I pity those of you who live east of the Rockies.
No, not because your ocean is little but a pond compared to our ocean. Not because most of the funniest humans alive are in California, making their fortunes writing for awful network sitcoms. And not because when your head hits the pillow, it's just getting to be the shank of the evening here.
No, I pity you poor Easterner and Midwesterners because all of the best baseball is out here, in the American and National Leagues West.
In the Easts, three teams -- the Yankees, Red Sox, and Braves -- have good chances of winning a division title.
In the Centrals, three teams -- the Twins, Cardinals, and Reds -- have good chances of winning a division title.
But in the Wests, six teams have good shots at division titles.
The best that Major League Baseball can offer is a tight pennant race involving multiple teams, and out here we've got two of 'em.
In Monday's column, I wrote about the NL West, where the Dodgers own first place but are facing serious challenges from both the Diamondbacks and the Giants. Well, the situation in the AL West is almost exactly the same, as the Mariners lead the upstart Angels by three games and the pesky Athletics by five. However, the picture looks a bit different if we look at the run differentials for the contenders, along with the records we might expect from those differentials.
Scored-Allowed Exp Rec GB
Mariners 460-344 56-32
Angels 456-368 52-34 3.0
Athletics 420-395 47-41 9.0
The men who run the Athletics believe in run differential, so I suspect they're at least a little worried when they see that they've scored 36 runs fewer than the Angels and allowed 27 more. The A's, in fact, rank eighth in the American League in runs scored; last year they finished fourth, and a lot closer to first than eighth.
What's the difference between this year's A's and last year's A's? Last year the A's had Jason Giambi at first base, and he was the best hitter in the league. This year they've got Scott Hatteberg and Olmedo Saenz, and the A's haven't made up for Giambi's absence with improvements elsewhere in the lineup (John Mabry's hot streak notwithstanding).
It's the considered opinion of this writer that if Oakland doesn't pick up another hitter, they simply won't score enough runs to hang in with the Mariners, and they won't be able to keep up with the top wild-card contenders (Anaheim and Boston), either. The math just doesn't work, because the A's don't have a single great hitter to take up the slack.
Are the Angels for real? I think they are. None of the hitters are doing anything particularly unexpected, aside from perhaps Tim Salmon, and Salmon's really not doing anything different from what he used to do, when he was healthy. In fact, no Angel is having a great year. They do have a big hole at first base, where Scott Spiezio is still Scott Spiezio. Unfortunately, there's apparently little chance the Angels will make a deal for, say, Jim Thome. So the lineup you see is probably the lineup that you're going to get.
Oddly enough, the Angels have two distinct groups of starting pitchers:
J. Washburn 9-2, 3.21
Ramon Ortiz 8-6, 3.21
Kevin Appier 6-7, 4.69
Aaron Sele 7-5, 5.03
S. Schoeneweis 7-6, 5.34
Fortunately for the Angels, their hitters and their bullpen have been good enough to carry the three starters who haven't pitched particularly well. John Lackey (1-1, 2.70) recently replaced Schoeneweis in the rotation, and Lackey's minor-league track record suggests that he's got the stuff to become a quality major-league starter. The Angels' season just may hinge on Lackey, but they also need Appier or Sele to pitch better because it's not likely that both Washburn and Ortiz will maintain their current performances.
They're not perfect and they're not going to win 116 games. But despite getting very little from key performers Edgar Martinez and Jeff Nelson, the Seattle Mariners nearly sport the best record in the American League -- they're one-half game behind the Yankees for that distinction -- and I simply don't see any reason to think the Mariners aren't what I thought they were three months ago: the best in the West.
So the M's may run away with another title ... but then again, maybe they won't. The stories in both West divisions will be writ over the next three months. It's just too bad that much of the writting will be done while you Easterners can do little but dream about thrilling pennant races. Out here in the West, we'll be watching every minute that we can.