Welcome to the wild, wild west of MLB

James LeBlanc

Back again by popular demand, I’m here to look into my crystal ball and let everyone know what is going to occur in the upcoming baseball season. Throughout the column I will do my best to remain completely objective and restrain myself from playing favorites, unlike certain NCAA basketball officials. Just kidding. Actually, I’m impressed he was even able to blow the whistle with his lips firmly attached to North Carolina’s rear end.

Well, now that I have that off my chest let’s get back to the business of baseball. This week I’ll be covering both the AL and NL western divisions, so let’s get started.

First up are the defending champs of the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The additions of Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew should help the Dodgers make up for the loss of last year’s home run champ, Adrian Beltre. Milton Bradley is back to play center field, and the team also returns first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, neither of whom had a great offensive season last year. The team also acquired pitcher Derek Lowe who came up big for the Red Sox in the playoffs last October and should benefit from coming to the National League. They also return a talented trio of starters in Jeff Weaver, Brad Penny and Odalis Perez. The Dodgers have a very capable bullpen anchored by Eric Gagne (whose last name means “to win” in French if your interested.) Expect the Dodgers to compete for the division again this season with a balance of solid pitching and hitting.

Now let’s look at the San Francisco Giants. They added outfielder Moises Alou, who was supposed to help protect Barry Bonds. There’s only one problem: Barry will miss at least half the season because of arthroscopic knee surgery (and because the media wore him down.) This offense struggled with him last year, and without him they will be that much worse. Edgardo Alfonso and J.T Snow are not the bats that they used to be, and Pedro Feliz is not coming along as expected. Jason Schmidt is back along with promising youngsters Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry. However, Schmidt is the only proven pitcher on the staff. Armando Benitez anchors the bullpen, but he may have trouble duplicating the career year he had last season. The bottom line is without Bonds, this is not a playoff-bound team.

Next on the chopping block are the San Diego Padres. This team is very similar to the one that almost made the playoffs a year ago. Dave Roberts joins the team as its new center fielder. He will provide them with some much-needed speed and will add to an already solid defense. Phenom Khalil Green is back along with the rest of the infield, as well as outfielders Ryan Klesko and Brian Giles. Giles has been one of the more consistent players of our generation, and if Klesko can rediscover his power stroke, this can be a big year for the Padres. Green is a very exciting player who seems to make a great play in the field every night and has a unique combination of speed and power at the plate. I am really looking forward to seeing how he builds on last season. Even with the departure of David Wells, this team has very solid pitching staff. Anchored by ace Jake Peavy and veteran Woody Williams, the Padres can expect a good pitching performance on most nights. Brian Lawrence is also capable of having a big year. The Padres boast one of the most consistent closers in the game in Trevor Hoffman. The NL West did not help itself in the off-season, and as a result, I feel that this is the Padres year to take the division and get back into the playoffs.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are putting a team on the field worse than last year’s even with the addition of Shawn Green. Green was once a great hitter, but those days are gone. The addition of Troy Glaus will help, but he is a question mark coming off the injury he suffered last season. Luis Gonzales will be back again, but I expect the slide in his numbers to continue. Pitching wise they weren’t great last year with Randy Johnson, and now he’s gone.

And as far as the Rockies go, expect the same thing as always. They will score a lot of runs but give up a lot more. The only reason to go see this team will be to watch Preston Wilson and Todd Helton do their thing in Coors Field. I don’t see anybody on their pitching staff that will be able to survive at such a high altitude. With that out of the way, let’s head over to the American League.

The Texas Rangers returned to Earth toward the end of last season and expect that trend to continue. They have many offensive threats in Alfonso Soriano, Michael Young, Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and the newly-acquired Richard Hidalgo, all of whom are capable of either batting .300, hitting 30 home runs, or in some cases both. But as Texas learned last season, offense is not the only thing that counts. For all Soriano’s many gifts, the ability to field the baseball is not one of them, and the same goes for pretty much the rest of the team. Pitching is another problem that the Rangers must overcome in the upcoming season. Their ace Kenny Rogers is anything but, and nobody else on the staff is coming off a good year. The Rangers have a very good closer anchored by Francisco Cordero but are in desperate need of starting pitching. The team failed to significantly bolster their pitching staff in the off-season and as a result will miss the playoffs again.

Seattle is coming off a very disappointing year and expect significant improvement on the horizon. The additions of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexon will more than make up for the retirement or Edgar Martinez. While Beltre may have trouble duplicating the season he had last year when he hit .334 with 48 homers, he should have a good year. Sexon, on the other hand, is a risk because he is coming off an injury-plagued season with the Diamondbacks, but he has proven himself to be consistent power hitter in the past. Ichiro is back as well, to get on base for these guys, and should score a lot of runs in the upcoming season. However, much like the Rangers, this team will be held back by a terrible pitching staff. The hourglass is running low on Jamie Moyer, and nobody else is that good either. The bullpen is solid with closer Eddie Guardado, but he can’t close many games if the starters don’t hold the lead. The Mariners will be better than last year, but not good enough.

Moneyball will strike again in Oakland this year. Despite dismantling the big three, the Athletics are still a very good team. Most of last season’s near playoff team is back for another go. Erik Byrnes will start in left field again and look to build on a breakthrough season he had last year. Eric Chavez is back at third base, and even though his numbers took a little dip last year, I expect big things from him this season. The team also signed backstop Jason Kendall who should help both the offense and the defense. Pitching wise I feel Oakland is sitting pretty even without the big three. I expect a big year from Rich Harden and a bounce back season from Barry Zito. Zito is far too good a pitcher to have another season like the one he had last year. They also have a lot of talent in Danny Haren and Dan Meyer, both of whom should start the year in the rotation. Bullpen wise there is no reason why Octavio Dotel shouldn’t become a great closer; the Athletics just have to hope that he figures that out. Expect the Athletics to compete all season long and maybe make a playoff run.

Finally, that brings us to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Wow, that name really rolls off the tongue.) While their name may be awful, the team is very good. This is a better team than the one that made the playoffs last year, despite going through a summer long slump. Vladimir Guerrero and Garrett Anderson are both great hitters, and Darren Erstad is no slouch. Orlando Cabrera and Steve Finley are the two newcomers and will help sure up the defense. They can both provide more than a little offense, too. The problem may come with pitching. The Angels hope that Bartolo Colon rediscovers his form of two years ago; if he doesn’t, they made need to fight for their playoff lives again. Francico Rodriguez will finally get to show his stuff as a closer. Some people have trouble making the jump from the eighth inning to the ninth inning, but Rodriguez has such nasty stuff that it shouldn’t be a problem.

Okay quick review: I have the Padres winning the NL West and the Angels taking it down in the AL West.

That’s that’s for this week; tune in again next week for more of me as I tackle the AL’s central and eastern divisions.