Angels, A's not alone in AL's wild west
With Seattle and Texas improving, it's anybody's division
Most people seem to concede that the American League West dance remains the same, that Oakland and Los Angeles will continue their two-team tango. They have shared the last five division titles, and again are expected to be the only ones left on the floor when September's last notes sound.The question is, why? Both teams remain formidable, but hardly invincible, while the Mariners and Rangers have bolstered the troops. The Angels have a new center fielder (Gary Matthews Jr.) playing under a cloud, two key starters who sat out Spring Training (Jered Weaver, Bartolo Colon), a versatile third baseman with two broken fingers (Chone Figgins) and will be without a big incumbent bat (Juan Rivera) until the dog days. Hardly a formula for a fast start. The A's are replacing their top pitcher (Barry Zito) and run-producer (Frank Thomas), will be without their center fielder (Mark Kotsay) for two months and have a shortstop (Bobby Crosby) making a gradual return from back problems. Meanwhile, Seattle's rotation has the King (Felix Hernandez), and Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver have joined his court. The M's have also patched up the lineup around trigger Ichiro Suzuki and hammers Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. The Rangers will continue to get headaches from their starting rotation, but a Sammy Sosa-infused lineup will create a lot of leads for their two-headed closer (Eric Gagne and, if needed, Akinori Otsuka) to protect. This won't be a dance. It will be a rumble. SCENARIOS The Angels win if ...
The good-to-go starters -- John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley -- are so solid, manager Mike Scioscia has a problem finding spots when Weaver and Colon return. Possible pitfalls
The "green" third of the lineup -- first baseman Casey Kotchman, second baseman Howie Kendrick and catcher Mike Napoli, have a total of 856 big-league at-bats among them -- can't hold up its end. The Athletics win if ...
Eric Chavez has the health to ramp his offense back up to 2001-03 levels, which would offset the loss of Thomas' bat, and Rich Harden is as dominant in the summer as he was in Spring Training. Possible pitfalls
Injuries could pull the plug on the Athletics' hopes. They're noted for a communal approach, which isn't expected to change under new manager Bob Geren, but the ranks are too thin to withstand any core players going down. The Mariners win if ...
Batista, Weaver and Ramirez pitch up to their career bests -- that's 37 wins, compared to the 25 put up by the bottom three-fifths of last season's rotation. A big season from Beltre will also be key. Possible pitfalls
Can't afford to have closer J.J. Putz, who only recently returned from a three-week absence with a sore elbow, turn into another relief one-year wonder. Also, a slow start, igniting Ichiro trade rumors, could wreck their season. The Rangers win if ...
A healthy Gagne is the icing on a bullpen that will have the back of a frail rotation, and the Year-After-Buck Charm holds -- both the Yankees (1996) and Diamondbacks (2001) won the World Series the season after Showalter was dismissed as their manager. Possible pitfalls
Vicente Padilla doesn't pitch as well with a contract as he had for a contract, and the Sammy Sosa experiment fizzles once outside of the laboratory of Spring Training. IMPACT PLAYERS Top pitcher
John Lackey, Angels: Expect big things from this big right-hander from Texas, who has accepted the responsibility of showing the way for a young rotation. Oakland's Harden is tough competition -- whoever nails the bragging rights, his team will nail the title. But in any head-to-head, take this guy: Since 2003, Lackey is 9-2 against the A's with a 2.62 ERA, and has blown away 63 of them on strikeouts in 65 innings the last two seasons. MVP
Michael Young, Rangers: An ironman shortstop who has hit .300-plus for four straight seasons and has now been rewarded for it with a five-year, $80 million contract extension, Young's glove and clutch hitting will headline the Rangers' title drive. In a lineup where everyone has his specialty, he brings the total package to the game, and brings it every day. NEW FACES Gagne, Rangers -- Ron Washington hopes to hit the reset button on Game Over. Matthews, Angels -- Heard questions about whether he was a one-year wonder even before the HGH issue arose. Kenny Lofton, Rangers -- Welcome speed atop the Texas lineup. Mike Piazza, A's -- Passed Spring Training DH test with flying colors, and with 16 RBIs in 19 games. Batista, Mariners -- Baseball's Renaissance Man meets Mt. Rainier. Sosa, Rangers -- Could be the diamond version of striking oil. Jose Guillen, Mariners -- Fiery outfielder proved to be healthy in Spring Training (.333-4-10). Shea Hillenbrand, Angels -- Snatched off free-agent market soon as word of Rivera's broken leg arrived. Jose Vidro, Mariners -- Second baseman formerly renowned for his defense steps in as DH. Justin Speier, Angels -- Righty will help keep the bullpen the best, deepest in the game. Jeff Weaver, Mariners -- Faces challenge of showing his return to AL was not a mistake. Ramirez, Mariners -- A second valuable left-hander in the rotation. Shannon Stewart, A's -- Key newcomer in Oakland's familiar outfield rotation. ROOKIES TO WATCH Jay Marshall, A's -- The left-hander who was the 750th pick (by the White Sox) in the 2002 draft has been phenomenal since switching to the bullpen in 2005, and was impressive in his team-high 11 Cactus League outings. Travis Buck, A's -- Oakland may have to find room for the outfielder who hasn't hit anything but .300 anywhere, and kept it up in Spring Training, hitting .370. Moseley, Angels -- Forced his way into the Halos' season-opening rotation with a 2-0, 2.29 spring performance. Jeff Mathis, Angels -- Manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, loves his defense behind the plate, and he'll be up when the Angels move Jose Molina to create a spot for him. A.J. Murray, Rangers -- Looked sharp in his few preseason chances, and if Texas needs a no-nonsense lefty who throws strikes, he'll get the call. Eric O'Flaherty, Mariners -- Caught enough eyes in camp to be considered a stand-by situational lefty reliever in case Arthur Rhodes falls down on that job.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.