The American League West may have the fewest competitors of any MLB division, but the shortage of teams does not equate to a shortage of talent.
The Angels are a well-run, perennial playoff team, the Rangers are developing their pitching in addition to a notoriously dangerous lineup, the A's are an intriguing low-budget club, and the Mariners have pocket aces at the top of their rotation.
So how will this foursome fare in 2010?
4. Oakland Athletics
Projected record: 74-88, 23rd in infield, 30th in outfield, 20th in starting pitching, seventh in bullpen.
At this point, given Moneyball and the subsequent ideological movement, it's common knowledge that GM Billy Beane is working with limited financial resources. Even so, on paper, this year's Athletics look more ragtag than ever.
Show Oakland's roster to a casual baseball fan, and I guarantee their response can be summarized in one word:
1B Daric Barton, SS Cliff Pennington, RF Ryan Sweeney, super utility-man Jake Fox—and the list of relative unknowns goes on.
The good news for A's fans is that "unknown" doesn't necessarily mean "poor." Beane's strategy for this season is clear: pitching, defense, speed, and (hopefully) timely hitting.
In order for that strategy to result in a competitive number of victories, RHP Ben Sheets needs to resemble the pitcher of old, RHP Mike Wuertz has to prove that '09 wasn't a fluke, and one of their young arms (RHP Trevor Cahill or explosive LHP Gio Gonzalez) needs to break out in a big way.
As you can see from my projections, I don't see it all coming together for Beane's baby-budget boys.
3. Seattle Mariners
Projected record: 80-82, 27th in infield, seventh in outfield, seventh in starting pitching, 26th in bullpen.
The Mariners have two obvious strengths: (1) their much-talked about starting rotation, boasting RHP "King" Felix Hernandez and LHP Cliff Lee, and (2) their outfield.
However, upon further examination, Seattle's rotation isn't quite a lock for dominance. Lee's abdominal strain may force him to begin the season on the DL, where he would join fellow LHP Erik Bedard.
No. 4 starter Ian Snell has had a rough go of it in recent years, and their replacement fifth starter situation (RHP Doug Fister and LHP Garrett Olson, among others) is hardly favorable.
On the positive side, the Mariners' outfield provides some nice offensive balance. RF Ichiro Suzuki is one of the purest hitters in the game, CF Franklin Gutierrez made tangible adjustments in '09, and LF Milton Bradley is an undeniable headache with undeniable talent.
Elsewhere, I'm underwhelmed by Seattle's infield but impressed by their sophomore skipper Don Wakamatsu. I'm pretty confident that the Mariners will finish behind both the Rangers and Angels, but if they don't, Wakamatsu could find himself near the top of the Manager of the Year race.
2. Texas Rangers
Projected record: 91-71, ninth in infield, sixth in outfield, 16th in starting pitching, sixth in bullpen.
This is a very dangerous club—not because one of their top players was a notorious drug addict (Josh Hamilton) and their manager (Ron Washington) tested positive for cocaine use, but because of their all-around explosiveness.
The Rangers should cause havoc on the basepaths with exciting youngsters CF Julio Borbon and SS Elvis Andrus, not to mention star 2B Ian Kinsler.
Kinsler brings some power of his own, but the raw pop will come from Hamilton, LF Nelson Cruz, 1B Chris "Crush" Davis, and their marquee addition, DH Vladimir Guerrero.
Guerrero has significant mileage on his body, and he's not the all-around player he once was, but he should have the "nothing to lose" attitude in Texas. There's little pressure on him to put up spectacular numbers given the offensive ability of his teammates.
Team president Nolan Ryan has cultivated an organizational interest in pitching (and appropriately so), and the improvement is clear. Texas will not have an elite staff in 2010, but they have nice, young pieces in RHP Tommy Hunter and LHPs Matt Harrison and Derek Holland.
Their crown jewel, of course, is flamethrowing right-hander Neftali Feliz. The electric phenom is surely the Rangers' closer of the future. RHP Frank Francisco is more than adequate in the interim, however.
I'd say this team could win the AL Wild Card, but it's hard to believe that it will come from a division other than the AL East.
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Projected record: 95-67, 19th in infield, third in outfield, ninth in starting pitching, fourth in bullpen.
Did they essentially replace John Lackey with Joel Pineiro? Yes.
Did they lose a veteran leader (Guerrero) in free agency? Yes.
Are those changes enough to jump off the bandwagon of one of the most consistent franchises of the past decade?
Not for me, they aren't.
As far as basic logic goes, this is a case of "innocent until proven guilty." Manager Mike Scioscia tends to push all the right buttons during the regular season, a phenomenon that has helped the Angels top the AL West for most (if not all) of the last few seasons.
If there's going to be a changing of the guard, I'll have to see it first to believe it. The Halos have plenty of offensive firepower, a steady rotation, and an absolutely phenomenal bullpen; stir that in a pot with a world-class manager, and you have a safe recipe for success.
There are two proven closers in Scioscia's bullpen, LHP Brian Fuentes and RHP Fernando Rodney (formerly the Tigers' fireman), and two young righties with potential closer's stuff: Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger.
Don't forget about RHP Scot Shields either. When healthy, he was easily one of the premier setup men of this era.
The naysayers have been knocking the Angels' rotation and questioning the staying power of 1B Kendry Morales, but I'm not as concerned as the critics.
Morales may not be as productive as last year, but I still consider him to be a legitimate offensive weapon. RHP Jered Weaver emerged as a capable ace in '09, showcasing a keen understanding of sequencing and variation of speeds. I expect a similar campaign from him this season.
I think the Rangers have a shot to take a stronghold on this division, but something tells me the Angels aren't quite ready to let go.
I don't think they will—not this year, at least.
Looking for more? Check out my AL East and Central predictions:
(John Frascella is the author of Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land, the first and only book centered on Boston's GM Theo Epstein. Check it out on Amazon or follow John's Twitter @RedSoxAuthor).
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