A look at the AL West...
The A's have taken on a man-sized portion of upheaval this winter, acquiring Jason Kendall from the Pirates and jettisoning two-thirds of the vaunted Big Three. The rotation, of course, is the unknown quantity now that Oakland's best two starters -- Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder -- are elsewhere.
If Rich Harden is able to have a breakout season and Barry Zito can rebound from a poor one, then Oakland should be the team to beat in the AL West. (Jed Jacobsohn / GettyImages)
I like Barry Zito's chances to have a modest rebound. The profoundly gifted Rich Harden is primed for a breakout, Cy Young-quality season, and as for the rest of the rotation, the A's are wisely taking the "let God sort `em out" approach. That is, they have enough quality arms to throw at the problem.
Dan Haren is one of the most underrated young arms in the game, and among talented hurlers like Dan Meyer, Joe Blanton, Keiichi Yabu, Seth Etherton and Kirk Saarloos, the A's shouldn't have a problem fleshing out the rest of the rotation. The offense figures to be upgraded with Kendall, Nick Swisher -- instead of Jermaine Dye -- and a full season from Eric Chavez. The bullpen, with additions like Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz and the possible call-up of talented youngster Huston Street, could be one of the game's best. This is a bit of a gut call, but I see Oakland taking the flag.
This figures to be one of the most hotly fought of all the division races -- one in which it doesn't take a great leap of the mind to imagine any of the four teams winning it. The Bi-County Angels, in most quarters, will be the favored outfit, but I see some weaknesses that could tilt the balance of power Oakland's way.
The bullpen will be thinned out with the loss of Troy Percival and the division-of-labor changes brought about by Francisco Rodriguez's move to the closer position. Dallas McPherson's back injury is rapidly becoming a serious concern. The rotation is battling nagging injuries, and second baseman Adam Kennedy could miss the first two months of the season with a knee injury.
I like Steve Finley's bat (although the hitter-friendly environs in Arizona has something to do with his impressive numbers), but his glove these days is thoroughly overrated. Darin Erstad is a cipher at first, and Orlando Cabrera, for all his glove skills, figures to be a liability with the bat. The Halos no doubt have their merits, but right now they look like a second-place club to me.
They have one of the best managers in the game and, in Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock, two of the best young hitters in baseball. Provided Alfonso Soriano is healthy, the Rangers should have a strong offensive middle infield. On the downside, they don't have an adequate DH, and their serialized pitching concerns (although the nature of the Ballpark makes those look worse than they really are) will likely be their undoing. Texas has a talented young core, but it won't be enough in this deep division.
There are lots of reasons to go see a Mariners game this season: the exciting style of Ichiro, the thoroughly enjoyable Jamie Moyer, marquee acquisition Adrian Beltre, Rookie of the Year contender Jeremy Reed, the possibility of September call-up for Felix Hernandez, who is the best pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden.
However, there's simply not enough here to make them a contender.
The rotation figures to be Solid, but will lack a genuine ace, and the lineup will have sub-optimal production from some key positions.
The unknown quantity is Beltre. If history is any guide with regard to players coming off unexpected breakout seasons, his production will likely fall somewhere between last year's levels and previous career levels. That means a substantial drop-off. The offense as a whole will be better, but not so much that it will compensate for an otherwise unspectacular roster. This will be the best last-place team in the league, but a last-place team it will be.