It has become increasingly trendy to suggest the Mariners are ready to dethrone the three-time defending champion Angels in the American League West this year. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has spent a lifetime in baseball to become an overnight sensation, rebuilding a franchise that just two years ago lost 101 games. He has continued to add intriguing pieces throughout this offseason by trading for left-hander Cliff Lee, first baseman Casey Kotchman, and designated hitter Milton Bradley, and signing third baseman Chone Figgins as a free agent.

The Angels, on the other hand, seem to be going in an opposite direction. In addition to losing Figgins to their division rival, right-hander John Lackey bolted to the Red Sox as a free agent and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero also signed with another AL West team, the Rangers, though with little resistance from the Angels.

However, the Angels aren’t ready to give up the crown they have worn after five of the last six seasons. In fact, manager Mike Scioscia scoffs at the notion that the Angels may no longer be the AL West’s best team, responding that, “We’ve lost some key people, but we’ve built outstanding depth in this organization and that has allowed us to be able to withstand the loss of some key players. I fully expect us to be a contending team again this year and in the thick of the race. We have the type of talent to continue winning.”

Figgins will undoubtedly be a significant loss, as he had a .283 EqA last season but also led the Angels with 7.2 WARP3 in large part due to outstanding fielding (36 FRAR). The Angels plan to give Brandon Wood, who has been considered a prospect since seemingly the days of Aurelio Rodriguez manning third base for the Halos, the first crack at third base in spring training. Wood, 24, has accumulated 236 major-league plate appearances in the last three seasons and had just a .187 EqA and -1.8 WARP3 to show for them.

“Chone will impact Seattle much like he did our club, and we definitely wanted to see him back in an Angels’ uniform,” Scioscia said. “I think he’s as good a catalyst as there is in the game and way he plays third base is something people ought to pay attention to. We’ve got some big shoes to fill.”

The Angels believe now is the time for Wood to prove he can fill those shoes. The fallback option at third, barring a trade or free-agent signing, would be middle infielder Maicer Izturis. He doesn’t have a spot in the lineup with second baseman Howie Kendrick and shortstop Erick Aybar ahead of him on the depth chart in the middle infield.

“Brandon has to come to spring training with the mindset that he is going to win the position and, realistically, that’s what he’s going to have to do,” Scioscia said. “He’s obviously a young player, and we’re going to take a good look him and, hopefully, his growth will allow him to get significant playing time and possibly win a starting position. We definitely want to give Brandon every chance to show his talent because he’s a very talented young player.”

The Angels privately weren’t so concerned about Lackey leaving and weren’t willing to go anywhere near the $82 million for five years he got from the Red Sox. He had a combined 8.4 SNLVAR in 2008 and 2009, as he started both seasons late because of arm problems. The Angels are hopeful that right-hander Joel Pineiro, signed to a two-year, $16-million contract, can adequately fill Lackey’s spot. They are especially encouraged that Pineiro led the major leagues with a 60.5 percent ground-ball rate and only 1.1 walks per nine innings while notching 4.6 SNLVAR after learning a sinker from Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan last spring.

Pineiro will move into a rotation that includes right-handers Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana and left-handers Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir. “Our starting rotation matches up with any one’s in the league,” Scioscia observed. “These guys don’t have to take a backseat to anyone.”

The Angels also like their bullpen after signing Fernando Rodney as a free agent. He was sixth in the AL with a 4.519 WXRL last season for the Tigers. He figures to share closing duties with lefty Brian Fuentes.

The Angels also believe another free-agent signee, Hideki Matsui, can effectively replace Guerrero as the DH. Matsui had a .291 EqA and 2.7 WARP3 last season for the Yankees, while Guerrero’s numbers were .261 and 0.3.

“I like our club the way it is constituted right now,” Scioscia said. “I’d feel very good taking this club into the season.”

However, Angels general manager Tony Reagins does not sound like he is necessarily done making moves for the winter, even after shipping unhappy reserve outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. to the Mets for reliever Brian Stokes in a trade on Friday and taking a major financial hit. The Angels agreed to pay $21 million of the $23 million remaining on the ill-advised five-year, $50-million contract they signed Matthews to as a free agent following the 2006 season along with the $500,000 bonus clause that was activated by being traded. Reagins subsequently noted, “I have not been told by (owner) Arte Moreno that I am under financial restrictions. If we have the opportunity to improve our club now, in spring training, or after the season starts, we will do so.”

Giants GM Brian Sabean was already pleased with his winter after re-signing second baseman Freddy Sanchez before he could reach the free-agent market, then signing free agents Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa to play first base and left field. However, Sabean is even happier after catcher Bengie Molina decided Friday to return to the Giants as a free agent on a one-year, $4.5 million contract on Friday following protracted negotiations with the Mets that did not produce the two-year deal he was seeking. The Giants did not want to commit to Molina beyond 2010 because of the presence of top catching prospect Buster Posey in their system.

“Bengie certainly earned the right to explore free agency and we understood his desire for a multi-year contract,” Sabean said. “That being said, we’re very happy with the way it worked out. He lengthens our lineup and is a veteran catcher who works very well with our young pitching staff. He adds to a club I already felt was very capable of making a run at the playoffs.”

The Giants led the major leagues in run prevention in 2009 by giving up an average of 3.8 a game. However, they were 13th in the National League in scoring with a 4.1 average. How much the two newcomers and the two retained free agents can help the offense is questionable. Huff had a .239 EqA and his WARP3 was -1.9 last season. DeRosa (.266, 2.2), Molina (.252, 2.0), and Sanchez (.266, 1.7) also produced less than eye-popping numbers. Furthermore, Sanchez has undergone knee and shoulder surgeries this offseason, and his availability for the start of the season is questionable.

Yet Sabean thinks the Giants will contend after finishing 88-74 last year to end a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. Molina believes the Giants can do better than contend, commenting “I think we can get to the playoffs and win it all. This team is that good. The pieces are all here. We’ve just got to go out and do it.”

Red Sox owner John Henry still feels the sting of his team’s quick exit from the postseason last season as it was swept in three games by the Angels in the American League Division Series.

“Those of us who watch every game are painfully aware of every flaw, probably overly aware of our flaws in comparison to other clubs,” Henry told the Boston Herald‘s Michael Silverman. “The 2009 club was very, very strong. We entered the playoffs with (three) very strong starters and we were healthy, rested. We felt extremely positive. But the playoffs are a short series and we know anything can happen in a short series.”

Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has decided to restructure the Red Sox this winter with a decided bent on pitching and defense, as he allowed slugging left fielder Jason Bay to jump to the Mets as a free agent while signing Lackey, third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Mike Cameron as free agents. Henry admits that he is surprised defense has become so valued in baseball circles in recent years as an undervalued asset, but has total faith in his GM’s decision to go in that direction.

“Theo is much more a fan of defense than I am, probably because he understands baseball on the field much more than I do,” Henry said. “We won 95 games in 2009, third-best in the major leagues. Going into the offseason, we were focused on how we get to 2012, a year in which we believe there is a good chance we will begin to get some significant help again from our farm system. Theo concentrated on the deals that made the most sense (for 2010). We think the club is strong enough to win 95 games again. It may take that much to make the playoffs.”

The Twins have been bucking the small-market stereotype for nearly a decade in making the playoffs in five of the past eight seasons. However, for all their success, the Twins have not been to the World Series during that stretch and advanced to the American League Championship Series only once. The Twins have lost in their last four ALDS, including being swept by the Yankees last season. In fact, the Yankees have handed the Twins three of those four ALDS losses.

However, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire believes his team is beginning to close the gap on the Yankees. During a stop on the Twins’ winter promotional caravan this past week, Gardenhire all but challenged the Yankees to a rematch this year.

“We’ve had our chances,” Gardenhire told the Winona Daily News. “We could have beaten them, as is, but next year we’re not taking any more of them and if it takes fighting them, we’re fighting them. When you look at the Yankees, their lineup stretches seven- and eight-deep of All Stars. We’re getting closer to that now. You look at our lineup and we’re almost to the point now where we’ve got six or seven guys that are All-Star caliber people.”

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Talks between free agent designated hitter Jim Thome and the White Sox have heated up this weekend, and he could wind up signing with them as soon as Monday. … The Phillies signed right-hander Joe Blanton and center fielder Shane Victorino to three-year contract extensions this past week and are closing in on a similar agreement with catcher Carlos Ruiz. However, the Phillies believe they won’t be able to afford right fielder Jayson Werth and are willing to allow him to become a free agent at the end of the season, especially with top prospect Domonic Brown likely ready as a replacement in 2011. … The Cubs have strong interest in signing outfielder Johnny Gomes to be part of their bench. … Look for outfielder Jim Edmonds, who did not play last season, to attempt his comeback with the Cardinals, as they have the most interest in bringing him to spring training. … The Mets are expected to make a big push for free agent pitcher Ben Sheets, but are not as keen on re-signing first baseman Carlos Delgado and may instead re-sign Fernando Tatis to platoon with Daniel Murphy at first. The Mariners and Rockies also have interest in Tatis. … Former Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, who spent last season in the independent Canadian-American League, was not overly impressive in his workout for scouts this past week. If any team gives him a spring training invitation, it will likely be the Rockies and Jim Tracy, his former manager with the Dodgers.

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Mark my words, Wood will NOT be the starting 3B for the Angels. They will find someone else or even bring Joe Randa in....for whatever reason, Scioscia can't stand the kid.
They should think about Joe Crede, he can be had cheap, and he provides great defensive value, even if it's for 90-100 games.
Murphy and Tatis...that's about as appealling as leftover Brussell Sprouts...just wondering, could Johhny Damon play first by any chance?
or Russ Branyan...
I'd rather have Richie Sexson....seriously.
You are seriously saying that Sexson's superior defense made up to the fact that in his last two seasons he was reaching base without creating an out only 30% of time compared to Branyan's success rate of greater than 34% - and as well Sexson slugged about .390 for a total OPS of about .690 - extremely substandard for a first-baseman as compared to Branyon's robust .560+ for an aproximate .885 OPS the last two years? I don't think that is possible.
Ron Gardenhire: "You look at our lineup and we're almost to the point now where we've got six or seven guys that are All-Star caliber people." Mauer, Morneau, Nathan, maybe Kubel. I guess 4 is close enought to 6 or 7 for ol' Ron; but he'll negate one of those 4 by giving 600 PAs to the 3-headed monster of Harris/Punto/Casilla.
Read more closely and you'll see that he said "almost...six or seven". I can see Span being All-Star caliber within the next couple of seasons, and Hardy was an All-Star in '07. That's (almost) 6 right there, even without reaching down to someone like Cuddyer or one of the starting pitchers. It's not that crazy.
Read even MORE carefully, and you'll notice he said All Star Caliber "PEOPLE" He just meant nice guys, and if this is an All Star Caliber PEOPLE competition, I'll take the Minnesotans over New Yorkers any day. Reverse East Coast bias.
As a Giants fan I wish I could live in Sabean's deluded world, I'd be a much happier person.
So I guess the Doug Davis signing isn't noteworthy?