AL West is Hot Stove’s hottest division

The Yankees have the trophy, the best lineup anywhere, the most

expensive rotation and, oh, Curtis Granderson, too.

 

They might be farther away from The Other 29 than when Mark

Teixeira squeezed the season’s final out. At the risk of crowning a

champion after the winter meetings — loved those ’08 Tigers

— the Yankees will be favored to repeat unless Brian Cashman

settles on a left-field platoon of Luis Polonia and Randy Velarde.

But now that Granderson is a Yankee — and Andy Pettitte a

Yankee once more — I wonder whether it’s time for fans to

find a new object of affection/ire/attention for the remainder of

the offseason.

So, I’m devoting this space to my latest fascination: The

American League West.

I would challenge you to find a more captivating division during

the ’09-’10 Hot Stove season. Three AL West teams — the

Angels, Rangers and Mariners — finished the season with 85

wins or more. That hadn’t happened in the division since 2004. And

the A’s were competitive, going 43-39 during July, August and

September.

Collectively, the division had winning records against the AL

East and AL Central. That says something about its overall

strength.

As for 2010, I expect the Angels, Rangers and Mariners to each

arrive at spring training with a realistic chance to win the

division. Accordingly, the clubs are engaging in a form of hardball

brinksmanship we thought was only possible along the Eastern

seaboard.

The Mariners swiped All-Star Chone Figgins from the Angels with

a four-year, $36 million contract. And they might not be done yet.

Seattle officials haven’t ruled themselves out of the bidding for

Angels ace John Lackey.

Not to be outdone, Angels owner Arte Moreno said last month that

he intended to pursue free agent Jason Bay, a resident of the

Seattle area. (More recently, general manager Tony Reagins and

manager Mike Scioscia have said Bay is not a priority. Still, there

is no indication that the Angels have pulled out.)

Seattle offered a one-year, incentive-laden contract to

free-agent starter Rich Harden, a British Columbia native who had

interest in pitching close to home. But the Rangers made a more

compelling pitch — one year at $7.5 million, with an option

for 2011 — and Harden signed with them.

There have been other cases, too. The Angels and Mariners were

bidding for Granderson before the Tigers sent him to New York. All

three teams are looking for a situational left-hander, so all three

teams are interested in veteran Darren Oliver. Of course, Oliver

has spent the past three seasons with the Angels.

In one sense, the next move should belong to Reagins. Other than

re-signing Bobby Abreu, the Angels haven’t made any meaningful

moves this offseason. But they deserve the benefit of the doubt

after winning five of the past six division titles and fiercely

challenging the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

The Angels are again pursuing a trade for Toronto ace Roy

Halladay, and their farm system is rich enough for them to complete

a deal. They are reportedly willing to include Erick Aybar, their

everyday shortstop, in the offer.

That could be risky. With the departure of Figgins, the Angels

may be breaking in a prospect, Brandon Wood, at third base. And if

they must part with Aybar in order to acquire Halladay, the top

internal candidate to start at shortstop would be Maicer Izturis.

He is less proven defensively and has a weaker throwing arm than

Aybar.

It would be easiest for the Angels to meet Lackey’s asking price

and not worry about surrendering any talent via trade.

The Mariners, meanwhile, are almost certain to add one or two

starters before the off-season is over. Halladay is possible, but a

free agent is more likely. In addition to Lackey, they have checked

on Ben Sheets, Doug Davis, Jarrod Washburn and Jason Marquis.

So, the Mariners are going to improve their rotation. The only

question is whether they merely get better or get better at the

Angels’ expense, as they did with Figgins.

But let’s not forget about the Rangers. Their general manager,

Jon Daniels, is doing some of the best work in his four-plus years

on the job, at a time when the franchise’s forthcoming sale could

jeopardize the job security of team executives.

Daniels has too much integrity to make moves designed to save

his job rather than improve the team. But his performance at the

winter meetings showed he has a firm grasp of how to shape a roster

and maximize (limited) financial resources.

He traded Kevin Millwood and effectively disbursed the

right-hander’s $12 million salary to three new players: Harden,

reliever Chris Ray and veteran hitter/leader Mike Lowell, who will

officially join the team once a review of medical records is

complete.

The still-young A’s will have a difficult time contending at a

time when their rivals are adding muscle in anticipation of a

truculent 2010 season. But Oakland could be a playoff team in 2011,

thanks to a talented young rotation that’s improving by the

start.

By then, the AL West should be the clear pick as the best

top-to-bottom division in the majors. And if you pay close

attention to what’s going on this winter, you may conclude that it

already is.