The American League West in 2008 was all about the haves and the have-nots. The Angels had a solid pitching staff, some valuable defenders, a record-setting closer, and a fella named Mark Teixeira who came in to carry the offense down the homestretch. The A's, Mariners, and Rangers didn't have a damn thing of value between the three of 'em and allowed Anaheim to win over 100 games, a veritable paper tiger that got burned up in the playoffs.
Some folks thought the Mariners would improve on a surprise 88-win 2007 season and contend for a playoff spot in 2008. Those of us who read up on the PECOTAs and the CHONEs of the world knew better, and the M's became the first ever 100-loss $100 million team in history, the absolute pinnacle of inefficiency. The common perception of the 2009 Mariners is that they'll continue to be mired in the muck, while some folks are absolutely agog that Billy Beane went on a Xtreme Depression spending spree on what was perceived to be a mediocre team bereft of its best pieces already. But instead of proselytizing about nonsense, let's review the good and bad of each team and see how the tea leaves are lining up.
4. Texas Rangers
- They've got professional hitters. Center fielder Josh Hamilton faded towards the end of '08 but still put up MVP-caliber numbers. He's the centerpiece and the keystone of an offense that features stud second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop-cum-third baseman Michael Young, and hopeful slugger Chris Davis. If Davis can bash some taters and protect Hamilton in the 5 slot, and if youngsters Elvis Andrus and Taylor Teagarden can bloom like pretty, pretty roses, this team could score six runs a game.
- Nolan Ryan is injecting his pitchers with badassery. Team president and former Ranger heatballer Nolan Ryan hired Mike Maddux to learn his pitchers some teachins, and Ryan himself is going to take a hands-on approach to keeping his starters off the disabled list. If he has to force feed Kevin Millwood the analgesics by himself, he will.
- Evan Grant's food musings.
- The pitchers stink. Kevin Millwood and Vincente Padilla might be the worst one-two punch in baseball, while the rest of the rotation would be lucky to post a sub-5.00 ERA. It's hard enough to pitch in the humid bandbox of Arlington, y'all, but the collection of arms assembled by the Rangers in the majors and the minors is stinkeroo.
- Omar Vizquel is more talented with a paintbrush than with a maple bat. The Rangers supposedly brought Vizquel in to tutor young shortstop Elvis Andrus with the glove, but if some event arises that gives Omar 300+ plate appearances, the Rangers can say good-bye to scoring six runs a game.
- Tom Hicks is too busy dicking around with football. Not the good, American kind of football either, he's a 50% owner of Liverpool FC, an English soccer club that isn't allowed to use their hands. Actually, maybe the less time Hicks spends focusing on the Rangers, the better. Can Chan Ho Park play goalie?
73 93 record, some wacky C.J. Wilson quotes, and another mid-year signing of Sidney Ponson to shore up the rotation and tick up concession sales.
3. Seattle Mariners
- They're learnin' the value of defense. New general manager Jack Zduriencik is experimenting with a speedy outfield defense in 2009, bringing in Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez in the offseason. Speed never slumps, and these dudes have range. Add in right fielder Ichiro with his magic arm and adorable Japanese smile and you've got an outfield that makes up with the glove what they lack with the bat.
- Felix Hernandez is ready for his closeup. Remember, this kid is just 23 years old and his fastball is ready to mow down and strike out 200 batters this season. His ERA has dropped half a run the past two years; if he continues to keep K's high and tater tots low, the defense behind him could see him with a sub-3.00 ERA in '09.
- Well, it can't get much worse than 2008, so Geoff Baker should actually cheer up.
- A severe lack of good hitters. It's one thing to be a team bereft of MVP candidates, but the Mariners simply do not have any B-list hitters either. New first baseman Russell Branyan is just a cheaper version of Richie Sexson while new guy/old guy Ken Griffey will provide more value at the turnstile than the batters box. The only bright spot is young lad Jeff Clement, who would be an All Star catcher if the M's weren't saddled down by Kenji Johjima's contract and psychiatry bills.
- Erik Bedard might be made of fine Murano glass. His tush injury prompted David Pinto to call Bedard the new Carl Pavano, certainly a kiss of death from the Don Corleone of the baseballblogosphere.
- Don Wakamatsu has no idea what he's doing. He might have a clean background check under his hat but really, the dude has about as much experience as you and I in managing a major league baseball team. Note: this may actually be a good thing. See: Baker, Dusty or Boone, Bob.
A 75-87 record despite scoring the fewest runs in the league, some lite jazz CDs in the bullpen provided by new closer Miguel Batista, and a renewal of the burgeoning Seattle singles scene.
2. Los Angeles Angels of Angelheim
- Bobby Abreu is an absolute delight. I don't care that he's a grown man afraid of outfield walls and has the range of a wheelchair-bound koala bear, the man is a positive influence on your baseball team. Dude can OBP with the best of them, is a talented baserunner, and is quite durable. With Vlad Guerrero providing protection in the cleanup slot, Bobby might even knock 25 taters again.
- Mike Napoli is the new face of American League catching. Dude doesn't have the job for the defense, but he's another member of Team Anaheim who can deposit the baseball over the right field fence at Angel Stadium.
- The pitching staff is deep and consistent. The Angels return four of five gents in John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Kelvim Escobar, and will hopefully get Ervin Santana back once he clears up that whole "torn UCL" nonsense.
- Current third baseman Chone Figgins is the 19th best Angel of all time.
- Holy crap, Ervin Santana has a torn UCL. That sounds like it hurts.
- Mark Teixeira isn't walking through that door. He might have faded for the Angels in the playoffs, but Mark hit nearly as well for Anaheim as Manny did for the real Los Angeles team in the second half. You can't replace his strong glove/bat/looks combination.
- Every other team in the division got better. You can't win 100 games when you're not beating up on the basement-dwellers 60 times a year.
An 85-77 record, a short dalliance with the Wild Card race in August, a twelve-round midsummer Lackey/Liakos tilt at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, and an October spent shaking their fist at Billy Beane for actually spending money in the previous offseason.
1. Oakland Athletics
- Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera. The best trio of hitters acquired by any single team over the winter will help the A's improve their offensive output by maybe a whole run per game. This ain't no murderer's row (the murderers usually hang out outside the stadium in Oakland) but it'll do.
- Jack Cust doesn't have to pick up a glove anymore. With Holliday, Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck manning the three outfield positions, and Giambi and Daric Barton sharing first base duties, the defensively-challenged Cust can spend most of his time DH'ing and flexing his Rob Deeresque muscles.
- The bullpen is good and ego-free. I really don't know if it's ego-free actually, these guys might all be dickheads. But closer Brad Ziegler and setup men Joey Devine, and Jerry Blevins should shore up the late innings quite nicely without any one of them attempting any crazy Papelbonian displays of self-promotion.
- Um, the pitching staff is a bunch of no-names and whozats. Top three guys Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland and Sean Gallagher would be #4 starters elsewhere, while it's going to take some overreaching performances by youngsters Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman, and Dallas Braden to keep this team winning.
- Nomar Garciaparra stinks.
- Eric Chavez is made of fine Murano glass.
- They're still playing in that horrid ballpark.
An 87-75 record, some mid-June rumblings about Frank Thomas coming back to the team to be the clubhouse food-tester, and a hasty playoff exit at the hands of one of the two AL East playoff teams to be named later.