Big A 11: Keeping Up With The Joneses

Are we there yet, are we there yet? Almost.

So we've looked at the Angels and all the hot stove questions that follow them; now its time to look at the competition.

The team went an impressive 36-21 against their AL West rivals en route to baseball's only 100-win season last year, running away with the division by the All-Star break. Playing more than 35 percent of their games against those teams, it is clear the most efficient route to October threads through Oakland, Seattle and Texas.

Can they do it again? Will some off-season shuffling ensure at least one of those squads finishes over .500, a task none of them could manage last year? Let's take a look.

Oakland Athletics
2008 record: 75-86 (9-10 vs Angels)

The good: Billy Beane is the MacGyver of all MLB general managers, cobbling respectable squads without the aid of hundred-million-dollar contacts. His acquisitions of superstar outfielder Matt Holliday (via trade) and slugger Jason Giambi (via free agency) added lots of pop to an impoverished lineup. Beane also found a diamond in the rough in slugger Jack Cust. The outfielder, discarded by four organizations prior to finding his niche in the Bay, has popped 59 homers in the past two years. Right hander Justin Duchscherer made the successful transition from relief to starting, going 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA and microscopic 1.00 WHIP in 141.7 innings last year. Hip issues robbed him of eight starts last year; if Duchscherer can stay healthy, look for him to establish himself as one of the AL's best. The emergence of upstart relievers Joey Devine (0.59 ERA, 46 Ks in 45.2 innings in ‘08) and Brad Ziegler (who started his career with a record-39-inning scoreless streak last year) enabled Beane to use incumbent closer Huston Street as trade bait in the Holliday deal. Youngsters Sean Gallagher and Ryan Sweeney will have the opportunity to live up to their potential with extended playing time.

The bad: The team's Baltic Avenue budget forever hinders Beane's efficacy; hunting for bargains will only take you so far. There are an awful lot of question marks here, as the team is heavily dependent on key players who are chronically-injured (third basemen Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby) or virtually unproven (hitters Travis Buck, Daric Barton; the rest of the rotation behind Duchscherer).


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2009 outlook: They've got an interesting mix of young talent arms and powerful, patient sticks that could content if the chemistry is there. They look to be the team most likely to challenge the Halos for the West.  The Angels spent $119 million to the A's $48 million last year, so in theory, this shouldn't be such a Herculean task. More so than other teams, their start will dictate their finish; if the team does well, look for Beane to move farmhands for impact players. If not, count on Holliday, Crosby and who knows who else to be wearing different uniforms by August.

Seattle Mariners
2008 record: 61-101 (5-14 vs Angels)

The good: He's not the most loved guy in the clubhouse, but Ichiro Suzuki continues an eight-year streak of at least 200 hits each year and a sparkling .331 career average in the majors. One of the most entertaining players in the game, no hitter looks more in control in the batter's box than the Japanese import, who steals bases, plays a mean right field and putts butts in the seats wherever he goes. Beyond that, the M's have a legit young ace in Felix Hernandez, who showcased his development with a solid campaign last year (3.45 ERA, 175 Ks in 200 IP). Second baseman Jose Lopez, 25, is developing into one of the game's most potent middle infielders (.297, 17 HR, 89 RBI in '08). The steady Adrian Beltre should continue his quiet production from the hot corner.

The bad: Most everything else. The team, favored as a top contender last spring, lost 101 games, and there's lots of blame to go around. Prized trade acquisition Erik Bedard, expected to anchor the staff, pitched only 81 innings due to shoulder injuries, and had serious control issues when he did take the mound. Jarrod Washburn was of more help to the Angels than the M's, allowing a .329 average and losing all three of his starts against his former team. The ink was barely dry on junkballer Carlos Silva's $48 million contract when he went 4-15 with a 6.46 ERA. Raul Ibanez, a quietly potent bat the past few years in the Pacific Northwest, took his .293 average and 110 RBI to Philly. His replacement: Ken Griffey Jr., whose career jumped the shark badly once he left the Emerald City almost a decade ago. There's very little chance that the sentimental favorite can actually fill the shoes of his predecessor.  The team will look to a pool of untested in-house candidates to replace closer J.J. Putz, who averaged more than 30 saves in his three seasons as the M's stopper.

2009 outlook: Not good. The Griffey signing is subterfuge to help boost attendance; something the team won't be able to do on its own with its level of play.  Hernandez and Bedard are a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation, but the bottom falls out after that. Not nearly enough offense to compare to the rest of the division. They won't lose 101 games again, but don't expect anything resembling a contender.

Texas Rangers
2008 record: 79-83 (7-12 vs Angels)

The good: A core of promising young hitters vie to continue the team's offensive dominance in the majors' best hitters ballpark (Texas led all MLB teams with a .283 average and 901 runs in '08).  With an MVP-worthy season, right fielder Josh Hamilton shed his reputation as a feel-good story and established himself as one of baseball's most dangerous bats. Solid vet Michael Young captains a talented young infield of emerging superstar Ian Kinsler, power-hitting corner man Chris Davis and 20-year-old rookie Elvis Andrus. Late bloomer Nelson Cruz and reclamation projects Andruw Jones and Hank Blalock round out a lineup that has oodles of upside and potential.  The team tallied plenty of runs off Angel starters John Lackey (1-2, 9.31) and Ervin Santana (5.86 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) last year. Strikeout artist Frank Francisco, once famous for throwing a chair at a heckler, is the lone bright pitching spot the team has; he looks more than capable of handling ninth-inning duties after an impressive 2008 (83 Ks in 63.1 innings).

The bad: In a word, pitching. With an offense as good as theirs, the Rangers would have been in playoff contention last year if not for a motley crue rotation that surrendered the majors' worst batting average (.288) and a Texas-sized ERA (5.37). While the ballpark factor accounts for some of the ineffectiveness, these guys would still be lousy pitching in Yellowstone National Park.  Incumbent de facto ace Kevin Milwood has been largely unproductive in his three years in Arlington, with a high ERA, low strikeout rate and an under-.500 record. Second banana Vicente Padilla, much like Milwood, is an innings-eater reliant more on guile than power, getting many a cheap win (14 last year) thanks to the team's bat brigade. Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison and Scott Feldman compose the rest of an uninspiring rotation.

2009 outlook: Whoever scores last, wins. These guys will score and allow a lot of runs. The problem is that formula did not even get them a winning record last year and they didn't address the issue at all during the off-season. Buoyed by Hamilton and Kinsler, this offense will continue flourishing and should be atop the leader board at year's end, but they can only win so many slugfests in the sweltering heat. This team will need a few surprises from the pitching end for their season to mean little more than a glorified six-month batting practice session. 

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