Hey Oakland, this can be you in 2003. At least according to MLB.com's John Schlegel. (Eric Risberg/AP)
Only one division in baseball earned two postseason berths each of the last three seasons, and the AL West figures to be another Wild Card of a battle in 2003.
After the Anaheim Angels went all the way to the World Series title as a Wild Card entry in 2002, they'll be duking it out again with the defending division champion Oakland A's in 2003. The Angels are virtually intact and the A's are feeling every bit as strong as they were a year ago.
The rest of the field promises to maintain the AL West's reputation as one of the game's toughest divisions. The Seattle Mariners, only one year removed from the greatest regular season in history, will have to find a way to bounce back into contention after a late-season swoon in 2002. The Texas Rangers, meanwhile, made some offseason adjustments that help their chances of making a difference in the race.
Heading into Spring Training 2003, here's a snapshot of the AL West:
Even if they suffered another disappointing October, the A's still come away from 2002 as the best regular-season team in the division. Defending Cy Young winner Barry Zito leads a stellar rotation. Reigning MVP Miguel Tejada heads a lineup that may have even more pop this year with Erubiel Durazo in the mix. Add it all up, and the A's have the formula and the talent to win a lot of games.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Dealing with a constant barrage of questions about Tejada's future. Exhibit A: Will he go the way of Jason Giambi or will the A's somehow break the cycle by hanging on to an MVP?
Best position battles: With the field positions pretty well set, the back end of the rotation will get a lot of attention. A healthy Ted Lilly fits in nicely in the No. 4 starter role; the No. 5 spot will see competition between Aaron Harang and Erik Hiljus. Also, the bullpen is in some transition with new closer Keith Foulke's arrival.
Spring outlook: Unlike a lot of clubs that changed managers, the A's won't have to break in a new guy in Ken Macha, a high-profile figure on this club for years. It's as smooth a transition as a team can ask for.
Projected regular season finish: First place, and finally that trip to the ALCS.
Even the greatest teams have at least some turnover from season to season, but then the Angels aren't your normal champions. Anaheim showed a team concept unlike any other last year en route to winning a true Fall Classic, and that team concept is virtually unchanged for 2003. This year, however, the Angels won't be catching anybody by surprise -- unless there's another Francisco Rodriguez in the Angels' wings.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: For manager Mike Scioscia and staff, it'll be key to re-establish the simple hitting concepts that brought the Angels to the top. It's a whole new ballgame being a champion, but the Angels need to resist changing anything about how they go about their business.
Best position battles: There will be stiff competition for roles in the bullpen, especially after Rodriguez's spectacular arrival. Also, there are some changes on the bench, where stalwart Orlando Palmeiro is out and Eric Owens is in.
Spring outlook: Perhaps the only nagging question might be how to avoid another 6-14 start to the season, even if it was a key first chapter to their fairytale story. That starts in Arizona.
Projected regular season finish: Second place by a nose, and the AL Wild Card.
The Mariners haven't changed drastically on the field -- so it's hard to say whether they'll be better in 2003. After last year's paradox of a letdown -- a 93-win season paled next to the magical 2001 season -- the M's re-signed (very) veteran free agents Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer and John Olerud. They're also trusting that guys like Bret Boone and Mike Cameron will spring back to their 2001 levels, and that Randy Winn will give them a true All-Star outfield.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: New manager Bob Melvin fills some big shoes with Lou Piniella's departure, but with such a veteran-rich club, the adjustment shouldn't be too severe.
Best position battles: Jeff Cirillo has the third base job, but it'll be interesting to see this spring how he rebounds from a horrible first season in Seattle.
Spring outlook: With a unique schedule that has them arriving in Arizona early and spending a week in Japan in late March, the Mariners will have to use their additional time wisely and be prepared to get off to a good jump on the regular season once they return from the Far East. On the Japan note, a strong start by Ichiro could do wonders.
Projected regular season finish: Third place again, down to the wire.
Maybe Next Year
Emerging from the cellar of this gauntlet of a division might not happen, but the Rangers figure to have more of a say in the AL West in 2003. By upgrading their bullpen with the acquisition of elite closer Ugueth Urbina, the Rangers are intent on holding on to the wins they do get in their grasp. With Alex Rodriguez and milestone-chasing Rafael Palmeiro at its core, the Rangers' lineup will continue to be as potent as any.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: New manager Buck Showalter will have to establish his influence quickly and trust it meshes with the Rangers' mix of personnel -- some veteran, some young, all tired of losing.
Best position battles: This camp will feature some auditions for rotation spots. After Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes and John Thomson, the Rangers will choose among a field that includes Joaquin Benoit, Ryan Drese, Doug Davis and Colby Lewis.
Spring outlook: With a new manager running them out to new fields at a new facility in Arizona, the Rangers can't help but look at this spring as a fresh start. It'll be interesting to see what kind of energy the Rangers have heading into the regular season and whether they can avoid digging themselves an early hole again.
Projected regular season finish: Sorry -- still last place, despite improvements.
1) Alex Rodriguez will make a run at the Triple Crown. Cutting down on his strikeouts and taking more walks, A-Rod will raise his average while maintaining his power stroke. (See: Barry Bonds, 2002.)
2) The A's will become the first team since 1973 to boast three 20-game winners. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder will turn the trick last performed by another Oaktown trio: Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman.
3) Troy Glaus will gain entry into the 50 Homer Club, using his postseason power stroke as a springboard.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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