Angels have competitive edge
But AL West race likely to be up for grabs until final week
The American League West has been baseball's coziest (the only one with four teams) and most competitive division. It is the only bracket whose championship has been shared by all its teams since 1999. None of that is going to change in the coming season; if anything, the intensity will be dialed up a few notches, because for these teams, on a lot of levels, it's personal.Before Spring Training can reveal what GM Billy Beane might have up his sleeve this time, Oakland's title appears up for grabs. The defending champs lost their top pitcher and most productive hitter, and their closest pursuers (the Angels) have been laid-back -- so far -- about leaping through the window of opportunity. The two also-rans have been far more aggressive with moves to bridge the gap, seduced by their prospects in a winnable race. The Mariners have overhauled their rotation into potentially the division's deepest -- a wonderful asset in expansive Safeco Field. The Rangers tread a little closer to being a sideshow, with Eric Gagne and Sammy Sosa -- but imagine the return if the two waylaid veterans furnish more steak than just sizzle. Agendas litter the fields. Jeff Weaver's issues aren't with kid bro Jered, who took his job, but with the Angels, who gave it to him. Jose Guillen, Mike Scioscia's old headache, now is in right field for Seattle. Ron Washington, the beloved A's coach who couldn't get a managerial gig with them, now has it in Texas. Angels righty John Lackey and A's catcher Jason Kendall still aren't exchanging birthday cards. Obviously, these guys play hardball with hard feelings. It's a lot to look forward to for fans, who will just have to temper their enthusiasm.
The favorite Angels
General manager Bill Stoneman dealt all offseason with owner Artie Moreno's well-documented "we will get an impact bat" vow/edict. In the view of many, he fell short with Gary Matthews Jr., whose signing for $50 million caused eyes to roll. But Stoneman was rolling the dice that Matthews' breakthrough season at 32 wasn't an aberration, but the onset of a late-breaking, high-level career. Otherwise, Stoneman continued to focus on a team strength, adding another layer to the bullpen (Darren Oliver, Justin Speier). Projected regular-season finish: AL West champions Biggest ST challenge: Try to avoid hyperventilating if Bartolo Colon stages his usual springtime horror show. He's a traditionally slow starter, and this won't mean that his non-surgical comeback from a torn rotator cuff is a flop. But the Angels can't help holding their breath; a healthy Colon is critical to their chances. Best position battle: First base; Casey Kotchman's healthy return from a year taken by mononucleosis would improve the lineup. Scioscia would then have the option of playing Shea Hillenbrand at third, which would keep Chone Figgins as a super sub. Left field; the Angels would be thrilled to see Juan Rivera (broken left leg) by July, so Reggie Willits and Tommy Murphy will contest the chance to fill the position in the meantime. Wild card: These favorites will start out on very thin ice. Colon has to prove to be a good healer, Jered Weaver and Matthews have to prove their 2006 was genuine, they have to break in a new right side of the infield (Howie Kendrick and the eventual choice at first). Unless they post a pretty high average on these issues, they could have a very average campaign. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The challenger Mariners
The King (Felix Hernandez) and his court (Jarrod Washburn, with newcomers Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver) could form quite a rotation. Guillen and new DH Jose Vidro won't carry the lineup, but will be nice accessories if Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki do their things. It's easy to see why manager Mike Hargrove, who has been around the block a few times, bubbles, "I'm more excited going into this spring than I've ever been." Projected regular-season finish: Second place Biggest ST challenge: Acclimate National League veteran Vidro to DH-ing. The Mariners need a steady, productive presence in that spot after a 2006 committee that ranked dead last in most offensive categories among the league's DHs. Leg injuries sapped the one-time All-Star's game his last couple of seasons with the Nats, so perhaps staying off the field will restore his stick. Best position battle: Middle of the bullpen; numerous seasoned Major League arms (including Arthur Rhodes and Aaron Small) are among the 20-plus non-roster players invited to camp with shots at the slots in front of setup man Chris Reitsma and closer J.J. Putz. Wild card: Ichiro and Guillen are two diverse players who have never really been clubhouse leaders, but have shown a tendency to be clubhouse drains. After three straight last-place finishes, the M's will open the season with fragile psyches and can't afford any snits regarding Ichiro's contract status, Guillen's playing time, or whatever. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The long shot Athletics
Never underestimate Beane's genius for seeing more than is apparent to others, but the mirrors with which the A's have done it for years seem to be cracking. He may be the only GM who could feel comfortable about handing a new manager (Bob Geren) a rotation topped by a guy seen for fewer than 12 innings since early June (Rich Harden, who missed the heart of the 2006 season with a strained elbow ligament). Compiled with a forward-looking perspective, the team's 2006 highlight reel excluded Barry Zito's 16 wins and Frank Thomas' 39 homers and 114 RBIs; they won't be in '07 box scores, either. Projected regular-season finish: Third place Biggest ST challenge: The temptation is to just say, "See Mariners," squared. Mike Piazza is another career NL-er who will try his hand at DH-ing, except how he adapts is far more crucial to the A's. Remember, this is a guy who felt disconnected from the game even when briefly dabbling at first base with the Mets. Best position battles: The A's are locked in at few positions, flexibility having been one of the keys to their successful run, but most open are the corners of the outfield and infield. A comeback by first baseman Dan Johnson, a major '06 flop, would allow Nick Swisher to take over in left field. Wild card: Esteban Loaiza came up huge in a supporting role last season, for long stretches ranking as the team's most dependable starter. If he can do as well with greater responsibility on him now, it will be a major step toward sustaining the rotation excellence that has been the A's signature. If Beane's sudden fascination with hard-throwing relievers (Kirk Saarloos' trade brought the latest proof) pans out, the bullpen will shorten games. They'll need that; they won't pack the comeback punch they had last season. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
Maybe next year Rangers
Time will tell what Matthews gives the Angels, but he was undeniably huge for the Rangers, who replaced him with a human talisman (Kenny Lofton, who has appeared in 10 of the last 12 playoffs with six different teams) lacking comparable tangible tools. Talking the White Sox into giving up right-hander Brandon McCarthy may prove to be a coup. Barring a supreme rebirth by Sosa, however, the offense will remain spotty in a ballpark that absolutely demands it. Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place Biggest ST challenge: Get a read on Gagne. His recent breakdowns have been sudden, so even the good signs may be misleading. But if he is convincing enough for the Rangers to consider moving incumbent closer Akinori Otsuka, they could turn him into a major upgrade in the outfield. Best position battles: Corners of the outfield; Marlon Byrd, still a babe of 29 who three years ago hit .300 in Philadelphia, will vie with both Brad Wilkerson in left and Nelson Cruz in right. No. 5 starter; the line forms to the right (Kameron Loe, Edinson Volquez) and the left (John Koronka, John Rheinecker). Wild card: If Vicente Padilla, who has an alarming track record for doing his best when pitching for a contract, actually lives up to the latest deal he earned last season, it will go a long way toward legitimizing GM Jon Daniels' decision to make the Rangers more pitching-oriented than has been customary. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
You read it here first ... 1) The division will play old school. Not a single player will reach 35 home runs. 2) Sosa enters the season with 588 career homers and will hit No. 600 during a June 19-21 series in Arlington -- against the Cubs. 3) Each of the four teams will spend at least a month in first place, and they'll enter the last week of intradivisional play with the title still up for grabs.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.