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Analyzing the competition: No rest in AL West
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The Mariners believe they are ripe for an upturn this season, based not just on their new additions, but on cumulative improvement spread around their lineup.
The problem is, even if the Mariners get a best-case scenario, and everyone they're counting on to get better actually does, they still face a rough road in the American League West.
The Mariners are a team, don't forget, that finished 26 games out of first place last year. And the three teams that have finished above them the past two years, while the Mariners wallowed in the AL West basement, all have far more reason to be optimistic about their chances of contention.
The Oakland Athletics have a pitching staff the Mariners can only dream about, as deep in both starting and relieving as anyone except perhaps the Chicago White Sox, the defending World Series champions. The Texas Rangers still have that potent offense, but with (seemingly) improved pitching. And the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who ran away with the division by seven games last year, have declined only slightly — if at all, with the late edition of Jeff Weaver.
As camps open this week, here's a snapshot of the divisional foes with whom the Mariners will compete.
The story line all winter was that the Angels had let their division dominance slip away. They failed in efforts to land Paul Konerko, didn't go hard after Manny Ramirez, watched starters Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn and catcher Bengie Molina depart in free agency, and made only modest additions — right-handed starter/reliever Hector Carrasco, reliever J.C. Romero and third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo.
As usual, however, general manager Bill Stoneman had a plan. Adding 14-game winner Weaver late in the game gives the Angels another strong and deep rotation, led by Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon (provided the shoulder problems last October don't return) and John Lackey, who was 14-5 with a 3.44 ERA. Carrasco, who had a 2.04 ERA and .193 opponents average in 64 games with the Nationals last year, augments an already formidable bullpen.
Offensively, the Angels are counting on several new and/or young faces, including catcher Jeff Mathis and first baseman Casey Kotchman (as Darin Erstad moves back to center field). Garret Anderson, declining as his arthritic condition worsens, is a concern, but as long as all-world Vladimir Guerrero stays healthy, the Angels should be just fine.
Billy Beane had an unusual offseason, which isn't unusual. The A's made a big-ticket free-agent signing in Esteban Loiaza (three years, $21 million), and didn't compensate in their usual way, by dumping another high-salaried player. Beane also gambled on two high-risk, high-upside players in Milton Bradley, whom the A's believe has .300-30 HR-100 RBI potential, and Frank Thomas, whom they hope will stay healthy enough to DH for at least 120 games.
If either happens, the A's should have a versatile, deep and dynamic lineup, with Eric Chavez as the anchor and rising young players like Nick Swisher, Bobby Crosby and Dan Johnson.
You can argue that Kevin Millwood and Adam Eaton will have a rude awakening in hitter-friendly Arlington. But they'll also be thrilled to join an offense that last year had the second-most home runs in major-league history (260) and scored 865 runs, trailing only Boston and New York in the American League.
Alfonso Soriano (36 homers) is out of that lineup, but batting champion Michael Young returns, as does Mark Teixeira (43 homers, 144 RBI), firmly established as one of the top sluggers in baseball.
The Rangers, who led the league in strikeouts and had the fewest sacrifice hits (nine) in major-league history, are hoping for a more versatile offense this year. New addition Brad Wilkerson, who had 32 homers and 106 walks two years ago for the Expos (with 152 strikeouts, on the downside), should help. But the Rangers hope the real help comes from Millwood, the American League ERA champion last year with Cleveland, and Eaton, who was 9-2 with a 3.42 ERA in the first half for San Diego before a finger injury.
Also new is former Phillies All-Star Vicente Padilla, who had a 3.63 ERA and .217 opponents average after the break. If the Rangers, who have dumped their entire rotation from last year, can get any semblance of starting pitching to go with that attack, the Mariners will have an even tougher time rising in the AL West standings.
Notes and quotes
• Among the potential free agents after this season: Cubs manager Dusty Baker. The last time he entered the final year of his contract, Baker guided the Giants to the National League pennant.
• Great under-the-radar move by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who Thursday hired Anders Reiner as special assistant to baseball operations. Working for Houston, Reiner created the Venezuela academy that produced Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Richard Hidalgo and Melvin Mora, among others. He worked with then-Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker, now senior vice president of the Devil Rays.
• It's always interesting to see the names that show up in camps during spring training. Former Mariners pitcher Mac Suzuki, who has pitched in Japan in recent years, is a non-roster player with Oakland, while Tuffy Rhodes is in camp with the Reds. Rhodes, 37, hit nearly 400 home runs in Japan over the past 10 years, including 55 in 2001. He is perhaps best remembered in the major leagues for hitting three home runs for the Cubs on opening day in 1994. Also: Former pitching phenom Rick Ankiel trying to make the Cardinals — as an outfielder.
• Old friend John Moses, last seen here as Lou Piniella's first-base coach with the Mariners, has decided to retire to spend more time with his family. Moses was scheduled to be the Reds' first-base coach this season but informed them of his decision on Monday. One candidate to replace Moses on manager Jerry Narron's staff is Ken Griffey Sr., who said he would leave his position as first-base coach on the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic to join the Reds.
• Ken Griffey Jr. reported early to Reds camp and claimed a new number. Instead of 30, he will be 3, which Junior says is to honor his three children.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company