Angels' reign threatened in West

The American League West has rarely been competitive, but it has long been democratic.

Since its formation in 1994, the West has given every team a say, passing around division dominance as if the teams had a power-sharing agreement. From 1994 to 1999, the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers traded the top spot back and forth, alternating division titles season by season.

The rise of "Moneyball" brought the Oakland A's to power for the next four seasons, their short reign interrupted only by that out-of-the-blue 116-win Mariners team in 2001. The A's actually had their best team that year, but they had to settle for the wild card after winning 102 games.

From then until now, the Los Angeles Angels have planted themselves atop the standings like a boulder, winning five of the past six division titles and the last three. Given the division's history of turnover, it seems like one of those moments to ask: Is the Angels' run over?

It's a computer age and the data crunchers seem to think so.

Baseball Prospectus ran its PECOTA projections for 2010 and predicted the Angels would go 78-84 and finish last. ESPN The Magazine ran the data 100 times and the Angels' average number of wins was 76, putting them in -- you guessed it -- last place.

That last slight caused a member of the Angels' front office to text-message me, saying, "The simulator is broken. Hard to believe."

The Angels like their team, believe it or not, even after losing leadoff man Chone Figgins, ace John Lackey and franchise icon Vladimir Guerrero (all to AL rivals). They have the division's most balanced rotation, its most experienced lineup and, arguably, the best manager in the game.

The computers don't take into account how much better Ervin Santana's elbow feels or whether Scot Shields can bounce back from knee surgery. If both those things hold, the Angels have a chance to outperform the models.

They also realize that September no longer will be a coronation month.

Here are the Angels' primary threats in 2010, from one observer's perspective:

Texas Rangers

Remember, the Rangers were the only division team with a winning record (11-8) against the Angels last year.

Remove the final two series, when the Rangers appeared to have given up, and the picture was even more ominous: The Angels lost nine of their first 12 games to the young upstarts in 2009.
For the first time in recent memory (ever?), the Rangers go into a season with some confidence in their starting rotation. They also have one of the game's best farm systems -- with major-league caliber talent a phone call away -- while the Angels seem thin in the high minor leagues. Texas seems better suited to the long, grinding march of a major league season. They are younger and have better reinforcements.

Many of the Angels coaches have known Ron Washington since their days together in the Los Angeles Dodgers' minor leagues. None of them were happy when news broke that Washington had used cocaine and failed a drug test last season earlier this spring.

However, there is the possibility that Washington's situation could hang like a dark cloud over the Rangers' season. There's no way to stop people from asking questions about it, and it could erode some of the fans' support. Also, slugging second baseman Ian Kinsler is going to open the season on the disabled list, while the Angels have remained relatively healthy this spring.

Seattle Mariners

The biggest boost to the Angels' division hopes might have come with the news out of Peoria that the Mariners' ace lefty, Cliff Lee, will open the season on the disabled list and probably be out until May.

Seattle has gone all-in with pitching and defense, practically neglecting its offense. Seattle finished last in the league in runs and batting average and 12th in home runs, then they let their most powerful hitter, Russell Branyan, sign with the Cleveland Indians. Only one returning player, Jose Lopez, hit as many as 20 home runs last year.

There's no question this team can throw and catch the ball. They've probably found a good formula for playing well at cavernous Safeco Field. Lee and Felix Hernandez are the best one-two combination in baseball. Shortstop Jack Wilson and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez are among the best defenders in the league.

But it's still the American League and it's hard to see this team winning many games when it has to play in the small stadiums of the AL East and Central, let alone the National League. The Mariners might win the most division games in the West, but that will guarantee them nothing.

Oakland A's

General manager Billy Beane surprised some people when he added veterans Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera, Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra to an otherwise young team heading into 2009. The attempt to compete while rebuilding was a disaster, with the A's offense actually improving after Holliday, Giambi and Cabrera were sent packing.

If Seattle was punchless, the A's were inert. They hit just 135 home runs, dead last in the AL.
Beane's strategy in 2010 seems more sound: He is building around a young pitching staff. He signed Ben Sheets to a one-year, $10 million contract hoping he would take the pressure off promising young pitchers like Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson.

The only problem is Sheets hasn't exactly looked sound. He has an 11.20 spring ERA and it could take him a little while to return to 2008 form. He missed all of last season recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.

You have to keep an eye on the A's, but they appear to be a year away from serious contention.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.