Last year was a definite downer for the AL West (40 fewer wins than Sea 11), with Boise the only team at .500. San Diego regressed a little after a 3-year improvement, San Fran (now Tucson) stumbled badly and Portland launched an all-out rebuilding program. How does the the division look for this year?
Boise: The Posse had excellent power production (3rd in HR's) last year, but lacked the table-setters (12th in OBP, 1st in strikeouts) to capitalize (8th in runs scored). 2B Mariano Pulido and LF Robinson Bird had career years; some falloff likely there. With no new blood other than 2B Rob Stein, it's hard to see how the Posse will match last year's production. Not that it's an offensive subject, but Boise hasn't addressed the defensively offensive 70 errors at SS last season.
San Diego: The Surf Babies finished 14th in runs scored last year, and even though that's somewhat a function of Petco, they need an offense infusion to improve from 70 wins. They traded for CF Alex Calvo after losing Vic Pascual to FA; Calvo OPS'd .784 last year, so he should be an adequate replacement on offense. They also signed C Abdul Gload (lifetime .296 BA) and 3B Luis Piedra (.335/34/114 for Hartford last year), who should be significant upgrades. They join RF Ray Henley (.265/31/112) as the primary run producers. I'm predicting a move up to 10th for the Babies.
Tucson: Nowhere to go but up as the Sidewinders could only push across 672 runs (16th) last year. The good news is that new management has come up with probably the most-revised offense in Belle, starting with the ballpark. AT&T was a flyball-killer; Tucson Electric is a hitter-friendly bandbox, a plus for both power hitters like C Brad Anderson and contact guys like RF Jeff Ennis. New faces include headline FA signing Alan Leach (307 career HR's), LF Alex Paniagua (trade), and rookies Leonardo Hardy (2B), Ray Krause (RF/DH) and ROY candidate Carlos Escuela (3B).
I don't know how many more runs they'll score, but it'll be entertaining. In that park, I'm saying 880 runs and a 5th-place offense.
Portland: Will probably struggle again (15th last season) as the rebuilding continues. C William Katou remains one of the top receivers in the league, and could very well become a big trade deadline chip. The league still awaits a monster breakout year by 1B Brant Cooney. Even with the ballpark working against him, I have a feeling this is the year. Frank Suzuki makes his ML debut this season (although his position is unclear) and could be another AL West ROY contender. Look for a mild improvement.
Boise: The Posse fell from 4th to 9th in team ERA last year (and still won 4 more games). FA brought in LR Jimmie Navarro and said goodbye to a handful of anonymous (and relatively ineffective) LR's (replaced by cheaper ones, at least). The starters come back intact, lead by Milton Starr (10-11, 3.96), and need to step it up a notch. Crash Carter slipped last year as the primary setup man, and need to return to his rookie form. P.T. Navarro hasn't lived up to his vast potential yet; I'm betting he enters the ranks of elite closers this year. The division will be improved this year; the Posse will have to bolster the staff to stay in the race.
San Diego: The Surf Babies improved slightly to 7th last season. Their quartet of Ordaz, Padilla, Speier and Thomas was one of the best late-inning groups in the league last year. The starters are a collection of #3's who could really suck or be pretty good - with the improved offense they might be good enough. Another team that will likely look to add starting pitching if they find themselves in the race.
Tucson: got their ERA under 5 last year (4.87 - 11th), so that's at least some improvement. They lost Carlos Vizquel (32 starts, 4.62 ERA) to free agency and added 3 LR's, most notably Daryle McCartney (1.93 in 65 IP for Charleston). The big problem here is the thing that will pump up their offense (the park) is also going to pump up the pitching numbers - guys who were OK in SF could be awful in Tucson. Still, there's some young talent: Rudy Merrit (12-10, 3.51) had a nice rookie year, and Theodore Fox and Al Taylor have the stuff to put up decent numbers. Tough one to predict, but you have to think their pitching is going to slide a little.
Portland: with the departure of 4/5ths of their starting staff to free agency (most notably Frank Huff's $90MM deal with Burlington), the Bar & Grillers elected to start rebuilding form the ground up. And their 16th-place ERA showed it. It will keep showing it this year, too, as the staff is mostly minor-leaguers and waiver wire guys, none of whom (except possibly Nick Rando) will be around when this team starts to make a move. My prediction that they finish 16th in ERA again is the only one I would bet anything on.
1. Boise is probably a better pick, but I see San Diego squeaking by them to win the division.
2. The Posse comes in 2nd, but misses a wildcard.
3. Tucson improves by 10-12 games to get within hailing distance of the division leaders.
4. Portland's offense will be better - they'll win a few more but are in full-on rebuild mode.
5. This is the year William Katou moves to a contender; he's 31 and two seasons from free agency - he'll never be worth more than he is now.
6. Rookies Frank Suzuki (POR) and Carlos Escuela (TUC) have big seasons in the chase for AL ROY. I say Escuela wins it.