Since bringing an end to a long history of setbacks and tragedy by winning the 2002 World Series, the Angels have had a stranglehold on the AL West, winning the division four of the last five years.
After winning the division by 21 games in 2008, things tightened up considerably last season. The hard-hitting Rangers finally got some pitching, riding the Angels' coattails into September.
Additionally, the Seattle Mariners caught everyone by surprise and posted a 24-win improvement from the prior season.
With the M's relevant again, GM Jack Zduriencik wasted no time ensuring the team's continued improvement. Zduriencik acquired Cliff Lee, traded the useless Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley, and signed Chone Figgins away from the Angels.
Figgins wasn't the only player Anaheim lost to a division rival, as former franchise player Vladimir Guerrero signed a one-year deal with the Rangers.
The Angels made moves of their own, signing World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, a resurgent Joel Pineiro, and former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney. Whether or not those moves will be enough to hold off the hard-charging Rangers and Mariners, only time will tell.
No matter what, the AL West race is set to be one of the tightest and most interesting this coming season.
97-65, First Place (Lost ALCS)
Offseason Grade (C)
It's not that I don't think Matsui and Rodney are good players. They simply lost a lot this offseason.
With Jered Weaver and Scott Kazmir, I don't think they'll miss John Lackey that much; they are going to miss Chone Figgins though. At the start of the offseason, I couldn't envision him in another uniform because he was just that important to the Angels.
You have to expect Pineiro's peripherals to get a little worse moving from the NL to the AL.
Their rotation remains deep, young, and talented. Kendry Morales has emerged as a legit cleanup hitter, and Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter are solid, dependable veterans. Rodney gives them nice insurance should Brian Fuentes struggle.
Mike Scioscia is still the best in the business at handling his players and getting the best out of them.
Figgins is replaced by Brandon Wood, who has yet to show he's anything more than a quadruple-A player. They've lost some speed, which usually is one of this team's greatest weapons.
Rodney and Fuentes can be electric, but neither had overly impressive peripherals last season.
Breakout Candidate: Brandon Wood
They've experimented with him in the majors before; each time went disastrously. Now, they're counting on him to at least be ready to platoon with Maicer Izturis. He's still young enough to fulfill his promise, but the pressure now is very much on.
Erick Aybar, Torii Hunter
With Figgins, Lackey, and Guerrero all gone, the most successful chapter in Angels history has come to a close. The days of this team running away with the AL West are over.
However, that's not to say this next chapter can't be a successful one either. This team still has plenty of assets at its disposal and the greatest manager in the game at the helm. They're in a dogfight; fortunately, I think they're ready for one.
75-87, Fourth Place
Offseason Grade (B-)
They got a lot of praise for the deal, and I know he's an ace when healthy, but I still don't think Ben Sheets had any business getting a $10M contract this winter. The guy just can't be counted on to stay healthy.
That move aside, I liked Oakland's offseason. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Coco Crisp, and Jake Fox were all great low-cost additions that could bolster an A's offense that finished ninth in the AL in runs scored last season.
They have as good a bullpen as there is in baseball, anchored by 2009 ROY Andrew Bailey. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill proved they belong last year and will only get better.
Their outfield is extremely athletic. They also have fantastic depth, making it that much easier to withstand injuries.
While they've both made All-Star teams, Sheets and Justin Duchscherer are maddeningly injury-prone. Though their defense has potential, they were in the bottom 10 in fielding percentage last year.
Much like the Orioles in the AL East, they simply don't have the kind of experience as the other teams in their division.
Breakout Candidate: Brett Anderson
There are several on this team. Fox should have a really nice year getting plenty of ABs, and Chris Carter and Michael Taylor could make an impact if given a chance.
Ultimately, I went with this young ace in the making due to the numbers he put up after the All-Star break (6-4, 3.48 ERA in 88 IP). He could very well be their No. 1 starter by year's end.
Billy Beane remains one of the game's best GMs, and you need only to take a look at this team's roster to understand why. They are filled to the brim with high upside young talent, as well as some cost-efficient veterans.
I love what they're doing in Oakland, but I still believe they're a year or two away. They're coming though.
85-77, Third Place
Offseason Grade (A)
No team in baseball had a better offseason. Zduriencik didn't just go around adding name players though; every player they added fits their philosophy of pitching and defense.
Lee should join Felix Hernandez to form a potent one-two punch, and with Figgins hitting behind Ichiro, they now have the top two leadoff hitters in baseball at their disposal.
Milton Bradley is volatile and hot-headed but also immeasurably more useful than Carlos Silva would've been.
Hernandez and Lee, on paper, are probably baseball's best one-two punch. Ichiro and Figgins gives them one of the deadliest pairs of table-setters we've seen in some time.
They have a phenomenal defense, the outfield especially. Their style of play is tailor-made for Safeco Field.
They're going to have to rely on speed because they do not have too many traditional power hitters. After Hernandez and Lee, there are questions about the rest of their rotation. Bradley, while talented, is a potential clubhouse cancer.
Breakout Candidate: Ryan Rowland-Smith
Since being converted to a starter two years ago, the Australian has shown promise when he's been healthy, going 8-6 with a 3.64 ERA in 168.1 IP as a starter since 2007. With Erik Bedard questionable for Opening Day, he seems penciled in as the No. 3 starter.
King Felix and Lee can't bring a pennant back to Seattle without some help.
Chone Figgins, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Ichiro Suzuki
At the very least, you have to give this organization props for trying to contend the unconventional way—with pitching, speed, and defense. Whether or not the Whiteyball revival works, only time will tell.
One thing is certain: Seattle is back on the baseball map, less than two years after the horror of 2008.
87-75, Second Place
Offseason Grade (B)
With Julio Borbon ready to take over, the Rangers wisely allowed Marlon Byrd to depart for the Cubs. Already a very solid team with a stacked farm system, the Rangers took a few calculated risks.
They signed Vladimir Guerrero to a potential bargain one-year, $5.5M deal. They swapped consistency for upside at the winter meetings, trading Kevin Millwood to the Orioles, opening the door for the team to sign the talented but oft-injured Rich Harden.
When completely healthy, their offense is among the best in game. Their pitching took a big step forward last season, as Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter impressed greatly.
Their defense showed signs of improvement last season. They have several young players poised to make an impact in 2010.
Their rotation could be in trouble if Harden can't stay healthy. Their bench looks a little depleted compared to last season. While he's one of the game's best when healthy, Josh Hamilton has had problems staying healthy since 2008.
Breakout Candidate: Neftali Feliz
At 21 years of age, he's already made a name for himself, pitching brilliantly out of the bullpen in the midst of a pennant race.
Whether as a member of the rotation or a big arm out of the bullpen, I expect this kid to be a big part of the Rangers' plans in 2010. Few young pitchers in the game right now have a higher ceiling.
Vladimir Guerrero, Rich Harden, Ian Kinsler
After several frustrating seasons, the Rangers arrived in 2009 thanks to a change in pitching philosophy. They finally have the pitching needed to support their potent offense; if Harden stays healthy, their pitching will be that much better.
Young studs from the farm like Feliz and Derek Holland have already reached the majors, and Justin Smoak isn't far away. With so much young talent poised to reinforce what already is a pretty solid club, the Rangers appear here to stay.
1. Erik Bedard
While it's generally accepted Hernandez and Lee should be a pretty potent one-two punch, the Mariners are still going to need some other starters to show up if they're to win the division.
Enter Bedard, who has swing-and-miss stuff but never stays healthy long enough to show it off. If he's healthy, the M's could have three No. 1s at their disposal (that's a big "if" though).
2. Ervin Santana
Going into 2009, I thought this guy was a Cy Young contender. Unfortunately, he couldn't stay healthy, and it took him until August to get it together. The Angels have a pretty well-rounded rotation, so he shouldn't be feeling too much pressure.
3. Brandon Wood
They're throwing him into the fire, asking him to replace Chone Figgins, whom Wood and the Angels will be seeing plenty of this season.
While not that kind of offensive catalyst, Wood does profile as a more traditional power-hitting 3B and could be a real threat at the bottom of Anaheim's lineup.
4. Milton Bradley
He's only going to be able to pull his shenanigans for so long until he burns all his bridges and forces himself out of Major League Baseball.
Time to shape up, learn a thing or two about anger management, and make Jack Zduriencik look good for acquiring him. He's at a critical juncture in his career.
5. Ben Sheets
Again, I don't think he had any business getting a $10M contract. However, there's no denying the guy's talent; he just hasn't been able to stay healthy and showcase it.
If he could tap into his 2002-2004 form, the A's suddenly have a pitcher they can match up against just about anyone and feel really good.
1. Texas Rangers (94-68)
2. Seattle Mariners (89-73)
3. Los Angeles Angels (87-75)
4. Oakland Athletics (77-85)
That's right; I'm going out on a bit of a limb here. After nearly a decade of domination, the Angels are going to come in third.
Though I think they'll miss Figgins, I don't even think they're terribly worse than they were last year. I just feel Texas and Seattle improved so greatly; someone has to come in third.
Mariners fans probably aren't too enthused about this prediction either. I loved their offseason, and I was very high on them a few months back, but I have questions about their rotation behind Hernandez and Lee and also the lack of power.
With Guerrero in the fold and Hamilton healthy hopefully, Texas' offense should again be one of the best in the game (if not the best). They have numerous options for their rotation, some of them with tremendous upside.
A few years after being the consummate all-hit, no-pitch team, they've become incredibly well-rounded, so much so that they are my pick as of now to win the division.
No matter who wins, I suspect this is going to be a fantastic race.