By Brent Hubbard – Senior Columnist
2008 marked only the second season where the Angels and Dodgers each won their respective division title, but it came only four seasons after the two clubs accomplished the feat for the first time.
Indeed, the balance of power out West certainly seems to have shifted completely to the LA/OC area, again raising the possibility of a Freeway World Series that would truly cement the Angels/Dodgers rivalry many Dodgers fans like to deny exists.
But let’s not put the cart before the horse here; these teams are the favorites, but an upstart or two within their division could challenge each. Let’s break it down:
The AL West (projected record):
1) Los Angeles Angels (101-61) 101 wins? Really? Most are predicting the AL West and Central to be in the high eighties for the champion. If you want more detailed info on why this is possible, see my blog on this topic, which published here last week. Basically, the Angels face an easier schedule than last season, and I don’t see any team challenging in ’09. Even with the pitching problems they have in their rotation right now, the Angels have the league’s best rotation when everyone is healthy. THE BEST. So, if 3/5 of it miss the first month? A strong start will boost the value of their fill-in rotation and give them plenty of ammo if they want to make an in-season trade. A 24-win Cactus League season isn’t a fluke. The Angels have talent. Maybe the A’s or Rangers challenge in 2010, but another division crown is definitely in the Angels future this season.
(Adam Dodge agrees with my pick here, though I don’t think he’s projecting 101 wins.)
Biggest question mark: Can their offense overcome the loss of Mark Teixiera and Garret Anderson, and how quickly can their pitchers get healthy?
2) Texas Rangers (85-77) They never have enough pitching. Pitching and defense wins games. But, wow, can they hit! Elvis Andrus is going to be in the spotlight replacing Michael Young at SS. Texas’ lineup may feature a bunch of no-names, but they are all good if not great hitters. And they will hit, maybe enough to lead the league. Their catching tandem could lead the league in HR from that position, yet a young catching tandem may not be the best for their staff and with their crazy rotation, they’ll be winning a lot of 12-9, 11-10 games. It just won’t be enough to win the division, though I could see them sneaking into a wildcard berth.
Biggest question mark: Will they trade one of their stud catchers for some pitching help? They certainly need it.
3) Oakland Athletics (82-80) Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Jason Giambi add a few games in the win column, but despite their increased offensive output, the A’s are far too dependent on a crop of young pitchers with no clear rotation, let alone an ace. Add an unsure closer situation and the A’s are no threat.
Biggest question mark: How will their young rotation perform?
4) Seattle Mariners (62-100) Two good to really good pitchers, Felix Hernandez and Eric Bedard and two future Hall of Famers in Junior Griffey and Ichiro. With their third best pitcher being relegated to relief this week, I see no room for optimism. The rest is a mess.
Biggest question mark: Take your pick: offense, defense, pitching? How will new manager Don Wakamatsu do? Will they be willing to offer Stephen Strasburg the Dice-K-esque contract he is seeking if the Nationals decline? I’d be nervous facing a Big Three of Hernandez, Strasburg and Bedard.
The NL West (projected record)
1) Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72) As Vic “the Brick” Jacobs so eloquently puts it: “Feelin’ you, Manyako,” or whatever the heck he calls him today. (I’d love a radio job where I can scream unintelligent dribble and catch phrases.) But what Jacobs fails to point out is that Manny Ramirez cannot win a title on his own. (Or maybe he actually thinks he can.) I’ve seen Ramirez dominate and I’ve seen him answer phone calls in left field. I don’t really know which Manny we’re going to see in LA, but I guarantee it’s not the guy we saw last season. Nevertheless, they will win the NL West, because I like the offense and the pitching is good. They are going with the kids and I don’t see a problem with that.
Biggest question mark: Who is the pitching staff again? Billingsley … and?
2) Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74) Eric Byrnes is back and the team likes Byrnes, so they will win more games. I like the offense and I like their pitching, but who is the closer again? And is he going to be effective?
Biggest question mark: Relief pitching.
3) San Francisco Giants (81-81) I’m tempted to put them in the playoff picture, but then I can’t. An improvement to be sure. Pablo Sandoval may not be a Gold Glove 3B, but Pedro Feliz wasn’t either. Sandoval has catcher eligibility in some fantasy leagues and he can definitely hit.
Biggest question mark: Corner infield spots, both rookies (or as close as you get, in Sandoval’s case). This could get interesting.
(Adam Dodge picks the Giants to ride Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to the NL West title. I can see this in 2010, but not in 2009.)
4) Colorado Rockies (77-85) Troy Tulowitski should get over the sophomore slump and they will be exciting again, but Greg Smith for Matt Holliday? I don’t think so. And Dexter Fowler should be an interesting leadoff man if judged only by the single turned into a double on a lazy liner to right field against the Angels in Spring Training, with Vladimir Guerrero and his cannon fielding the ball.
Biggest question mark: How will the offense perform sans Matt Holliday? And the pitching in Coors sans Jeff Francis? Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez and Smith should be decent, but even with the humidor, it is always a question in Colorado.
5) San Diego Padres (61-101) One of the leagues worst teams won’t be much better in 2009. Do you think they could’ve lost three more games on purpose at the end of the year? Maybe you don’t sweep Washington, and especially not an extra innings win in the 14th two weeks before the season is over? The best pitcher in a decade is coming out in the draft — and he’s a local kid. You could have had him, but those wins were more important? I’m not saying intentionally lose, but … actually, yes, I am.
Biggest question mark: Will they trade Jake Peavy?
Now that we’ve worked our way through the divisions, we’ll tackle the major award winner projections for both leagues tomorrow.