AL West Preview
Few, if anyone, opened last season predicting the Angels would win the World Series. In fact, few even gave them a chance to get past their division rivals to get into the playoffs. Yet the Angel miracle happened, largely on the strength of exceptional bullpen work and an offense that was incredibly efficient in driving in runs. No team in baseball depended more on hits to get runners on base, and once on, the Angels showed a remarkable ability to get them in. They batted .298 as a team with men on base and .290 with men in scoring position. To give some idea how remarkable this achievement was, the Yankees, who scored more runs than anyone last year, almost 50 more than Anaheim, batted .284 as a team with runners on. The kind of clutch hitting that the Angels displayed as a team is simply not sustainable. Sure, individual players may establish a clutch hitting trend (although how much so remains a topic of much debate), but entire teams of clutch hitters just don't exist. This is not to say the Angels will collapse this season. They have solid starting pitching led by Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz and a deep corps of quality relievers. And while the offense was incredibly efficient last year, no single player had what could be characterized as a career year, so they could end up scoring just as many runs as they did last season with rebound years from several players like Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad. Prediction: 91 wins, 2nd place in the West
After their 3rd straight first round exit from the playoffs, the A's parted ways with manager Art Howe and promoted Ken Macha to the helm. Macha has been sited by many sources as being one of the brightest men in baseball, but it's not likely he'll have to display much brilliance to get this team back into the playoffs. The A's return their troika of superb young starters - Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson - and add highly regarded Ted Lilly to the collection. They also replaced their hard throwing closer Billy Koch with the AL's version of Trevor Hoffman (at least in terms of his change-up), Keith Foulke. On offense, they added Erubial Durazo to provide some serious punch to an already homer-happy line-up. David Justice's moderate contributions will be replaced by Ron Gant's bat and Jermaine Dye comes into the season healthy. Overall, this team is poised to score more runs and allow fewer than it did last year when they won 103 games. If they get any kind of production from Adam Piatt, thus limiting the need for Chris Singleton as anything but a late inning defensive replacement, this team could score 900+ runs. A strong starting staff, solid bullpen and an offense that should rank among the elite adds up to another division title for the A's. Macha's job will be to make sure their season doesn't end there. Prediction: 97 wins, 1st in the West
The Mariners are an example of how far a team can drop after an improbably good season. Their 2002 93-win season was more reflective of their talent than their 116-win season in 2001. Their success in 2003 depends heavily on whether their aging vets like Edgar Martinez, Mark McLemore and Jamey Moyer can stave off Father Time until their influx of quality young talent can get acclimated. Rafael Soriano, Gil Meche and Joel Piniero each has the makings of a very good starter and should fall in nicely behind Moyer and Freddie Garcia. The offense gained some depth and flexibility this offseason with the additions of Greg Colbrunn, John Mabry and Randy Winn. However, they will need better years from Jeff Cirillo, Carlos Guillen and the catcher tandem (Ben Davis/Dan Wilson) if they hope to stay among the leaders in their division race. The M's have the talent to win the division, but will need everything to go right for it to happen. Their destiny likely lies next year and beyond. Prediction: 85 wins, 4th in the West
The Rangers were heavily criticized for signing Alex Rodriguez to such an enormous contract, but it may end up being viewed as a pretty good deal by the time it expires. Barring catastrophic injury, he'll be the best shortstop who ever lived and one of the 10 best players in history by the time it runs out in 2010, with 5 or 6 more years left in his career to pile up the numbers. He's already one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and the only player in history other than Babe Ruth to have two 50-homer seasons by the time he was 28. The Rangers have a good collection of bats around him. Rafael Palmeiro continues to astound, just completing his 8th consecutive season with at least 38 homers on his march toward the Hall of Fame. Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock, Juan Gonzales and heralded rookie Mark Teixeira are each capable of 20-30 homers a season. No, scoring runs and impressing the fans shouldn't be a problem. However, preventing the other team from doing the same remains a concern. GM John Hart improved the bullpen this offseason with the additions of closer Ugueth Urbina and set-up men Esteban Yan and Aaron Fultz, and John Thomson has the talent to help out in the rotation. Colby Lewis, Doug Davis, Ryan Drese and Joaquin Benoit look promising for the future of the rotation, but it may take another year or two to work out. New manager Buck Showalter has a terrific track record for making winning teams, but has just missed out on the championships that he helped engineer - he was fired from the Yankees in 1995, the year before they won their first of 4 World Series in the 90s, and was fired from the Diamondbacks in 2000, the year before they won their first championship. Perhaps in Texas in a couple of years he will finally get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd in the West.