Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 15, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League West.
One of the most fascinating and underrated rivalries in baseball is separated by 365 miles, most of them along the Golden State Freeway.
And while the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels generally have their pitching staffs to thank for their routine 1-2 finishes in the AL West, they otherwise and often arrive in the final weeks of September in contention and guided by polar offensive philosophies.
Billy Beane's A's stress walks, on-base percentage, seeing pitches and conservative baserunning. Mike Scioscia's Angels move runners, relinquish outs, steal bases and put more balls in play.
Over the past five seasons, each team has been to the playoffs three times and only 46 runs separate them.
First impression: There are, perhaps, better ways to spend $50 million than on an outfielder who's never hit 20 home runs, just drove in more than 55 runs for the first time and doesn't steal many bases. But, these are the Angels, who had something going based on defense and pitching, then stopped catching the ball and got 56 1/3 ratty innings out of ailing ace Bartolo Colon. So, Gary Matthews Jr. will try to stabilize an outfield defense that saw corner men Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson slow considerably and pick up for Chone Figgins (.321 on-base percentage batting leadoff vs. Matthews' .372) at the top of the order. He's not the bat they sought to hit behind behind Guerrero (and neither is Shea Hillenbrand), but Matthews will help, and a sturdy pitching staff will prosper, and the Angels should turn that into their third division title in four years.
Competition: The Angels would love to see on-base horse Casey Kotchman vigorous enough to be their regular at first base, a position they gave him a year ago, only to have him spend the season recovering from mononucleosis. He played every day in Puerto Rico this winter and seems to have his legs under him again. If he lacks energy, first base will be open to Hillenbrand and, perhaps, Kendry Morales, though the organization would prefer Hillenbrand at DH. Mike Napoli projects as the regular catcher, but, despite 16 home runs and some big offensive moments, he was prone to grueling slumps and lots of strikeouts (90 in 268 at-bats). So, Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis aren't out of the picture.
Healing: Colon went from 21 wins (and a Cy Young Award) in 2005 to a sore shoulder and one win in 2006. And now, going on 34, he might never regain the fastball that made him so dominant. He's 50-50 for opening day, potentially leaving a rotation spot for 25-year-old left-hander Joe Saunders, who won seven games in 13 starts last season. Also, outfielder/DH Juan Rivera, so valuable in spelling Anderson and Guerrero, is expected to miss the season's first two to three months after breaking his leg in winter ball.
Next: Willowy right-hander Nick Adenhart, who had Tommy John surgery before he was drafted out of high school, has a good fastball, a developing curveball, and front-of-the-rotation potential. He's 20 and at least a year away, but, along with 23-year-old right-hander Ryan Aldridge, who throws in the upper 90s, could hurry that progress with a big camp.
First impression: The A's were four games from their first World Series since 1990 and lost them all, in a row, to the Detroit Tigers. Then they fired their manager, had their best pitcher jump the bay and their best hitter jump the border. Bob Geren takes Ken Macha's place under general manager Billy Beane's thumb, Rich Harden takes Barry Zito's place at the top of the rotation and Mike Piazza takes Frank Thomas' place as the aging-gracefully designated hitter, though the transition to the American League and to full-time DH might take some getting used to. These transitional periods don't usually bother Beane or the A's, who have won at least 91 games in six of the last seven seasons and have gone through their entire Big Three – Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Zito – in that time.
Competition: Beane signed Shannon Stewart a week before spring training and now has five outfielders who expect playing time – starters Nick Swisher, Mark Kotsay and Milton Bradley, subs Bobby Kielty and Stewart. They've also got Ricky Ledee on a minor-league contract. The A's could relieve some of those issues by moving Swisher to first base. Before the Stewart signing, however, they seemed intent on sticking with incumbent first baseman Dan Johnson, who batted .234 and hit nine home runs in 91 games. Some of that was due to a poor April and May, and for the season he was particularly vulnerable against left-handers. Then, the whole thing could be reset if Beane is able to acquire Lastings Milledge from the New York Mets, as he'd like. Left-hander Joe Kennedy looks like he'll become a starter again, behind Harden, Danny Haren, Joe Blanton and Esteban Loaiza, so it's back to the bullpen for Brad Halsey.
Healing: Shortstop Bobby Crosby hasn't played a full season since 2004, his rookie year, and he arrives in camp finishing rehabilitation on a stress fracture in his back. Harden missed all but nine starts because of a bum ligament in his right elbow, but had his moments in a couple of September appearances and certainly has the stuff to be an ace.
Next: Yet another first base/DH possibility, Daric Barton, 21, is getting close. He's the third of the three-for-one Mulder trade with the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago, with Haren and Kiko Calero.
First impression: The past three years haven't been kind to the Mariners, who have gradually worked away from their 116-win 2001 season to a regular place at the bottom of the division. They've had Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson for two years and in 2006 scored fewer runs than anyone but the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which was about the same as in 2005, when they scored fewer runs than anyone but the Minnesota Twins. While adding Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez to the starting rotation, GM Bill Bavasi addressed the offensive issues by signing Jose Guillen, who batted .216 last season before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery, and trading for Jose Vidro, whose most productive days are behind him.
Competition: The rotation is set with Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Batista, Weaver and Ramirez, as is the back end of the bullpen with J.J. Putz and a healthy (they hope) Chris Reitsma. And, considering their last-place finish, the Mariners are surprisingly established with their position players. Veteran left-hander Arthur Rhodes will try to win a place in the bullpen and right-hander Cha Seung Baek is slotted for a middle-relief role or Triple-A. Jeremy Reed's wrist has healed, meaning he'll probably be the fourth outfielder.
Healing: There is little doubt Guillen hits when he is happy, healthy and focused. The issue has been aligning the three, as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, A's, Angels and Washington Nationals discovered over the past eight seasons. He hit 31 home runs in 2003, a season spent in Cincinnati and Oakland, and drove in 104 runs in Anaheim the following season, which actually ended (badly) about a week short of a full season. The Mariners believe he is recovered from surgery. Happy and focused will have to play out.
Next: Outfielder Adam Jones, 21, a pitching prospect in high school, a shortstop in his first three professional seasons and a center fielder since, could be the next big thing in the Pacific Northwest. His position in the outfield depends on whether Ichiro Suzuki remains in Seattle after this season, but he has the arm and developing power to play right as well.
First impression: The Rangers have gone seven years without a playoff appearance, having had the misfortune of catching the New York Yankees at their best in the late '90s. After four years of Buck Showalter got them no better than third place, they've replaced him with Ron Washington and thrown the rookie manager into a Sammy Sosa comeback. Sosa, of course, took a year off after a miserable season in Baltimore and turned 38 in November. Washington already has him at designated-hitter, protecting Mark Teixeira in the middle of the order and even playing some right field. Sosa's career arc reads like a slow shuffle toward middle age – his batting average, home runs and OPS decreased in each of his last four seasons – but, it's a minor-league contract and the Rangers would appear to have little to lose. Forever scavenging and positioning themselves for pitching, the Rangers took their shots at Zito, Mulder and others, and instead traded for Brandon McCarthy and signed Jamey Wright and Bruce Chen to make-good deals.
Competition: Mostly, Washington will spend the spring sorting through starters to round out the rotation behind Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, McCarthy and, probably, Robinson Tejeda. There's a long list of hopefuls after that, including right-handers Josh Rupe, Edinson Volquez and Kameron Loe and lefties John Rheinecker and John Koronka. Wright and Chen also will get their chances. One or two of those who don't make the rotation will fall into the bullpen.
Healing: Brad Wilkerson, who once was a pretty good hitter, is believed to be recovered from shoulder surgery, as is Hank Blalock, who can return to third base after DHing for the last month of the season. The Rangers have handed Eric Gagne the ninth inning, so obviously they're optimistic about his recovery from back and elbow surgeries. Gagne, who blew only six saves in 158 opportunities from 2002-04, is nine for nine since.
Next: While a couple of the Rangers' "nexts" are in Chicago (pitchers John Danks and Nick Masset), 22-year-old shortstop Joaquin Arias was six for 11 in a September look-see with the big club. He's blocked by shortstop Michael Young and second baseman Ian Kinsler, so he could be moved to center field. Jason Botts has made cameos in each of the past two seasons and the Rangers believe he'll become a big-time power hitter.
- Billy Beane