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AL West: Baseball’s Best Division?

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Because of the way that the Yankees and Red Sox dominante all coverage of baseball, and because of the perception of the “East Coast” bias in sports, particularly in baseball, the idea of divisional dominance tends to be limited to two specific discussions.

  1. The American League over the National League
  2. The AL East above all

The last two years, those have been particularly relevant to reality.  The National League has really struggled to produce any sort of conference dominance, despite winning the 2008 World Series, and since the Tampa Bay Rays have managed to join the elite teams in baseball from the same division as the Yanks and Sauxs, the AL East has been the primarily dominant division in baseball.

This year, another competitive division rises to meet the challenge posed by the AL East.  It’s not going to spell the end of the American League’s dominance over the National League, but this division should help to take some of the attention off the AL East and work to dispel the East Coast Bias.

I’m talking about the AL West.  You knew that because you read the title.

When talking about the strength of the AL East, oftentimes the weakness of teams at the bottom of that division can get lost in the discussion of powerhouses at the top of that division.  The biggest difference there would have to be the potential, predictable decline of the Toronto Blue Jays.  They’re without Roy Halladay, without Alexis Rios, and without Marco Scutaro this year.  With only minor improvement expected from the Orioles, and the reasonable prediction of decline for the Rays after two years, I suspect that the weakness at the bottom of this division will get lost in the shuffle of another Yankees-Red Sox pennant race.

Team-for-team, there’s no weakness in the AL West.  They’re strong at the top, where the Angels remain the favorite despite numerous losses, but only a hair ahead of the hard-charging Mariners, who had one of the more interesting offseasons in recent memory, adding a whole slew of talented baseball players including Cliff Lee, Milton Bradley, Chone Figgins, and re-signed star pitcher Felix Hernandez to a long term deal, and also extended defensive minded 2009 acquisitions Jack Wilson and Franklin Gutierrez.  It’s a division that could easily go to either of those two teams, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to see the A’s at the top of the division either.

The A’s could be right there behind the strength of an outfield that’s strong and deep, as long as their infielders can stay healthy.  The A’s are less reliant on the street free agent type veterans that they have been in past years, such as Jason Giambi, Adam Kennedy, and Nomar Garciaparra.  They’re still reliant on a very young pitching staff, but between a cavernous home ballpark and the aforementioned athletes in that spacey outfield, the A’s are well hedged against this inexperience thanks to the $10 million they gave Ben Sheets.  Really, the key for this team is getting more productivity out of Mark Ellis than they did last year when he was injured and ineffective.

Then there’s the Rangers, who are coming off their best season since the A-Rod days.  A team that had won half their games or more only once since 1999 managed to hold onto second place in this division, and they’ve made a committment to improve their pitching, which was reinforced by the $7.5 million contract they gave to Rich Harden, which appears to be a steal when you consider that Sheets got $10 million from the A’s.  The kicker is that both are major injury concerns, and if one can pitch much more than the other, than the extra money the A’s spent might be worth it.

Texas could always slug the crap out of the baseball though, which makes them an average team even if their hopes for their rotation do not materialize.  This is essentially the difference between the AL West and the other strong divisions.  If we accept that the Rangers are the 4th place team in this division, there’s no real weakness here from top to bottom.

The biggest question I have is how we can adjust for the fact that the AL West has only four teams.  On some level, it feels fundamentally incorrect to just declare this the strongest divison, team to team, and then not mention that each team in this division has to play more inter-divisional games than every other team in baseball.  It’s true.  Each team plays 18 games against every other team in it’s division.  For AL West teams, that’s (18 x 3 = 54).  For, say NL central teams, that’s (18 x 5 = 90).  For every other division, it’s in the middle of that at 72.

Still, there’s been a huge influx of talent into this division, and with the exception of John Lackey who is now with Boston, talent that left teams here never left the division.  Chone Figgins is now with Seattle, for example.  Cliff Lee is stronger than Lackey.  And the Angels are so strong in the farm system that they can replace what they are losing with Figgins and Lackey, which is more talent at the big league level in this division.  Given these observations, the safe if controversial conclusion is that the AL West is baseball’s strongest division going into the 2010 MLB season.

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