And now on to the American League, starting with the West.
LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM : The question in the ‘burbs is are these Angels really fallen? Not only did last year mark the first year since 2006 the red-caps failed to make the post-season, it also ended a tidy six-year string of winning seasons.
The foundation of a strong team is still present , first and foremost starting with the starters. Jerrod Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana are as good as any front three in the AL; Haren is bound to improve upon his 3.91 ERA of last year (which was a full run lower after being traded over to the Angels) and Santana with 17 wins and 222 innings can compare favourably to any #3 guy in the American. Joel Piniero is OK, but Scott Kazmir is looking less and less likely to ever develop into the talent he was projected to be when he arrived on the scene what now seems like a lifetime ago. A 119:89 K to BB ratio since being traded from Tampa speaks volumes about his difficulties. Scott Downs greatly improves the bullpen, over the past four years he’s averaged 65 appearances per season and an ERA of 2.36, and unlike many lefties he’s about as effective against right-handers as lefties.
A healthy Kendry Morales should vastly improve the remarkably tepid .248 team average and 681 runs scored from last year – as long as he doesn’t celebrate too much. Vernon Wells, another import from Toronto (like Scott downs) is remarkably overpaid, but is still a fairly talented outfielder who will more than make up for the loss of Juan Rivera’s bat. Under less fan scrutiny , expect Wells to hit .280 or so and knock at least 25 dingers. Torii Hunter is one of the game’s under-rated hitting gems, however, the bats at C, 2B, SS and 3B are more chunks of gravel. The regulars who are expected to start these four key positions combined for just 21 homers and 149 RBI between them last year. With their speedsters getting older, the Angels will not play as much of a running game as they did in their recent successful years and all in all, the pitchers will have to be on top of their games to keep Mike Scioscia’s team in the game. 2011 Prediction: 81 wins, 2nd place.
OAKLAND: Last year’s trendy and annoying must-have accessory: a colourful vuvuzela. This year’s : a column predicting that the A’s are this year’s Giants, poised to win it all.
Granted, a little-known stat from last season, the Oakland starters not only led the league in ERA but did so with the best number in 20 years. Yet even that only just got them to the treading water mark of .500. And given that Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden average 25 years old and 65 career starts a piece, it might be a bit much to expect the trio to repeat their excellent 2010 with its collective 44 wins and 3.25 ERA. When Rich Harden’s name enters the discussion as a potential starter, you know it’s time to worry, bay Area fans. The bullpen is OK but not nearly as spiffy as fans still wearing Rickey Henderson jerseys would have us believe.
The Henderson mention is intentional; like the wild-running championship teams of two decades back, these A’s like to run. But the loss of Rajai Davis will cut into their 156 tally from last year. Kurt Suzuki, Mark Ellis and Kevin Kouzmanoff (due for a 30 homer season) all hit pretty well, Hideki Matsui still has some fire left in his bat, but an outfield of Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Coco Crisp is hardly going to strike fear into opponents… even if healthy , and all three missed significant chunks of time last season.
If SF won it all, against all odds last year, can lightning strike twice for Alcatraz-area fans? Well, seems to me thunderstorms are rare at the Golden Gate Bridge. Bet on “no”. 2011 Prediction: 77 wins, 3rd place.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the other two teams in the West.