AL PREVIEW: AL West full of changes
AP Baseball Writer
Everybody knows it’s status quo in the AL East: Yankees and Red Sox, with the Rays hoping they can reprise their run from two years ago. The Central also features the regular figures – Detroit, Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox – fighting for the division.
It’s the AL West that has a whole new look.
The West is hands down the most changed division in baseball with all kinds of switcheroos for 2010. Seattle reloaded and is trying to contend for its first playoff berth since Ichiro Suzuki’s sensational rookie season of 2001, when the Mariners won an AL-record 116 games.
Texas plans to be right in the mix, too.
“I think that the AL West is going to beat up on itself,” Rangers team president Nolan Ryan said.
Speedster Chone Figgins left the three-time champion Los Angeles Angels for Seattle. Slugger Vladimir Guerrero departed the Angels for Texas. The Oakland Athletics took a big risk and signed $10 million ace Ben Sheets after he didn’t pitch last year, plus they added Coco Crisp in center field. The A’s also have two-time All-Star Justin Duchscherer, who didn’t pitch in ’09.
World Series MVP Hideki Matsui has brought a Japanese following, and the large media contingent that comes with it, to the Angels. Teammate Torii Hunter calls Matsui “one of the quietest clutch hitters in the game.”
“The West always has been the division nobody pays attention to because they are in the West,” said White Sox infielder Omar Vizquel, who played last season for Texas and began his career in Seattle 21 years ago. “But I think this year they are going to have a little bit more hype because of all the changes that have been happening. It’s going to be fun to see different teams like Texas and the Angels with new players. But I think it’s still going to be the same: The Angels are still the team beat.”
“We all know about the Angels. They have the crown and we have to take it,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
In the Central, the Twins have lots to celebrate before opening day even arrives. They just locked up star catcher Joe Mauer on a $184 million, eight-year contract, perfect timing as the team christens its new open-air ballpark.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was thrilled to see Mauer stay put in the Central with the Twins and not join the mighty Yankees or Red Sox.
“We cannot afford that. For us and Toronto and Baltimore, we really appreciate that,” he said.
New York won 103 games last season on the way to its first World Series title since 2000 – and the wild-card Red Sox had the AL’s third-most victories at 95, behind the Angels’ 97.
The big-spending Yankees would like nothing more than to repeat.
“We know that it’s probably the best division in baseball,” said ace CC Sabathia, beginning his second season in the Bronx. “We’ve got our work cut out for us but we’ve got the guys in here that can get the job done.”
The Angels feel the same way and hope they can get back to the World Series after winning it all as a wild-card team in 2002. They did lose ace John Lackey, who’s now with the Red Sox.
By now, Angels manager Mike Scioscia is accustomed to being the target everybody’s chasing. So he’s not surprised by the moves of the other AL West organizations.
“You assume everybody’s going to play hard and try to beat you, whoever you’re playing,” he said. “I don’t look at it as anything but teams trying to improve to get to their ultimate goal, just as we have. Our focus has always been in-house and will continue to be in-house, whether we’re playing the 1927 Yankees or we’re playing the 1962 Mets.”
The Angels don’t ever expect it to be easy. They should get quite a push from the Mariners and Rangers.
“All the upgrades with Seattle taking Chone Figgins away from me, we’ve got Milton Bradley over there, we’ve got Griffey, we’ve got Ichiro, they look really good,” Hunter said. “That’s something we can’t focus on. Texas, they always have a pretty good team. At the same time, we won the division last year. Don’t forget that. We still hold the crown and we still play the game the right way. The way Scioscia teaches us the game, it puts us in a great position to win. We’re still the team to beat. But I do see the upgrades. I’m not stupid.”
Mariners fans will have to wait to get their first look at new ace Cliff Lee in a Seattle uniform. Not only has he been nursing several nagging injuries – such as a strained abdominal muscle – and recovering from foot surgery that could land him on the disabled list to start the year, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner has been suspended for the first five games. He was penalized for throwing over the head of Arizona’s Chris Snyder in a spring training game.
No matter who it is, contender or not, a fast start in April is always the hope.
“2009 is over and everyone is chasing everyone else,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said.
A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:
New York Yankees
Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, Mariano Rivera, Nick Swisher – the heart of this defending champion team is still intact, even if Matsui is now out West with the Angels and Johnny Damon is in Detroit.
The Yankees have kept their payroll around the same, too – in the $200 million range – and added the speedy Curtis Granderson to the mix.
Boston Red Sox
After earning the wild card last season, the Red Sox had a disappointing division series in which they were swept by the Angels.
Yet Boston reloaded and added one of the most coveted pitchers on the market in the right-hander Lackey, who spent his first eight major league seasons at the front of the Angels’ rotation.
A couple of other big names are also in Beantown: third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Mike Cameron.
Manager Terry Francona and the Boston brass are hoping for better production from slugger David Ortiz, who hit just .238 with 28 home runs in ’09 – Big Papi’s lowest batting average since 2001.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are determined to get back to the playoffs after missing last season, a year after their improbable World Series run.
Tampa Bay acquired right-hander Rafael Soriano to be its closer, and that could go a long way to bolstering the bullpen – one of Maddon’s main goals during the winter.
Toronto Blue Jays
This is a rebuilding year for the Blue Jays and everyone is curious how they will do without former ace Roy Halladay. He went to the Phillies following December’s big four-team, nine-player swap that also sent Lee to Seattle.
Toronto also will miss Marco Scutaro in the infield. On to Boston, Scutaro had a career year in which he hit .282 with 12 homers, 100 runs, 162 hits, 35 doubles and 90 walks in 144 games.
Trembley believes his younger players now have more experience and the club has made some key acquisitions to help boost the starting rotation – namely Kevin Millwood – bullpen and offense.
Miguel Tejada is back with Baltimore, this time at third base instead of shortstop. The 2002 AL MVP with Oakland left the Athletics for Baltimore in 2004 and spent four seasons with the Orioles before playing the past two in Houston.
While this is a fresh start for Tejada, Baltimore must get more from Garrett Atkins than he produced in a subpar season last year for Colorado. Atkins batted .226 with nine home runs and 48 RBIs.
It’s been a spring of highs and lows for Minnesota. The Twins were devastated to learn All-Star closer Joe Nathan needs reconstructive elbow surgery that will cost him the entire season. Manager Ron Gardenhire will look to other options, but it won’t be easy to fill the shoes of the reliable Nathan with the game on the line in the ninth inning.
Nathan, who leads the major leagues with 246 saves since 2004, hopes to be ready for the start of 2011.
Gardenhire was expected to turn over ninth-inning duties to Jon Rauch, whose 26 saves are the second most on the team behind Nathan.
Minnesota is counting on Mauer and Co. to keep the Twins on top as they move into Target Field and leave the old Metrodome behind.
Chicago White Sox
Perhaps the biggest question for the White Sox is where will they get their power after losing Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome? Expect skipper Ozzie Guillen to regularly give his guys the green light to push games with speed and hit-and-runs.
“That’s going to be something to watch,” Vizquel said.
The Tigers need another big year from Justin Verlander, who led the majors in strikeouts last season with 269 and went 19-9. Same goes for new closer Jose Valverde. Manager Jim Leyland will be thrilled if flame-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya returns to the dominant form he showed in 2006, the team’s AL championship season.
Detroit will test two youngsters in big roles, starting second baseman Scott Sizemore and outfielder Austin Jackson – and neither has major league experience. Jackson has shown he’s an offensive threat with a strong spring. Cleveland Indians
First-year skipper Manny Acta moves to the AL after being fired as manager of the Washington Nationals.
The Indians were relatively quiet during the offseason. Contending is probably going to be tough for a club moving forward without Lee, Victor Martinez, Mark DeRosa, and Carl Pavano to name just a few of the departed.
Both starting pitcher Jake Westbrook and center fielder Grady Sizemore hope to come back strong from elbow surgeries. Westbrook hasn’t pitched for the Indians since May 2008, having had Tommy John surgery in June of that year.
Sizemore, a two-time Gold Glove winner and three-time All-Star, had offseason surgery on his elbow and abdomen.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals led the Central early last season thanks to strong starting pitching and a reliable bullpen. Back to lead the way is 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, but the rotation is thin behind him.
The team hopes starter Gil Meche will be at full strength despite a stiff right shoulder. He was limited during spring training.
In the fourth year of a five-year, $55 million contract, Meche made only 23 starts and threw 129 innings in 2009 because of shoulder and back problems.
Kansas City couldn’t sustain its strong ’09 start and wound up in the Central’s cellar again, with 10 fewer wins than the previous season at 65-97.
Beloved slugger Ken Griffey Jr. is back for a 22nd major league season and his second since rejoining his first major league club. The Mariners are counting on his production at designated hitter even if he is now 40 and not the same guy he was in leading the team to the playoffs in a magical ’95 run.
Second-year skipper Don Wakamatsu will count on Griffey to mentor volatile outfielder Milton Bradley.
The Mariners also have questions about a pair of key pitchers, Lee and Erik Bedard, who is recovering from August shoulder surgery.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels have the pieces – despite a handful of new faces – in place to win their fourth straight division crown and sixth in seven years.
Aside from Matsui, Los Angeles added Joel Pineiro – a 15-game winner last season for St. Louis – to their rotation after losing Lackey.
Perhaps the biggest thing the Rangers will have to deal with in April is any fallout or potential distraction in the wake of fourth-year manager Washington’s admission he failed a drug test last season after using cocaine.
While everybody in the Texas organization would like to move forward from this, fact is it’s probably going to come up nearly every time Washington visits a new city.
On the field, right-hander Rich Harden hopes to put his injury woes in the past and finally be a reliable No. 1 starter in his first year with the Rangers.
Texas went 87-75 for second place in the West and it’s unclear if the Rangers have the talent to dethrone Los Angeles.
The A’s know they will have to start well to stay in the division mix – none of this coming-from-behind stuff they were often known for earlier in the decade.
Look for Oakland to take more chances on the basepaths with lightning-quick Rajai Davis and Crisp at the top of the order.
The A’s lost their final seven games of 2009 and finished with 75 wins for the second straight season and last place in the division.
Like Sheets, Duchscherer is ready for a fresh start after missing all of last season following elbow surgery and a bout with clinical depression.
AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins and Howie Rumberg contributed to this story.