AL West SWOT
The Los Angeles Angels ran away with the AL West in 2008 but are they far-and-away the best team again coming into this season? Hard to say. Losing Mark Teixeira, or at least failing to replace him with another top-notch offensive producer, may not be as tolerable as some might think. Despite winning 100 games, the Angels were just an 88-victory Pythag team. Perhaps recognizing a newly vulnerable division rival, the A's seem to be making moves to gear up for a division challenge.
Let's have a look at how things are shaking down in the division as of mid-December.
Los Angeles Angels
Strengths: Of all the catchers in Major League Baseball who notched at least 250 plate appearances in 2008, Mike Napoli led the majors with an OPS+ of 147. I am not sure he qualifies as "flying under the radar" at this point given his .250/.400/.750 ALDS against the Red Sox, but Mike Scioscia has a nice lever at his disposal in that he can make up for a lot of lost production simply by getting Napoli into the lineup more often.
Weaknesses: Age and health in the outfield and at DH may pose problems for the Angels. Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Matthews, Jr and Torii Hunter all seem to be on the decline. This might be ok if there were a clear candidate in the infield to step up and carry more of the water. Minus Teixeira, it's hard to see who that could be.
Opportunities: Getting a full, healthy season from each of John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver should position the Angels to improve upon their 2008 starting pitching output, even if some drop-off from Joe Saunders can be expected.
Threats: The biggest threat to the Angels this off-season is that they fail to replenish the offense. Manny Ramirez could fit and they would love to bring back Teixeira. Short of one of these two, they would be wise to check out the middle market. Someone like Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell would help, too.
Strengths: Thanks to the hitter friendly confines of their home ballpark, the Texas Rangers almost always seem to be among the league leaders in runs scored. This has earned them the reputation as a good hitting team and a bad pitching one, a logical (if lazy) enough conclusion. Well in 2008, it really held true. The Rangers offense was their finest in recent memory, better even than the Pudge/Juan-Gone glory days offenses. Their team OPS+ of 115 comfortably led the American League.
Weaknesses: One would be hard pressed to overstate how awful their pitching was. Their starters had an ERA of 5.51 while their relievers only fared slightly better, at 5.15. Their team ERA of 5.26 on the road should dispel any notion that the staff was decent, but hampered by their home ballpark. No, they were just awful.
Opportunities: With depth at catcher, the Rangers have the potential to add some young arms. They have already dealt Gerald Laird for high-strikeout prospect Gullermo Moscoso. What would the Red Sox give up for Taylor Teagarden or Jarod Saltalamacchia?
Threats: Milton Bradley posted a .321/.436/.521 line in 2008 and was the biggest reason the Rangers offense was as potent as it was. He is a free agent but even if they bring him back, it is hard to see how Bradley would match that output in 2009.
Strengths: The A's biggest strength, and the reason they were able to pry away Matt Holliday, is their bullpen. Combined in 2008, Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler allowed 10 earned runs in over 105 innings of work. Anything that comes close to approximating that sort of performance for Oakland will once again position them to have a terrific bullpen, even without Huston Street.
Weaknesses: Oakland's offense was just terrible in 2008. Just one regular, Jack Cust, managed to slug over .400 for Oakland last season. Holliday will help, but he will need support from guys like Eric Chavez, Travis Buck and Daric Barton if the offense is to perform at a level that allows them to contend.
Threats: Have Billy Beane's wheeling and dealing ways caught up with him? Having stockpiled the farm system last year after trading away guys like Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and Rich Harden, this season it looks like Beane would like to take aim at the Angels and complement his youngsters with more established talent. It works in the abstract, but when guys on the open market don't want to join your team, the strategy can be a problem.
Weaknesses: This team is just so bad. Their one good hitter from 2008, Raul Ibanez, is now a Phillie. Not that they should have signed Ibanez but when your one truly productive hitter from an already bad offense takes off, the next season can look daunting. The Mariners will need step-up seasons from Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre, and Kenji Johjima. All are capable of better seasons than what they posted in 2008.
Opportunities: Wladimir Balentien has a history of Minor League productivity, so I think the Mariners can feel comfortable that he will be better than he was in 2008. Of non-catchers with more than 250 plate appearances, only Andy Marte posted a worse OPS+ in the American League. Another easy opportunity for the M's to improve would be for Erik Bedard to turn in a healthy season. Jeff Clement and a full season of Brandon Morrow in the rotation (if he is indeed given that shot) could provide additional upside. Clement and Morrow were Seattle's first-round picks in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Threats: Seattle had fewer wins than any other Mariners team in a non-strike shortened season since 1978. I would say that there is not much threatening a team that has nowhere to go but up.