MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Burning Spring Training Questions for the AL West
The American League West was a hot topic this offseason, with additions that included Yu Darvish, Albert Pujols, Jesus Montero and Yoenis Cespedes, so naturally, there are some burning questions.
But the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics have also bolstered their rosters a good deal with wise signings and strategic trades—each ought to make the much-improved list for the 2011-2012 transition period.
Changes as significant as the ones we've seen to the teams in the AL West are typically expected to be beneficial—but unforeseen, adverse effects could occur as well.
Acknowledging a decent amount of uncertainty in the air out West, here are 10 burning spring training questions.
After Switch, Can Chone Figgins Produce Like He Did with the Angels?
Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge recently announced that he would most likely have third baseman Chone Figgins lead off for the M's to start the season.
Since coming to Seattle in 2010, Figgins has been wholly disappointing—at the plate, in the field and especially from a payroll point of view. Last season he hit below the Mendoza line, and through 242 games in two years with the Mariners, he's only been able to muster up a .309 OBP.
That's not what you want to see out of a guy who had a .363 OBP and 278 stolen bases in seven seasons with the L.A. Angels. But there's one glaring difference between the time Figgins spent in Seattle and L.A.: his spot in the batting order.
He was the unquestioned leadoff hitter for the Angels during his entire tenure with them. He has yet to start two consecutive games from leadoff since coming to Seattle.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik obviously didn't anticipate that taking Figgins out of leadoff would have such detrimental repercussions. Luckily, the obstacle that previously held Figgins out of the one-spot in the batting order has yielded—Ichiro Suzuki has been reassigned to hit third, according to Wedge.
So will Figgins' numbers pick back up to where they were with the Angels in 2009? Well, I'll compromise. He won't go back to hitting .300 with 50 swiped bags, but I foresee a huge recovery from 2011.
Safeco Field is a tough park for hitters, and the division is setting up to have some of the nastiest pitching in the league. I think Figgins will make a convincing case to leave him in the leadoff spot at least up through the trade line, at which point the Mariners could possibly shop him.
Which Team Will Send out the Strongest Starting Rotation on Opening Day?
This is a tough call, considering two of the top five rotations in the league will likely come out of the AL West (no, sorry, not the Mariners and Athletics).
In Texas, they let C.J. Wilson fall to the Angels, but replaced him with Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. They are also working on transitioning last year's closer, Neftali Feliz, to a starter for 2012.
Returning from the group last year will be Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Colby Lewis.
Ogando had an encouraging rookie season in 2011 that was marred only by the hefty workload that wore him out as the season came to a close. If he doesn't earn a spot in the starting rotation this year, he could work from the bullpen as a middle reliever.
Harrison, Holland and Lewis all took starts for the team in the playoffs, so they're all obviously qualified for a starting position. Any combination of five from those six will be a pretty commanding rotation that won't give opposing teams anything to look forward to.
However, the Angels have a similarly intimidating, reinforced set of starters as competition. The aforementioned C.J. Wilson will be joining Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana to instantiate dominance.
The fifth spot is up for grabs and is the only potential weakness in this rotation.
The first series between these two teams will be a magnificent clash of titans. Disregarding hitting for now, I think the Rangers have the advantage.
Answer: Texas Rangers
Who Will Emerge Victorious in the AL West-Featured Opening Day Abroad?
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's will kick the MLB season off with a two-game series in Japan that will take place from March 28-29.
I think it's a great idea, reaching out to baseball's most avid international follower. Unfortunately, it means the games will be broadcast live before most people back in the states like to crawl out of bed (6:10 a.m. and 5:10 a.m. EST).
However, there will undoubtedly be thousands of thrilled fans enjoying the game over there, especially with the presence of Japanese players on the A's and M's.
Will the pioneering Ichiro and his countrymen Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma prevail? Or will Kurt Suzuki and the A's earn the first win of the 2012 major league season?
I think having Felix Hernandez on the mound will tip the scales in favor of the Mariners in this matchup. Brandon McCarthy is a worthy opponent for sure, but Felix is King after all...
Apart from the pitching matchup, the teams both have interesting, new features to put to the test, so I think it'll be a great game to watch if you can get yourself up before the sun.
Answer: Seattle Mariners
How Will C.J. Wilson Fare Against the Amped Up Batting Order of His Former Team?
Here is the first of the multiple blockbuster deals that involved the AL West.
C.J. Wilson finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting in 2011, enjoying his best season to date. It was just his second year as an official starter for the Rangers, and he showed tremendous improvement.
He'll be 31 years old to start the season, but his arm hasn't been subject to as much violence as most other pitchers his age, so we shouldn't be as worried about an age plateau—I can see Wilson having an even better season in 2012.
He dodged one bullet by joining the same team as Albert Pujols, but that opened him up to his previous teammates: Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and the rest of the lot.
Like I said, I think Wilson will have another strong year, but when he goes back to Rangers Ball Park in Arlington, there's not a lot that can save him from the inevitable onslaught.
Answer: As well as anyone
Was Yu Darvish a Cost-Efficient Investment?
It cost the Rangers $51 million just to have exclusive signing rights to Yu Darvish. And it cost them another $60 million over the next six years to actually get him to pitch for them.
That's a $111 million gamble.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, the last top-tier Japanese pitcher to go through the posting system, was pretty much a complete bust. Another notable player who falls into this category is New York Yankees pitcher Kei Igawa.
You could argue that Darvish experienced more success than either of those pitchers, and he does have six pitches, but there's still a huge risk involved.
I wouldn't classify this as a particularly thrifty or Billy Beane-esque move, but it's one that the Rangers can afford to make, given their current circumstances. They're a team with awesome potential and just a few holes, and if those holes are plugged, they could finally go the whole nine yards. Third time's a charm, eh?
Answer: Cost-efficient? No. Good move? Yes.
Will Albert Pujols Put Up Albert Pujols Numbers?
Over the past decade, Albert Pujols has been widely regarded as the best player in MLB. He pelts an average of 42 home runs a year while maintaining a .328 average. He's good in the field too, making him one of the few great all-rounders in recent history.
Startlingly, however, his average dropped below .300 (OK, just to .299) for the first time in his career, and he only earned a .906 OPS which, while pretty attractive in most cases, isn't the Albert we've come to expect.
If his numbers bounce back in 2012, it'll be difficult to tell whether he's peaked and begun to decline or if 2011 was just a down season for the three-time NL MVP, since a switch to the American League can pad a hitter's stats.
In the AL he'll be welcomed by a historically easier group of pitchers, but the shift probably won't be too noticeable since a considerable portion of his games will be played against the menacing pitchers who've already made this slideshow.
It's also possible that his numbers continue to recede with his hairline, but I have faith in Pujols.
Is he really back?
I couldn't believe my ears when I first heard it. I knew he had been hanging out with Brett Favre lately, but this...
Well, the capricious slugger will have to begin his return to glory by serving the 50-game suspension that he dodged by retiring. Once he's past that though, he could actually make some positive contributions to the team.
I never thought I'd see Manny Ramirez on a team run by Billy Beane either. I suppose the combination of age, lack of practice, retirement count and drug involvement make Ramirez a viable candidate for the the A's roster, though.
Answer: He's baaaack
Can Jesus Montero Hold His Own Amongst the Wicked Competition?
The Mariners' big-name addition this offseason was sixth-ranked hitting prospect Jesus Montero, who came over from the Yankees in the trade for Michael Pineda.
You probably couldn't throw him in the same tier with Albert Pujols, Yu Darvish, C.J. Wilson or even Manny Ramirez (yet), but Montero is a savior in the eyes of Mariners fans. He is a young, capable hitter who can help to fill out the middle of the order on a team that finished last in offensive production last year.
Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, for Montero, he'll be compared to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton because he has the biggest potential amongst Mariners hitters. He may not be on their level for 2012, but in a year or two, Montero, along with a lot of the rest of the Mariners lineup (Ackley, Smoak, Carp, Robinson, Wells, Seager), could surge up into the top level of hitters.
Answer: He definitely can
Ultimately, Whose Offseason Moves Were the Most Effective?
So who takes the cake for the best offseason?
Answer: Texas Rangers
This is pretty ridiculous, given the Rangers were the AL champions in 2011, but they had the most impressive offseason in my opinion. Sure, Darvish was expensive and a bit of a leap of faith, but they were able to free up some space by letting C.J. Wilson go.
The team was also able to re-sign Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and Elvis Andrus, three extremely talented hitters who will continue to make the Rangers one of the most prominent offensive threats in MLB.
Can the AL West Steal the Wild-Card Spot from the AL East?
As it turns out, there will be two wild-card spots for the 2012 playoffs, so the question becomes: Can the AL West steal both wild-card spots this year?
I don't see how either the Rangers or the Angels could miss the playoffs this year unless something catastrophic occurs, which makes one wild card.
So who's going to pick up the slack and snag the other spot? Could the Mariners edge out the Yankees or Red Sox for it?
Answer: Maybe we should just be happy with one...
Regardless of how many wild-card spots we win in the AL West, it's time for us to let our pride shine. We've long been scorned as one of the weakest, least exciting divisions in baseball.
This is our last year before the Houston Astros come and do everything they possibly can to keep that stereotype, so even if it's not your team in the playoffs, show them some support. Represent the AL West.
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