The American League West is the easiest division to win in the sense that you only have to be better than three teams to come out on top; however being the best out of four teams is not necessarily easier than being the best out of five or six. You only need two evenly matched teams to create an exciting competition for first place.
The AL West didn’t have two evenly matched teams in 2008, allowing the Los Angeles Angels to take the division by 21 games. There was some hope prior to the 2009 season that at least one of the Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers would give the Angels a run for their money, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
Joe, Mark, Matt and Russ all picked the Angels.
As I wrote at the time: “We all have the Angels winning the West, even though they aren’t quite the force they have been in previous years. There are too many question marks over their three division mates to firmly push them ahead of LA, but I’m still holding out hope that a perfect storm could make my A’s the surprise package of 2009. I’m not going to jinx it by making them my pick though”.
Well, it turned out that the A’s didn’t need any jinxing, but the rest of it was correct. The Angels prevailed in the AL West once again.
1. Los Angeles Angels (97-65)
What turned out to be a successful season for the Angels began in tragic circumstances. Twenty-two year old Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident hours after pitching six scoreless innings against the A’s on 8 April. The team lost a friend and a talented young pitcher, leaving them shell-shocked and in mourning. A 9-12 record in April was more than respectable considering what Mike Scioscia and his team had to cope with. They subsequently had a winning record in every month the rest of the way, leading them to a fifth AL West title in six years that was dedicated to the memory of their fallen teammate.
Despite winning the division, L.A.’s pitching staff wasn’t the force of recent years: more middle-of-the-pack than formidable foes. Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana were decent enough without living up to their 2008 performances and offseason recruit Brian Fuentes picked up 48 saves without having the dominating edge of his predecessor Francisco Rodriguez. John Lackey missed the first six weeks and then lasted just two pitches in his season opener on 16 May against the Rangers before he was ejected after plunking Ian Kinsler. He pitched well when his year finally got going ahead of his free agent status this offseason and Jered Weaver turned in a strong season (16-8, 3.75 ERA) to lead the staff. The Angels’ rotation also got a boost down the stretch when Scott Kazmir was signed from the Rays and he’ll be a useful arm for them in 2010, if he can stay healthy.
The pitching may have been just a tick above average, yet only the Yankees had a better offense than the Angels and it was a former Bronx Bomber who played a leading role in their success. Bobby Abreu was one of the best free agent signings of the 08/09 offseason, performing well at the plate and also being hailed as a positive influence by his teammates, several of whom learned from his patient approach. The Angels and Yankees were linked in another way over the offseason by Mark Teixeira departing as a free agent from the former to the latter. Rather than make a showy move to replace him, the Angels put their faith in Cuban Kendry Morales and he repaid them with an impressive first full season, topping the team with 34 homers. Torii Hunter and Chone Figgins also had very good years while there were plenty of other useful contributions along the way. All in all, teams struggled to keep the Angels off the scoreboard.
The Angels won the division and then swept past the Red Sox in the ALDS, only to come up short against the Yankees (4-2) in the ALCS. If they are to at least repeat this feat, they may have to do it without mainstays Chone Figgins and John Lackey who have reached free agency. General Manager Tony Reagins could have to replace some important players, but don’t expect the Angels to be falling apart any time soon.
2. Texas Rangers (87-75)
The Texas Rangers were the closest team to the Angels in the division and, finishing ten games back, in the end they were not very close to them at all. Ron Washington’s men held the division lead at the end of May after going 20-9 over the month and they closed to within three games of the Angels at the end of a 17-8 July; however, they could only manage a 29-32 record the rest of the way and the necessary collapse by L.A. never materialized. That left the Rangers a long way behind, although it was a decent year for the team.
The major talking point over the offseason was the decision to move Gold Glove winner Michael Young from shortstop to third base to accommodate the rookie Elvis Andrus. Young wasn’t happy with the move, or perhaps more specifically about the way it was handled, but any ill feeling didn’t last long once the season began. Andrus showed why the Rangers wanted him on the field by playing a very good shortstop, albeit with 22 errors, and contributing a bit with his bat. At just twenty years old, he’s got a very bright future ahead of him. Meanwhile Michael Young had a terrific year, batting .322/.374/.518 with 22 homers and settling in nicely at his new fielding position.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler had a 31/31 year (home runs and stolen bases), which left just first base as the hole in the infield. That position was mainly shared between Chris Davis and Hank Blalock and a quick look at their home run totals (21 and 25) would suggest that they did a decent job; however their seasons were a good lesson in looking past the long ball and realising that players who hit homers and do little else (their on-base percentages were .284 and .277) are nowhere near as productive as they first appear. The Rangers did get a breakout year by Nelson Cruz and a very useful contribution by Marlon Byrd, well timed just before he became a free agent, that made up in part for Josh Hamilton spending half of the season on the DL.
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington lends itself to scoring runs and Texas’ weak spot in recent years has been their pitching. In 2009 the pitching staff actually performed well and tied for fourth in the league for least runs conceded per game (4.57). The rotation was led by the impressive pairing of Kevin Millwood (13-10, 3.67 ERA) and Scott Feldman (17-8, 4.08), with Frank Francisco, C.J. Wilson and Darren O’Day all being effective out of the bullpen. Young starters Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison picked up priceless Major League experience while having typically varying results (Hunter pitched well in his 19 starts while Holland and Harrison were knocked around at times) and Rangers fans also got to see the much-talked-about Neftali Feliz pitch 31 innings as a reliever and he more than lived up to the hype.
There is undoubtedly a lot of potential in the organization, but there has also been disruption off the field in recent months with the team experiencing money problems and now being subject to an increasingly confusing ownership change. Liverpool FC fans will not be surprised by that as their unpopular part-owner Tom Hicks is the person in charge of the Rangers. It appears as though he’s trying to get other people to invest in the team while he remains involved, which should sound familiar to the red half of Merseyside. Rangers fans will be hoping that this gets resolved quickly and that the club can continue to improve in 2010 and beyond.
3. Seattle Mariners (85-77)
The Mariners began a new era in 2009. Jack Zduriencik took over as General Manager in October last year and appointed Don Wakamatsu as his first manager one month later. An organization cannot be changed over night, but there were definite signs of the pair instilling a new philosophy on a team that hasn’t made the postseason since their 116 win year in 2001.
The most visible change in Seattle was an emphasis on fielding that made the Mariners one of the very best defensive teams in the Majors. Zduriencik had Ichiro to build around in the outfield and he complemented the Japanese star in one trade, acquiring Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez in a three-team offseason trade involving the Indians and Mets. Gutierrez was outstanding in centre field and should have won a Gold Glove, while Chavez showed phenomenal range during his appearances in the outfield. In the infield, Adrian Beltre’s excellent glove work was combined with the strong shortstop play of Jack Wilson when the latter was acquired in a mid-season trade that also saw pitcher Ian Snell join the M’s.
Snell effectively took the place of Jarrod Washburn, who was traded to the Tigers at the deadline after going 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA in 20 starts. That still left ‘King’ Felix Hernandez leading the rotation and he was simply stunning, only missing out on the Cy Young award due to Zack Greinke having a similarly outstanding season. The Red Sox reportedly tried to swing a deal for Hernandez at the deadline and how Zduriencik is able to work around his top pitcher’s impending free agency at the end of the 2011 season could prove instrumental to the team’s success over the next five or six years. Ideally they will agree a lucrative contract extension with Hernandez, and that is what they are trying to do, but if not there will come a point when the GM has to decide if trading him either midseason in 2010 or prior to the 2011 season for a package of top prospects is for the best. M’s fans will hope it doesn’t come to that.
The strength of Mariners’ pitching and defense, coupled with Safeco Field being a pitcher’s park, meant that they conceded less runs per game than any other team in the American League (4.27). Combine that with the team’s 85-77 record and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the offense was a letdown. In fact, only the San Diego Padres scored less runs per game than the Mariners. Ichiro was his normal excellent self, Gutierrez batted well to add to his fantastic fielding and Russell Branyan’s 31 home runs were a welcome surprise before injuries cut short his season. Otherwise, there was little more than modest contributions from the batting lineup. Ken Griffey Jr’s return to Seattle was a nice story and his teammates all praised the positive impact he had on the clubhouse atmosphere, but whether that was enough to make up for his below-par DH batting is another matter. Zduriencik clearly felt it was as he has already decided to bring back Griffey for 2010.
The Mariners appear to be heading in the right direction under Zduriencik. He knows as well as anyone that the offense needs work and the reported signing of Chone Figgins will be a part of that, as would the possible addition of Jason Bay (I still think he’s going back to Boston, but the fact that the Mariners are in for him shows their intent). If the Angels take a step backwards and the Mariners can bring in some impact players, Seattle might be able to make a challenge in 2010.
4. Oakland A’s (75-87)
Looking back, it’s surprising just how many people were tipping the A’s to march up the standings and win the division after going 75-86 in 2008. Oakland’s plan was straightforward: they were going to run with their batch of highly talented young pitchers and several veteran additions were brought in to bolster the offense and give them some runs to play with. The A’s pitchers did what was probably expected of them, showing their potential in some starts and causing extreme frustration in others, but the upgrades to the offense failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
One can only imagine what Matt Holliday’s agent, Scott Boras, thought when his client was traded by the Rockies to the A’s in November last year. One year removed from free agency, Holliday was taken out of his National League comfort zone and the thin air of Denver to (arguably) the tougher league and a home ballpark that favours pitchers. The player and his agent must have been living in hope that someone would offer a mid-season escape route; the Cardinals did just that and Holliday took full advantage. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he had one eye on the exit throughout his period with the A’s (partly because the A’s were always likely to ship him out if the team started badly) and he never really got going with the team.
It was the same story with the other three major additions. Jason Giambi couldn’t produce the fairytale return some had hoped for; Orlando Cabrera started slowly but picked up enough to get a good mid-season move to the postseason-chasing Twins, while Nomar Garciaparra offered a modest contribution but did get to enjoy an emotional return to Fenway Park.
Nomar’s homecoming gave Red Sox fans a chance to show their appreciation for their former player, but A’s fans will remember the contest on 6 July due to Brett Anderson’s complete game shutout. Anderson had the best year of all the young starters, with Trevor Cahill close behind. Andrew Bailey took over the closer role and won the Rookie of the Year award (although that achievement didn’t help Bobby Crosby, so let’s not get carried away) and the underrated Michael Wuertz did an equally impressive job, yet the season just drifted along and the A’s never got close to contending.
Expectations will not be so high in 2010 and that will probably be for the best. Oakland’s main objectives will be for the young pitchers to continue to develop, some of the batting prospects to have promising starts to their Major League careers (not least Chris Carter and, possibly, Brett Wallace) and to finally go through a season without losing players to long-term injuries (as happened with Josh Outman and Joey Devine in 2009 to name but two). You never know, maybe even Eric Chavez might play a handful of games?