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AL West figures to be an arms race

AL West figures to be an arms race

Armed and dangerous. That's the new and potentially improved American League West, where all four clubs look locked and loaded with deep, young, talented rotations.

With the Angels bidding for a fourth consecutive division title, all three of their AL West rivals have made bold offseason moves involving starting pitching in an effort to make up ground.

Seattle acquired Cliff Lee from Philadelphia, pairing one of the Majors' premier lefties with right-hander Felix Hernandez in a duo that could be game's most dominant.

Texas shipped anchor Kevin Millwood to Baltimore and replaced him with Rich Harden's blazing heat to go with returning ace Scott Feldman, one of the finds of the 2009 season.

Not to be outdone, Oakland on Tuesday brought in a top-shelf starter, Ben Sheets, to provide veteran leadership for a youthful group of power arms.

Surrendering John Lackey to Boston's free-agent riches, the Angels didn't stand idly by. They filled out their rotation by signing Joel Pineiro, arguably the next-best right-hander in the marketplace, coming off a 15-12 season with the Cardinals.

"Our division has been the strongest in baseball since I've been here, so this is nothing new," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, noting that the AL West as a group finished 40 games above .500 in 2009. "It's always a competitive division with a lot of talent."

And this is an opportune time to strike, rival GMs must feel, judging by all the offseason maneuvering.

With the Angels parting company with one-fourth of their 2009 roster, including centerpieces Lackey, Vladimir Guerrero and Chone Figgins, the Mariners in particular have moved forward with a clear sense of urgency.

Seattle has former Angels Casey Kotchman and Chone Figgins manning the infield corners, bringing gloves of gold as well as educated bats to the lineup that features a pair of future Hall of Famers in Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr.

With Guerrero bringing respect to the heart of their lineup, the Rangers are stacked offensively. Harden, with his lights-out stuff, could lift the staff while Darren Oliver, another ex-Angel, solidifies the bullpen.

Seattle rallied late in 2009 to finish two games behind the runner-up Rangers, who stayed in the hunt until unraveling in September. Only the A's, at 75-87, were below .500, and they've added speed (Coco Crisp) in the outfield and solidified third base (Kevin Kouzmanoff) in addition to Sheets.

It remains to be seen if the Angels can compensate for the loss of Lackey, their big dog, but Pineiro, when healthy, is a high-end starter who pounds the strike zone and throws ground balls. He led the Majors last season in fewest walks per nine innings (1.1) and most grounders induced (64.1 percent).

Pineiro, at 31, has career numbers not far removed from those of Sheets, an acknowledged ace during his eight-year run with the Brewers. Pineiro is 87-79 with a 4.39 career ERA compared to Sheets' 86-83, 3.72.

Pineiro joins Jered Weaver (27), Joe Saunders (28), Ervin Santana (27) and Scott Kazmir (26) in a rotation that could be dealing together for several years under the watch of Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher.

AL WEST PROJECTED ROTATIONS
Angels 2009 Career
Jered Weaver 16-8, 3.75 51-27, 3.73
Joe Saunders 16-7, 4.60 48-22, 4.22
Joel Pineiro 15-12, 3.49 87-79, 4.39
Scott Kazmir 10-9, 4.89 57-46, 3.83
Ervin Santana 8-8, 5.03 59-45, 4.52
Rangers 2009 Career
Scott Feldman 17-8, 4.08 24-21, 4.58
Rich Harden 9-9, 4.09 50-29, 3.39
Derek Holland 8-13, 6.12 8-13, 6.12
Tommy Hunter 9-6, 4.10 9-8, 5.20
Brandon McCarthy 7-4, 4.62 20-24, 4.56
Mariners 2009 Career
Felix Hernandez 19-5, 2.49 54-41, 3.45
Cliff Lee 14-13, 3.22 90-52, 3.97
Ryan Rowland-Smith 5-4, 3.74 11-7, 3.62
Ian Snell 7-10, 4.84 38-48, 4.71
Doug Fister 3-4, 4.13 3-4, 4.13
Athletics 2009 Career
Ben Sheets Did not pitch 86-83, 3.72
Brett Anderson 11-11, 4.06 11-11, 4.06
Dallas Braden 8-9, 3.89 14-21, 4.68
Trevor Cahill 10-13, 4.63 10-13, 4.63
Justin Duchscherer Did not pitch 31-24, 3.14

"Our starting pitching has been our foundation since we've been here," said Scioscia, embarking on his 11th season at the wheel in Anaheim. "Every club looks to have five guys who will keep you in the game on a consistent basis, and that's what we think we have."

Among the 20 probable starters in the division, only Pineiro, Sheets (31), Lee (31) and Oakland's Justin Duchscherer (32) are on the other side of 30.

In terms of track records, the Angels' rotation has been the most productive of the four.

Pineiro, Weaver (51-27, 3.73), Saunders (48-22, 4.22), Santana (59-45, 4.52) and Kazmir (57-46, 3.83) have combined for 302 career victories. Average age: 27.8.

After Hernandez (58-41, 3.45) and Lee (90-52, 3.97), the Mariners have strong arms and question marks. Southpaw Ryan Rowland-Smith (11-7, 3.62) is slotted as the third starter, with righty Ian Snell (38-48, 4.71) in the fourth spot.

The fifth starter will emerge from a pack including right-hander Doug Fister (3-4, 4.13) and lefties Luke French (4-5, 5.21), Jason Vargas (9-14, 5.43) and Garrett Olson (13-18, 6.46).

If Olson, the most experienced of the group, claims the job, the Mariners will enter 2010 with a total of 210 wins from their rotation and an average age of 27.2.

In Texas, Harden (50-29, 3.39) and Feldman (24-21, 4.58) could approach the level of Hernandez and Lee -- if Harden can stay healthy. That's a big hurdle to clear, given that his 26 starts for the Cubs in '09 were his most since his career-best 31 for the A's in 2004.

Coming up behind Harden and Feldman are lefty Derek Holland (8-13, 6.12) and righty Tommy Hunter (9-8, 5.20). Right-hander Brandon McCarthy (20-24) and southpaw Matt Harrison (13-8, 5.76) figure to duel for the No. 5 spot.

This is the youngest unit in the division, averaging 25.4 years with McCarthy, 25 even with Harrison. Harden is the rotation elder at 28. The group has 111 wins with McCarthy, 103 with Harrison.

The A's are banking on Sheets and Duchscherer (31-24, 3.14) both to make comebacks after missing all of '09.

Oakland has no shortage of starting candidates. Righties Trevor Cahill (10-13, 4.63), Vin Mazzaro (4-9, 5.32) are joined by southpaws Brett Anderson (11-11, 4.06), Dallas Braden (8-9, 3.89), Gio Gonzalez (6-7, 5.75) and Josh Outman (5-3, 3.77).

Anderson has the talent to emerge as a premium starter, and no one has to convince the Angels. He engaged Lackey in a memorable scoreless duel last season, taking a perfect game into the seventh before Bobby Abreu singled. Abreu homered to win it in the 10th against closer Andrew Bailey.

Scioscia has compared Oakland's young starters to the early days of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in the East Bay.

The flip side is Sheets has claimed more wins than the A's other seven rotation candidates combined. If Anderson, Cahill and Braden join Sheets and Duchscherer, the A's would have 152 rotation victories with an average age of 26.6.

The A's, Mariners and Rangers understand the magnitude of the challenge. The Angels won 97 games, claiming the division by 10 games, with a rotation that was patched together for five months in the wake of springtime injuries to Lackey and Santana and the stunning death of promising Nick Adenhart in a car wreck the first week of the season.

It wasn't until September, when Kazmir settled in after his Aug. 28 arrival from Tampa Bay and Lackey, Santana and Saunders (season-long shoulder issues) were firing on all cylinders with Weaver, that the Angels felt fully equipped.

The wheels will be turning soon. When the chase starts in 10 weeks, the Angels once again will be wearing the familiar targets.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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