Angels will soar again

Jack McDowell
Jack's Prediction
1. Anaheim
2. Seattle
3. Oakland
4. Texas

Anaheim Angels (Last season: 77-85, 3rd)

Player to watch: John Lackey
If Lackey turns into the dominant force he was in 2002, the Angels' starting staff will be one of the top five in baseball. Add maybe the best bullpen, and another World Series title is in reach.

Burning question: Will they stay healthy?
Darrin Erstad is the everyday leader of this squad and needs to stay healthy for a full season. But the Angels' high hopes also ride squarely on the health of Tim Salmon and Troy Percival.

The Angels made the most noise in the division this offseason by adding Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen. Add to that a healthy Troy Glaus, and the Angels have a solid team. These guys did win it all two years ago, and the core of all that postseason magic is still there. Imagine that team with these additions.

But after a 77-85 season in 2003, there are questions. Will Colon be a .500 pitcher or will he rise to his stuff and win 20? Can Escobar be a quality starter all year? Can Darrin Erstad stay healthy all year? Will John Lackey be the stud of the 2002 playoffs or the middle-of-the-road starter of last year?

A lot of potential, a lot of questions.

Seattle Mariners (Last season: 93-69, 2nd)

Player to watch: Freddy Garcia
Jamie Moyer has been a big winner with the Mariners, culminating in a 20-win season last year. But if this team is going to win a title, it will be the arm of Freddy Garcia that gets them there. The M's have enough on their plate to win the division or become the AL wild card, and with a power arm like Garcia's clicking, they could be unstoppable.

Burning question: Will Guardado/Villone make the M's forget about Sasaki/Rhodes?
Will Eddie Guardado be the same closer he was with the Twins? It can be a difficult task to move to a new team after becoming trusted and established somewhere else. And what about Ron Villone? Will he be enough of a left-handed setup threat to cover the loss of Arthur Rhodes?

The Mariners had the most quietly productive winter of anyone in baseball. They didn't add any glossy names. They didn't defer any salary issues. Heck, they even lost their closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki, back to Japan. But they did add a group of gamers to an already classy group of winners.

If you lose your closer and want to get the game's gutsiest to replace him, there is no better fit than Eddie Guardado. Now Shigetoshi Hasegawa can move back to setting up even though he filled in nicely last season as interim closer. Losing Arthur Rhodes is a blow to the pen, but Ron Villone will fill in nicely. He may not be as dominant, but outs are outs. Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio, Randy Winn are good scrappers.

In my opinion, the biggest move by the M's was not trading Freddy Garcia. There has been a lot of back and forth on this guy, and he may not be the exact fit for this team. But his stuff is No. 1-starter quality and then some. He is the type of pitcher that can carry a team for stretches during the season and in the playoffs. He's the type of guy you need to stick with through good or bad and hope the good turns to great.

Not much is different in Seattle, and that's good.

Oakland Athletics (Last season: 96-66, 1st)

Player to watch: Rich Harden

The A's see Rick Harden as their fourth ace following Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. There are four potential 20-game winners here, and if Harden jumps right in, the A's could hang at the top.

Burning question: Can Curt Young offset the loss of Rick Peterson?
Rick Peterson is a great coach, but now he's with the Mets Granted the A's young pitchers have talent, but Peterson guided them to the top of the game. That's what he does. We have yet to see Curt Young direct this staff, but things will be different. We will get to see how much of an influence Peterson had on these guys.

A's GM Billy Beane had a tough winter. Being fiscally strapped allows a team a short window of opportunity to win. The A's offensive spark, Miguel Tejada, is off to bigger and richer places. Keith Foulke will try to close games in Boston. And a few others have gone on their way. What remains is the only rotation that can match the Chicago Cubs for youth and stuff. That being said, this is the American League, and a team had better score – and score often – to end up on top.

Arthur Rhodes comes down from Seattle to close out games, and Eric Karros and Mark Kotsay are the new names the A's hope can produce on offense. It just doesn't seem like enough in this division this year.

The A's had the best team in AL last couple of years and let it slip away. Because of their pitching, they never are far away from winning.

Texas Rangers (Last season: 71-91, 4th)

Player to watch: Chan Ho Park

The greatest thing that could happen to the Rangers this season is for Chan Ho Park to be healthy and effective. That would allow them to trade him in July or August to the highest bidder for some fresh talent. The End.

Burning question: How long will Alfonso Soriano be a Ranger?

What is to be said for the Rangers? They finally moved Alex Rodriguez, and they can begin to rebuild. There still is a lot of house to clean and expect them to do that this spring, this season and through the offseason. Until then they will figure out who stays and hope some talent from below can up the ante. At least the chains are off and GM John Hart has a chance to do something.