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What’s Happened with the AL West?

Coming into the 2006 MLB season, the American League West was considered one of the top divisions in all of baseball. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Oakland Athletics, and Texas Rangers all had high expectations, after productive offseasons and solid 2005 campaigns. This makes it bizarre to look at the AL West standings and see Texas on top, as the only team with a better than .500 record. Oakland trails by two games after losing seven straight before defeating the Rangers on Saturday night. Anaheim and Seattle are tied for last at four games back.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s wrong with the AL West:

The Texas Rangers lead the division, but they have had their share of troubles. The lineup is scary to look at, but hasn’t been all that great this first fourth of the season. After a monster 2005 season (.301/43HR/144RBI), Mark Teixeira has started 2006 by batting .289 with 5HRs and 23RBIs. It’s hard to believe that a guy who was considered a budding superstar could suffer a collapse at the age of 26, but it certainly looks like Teixeira is coming back down to earth. Phil Nevin, who struggled in San Diego in 2005, was seen as a bargain acquisition for the Rangers, but his struggles have continued, as he is batting .220 with 9HRs and 31RBIs. The rest of the lineup is doing pretty well, although the power and speed of Alfonso Soriano are missed. Here’s the problem. Nevin and Teixeira are the cleanup hitters for Texas, and if neither of them is producing, rallies are being killed, and runs aren’t being scored. Ameriquest Field is a hitter-friendly park, so there’s no reason why Texas shouldn’t be scoring more than 6 runs a game at home, but the Rangers aren’t, and that’s why they’ve lost a lot of ballgames when they’ve played good teams. Lets face it, the rotation consisting of Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Kameron Loe, John Koronka, and a “5th starter-by-committee”, isn’t going to get it done without a lot of run support. One of two things have to happen for Texas to maintain the division lead: either Teixeira and Nevin need to step-up, or the pitching needs to improve via trade.

The Oakland Athletics have a lot more issues than people are seeing these days. The seven game losing streak should’ve opened some eyes, but the A’s really need help offensively. The A’s have had two consistent offensive producers: Nick Swisher (.310/14HR/39RBI) and Eric Chavez (.280/12HR/35RBI), and if seven of your nine players aren’t hitting well, you won’t go far. Frank Thomas, signed by Oakland after being dismissed by Chicago, is hitting the occasional homerun (he has 9), but he’s only batting .219. Bobby Crosby, possibly the best defensive shortstop in the AL, is hitting just .224. Dan Johnson, the most surprising prospect to come up big for the A’s in 2005, is hitting just .192, and he started the season in an 0-for-29 slump. Oakland has done well to score the runs it has scored, but those dismal offensive numbers won’t do. I think Bobby Crosby has the potential to hit .280 with 30HRs and 100RBIs every season, the problem is he’s constantly hindered by freak injuries and that hurts his ability to get it going. Frank Thomas might just be well past his prime. The Athletics have the same problem as the Rangers; there’s no punch in the middle of the order. On the pitching side, the A’s are doing pretty well, given the injury to Rich Harden. Barry Zito has stepped-up, Dan Haren is pitching solidly after starting poorly, Joe Blanton is slowly pulling it together, and Brad Halsey is fitting well. Once Harden returns, this rotation will become one of the MLB’s best. The bullpen is another story though. Huston Street has been shaky, as has basically everyone else. Kiko Calero’s slider isn’t sliding, and everyone else is hurt. Starting pitching won’t carry this team, so the offense and bullpen better get going and stay healthy if the A’s are going to make any sort of playoff push.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have many problems excluding the name. The heart of the lineup isn’t what it was expected to be at the beginining of the season. Chone Figgins, after a terrific 2005, is hitting just .258, and isn’t doing very well in the leadoff spot. Garret Anderson is showing the end-of-career woes, batting .265 with just 4HRs. Vladimir Guerrero is the only consistent hitter the Angels have right now, so the hitters aren’t going to carry this team as they have in the past. Dallas MacPherson and Kendry Morales better start adjusting quickly because the Angels will be dead meat if they don’t. The starting rotation has been decent, but not as good as it was in 2005. John Lackey has been shaky, as has Kelvim Escobar. Jeff Weaver has been downright bad. Ervin Santana, after a promising 2005, is inconsistent at best to start 2006. The savior appears to be Jered Weaver, who had a terrific debut against Baltimore, to lead the Angels to a 10-1 win. But one terrific prospect won’t carry this team if the bats don’t get going.

The Seattle Mariners were expected to be the bottomfeeders of the AL West, so there’s not much explaining that needs to be done about their woes. Unfortunately, Felix Hernandez’s phenomenal 2005 seems to be a fluke right now. King Felix has been less than solid, and perhaps the biggest disappointment on a disappointing team. Jose Lopez has been the biggest surprise and the best hitter by far on this team. Among other disappointments are Richie Sexson, Jeremy Reed, and Eddie Guardado. It’s a good thing guys like JJ Putz and Jose Lopez have stepped-up, because the Mariners could be the Royals if they hadn’t. As a side-note, there’s an interesting correlation between NFL teams and MLB teams in Seattle and Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been great, the Pirates have been horrible. The Seahawks have been great, the Mariners have been horrible. Only two cities have accomplished the feat of having great MLB and NFL teams: Boston and New York; Seattle and Pittsburgh have a long way to go.

Notice that each of the teams appears to have the same problem: lack of punch in the heart of the order. This is what sets good teams apart from great teams – the Red Sox and Yankees are great; the A’s, Rangers, and Angels are good (or can be).

I think that the AL West will finish up like this…

  • Oakland A’s (88-74)
  • Texas Rangers (86-76) – 2 games back
  • Anaheim Angels (80-82) – 8 games back
  • Seattle Mariners (70-92) – 18 games back

Oakland has by far the most potential to win the division, because when healthy, the A’s are easily the best team in the division. I’ll admit that health has been elusive for the Oakland Athletics this year and last year, but if two players, Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby, can stay healthy, this team is good enough to come out on top. However, Texas will be on Oakland’s heels all season long. If Mark Teixeira gets it going and Texas starts scoring 6-8+ runs per game, the Rangers could beat out the A’s. The Angels will have to wait until next year. Kendry Morales, Dallas MacPherson, Howie Kendrick, and Brandon Wood make up an amazing group of prospects, and in 2007, the AL West will belong to Anaheim; 2006 is the year when the prospects adjust, 2007 is the year when they dominate. Finally, the Mariners. Seattle wasn’t expected to make much of an impact in 2006 unless it’s as a late-season spoiler for either Oakland, Texas, or Anaheim, but I’ll guess that if King Felix becomes King Felix again, the Mariners might be exciting to watch in 2007.

The decline of the AL West has been due to the lack of a good 3-4-5 combination in the starting lineup of all of its teams. Once that problem gets solved, the A’s, Rangers, and Angels will be forces to be reckoned with in the MLB.

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