Turns out, it actually wasn’t an endless road trip: I’m home.

I spent a lot of time this past week shifting gears from college basketball to baseball, talking about the upcoming season with just about everyone I saw, from friends and family to any number of radio and TV people. All that baseball chatter got me pumped, and for the last couple of days, I’ve been getting more and more excited about the upcoming season.

I don’t completely understand why MLB decided to hold a press conference so that two news cycles would be spent on George Mitchell and Greg Anderson and Mark Fainaru-Wada rather than Albert Pujols and Felix Hernandez and David Wright, but they did. The Mitchell Committee can be spun as any number of things, but what it is, at its core, is public relations. MLB wants to create the illusion that it’s doing something to find out about its steroid problem, and bringing in a stately character like Mitchell-with ties to the game as part of 2001’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Innumeracy-confers a certain legitimacy on that search.

The problem is that no one, not even the good people on Park Avenue, have any idea what the end result here is supposed to be. More information? Confirmation of the complete text of Book of Shadows? Believe me when I tell you that the last thing anyone at MLB wants is to be surprised by a single finding of this commission, and that I’m certain it won’t be. The nightmare isn’t that unpopular, unfriendly players such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi are persecuted as suspected steroid users; the nightmare is that popular, media-friendly ones are found out to be. Maybe race isn’t a central issue here, but the general affability, or lack thereof, of the central players connected with steroids certainly is.

The Mitchell Commission is a cynical exercise in public relations that is designed to have no real impact on the matter. I encourage everyone, regardless of your opinion on the steroids issue, to treat it with the disdain it deserves.

On to the predictions. We finish the AL today, and I’ll have a three-division NL extravaganza up tomorrow.

The A’s are the best team in baseball. I’ve pointed this out for a while, but you could take their backup rotation, their #6 through #10 starters, and it would be about the 20th-best rotation in the game, better than a third of the teams’ starting rotations. That kind of depth is almost unheard of, and it’s just one reason to think this is going to be the year the A’s get back to the top of the AL West. The actual starting rotation is deep, if not star-laden, and should be one of the two best in the AL, along with the Twins’. It pitches in front of an excellent defense, especially in the infield, where Mark Ellis and Eric Chavez are among the best in the game at their positions. Remember, the White Sox had the best record in the AL last year and won the World Series thanks to a defense that had just the second-best DER in the AL. The A’s actually were better at turning balls in play into outs (although adjusting for park, as James Click would do, slides the Sox back ahead of the A’s).

The A’s problem the last couple of seasons has been scoring runs, and the offense is definitely the weak link again. The A’s will be counting on improvement from pre-prime players such as Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson and Bobby Crosby, not an unreasonable expectation. One thing to keep in mind is that the 2005 A’s had just one player, Ellis, have a season that was notably above his established level, and they’ve added some good hitters in Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas. This should be an above-average offense in ’06, more than enough to not only win the West, but win it going away.

Since the publication of Moneyball, Billy Beane has been a bit forgotten. The transitional teams between of the last two years, however, won 179 games and were in races to the last week of the season. That’s not a bad rebuilding period. The fruits of that effort show up this year, and with them, the plaudits for the guy who’s still the best GM in the game.

That might not even be the best story in the division, however. I don’t think the Angels have enough to win this season; they themselves are beginning to transition from the deteriorating championship team of 2002 to what should be a very good young squad in 2007 and beyond.

The interesting point, though, is that the Angels have developed into an organization that expects, and is expected, to be competitive every season. Five years ago, that notion would have been ridiculous; the 40-year history of the Angels showed a team that would accidentally be competitive every now and then, and almost immediately slip back into dormancy. There was rarely a plan beyond the next race or even the next month.

The Mike Scioscia/Bill Stoneman management team hasn’t just hung some flags. They’ve implemented and executed a plan that has made the Angels one of the game’s best-run organizations. I can’t say that I’ve agreed with all the elements of that approach, but it has been successful, and it points out one of the key tenets of management: executing a plan well, even if it’s not the perfect plan, is inifinitely better than having no plan at all.

The ’06 Angels are a bit like the ’04-’05 A’s, caught between a very good team that’s slipped a bit and the replacement for that squad. The Angels have become quite old, although working in Casey Kotchman and Jeff Mathis helps a little. Moving Darin Erstad back to center field is a move that has been praised in many sabermetric circles, but I don’t think it’s a real positive; if the Angels didn’t think he could hold up while playing center at 30 and 31, why should we think he can at 32? At the least, expecting him to play Gold Glove defense out there is silly.

I just don’t know where the runs are going to come from. The only spot at which they’ll definitely be above-average is right field, and they’ll be all right at first base and maybe third base if Chone Figgins continues to play well. The Angels typically get more runs than you’d expect from their projections because they do run the bases well, but can that continue if Kotchman, Tim Salmon, Mathis and Jose Molina are getting more playing time?

I like the Angels’ rotation, especially with the addition of Jeff Weaver, who’s an underrated pitcher. The bullpen, which has been the heart of the Angels 2002-2005 run, slipped a bit last year and may also be going through a transition. Francisco Rodriguez has become a breaking-ball pitcher; his pitch selection and arm action create concerns about injury. Scot Shields has been worked very hard for three years; can he keep it up for a fourth?

In another division, this team might be the favorite. In this one, in this year, they’re a wild-card contender, and a strong one, but I think they’ll fall just short. That such a season could be considered a disappointment is perhaps the greatest praise I could heap on Scioscia and Stoneman, who have established that kind of standard in Anaheim.

The Rangers will once again score a lot of runs, but will they be able to stop the opposition? Adding Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla should help to make the rotation more stable-the Rangers haven’t used fewer than 11 starters in a season since 2000-but will it be much better? Arlington is a very difficult place to pitch, so simply getting pitchers to provide league-average innings can be a challenge. I liked the addition of Adam Eaton, who starts the season on the DL, because he’s a power right-hander who can get groundballs.

Beyond the new pitchers, though, the Rangers have the same challenge they’ve faced for years: find the in-house options who can keep the team in games long enough for the offense to score. Will it be Kameron Loe and R.A. Dickey? Edison Volquez? Does Joaquin Benoit end up back in the mix? It’s not important which of these pitchers does the job; it’s important that two of them do, and enable the Rangers to have a stable rotation.

The other key element for the Rangers is defense. The park gives up home runs, but it also gives up extra-base hits, and the Rangers haven’t had a true center fielder in some time. Brad Wilkerson can be that guy, and in addition to providing good defense, he is a major upgrade over Alfonso Soriano at the plate. There are concerns about his shoulder, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think he’s going to be a down-ballot MVP guy this year, maybe the sixth- or seventh-best player in the league.

Even with Wilkerson, though, the Rangers have a so-so defense. Michael Young is, by most reliable metrics, a poor defensive shortstop. Second base should be better, if only because Soriano was so bad last year. Flanking Wilkerson in the outfield are David Dellucci and Kevin Mench; that’s not a big help.

If the volubility of a fan base were a factor in team’s chances, the Mariners would look a lot better heading into 2006. As it stands, they have a strong defense, especially up the middle, and a below-average offense. King Felix heads a pitching staff that is protected by Safeco Field and that defense; in another park, this team might give up a ton of runs. The rotation just isn’t very good, and the bullpen is just slightly better.

What’s odd is that the Mariners could be a very entertaining .475 team. Hernandez is a great reason to watch every fifth day, and everyone loves Ichiro Suzuki. I happen to think Yuniesky Betancourt is already one of the top defensive shortstops in the league, and I readily admit I can’t back that up with statistics yet. There’s also Kenji Johjima, the latest Ms import from Japan and the first to play catcher. Will his bat-he’s not like Ichiro at all-make the trip?

The Ms are an interesting team, but in the AL West of 2006, interesting isn’t enough. They could end up over .500–there’s a fairly wide range of possible outcomes for guys like Betancourt, Johjima, Jeremy Reed and Jose Lopez that makes prediction difficult–but there’s only a small chance that they’ll contend for a playoff spot.

A's       101   61      779   617
Angels     89   73      740   675
Rangers    83   79      866   852
Mariners   76   86      711   748

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