Wednesday March 31st, 2010

This article appears in the April 5, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Mike Scioscia did not like the question. Sitting in his spring training office in Tempe, Ariz., a persistent buzz emanating from his minifridge, he thought about it -- Will the Angels have a harder time winning the AL West in 2010 than in recent years? -- before enunciating a response that showed his irritation: "If you're saying this division's tough all of a sudden, you're mistaken. It's tough every year." Scioscia, whose team has won five division titles in the last six seasons (four of them by six or more games), sounded like a man forever chafed by the fact that the eyes of the baseball world continually look to the East, to the exclusion of the AL West, which has produced only one World Series champion in the last 20 years (Scioscia's 2002 Angels) and plays most of its games after much of the country has turned in for the night.

And for the most part, Scioscia is correct. Take last season. The four AL West clubs combined for an out-of-division winning percentage of .548, best in the majors. (The mighty East's was .536.) Even the last-place A's were 52-53 against non-AL West teams. But asserting, as Scioscia does, that the Angels' dominance in their division hasn't come easily does not answer the question of whether continuing to reign will be even tougher. Perhaps it didn't need to be said.

While the Rangers, Mariners and A's all made personnel moves that strengthened their rosters, the Angels lost quality free agents in No. 1 starter John Lackey, speedy leadoff man Chone Figgins, feared slugger Vladimir Guerrero and reliable reliever Darren Oliver. Worse, three of those players were lured away by division rivals -- Figgins by the Mariners, and Guerrero and Oliver by the Rangers.

The balance within the division now makes it difficult to discern in which aspects of the game the current iteration of Angels have a clear advantage.

• They have long boasted the AL West's best frontline pitching, but the arrival of Cliff Lee in Seattle, Rich Harden in Texas and Ben Sheets in Oakland means each of those clubs has at least one starter who appears better than anyone in the Angels' rotation.

• They have long wreaked havoc on the base paths, but Figgins's defection to the Mariners; a Rangers lineup stacked with young speedsters, including Julio Borbon, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler; and the A's newfound love for the stolen base (133 last season, their most since 1992) mean that the Angels will likely be the slowest of the four teams.

• They have long excelled in the field, but a divisionwide focus on improving defensively -- led by Seattle G.M. Jack Zduriencik, who added Figgins and slick-fielding first baseman Casey Kotchman -- means L.A. could be the division's worst in that regard.

• They have long had one of the majors' best farm systems to call upon, but now the Rangers, Mariners and A's each have at least three prospects ranked among Baseball America's top 83 while the Angels have none.

"We all got a little pitching, we all can play a little defense, we all got a little speed," says Rangers manager Ron Washington, "but we all know that Anaheim is going to be there, and it's going to be a challenge from beginning to end." That sentiment is echoed in every other AL West clubhouse. "Anyone who wants to get to the playoffs has to go through Anaheim," says Zduriencik.

The three challengers realize that the Angels, always rational and never driven by panic into overspending, have let key free agents go in prior years -- Troy Glaus and David Eckstein in 2004; Darin Erstad and Adam Kennedy in '06; Mark Teixeira, Garret Anderson and Francisco Rodriguez in '08 -- without experiencing a significant drop-off. And they know L.A. has a rotation that even without a true No. 1 starter is arguably one of the majors' deepest. Plus, the Angels return a lineup with five regulars who hit more than 15 home runs last season. "People always say we're done." says center fielder Torii Hunter. "Doesn't bother us at all. Last time I checked, we still have the title."

The team's greatest strength, in fact, might be that they never approach any season as being different from any other. "I'm sensing the same thing that I've sensed in every spring training," says Scioscia. "That it's a tough division. That you have to be prepared to play good baseball. And that we have to focus on our own club." While it is difficult to imagine that Los Angeles can win the AL West by 10 games, as it did in 2009, it is not hard to envision the division race ending as it typically does -- with the Angels back on top.

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