.
Close in the early summer, in the pack with Texas.

Oakland Athletics: 91-71, one game back

Even though they haven't won a World Series since 1989 the A's are the closest thing to a dynasty that the West has. Since Beane has introduced the new Sabermetric logic the A's have the most wins for the least dollars. From 2001 to 2003 they had two less wins than the Yankees and one less than the Mariners (helped a ton by the 116 season) for a third and a half of the payroll, respectively. Beane now has made the most controversial decisions of his career, trading away Hudson and Mulder to reload with young talent and avoid losing them to free agency.

Predicting how the rotation will respond to the loss of Hudson and Mulder is near impossible. Zito has fallen off his 2002 numbers (23-5, 2.75) drastically, but this was his only season with an ERA over 3.5 and a SLG over .350. Anyone who watched him this season could see that his problems were more with his head than his mechanics. Harden improved from last year and is beginning to turn into the pitcher that Beane hoped he would. The trades picked up the bullpen help that the A's needed to get back to the sort of numbers they put up in 2003.

The offense is a bit easier to predict. Kendall is an incredible pickup, a good defensive catcher who has experience with young arms who hits for great average. The Giants picked up a catcher with the same defensive skills whose career average is 67 points lower. Crosby's power numbers were promising, and several highly touted prospects are going to hit the majors with the A's this year, including Swisher of Moneyball fame. Durazo's numbers finally have climbed back up to how he played his rookie year, with a healthy bounce in HR and RBI. With a chance to DH, he has stayed healthy and his swing has returned. It's now very easy to imagine why Beane wanted to trade for him for so long. If the Lion of Alameda County (Chavez) stays healthy and one or two of the prospects really produce, the A's will have a daunting lineup. (Oh, and as a side note, Chavez's one weakness, his inability to hit left-handed pitching, seems to have disappeared this past season. He actually hit lefties better, .306 vs .257.)


One thing is for sure, that the bullpen will not be as overworked or understaffed as it was last year. If the young players come together, the A's could run away with the division. Likely, a few will develop, and a few will lag and the A's will be breathing down the necks of the West Coast Yankees rising, the Angels.

91-71, 1 game back, 2nd place finish.
I see it ending exactly the way it did this year, with the pitching giving out in late September. But, just wait ‘til next year. If the AL West has any sense, they will be very afraid of the A's, they could be great now, and they will be great later.

Anaheim Angels: 92-80, AL West champions

Amazing that this team is able to win they way they do, considering the fact that they're more concerned with how their name affects their marketing money than actual baseball. They only lag Boston and the Yankees in payroll. Want a new understanding of economics? In baseball, one win is worth $42,083,694(the difference between the A's and Angels' payrolls).

Colon did win 18 games, but his ERA was above 5. Sele was over 5 too, and Washburn and Lackey were both north of 4.6. Their best ERA from a starter was 3.93 from Kelvim Escobar. Much like Texas, they were bailed out by their pen and their slugging offense. Losing Guillen, even with the acquisition of Finley hurts the Angels, and very few 40 year-old players hold up as well as Barry Bonds. Furthermore, given his historically low RBI numbers(65 a year), Cabrera is more of a gamble than a sure producer.

Byrd could come around, but he's been injury-ridden for a few years and has not looked dominant since he left KC. If he is healthy, though, he could save the pen some innings. The rest of the staff, as I said before, middling. The Angels are also banking that Francsico Rodriguez will turn into the next Eric Gagne. When you get down to it, they have almost as many question marks as any other team in the division.

92-70, AL West champions.
Again, in a very tight race, the Angels edge out the A's in the last weeks, if Gurerro and the offense keep firing. Remember, it took an incredible performance from Vlad last year just to get close enough to have a chance to beat Oakland in the last three games of the year. The Angels have a tenuous hold on the division at best.

Well, in five months, we'll see how wrong I've been. I'll finish off the West next week when we'll answer the burning questions, can the Giants win with four outfielders and JT Snow covering the entire right side alone? Will The Dodgers change their name to the Orange County Dodgers to cash in on the popular FOX series. Will the Padres convert legions of fans to fill Petco Field? And will anyone ever care about the Rockies or Diamondbacks again? Stay tuned sports fans.


The Icing on the Cake

Here in Minnesota there is still snow. There may well still be snow the first day of the season. It has happened before. But in Florida and Arizona there is plenty of sun and Spring training is only days away. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the best spring trainings in recent history, not because of all the interesting (and puzzling) moves in the offseason, not because of the steroid spectre hanging over players, and not even to see who will win the annual Coconut Shrimp-eating contest (Livan Hernandez is the favorite at 5:2, but C.C. Sabathia is good money at 1:4 and Prince Fielder is a steal at 1:20).
Not, loyal baseball fans, the reason that this spring will be so great is that, for once, there will be no damn hockey. Free at last, free at last, thank Lord Almighty, free at last. Now if only the NBA could go on strike as well, then ESPN would have nothing to report but college sports and preseason baseball. Think about it. Sunday Night Baseball will not be preempted for NHL playoffs. Not once. Not even for the Stanley Cup. We will finally be able to see all those early season games that let us see how a team is taking shape. The Blue Jays might actually draw a crowd. I know Canadians love their hockey, but the Jays could win them over, if they manage to win a game or two, or sell beer.
There are a million other reasons this season will be fantastic, but for now I'm just thrilled that I won't have to watch a single second of hockey for six months. For that, I'll take all the Jose Canseco's, all the Barry Melrose commentary, hell, all the Joe Buck commentary, in the world.

Stay tuned, predictions, analysis and opinionated articles to follow. Spring Training has begun for the Friendly Confines three man rotation.