A’s prepared to get monkey off their backs

Mar 25, 2003 2:01 AM

One thing is clear. Anaheim won’t sneak up on anyone this year.

The defending world champion Angels were a breath of fresh air with their aggressive, unselfish play and uncanny ability to rally behind a monkey in fable, and some pretty fair players in fact.

Still there are skeptics who will say last year was a fluke and that both Oakland and Seattle have better personnel. Even Texas, for all its pitching woes, should be considered a threat with A-Rod, Juan Gonzalez and ageless Rafael Palmeiro in the middle of the lineup.

Eric Chavez may become Oakland’s franchise player now that the A’s and Miguel Tejada can’t agree to terms on a contract extention.

So who wins the West? We think the A’s, but it will be quite a gunfight.

OAKLAND (+2610): The A’s have come close to a pennant the past couple of years, so perhaps this is the season. They possess baseball’s top three young starting pitchers in lefties Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, along with righty Tim Hudson.

Losing streaks greater than three games are a virtual impossibility, which explains why the A’s were an excellent investment for $100 bettors last year.

Erubiel Durazo, a powerhouse of a man whose immense homer production has been hampered by numerous injuries, was acquired from Arizona to support a lineup behind Tejada, Chavez and Jermaine Dye. If Durazo and Dye stay healthy, the A’s will have more than enough wallop to give the Big Three each a shot at 20 wins.

Keith Foulke is the new closer and Ken Macha replaces Art Howe as manager. The A’s have handled free agency losses (Jason Giambi to the Yanks) so the Tejada situation shouldn’t be a problem unless the first two months go poorly. The A’s must improve on a —190 mark vs. left-handers, compared to +2800 against righties. Any major slips and the A’s could wind up with an F in this division.

ANAHEIM (+3455): Few remember that last year’s storybook season for the defending World Champions began with a 6-14 start. Things improved, particularly in the bullpen where righties John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez were outstanding in the playoffs.

After winning 99 games, the Angels basically stood pat. Outfielder Eric Owens came over from Florida to replace Orlando Palmeiro in what basically is a wash. The Angels also added lefty Rich Rodriguez, whose forte is short late-inning relief stints against left-handed batters.

The starting rotation could be shaky, particularly with Kevin Appier. The right-hander did manage 14 wins, but was often bailed out by the big Anaheim bats. The Angels will also be watching for a return to form of Aaron Sele, sidelined much of last year after having shoulder surgery.

Bettors loved Anaheim, which won 43 games coming from behind. There is no easy out in the lineup and Troy Glaus is one of the premier young sluggers in baseball.

The problem is making sure the ride continues, which will be difficult in this division. Nonetheless 99 wins is possible, along with a return to the playoffs.

SEATTLE (—1605): The Mariners dropped from 116 victories in 2001 to 93 last year. Now that may not seem bad, but bettors lost over $1,600 for the year per $100 wager. Not good.

Seattle picked up steady Randy Winn to play leftfield and protect Ichiro, whose stats fell off a bit from a fabulous 2001. Both Ichiro and ageless Edgar Martinez were batting over .400 this spring.

Freddy Garcia needs to step up and be the No. 1 man in the rotation as he is fully capable of doing. Kaz Sasaki is a solid closer, but the M’s are getting old and they don’t have Lou Piniella to throw bases around anymore.

Seattle was just 38-36 in the second half last year and that won’t fly in this division. Third baseman Jeff Cirillo must bounce back from a poor 2002 when he hit just .249. Cirillo is a career .304 hitter.

The M’s still have enough talent to make a pennant run, but this could be it.

TEXAS (—935): Somebody needs to tell the Rangers brass that acquiring all that thunder in the lineup isn’t worth a darn if you can’t pitch.

Still the Rangers are scary led by Alex Rodriguez, coming off a 57-homer, 142 RBI season. Add a healthy Gonzalez and Carl Everett between A-Rod and Palmeiro and runs will come in bunches.

Outfielder Kevin Mench and 3B Hank Blalock have a world of potential, but we still wonder where the pitching is. The whole year could come down to Chan Ho Park and his health. Park is a legitimate ace and could be a Cy Young candidate But, after Park, nobody won 10 games.

Without stellar catcher Ivan Rodriguez, handling this questionable staff could be an overwhelming task. It will be interesting to see how oddsmakers rate Texas early.