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Wednesday, July 24
 
Seattle still reigns out West

By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com

Last week I broke down the three-team NL West race, but the AL West battle between the Seattle Mariners, Anaheim Angels and the Oakland A's is equally as good.

When I evaluate the chances of each team in a divisional race, I lean toward the team that is most likely to get better. While the AL West is tough to call, the Mariners are the team to beat because they have the most room for improvement. At the same time, I don't see the Angels or the A's getting much better than they are now.

Here's how I see each of the three teams (ordered according to Wednesday's standings):

What about Davey?
Ozzie Smith revolutionized the shortstop position with his defense. He is the best defensive infielder I have ever seen. Ozzie is to shortstops what Bill Mazeroski is to second basemen, except Ozzie was a step above. Mazeroski never had Ozzie's range.

While I'm happy for Ozzie's Hall of Fame induction, I'm disappointed at the same time because his enshrinement hurts Dave Concepcion's chances. Until Ozzie came along, Concepcion was the best shortstop I had ever seen. But when you watched Ozzie play, everyone else took a backseat. No one could do the things Ozzie did defensively.

Ozzie's induction won't necessarily open the Hall's door for other great defensive players. There was only one Ozzie Smith, just like there was only one Mazeroski at second base and only one Brooks Robinson at third base. No one dominated their positions defensively like they did.

In fact, with today's emphasis on offense, you may never see another player reach Cooperstown strictly for his defense. Ozzie's chances would be hurt if he played today. Just like Ozzie's arrival moved Concepcion out of the picture, today's power-hitting shortstops would overshadow Ozzie. He would be viewed much like Omar Vizquel is. And if you were starting a team, would you take Alex Rodriguez or Vizquel? A-Rod.

Each player must be judged in the context of his time. In Ozzie's era, shortstop was a defensive position -- and there was no one better.
-- Joe Morgan

Mariners: Offensive upswing needed
At the beginning of the season, I thought the Mariners -- with the additions of Ruben Sierra and Jeff Cirillo -- would be better than last year's record-setting team. However, Cirillo, Bret Boone, Mike Cameron and Edgar Martinez have not produced up to their capabilities, and their pitching staff has not been as dominant as it was a year ago.

Defensively, though, Seattle is the best of the three teams. The Mariners' defense has compensated for the lack of some offensive production and is one of the reasons they are in first place. They have four Gold Glove-caliber players with Boone at second, Olerud at first, Cameron in center and Ichiro -- the game's most exciting player -- in right.

Ichiro, Sierra and John Olerud have carried the Mariners' offense, currently sixth in the AL in runs scored. If the Mariners continue to hit as they have until now, they will have trouble winning games the rest of the way.

Fortunately for Seattle, both Boone and Cameron are starting to get hot, and Martinez is back in the lineup after recovering from a ruptured tendon in his knee. Boone is hitting .375 in his last seven games, and Cameron is hitting .391 with three home runs and six RBI during the same stretch.

I had a long conversation with Cameron on Sunday, and he said his hitting problems were mostly mental; he was swinging for home runs. Now he is getting better swings and making the proper adjustments.

The Mariners need one more starting pitcher to complement Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro. And they could use another bat. But if the current Mariners hit the way they are capable of, their offense will thrive without a July 31 deal.

Angels: They won't go away
Going into last weekend's Seattle-Anaheim series, I thought the Mariners would win the series because they were playing better. Plus, Seattle had dominated the Angels in Anaheim, winning 12 straight games over the last two years.

But the Angels swept the Mariners. It's important to note how they beat Seattle. The Angels took away the Mariners' strength -- their bullpen. They came back from a deficit of three runs or more to beat Seattle in the late innings two straight days.

There is an air of excitement in Anaheim unlike any I have seen before. Southern California fans are generally more laid-back and conservative, not as rabid as East Coast fans. But I was pleasantly surprised how the Angels fans created a playoff-like atmopshere, giving the players an extra boost. And the Angels responded.

Since going 6-14 in their first 20 games, the Angels have made a tremendous turnaround. Mike Scioscia deserves a pat on the back for the way he has handled the team. He has been the right manager for the Angels, keeping them loose and getting them to play hard. They are playing sound defense and getting timely hitting in addition to superb pitching from Jarrod Washburn.

The offensive key has been Tim Salmon. He has bounced back from a poor 2001 season and added pop to the middle of the lineup. Plus, Salmon is the kind of hitter the Angels can rally around. While he has a tendency to get too tightly wound, he is now more relaxed, and it has rubbed off on the other players.

In addition to Salmon, Garret Anderson is still their best RBI man. Darin Erstad is a solid player who adds speed. Troy Glaus is the Angels' most powerful hitter. Although he has slumped much of the season, he has contributed to the cause, as he did with a three-run home run Saturday.

The Angels' offense can get even better if Glaus gets hot. But I wonder if their pitching can improve, especially their starting rotation. I'm not convinced that their pitching will hold up down the stretch. Although Washburn has won 12 straight decisions, he won't win 12 more in a row. He will lose a few games before the season is over.

It will be up to Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele, as the staff veterans, to pick up the slack. The pressure can't fall on a young pitcher like Ramon Ortiz. Either Appier or Sele, two pitchers who have been on winning teams in the past, must get on a roll in order for the Angels to win and stay in contention -- and both are capable.

At the deadline the Angels could use an additional starting pitcher -- another arm for a shot in the arm, so to speak -- and maybe another bat at first base. But I'm not sure the Angels will make any trades.

People had reason to believe the Angels would fade away, but I don't think they will. They proved they belong against Seattle, and they will be in the AL West race until the end.

A's: Starters must shine
The A's are always an enigma to me because of how the way they play the game. Offensively, they still play for the walk and the home run and have no team speed. Other than Barry Zito, even their pitchers are not the same as they were last year.

Intimidation is important in professional sports. While other teams still respect the A's, I don't think they are as afraid of them as they were last year. Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson have been less dominant. When they take the mound, other teams feel they can win.

And remember, Jason Giambi is no longer in Oakland. People can talk about how good the A's are this season, but without one of the game's best run producers, they are still one star player short of where they were last year. The A's have not been able to replace Giambi.

Miguel Tejada is an MVP candidate and the reason the A's are still in the race. He and John Mabry have been the steadiest offensive contributors. But Eric Chavez has been a microcosm of the A's offense -- inconsistent and streaky. He recently ended an 0-for-26 slump.

Manager Art Howe has done a great job keeping the team together and winning without Giambi, whose loss can't be underestimated. If Bonds were removed from the Giants' lineup, they wouldn't be in the pennant race. Howe and the A's deserve credit for staying within striking distance of Seattle.

The A's, though, have less room for improvement because they are so focused on walks and home runs. If other teams don't walk the A's, they will beat them; it's that simple. The only way for the A's to win the division is for Zito, Hudson, Mulder and Ted Lilly to dominate the opposition, although Lilly is now on the DL.

The three AL West contenders are so evenly matched. Each team's weaknesses will determine who wins the division, not their strengths. And for now, with the fewest weaknesses and much more to gain from key players offensively, the Mariners must be considered the division favorites.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is a baseball analyst for ESPN and contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.






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