Best of the West
March 12, 2005

Seattle Mariners
In order to compete in a very balanced American League West, the Mariners were going to have to make plenty of changes after last year's injury-plagued debacle.  The first issue to overcome was getting more power into the line-up.  They finished last in the AL in home runs so ownership opened it's pocketbook to bring in Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre.  Beltre is coming off a season in which he tied the record for most home runs for a third baseman.  Many are calling his performance fluky.  However, three years ago many of these same people were saying how great Beltre's potential was because he was doing so well at such a young age.  I'm not convinced he's going to hit 48 homers again, but if he did it wouldn't surprise me.  Looking back, he was a legitimately great prospect and there was every reason to believe that barring serious injury, he was going to have a Hall of Fame type career, or at least one with numerous All-Star appearances.  Then in the winter of 2000-2001, he lost 20 pounds after suffering a botched appendectomy and struggled for the next two years.  I don't know how much a botched appendectomy normally costs an athlete in terms of performance, but that in combination with his very young age and some of the acrimony he faced in LA for his failure to measure up to his original hype might have affected his ability and/or desire to play.  The fact is the talent he displayed last year is real.  The only question is whether or not he is motivated enough to continue his potential greatness.  I believe he is.  As for Sexson, he might be more of a question mark.  There's no guarantee that his injuries from last year aren't chronic.  I had a chance to listen to the Diamondback head trainer speak this offseason and he was optimistic that Sexson would be 100%, but he also hedged that Sexson's swing is so violent that a recurrence is possible.

The hallmark of the M's in the good years was defense.  Last year, it wasn't very good.  So this year they'll have three new infielders and a new centerfielder.  In addition to Beltre and Sexson, Pokey Reese was added to the roster.  He didn't have a bad year in Boston last year with the bat... ok, so maybe it wasn't so good.  Presumably, the Ms will be satisfied with a very good glove at short until Jose Lopez is ready to move into full-time duty.  If spring is any indication, that won't take long.  Former White Sox prospect Jeremy Reed, who came to Seattle in the Freddie Garcia deal, will take over in center.  He's a significant upgrade over the defense of Randy Winn, although his arm maybe a little short.  On the pitching side, Aaron Sele comes back to the site of his greatest successes and may push his way into the back of the rotation.  Jeff Nelson will add depth to a bullpen in desperate need of it.  Two wild cards in all of this are Jorge Campillo and Dan Reichert.  Reichert had a very encouraging year last year in AAA and seems to have found control of his devastating slider.  He's one to watch out of spring.  Campillo had a solid winter season in Mexico and could get significant innings this year as a long man.  Still, for the M's to compete in the toughest division in baseball, they will need to stay much healthier, especially in the starting staff.

Oakland As
Even if one doesn't particularly like the personnel he gets each winter, Billy Beane does a marvelous job remaking the roster within the confines of his limited budget.  This winter was especially challenging as he parted with two of his Big Three starters and kept the one who had the least impressive year in 2004.  However, Tom Glavine once mentioned that pitchers who are in the postseason every year have less time to recover than others, and that sometimes they just don't recover from the fatigue in time for the following season.  In which case, they struggle with dead arm for a good portion of the beginning of the season.  I'm not sure how much validity the point has, but it does seem like a viable explanation for Zito's recent decline given his age and the number of innings he's thrown.  But I digress... Beane did a very nice job horse-trading this winter, dealing Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Arthur Rhodes and Mark Redman and netting Jason Kendall, Dan Meyer, Charles Thomas, Daric Barton, Kiko Calero, Juan Cruz and Dan Haren.  Although neither Meyer or Haren really have the upside that the A's enjoyed from Hudson and Mulder, both guys should be solid middle of the order pitchers.  And with the development of Rich Harden and the presumed return to form of Zito, that's really all the A's needed.  Kendall gives them an excellent all around catcher and a potent bat in front of the heart of the order.  Juan Cruz might have the second best stuff on the staff, but the lack of consistent location and a reliable change-up will probably keep in the bullpen.  He's still fairly young, so if those two things fall into place he'll make a solid #3.  Otherwise, he could be a candidate to close eventually.  There were hints in his minor league record that Charles Thomas' would have a surprising 2004 season, much the way one may find hints of hickory, peach, raspberry, asparagus or many other surprising aromas in a fine wine.  However, everyone knows wine is made from just grapes, and that Charles Thomas is just Charles Thomas.  Calero is a nice addition to the bullpen and could get some save opportunities if Dotel falters.  But he won't become the team's closer.  Barton might be the biggest pick-up.  Although his catching skills will probably warrant a position change to first base, no one questions the quality of his hitting skills.  Even so, he's at least a year away.  The trades also open up an opportunity for highly regarded Joe Blanton to secure himself a rotation spot.  Plenty has been said about his minor league numbers but after watching him a few times last year, I'm not sure I see anything more than a #3 or #4 starter.  He is tenacious on the mound, but his fastball is only slightly above average and he doesn't appear to have a reliable out pitch to put hitters away once he gets ahead.  Maybe he was just tired when I saw him, but from what I saw he is no lock to stick in the rotation.

After Mark Ellis went down with injury, second base was a point of concern for the A's all of last season.  There were even rumors at one point that the A's were close to trading Barry Zito to the Orioles for Jerry Hairston and some prospects.  Even though the trade never materialized, Beane didn't lose focus on the need to upgrade the position.  Ellis is back healthy this year, but competing for the job will be Keith Zinter, who put up some pretty decent power numbers in Milwaukee and isn't a terrible glove.  Jermaine Clark will add some speed off the bench and back up both.  While his name is one of the most enjoyable to say, Hiram Bocachica will probably spend most of the season in AAA.  In the outfield, Nick Swisher gets promoted to full-time, taking over for Jermaine Dye.  His resume is stereotypical of an A's prospect - lots of walks, good power, average defense.  He still strikes out quite a bit, but that is rarely a concern for the A's... which is one reason they took a chance on Jack Cust.  Cust is finally with a team that will let him be what he is - a DH with good power and borderline too much patience at the plate.  He frustrated Oriole hitting coaches the last two years because he appeared to be oblivious to the count in his effort to always look for the perfect pitch.  The potential here, although probably not this year, is for him to get back on track and become a Matt Stairs-clone, but without the defense.  Keichii Yabu, a pitcher from the Japanese Leagues was signed as well, but at 36-years old he's probably just living out a dream making the majors.  He was never particularly dominating and even the most optimistic league translation is not better than a league average reliever.

California Angels (I refuse to acknowledge the utter silliness that is the Angels' current name)
With the A's in rebuild mode, the Angels are now the obvious favorite to win the division.  Bill Stoneman did a terrific job building on a pretty solid ballclub.  Despite just about everyone on earth knowing that the Angels simply wanted to get rid of Guillen after last season's meltdown, Stoneman somehow swung a terrific exchange for the enigmatic but otherwise productive outfielder.  Juan Rivera hit .350 after the break last year for the Expos, although it should be noted that he wasn't really challenged the way he will be on a contender.  Still, he's got above average tools in the field and could be a solid 4th outfielder for a team that has had some injuries at that position.  Maicer Izturis isn't much worse than David Eckstein at the plate and is probably a better fielder.  However, he won't get a chance to play all that much because the Angels signed Red Sox hero Orlando Cabrera.  Cabrera's plus range and arm should have a visible effect on the starting staff's ERA.  His bat has been rather inconsistent that last several years, but the potential is there for a 20/20 season.  The other big name addition was Steve Finley, who doesn't have the range he once did, but still plays a decent centerfield.  More importantly, he moves Garrett Anderson back to left where he should stay a bit healthier. Finley's bat is still plenty potent, but he is getting on in years and a league switch may take some time for him to adjust.  The Halos also added Cuban defector Kendry Morales.  Despite many luminaries from the Cuban National team have not faring too well in the majors with only one or two exceptions, Morales may join the exceptions.  He is still very young and appears to have both excellent power potential and a discerning eye.  Dallas McPherson will get first shot at third base, but if he continues to air condition the ballpark - 17 strikeouts in just 40 at bats last year in his call-up - Morales won't be too far away. 

Paul Byrd appears to be a smart signing.  Not only did his best season come in the AL (17-11 in 2002 with KC), but he's primarily a flyball pitcher.  That should play well in ConEd with the Angels athletic outfield.  With the departure of Troy Percival, everyone in the bullpen got promoted a notch.  Francisco Rodriguez will now now close with Scot Shield and Brendan Donnelly setting him up.  Esteban Yan's addition will help soften the blow.

Texas Rangers
The Rangers stayed in contention last season largely on the strength of their bullpen.  True, they had good offensive team. but it was the dominance of pitchers like Frank Francisco, Francisco Cordero, Brian Shouse, Jay Powell, Ron Mahay and Carlos Almanzar that allowed Texas to cover how weak their rotation really was.  Bullpens' are rarely dominating from year to year so they'll have to get more from their rotation.  The Rangers took a chance on Pedro Astacio, hoping he is fully healthy again and that they can come up with two or three solid starters from a pool of pretty talented young arms.  Astacio hasn't been healthy since 2002 and never been dominating, but had some quality years before his stint in Colorado.  Even then, he posted very good strikeout rates.  Joaquin Benoit is both the most talent and most enigmatic of the candidates as it's impossible to predict whether he will dominate the opposition or serve up home run derby.  Ricardo Rodriguez is probably second in line at the talent table and was showing positive signs last year before a line drive broke his elbow.  Chris Young, picked from Montreal in exchange for Einar Diaz last year, is the third best candidate.  Juan Dominguez has considerable talent, but may needs another year in the minors.  The team also hopes that hard-throwing Ryan Bukvich can reload the bullpen by finding his control.

On offense, the Rangers got a potentially huge bargain in Richard Hidalgo.  Now playing in a hitters park with something to prove, Hidalgo can be an All-Star level talent when properly motivated.  Greg Colbrunn will provide a solid bat off the bench.  Although Rod Barajas had a breakout year in 2004, the Rangers felt compelled to bring in a more veteran handler, namely Sandy Alomar.  He's had trouble staying in the line-up, but as an un-official coach, Alomar could prove quite valuable in developing the team's young starters.  Although he's currently out of a position with Michael Young and Alfonso Soriano firmly entrenched in the middle infield, ex-Oakland A Esteban German appears to have all the tools and skills to become a regular second baseman.  He just needs an opportunity, which could come in a midseason trade if the Rangers are in contention and in need of a little more pitching.