Two more division previews left to get through - this week, the American League West.
Top to bottom, this could be the most competitive division in baseball.
There is not a whole lot of difference in the talent level of these teams, and they've all taken steps in the off-season that could result in any team winning a division title.
The common theme in the AL West is that the division is "Anyone Can Win". I want to rule out a team like the A's, which is probably the weakest of the bunch, but I just can't - this could be a division where everyone finishes within single-digit games of first place.
The Angels are coming off of their third straight division title, and fifth in six years, so they have to believe they're the favorites to repeat. This year is different in that they've lost some key players from their run, but they also feel good about the additions they made, including World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. They still have a strong rotation, despite the departure of John Lackey, and perhaps most importantly, the man who has led them through all of their recent divisional success, Mike Scioscia, is still at the helm. The Angels can win this division.
The other teams in the division, though, have to see the Angels as an attainable target. Perhaps none more than the Seattle Mariners, who had a successful 2009, followed by an aggressive off-season in which they took steps towards overtaking LA. Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley all join a team that saw a +24 win improvement from 2008 to 2009, and is looking for better results in 2010. The new players join what proved itself to be a pretty strong core in Seattle a year ago. Strong personalities in the clubhouse, like Ken Griffey, Jr., could help neutralize the Bradley acquisition. The Mariners can win this division.
The Texas Rangers, too, are trending upwards....and like Seattle's Figgins acquisition, they've also taken on some former Angels - Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver. The Rangers have a slugging offense - they always have - but their pitching is no longer terrible. They've lost veteran Kevin Millwood, but they have some strong young arms who team president Nolan Ryan likes - and he knows from pitching. The Rangers are an exciting young team - they can win this division.
And the Oakland A's can't be counted out. They know how to build a team, and they have some good players, both hitters and pitchers - they're just unproven. The addition of Ben Sheets gives their pitching staff a veteran presence, and overall they should be better than a year ago now that their young players have a year under their belts. They might be the longest shot of these four teams, but, yes, the A's can win this division.
If you're an East Coaster, you might not pay much attention to the AL West...but you might want to change that. There's going to be some exciting baseball coming out of this division in 2010.
4 Impact Players
(In Alphabetical Order by Team, so as not to ruin the surprise of how I pick them to finish)
1. Erick Aybar, Los Angeles - The Angels are going to really miss Chone Figgins...unless Aybar at the top of the lineup makes them forget about him. Aybar is coming off his first season playing everyday, and was not anywhere near the on-base player Figgins was. This could change the way the Angels play baseball.
2. Eric Chavez, Oakland - It's almost like Chavez has been a waste of a roster spot in Oakland the past few years. He hasn't been healthy the past two years, and hasn't been productive the past five. Now the A's will use him as a utility guy - he's learning first base during spring training. He's no longer being counted on to anchor the offense as he once was - but he may prove valuable in another role.
3. Cliff Lee, Seattle - I'll be honest - there's something about Cliff Lee I just don't trust. I know the numbers prove me way wrong, especially his most recent work...but I think he'll be interesting, to say the least, this season. He's playing for a contract, while adjusting to a drastic new environment....it'll be interesting to see how he does in Seattle.
4. Rich Harden, Texas - Harden could be the difference in this entire division. He needs to stay healthy, first of all. Then, if he pitches well, he adds to an already-decent Texas rotation. Tomorrow will include a breakdown of Harden's return to the AL West.