From where I sit (on a part of a goat and I'll leave it at that), it's fairly easy to give a preseason assessment of the Angels, A's, and Mariners. As Eric Chavez will undoubtedly be quick to confirm, the Angels have to be considered the front-runners going in--which is not a crisis from an A's fan's point of view as Oakland has won the division in years the Angels entered as odds-on favorites. But the Angels have a strong and deep rotation, stellar short relief, the Vlad factor, a troublingly good young hitter in Howie Kendrick, and their success does not depend on the health of Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, and Milton Bradley. The bad news, for A's fans, is that the Angels really only have two apparent weaknesses. The good news, for A's fans, is that the weaknesses are "offense" and "defense," both of which are considered to be fairly important.
Meanwhile, the A's assume their customary "dark horse" status as a team that should be picked to finish second and might finish first. If everything breaks right, the A's could actually be quite good. But if everything just breaks, well...The good news, for A's fans, is that Oakland is guaranteed to lead the league in one category. The bad news, for A's fans, is that the category is "exclusions for pre-existing conditions".
And sadly (because I have a soft spot for them), the Mariners figure to pull up the rear again in the AL West. Just not enough starting pitching and too many question marks elsewhere. Not yet, Seattle; someday soon, but not yet.
And then there's the Texas Rangers. So much to praise and so much to criticize. I suppose the safest bet is to pick them to win the April-June sweepstakes and then finish around .500, because ultimately that's what seems to happen every year. But each season is different, and this year there is at least one big change--the manager--and so as 2007 approaches, some old questions linger and some new ones swirl. Such as:
The Old Question: Pitching. Can a team compete for an entire season without having one of the division's better rotations? Because the Rangers still don't. I'd say their ace (Millwood) is a #2 starter, their #2 starter (Padilla) is a #3 starter, and pretty much everyone else is a #5 starter (would you trade Kirk Saarloos or Joe Kennedy or Joe Saunders or Joe Blow, for John Koronka or Robinson Tejeda or Edinson Volquez or John Rheineker or...?). Now you still win if you can score more runs than the other team, and the Rangers have kept their offensive nucleus intact, but the Rangers are proof that you can't keep winning games 8-6. Can you?
- The New Question: Ron Washington. On one hand, many A's fans felt Washington would have been a great choice to lead Oakland and that he is a great choice to lead anyone else. On the other hand, will Wash bring an exciting, scrappy brand of baseball to a team that is simply ill-suited to playing "small ball"? What is he going to do, teach Michael Young how to play shortstop and turn Mark Teixeira into a gold glove first-baseman? You wonder if this is the best match for Washington's strengths...Or if maybe it is, because Ron Washington following Buck Showalter could be like breathing fresh air into an oxygen-deprived clubhouse. To me, Ron Washington as Rangers manager is one of the division's most intriguing story lines of 2007.
Who knows? I sure don't, so I guess I'll just put them down for a fast start, a slow finish, and 81 wins. Give or take 12.