2008 preview: AL West

I’m not sure how much predicting, per se, I’m going to do with my previews this year. I didn’t even do any last year, so I think I’d grown tired of the standard prognostication that everyone does this time of year and over the next six weeks. I will still list the teams in each division in the order I think they’ll finish, and in that space between the Red Sox-A’s series in Japan and the true opening of the season on March 31, I may take a crack at how the postseason might shake out, but I don’t know that I want to put numbers on player performances like I have in the past. There’s a lot I’m looking forward to seeing this season, and I think I’ll make that the focus of these posts. That’s not to say I won’t change my mind by the time I’m through with the divisions, but it’s how I’ll start.


LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

In general

Don’t underestimate the Angels’ ability to add another starter (Jon Garland) and the right-handed power bat they needed (Torii Hunter) — if not the one they wanted (Alex Rodriguez or Miguel Cabrera) — without having to give up young pitching or their top young hitters in established second baseman Howie Kendrick or shortstop/third base prospect Brandon Wood. Now the question remains is whether or not Wood can win a job and stick with the club — and produce the 25-30 home runs he’s capable of in his first full big-league season. Down the road, he could be a 40-homer guy.

Shortstop Orlando Cabrera is the only significant loss from last year’s AL West champions, and his departure brought in Garland. Erick Aybar will man shortstop to start the season and the flexible Chone Figgins will take third, but Wood will be waiting in the wings for one of those spots. The Angels in the outfield will be the best in the game, particularly when Gary Matthews Jr. plays left field, with Hunter in center and Vladimir Guerrero in right. Hunter and Matthews will run down just about everything with loft underneath it, while Guerrero will fire anything that hits the grass into the infield so quickly that the runners will hesitate to take an extra base or be thrown out trying. It’s not a bad hitting group, either, though Matthews’ 18 homers and 72 RBIs weren’t really what owner Artie Moreno paid for when he signed him to a five-year, $50 million deal last winter. Garret Anderson is a liability because of his injury history and advancing age (36 on June 30), but he’s penciled in as the cleanup hitter between Guerrero and Hunter. The young right side of the infield — Casey Kotchman and Kendrick — will be a joy to watch as they gain experience.

The rotation is stacked with Cy Young contender John Lackey at the front, followed by Garland, Jered Weaver, the only Santana left in the AL (Ervin) and Joe Saunders, who is a fill-in until No. 2 Kelvim Escobar recovers from his shoulder soreness. Lackey and Escobar would actually match up well with Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez in Seattle, but Anaheim clearly has the better depth through the back end. The bullpen, anchored by Francisco Rodriguez and set up by Scot Shields and Justin Speier, remains one of the best in the league, so to beat these Angels, you’re going to have to keep them to four or five runs — or fewer — on most nights.

What I look forward to seeing

How good will this outfield be? They all can hit and they all can field, even when Anderson is out in left with Matthews at DH. Hunter has a new home for the first time in his career, which may make a difference, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the life-altering contract he signed minutes before Thanksgiving. Figgins’ six-hit game last year was thrilling to watch, particularly because he won it with that sixth hit, and he’s a fun player to focus on each time he’s on the field. He’s got the speed to swipe 80 bases, which is something you don’t see in today’s game outside of Shea Stadium. But I’ll be most interested in Wood’s progress. His arrival would give the Angels a potential homegrown infield of future All-Stars. And I think he’s got the kind of power that makes it a risk to leave your seat if he’s due to bat in the inning.

SEATTLE MARINERS

In general

Adding Bedard to the rotation in front of Hernandez easily gives them the most impressive young 1-2 punch in the division, but where do they go after that? Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista? Does that scare anyone? The Mariners have the modern-day equivalent of Spahn and Sain and pray for rain. Except that they have a retractable roof at Safeco Field, so that approach won’t help them at home. Beyond the starters, they have a closer in J.J. Putz who won’t lose many — if any — games with a lead after eight innings, but the question will be getting the lead to him. Slated to set him up are untested second-year man Brendan Morrow and unheard-of Sean Green.

Offensively, Ichiro will rap out 200 hits and cover the ground in center field, but Jose Vidro batting second as the powerless DH and Raul Ibanez in the three-hole? Adrian Beltre can slug 30 homers as the cleanup guy, Kenji Johjima should provide decent protection as the fifth hitter, but then you fall into the abyss of inconsistency and, in two cases, longevity issues with Richie Sexson and Brad Wilkerson. Rounding out the order are middle infielders Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Just how good will Bedard and Hernandez be? It’ll be a treat for fans in other AL cities when the Mariners come to town with the two both slated to pitch. Can Ichiro keep it up? I love watching him hit and hope his career carries on into his 40s to see just how many base knocks he piles up. Can Putz put up Eckersley numbers? His 1.38 ERA and 0.70 WHIP are on the block, and 82 strikeouts with just 13 walks are in the neighborhood. Does he get even better this year? And does Sexson become this generation’s Rob Deer?

TEXAS RANGERS

In general

They didn’t really lose anything in bidding adieu to Sammy Sosa, Wilkerson and Akinori Otsuka, but the additions of Josh Hamilton, Kazuo Fukumori, Milton Bradley, Ben Broussard, Jason Jennings and Eddie Guardado don’t do much for me beyond Hamilton and Fukumori. Bradley could pay off, but the question remains if he’ll be ready by Opening Day after his knee injury last year. And Jennings is coming off that horrendous year in Houston, while Guardado is starting a season for the first time after Tommy John surgery. A former closer, he’ll probably start out as a setup man along with Fukumori and one of last year’s co-closers at the end of the season, C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit. The other will finish off games.

But how many? A rotation that starts with Kevin Millwood — an ace by default only — and pencils in Jennings as its No. 2 ahead of Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy and Kason Gabbard isn’t going to inspire many pitching duels.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre lineup we’ve come to know in recent years is a shell of its former self. Mark Teixeira is gone and Hank Blalock was — or wasn’t — on the trading block this winter; if he was, it doesn’t look like he drew much interest. Setting the table ahead of No. 3 hitter Michael Young will be left to a possible platoon of Frank Catalanotto and Nelson Cruz leading off followed by Ian Kinsler. The duo at the top leaves a lot to be desired (though Cruz is an unknown quantity and could pay off), but Kinsler may be ready to make another step toward being the heir to Alfonso Soriano that the Rangers think he can be. Bradley, Hamilton and Blalock will form the meat of the order, while the bottom third should feature super stud Jarrod Saltalamacchia (got that spelling correct on the first try, without looking), either as the catcher over Gerald Laird or as the first baseman over — or along with — Broussard. One-time Phillies prospect Marlon Byrd likely will man right.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Just how good will Kinsler be? Can he keep improving? He got off to a hot start last year — .298, nine homers, 22 RBIs in April — but had just six homers and 26 RBIs after the All-Star break, despite hitting .288 in the second half (as opposed to .241 overall in the first half). Fatigue may have been a factor in his second-half power decline, but his .045 rise in OBP in the second half helped Kinsler post a .807 post-break OPS after just .786 in the first half. Can Salty be as big as his name? Will the Hamilton feel-good story continue? And when will Bradley snap? Watching him in each new city is like watching the Grammys last Sunday to see whether Amy Winehouse could keep it together for her performance, which took place live from a London studio — meaning she had to sit around until about 4 a.m. with any manner of elixirs to pass the time.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

In general

I put them last because just who are these guys? Gone are Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Mike Piazza, Shannon Stewart and Mark Kotsay. In are Emil Brown, Joey Devine and Mike Sweeney? They even lost catching prospect Jeremy Brown, one of the stars of Moneyball (along with Swisher). GM Billy Beane set himself up well for the future, but he’s left with nearly nothing — especially if he deals now-No. 1 Joe Blanton before April.

I’ll start with the offense this time, where Jersey boy Jack Cust gets the cleanup spot and DH role all to himself, but he could hit 35 home runs but drive in just 75 runs if Travis Buck, Daric Barton and the oft-injured, shell-of-his-former-self Eric Chavez can’t get on base. But getting on base is what Beane builds his teams for, so the BBC top of the order should be expected to do just that. But after Cust? Mark Ellis is your five-hole protection, with Emil Brown behind him followed by DL resident Bobby Crosby, Chris Denorfia and Kurt Suzuki. Though I don’t agree with the assessment, ESPN.com’s A’s fantasy preview projects only Ellis, of all people, to be drafted from that lineup, and in the 20th round at that. But there’s just one opinion of what the Oakland lineup will produce this year.

The rotation doesn’t fare much better in the fantasy projection. Only Blanton stands to be drafted, in the 19th round they say. In between Blanton’s starts will be Rich Harden — once again coming off injury — Year-After Effect risk Chad Gaudin, converted setup man Justin Duchscherer and soft-tosser Lenny DiNardo. If Blanton goes, Dana Eveland and his 7.55 career ERA is next in line to step into the rotation. Yikes.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Does Harden stay healthy? I’ve given up caring whether or not Crosby does. I’d also like to see Chavez bounce back a bit, if only because he’s the one Beane chose to keep, letting Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada leave via free agency rather than spend the money. Interesting how he let the hitters leave, but traded the pitchers — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Haren (with the exception of Barry Zito) — in order to get something in return. And Cust is a good story — always a big hitting prospect, he never stuck with his previous clubs (Baltimore, Colorado, Arizona, San Diego) because he was a disaster in the outfield. It was always clear that he’d have to be a DH somewhere, and when he got that chance last year, he provided some exciting moments.

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