1. Seattle Mariners
Questions over Cliff LeeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fitness place some doubts over their hopes for the division, but the Mariners have put together a good side. Lee was the marquee signing of the winter for Seattle, but they were busy elsewhere, bringing in Chone Figgins, and becoming the latest club to take a chance on Milton Bradley.
After steadily improving each of the previous three years, Felix Hernandez had a real breakout season in 2009, finishing second in AL Cy Young voting, behind Zack Greinke. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to be good again this year for the MÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s to stay on track for the playoffs. If Lee stays healthy, he and King Felix form a formidable 1-2 punch.
Figgins looks like a good pick-up, and will add plenty of speed to complement Ichiro, who you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t imagine doing anything other than what he does every season Ã¢â‚¬â€œ rack up hits. Ball-magnet Franklin Gutierrez has developed into arguably the best outfielder in the Majors, and put up the best numbers of his career with the bat in 2009 too. Expect a Gold Glove to be heading in his direction.
That Milton Bradley can be an above-average player when he wants to be is clouded by the off-field trouble that seems to follow him around. Seattle becomes the latest stop on his tour of clubhouse destruction.
Of course, that is a little harsh, and there is no doubt that his reputation now precedes him with players and umpires alike. Unfortunately for Milton, he has to take big steps to prove that he isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the guy everyone thinks he is. Whether he is good enough to overcome the risk to their clubhouse harmony the Mariners have taken certainly remains to be seen.
If they can stay fit, and play to their potential, this team is certainly good enough to win the division for the first time since 2001.
2. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels lost some important pieces over the winter Ã¢â‚¬â€ notably ace John Lackey to the Red Sox. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re still in with a very good shot at the division, but it is likely to be much more of a challenge than it has in recent years.
That is not to say the Angels are short of good pitching. Scott Kazmir will be starting his first full season in Anaheim, although he is slated to start the season on the 15 day disabled list.
Ervin Santana is back, although there will also be questions over his durability after spells on the DL last year. Coming off a solid 2009 season, California native Jered Weaver will be the guy leading the rotation for them, after being handed the Opening Day start.
The Angels also lost Chone Figgins and Vladimir Guerrero in-division, to Seattle and Texas respectively. The only real player of note coming the other way through the revolving door has been Hideki Matsui, who should make up for some of that lost offense.
The combination of the Halos relative off-season inactivity and the Mariners strengthening means this division will be tighter than it has been in a while. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re well capable of winning the division, but if members of their rotation spend any significant period on the DL, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to be in trouble.
3. Texas Rangers
In a division with two contenders as strong as Seattle and Los Angeles, it is difficult to see the Rangers mounting a serious challenge for the playoffs.
However, Texas has the offensive talent to stay in contention, and if the top two falter, they could take their chance. They will need Josh Hamilton to stay healthy for the majority of the season, after his 2009 was severely disrupted by injury.
Vladimir Guerrero is certainly capable of hitting 30 home runs again, in the hitter-friendly confines in Arlington, and will be a welcome addition to their line-up.
The elephant in the room, however, is their pitching. Scott Feldman leads the rotation. Rich Harden will be the number two starter, but as has been the case for a number of years now, there are question marks over his durability.
Left-hander C.J. Wilson is an interesting addition to the rotation, after spending the last four seasons in the back-end of the bullpen. Last season was perhaps the best of his career, where he dramatically improved his strikeouts, averaging more than 10 per nine innings.
What is a good sign for baseball in Texas is that the Rangers are building a formidable youth movement. Julio Borbon, Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz are three guys who will form a key part of a competitive Rangers team in the next few years, and all three are under the age of 25.
The Rangers offense once again looks good, but with pitching so light, their hopes of winning this division may be on ice for another year.
4. Oakland Athletics
The AÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hit the basement in the West last season, and it is difficult to see them getting out of it this year when they look on paper to be the weakest team in the division.
That is not to say they are completely devoid of talent. Kurt Suzuki is perhaps the best defensive catcher in the league, and is more than capable of chipping in with double digit home runs. Eric Chavez is the old man of the Athletics, and looks like he will be given a shot at the DH role full-time this year. Kevin Kouzmanoff has been brought in to fill ChavezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s slot at third base.
With the ball, Andrew Bailey was the surprise package of last season. After being given the chance in May, he proved himself as a solid closer, and was rewarded by being named AL Rookie Of The Year.
Justin Duchscherer missed the entire 2009 season, and it remains to be seen if he can live up to his potential this year. The same can be said of free agent acquisition Ben Sheets. The 31-year-old is coming off surgery which caused him to miss all of last season, and Oakland surprised many by signing him to a $10m contract for 2010.
Slugger Jack Cust has gone through an interesting relationship with the Athletics over the winter. He filed for free agency in December, but after finding little interest in his services, he re-signed with Oakland ($2.5m/1yr). However, on the eve of the season, he was designated for assignment, and if he clears waivers, will start the season in the minor leagues.
This does leave the question of where their power is going to come from, and with so many questions over their pitching, it is not a good situation for them to find themselves in when they are trying to battle
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