Mariners are on course to knock Angels off division perch

“When you win,” Ken Griffey Jr. says, “things are a little easier.”

For the Seattle Mariners outfielder, who has Hall of Fame career statistics but has never played in a World Series, this season could be a breeze.

Two years removed from a 101-loss season, his Mariners start this year as the most improved team in baseball, making them the favorites to knock the Angels off their perennial perch in the American League West.

The Angels have won five of the last six division titles, but this season they can expect to face plenty of steep competition.

The Texas Rangers, runners-up the last two seasons, have added former Angels Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver as well as right-hander Rich Harden. Even the bottom-feeding Oakland Athletics, whose young pitchers matured tremendously last summer, should be improved after acquiring slugging infielder Kevin Kouzmanoff and speedy outfielder Coco Crisp.

The Angels replaced Guerrero with World Series most valuable player Hideki Matsui but didn’t find a fill-in at the top of their rotation for John Lackey, who left via free agency.

“It doesn’t matter how good other teams are. What’s important is where your team is,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’ve had competition in our division all along. But we’re not going to look at anything outside of what we need to do.”

The Mariners made the biggest strides during the off-season. They added Cy Young Award-winning left-hander Cliff Lee to the league’s best pitching staff — though Lee is expected to start the season on the disabled list. They also picked up one of the best-fielding first basemen in history, Casey Kotchman, when they already had three Gold Glove-quality defenders, and they shored up the league’s most feeble offense by signing free-agent infielder Chone Figgins and trading for outfielder Milton Bradley.

On defense, Kotchman, who has baseball’s best fielding percentage at first base, joins right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, a nine-time Gold Glove winner; shortstop Jack Wilson; and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez as the best fielders in baseball at their positions according to The Fielding Bible.

When Lee returns, he will join 19-game-winner Felix Hernandez at the top of a staff that gave up a league-low 692 runs last season.

Bradley, who has worn out his welcome with seven organizations in the last nine seasons, was Griffey’s project this spring.

Last year, Griffey managed to ease years of pent-up tension in the Seattle clubhouse by including the often-temperamental Ichiro in many of his pranks.

Bradley will be hitting behind Suzuki and Figgins, who combined for 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last season.

“Those guys can both run and they can both find holes,” said Jered Weaver, the Angels’ opening-day starter. “You’ve got to keep those two off the bases. If you don’t, then they’re going to run for days.”

It’s a strategy that fits nicely in Seattle’s spacious Safeco Field, where the Mariners averaged less than a home run a game and had the lowest on-base-plus-slugging-percentage (OPS) in the league.

Texas helped itself two ways — by adding talent it took away from the Angels.

Guerrero averaged .319 with 28 home runs and 103 runs batted in during his six seasons in Anaheim and lefty reliever Oliver has a record of 12-2 and a 2.79 ERA in 145 innings since 2008.

Still, Manager Ron Washington said the title belongs to the Angels until someone takes it away — something Texas could do by copying Seattle’s focus on pitching and defense.

“This spring we’re constantly putting the emphasis on catching the baseball and throwing to contact,” said Washington, whose Rangers dropped their ERA to 4.38 last year, the team’s lowest since 1993.

The Rangers last season also posted their second-best fielding percentage in seven seasons, giving up only 42 unearned runs.

“I don’t feel like it’s going to be a runaway,” Washington said of the division race.