For the AL West, I'm going out on a limb by predicting a surprise season by the Oakland Athletics. The Angels took a big step back this off-season and due to a slew of injuries to their pitching staff, the door could be open for the A's to sneak in and steal this division. With that in mind, the A's pushed all their chips to the middle of the table. Here we go again...
1. Oakland Athletics - On the urging of team owner Lew Wolff, GM Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics have gone all in at the Turn for the 2009 season. It'll be interesting to see what turns up on the River for Wolff and Beane. Now that I've pretty much beaten that poker metaphor worse than Chris Brown beat Rihanna, let's get on with the A's 2009 season. The acquisition of rental LF Matt Holliday can not end well for Oakland. The As managed to avoid giving up any real top end talent. They'll miss OF Carlos Gonzalez more than CL Huston Street as the A's have plenty of good young pitching that can step into Street's shoes. Street is one of the more overrated relief pitchers in all of baseball and he was nearing the point of his career where he would become vastly overpaid for throwing 1 inning of work every couple days. There are only a few elite closers in all of baseball (their names are Rivera, Rodriquez, Lidge, & Nathan essentially) and Street doesn't compare to any of them. Relievers are a fungible asset and closers are nothing more than a glorified reliever. Thus, while it was a good trade, Holliday will disappoint those expecting him to be the guy he was at Coor's Field. However, the addition of Holliday, Giambi (who can still crush the baseball) and SS Orlando Cabrera will vastly transform the middle of the A's lineup. They'll join incumbents 2B Mark Ellis (recently locked up for 3 more years), 3B Eric Chavez (the most injured player in baseball not named Mike Hampton), DH Jack Cust (he strikes out a lot, like 33% of all his plate appearances, for a reference Howard = 28%), and 1B Daric Barton (who is much better than his 86 OPS+ last year would suggest). Oakland was able to replace some of the pitching they traded away last year (Harden, Blanton, & Smith) and should be able to roll out a fairly good and very young rotation headlined by veteran SP Justin Duchscherer. While Duchscherer will likely start the season on the DL, he surprised almost everyone last year with a very solid effort as a starter. After that, its a pure youth movement with Dana Eveland (Age 25), Sean Gallagher (Age 23), Gio Gonzalez (Age 23), Dallas Braden (Age 25), Trevor Cahill (Age 21), and Brett Anderson (Age 21). Also on the outside looking in is another prospect in SP Josh Outman (acquired in the Blanton deal and just 24). Oakland has the luxury of mixing and matching among all 7 of these potential starters as well as several other prospects a year or so away to come up with a usable rotation. Several of them are top talents so given the A's proven track record at developing young pitchers, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Whoever doesn't make the rotation will likely end up in the bullpen to support emerging closer Joey Devine. It will be an interesting year for Beane and the Athletics, one that could define their legacy and make or break major league baseball on their side of the Bay. The A's desperately need another playoff run to re-ignite one of the worst fanbases in all of baseball and restart talks for a new stadium deal. Otherwise, the Athletics' days in Oakland could be numbered. Still, the AL West is a weak division this year and the A's could easily sneak in and win it on pure youth and talent (ala Rays of 09). 85-90 Wins (darkhorse candidate in the AL)
2. Los Angeles Angels - During the Battle of Jutland, Vice Admiral David Beatty lost 2 of his Dreadnaught Battlecruisers in under 30 minutes of action leading him to turn to his subordinate and mutter, "There's something wrong with our bloody ships today." I'm guessing that Manager Mike Scioscia muttered something similar to his pitching coach as he has watched SPs Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, and Ervin Santana all be struck down by fairly major injures before the start of the 2009 season. The Angels will have to rely heavily on the up and down Jared Weaver and the surprising Jon Saunders to start off the 2009 season. Dustin Moseley, who couldn't make it as their 5th starter last season will enter the 2009 campaign in the #3 role and that does not bode well for the Angels this year. They have the highly regarded and much rumored in trades Nick Adenhart will follow him in the rotation. The Angels desperately tried to resign 1B Mike Teixeira but were never really in the race to do so. They passed on LF Manny Ramirez due to concerns about his character and due to a pure dislike of dealing with superagent Scott Boras. Instead, they grabbed a consolation prize in the underrated Bobby Abreu, owner of some very impressive overall numbers and a overwhelming fear of big, scary walls. Its said that Bobby once wet himself upon realizing his cleats had touched the warning track. Still, he still swings a good bat and had phenomenal on-base skills. Abreu took a massive paycut when he accepted a 1 year, $5 million deal and will be fighting to prove he is still a legitimate MLBer all season as a result. This despite him posting his 7th season of at least 100 RBIs in 08 while picking up at least 20 HRs and 20 SB for the 8th time in his career. He will slot in nicely in a lineup that features the still formidable Vlad Guerrero, CF Torii Hunter, 2B Howie "maybe this is the year I stay healthy" Kendrick, 3B Chone Figgins, and slugging catcher Mike Napoli (20 HRs in 227 AB last year). In the bullpen, the "loss" of closer Francisco Rodriguez will be largely negated by the acquistion of Brian Fuentes and the up and coming Jose Arredondo (who will start the season in the setup man). There are just too many questions in their rotation for now. 85-90 Wins.
3. Texas Rangers - The feel good story of last year was recovering drug addict Josh Hamilton and that's great. Its largely ignored that he pretty much hit the wall in the 2nd half when his numbers dropped off significantly losing over 50 points from his slugging percentage. He should be better conditioned for a full season in 2009 and should produce accordingly. 2B Ian Kinsler remains one of the best in the game while SS Michael Young is now 3B Michael Young with the emergence of prospect Elvis Andrus (acquired in the Teixeira trade). 1B Chris Davis was very impressive in his debut at Age 22. Davis hit .285 picking up 17 HRs and 55 RBI in 317 PA. Davis will be the full-time 1B this year pushing Blalock into the DH role. The Rangers will manage to score runs in bunches but will give also give them up in bunches as they continue to struggle to find pitching. They have traded away John Danks and Edinson Volquez in recent years and one wonders how their pitching staff would look with those two at the top. 70-75 Wins.
4. Seattle Mariners - The Mariners had one of the most disappointing seasons of the past decade in 2008. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Stunningly, mega acquisition SP Erik Bedard broke down. Apparently nobody in the Mariners front office ever bothered to check out the fact that Bedard has NEVER in his 5 full MLB seasons pitched more than 196 innings. So why they expected him to step in and be an innings eating workhorse at the top of their rotation was a mystery. Giving up an uber-prospect in CF Adam Jones along with 4 (count 'em 4 other players) for a guy that went on the DL for a myriad of minor ailments is questionable and even criminally bad management by their now former GM Bill Bavasi. Bavasi, who apparently was a plant determined to tear down the organization from within, managed to outdo himself and threaten Ed Wade for GM of the Year when he locked up quickly aging catcher Kenji Johjima to a 3 year, $24 million deal last April. This deal is a complete and utter mystery when you realize that Johjima is blocking one of the top catching prospects in baseball (Jeff Clement). Johjima was bareable when he was at least contributing with his bat but now that his OBP is well below .300 he hurts them both offensively and behind the plate, where his poor management of American pitchers has been noted on several occasions. This was the last straw for Seattle ownership and Bavasi was soon fired. However, things did not get much better for the Mariners. SP Jarrod Washburn was claimed off waivers in August only to be pulled back by new GM Jack Zduriencik in a move reminiscience of Bavasi at his best. Now the Mariners are on the hook to pay Washburn $10.35 million to suck in 2009 instead of finally being free of his albatross of a deal. That's over $19 million in essentially wasted payroll between just two players. It gets better when you realize that they still owe SP Carlos Silva $34 million over the next 3 seasons. Silva (another coup by Bavasi) posted an abysmal 4-15, 6.46 ERA line in 08 and there are no indications that it was a fluke. His peripheral statistics have always ticketed him as a guy that has no margin for error and those numbers came back to haunt him last season. When you add in the $9 million they're paying Miguel Batista to be a 12th guy out of the pen and it becomes clear that the Mariners are the victim of historic mismanagement in the Bavasi era. They have one of the worst and most overpaid pitching staffs in all of baseball. The Mariners have essentially $38 million (more than 1/3 of their total payroll) committed t0 four players (Batista, Washburn, Silva and Johjima) who actively hurt the team everytime they touch the baseball. It gets worse when you look at the starting lineups they will be throwing out there every night. Converted catcher Russell Branyan will be the starting 1B, oft-injured Jose Lopez is penciled in at 2B and their outfield will consist Griffey (a shadow of himself), Franklin Gutierrez (OPS of .691 last year which would have been good for 56th overall among OF in MLB) and Ichiro (a singles hitter). It is going to be a long year in Seattle. The only things to look forward to are the continued improvement of SP Felix Hernandez (one of the top young talents in the game), another straight 200 hit season out of Ichiro (which will break a record for consecutive seasons) and maybe a few more HRs to Griffey's impressive career total. 60-65 Wins.