While the world was watching the dogfight in the AL North, many missed the equally entertaining scuffle in the Wild West, where three teams finished within four games of each other for the division title. Arizona, a team that had actually gotten worse by 4 wins, managed to take the division title with an 82-80 record, and therein lies how the West was won: there simply isn't an abundance of legitimate competition. The BUTCHERS sought to change that this winter, however, with several moves designed to make them into a more legitimate playoff contender... at least for this year. If I asked you what Bob Wood, Ewell Thompson, Jonathan Pillette, Russell Saunders, and Bobby Ray Karnuth, all had in common, you'd probably respond that they'll all be eligible for AARP soon, and you'd be right. But this geriatric crew is also the bulk of this offseason's free agency haul for Arizona. Ok, so they only got Spring Training invitations (with the exception of Wood, who got a 1-year deal), but it does seem a bit alarming that the BUTCHERS will be relying on this crew to add wins to their record this season. Arizona did make a solid signing with 26-year old Jesse Guerrero, but it seems obvious that Arizona will seek to improve through their major promotions this year, namely 21-year old catcher Tony Olmeda and masher Antonio Mota (whose minor league success they hope will translate to the majors). They should improve upon their win total from last season, but even if they do win the division, the question is still whether this crew can win a playoff series once they make it there, and the prospect still doesn't look great this year.
In their last season in Sin City, this franchise was in first place for much of last year before falling behind and missing their first playoff berth in 6 years by one game after their pitching staff crumbled and dropped 7 of their last 10. Outraged, the owners fired the general manager and moved the team to Oakland, seeking a fresh start. New management took little time making changes, and the overhaul that this team has gone through over the past several months is quite evident. The new GM has said publicly that he has a plan for his pitching staff, and all those who don't fit that plan have been jettisoned; that includes 4-time All-Star Darryl Michaels, who Oakland may have felt has gotten old quickly. A couple dead-weight position players, like part-timer Bernard Dickson, were released as well. After that, the Raiders began to load up on new faces for the upcoming season. They made big waves in the free agent market, signing former All-Star Hugh Hudson to a bigtime deal, as well as relievers Domingo Calvo and Felix Vanguri. Re-signing Sammy Lee and Andrew Page helped them retain some dependable pitchers as well. Alfredo Kelly and Curt Dresden should also be solid additions on the offensive side that were nabbed up in free agency. But the Raiders' biggest move was a trade that proved highly controversial within the Oakland ranks (and had one coach nearly threatening to resign): a deal that sent young first baseman John Wolf to Syracuse in exchange for Daryle Moran and Chris Damon (a deal that looks like it could end up being a huge boost for Oakland, given their lack of depth at those positions last season). They also dealt catcher Tom Gonzales for more pitching help in rookie Danny Koch, but then strangely turned around and dealt two young pieces in Orber Torres and Felipe Rosario as well. Overall, Oakland seems to have made all the right moves this offseason to at least improve upon last year's record (and help stave off another end-of-the-season collapse). They, like Arizona, will likely improve this season, and fans and management alike are looking forward to the opportunity to win a division title in their first season in Oakland, but given that they've declined to make the big moves necessary to truly transform into a top team, their prospects for a playoff appearance still seem unclear.
Last season, the Honolulu Aloha managed a respectable but inadequate 78-84 wins as one of the more milquetoast teams in the league. This year, the team has attempted to undergo a transofmration of attitude, changing their name to the Warriors to signal a new era in Honolulu baseball. Unfortunately, a transformation of roster would have been more appropriate, as a few key moves would have easily nudged this team into playoff territory. Instead, Honolulu's biggest moves were departures, with several major leaguers from last year leaving for free agency, key among them being 2-time Silver Slugger Hack Rucker, former All-Star and Gold Glover Harry Flores, and former MVP and 4-time All-Star Lawrence Butler. Former Gold Glove 2B Glenn Mack, who barely played last season, also got the boot when he was released this winter. Following those moves, Honolulu brought in, presumably, the one man they felt could bring back all the offense lost by that flurry of departures... Emilio Johnson, a rookie catcher and former 4th-round pick who has been in the minors for 6 years. Let's just say this division might be a 2-horse race this year...
Fresno Grab Yo Socks
When Alex Guerrero and the new Fresno management got into their legendary tussle this winter that ended with Guerrero being released on the spot during his arbitration hearing, many fans thought that this would be just another year of woeful baseball from a suddenly woeful franchise. But of all the teams in the American League who have attempted to rebuild this offseason after a disastrous Season 10, Fresno has probably been the most successful. Mediocre players like Stuffy Lindsey, Russ Barker, John Moran, and John Becker were given their walking papers; not atrocious players, to be sure, but bad enough that the new Fresno ownership decided to replace them with players that actually gave them a chance to get to the next level. In all, Fresno signed eight free agents to help them, including 4-time All-Star slugger Bill Maurer, 3-time All-Star SS Donnie Wells, 2-time All-Star Jesus Roque, 2-time Silver Slugger Hack Rucker, decent SP Kevin Xaio, solid #5 starter Gordon Graves, high-OBP 1B Stewart Bryant, and patchwork long reliever Dorian Meyers. All of these free agents will serve a purpose on a team riddled with holes after last year's 67-95 fiasco. Ace Felix Wilson was also dealt away, but Fresno got stud relievers Chick Linden and Chili Mussina to make up for the loss. Fresno may not be the powerhouse that this team used to be when it was in St. Louis-- the pitching is simply not there-- but I will eat my hat if this franchise manages to lose 95 games again this year. And it won't.
One note about this prediction: while I am not bold enough to predict as much outright, I would not be at all shocked to see Fresno sneak into the #2 slot by the season's end as their fortunes rise with so many new faces on the roster. The top 3 teams in this division have made both good and bad moves, leaving me to wonder which ones will work out best for the respective teams involved. This is probably the most difficult division in the AL to predict, and possibly in all of baseball. One thing I will say, however, is that I am fairly confident in Honolulu's 4th place finish, as they failed to make a single improvement after overachieving mightily last year.