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Open Thread: Game 1/AL West Preview and Predictions

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Because I have a business meeting in Oakland, I have to leave early today, so this will be the AL West Preview and the very first regular season open game thread of 2006.

Barry Zito takes on Randy Johnson and the prolific Yankees offense in the A's first game, which may or may not be rained out.

In the meantime, here is how I view the AL West in 2006. Tomorrow, I'll put up playoff predictions. Also, I've been asked to write an occasional column for FSNBayArea.com. We came up with the name "Straight A's" for the column. You can see my first column here.

Without further ado, here is my AL West 2006 Preview starting with a quote from the best band of all-time:

Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity.
Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.
Desperate to control all and everything.
Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

- The Grudge - "Tool"

The AL West has belonged to the scarlet lettermen from the O.C. This after the A's owned a playoff position for four straight years from 2000-2003, so they should have a grudge against the Anaheim team. Will the AL West come down to the A's and Angels again or will the Rangers or Mariners sneak up on the two frontrunners?

Let's take a look at the teams:

Oakland Athletics

We all know about the A's and their changes this offseason. We follow the team closely enough that there is no reason to talk about Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley. The one thing that we do know about this team already, besides the obvious health concerns with almost every key player on the team, (Crosby, Harden, Chavez, Thomas, Bradley, Kotsay and Duchscherer all are injury concerns) is that the team has more depth to survive an injury or two.

In addition to Thomas, Bradley and Esteban Loaiza, the A's also acquired several younger starting pitchers as insurance in case the rotation has injury problems again. Juan Dominguez, Brad Halsey and Chad Gaudin join a now-healthy Dan Meyer in the A's Triple-A rotation. The offense should benefit from having a healthy Bobby Crosby in addition to Thomas and Bradley. But more than anything, the A's have the best defense, position-by-position that they may have ever had. They have players who have gold glove potential at every position except catcher and first base (although DJ and Swisher are not slouches with the glove). This should also help the A's starting pitching. Having three centerfielders patroling the outfield should make the pitching that much better, especially for a team that had the sixth-best ERA in the majors last year and had the best BAA of any team in the majors at .241.

The A's also added a crucial player in Antonio Perez who had a great spring, hitting .320 with a .364 OBP. He will be able to spell Eric Chavez on occasion when that shoulder acts up. He'll also be a good substitute for Bobby Crosby if something happens to Crosby. What the A's can't afford is players going down two and three at a time.

The bullpen still lacks a true LOOGY and while many think that isn't a big deal, it could impact several key games this year. Will Brad Halsey stay with the team for a little while and serve in that role? Probably not. It appears the A's feel comfortable with the pen as it stands right now. And who could blame them? Kirk Saarloos joins the pen after performing as the best fifth starter in the American League last year. Saarloos has a great two-seam fastball that induces a lot of ground balls. He could be the new Chad Bradford of this team when Bradford was actually inducing double plays with regularity. Not only that, but Saarloos could be everything from a one-batter reliever to a long reliever to a fill-in closer. So the move to add Esteban Loaiza (at too many dollars for too long in my humble opinion), created a better bullpen.

So, the bottom line is that the A's starting pitching and bullpen should be better in 2006. The question is, will the offense be? Without calculating the addition of Thomas, Bradley and Perez, the A's offense was likely to get better in 2006. Bobby Crosby should be able to stay healthy unless he has a run-in with Sal Fasano again. Nick Swisher is likely to be better than he was in 2005. Mark Ellis might slide a little, but Dan Johnson could also be better. You add in the contributions of Thomas, Bradley and Perez (his at-bats will likely replace a lot of Scutaro's) and the A's offense should be deep and dynamic. A lot of people think this offense will depend on Thomas and his health. I don't see it that way. I think it will be fine, even if Thomas doesn't remain healthy all season.

Los Angeles Angels

The Scarlet Lettermen own the division, so they deserve that respect. That doesn't mean we have to like them. The Angels have become my most hated team because they've taken the prize the last two years. Not only that, but most of their fans are of the "newer" variety. Nonetheless, the Angels still have one of the best rotations in baseball. John "Slingblade" Lackey came of age last season and Bartolo "Shrek" Colon led the staff, winning the AL Cy Young (he reportedly dipped it in the chocolate fountain at the ceremony and gnawed it down). Ervin Santana is one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball and Kelvim Escobar could possibly, finally, maybe be healthy. Jeff Weaver is a good fifth starter, but if the Angels suffer an injury to the rotation, they could have Hector Carrasco as a starter. If they suffer more than one than Jeff's brother, Jered could get a quick trial by fire. The one thing to note about the Angels is that the Angels got excellent contributions from both Jarrod Washburn and Paul Byrd last year. Their numbers were absolutely outstanding with Washburn sporting a 3.20 ERA and Byrd at 3.74. Escobar could hit that 3.20 number if he stays healthy, but I'm not either Santana or Weaver can come close to that 3.74 number. There's a good chance that the Angels starting staff could be a little worse than last season. Especially because Colon often fluctuates wildly in ERA from year to year. His last three seasons? 3.87, 5.01, 3.48 while his BABIP has remained relatively similar in those three seasons at .277, .288, .285.

The Goggle pen continues to be one of the best in baseball. Francisco Rodriguez pitched well last year, but I thought players started to figure him out towards the end of the season. If he gets ahead of you, he almost always throws that ridiculously good slider out of the zone. K-Rod continues to be a candidate for a major injury because of that unorthodox delivery, but he's survived this long with that delivery. The true stud of the Angels pen is Scot Shields. Shields led the American League in innings pitched with 91.2 and had a whopping 98 strikeouts. He was quite possibly the most valuable reliever in baseball last season (Justin Duchscherer is in the discussion as well). The Angels also added J.C. Romero as a lefty specialist and Brendan Donnelly remains, although his shine kind of came off last year. The Angels also continue to replenish with hard throwers as well. This is definitely the strength of this team, so get a lead early if you want to beat this team.

The offense is where the Angels have the most question marks. Yes, this team has Vlad, but almost everywhere else are question marks. Adam Kennedy possibly had a career year last year, Orlando Cabrera isn't in the top echelon of offensive shortstops, Garret Anderson seems to be aging faster than anyone expected and Darin Erstad goes back to a position he used to excel at, but also injured himself constantly. He's also several years older than the last time he was there. Dallas McPherson is starting the season in the minors and Jeff Mathis is young and unproven. Chone Figgins is an excellent and annoying cog of the team. He is versatile and can drive catchers who have troubles throwing (such as Mr. Kendall) fits. The question is, can Casey Kotchman quickly mature into the masher most people think he will be? I think he's going to be a quality hitter, but outside of Kotchman and Vlad, this offense could struggle to score runs. And what if Vlad gets hurt? Yikes.

Texas Rangers

A lot of you know how I feel about the Rangers from reading the other chats. I think this team has finally turned the corner and is heading in the right direction. Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Kameron Loe and now, Robinson Tejeda (acquired in the Dellucci trade) should give the Rangers better starting pitching. And the thing is, with an offense that can rake with the best of them, the Rangers don't need spectacular starting pitching. Millwood may regress a bit from last year, and that home ballpark can be rough on the best pitchers, but I also think he will win a lot more than the paltry nine games of last year. Loe is a starter who very well could come into his own this year. Adam Eaton was supposed to join the rotation, but he is out three months and frankly, Tejeda might be a better addition any way considering Eaton's performance in cavernous Petco Park last season. The biggest loss for this staff is Kenny Rogers, who has always given the A's big-time problems.

The bullpen could experience a regression in 2006. But it also could improve because the pen was absolutely taxed throughout much of the year last season. The Rangers were second to only the Royals last year in innings pitched as relievers. Rangers relievers pitched 544 innings last season. By comparison, the A's relievers pitched only 448 last year. That's almost 100 extra innings, which is has an impact on the entire team because you're using all different pitchers and it also means your best pitchers aren't necessarily getting as many innings as you'd like. If the starting staff can be better than last season (Roger Clemens, anyone?), the relievers won't see as much work. The Rangers have an elite closer in Francisco Cordero. Joaquin Benoit and Ron Mahay are the top righty/lefty set up guys. But this pen isn't on par with the Angels or the A's. That doesn't matter as much when you're scoring 100 more runs than any of your competitors.

The offense is fantastic. I expect Hank Blalock to have a better offensive year than last year and Mark Teixeira is an absolute stud. Michael Young and Ian Kinsler should make a better defensive duo than Soriano and Young (not because of Young). But if you add in Brad Wilkerson, this offense should just excel. The defense should also be better all the way around which in turn should help the starting pitching. I love Wilkerson at the top of this lineup and I anticipate a bounce-back year from the former Nat.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners should be better this year, meaning that I think three of the four teams in the division will have more wins than last year (Oakland, Texas and Seattle). Adrian Beltre should be better than last year, they still have Ichiro and Johjima could be another successful Japanese import in the Emerald City. Richie Sexson was the power threat the M's were looking for, but the loss of Jeremy Reed for the first six weeks of the season will hurt his rebound chances. Raul Ibanez can be devastating, especially to the A's in the late innings (ugh). This offense will put a good deal of runs on the board which is a good thing when you consider the team's starting pitching.

Jamie Moyer, he the card-carrying member of the AARP, will be the M's opening day starter, but this rotation is all about the King. King Felix Hernandez that is. Hernandez has the ability to be one of the best starting pitchers ever. And that's saying quite a bit for a 20 year old. The A's got a taste of him last season and it tasted sour. I honestly believe that Harden and Hernandez will be the Roger Clemens/Pedro Martinez of the next decade. But outside of Hernandez, this rotation is thin. Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche and Jarrod Washburn round out this group. Everyone still seems to be waiting for the real Pineiro to stand up. Washburn appeared to have a career year last year and Meche has flashes of brilliance littered with crashes of mediocrity.

The M's bullpen is solid with Eddie Guardado as the closer. Don't forget about Rafael Soriano who could wind up being the closer by season's end if the Mariners are out of it and some contender is in need of a closer.

With all that being said (have I lost you yet?), here is how I see the division shaking down in 2006:

  1. Oakland A's: The A's have depth and depth is an underrated commodity during a 162-game schedule. They'll probably need it with all the players with injury histories.
  2. Texas Rangers: The Rangers have improved their starting pitching overall and with an offense that can hit with the best of them, I anticipate this team will finally make a step back towards respectability. I also think there's a good chance the Rangers could get Roger Clemens and if they do, this team could challenge the A's for the division title this year.
  3. La Canada Angels of Lake Forest: The starting pitching and bullpen are great. The offense absolutely depends on Vlad staying healthy and Casey Kotchman turning into a star and quickly. If the team somehow works in their young talent because of injuries, I'd like their chances better.
  4. Seattle Mariners: The Mariners will be better but they are in one of the toughest divisions in baseball right now. With Felix in the fold, they could make a quick ascent, just not this season.
Hopefully the A's wear that grudge all the way to a crown in 2006.

Enjoy the game and GO A'S!!!!!!! Kick those Yankees back New York!

1972, 1973, 1974, 1989...2006