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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...I've Got No Frickin' Clue Who's Gonna Win the AL West

It's damn sure going to be fun to watch.

You've got the Scioscia-constructed juggernaut, the Los Angeles Angels, who are coming off three consecutive division titles (and five of the last six), but look oddly unfamiliar without Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, and Chone Figgins.

There's the offseason darling, the Seattle Mariners, whose GM seems to be every sportswriter's new man-crush (myself included), even though his highest finish thusfar is third place.  The Mariners have a pair of Aces (King Felix & Cliff Lee), a pair of exceptional leadoff hitters (Ichiro & Chone Figgins), and a pair of designated hitters (Ken Griffey Jr. & Milton Bradley), but it isn't quite clear whether all the pieces will fit nicely together.

There's a redemption song being written in Texas, as Ron Washington and Josh Hamilton try to overcome offseason drug scandals (not the performance-enhancing kind), Vladimir Guerrero tries to prove his career is far from over, and Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux try to figure out how to get 200 innings out of Rich Harden.

And, finally, there are the sneaky-good Oakland Athletics.  Billy Beane has shunned household names following the Holliday-Giambi-Garciaparra debacle in 2009, but he's got tons of young talent on both side of the ball, and won't hesitate to give anybody and everybody an opportunity.  The players in the mix for the rotation, especially, could make their divisional rivals very, very uncomfortable.

At some point during the last month I've imagined every team in this division as worthy of my support.

I think Oakland is a hair back of the rest, just because they have so many questions to answer on offense, though their are some promising players to work with, particularly Jake Fox, Eric Patterson, Chris Carter, and Coco Crisp.  If Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer are healthy enough to combine for 35-40 starts, followed by nominal progress from the many sophomore starters - Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman, Vin Mazzaro - this could actually be the best rotation in the division.

I keep coming back to the fact that the Angels won this division by ten games in 2009, and despite the talent they've lost and the Mariners and Rangers have gained, I don't know that the gap has been closed.  The Angels still have four pitchers - Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, and Joel Pineiro - who have all won 16+ games at least once.  And the one who hasn't, Scott Kazmir, may be the most talented pitcher in the rotation.  The Angels scored runs on command for most of last season.  They will miss Chone Figgins, certainly, but they still have Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales, Hideki Matsui, and Juan Rivera, which makes for a potent middle of the order.

In the end, I'm giving in to what some might call sentimentality, but I prefer to see as merely an appreciation for fine narrative.  I'm rooting, as it were, for the success of the Texas Rangers.  Hamilton, Guerrero, Harden, and now Washington all have something to prove this season which goes beyond just baseball.  Harden and Guerrero were told repeatedly this offseason that they were too fragile and thus not worthy of long-term contracts, despite the fact that, when healthy, both have performed at an elite level.  Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler have also been troubled by frequent and nagging injuries.  Nolan Ryan has challenged not only the pitching staff, but the whole team, to dedicate themselves to endurance over the course of the long season.

And then, there are the scandals.  Josh Hamilton is dogged by an dreadful addiction and every time he falls off the wagon, the entire internet shows up for his intervention.  Ron Washington made an ever so slight error in judgment, a temptation that is familiar to many Dallas natives I'm sure.  The Rangers, wisely, chose to retain his services, but the media will be every watchful henceforth.

What I find most encouraging about the Rangers, statistically, is that despite what has been said about them going into the year, they Rangers strength during their surprising run to 87 wins in 2009 was their pitching staff.  The Rangers offense, usually so powerful, was hampered by injuries and finished just 7th in the AL in runs scored, their lowest finish since 2000.  However, the pitching staff finished 8th in runs allowed, just slightly back of Boston and Detroit, their best finish of the decade.  Their 4.38 ERA was the best posted by a Texas team since 1995.

I think there is a strong chance the offense will rebound in 2010, led by Hamilton and Guerrero.  If the pitching staff can merely hold steady, that should be enough to get the Rangers above 90 wins and perhaps into the postseason.

Projected Standings:

Texas Rangers 92-70
Los Angeles Angels 91-71
Seattle Mariners 88-74
Oakland Athletics 76-86  

M.V.P. Candidate: Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Cy Contender: Brett Anderson, Athletics
Rookie of the Year: Trevor Bell, Angels

Breakout Candidates: Julio Borbon (Rangers); Franklin Gutierrez (Mariners); Coco Crisp (Athletics); Neftali Feliz (Rangers); Tommy Hunter (Rangers); Ian Snell (Mariners); Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners); Gio Gonzalez (Athletics); Chris Carter (Athletics)

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