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Division Tour: AL West

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

On Wednesday afternoon came news that Erik Bedard was still creeping toward Seattle, an oh-by-the-way press release that Kelvim Escobar was rehabbing a shoulder hardly anyone knew was sore, and an announcement Nolan Ryan was returning to the Texas Rangers.

Which pretty much sums up the AL West.

The Mariners will clear out the top end of their farm system for pitching. The Angels have enough to cope with whatever it is that ails Escobar, the 18-game winner. And, not to diminish Ryan's return, but the Rangers are thrilled just to stand near a great pitcher and call him president.

The coming days, hours perhaps, will determine just how hard the Mariners will push the Angels. Bedard, it's fair to say, is very different than Carlos Silva, even if Silva is uncommonly effective against the Angels.

So, we wait.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

First impression: Consistent scoring has been a moving target for the Angels for years now, so that even in a season where the offense finished behind only the Yankees, Tigers and Red Sox in the American League, it's still quite capable of rolling out all of four runs in a three-and-out division series against the Red Sox. This has become a fairly common theme for them; the Angels have lost seven of their last eight playoff games and averaged fewer than two runs per game in them. You'd like to say Vladimir Guerrero has needed some help, but Guerrero has batted .183 in 60 postseason at-bats (over four series) for the Angels, and he's hit one home run. We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but five years have passed since the Angels broke through in October, and the franchise has grown to the point where division titles are nice, but not the ultimate goal. They'll be favored to win the West again, and again the critical part of the Angels equation is whether the bats can be equal to the arms. To that end, new general manager Tony Reagins went out and signed Torii Hunter, who, on the occasion of his walk-year with the Twins, put up 28 home runs, 107 RBI and 18 steals in a career-high 160 games. Not only will he hit in the middle of the order – and, probably, fourth, directly behind Guerrero – but he'll take center field from Gary Matthews Jr. He'll be 37 when that $90 million contract expires. In the meantime, the Angels have themselves a charismatic, productive player who, incidentally, has batted .300 in 21 career playoff games.

Competition:One of the more curious trades of the winter was Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland, a deal that seemed to portend the addition of a big infield bat. Say, Miguel Cabrera's. The Angels – OK, owner Arte Moreno – certainly made it sound as though that was the plan, and the club otherwise wasn't in a position to trade a middle infielder who drove in 86 runs, 65 from the second spot in the order, even if he was due for free agency after 2008. So, Chone Figgins, who does good things for this club, is back at third base and Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar will fight it out at shortstop. Izturis, it says here, wins the job, based on his sure glove and a knack for getting big hits. With Garland in the rotation and Bartolo Colon gone, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Dustin Moseley pitch for the fifth spot in the rotation, and maybe the fourth and fifth spots if Escobar's shoulder continues to ache.

Healing: Matthews finished his first season in Anaheim on a bum knee, but comes to camp healthy. Though there's talk of a rotation at DH between Matthews, Garret Anderson and Guerrero, it is likely the group's elder, Anderson, settles in there and Matthews becomes the regular left fielder. Between Guerrero's arm and the athletic ability of Matthews and Hunter, this has the potential to be a strong defensive outfield.

Next: Brandon Wood, who in the minor leagues has shown great power potential but a habit of swinging at everything, appears closer to taking a regular job on the left side of the infield. Right-hander Nick Adenhart, who pitches beyond his years at 22, could surface in the big leagues this season.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

First impression: Well, along comes another extreme makeover in the East Bay, no doubt related to the health of Arte Moreno's Angels and a hardball revival in Seattle. While awaiting the next Big Three – Trevor Cahill, Fautino De Los Santos (from the White Sox for Nick Swisher) and Brett Anderson (from the Diamondbacks for Dan Haren) could arrive together someday soon – the A's began building for another season, and certainly not this one. Beyond turning Haren and Swisher into handfuls of prospects, GM Billy Beane might also find himself in the mood to do the same with Joe Blanton and Rich Harden, either in spring training or near the trading deadline. In the interim, an awful lot would have to go well in order for the A's to challenge in the West. Assuming they're healthy (a stretch in at least one circumstance) and not wearing another team's colors, Blanton, Harden, Justin Duchscherer and Chad Gaudin are a decent one through four in the rotation, and Huston Street and Alan Embree are OK on the back end of games. But, the offense, which strained to score runs last season and lost do-everything (OK, except hit for average), hit-anywhere Swisher, will be vulnerable again. The middle of the order will look something like Eric Chavez-Jack Cust-Emil Brown-Travis Buck-Daric Barton. For that to be anything but ordinary, the A's would need Chavez to be a 30-homer, 110-RBI again, and he's coming off three offseason surgeries (two shoulder, one lower back), along with big second seasons from Buck and Barton. Barton appears to do everything at the plate well and will be a leading Rookie of the Year guy, but carrying this much of an offense is a lot to ask from a 22-year-old.

Competition:The outfield, left to right, probably will be Buck, Chris Denorfia and Brown, and Ryan Sweeney (from the White Sox) should win a job as the fourth outfielder. Beyond that, the A's will spend six weeks separating about a half-dozen pitchers hoping to be the fifth starter. Lenny DiNardo, Dan Meyer, Dallas Braden, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith and Kirk Saarloos all will have their shots.

Healing: Harden, at 26, has managed one full, healthy, productive season, and that was four years ago. The following three seasons resulted in 32 starts, most of them pretty good. But each season begins or ends with Harden tending to a failed body part. Last season concluded in early July because of an inflamed right shoulder. And, in December, he required a cortisone injection to deal with biceps tendinitis. The A's again are willing themselves to be optimistic regarding Harden and have penciled him in to start against the Red Sox in Japan.

Next: Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, trapped behind Chris Young and Justin Upton in Arizona, won't find those same obstructions in Oakland. He'll probably start the season in Triple A, where the A's will have him work on – say it together – "plate discipline," and could be in the big leagues by the end of summer.

SEATTLE MARINERS

First impression: Baseball's "now" is relative. "Now" in Atlanta means today. "Now" in the Bronx means yesterday. "Now" in Seattle? Hard to say, but the Mariners are racing to win "now," right now, because they won 88 games last season and had the Angels a little nervous in late August and just talked Carlos Silva into $12 million a year. Therefore, it looks as though they're going to abandon their best position-player prospect since Alex Rodriguez and a reliable set-up man and a young right-hander everybody seems to like for Erik Bedard, a very good left-hander who will stand atop a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Miguel Batista, Silva and Jarrod Washburn. So, why is it so difficult to warm up to this trade? Bedard is 28, and coming into his prime. He struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings last season, best among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Strikeouts to walks? Better than Jake Peavy, Dan Haren and John Lackey. Two seasons ago, he made 33 starts. That he didn't last season – and fell short of 200 innings again – had nothing to do with his arm. So, yeah, the Mariners would pitch better, though probably still not as well as the Angels. And the Mariners will still have Brad Wilkerson (and Wladimir Balentien) in right field, not Adam Jones, whose opportunity to blossom shifts to Camden Yards. Same with George Sherrill, so it's Brandon Morrow in a setup role instead. And Chris Tillman, too, is developing in Baltimore, not Seattle. Plus, there are the holdover issues of Richie Sexson's production, Jose Lopez's growth, etc. Hey, you can get an ace, you get him. But, maybe, not now.

Competition:With Jose Guillen gone and Jones close to gone, the Mariners signed Wilkerson, who once hit 32 home runs but has been plagued by a sore shoulder for at least two seasons. He'll get a chance to play right field, as will Balentien and Jeremy Reed, and could get some at-bats at first base if Sexson struggles again.

Healing: Sexson had hamstring issues last season, and the Mariners can only hope they had something to do with his .205 batting average and .295 on-base percentage. He's in the final year of a four-year, $50-million contract. The Mariners signed right-hander Chris Reitsma, coming off elbow surgery, to a minor-league contract. He could compete for a job in the bullpen.

Next: If not Jones, then left-handed-hitting catcher Jeff Clement, who batted .375 over a few big-league games last September. He's temporarily blocked by Kenji Johjima, but, at 24, is close to being ready.

TEXAS RANGERS

First impression: In a four-team division, the Rangers have finished fourth five times in the past eight years and third three times. If that makes little sense for a franchise that in that period has put Alex Rodriguez on the field, and Mark Teixeira, and Michael Young, and Rafael Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez, then perhaps the depth of its pitching inadequacies can hardly be comprehended. Going back to 2000, the year of the Rangers' last division title, they have had a better team ERA than a division rival in only one season: 2004, when the Mariners were worse. In that same era, their starting pitchers have never had a season equal to or better than that of a division rival. And, if we're going to lay even some of this on their hitter-comfy ballpark, the Rangers' road ERA has been lower than two division teams in eight years: The Mariners in 2004 and the Mariners in 2006. And that, friends, is the long way to lead into a 2008 rotation composed in part of Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy and Jason Jennings, who last season were a combined 23-43 with a 5.51 ERA and seven trips to the disabled list. Rangers starting pitchers threw fewer innings than any staff in the game, a tradition that began in 2003 and has seen the Rangers finish in the bottom four in each of the past five seasons. To that end, presumably, young Jon Daniels insisted on starter Brandon McCarthy when he dealt John Danks and Nick Masset to the White Sox last winter, on Kason Gabbard when he traded Eric Gagne to the Red Sox last summer, and this winter leaned in on the early talks for Johan Santana and Bedard while settling on a one-year contract with Jennings. Still, they're well behind the Angels, A's and Mariners here, and again explain why the AL West is still too big for them to contend in.

Competition:The Rangers have some sorting out ahead at first base. It's either Ben Broussard full-time or in a loose platoon with Jason Botts and/or Chris Shelton. Frank Catalanotto might also get time here. The fifth starter job is likely to play out between Gabbard and Luis Mendoza, another former Red Sox farmhand. Assuming Marlon Byrd does not go to the Chicago Cubs before then, the Rangers could open the season with an outfield of Byrd, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy (Boston again: Gagne trade), with Milton Bradley extending his knee-surgery recovery at DH. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and veteran Gerald Laird will contend as catcher. If Laird wins, Saltalamacchia probably goes to Triple A, where he could further sharpen his defensive skills. If Saltalamacchia wins, Laird could be traded.

Healing: The Rangers are counting on a big comeback year from third baseman Hank Blalock, who was limited to 58 games last season because of a nerve/rib procedure. He returned in early September and batted .313 with five homers and 17 RBI.

Next: Third baseman Chris Davis and shortstop Elvis Andrus, the jewels in a farm system that has improved drastically in the past year, have been invited to camp.

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