MLB Preview 2012: Predicting the American League West Divsion
The center of the baseball universe shifted over to the American League West in the offseason for several reasons. The West will be preparing to become a five-team division with the addition of the Houston Astros in 2013, but of course that wasn't the biggest story.
Albert Pujols joined the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last December when he signed a 10-year, $254 million contract. Whether Pujols will maintain his talent level past 2012 isn't what we're talking about here, but rather the impact he'll have on the division.
The Texas Rangers have won the AL West the last two seasons en route to losing back-to-back World Series, and the Angels felt they needed to do something.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics are trying to rebuild so that someday they can be the two teams that I'm talking about in the beginning of this preview.
In other words, the AL West has a clear divide between talent, but with just four teams and the addition of the second AL Wild Card berth, there could be a surprise in what might be a very entertaining division.
4. Seattle Mariners
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The Seattle Mariners are still trying to find themselves after having the first $100 million payroll to have 100 losses a couple seasons ago. They have a few really good players, but now they need to adapt as they head into the next era of Mariner baseball.
The biggest news out of Mariners camp is that Ichiro will now hit third in the lineup. Ichiro hasn't shown the power necessary to drive in runs (which is what he'll need to do batting third), but the hope is that he can provide something similar to what Joe Mauer has provided for the Minnesota Twins.
The Mariners also acquired one of the best young hitters in baseball in Jesus Montero over the offseason. Some people may say that the Mariners should not have traded Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees in exchange for Montero, but the M's needed offense.
It was also made easier for the Mariners with some solid prospects such as Danny Hultzen coming up through the minors to try and replace the void that Pineda leaves behind.
If the Mariners can get a little bit of offense from Ichiro and Montero, guys like Felix Hernandez should be very happy in the Emerald City. However, we need to see something from the offense first in order to believe it.
3. Oakland Athletics
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The Oakland Athletics had a very bi-polar offseason. First, it looked like they were rebuilding as they traded away Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey for high-level prospects. Then the Athletics looked like they wanted to win right away signing Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez.
I guess Moneyball isn't as easy as Brad Pitt made it seem, huh?
I contended earlier that the Oakland Athletics are still in rebuilding mode, and to be honest they are. The good news with this rebuilding effort is that they have some young talent to build around.
Josh Redick had a really good rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. Redick will be the starting right fielder for the Athletics, while the other prospects obtained such as Jerrod Parker (from Arizona in the Cahill deal) still needs a little more seasoning before making it to the big club.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect is 26-year-old Cuban defector Cespedes. Cespedes had an excellent spring training debut with the A's hitting a home run and driving in a pair of runs, but has cooled down since hitting just .200. However, that's just spring training.
The A's are a mystery team until the season goes into June or July. At that time, Oakland will get Manny Ramirez to put in the middle of their lineup (for five games anyway...) and we could see exactly what the Athletics have going.
2. Texas Rangers
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The Texas Rangers were one pitch away from winning the World Series...twice.
That sentence has haunted Rangers fans every time they've read a column over the winter in Arlington. However, with the spring giving way to the start of the season, the Rangers must find a way to get over it and defend their AL West championship.
It might be easier said than done for the two-time defending AL Central Champions. The one factor to take into consideration is injuries. The horses in the Rangers' lineup (Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre) have all spent time on the disabled list over the past couple of seasons.
They also may have problems in their bullpen as Joe Nathan looked like a shell of his former self with the Minnesota Twins last season. Although he somewhat found his form toward the end of 2011, it's still a risk for the Rangers to install him as the closer.
Their former closer, Neftali Feliz, had been moved to the rotation but was removed from his third Cactus League start against the Chicago Cubs on March 20th. Of course, this could just be the result of Feliz preparing to log more innings after two seasons in the bullpen. Yet, he had shoulder issues last year too.
The Rangers also have uncertainty with Yu Darvish. Darvish will be linked to C.J. Wilson as the Rangers decided to spend their money on the Japanese import instead of bringing back the second-most popular Straightedge follower behind WWE Superstar CM Punk.
Some of these could be concerns that every team has going into Opening Day, but they seem like red flags that could derail a potential three-peat.
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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I must confess, I am a hypocrite by selecting the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim first. When Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson signed their contracts, I rolled my eyes and said that the additions wouldn't work like the Angels wanted them too.
Then I started thinking about it. I looked at the Rangers' potential injury issues along with the hangover that could result in a slump to either start the season or linger throughout the year.
While that alone could open the door for the Angels, it's clear they have the talent to do it themselves.
It's been debated whether Pujols was suitable for a 10-year contract with the Angels as he's headed toward the twilight of his career. Well, the twilight is still light years away and at the very least, Pujols will give the Angels a benefit in 2012.
They'll also get a boost from C.J. Wilson. Wilson may relate to Carl Pavano stat wise, but he makes the Angels rotation deeper as they already get solid contributions from Jared Weaver and Ervin Santana.
The back of the bullpen might be a question with Jordan Walden getting his first opportunity to close games, but if the rotation can hold up their end of the bargain, they'll be in the mix to unseat the Rangers.
The contracts the Angels doled out last winter may haunt them down the road, but they have an opportunity in 2012 to get something out of it right now. We'll see if they can capitalize.