Power Shift Coming in AL West?

The Angels have dominated the AL West for most of the past decade, but free-agent losses in Anaheim and open checkbooks in Seattle and Texas may mean tougher times for Mike Scioscia’s guys this coming season.

The Angels can still field a dangerous offensive team and stellar defensive crew, despite the losses of Chone Figgins and Vladimir Guerrero. Maicer Izturis won’t miss a step defensively at third, but he is not the top of the lineup catalyst the team has had for so long in Figgins. With a history of yearly injuries limiting the playing time of Howie Kendricks, Erick Aybar, Figgins, and Isturis himself, not having an Isturis as a fill-in for all three positions will be a major detriment to the team. Perennial prospect Brandon Wood may finally see some playing time in that role, but can he do the job defensively? Guerrero suffered through an injury-plagued 2009 and replacement Hideki Matsui who also limped through a poor early 2009 contributed significantly to the scumstripes’ stretch run and was, somehow, World Series MVP.

It is on the mound where the Angels 2010 fortunes will be decided. Since he was brought up form the minors in July, 2002 and led the Angels to the World Championship, John Lackey has been the warhorse and ace that the Angels have relied on to anchor their starting staff. They now have to make due without him. Jared Weaver will have to step into the “Ace” role, and Joe Saunders and a hopefully healthy Scott Kazmir will form a formidable top three. A return to form for Earvin Santana could take care of one of the other starting spots, but there is no answer on the current roster to adequately fill the final spot. Trouble will we brewing if May comes around and the fifth starter comes from among Sean O’Sullivan, Bobby Mosebach and Anthony Ortega, who appear to be in line for the spot. A far better choice, from pitchers currently on the roster, would be Matt Palmer.

Questions also abound in the bullpen, where the hot and cold Brian Fuentes is still the stopper, and the very questionable Fernando Rodney has been signed to keep him on his toes while filling the set-up spot, though a healthy Scott Shields should be able to re-take that spot.

More troubling than foreseeable Angel deficiencies is the improvement made in Seattle and Texas.

Throughout his AL tenure, Guerrero has done more offensively against the Rangers than any player has against any other team in baseball. He loves to hit in Arlington, and if he stays healthy, he should have a monster season. Texas’ young starters were very impressive the last half of 2009, and their young staff anchored by 17-game winner Scott Feldman figures to continue to improve. Former Angel spot lefty Darren Oliver returns to Texas and will be a big addition to their pen.

The question mark that they will also rely on is Rich Harden. More on that later.

Seattle traded for Cliff Lee and now boasts probably the top one-two starting punch in the AL in Lee and Félix Hernández. They’ve added Figgins and another former Angel in Casey Kotchman for the infield corners, and will get a full season from one of the most underrated players in the game, shortstop Jack Wilson. They’ve also added Milton Bradley to the outfield. More on that later.

Both these teams should be vastly improved, but is what they did enough, and were all of the acquisitions wise ones? Enough – no. Wise – no. The Angels still feature significantly more talent across their roster than either Seattle or Texas, and with Mike Scioscia calling the shots have a built in advantage. But the real reason the Angels will repeat as AL West champs is this. A year ago, all the experts said the Chicago Cubs were the team to beat in the National League. I said – and you can look it up in my pre-season picks from last year – that “No team that relies on Milton Bradley or Rich Harden will ever win anything.” This proved correct last year, and will be true again this year. Seattle cannot win a division title if they have to rely on Bradley, nor can Texas relying on Harden.

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