The Status of the AL West

The Seattle Mariners began the 2004 season coming off four straight seasons of 93 or more victories, including two division championships, two appearances in the league championship series and, furthermore, four consecutive finishes in either first or second place in the American League West.

After nearly 650 games of looking down on the rest of the division, the M's have spent the past two seasons gazing up at the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and even the Texas Rangers.

To get back to the postseason the club has to find a way to make up ground within the division. And to do so, G.M. Bill Bavasi and his team of talent evaluators have to decipher what exactly the organization is up against and how much ground there is to make up.

So, how good is the division?

Taking a look at the three teams in the west, the numbers say the division isn't that great, and it probably shouldn't take much to leap a club or two in a single bound. But, there are other factors that come into play, such as the farm systems for each club.

The Texas Rangers were worse than mediocre in 2005, after a solid start that had Buck Showalter's crew in first place in early May.

The Rangers are still far too dependent on offense, as they slugged 260 home runs to lead the league, and plated 865 runs to rank third in the AL. But the pitching was, yet again, another story.

Though Rangers' hurlers are burdened with the disadvantage of throwing half their pitches in the warm air of West Texas and the hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington, the club isn't getting enough from its pitching staff and finished the year with the league's third worst team ERA at 4.96.

Texas relied on veteran southpaw Kenny Rogers to lead the staff, and though the 42-year-old had a solid year on the hill, is unlikely to return in 2006, leaving the Rangers, and new G.M. Jon Daniels, as many as three starters short of a full rotation.

To compete in '06, Texas must add veteran help to a rotation that will likely consist of right-hander Chris Young and Kameron Loe, two inexperienced arms with solid upsides.

Aside from signing a free agent pitcher or two, the Rangers could use the trade route to fill holes, including the possibility of using second baseman Alfonso Soriano as the bait.

Soriano is third-year arbitration eligible, and after another strong year at the dish, Soriano could land as much as $10 million. The New York Mets may still have interest, and could be willing to include Aaron Heilman as part of a package to land the offense they desire. Texas could slide Heilman into their rotation immediately. Juan Dominguez, 25, could get a look in either a starting role or in the bullpen.

The Rangers should be fine in the bullpen with Francisco Cordero closing games and Frank Francisco, Joaquin Benoit and C.J. Wilson setting up.

Texas has several arbitration eligibles to attend to besides Soriano, including catcher Rod Barajas, outfielder Gary Matthews and left fielder Kevin Mench, all of which will receive significant raises this winter. The Rangers could decide to part with Barajas by way of trade, with a healthy Gerard Laird waiting in the wings.

Former G.M. John Hart searched for a long-term answer in center field for three years and GMMM could continue the quest this offseason. Mike Cameron, Torri Hunter and Corey Patterson are all possibilities, but Texas is desperate for pitching and may exhaust all resources in attempt to fix the problems on the mound.

The Oakland A's had another successful season in 2005, surprisingly to some after GM Billy Beane traded away two-thirds of the "Big Three" last winter. But Beane and his scouting department have always been able to do one thing better than anyone else in baseball: Evaluate pitching.

More specifically, Beane knows exactly when to trade for a pitcher and when to trade one away. Acquiring the younger, cheaper Dan Haren in the trade with St. Louis for left-hander Mark Mulder baffled many, but Beane also received right-handed reliever Kiko Calero and top first base prospect Daric Barton in the deal.

Tim Hudson brought back right-hander Juan Cruz, outfielder Charles Thomas and southpaw Dan Meyer from the Atlanta Braves. After one season, the Braves have won out in this deal, with Hudson giving the Braves 200 solid innings and the trio sent to Oakland all having struggled through injury and slumps. But Meyer is a legit rotation candidate when healthy and Cruz is a quality relief arm.

With Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Haren and Meyer available to litter the starting five, Beane may choose to acquire the much-needed offensive help by trading the lone remaining gunmen, Barry Zito, who is entering the final year of his contract.

The A's have some wiggle room with payroll this winter, too, and could become active in the free agent market if the right outfield bat becomes a possibility. Beane is also the king of the three-way deal when an existing contract is an obstacle.

The holes in Oakland aren't as gaping as they may seem on the surface, with Dan Johnson entrenched at first base and a healthy middle infield of Mark Ellis and Bobby Crosby. Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay will hold down two spots in the outfield. The designated hitter spot and a corner outfielder are necessary to fill out the offense with Erubiel Durazo out on the free agent market and unlikely to return after undergoing elbow surgery this past summer.

The bullpen could be among the A's biggest strength's with AL Rookie of the Year favorite Huston Street anchoring a deep relief corps. Cruz, right-hander Justin Duchscherer and Calero provide depth behind a young but capable rotation. Left-hander Ricardo Rincon is a free agent, and if he doesn't return, Beane will likely acquire one in the deal for Zito. Right-hander Jairo Garcia could forge his way into a setup role after a strong season in the minors and reaching 100 mph with his four-seamer.

Whichever route the A's take this winter, you can bet it'll be interesting, to say the least.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are a team at the crossroads. After winning their second straight division title, the club is getting older and has some free agent decisions to make this winter.

Catcher Bengie Molina will hit the open market in November and the Halos may let him walk because of prospect Jeff Mathis. Mathis returned to form this past season and projects as an aboove average defender with a plus bat.

Left-hander Jarrod Washburn is also free to sign elsewhere, and with the market for pitching as rich as a Diet Shasta Light, the Angels are likely to rely on youngsters Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver to fill the gaps at the end of the rotation.

Right-hander Paul Byrd may be enticed to return, and the entire bullpen will be back, though Scot Shields, Francisco Rodriguez and Brendan Donnelly are all due raises via their arbitration status.

Garret Anderson's run production has dipped, as has Darin Erstad's, but there is help on the way for the league-average Halos offense. Dallas McPherson should be 100 percent healthy by spring training and Casey Kotchman is ready for full-time duty.

GM Bill Stoneman and manager Mike Scosia may slide Erstad back to center field, start Kotchman at his natural first base spot, use utility star Chone Figgins at second base everyday, and trade Adam Kennedy, who has one year left on his contract.

McPherson will likely start the year as the third baseman, but could be moved to the outfield or the DH role, if his glove or injuries become a concern.

The health of Bartolo Colon is critical and may dictate which direction the Angels head this winter, but Kelvim Escobar will return to the starting rotation, joining a healthy Colon, rookie Ervin Santana and fellow right-hander John Lackey, setting up the makings of a solid, if unspectacular rotation for the division champs.

Stoneman may choose to make a bold move or two and deal one of his regulars, such as Garret Anderson, or one of the many offensive prospects in the system, perhaps McPherson, to land a veteran third baseman or a starting pitcher.

Anaheim's farm system is loaded with bats, from Mathis to second baseman Howie Kendrick to shortstop/third baseman Brandon Wood, the game's top power prospect. This depth could render McPherson expendable for the right return.

Though Art Moreno isn't likely to hand out any premium contracts this winter, there is money to be spent, if Stoneman's player fits the bill.

To compete in 2006, it's no secret that the Mariners will have to fix several areas, beginning with the starting rotation. Throwing big dollars at the top arms is probably going to occur, but the M's appear willing to take on an existing contract as well, in order to land starting pitching help.

Finding another power arm to team with Felix Hernandez is imperative, and figuring out Joel Pineiro could put the club's rotation among the better groups in the league.

Free agent Jamie Moyer will likely return at a slight discount, holding up the fourth spot in the rotation and providing a young team with veteran leadership.

Seattle is probably going to have to be creative in landing the left-handed outfield bat they have been seeking for three years. The market is dry, except for Padres outfielder Brian Giles and Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui.

Giles is unlikely to switch leagues at this point in his career and the San Diego native is already negotiating a deal with the Padres front office. At 35, his prime is behind him, but he still gets on base and can drive in runs with the double and the occasional long ball.

Matsui is a surefire re-signee in New York, leaving the M's to choose between Jacque Jones and the trade method. Rumors of Ken Griffey will run rampant, and rumors of Milwaukee's Geoff Jenkins, Washington's Brad Wilkerson and Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu are already spreading like wildfire.

GM Bill Bavasi has work to do, and the other three clubs in the division aren't going to help him out by getting a whole lot worse in 2006. If the Mariners expect to run with the Angels and Athletics next summer, Seattle is going to have to be the talk of baseball this offseason.

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