Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, March 23, 2004

2004 Season Preview, Part II

Welcome to my 2004 Season Preview, Part II. Last time, I previewed the National League West and Central. If you missed it, you can find it here: Ben's 2004 Season Preview, Part I.

If you don't care to read the entire post, you can just check out each league individually:
National League West
National League Central
National League East
American League West

Before I delve into the National League East and the American League West, I would like to briefly discuss Sunday's implosion of Philadelphia's much-maligned and ugly Veterans Stadium. Sixty-two seconds after the scary green thing that runs around the stadium with no pants on pressed the detonator, the Vet was reduced to a pile of concrete. Ask anyone in the Philadelphia area, and they would say that it was about time for the Vet to go. I've seen 18 of the 30 major league parks, and outside of Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the Vet was by far the ugliest. (That award now goes to Shea Stadium, in my book.) Yet, there were a few Philadelphians mourning the loss of the Vet. Here's what Paul DiMuzio, the director of ballpark operations for the Phillies was quoted as saying over at Phillies.com:
"From day one to the last day, I've been at the Vet, so that's why it's so tough for me. I shed a tear when it came down. I shed a few tears before it came down.”
I guess I understand why DiMuzio would be sad; he did work at the Vet for the past 22 years. But at the same time, these are the same people who criticized the enclosed, sterile Vet and its horrible AstroTurf for much of the last 10 years. If I were an employee of the Phillies, I would be thrilled to be moving into the beautiful, state-of-the-art Citizens Bank Ballpark. By this time next year, I bet that the Vet will just be another memory in the collective consciousness of Philadelphians, and one that the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love will be trying desperately to forget. Now, onto the preview.

National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies — It's tough to pick a team other than the Atlanta Braves for this slot; despite repeated reports the past few years, the demise of the Braves has been greatly exaggerated. Yet, after 12 years (not counting a strike-shortened 1994) as the Beasts of the East, I believe that the Braves' run is over. The reason for this is simple: the Phillies added All Star closer Billy Wagner (and set-up man Tim Worrell) during the off-season. In 2003, the Phillies had Jose Mesa closing games. While he converted 24 of 28 save attempts, he blew two key games in September during the pennant race. Furthermore, he lost 7 games coming out of the bullpen and sported an ERA of 6.52. It's easy to see why the Phillies decided not to pick up his option. Mesa also managed an astounding 0 win shares. On the flip side, Wagner on the Astros converted 44 of 47 opportunities while losing 4 games and sporting a sexy 1.78 ERA. He raked in 19 win shares for the 'Stros, second among closers to Eric Gagne. Keep in mind now that Wagner was responsible for more than 6 of the Astros' victories, and six more victories for which Mesa can claim credit.

Now, let's look at last year's standings: The Phillies finished five games behind the Marlins and 15 games behind the Braves. Had Wagner been in Philadelphia last year, it's very safe to assume that the Phillies would have played past the end of September. Now, consider that the Braves have since lost Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Greg Maddux; the Marlins are relying on Armando Benitez to close and are without Pudge's leadership; and the Phillies now sport a rotation of Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf (arguably the team ace), Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers, and Eric Milton to complement their vastly upgraded bullpen. Unless the Phillies implode as the Vet did on Sunday, it's hard to imagine this team not winning the East. Clearly, they are the heavy favorites.

Incredibly obvious story line: Let's see. New stadium, new bullpen, high expectations. Since I just detailed why I think the Phillies will win (pitching), there's not much need to go into it again, but let’s look at some odds. According to the lines from Vegas, the Phillies are the favorites at 3 to 1 to win the NL pennant while the Braves are more of a long shot at 12 to 1. On the division level, the bookies are barely taking bets for the Phillies. Philadelphia is enjoying 5 to 8 odds for the East, while the Braves are at 14 to 5. (Rounding out the division: Mets and Marlins at 7 to 1 and the Expos at 30 to 1.) For those of you who don't know — and I admit I had to look this up— the Phillies are so favored to win the East that bookies are being conservative. You bet a dollar on them this season, you'll get back that dollar plus a whopping 63 cents. The Braves win the East, and that dollar nets you $2.80 plus your original bet. In fact, the Phillies (according to Vegas), are more favored to win the NL East than any other team in Major League Baseball is expected to win their respective division. That's tough billing, and it will be interesting to see if the Phillies and Citizens Bank Ballpark can live up to these expectations. (For more fun with the odds, check out this U.K.-based betting site.)

Interesting story line: Last year, Pat Burrell crashed and burn like no other. His .209 average, 64 RBIs, and 57 runs scored were a far cry from the promise he showed in 2002. For $50 million and six years, Burrell is expected to deliver for the Phillies, and this year, he'll be under a lot of pressure to succeed. The early reports out of Clearwater suggest that Pat's improving, and his .293 average in 41 at bats is very encouraging, albeit with a grain of salt because those are just Spring Training numbers. In all likelihood, Burrell will hit fourth or fifth for the Phillies, and if he produces, this line up will be potent. If he falters and 2004 starts looking like 2003, the Phillies will have a big, expensive question mark on their hands.

Manager to watch: Outside of Pat Burrell and his return to stardom, all eyes in Philly will be squarely on Larry Bowa. While Bowa has 252 wins in three seasons at the Phillies manager (the most since Pat Moran managed the Phillies from 1915-1917), it's no secret that the players have much contempt for the man. Remember when Burrell himself refused to accept a congratulatory handshake from Bowa during the stretch drive? If the Phillies stumble out of the block, GM Ed Wade won't be afraid to cut Bowa faster than you can digest a cheesesteak from Geno's (or Pat’s if that’s what you like).

2. Florida Marlins — Most baseball people making their picks seem to like the Braves for this spot, thus making the defending World Champions underdogs once again. Personally, I like the Marlins for the second slot in the East, and I think they may give the Phillies a run for their money. With a rotation that features Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett (probably in June), Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' starting five have the most potential of any rotation in the Majors. Their season depends greatly on whether or not these guys (plus whoever fills in for the injured Burnett) can fulfill this potential. In fact, after I started writing this post, MLB.com posted an article on how the Marlins pitchers are getting the short shrift. I couldn't agree with this more. In all the talks about Houston and the Cubs having the best rotation, the young live arms of the Marlins were neglected. I would take a healthy Burnett and Josh Beckett with no blisters over Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens at this point in their respective careers. But with youth comes uncertainty, and much with depend on the pitchers if the Marlins are to repeat their magical 2003 season.

Obvious story line: How much will the losses of Derrek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez hurt the team? I believe that Lee's leaving will have more of an effect on the lineup than Pudge's decision to sign with Detroit. Lee slugged higher than Ivan did last year, and he got on base more consistently while accounting for 25 win shares as opposed to Pudge's 23. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is predicting a breakout season for replacement first baseman Hee Seop Choi, but he won't be bringing the same power, hitting skills, or leadership that Lee possessed. I believe that Rodriguez's replacement will turn in better numbers than Pudge does in Detroit, but the rape case hanging over Ramon Castro's head won't help his performance in the field, and Mike Redmond is definitely not the answer.

Interesting story line: Can Josh Beckett translate October stardom into regular season success or will his right arm fall off? During the Playoffs, Beckett decided being human just wasn't good enough, and against the Yankees he posted a 1.13 ERA, striking out 19 in 16.1 innings, and winning the World Series with a shut out in Yankee Stadium. Oh yes, he did that on three-days' rest. Before that, he pitched four innings of 1-hit ball in relief to bring the Marlins an NLCS victory. He did that on two-days' rest. At the same time, Beckett has never won more than 9 games at the Major League level. Based on the 2003 season, Beckett's destiny is one of two things: Tommy John surgery or a career of All Star appearances and top-10 Cy Young finishes. This upcoming season will be a big indication of things to come for the 23-year-old from Texas.

Headcase to watch: No one will be missed more on the Marlins than Ugueth Urbina (and by May, probably Braden Looper too). Last season, the still-unsigned Urbina came to the Marlins at the trade deadline and was utterly dominant. He sported a 1.41 ERA in 38.1 innings while striking out 37. He raked up 11 holds and converted 6 of 8 save opportunities when Looper was demoted. Despite a rocky October, he was a large part of the Marlins' winning the Wild Card. On the other hand, Looper was better than most people gave him credit for. He converted 28 of 34 save chances, and while he didn't strike out many, he wasn't horrible. Yet Looper will be closing for the Mets, and Urbina will be closing the door to his fridge until he decides to take a pay cut and sign somewhere (maybe with the Indians). So the Marlins turned to perennial goat Armando Benitez, for some inexplicable reason. Last year, Armando managed to save 21 out of 29 opportunities, and while his ERA was a respectable 2.96, he walked an astounding 41 men. It's a nightmare every time he pitches, mainly because he can't throw his 96-mph fastball for strikes with any consistency. The Marlins are taking a huge gamble with Benitez, and had he been on the team last year, those 8 blown saves would have cost the Marlins the Wild Card.

3. Atlanta Braves — Things ain't what they used to be in Atlanta. Gary Sheffield and his .330 BA/39 HR/132RBI/.604 SLG, gone. Greg Maddux and his legacy, gone. Javy Lopez and his .328/43/109/.687, gone. John Smoltz and his elbow, surgically repaired and questionable. The days of Atlanta's dominance are over. The rotation is now headed by Russ Ortiz (and his league-leading 102 walks last year), Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez, and a 5th starter to be named later. The offense, which could still be fairly strong, is centered around Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and the oft-injured J.D. Drew. With Smoltz in the bullpen, the Braves' games are still 8 innings long, as long as his elbow is ok; getting through those first 8 innings will be much tougher this year however that it has been for the Braves since they finished in last place in the old NL West in 1990.

Obvious story line: Outside of the "Is this really the end of the Atlanta Era?" story, J.D. Drew and his injured past have garnered so much attention this spring that he's moved from my interesting story line to the obvious story line. Drew, if you may recall, was one of Scott Boras' draft hold-outs when he was picked in 1997 by the Phillies. In 1998, the Cardinals gave him the large bonus he wanted, but Drew has yet to fulfill his potential. In six years in the Bigs, he's played in 135 games only twice, and while his career .289 average is good, his power numbers and run production have been well off any sort of expected pace. He suffers from the same injury (chronic patellar tendonitis) that cut short Mark McGwire's career, and he'll have to remain largely injury-free or else the Braves will have a large whole in their lineup.

Interesting story line: Braves' pitching coach Leo Mazzone is almost a sure lock for the Hall of Fame, no small feat for a pitching coach. He's been the man responsible for the success of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and the countless other pitchers who came out of Atlanta vastly improved. This year, he is faced with arguably his toughest task since 1990. Ortiz, while winning 21 games, walked a ton of guys; Thomson showed some promise ace the Texas Rangers' "ace" last year, but at age 30, it could be like teaching an old dog new tricks. Hampton, who went 11-3 with a 3.26 ERA over his last 17 starts in 2003, could re-emerge as the ace he was with Houston. But overall, it's clear that Mazzone and manager Bobby Cox have the worst pitching the Braves have seen since the start of their incredible run.

Prospect to watch: Unless the Braves go with 90-year-old Julia Franco as their Opening Day first baseman, Adam LaRouche, who is certainly young enough to be Franco's son, will become the every-day Braves first baseman. LaRouche, ranked the 73 on Baseball America's top prospect list, has been compared favorable to Doug Mientkdwqddkzt (that's Mientkiewicz, but can you really tell the difference). In two stops last season in the minors, LaRouche hit around .290/.370/.480 with 20 HR but a K:BB ratio of 1.8:1. That, however, represents a big step up from his 2001 K:BB of 3.6:1. With solid defense and a decent bat, LaRouche could bring some stability to first base in Atlanta.

4. New York Mets — At 66-95 last year, the Mets really hit bottom. Playing in the shadow of the Yankees, it's not easy to compete for attendance, attention, or success in New York when your neighbors to the Northeast have unlimited financial resources. Last year, the Mets had to rebuild and New Yorkers do not take kindly to rebuilding years. This year, unfortunately for the Mets, does not look much different. Tom Glavine and Al Leiter would have made an impressive front-end of a rotation five or six season ago, but age is taking a toll on these two pitchers. Steve Trachsel continues to plod along, and Jae Weong Seo was a bright spot last year. The top half of the Mets' lineup should be good: Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes, Mike Piazza, and Cliff Floyd could all produce if healthy, but Mike Cameron and the hitters below him will probably do more to break the Mets' season than make it.

Obvious story line: For the Mets this year, there are two obvious story lines. Once is Mike Piazza's boring switch to first base. Really, who cares? Good luck there, Mike; just watch that groin on the stretches. The other obvious story — Matsui Mania — is much more interesting. In Japan, Matsui was a bona fide star. He hit .305/.368/.549 with 33 HR. The Mets are so high on him that they gave Kaz $20.1 million for 3 years and moved Jose Reyes, one of the best young short stops in the game, over to second. While many analysts think Matsui will excel in the America, I see an alarming increase in his strike out rate in Japan. In 2000, he struck out 60 times in 550 at bats; last year, he K'ed 124 times in 587 at bats while drawing only 55 walks. While Hideki Matsui struck out fewer times in his first big league season, Hideki was a better contact hitter with a higher OBP in Japan than Kazuo was. Additionally, baseball analysts are predicting 30 stolen bases for Matsui this year. Yet, last year in Japan, he stole just 13, down from 33 the year before. While the Mets may reap the benefits of signing Japan's best second baseman, his strike outs could become very problematic as he adjusts to a new brand of baseball, and his expected speed just might not be there at all.

Interesting story line: In 160 at bats last year, premier prospect Jose Reyes hit .269/.333/.356 with 5 HR, 32 RBIs, and 47 runs scored. Back in 1995, also at age 20, a young Alex Rodriguez hit .232/.264/.408 with 5 HR, 19 RBIs, and only 15 runs scored in 142 at bats. Last year, Reyes walked 13 times while striking out 36 times; in 1995, A-Rod walked 6 times while striking out 42 times. While A-Rod showed much more power and slightly better hitting skills at the Minor League level than Reyes did, it's not inconceivable to think that Reyes could develop into a hitter of A-Rod's caliber, just without the 50-HR power. This season will be a big step in the development of Reyes as a ball player, and it will be interesting to watch how he adapts to a new position in his first full season in New York. If he fails at short, the only people to blame are the Mets development team. I believe that, in the long run, Jose Reyes has more to offer the Mets than Kazuo Matsui. It's conceivable that he could have been the next A-Rod. I hope the Mets made the right move in moving Reyes to second.

Prospect to watch (or trade): Aaron Heilman is one of the highest-regarded prospects in the Mets' system. Yet, last season, he tanked. In 13 starts, he went 2-7 with a 6.75 ERA. He gave up 79 hits and walked 41 in 65.1 innings for a WHIP 1.85. The 25-year-old wasn't fooling anyone. This year, Heilman has a shot at being the Mets' fifth starter, and he's pitched well down at Port St. Lucie this spring. For the Mets, this is the do or die season for Heilman. If Aaron sputters at the start, the Mets ought to trade him before his stock sinks to low. If he fulfills his potential, he could be a big part of the Mets' rotation as they rebuild from a solid core of minor leaguers.

5. Montreal Expos — This off-season, Major League Baseball officially gave up on the Montreal Expos. They didn't make an effort to sign Vladimir Guerrero, and they traded away their pitching future when Javier Vazquez landed with the Yankees. The Expos' rotation is spotty with Livan Hernandez and Tony Armas providing the weakest one-two punch in the NL East. Behind them are Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, and Claudio Vargas. I think the names speak for themselves. While Nick Johnson, Orlando Cabrera, and Jose Vidro will be decent in the middle of the order, Vidro may not be in Canada past July. Outside of Brad Wilkerson, the outfield of Carl Everett, Juan Rivera, Termel Sledge, and Endy Chavez is pretty much a disaster. With the exception of Everett, the other four guys have yet to establish themselves at the big league level, and Everett is a problem himself. While the Expos were in the Wild Card lead through August last year, don't expect the same level of competitiveness from the team this year.

Way too obvious story line: The only people to blame for the sorry state of the Expos are Bud Selig and his people. Had Major League Baseball and the other 29 owners actively pursued their relocation plan and a potential suitor for the Expos, the team from Montreal (or Washington, D.C., or anywhere else)with a new owner and a fan base may have been able to afford Guerrero or Vazquez. Yet, MLB keeps pushing back the timetable for relocation. The Expos are already a PR nightmare for Selig and Co. It's time for them to actively pursue this issue. As with last year, this will again dominate the Expos' season.

Perversely interesting story line: Last year, the Expos averaged 12,662 fans per home game. While this does include a bunch of games in Puerto Rico, that number is still good enough for last place in attendance. And this was in a year when the people of Montreal thought they were seeing the Expos for the last time. As the Expos get worse, it will be interesting to see how few people they draw to their games. The Cubs and Yankees among others have, on average, outdrawn the Expos at home during Spring Training; if the Expos show no life during the beginning of the season, and MLB draws out the relocation process even more, Olympic Stadium might have more people on the field than in the seats come late August and September.

Ex-Yankee to watch: Somehow, Nick Johnson was underrated while he was on the Yankees. He had an OBP of .422 and walked 13 more times than he struck out, a rare feat indeed. He drove in 47 runs while scoring 60 in only 96 games. He saw 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, second only to Edgar Martinez, but he did not have the necessary number of at bats to qualify for the leader boards. In Montreal, Nick could blossom into a huge star. He'll be batting third in the lineup with decent protection in Vidro behind him. While he has yet to show that he can stay healthy for entire season at any level of pro ball, he could put up a huge season for the Expos and your fantasy team if he gets 450 at bats. But, if the past is any indication, even 400 ABs is unlikely, and Nick already has experienced some lower back pain this spring.

American League West

1. Oakland Athletics — This division is tough. The Angels made some significant improvements this season, and the Mariners' line up still packs a punch. But in the end, I have to go with the A's for one reason. Well, maybe it's three reasons. With Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito pitching three out of five days, it's easy to win. Backed up by Rich Harden and Mark Redman, the A's have one of the best rotations in the American League, and easily the best rotation in the West. Despite their lack of offense and shaky bullpen situation, their pitching should carry them to another division title in the West.

Obvious story line: The A's finally have their $66-million man. By signing his big contract, Eric Chavez immediately became the most important man in the A's lineup (although he probably was before he signed the contract). Chavez now must start hitting lefties. In his career, he's managed a remarkable .302 BA off righties and a woeful .229 off lefties. He no longer enjoys the protection of Miguel Tejada; instead, he'll be hitting in front of Jermaine Dye (awful) and Erubiel Durazo (potentially decent protection). The A's offense which pales in comparison to the years of Chavez-Giambi-Tejada will be riding on Chavez's bat alone. He holds the key to Oakland's October chances.

Interesting story line: Last season, Arthur Rhodes' ERA ballooned from 1.72 in 2001 to 4.17. He struck out only 48, down from 81 in 2002, and gave up only 1 fewer hit than innings pitched. While the guys at Baseball Prospectus think 2003 was merely a fluke for Rhodes, I think the 307 appearances he's made over the last 4 season may be taking its toll; that is, after a while, a lot of bull pen pitches. The A's are relying on Rhodes to close this year with almost no options behind him. For the success of the Big Three to translate into wins, Rhodes will have to hope that he can regain his 2001-2002 form.

Ballpark to watch: Just last week, Bud Selig announced that the Oakland Coliseum "cannot produce enough revenue for his team to be competitive and keep the players they want to keep." Yet, at the same time, Selig won't let the A's move to Santa Clara because that's within the Giants' territorial rights. So the A's are trapped in a bad ballpark with limited options. This team is one of the best franchises of the young 2000's; they deserve a new ballpark, and Selig shouldn't stop them. With a schedule that rarely sees the A's and Giants at home on the same day, a new ballpark in Santa Clara would hardly draw fans away from San Francisco. The A's ownership is fighting for a new ballpark, and Selig should be too.

2. Anaheim Angels — Many baseball guys picked the Angels to win the division. With the additions of Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, and Vladimir Guerrero, this team has the make up to win games, but I don't think they top the A's. With a offensive lineup of Guerrero, Garret Anderson, and a supposedly healthy Troy Glaus, the Angels pack more punch than the A's. However, Colon is too inconsistent to be considered in the same league as Zito-Mulder-Hudson, and Escobar is a number 3 guy who pitches a lot. The jury's still out on Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, and John Lackey.

Obvious story line: Going back to Vegas, the odds on the Angels are 10 to 11, which means they are favored slightly over the 2 to 1 Athletics. Yet, I'm not picking them to win. Looking at Anaheim, the baseball world will wonder whether the Angels can win. Can David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy return to their 2002 forms? And more importantly, can the Angels finally avoid the injury bug? Vald, Glaus and Salmon need to stay healthy for this team to win, but more importantly, Garret Anderson has to play 150 games for the offense to stay scary good. Right now, Anderson has been hurt on and off during March. If any of these injuries carry over into the regular season, and if the players on the team play to their 2003 levels instead of 2002, the grade-B rotation won't be enough to propel the Angels passed a second place finish.

Interesting story line: In 2000, Darin Erstad hit .355. In 2003, at the age of 28-29, Erstad hit .255 and suffered numerous injuries. His legs are so bad that the Angels are moving him to first base. This move will take much of the strain off of Erstad's legs, and the Angels are hoping it translate into offensive success as well. While the big stories on this team will be Vlad, Colon, and Garret Anderson, Erstad could become an important x-factor. If the move is successful, and he can approach his 2000 levels again, the Angels will enjoy a big offensive boost. Otherwise, they'll have to contend with a woefully unproductive first baseman.

Factoid to watch: Garret Anderson is the holder of a dubious record: consecutive seasons with more than 35 doubles and fewer than 35 walks. Last season, he hit 49 doubles, but his walk total is slowing climbing towards 35. After hitting 34 in 1999, he walked only 24 times in 2000, 27 times in 2001, 30 times in 2002, and 31 times in 2003. If Anderson shows just a little more patience at the plate, his record-setting streak will be over. I fully expect him to get his 35 doubles, but seeing as how Garret is part of the Nomar-Soriano School of Swinging at Everything, those 35 walks may be a bit elusive.

3. Seattle Mariners — The Mariners will win 90 games this season, but still finish in 3rd place. It's simply a testament to how strong their division is. The lineup will look similar to last year's, which is part of the problem. Randy Winn replaces Mike Cameron (offensive upgrade, defensive downgrade), and Scott Spiezio unseats the awful Jeff Cirillo. There's absolutely no way Spiezio can be worse than Jeff Cirillo. It's just not possible. Ask Dave about that one; he'll definitely agree. The bullpen also looks good. Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Eddie Guardado will close out games. The rotation is the same as last year, which may be a problem. This team could win the West, but there are a lot of question marks surrounding the offense and starting pitching. In the end, the team inconsistencies will land them in third place.

Obvious story line: Much depends on Freddy Garcia. In 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games, Garcia was 18-6 with a 3.05 ERA. Since then, he's declined greatly, and last year, he was 12-14 with a 4.51 ERA. Furthermore, he gave up an astounding 31 home runs in 201.1 innings, or one every 6.5 innings. Many people in the baseball world were ready to write off Garcia, but he is after all only turning 28 in June. The Mariners are relying on him to rebound, and in Peoria, AZ, he's been solid. If Garcia can rebound, the Mariners may be able to pull off a division win, but if he struggles, the Mariners' hopes will flounder.

Interesting story line: For a few months last year, Ichiro looked decidedly human. After the All Star break, he hit just .259/301/.383 only 9 stolen bases (compared to 25 before the Break). Is this the Ichiro after the rest of the American League has figured him out? Only April and May of this year may tell. The Mariners need Ichiro to set the table. He has to get on base and steal to start the game, constantly throwing the defense off. If he struggles, the Mariners will be faced with a leadoff guy who sports a low .300s OBP. I wouldn't have expected this big of a fall from Ichiro, and I don't think it will be a permanent decline. I doubt however the he will again hit .350/.384/.457, as he did in 2001.

Wild Card race to watch: I have bad news for the fans of the AL West: The Wild Card will be coming from the East. Because this division is so strong, the top three teams will end up tearing each other up. The A's, Mariners, and Angels play each other about 4,000 teams each while the Yankees and Red Sox get to play the Orioles (who aren't that good) and the Devil Rays instead. I predict three 90-win teams from the West, but only the team on top of the standings on October 3 will play on.

4. Texas Rangers — No team shows that pitching wins quite like the Rangers. Last year, they scored 826 runs, good for fourth in the AL. But they gave up 969 runs, the most in the Majors by an astounding 61 runs. The good news for the Rangers is that, despite losing A-Rod, they should still score a lot of runs. The bad news is that they will still give up a lot of runs. They lost arguably their best pitcher when John Thomson went to their Braves, and their rotation of Chan Ho Park, Kenny Rogers, Colby Lewis (10-9, 7.30 ERA), Ricardo Rodriguez, and Joaquin Benoit (and his 23 home runs allowed in 105 innings) won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of anyone. Their bullpen could be good, but already Jeff Zimmerman's elbow has a knot, much like last year, and without him, the pen in Texas lacks a definite anchor. With a great young core of hitters, this team will show some promise, but their pitching just won't cut it in this highly-competitive division.

Obvious story line: Now that most of A-Rod's contract is off the books, the Rangers have more money to spend on pitching. If the Fuson/Hart General Manager team sees a competitive team, the Rangers could go out and pick up some pitching to help them down the stretch drive. I personally think the Rangers should just wait until next off-season. They shouldn't trade any of the young players who are key to their long-term success. Grady Fuson has the team on a long-term development path, and they shouldn't let the lures of short-term success ruin this plan.

Interesting story line: Last October, Alfonso Soriano managed to strike out 26 times in 71 at bats. At one point, he was benched in the World Series in favor of Enrique Wilson. Now, out of New York, Soriano has the opportunity to put that behind him. The heat in Texas will pad his home run total, and he won't have the New York media breathing down his back every time he strikes out four times per game. But will this stop him from swinging for the fences? I don't think so. Soriano, who's really 28, may have reached his peak, and now, every pitcher knows that the old strike-strike-fastball away routine will get Sori to flail at three straight pitches. Personally, I hope Alfonso succeeds beyond everyone's wildest imagination in Texas; he could make the Rangers fans forget about that A-Rod guy. But I fear that Soriano may be facing a lot of walks back to the dugout after those three-pitch at bats.

Spoilers to watch: The last five series of the Rangers' season are against, in this order, Oakland, Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle, and Anaheim. The Rangers could be the deciding factor in the AL West race. If the three teams are as close as I think they will be, the games they play against Texas in September and October will determine the outcome of the West. While the Rangers themselves probably won't be playing for anything special, their fans will enjoy some important games late in September this year.
So that's it for part II. If you've made it this far, congratulations. I'll be back at the end of the week with my (shorter) look at the AL Central and my analysis of baseball's strongest division: the AL East.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###