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February 18, 2010

Division Preview

AL West

by John Perrotto

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Baseball's smallest division figures to be one of its most interesting in 2010. The Los Angeles Angels have won three straight American League West titles, and five of the past six. However, they appear vulnerable after losing ace pitcher John Lackey to the Boston Red Sox as a free agent, third baseman/leadoff hitter/defensive whiz Chone Figgins to the division rival Seattle Mariners as a free agent, and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero to another division rival, the Texas Rangers.

Meanwhile, the Mariners and Rangers are looking for more after being surprise teams last season. The Mariners have added a second ace, Cliff Lee, to team with Felix Hernandez in the rotation-and the Rangers' financial situation should improve now that the Nolan Ryan/Chuck Greenberg group is ready to assume ownership. PECOTA expects a shakeup in the AL West this season.

Texas Rangers
Projected record: 87-75
Why They Might Win: Pitching and defense went from being a perennial weakness to a strength last season; this should also be true in 2010. They were fourth in the AL in runs allowed (an average of 4.57 a game) thanks to the fine work of new pitching coach Mike Maddux, and they ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency, a simple metric that measures the number of balls in play that are turned into outs.
Why They Might Not Win: They are pinning a lot of hope on Rich Harden staying healthy and being their top starter, even though he has topped 150 innings just once in six full major-league seasons. They are also counting on an untested Julio Borbon in center field; PECOTA projects him for just a .335 on base percentage and a .404 slugging percentage.
Player Who Could Surprise: Colby Lewis returns stateside after spending the past two seasons pitching in Japan. PECOTA believes the time abroad has helped the Rangers' first-round draft pick from 1999-it projects Lewis to post a fine 3.84 ERA in 165 innings.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Scott Feldman seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the team with 17 victories last season. PECOTA doesn't see a repeat, forecasting a 9-9 record and 4.78 ERA in 157 innings.

Seattle Mariners
Projected record: 83-79
Why They Might Win: They have two of the best starting pitchers in the game in Hernandez and Lee. The defense that will back up the duo led the AL in defensive efficiency last season. Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins should form a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of the batting order.
Why They Might Not Win: They went 85-77 last season despite giving up more runs than they scored. Teams that do this will historically regress the next season. Milton Bradley can help the offense if he's healthy, but with his history of outbursts, he might also destroy the outstanding clubhouse chemistry.
Player Who Could Surprise: Brandon League, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in an off-season trade, is projected to have a 3.34 ERA in 55 innings by PECOTA. That could make the flamethrower the much-needed reliable set-up man for closer David Aardsma.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Lee is projected for a 3.67 ERA in 204 innings by PECOTA, which certainly isn't bad, yet that would be a letdown for Mariners fans, after he posted a combined 2.89 ERA mark in the past two seasons.

Oakland Athletics
Projected record: 82-80
Why They Might Win: If Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer are healthy and return to their old form, they would anchor a rotation that could include a number of intriguing young pitchers, including Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez, and Vin Mazzaro. Andrew Bailey is back to close after being the AL Rookie of the Year last season.
Why They Might Not Win: They were ninth in the AL in runs scored last season but traded their big bopper, Matt Holliday, to the Cardinals last July, and got more mileage than the law allows out of Adam Kennedy, who was allowed to walk as a free agent in the offseason. They were also ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.
Player Who Could Surprise: Duchscherer is projected by PECOTA to have a solid 3.97 ERA, albeit in 97 innings, after missing all of last season with elbow and hip injuries.
Player Who Could Disappoint: The Athletics spent big money (at least for them) when they gave a one-year, $10 million contract to Sheets as a free agent, even though he sat out last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. PECOTA isn't optimistic about a big return on the investment, as Sheets is tabbed for just five wins and 92 innings.

Los Angeles Angels
Projected record: 76-86
Why They Might Win: While they have lost Lackey, they still have a very formidable rotation with Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir, and Joel Pineiro. Mike Scioscia is among the game's best managers; his teams always outperform the sum of their parts.
Why They Might Not Win: Figgins is a big loss. He was excellent both as a table-setter at the top of the batting order and with the glove at third base. Counting on Brian Fuentes and Fernando Rodney to be the primary late-inning relievers just seems to be asking for trouble.
Player Who Could Surprise: Brandon Wood, whom it seems has been a prospect since Jim Fregosi was the Angels' star, will finally get his chance at the major-league level. PECOTA projects Wood to hit 25 home runs as Figgins' replacement.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Rodney converted 37 of 38 save opportunities for Detroit last season, but PECOTA sees him with a 4.34 ERA this year, a high figure for a guy who was paid a lot of money on the free-agent market to pitch in high-leverage situations.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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