Spring Training Preview: AL West

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If I had one word to describe the American League West, it would be uncertainty.

Every single team in the division has some huge question marks. I can see all four teams winning the division. On the other hand, I can see all four teams finishing last in the division as well.

Oakland lost Barry Zito and Frank Thomas this offseason. Mike Piazza was brought into replace the Big Hurt, but his best days are well behind him. Can Rich Harden step up and be an ace? The answer to that seems to point to yes, but he is a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen. Every year general manager Billy Beane seems to lose some big players, but always finds a way to make things work. However, this could be the year his magic runs out.

The Los Angeles Angels had a miserable offseason. The Halos missed out on Alfonso Soriano, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, but did sign one-year wonder Gary Matthews Jr. to a five-year, $50 million deal that was criticized by just about everyone in baseball. Bartolo Colon will probably not be ready for the start of the season, leaving a 24-year-old second-year player related to Jeff Weaver as the team's ace.

Texas fired its manager, lost just about every free agent it had and signed Eric Gagne, who has missed most of the past two seasons due to injuries. Don't forget they have also brought Sammy Sosa to camp, as well. New manager Ron Washington certainly has his work cut out for him, but he may have the best team from top-to-bottom in the division.

Nobody is talking about the Seattle Mariners and manager Mike Hargrove likes it that way. The team traded for Jose Vidro and signed Jose Guillen to help compliment Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. Phenom Felix Hernandez endured a bit of a sophomore slump last year, but he is only 20 and if he pitches the way the organization and the baseball world thinks he can, you also have to put Seattle in the discussion for a division title.

Should be an interesting year out West.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS: Phoenix Municipal Stadium -- Phoenix, AZ

Well the Big Three-era of the A's pitching staff is officially over now that the last remaining member, Barry Zito, is gone. With Zito now in San Francisco, Rich Harden assumes the role as the team ace. His talent has never been questioned, but his ability to stay on the field has. Something always seems to pop up with him. However, if he can stay healthy, Oakland should not miss a beat without Zito. Danny Haren and Joe Blanton must also continue to progress if the A's are going to continue to have success.

Last year Billy Beane caught lightning in a bottle with a low-risk high reward contract to Frank Thomas. This year the team is hoping Mike Piazza will have that same kind of success, as he embarks on his first season as a designated hitter.

New manager Bob Geren has a solid team, provided they stay healthy. If the A's remain on the field, especially Harden, they will be contenders. If not it could be a long year.

LA ANGELS: Tempe Diablo Stadium -- Tempe, AZ

The Angels were a bitter disappointment a year ago, missing out on the postseason for the first time in three years and just the second time in the last five. Their struggles continued into the offseason, as the team once again failed to land a big-time bat to compliment superstar Vladimir Guerrero.

LA faced a lot of criticism this winter when it signed outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. to a $50 million deal. Matthews, an outstanding defensive centerfielder, hit over .300 for the first time in his career last season and also set career highs in homers, RBI, doubles, hits, runs scored and at-bats. While he probably won't be as good offensively as he was a year ago, he will help the lineup.

The Angels' lineup will have to be better than it was last season because the strength of the team in years past - its pitching staff - has some huge question marks surrounding it. Bartolo Colon will probably start the year on the DL and last year's sensation Jered Weaver is already dealing with some tendinitis in his shoulder. Luckily though, Ervin Santana is healthy.

TEXAS RANGERS: Surprise Stadium -- Surprise, AZ

The Texas Rangers certainly have history on their side. The last two times Buck Showalter has been fired, the team that let him go went on to win the World Series the following season.

Eric Gagne, who has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries, was brought in to be the team's closer and appears to be ready to go, but he can go down at any time. Sammy Sosa was also given a minor league deal, but who knows how much he has left in the tank.

On the bright side the starting staff is solid, but young after you get past the top of the rotation. I loved the Brandon McCarthy deal. He will slot in nicely as the team's third starter behind Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. Robinson Tejada will likely be the fourth starter with Josh Rupe, John Koronka and Edinson Volquez among others fighting for the final spot.

New skipper Ron Washington has 36 years of baseball experience on his side and has made a good impression on just about everyone in the organization. He will make an even better impression on the fans if he wins right away. The Rangers probably have the best lineup in the division and if McCarthy and Gagne pan out, they could easily snare a division title.

SEATTLE MARINERS: Peoria Sports Complex -- Peoria, AZ

If there is a team in this division that enters the year with the underdog hat it is certainly the Mariners. However, if some things fall the right way it is not out of the question that they could surprise some people.

Felix Hernandez struggled last year, but at 20 years of age his best years are certainly in front of him. He won't be counted on nearly as much as he was last year either, as the team brought in veterans Miguel Batista and Jeff Weaver, as well as Horacio Ramirez, to shore up the staff.

Offensively Seattle is pretty solid. The ongoing "Will Ichiro become a free agent after the season?" storyline will fester all season, but should not affect his play any. The team tried to move Richie Sexson and his bloated contract all offseason to no avail. I suspect they will still try and move him. Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers will come calling late in the spring with plenty of pitching to offer.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick
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