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How the AL West will be wonposted: Tuesday, March 28, 2006
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- As each division in baseball has morphed into unique entities, we have seen rivalries develop. Some, of course, are rooted in regional cultures -- Cardinals-Cubs, Red Sox-Yankees, and to a lesser extent, Dodgers-Giants. Some have developed because of their opposing alignment in the baseball universe, like the White Sox-Indians-Twins rivalries that have been unpleasant, and in this decade, the A's and Angels.
Oakland might have one-quarter of the payroll of the Yankees, but the consensus among general managers this spring: While New York might bludgeon mediocre pitching to 100-110 regular-season wins, it is conceivable the American League champion could come out of the West.
"Look at those two pitching staffs and the talent on their rosters," says one GM, "and you can see them winning it all."
Two of the determining factors in getting two teams from one division into the postseason are 1. the depth of the division (one GM sees the Mets and Braves both in the playoffs because of 38 games with Washington and Florida) and 2. the interleague schedule. Cleveland, for instance, snacked on the National League at a 15-3 rate, and one year, Oakland lost one game against an NL opponent.
Strength of schedule is unpredictable in March and often determined by who's hot and who's not at that time. That said, Oakland and Los Angeles appear to be really good once again.
Obviously, what is remarkable about that statement is that the $50M Athletics are good and were reconstructed without taking a step backward. They moved Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson and improved their pitching. ("The Oakland A's have become the Kansas City Royals" was one SportsCenter lead). After finding themselves 15 games under .500 in May -- without their best pitcher, Rich Harden, and without Bobby Crosby -- they got back to contention, and despite wearing down in September, won 88 games, a testament to what could have been a manager of the year job by Ken Macha.
Now, after adding power with Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas, what is also remarkable is the depth of talent on the roster, with one of the three lowest payrolls in the league.
"I think what we have is a lot of good players, many of whom are just coming into their own," says Crosby, who looks like he could become the league's preeminent shortstop.
Around Mark Kotsay in the two-hole, they have arguably the league's best double-play combination in Mark Ellis and Crosby. "Ellis is pretty close to a star-quality player," says Macha, who believes the 28-year-old is a Gold Glove defender (especially now that Orlando Hudson is out of the league) whose .384 on base percentage and .861 OPS rank near the top for second baseman.
Before Ellis tore up his shoulder in 2004 and came back a much better player, Macha was the voice insisting how good an all-around player and leader Ellis was.
Crosby had serious wrist and ankle injuries, but he's healthy now. All you have to do is listen to the sound his bat makes in BP. This spring, he seemingly has learned to get the ball inside and drive pitches away with power -- and is several scouts' pick for MVP.
After Crosby, Macha has Eric Chavez, who has worked with Gerald Perry to use his opposite-field power with more consistency. Then Thomas or Milton Bradley, then Dan Johnson, who could easily be a 100-RBI producer. And a mix of Jay Payton, Nick Swisher and Bobby Kielty, with Jason Kendall the one struggler.
"If we end up with Swisher in the ninth hole, that's pretty good," says one Oakland official.
Or if Kendall gets back from last season's .345 OBP to the .399 of the previous two seasons in Pittsburgh, there is their second leadoff man in the nine-hole.
Billy Beane has tried to emphasize defense and baserunning in remaking this team. Chavez is one the best third baseman in the game. Crosby and Ellis can be Gold Glovers, and the outfield is far above average.
Although Beane raised eyebrows when he signed Esteban Loiaza for three years and $21 million, he wanted the innings. "Now," says Beane, "we have five starters who could give us 200 innings apiece."
So they hope. If Harden -- limited to 19 starts in 2005 -- can make 33-35 starts, he can win the Cy Young any year. Danny Haren isn't far behind. Harden is 24, and Haren 25. With Barry Zito and Joe Blanton, 25, in the 3-4 slots, that's not too shabby -- especially when one realizes Blanton was second in the AL to Johan Santana in ERA after the All-Star break.
And next winter, Beane will figure out how to replace Zito when he hits the free-agent market and gets A.J. Burnett coin.
"If Harden and Huston Street stay healthy, they can be as good as anyone," says one AL advance scout. "Kiko Calero is throwing better this spring. Justin Duchscherer and Joe Kennedy are fine. They have a very deep staff."
The Angels are a little different in that they have some of the best young positional players in the game -- second baseman Howie Kendrick, shortstops Brandon Wood and Erick Aybar, outfielder/DH Kendry Morales -- but their current positional players are older. Two teams that do statistical analysis profile L.A. to score the fewest runs in the AL.
"We'll fool people -- we're going to be a good team," says Mike Scioscia, who likely will be working kids like Kendrick and Morales into the lineup along with Casey Kotchman and catcher Jeff Mathis as the season progresses. But for now, a lot depends on the health of Vladimir Guerrero in right, Darin Erstad in center and Garret Anderson in left, or as the DH with Juan Rivera in the field.
Erstad is the victim of his effort and values, but the fact is he's hit 14 homers in 1,199 plate appearances the last two seasons, and slugged just .371 in 2005. Anderson has been plagued by a succession of injuries since 2004 and has been bothered by a bad foot this spring.
"Once he's able to move, Garrett could be in for a big season," says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "He's got his swing back. Trust me. He'll be back."
Then there's Tim Salmon. After having a complicated operation to his left shoulder, Salmon has swung the bat better and with a greater range of motion than any time in five years. "I hadn't been able to get the bat back for a long time," says Salmon.
Hatcher is pleased with the effort: "I've never seen him like this."
Chone Figgins is a major component of this team at the top of the order with his energy, speed and ability to play six positions. Kotchman is a huge factor for this season. All spring, he's demonstrated that he has learned to loft balls, hitting long home runs and doubles off the left-centerfield fences. "Don't ask how many home runs he'll hit," says Scioscia. "He'll just hit, period."
So might Kendrick -- he of the Bill Madlock comparions -- when he gets called up during the season.
The Angels aren't built to be the West Coast Yankees. They are built to win 3-2, 4-3 games. Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young last season, and Kelvim Escobar might have been their best starter. John Lackey and Ervin Santana are blossoming top-of-the-rotation guys. Lackey took his strikeouts to 8.6 per 9 IP (third in the AL) and Santana, who allowed two runs or less in 12 of his 23 starts, can be a star. Jeff Weaver is the fifth starter, at least until Jared Weaver (whose stuff is far more powerful than that of his brother) arrives. And with Scot Shields joined by J.C. Romero and Hector Carrasco in front of Fransisco Rodriguez, the bullpen should once again be solid.
Like Oakland, Scioscia's teams are sound defensively -- Orlando Cabrera and Kotchman are top-drawer defenders -- and also run the bases aggressively, advance runners and play not for the big innings, but for leads to hand to Shields and Rodriguez.
Scioscia says "the A's probably have the best pitching in the league." Beane says "the Angels' pitching scares me."
There is no question the Rangers and Mariners are considerably better than they were in 2005, but what separates Oakland and Los Angeles from the other divisional foes is pitching … if its staffs remain healthy.
So, come September, the rivalry that has grown will be back on stage as the A's and Angels play one another seven or eight times, with October on the horizon.