Spring Preview: The AL West

A complete breakdown of the four AL West teams as pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training down in sunny Arizona. It's that time of year again. Can you feel it? We can.

Seattle Mariners
2003 record: 93-69
Spring training home: Peoria, Arizona


OFF-SEASON MOVES::
Players lost:
Armando Benitez: Signed with Florida Marlins
Mike Cameron: Signed with New York Mets
John Mabry: Signed with St. Louis Cardinals
Mark McLemore: Signed with Baltimore Orioles
Arthur Rhodes: Signed with Oakland Athletics
Rey Sanchez: Signed with Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Kazuhiro Sasaki: Signed with Yokohama BayStars (Japan)
Jeff Cirillo: Traded to San Diego Padres
Greg Colbrunn: Traded to Arizona Diamonbacks
Carlos Guillen: Traded to Detroit Tigers

Players acquired:
Rich Aurilia: Free agent signing
Eddie Guardado: Free agent signing
Raul Ibanez: Free agent signing
Scott Spiezio: Free agent signing
Ron Villone: Free agent signing
Wiki Gonzalez: Acquired from San Diego Padres
Dave Hansen: Acquired from San Diego Padres
Kevin Jarvis: Acquired from San Diego Padres
Quinton McCracken: Acquired from Arizona Diamondbacks
Ramon Santiago: Acquired from Detroit Tigers

IMPACT NEWCOMER: 3B Scott Spiezio
While Spiezio is not a true impact player, he will fill the black hole that was third base last year. He has the potential to be a strong offensive threat while playing adequate defense. His addition to the lineup will be the biggest single-player upgrade for the Mariners.

BIGGEST LOSS: CF Mike Cameron
Losing Cameron will hurt the team's defense and offense. As one of the best centerfielders in baseball, his departure will allow more hits to fall safely in the outfield and will cause the team ERA to rise.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE::
Justin Leone – Leone had a breakout season in 2003 coming out of nowhere to win the Texas League MVP. At 27 his time is now. However, since there isn't a starting spotavailable he should begin the year in Triple-A. He is likely to receive a call-up at some point during the season.

Chris Snelling – Everywhere he has gone, he has hit. He plays every play at full effort, almost to a fault. His all-out approach has been the likely cause of multiple injuries over his baseball career. Look for Snelling to step in if any of the four M's outfielders goes down with an injury of their own.

Jamal Strong – Strong is one of the fastest players in the minor leagues and successfully combines his great speed with a good eye at the plate for a nice leadoff combination. He sits behind Snelling in line for a call-up in the outfield, unless the club is specifically looking for the pinch-runner type.

Rett Johnson – Johnson has an outside shot at making the roster as a long reliever but he will most likely begin the year at Triple-A where he spent a portion off his 2003 season and showed he has what it takes. He could be the first pitcher in line for a call-up.

Clint Nageotte – Nageotte has the best slider in the Mariners system and possibly in all of minor league baseball. He'll begin the year at Triple-A but if he can effectively use his change-up in Tacoma, he could get more than just a cup of coffee at Safeco.

Travis Blackley – Like Nageotte, Blackley can use some Triple-A seasoning before he's ready. He's also penciled in for the rotation of the future and the least likely of the trio to get a call-up. Blackley will perform well when called upon.

POSITION BATTLES THIS SPRING:

Catcher: Ben Davis and Dan Wilson
If Davis shows more consistent signs of his potential, this shouldn't be a battle. The younger and more offensive-minded Davis will be given every opportunity to be the full-time starter. Any lengthy struggles for the 16-year-old and the veteran Wilson might creep back in the picture where he has provided the M's with stability behind the plate for over a decade.

Back of the bullpen: A balanced slew of righties and lefties
The battle for the sixth bullpen spot is more of an all-out brawl. The candidates include the veterans Mike Myers, Terry Mullholland, and Kevin Jarvis and the youngsters, George Sherrill, Bobby Madritsch and Aaron Looper. Sherrill appears to have the inside track following some encouraging words by pitching coach Bryan Price. Mullholland and Myers may be the less likely to make the club even though they were recently signed as their contracts are not guaranteed. Former first-rounder Matt Thornton could be a darkhorse if he is 100% healthy.

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THE TEAM:

1. Can the starting rotation repeat 2004 and start every game?
Very unlikely as that hadn't happened since the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers. However, the rotation is sure to be a strong point in 2004. Each member of the rotation is solid and the young guns, Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro, have a great deal of upside, and could very well exceed their 2003 performances.

2. Can Randy Winn fill the defensive shoes of Mike Cameron in CF?
Winn played an adequate CF in Tampa before he came to Seattle in the Lou Piniella deal. He showed that while he is excellent left fielder, he doesn't have the necessary natural reactions and routes to have the same effect in center. Winn will provide adequate defense but will not be able to completely replace Cameron, who was a fixture at the position and one of the game's best in his four years as a Mariner.

3. When will age catch up to Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer?
Both are likely to take somewhat of a step back in 2004. Martinez still possesses outstanding pitch selection and bat speed but his age is quickly diminishing his running and, in turn, extra-base ability. Even at age 40 Moyer was able to improve on his ERA last year. However, his walk rate increased and it could be a sign of an impending decline. Moyer's ace status may not hold up, with Pineiro and Meche hot on his heels, but he is remains the calming presence he has always been.

4. Will the multiple off-season acquisitions make up for the lack of a "big bat?"
Since they were unable to obtain a top flight hitter, the M's decided to go for offensive depth. The club added Raul Ibanez, Scott Spiezio, and Rich Aurilia by signing them to relatively inexpensive deals. Each will provide an offensive upgrade over their 2003 counterpart and that could provide enough of an offensive upgrade for the M's to step up in the standings.

5. Will Eddie Guardado's success in Minnesota carry over to Seattle?
Guardado takes over as the closer and will look to continue his improving ERA trend. Should he falter however, the M's have two potential replacements in Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Rafael Soriano.


Anaheim Angels
2003 record: 77-85
Spring training home: Tempe, Arizona



OFF-SEASON MOVES:
Players lost:
Brad Fullmer: Signed with Texas Rangers
Scott Spiezio: Signed with Seattle Mariners
Shawn Wooten: Signed with Philadelphia Phillies

Players acquired:
Bartolo Colon: Free agent signing
Kelvim Escobar: Free agent signing
Vladimir Guerrero: Free agent signing
Jose Guillen: Free agent signing
Shane Halter: Free agent signing

IMPACT NEWCOMER: RF Vladimir Guerrero
The Angels came out of nowhere to sign the best player available this off season in Vlad, beating out Baltimore, Florida, and the New York Mets for his services. Guerrero is a dangerous offensive threat and plays solid defense with one of the best arms in baseball. He turns the Angels' already strong offense into one of the game's best.

BIGGEST LOSS: 1B Scott Spiezio
Spiezio provided the Angels with outstanding defense at first base as a solid offensive contributor. However, the Angels did a great job of filling the offensive void by signing Guerrero so the loss of Spiezio will not have much effect. Former centerfielder Darin Erstad is slated to take over for Spiezio.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE:
No Angels' prospect appears to be ready to make a major league impact this season. With a strong roster at the major league level, the organization's top minor leaguers appear to be at least a year away. Starting pitchers Ervin Santana and Bobby Jenks as well as 3B Dallas McPherson, 1B Casey Kotchman, and C Jeff Mathis are all possible blue-chippers waiting their turn in 2005.

POSTION BATTLES THIS SPRING:
Back of the rotation: John Lackey, Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Sele, Scot Shields
With two spots open for the taking, Lackey and Ortiz appear to have the inside track at them, which would leave Shields to return to the bullpen where he excelled in 2003. If a trade is made, it will most likely involve Ortiz, leaving Lackey and Sele in the rotation and Shields in the bullpen.

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THE TEAM:

1. Can Vlad avoid and further back injuries?
When healthy, Vlad is easily one of the best players in baseball. However, he missed 50 games in 2003 with back problems, something that effected his free agent status for much of the winter. A healthy Guerrero makes the Angels a scary offensive club. Any lingering back issues and the 27-year-old becomes a bad-luck investment.

2. Can Kelvim Escobar step up to be the top flight starter the Angels hope he can be?
In his 26 starts in 2003, Escobar showed signs that he still had the potential to become a top pitcher. However, he still ended the year with a mid-4 ERA and doesn't have much more room for growth as he is entering his prime now. He is a high-risk, moderate-reward player. Expecting top-of-the-rotation stuff from Escobar is a bit too optimistic.

3. Did the Angels sign Jose Guillen of Cincinnati or of Oakland?
While in Cincinnati for much of last season, Guillen was unstoppable. He hit 23 HR and posted a 1.000+ OPS in limited playing time. However, in Oakland he reverted back towards his career norms, much of those numbers put up in the AL early in his career. Chances are in 2004, we'll see a player closer to the Oakland version offensively. Guillen's cannon right arm and solid range in left will be a plus for the Halos.

4. Can the back of the rotation be productive enough to compliment the offense?
Washburn, Lackey, and Ortiz all produced sub-par seasons in 2003 and they all look to rebound and return to 2002 form. If two of the three can bounce back, the Angels have a formidable rotation. If not, the Halos will likely look to make a deal to add a proven veteran rather than rely on a prospect.

5. Will Darrin Erstad be productive at 1B?
Erstad has been one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball since making the big leauges but the additions of Guillen and Guerrero to the outfield this year and the loss of Spiezio at first base will force him to switch positions and become Spiezio's replacement. At first base, his defense won't likely be as valuable so he will need to increase the offensive production to pull his weight and help the team win ball games.


Oakland Athletics
2003 record: 96-66
Spring training home: Phoenix, Arizona



OFF-SEASON MOVES:
Players lost:
Jose Guillen: Signed with Anaheim Angels
Keith Foulke: Signed with Boston Red Sox
Miguel Tejada: Signed with Baltimore Orioles
Ramon Hernandez: Traded to San Diego Padres
Ted Lilly: Traded to Toronto Blue Jays
Terrence Long: Traded to San Diego Padres
Mike Neu: Traded to Florida Marlins

Players acquired:
Eric Karros: Free agent signing
Arthur Rhodes: Free agent signing
Chris Hammond: Acquired from New York Yankees
Bobby Kielty: Acquired from Toronto Blue Jays
Mark Kotsay: Acquired from San Diego Padres
Mark Redman: Acquired from Florida Marlins

IMPACT NEWCOMER: CF Mark Kotsay
When healthy, Mark Kotsay is an outstanding defensive centerfielder with a strong arm. He provides the A's with a solid all-around hitter and baserunner who could lead off in 2004. His versatility will allow him to be moved around in the lineup without losing much production.

BIGGEST LOSS: CL Keith Foulke
Foulke was the best closer in the AL last season. When the game was close in the late innings, he gave the A's alot of confidence knowing that he would hold the lead in the 9th inning. It will be tough to replace his consistency, and the A's will try to do so by plugging in Arthur Rhodes, who's struggled in such a role throughout his career, as the team's new closer.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE:
Dan Johnson – In another organization Johnson might be ready for a 1B/DH job now, but with the A's and their abundance of players that can play 1B, he will begin the year at Triple-A. Johnson has a power bat and if a spot opens up, expect him to take advantage of it.

Justin Duchscherer – Duchscherer impressed in limited time with the A's in 2003 as a starter. He has a chance to make the team as a middle-reliever but if he begins the year in Triple-A, expect him to get the first chance to fill a rotation spot should one become available.

POSITION BATTLES THIS SPRING:
Left field: Bobby Kielty and Eric Byrnes
With Dye and Kotsay set to play center and right, Kielty and Byrnes are left to battle it out for the left field spot. There isn't a clear favorite at this point, so spring training will likely decide the situation.

First base and Designated hitter: Erubiel Durazo, Scott Hatteberg, Eric Karros, Graham Koonce.
The A's have four players for two spots. Karros will likely only play when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound and Hatteberg when a right-hander is on the hill. Durazo should get every opportunity to be the full-time DH. Koonce, a rookie who tore up the Pacific Coast League in 2003, might not get a chance even though he may be the best of the bunch and could split the 1B/DH duties with Johnson at Sacramento.

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THE TEAM:

1. Can rookie phenom Bobby Crosby fill the shoes of Miguel Tejada?
Crosby is an outstanding hitter who combines a good eye with good pop. He is a solid defender but needs to avoid nagging injuries. He won't make A's fans forget Miguel Tejada; not yet anyway.

2. Can the offense score enough runs to support the pitching staff?
The A's believe that their offense is no worse than last year. The losses of Tejada and Hernandez were countered by the acquisition of Kotsay, the promotion of Crosby, and the improving health of Dye. But that leads us to our next question…

3. Can Jermaine Dye rebound and stay healthy enough to be productive?
Dye will enter the season as healthy as he can be but that hasn't stopped him from finding a way to get hurt before. A separated shoulder, among other injuries, caused him to miss the majority of 2003.

4. Can Arthur Rhodes replace Keith Foulke as the team's closer?
In short stints as a closer in the past, Rhodes has not done well. This will be his first chance to enter the season as the closer so that could help him adjust to the role. If he falters the A's bullpen will struggle.

5. Can Rich Harden step up and make it "The Big 4"?
Harden was impressive but inconsistent in his time with the A's in 2003. With his stuff, Harden has "ace" written all over him but with the A's Ace-laden staff, he's a No. 4 starter. The rotation becomes even more impressive if and when he approaches his full potential. It's unlikely that he will provide top-of-the-rotation stuff this season. There have been rumblings of Harden becoming the team's closer if Rhodes can't handle it.


Texas Rangers
2003 record: 71-91
Spring training home: Surprise, Arizona



OFF-SEASON MOVES:
Players lost:
Alex Rodriguez: Traded to New York Yankees
Mike Lamb: Traded to New York Yankees
Rafael Palmiero: Signed with Baltimore
Juan Gonzalez: Signed with Kansas City
John Thompson: Signed with Atlanta
Ismael Valdes: Signed with San Diego

Players acquired:
Brian Jordan: Free agent signing
Jeff Nelson: Free agent signing
Kenny Rogers: Free agent signing
Eric Young: Free agent signing
Brad Fullmer: Free agent signing
David Delucchi: Free agent signing
Alfonso Soriano: Acquired from New York Yankees

IMPACT NEWCOMER: 2B Alfonso Soriano
Despite recently admitting that he's 28-years-old, instead of 26 as it was believed before, Soriano is still one of the brightest young stars in the game today. Blessed with Hank Aaron-like wrists and a quick bat, this free-swinger will numb the offensive loss of A-Rod to some effect, and will combine with Michael Young to solidify the Rangers' middle-infield for years to come. One of the two will shift from second base to shortstop, a decision yet to be made.

BIGGEST LOSS: SS Alex Rodriguez
Any time you lose a league MVP, it'd be hard to imagine there being any bigger loss for an organization. Rodriguez is the most well-rounded athlete in the major leaguers today, providing gold glove defense to go along with his mind-boggling offensive production year in and year out. But in order to move forward and build towards something, the Rangers had no other choice but to trade the future hall-of-famer.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE:
Juan Dominguez – Nobody shot up the charts in the Rangers' minor league system faster than Dominguez, who went 10-3 at three stops in the minors in 2003. He went 4-1 at Single-A Stockton, 5-1 at Double-A Frisco and finished 1-1 at Triple-A Oklahoma in three starts. With a lack of depth in the rotation, don't be surprised if Dominguez continues his jump in 2004, this time all the way to the majors.

Ben Kozlowski – Only 23 years old and left-handed, Kozlowski could be depended on to log innings in the starting rotation for the Rangers in 2004 after an injury-filled 2003. He went 3-2 in 10 starts at Double-A Frisco in 2003, but his stats don't tell the whole story. At 6-foot-6, he deals a low-90s fastball and compliments it well with one of the system's best changeups. Watch for Kozlowski in a Rangers uniform in 2004.

Adrian Gonzalez – Traded to Texas in the Ugueth Urbina trade of 2003, Gonzalez is a former No. 1 pick of the MLB amateur draft (2000) and has a huge upside. He stopped at three minor league destinations in 2003, doing well in Double-A but struggling one step above at the Triple-A level. With Mark Teixeira and Brad Fullmer ahead of him at 1B and DH, look for Gonzalez to get some more seasoning in the minors before making the jump to the bigs. Texas could also decide to use Gonzalez as trade-bait to fill a spot in the starting rotation.

Gerard Laird – At 24 years of age, Laird will be given a shot to take over as the team's every-day catcher in Spring Training. He batted .273 in 44 at-bats with the Rangers last year, and hit .260 in Triple-A with 9 HR, 42 RBI and showed unusual speed for a catcher with five triples and Nine steals.

POSITION BATTLES THIS SPRING:

Catcher: Einar Diaz, Gerard Laird
Diaz returns to the club after seeing steady time behind the plate in 2003. While solid defensively, though, the Rangers would like to see more offensive production behind the plate and that could come in the form of Laird. This battle likely won't be decided until the end of March.

Back of the bullpen: Ricardo Rodriguez, Ron Mahay, Ryan Drese, Rosman Garcia, Mickey Callaway
The club signed Jeff Nelson to shore up one bullpen spot, Jay Powell is a veteran set-up man, and Francisco Cordero has the closer spot all but locked up. All of the other roles have yet to be determined and Manager Buck Showalter will have a tough task on his hands figuring this out.

Entire starting rotation: Kenny Rogers, Chan Ho Park, Colby Lewis, R.A. Dickey, Ben Kozlowski, Joquin Benoit, minor leaguers
This is an absolute crap-shoot. If healthy, Rogers and Park are the odds-on favorites, but those aren't even guarantees. The team hopes the competition of Spring can bring out a clear-cut top five to go forward with in April.

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS SURROUNDING THE TEAM:

1. Can the offense make up for the losses of Rodriguez, Palmeiro and Gonzalez?
Getting Alfonso Soriano in the Rodriguez deal will help, but it won't single-handedly make up for the loss of production. The Rangers will have to bank on big seasons from youngsters in Hank Blaylock and Mark Tiexiera, and hope the free agents signings of OF Brian Jordan, 1B/DH Brad Fullmer and utility man Eric Young pay off. Soriano's 40-steal capabilities provides the Rangers with the speed they have lacked for years and allow for a slightly different style of offense if Showalter chooses to experiment some.

2. Can Kenny Rogers be counted on as the team's ace?
Rogers is a workhorse, but at age 39 his best years are behind him. He went 13-8 with a 4.57 ERA in 31 starts with Minnesota last season, and isn't the kind of sure-win pitcher the Rangers need at the top of their rotation. He would serve better as a back of the rotation starter, but the team's lack of depth pushes him into the top spot. The answer to this burning question is clearly a resounding no.

3. Will Francisco Cordero turn into a top-notch closer?
One of the team's best pitchers, Cordero flourished in 2003 with 15 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 73 appearances. The departure of Urbina left him as the Rangers' first option as the team's closer, and he appears well suited for the role. The question in 2004 will be how many times will he be in a save situation. Probably not many, but it's Cordero's role for the duration.

4. Will Hank Blaylock and Mark Teixeira continue to blossom into a potential 1-2 punch?
No team in baseball has a better duo of young stars at both corners of the infield than the Rangers. Blaylock, a hard-swinging lefty at the plate, pounded 29 HR and produced 90 RBI in 2003 while only striking out 97 times in 567 at bats. He's just 23. Teixeira, who will turn 24 shortly after Opening Day, put up similar stats with 26 HR and 84 RBI in 529 AB. There's no reason to believe these two won't be mashers for years to come.

5. Can the pitching staff hold opponents to under 10 runs a game?
Ten runs? Yes. Eight? Now that might be pushing it. The Rangers will put out one of the youngest, least experienced pitching staffs this side of Detroit and Milwaukee in 2004. Expect it to be a learning experience for the large group of newbies, and a painful one for veterans like Jeff Nelson and Kenny Rogers. Chan Ho Park's healthy return would hand the Rangers a 200 innings starter but his effctiveness is still a large question yet to be answered in his three seasons as a Ranger.

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