Blessed with talent, West divisions are best
Angels, Dodgers poised to face serious challenges in 2010
For eight days and nights, October tumbling into November, the East owned the grand stage, with the New York Yankees dethroning the Philadelphia Phillies in a rousing World Series.
Yet for the preceding 180 days from April through September, without much acclaim or acknowledgment, the best baseball in the Major Leagues was played out West. This is not a matter of regional bias, perception, interpretation or even debate. It's right there in the numbers.
You could look it up.
The American League West finished 40 games above .500, staking its claim as the dominant division from top to bottom. The National League West came in at 30 games above .500.
Over the course of the 162-game, six-month regular season, the nine clubs composing those two divisions were a commanding 70 games better than the other four divisions.
The only other division that finished above .500 overall was the AL East. Led by the titans in the Bronx and Boston, the AL East reached the finish line plus-32 -- two games better than the oft-maligned NL West.
Somebody had to take a beating. The NL East was 20 games below .500, and the Central was collectively thrashed. The NL Central was 34 games under .500, the AL Central a whopping 48 games below break-even land.
"The only way you can judge a division's strength is how it does outside its division," the Angels' Mike Scioscia, AL Manager of the Year, said. "In the 10 years I've been here, our division has more than held its own. I think it's the most competitive division, top to bottom, in baseball."
Scioscia certainly doesn't expect that to change in 2010.
The AL West kingpins three years running, the Angels know they face stiff challenges from all three division rivals as they go for a fourth title without such familiar faces as Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Darren Oliver, Gary Matthews Jr., and Kelvim Escobar.
West is where the winners are
Replacing the departed are Hideki Matsui, Joel Pineiro, Fernando Rodney and Brian Stokes, along with such in-house athletes as Brandon Wood, Maicer Izturis and Reggie Willits.
Looking to make inroads, Texas, Seattle and Oakland each imported front-end starters with the ability to dominate in Rich Harden, Cliff Lee and Ben Sheets, respectively.
All three clubs feel they have upgraded their lineups and improved their defenses. Operating on the theory that if you can't beat them, sign them, the Mariners and Rangers acquired marquee performers who contributed handsomely to the Angels' recent run of excellence.
With ex-Angels Figgins and Casey Kotchman taking over the corners of the infield, the Mariners have added a pair of professional hitters and superior gloves to a defense widely judged by the computer folks as the best in the game in 2009.
Seattle could field as many as five Gold Glove candidates, with Figgins and Kotchman joining shortstop Jack Wilson and outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki.
With all this leather behind Felix Hernandez, Lee and Erik Bedard, fronting a pitching staff that led the AL in team ERA, the Mariners figure to win a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. They might need to, given that power appears in short supply.
The always-dangerous Rangers lured Guerrero deep in the heart of Texas to a ballpark he has torched over the years, while Oliver, the ageless southpaw, adds stability and dependability to their bullpen.
The Athletics looked elsewhere for home improvements and found them in center field, with Coco Crisp, and at third base, with Kevin Kouzmanoff. Upwardly mobile, the A's plan to rise with the blossoming of youthful talent in all areas.
Certainly optimism is in the air as the pursuers take aim at the three-time division champs.
"I think the opportunity to win presents itself when you're in the AL West," Sheets, the former Brewers ace, said after signing to assume the reins of the Athletics' rotation. "I think last year it proved that everybody was pretty close, and that whoever could make the most moves this offseason could catch the front-runner Angels -- and maybe even pass them up."
His new manager, Bob Geren, has seen too much of Scioscia's troop to count on any slippage.
"I don't buy that the Angels have gotten worse," Geren said. "A lot of people have said they've taken a step backward, but I think they still have a very good team.
"Seattle made significant moves, and Texas did, too. The same can be said for us, so it should be an interesting race. I think you could say our division has more depth than any other right now."
In Southern California, dreams of a first-ever Freeway Series were alive deep into October after the Angels swept the arch-nemesis Red Sox in the AL Division Series and the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in the NLDS.
Second in the Majors in victories, with 97, after dealing with the heartache of Nick Adenhart's death in a car wreck at the age of 22, the Angels pushed the Yankees to six games in the AL Championship Series before their flame was snuffed in the Bronx. "lt;p> The Dodgers, whose 95 regular-season wins tied them with the Red Sox for third in the Majors, met their Waterloo in Philadelphia at the explosive hands of the Phillies in five NLCS games.
If the exploits of the West stars aren't as highly visible as those of the East and Central, it's largely because their games are starting when folks are tuning in the late news or falling asleep in the population centers east of the Mississippi.
Spectacular efforts by the likes of two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the Giants and Felix Hernandez of the Mariners often go unnoticed in the Eastern time zone until a day later.
2009 NL West standings
"I can tell you for certain that the West is a lot better than people think," said Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, who left Minnesota for Anaheim after the 2007 season. "The West is for real. Don't sleep on us. And something else -- there's a ton of great young talent coming up in both West divisions. So it should be wild out West for a long time to come."
Even playing under a relative cover of darkness, the youthful talent parade is dazzling, featuring Lincecum, Hernandez, Matt Cain, Pablo Sandoval, Adrian Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar, Josh Hamilton, Elvis Andrus, Kurt Suzuki and Brett Anderson.
The Wild Card Rockies, three games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, would have taken the NL Central with their 92 wins, one more than the Cards.
The Rangers, who pushed the Angels all season before unraveling in September, would have claimed the AL Central by one game over Minnesota and Detroit, who needed game No. 163 to send the Twins to the postseason.
A distant third in the West, the Mariners would have finished one game behind the Twins and Tigers in the Central.
The West's superiority was driven home in mano-a-mano competition. The AL West was 16 games better than the goliaths of the AL East, with only Oakland (21-23) falling below .500.
The NL West was five games better than the NL East head-to-head. Only last-place Arizona (15-19) did not finish even or better.
Hunter, never shy about expressing an opinion, admits that he wasn't fully aware of the strength of the West until he signed with the Angels.
"I remember watching ESPN in 2008, hearing guys say that the Los Angeles Angels have the best record in baseball, but it's because they beat up on a weak division," Hunter said. "We beat up on everybody that year, not just the West.
"To say we benefit from playing in a weak division, that's just not true. The Rangers, those guys can play. Seattle is tough, and Oakland's got all that young talent. West Coast teams just get no respect. Why? I guess because everybody's asleep in the East when we're doing our thing."
The main knock on the West is that it claimed only two World Series crowns -- by the 2001 D-backs and 2002 Angels -- in the decade just concluded.
Hunter believes that the handicaps of exhaustive travel -- losing hours flying eastbound and spending many more hours in the air than East and Central teams -- can extract a harsh toll over the long haul.
"When I was with the Twins in the AL Central, our flights were an hour, two hours, maybe three," Hunter said. "Here with the Angels, it seems like we're always on planes for four, five, six hours. I had no idea what that would be like. It can get to you."
As do the Angels, their longtime rivals down Interstate 5, the Dodgers understand that they'll be challenged from all directions in 2010.
2009 AL West standings
A return to Hall of Fame form by Manny Ramirez would make manager Joe Torre beam, but this club is loaded with proven talent, led by Kemp, who is on the verge of joining the game's elite. The maturity of Kershaw and Chad Billingsley as front-line starters could be the difference in another spirited race.
The Dodgers' eternal rivals, the Giants, won 88 games last season but couldn't catch Colorado in the Wild Card race. Manager Bruce Bochy appears to have upgraded the offense behind Lincecum and Cain, with Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff complementing the inimitable Sandoval, a hitting machine.
Shot down by the Phillies in the NLDS after their inspired run to the postseason, the Rockies are thinking even bigger under NL Manager of the Year Jim Tracy.
Colorado is rock-solid with Tulowitzki, one of the game's premier players, hitting behind Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler and in front of the great Todd Helton. As always, pitching will tell the mile-high tale, and there is no shortage of quality arms at Tracy's disposal.
Grounded in '09, the D-backs could rise like a phoenix if Brandon Webb is sound, providing -- along with Dan Haren -- a tandem the equal of any in the game. Upton, Reynolds and Co. figure to provide enough thunder to light the desert sky again.
The Padres are clearly in a rebuilding phase, pondering what to do with their leading man, Gonzalez. The slugging first baseman could tilt a division race in the direction of his new club if he departs the border city. He's that good.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.