Big League Stew - MLB

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on standings and award-winners. Up next is the AL West.

'Duk: And on we march, Mr. Brown! We had such a good time previewing the NL West on Wednesday that I thought we'd stay out on the Left Coast to preview the AL West. Texas Rangers fans shan't worry, though, because we'll venture over to the Metroplex, too.

Honestly, I have to tell you that I have no earthly idea what's going to happen in this division. The Seattle Mariners were everyone's offseason darlings and their Jack Z-driven hype was so much that we started debating their World Series worthiness. But as the season approaches, the exhilaration from the trades and signings he made is wearing off a bit and it's becoming more and more clear that the Rangers, the Los Angeles Angels and maybe even the Oakland Athletics aren't going to chug the teal Kool-Aid without asking what's in it. Because the AL West is only four teams big, we're looking at maybe the most competitive division — top to bottom — in the league. The Mariners haven't won the division since their big season in 2001, do you think this is the year they finally return to the top?

DB: Only a true believer would be singing the Mariners' World Series song after *that* spring training, which was quite disquieting. Cliff Lee(notes) has minor surgery on his foot that sets him back, then he gets another muscle thingie that might keep him out until May, one writer warned. The whole scenario that painted the M's as first-place material depended on Lee dishing his kung fu from the get-go. We're not talking about a big margin of error here in the West. It's only four teams deep. A little of this, a little of that, and there's not much difference between first and last place. I'm not giving up my Mariners title hopes but it just doesn't seem as reasonable of a hope as it used to be.

Can Ryan Rowland-Smith(notes) become a legit No. 3 starter right now? Are we really believing in David Aardsma(notes)? Are Jack Wilson(notes), Franklin Gutierrez(notes) and Casey Kotchman(notes) going to prevent a million runs as general manager Jack Zduriecik hopes? Can the "feel-good" personalities of Ken Griffey, Mike Sweeney(notes) and Eric Byrnes(notes) actually, you know, still hit? Will Milton Bradley(notes) — our sweet, lovable Milton — become an issue for the players? The Seattle media seems to be ignoring his shenanigans so far. Maybe that's the key to him acting out. Act like nothing happens? There are so many questions. Answers will have to wait.

'Duk: Waiting is for suckers! My answer key: No, yes, maybe, not a chance and Milton Bradley will be just fine until the Chicago media shows up with the Cubs during interleague play. OK, so those are certainly more questions than you'd like to be asking about a potential division winner, but allow me to list a few things to love about the Mariners. Ichiro(notes) and Chone Figgins(notes) at the top of the lineup. The real possibility that Franklin Gutierrez will make a name for himself outside of the USS Mariner comments section. The maturation of King Felix into one of the top five pitchers in baseball. Don Wakamatsu and Jack Zduriencik sharing a page.

There's certainly something special being built in Seattle, but there's a good chance that it won't be enough this year to overtake the Angels, who have been the division's premier franchise for a decade even though Bill Stoneman and Tony Reagins never got/get the accolades they deserve. I know a lot of the projection systems are down on the Angels — some are even picking them last in the 75-win range — but I'll believe that collapse when I see it.

It's true that I didn't like seeing Figgins walk, but the departures of John Lackey(notes) and Vladimir Guerrero(notes) aren't the biggest gamechangers. Jered Weaver(notes) is ready to inherit the title of staff ace and their rotation is solid with Scott Kazmir(notes), Joe Saunders(notes), Joel Pineiro(notes) and a rebounding Ervin Santana(notes) behind him. Meanwhile the outfield is solid and Hideki Matsui(notes) should be a fine DH so long as he doesn't get his interpreter to talk his way into playing left field. Brian Fuentes(notes) and Fernando Rodney(notes) scare me a bit in that bullpen, but if they're solid, I think we're looking at Mike Scioscia's sixth division title in seven years. 

DB: I'll buy Matsui over Vlad. Kendry Morales(notes) might be the most productive AL first baseman this side of the wildly more expensive Mark Teixeira(notes). But Figgins and Lackey are big pieces that are practically irreplaceable. Brandon Wood(notes) might be a good major league player, but he's not going to have Figgins' impact. I don't like Erick Aybar(notes) and Howie Kendrick(notes) as top-of-the-lineup guys. They both need to hit .330 to have decent on-base percentages and not many guys hit .330 consistently.

Bullpens are hit and miss, almost no matter what, so I'll give the Angels the benefit of the doubt (even though Scot Shields(notes) is coming off an injury and Rodney's no good). I like their rotation generally, though I worry about Kazmir ever being consistent and Joel Pineiro in the American League bothers me. The Angels are lucky the Rangers and Mariners have so many imperfections.

'Duk: Ah yes, the Rangers. I think a lot of people might like to pick them to win their first AL West title since 1999, but Ian Kinsler(notes) is hurt to start the season, Josh Hamilton(notes) has returned to being a big question mark and they're counting on Mr. Injury himself, Rich Harden(notes), to lead their starting rotation. The pitching staff was relatively good in 2009 and I think they'll have to make a similar jump in 2010 in order to make the playoffs.

The burden of proof is on Scott Feldman(notes) following up a good '09 season, C.J. Wilson(notes) proving he can be a solid starter and Matt Harrison(notes) and Colby Lewis(notes) producing near the end. As for the things to love, there are youngsters like Elvis Andrus(notes), Neftali Feliz(notes), Justin Smoak(notes) and Julio Borbon(notes). If Chris Davis(notes) can somehow harness his power and turn into a poor man's version of Mark Reynolds(notes), that's a pretty scary offense.

DB: I remember Jeff Passan picking the Rangers as the surprise team of 2009 and he was more or less on the money, even if their story ended short of the playoffs. There's so much to like about this team but, as you asked, can they keep their players on the field? Hamilton and Kinsler can't miss dozens of games. Harden, well, he's got 25 starts in him at no more than six innings a pop and that's it. The good thing about their rotation is, if several of the guys fail, they have several more prospects to replace them. Colby Lewis, eh? Like a prodigal Godzilla, has conquered Japan and now has his sights set on America. Well, it's hard to take a more circuitous route to major league success.

But this is a strange club. Just look at the manager, for heaven's sake. I have a feeling that Ron Washington's cocaine revelations will not be an issue. I'm not sure what that says about society, but I guess it's good news for the Rangers. As for the Oakland Athletics, what do you think the chances are that Bob Geren ever inhaled?

'Duk: Bob Geren, now there's a manager you can set your watch to. Actually, I'm just saying that because he's probably the most non-descript baseball manager on the planet and I really know nothing about him. And to me, his team is an underpublicized version of the Giants from across the Bay. Lots of good pitching, lots of questions about where the offense will be coming from. If it can get healthy, that Andrew Bailey(notes)-led bullpen is among the best in the league. Same goes for the rotation, though its star power will implode if Billy Beane's $10 million gamble on Ben Sheets'(notes) ever-troubled arm craps out.

But like I said, where are the runs going to come from? Is this offense really going to turn its lonely eyes to Eric Chavez(notes) and Jack Cust(notes) again? Rajai Davis(notes) isn't going to drive himself in, no matter if he's planning on stealing 80 bases or not.

DB: I swear to Charlie Finley, these guys would set a record for least home runs if this were, say, 1985. The starting outfrield of Davis, Coco Crisp(notes) and Ryan Sweeney(notes) might not reach 20 dingers. Heck, the whole infield might not hit 30. Didn't Moneyball say something about power? An index, a foreword, appendix? And it's not like the 1980 Royals, who seemed to have seven leadoff hitters. This is, like, nine No. 7 hitters. Here's what I want to see: Jake Fox(notes) and Adam Rosales(notes) get 400 at-bats apiece. I don't know what that would produce, but it would quiet all the people who have wanted Fox and Rosales to get a fair chance. Hey, it worked out for Cust once upon a time.

I, too, like the bullpen, whether or not Bailey repeats a near-perfect rookie season. And the starting staff is intriguing, with Sheets and Justin Duchscherer(notes) combining to form a whole pitcher. That ambidextrous guy on the Yankees wasn't nothin'. It's too bad Josh Outman(notes) is out, man, but Dallas Braden(notes) would make a nice comeback story. Gio Gonzalez(notes), Brett Anderson(notes), Trevor Cahill(notes) might not be the second coming of Hudson, Mulder, Zito and Harden — and how could they, being only three guys? — but maybe they can help make the A's a contender in this oddball division.

* * *

AL West predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Angels, 2. Mariners, 3. Rangers, 4. A's
DB: 1. Angels, 2. Rangers, 3. Mariners, 4. A's

AL West MVP
'Duk:
Felix Hernandez(notes), Mariners
DB:
Kendry Morales, Angels

AL West Cy Young
'Duk:
Felix Hernandez, Mariners
DB:
Felix Hernandez, Mariners

AL West ROY
'Duk: Neftali Feliz, Rangers
DB: Justin Smoak, Rangers

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