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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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March 18, 2008 7:03 AM

M's no longer AL West underdogs

Posted by Geoff Baker

Thanks to Larry Stone for filling in on this blog yesterday. Don't have any limericks for you, but I'm sure we'll have plenty to discuss after this post.

Never thought I'd be saying this in March. Not the way the season ended last September. And certainly not the way the Mariners looked to me a year ago at this time. But as things currently stand, I am picking Seattle to win the AL West. I know that's going to set quite a few of you off, which seems a little odd to me considering most of you are fans of the team. But no matter.

Miguel Batista, quoted in a preview story about the M's in today's editions of USA Today, says he liked the idea that nobody is favoring Seattle in the AL West. Wants the M's to be able to sneak up on folks. Those quotes were taken last week, I believe, before the Angels were rocked by an injury to John Lackey. As of today, I believe that changes the division landscape. Batista wants his team to be the darkhorse. But I don't believe that's the case any longer.

Some of you know that after the Erik Bedard trade, I still had the M's pegged to finish second in the division behind the Los Angeles Angels. But at the time, I believed that the gap between the teams was close enough that a couple of breaks here or there could tilt the scales.

Well, the season hasn't even begun and the M's have already had those couple of breaks. The kind that would not only tilt scales, but send them toppling to the floor. The Angels, as I've just mentioned and colleague Stone wrote about in Monday's paper, have lost their 1-2 punch in the starting rotation for at least the first six weeks of the season. And believe me, the injuries to Lackey and Kelvim Escobar trump any issue the M's are currently dealing with.

Worried about the need for another big power bat? Those are easier to pick-up, mid-season or early season, than two potential ace starters. Remember, the M's will also be starting the year, most likely, with Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien at Class AAA. You can always call either of those two up if there are no immediate power solutions on the horizon.

Felling a little edgy about the bullpen, what with Sean Green's spring struggles, Brandon Morrow's tired arm and the uncertainty over whether Eric O'Flaherty can fill George Sherrill's shoes? Fair enough. But I've liked most of what I've seen out of Arthur Rhodes this spring and feel that he, and Mark Lowe, could be ready to return and help this bullpen out with another month or so of rounding their elbows back into shape. Again, the bullpen may not be as steady as last year's. But I'd rather be looking for a seventh or eighth-inning reliever than two ace pitchers.

Sure, Jose Lopez might not be the real deal. But he was a black hole to this offense a year ago and it finished with slightly above average production. How much worse can it possibly get?

Many of you were worried about Raul Ibanez over the winter. The way he's squaring up on the ball this spring -- compared to the injury-hampered cuts he was taking a year ago -- I feel those concerns were overblown. And I've yet to see his defense cost the team anything. I've seen the infield defense cost a bunch of runs. That has to improve. But that's why they have spring training.

I hear all of your concerns. But the bottom line is, the Angels have their share of concerns as well. They just lost the equivalent of Bedard and Felix Hernandez. If that had occurred in Seattle, many M's fans would be bailing on the season before the first pitch was even thrown.

I thought the Angels could have done a better job of upgrading themselves this winter. Not landing Miguel Cabrera left open a window of vulnerability for that team. My biggest offensive concern for the Angels, if I was a fan of that team, would be the impact of losing shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Let's not forget, for much of last season's first half, it was Cabrera, not Vlad Guerrero, acting as an offensive sparkplug. Yes, Reggie Willits did his part by getting on-base. But Cabrera was the one knocking him in. Cabrera was the guy making it on to plenty of first-half MVP lists. Torri Hunter will supply some pop for the Angels, but a lot of that will be offset by Cabrera's departure. I'm not very bullish on the Los Angeles offense.

Second and most obvious when it comes to concerns is when Lackey and Escobar will return to top form. Sure, they could be back in the rotation by mid-May. But when will they become effective again? I can envision a bunch of five-inning outings. That carries into June and giving away a third of a season like that is a huge hole to allow your division rivals to crawl through.

It's possible that Lackey and Escobar may take all season to hit the stride they found last year. But even if they do regain their form come June, it will be interesting to see the impact that has on the Angels' bullpen. Remember, that was a relief corps already showing cracks in the second half of last season, perhaps from overuse, given the number of pitching injuries that team had to deal with early.

Those injuries from 2007 were nothing compared to what the Angels will experience the first two months of this year. As tough as the first half got for the Angels in 2007, with injuries to Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver, they still had the 1-2 Lackey-Escobar punch. Not anymore.

Will the Oakland A's trade Joe Blanton to the Angels? I can't see why. Why on Earth would Billy Beane want to add any more starting depth to an Angels squad that arguably has the best starting five in the division when healthy? Especially since the A's do plan on contending against the Angels in the near future? Oakland doesn't have much of an offense to speak of. This division has been won time and time again through pitching. Why give even more pitching to the Angels if you're the A's? Makes no sense. Not even Billy Beane, accused of having one of the game's bigger egos at times, would be bold enough to tempt fate like that.

And if Blanton isn't LA bound, then the logical conclusion is that the M's are now the division favorites. At least in my book. I've thought, since the Bedard trade saga began, that Seattle had narrowed the six-game gap between them and the Angels from last year's standings. The Angels outgained their Pythagorean record as well, let's not forget, and owned the M's to a 14-5 tune in head-to-head matchups. That's a disparity unlikely to continue. Especially with Lackey and Escobar due to miss at least the first two series between these clubs.

Not everyone will agree with this, of course. Some folks are even on-record stating that computer-simluated seasons show the A's may actually win the AL West. We'll see. I don't agree with that one. Doubt the A's see it that way, either. We'll know soon enough. Other local sites recognize the M's may have just gained the biggest break any team will catch this season. As I said, in a division where starting pitching has often been the decisive factor, the M's now have the finest. For at least a third of the season. Argue it any way you want, but there's no getting around that one. Bullpen isn't too bad either. Perhaps not as strong as the Angels' now have, but we'll see how the Lackey-Escobar injuries impact that.

And so, here we are. At this stage, picking the Mariners to win the AL West, as crazy as that may have sounded to me a year ago, today makes very good sense. And I am going to pick them. The moves they made this off-season, acquiring Bedard and Carlos Silva, set them up to pounce on any advantage or break that fell their way. They just got two of astronomical proportions. Now, as we've been saying all winter, the games will be played. And when they are done, I do expect the Mariners to come out on top.


p.s. I apologize for all of the technical problems being experienced on the site. I have been told we are in the midst of a systems rebuild that will take a while longer to complete. Thanks for hanging in there and bearing with us as we try to get our system in order. Hopefully, the folks in charge will figure it all out quickly.

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