02/03/2003 9:36 pm ET
Will AL West be a four-team race?
Revamped Rangers make toughest division tougher
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
The Seattle Mariners know a thing or two about the dynamics of the AL West race, having seen it from such different angles the last two years.
In 2001, the AL West was a one-team race, and it was all about the Mariners feeling the joy of a record-setting regular season.
In 2002, the Mariners found themselves part of a three-team race, ultimately feeling the despair of being left out of the postseason party. The A's won the division and the Angels turned their Wild Card berth into a World Series title.
As the AL West's four teams head to Spring Training to prepare for the 2003 season, Mariners GM Pat Gillick has a prediction about the dynamics of this year's AL West chase.
"I think this could be a four-team race instead of a three-team race in our division," he said. "Texas has made some improvements."
The AL West actually spicier than it was in 2002? Now, that would be something to watch.
If Gillick's lofty assessment of the Rangers holds true, baseball's most competitive division of a year ago will take that distinction to a new level this season. Whatever happens, a beefed-up bullpen and the addition of new manager Buck Showalter figure to at least help the Rangers make more of a difference in 2003.
With the A's (103-59), Angels (99-63) and Mariners (93-69) all exceeding 90 victories in 2002, the AL West stood out not only last year but also in comparison to recent years. The division's 90-win club marked the first such trio in one division since baseball expanded to three-division play, and the first in the AL since 1989 -- also the AL West: Oakland (99), Kansas City (92) and California (91).
As much as it's the same old AL West as last year in the sense that you know it's going to be a tight race, it's also different in a lot of ways.
There are three different managers, the only holdover being the guy who has the World Series ring -- Anaheim's Mike Scioscia. Oakland would seem to have the lightest adjustment ahead, considering Ken Macha was the bench coach for Art Howe and a strong personality in the clubhouse. Presumably, the adjustment period will be a bit longer in Seattle with Bob Melvin taking over for an icon in Lou Piniella, and in Texas with Showalter taking the reins.
While the Angels stood pat to avoid affecting the precise team chemistry that took them to the pinnacle last year, the rest of the division made some significant moves.
The A's, whose losses to free agency this year were minimal compared to the season before, picked up lefty power hitter Erubiel Durazo from Arizona in an acquisition A's GM Billy Beane called his "holy grail." That move adds to lineup core that already includes defending AL MVP Miguel Tejada and slugging third baseman Eric Chavez. Beane, who was within a phone call of leaving Oakland for the GM post in Boston, also switched closers, bringing in Keith Foulke in a deal that shipped Billy Koch to the White Sox.
The Mariners' biggest offseaosn acquisition was left fielder Randy Winn, gained as compensation for Tampa Bay's hiring of Piniella. Winn, an All-Star last year, gives the Mariners what they believe to be the best defensive outfield in the game, with Ichiro Suzuki in right and Mike Cameron in center. But their biggest moves were re-signing four veteran free agents who have been at the core of the Mariners' recent success -- DH Edgar Martinez, lefty starter Jamie Moyer, first baseman John Olerud and catcher Dan Wilson. The M's failed, however, in their stated quest to acquire a front-line starter to join with Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer, striking out on bidding for Cuban defector Jose Contreras.
In Texas, GM John Hart used his second offseason in charge of the Rangers to bolster the team's bullpen. While Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro have helped bring plenty of offense to the table the last two seasons, the Rangers' pitching has been what has dragged Texas down to the cellar the last three seasons. Hart set out to improve the back end of the staff, bringing in elite closer Ugueth Urbina and Esteban Yan to join with Francisco Cordero for a tough late-innings crew. The Rangers also picked up free agent Doug Glanville to bolster their outfield options.
So with Anaheim and Oakland as good or better than they were a year ago, the Mariners know they'll most likely be in a scenario more similar to 2002 than that blissful loneliness at the top of the standings in 2001.
For Mariners rookie manager Melvin, a race that involves all four teams in the AL West would be just fine.
"It's makes it competitive all the time," Melvin said. "There can be no letdowns at all. You want to stay away from (letdowns) anyway, but within our division it's going to be urgency all the time against all the teams, and I think that's a good thing."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at John.Schlegel@mlb.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.