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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 30, 2010 at 3:17 PM

Forecasting the AL West: I’m picking…the Angels

matsuiangels.jpg

The Seattle Times writing staff had to submit their 2010 predictions today, which will run in the newspaper this weekend (I’m not sure which day, but I’ll find out). Here’s how I forecast the AL West:

1, Angels

2, Mariners

3, Rangers

4, A’s

It’s a cliche to say every year that the division is wide open, and it’s also become de rigueur to speculate that the Angels aren’t what they used to be.

This year, I’d say both those sentiments are more or less accurate. It’s not that difficult to foresee a scenario by which the A’s, last year’s last-place team, greatly surpass their 75-87 record. And it’s not that difficult to forecast a scenario by which the Angels have a dropoff from last year’s 97-win season.

That said, the toughest decision I had was not picking the Angels to win the division. Again. If it happens, that would make it four AL West titles in a row, and six out of seven. Hideki Matsui, pictured above, knows something about winning division titles.

No, the toughest call was for second place between the Mariners and Texas. As I’ve written before, there have already been some ominous signs this spring for Seattle, topped by the injury to Cliff Lee. The offense still worries me, as does the rotation depth even when Lee gets healthy. And the Rangers did win 87 games last year, and they are getting a great influx of young talent from a farm system universally regarded as one of top three, if not No. 1, in all of baseball.

Yet what finally swung it for me was the whole sordid Ron Washington affair, in which the manager was revealed during spring training to have tested positive for cocaine use last year. That’s pretty heavy stuff. While it could draw the team together, I think there’s a greater potential for the tension and scrutiny surrounding Washington to create an atmosphere that’s not conducive to success.

I could be wrong. Heck, judging by my past prognosticating, I probably will be wrong. What I like about the Angels most is their pitching depth, even without John Lackey. They can throw out a decent starter every single night with Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Joel Pineiro. The bullpen should be better with Fernando Rodney added as a setup guy. Hideki Matsui should be an adequate replacement for Vlad Guerrero – at least the Vlad Guerrero that was around last year. Chone Figgins‘ loss hurts a lot, but I still see an offense that will be good enough. Especially if Brandon Wood, the new third baseman, lives up to his minor-league hype. The Angels are getting a little old, however, especially in the outfield, where Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera, Bobby Abreu and Matsui (who could see occasional duty in the field) have an average age of 34. Bottom line: The Angels, under Mike Scioscia, have become a winning machine, and I don’t see them sputtering to a halt quite yet.

As for the Mariners, I’m going to go on the assumption that Cliff Lee will come back fairly quickly, and at full strength. If not, all bets are off. But with Hernandez and Lee, and what should be the best defense in baseball, the Mariners stand to be a bona fide contender. If they are close, I’d expect Jack Zduriencik to go get a slugger at the trade deadline (Adrian Gonzalez being the obvious top candidate). If that happens, it could really get exciting down the stretch.

The Rangers have pitching depth the likes of which they haven’t had for awhile, even after trading Kevin Millwood. When Tommy Hunter returns from the DL (probably late April), they could have six valid starting candidates (Rich Harden, C.J. Wislon, Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Hunter). Setup rookie Neftali Feliz throws 100 mph and was lights-out in a showcase last year. I’ll admit, I’m infatuated with this guy’s potential. They can hit a little, too, especially if Guerrero is back in form. Elvis Andrus is sensational at shortstop. It’s easy to see a lot of upside for this team, despite my cautionary note earlier.

The A’s are a really interesting team. If Ben Sheets, Justin Duchscherer and Eric Chavez all stay healthy – a longshot, at best, based on their body of work – they could really surprise. Sheets, Duchscherer and rising star Brett Anderson have the potential to be a pretty formidable top of the rotation, while the bullpen has four guys who, if healthy, can close (Andrew Bailey, Michael Wuertz, Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler). Devine is coming back from Tommy John but should be ready by mid-April. The defense is better than it has been, but like the Mariners, Oakland’s offensive pop is a concern. The A’s do have two impressive boppers in the minors on the verge of being ready (1B Chris Carter and OF Michael Taylor).

I truly believe that this could turn into a four-team race, but until they show me otherwise, I have to pick the Angels.

(Photo by Associated Press)

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