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02/28/11 10:00 AM EST

Pitching at the forefront in the AL West

All four clubs have stars, depth in rotation and bullpen

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The numbers tell the story -- the American League West had four of the top six pitching staffs in the American League in 2010.

The Athletics talented young staff led with a 3.58 ERA. The Mariners, despite losing 101 games, finished tied with the Rangers for third with a 3.93 ERA. The Angels came in sixth at 4.04.

Six of the top 10 American League pitchers in ERA were from the West, and only Cliff Lee is gone. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez had the lowest ERA in the league, and he won the Cy Young Award. Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, who was third in the league with 40 saves, was the Rookie of the Year.

Welcome to the AL West, where excellent pitching has become the dominant trait, and the common denominator among the four teams in baseball's smallest division. Only the National League East -- which doesn't have to deal with the designated hitter -- had a slightly lower collective ERA than the AL West in 2010.

"This division certainly has great pitching," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Anaheim has great pitching, Oakland has great pitching and Seattle has great pitching. Our pitching is going to be fine if we stay healthy. If you want to win this division, you certainly better be able to pitch."

The Rangers did just that last season. They still put out an All-Star lineup, led by AL Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton. But their relentless pursuit of pitching over the past several years finally paid off, with the lowest team ERA since 1990 and their highest ranking since leading the league in pitching in 1983.

"All clubs will say pitching is what gives you an opportunity to win," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "And certainly in a division where you have the caliber of pitching that we do, it becomes even more important, because you're envisioning lower-scoring games because of that pitching. It just becomes a little bit magnified."

Pitching took the Rangers to their first World Series in franchise history. They will miss Lee, who was brilliant in the first two rounds against the Rays and Yankees, but still have C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Former NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, after missing two seasons due to a shoulder injury, could help ease the loss of Lee.

ERA by division
Division ERA
NL East 3.82
AL West 3.87
NL West 3.93
AL East 4.17
NL Central 4.24
AL Central 4.32

The Rangers are also considering the possibility of moving Feliz to the rotation, but they still have plenty of young pitching talent to choose from beyond him, including Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando.

"They've got some underrated pitchers over there," Mariners designated hitter Jack Cust said. "They're definitely a good staff. Obviously Cliff helped, but he probably helped them for this year, too, just showing them things. He's a guy who doesn't walk anybody, and makes you beat him. I think a lot of those younger guys probably learned a lot from him."

The most interesting pitching contrast within the division is between the starting rotations of the Angels and the Athletics. The Angels have the proven veterans, while the Athletics pitchers are just getting started.

The Angels starting five of Jered Weaver, Joel Pineiro, Dan Haren, Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana have made a combined 953 starts in the Major Leagues and won 394 games.

The Athletics are looking at a possible rotation of Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy that has a combined 113 wins and 300 Major League starts. McCarthy is far from a lock, and if the Athletics decide that Tyson Ross, a second-round pick in 2008, is ready or Josh Outman is fully recovered from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, their rotation could get even younger and less experienced.

"The addition of Haren last year really strengthened the Angels starting five, but being on this side is just as nice," said Athletics reliever Brian Fuentes, who was with the Angels in 2009-10. "I'm really excited about the group of guys we have here. It's one of the best starting rotations in not just the league, but in all of baseball. With one more year of experience, you assume they can only get better.

"There's going to be a lot of good matchups. If you look at the Angels' veteran staff and our young staff, each is strong in their own way. I'm sure there are going to be some low-scoring games."

The Mariners, despite the presence of Hernandez, admittedly don't have the depth that the other three teams do. Their high ranking in pitching last year was helped considerably by having Lee for a half-season, but also Jason Vargas (9-12, 3.78) and Doug Fister (6-14, 4.11) pitched better than their won-loss records indicated.

If Erik Bedard, who has looked good so far in camp, can make a complete comeback, it would be a huge boost for the rotation, and the Mariners are excited about rookie right-handers Michael Pineda and Blake Beavan. Pineda is definitely in the mix for a spot, while Beavan -- acquired from the Rangers in the Lee trade -- is probably behind veterans Luke French, Nate Robertson and David Pauley.

"We have some guys who have had success, and we have question marks," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "We've got guys who are trying to restart their career, and some guys coming back from injuries. Where we stand right now is still a question of how it's all going to fall together. I don't have the answer for that. Health is an issue and how quickly some guys grow up."

But, as Zduriencik said, the Mariners do have the reigning Cy Young winner and that's a nice place to start.

"I faced Felix Hernandez a lot, and have gotten to know him," Rangers infielder Michael Young said. "Not only does he have great stuff, but he really goes out there and competes to win. I have great respect for him. His makeup is off the charts."

The rotation is only part of the equation. The bullpen matters as well, and all four teams face certain question marks about their closer.

Mariners closer David Aardsma had offseason hip surgery, and won't start throwing until mid-spring. Brandon League may have to fill that spot temporarily, but former Orioles closer Chris Ray is also in camp. Andrew Bailey, who had 25 saves last year, anchors an Oakland bullpen that could be as strong as the rotation but he missed time last year with a strained rib-cage muscle and was shut down at the end of the season with a sore elbow.

Fernando Rodney is the Angels closer right now, but he was 0-3 with a 5.65 ERA and four blown saves over his final 30 games, and that may open up an opportunity for somebody else. The Angels have some of the best young power relief arms in the game, including Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Jason Bulger and Francisco Rodriguez.

"With the power arms that we have in the back end of our 'pen, I really feel that we're going to have a closer that is going to emerge." Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

The Rangers are set as closer with Feliz pitching behind a veteran setup unit that includes left-handers Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver, and right-handers Mark Lowe and Darren O'Day. If Feliz moves to the rotation though, the Rangers will be looking for a closer. It could be Lowe, Ogando or a pitcher to be acquired later.

"If Feliz is ready to go into the rotation, I'll take my chances on finding a closer," general manager Jon Daniels said.

All four teams have offensive issues. The Angels, Mariners and Athletics all scored less than 700 runs last year. The Rangers scored 787 runs, fourth most in the league, but still must make up for the loss of Vladimir Guerrero.

But, when it comes to pitching, the AL West appears to be loaded against this season.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Greg Johns, Jane Lee, Lyle Spencer contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.