The Oakland Athletics began the 2012 season with Billy Beane’s typical group of young rookies and veteran misfits. But unlike previous seasons, Beane spent money for the long-term. He added slugging YouTube sensation and recent Cuban defector, Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal; retained Coco Crisp on a three-year, $21 million deal; and signed former American League Cy Young Award winner, Bartolo Colon, to potentially guide the young A’s rotation.
Cespedes has had ups and downs in his rookie season, but has come up with tremendous at-bats, including several walk-off, game-winning hits. Crisp has proven himself worthy of handling the leadoff spot, has matured as a player, and has been the everyday center fielder since Cespedes first went on the disabled list in May. Colon pitched closer to his old self before MLB revealed he had tested positive for testosterone.
Along with these major moves, the growth of young players like starter Jarrod Parker and outfielder Josh Reddick, early season waste-pile pickup Brandon Inge’s return to form, and a steady pitching staff of both starters and relievers, the Athletics have gone on an incredibly unexpected run into the playoff race.
The Angels came out of the offseason with two big additions: former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson and three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols. They hoped outfielder Vernon Wells and designated hitter/first-baseman Kendrys Morales could return to .300/30 home run form and the rotation of Jered Weaver, Wilson, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jeriome Robertson would rival that of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Roy Halladay-Cole Hamels-Cliff Lee combo.
Wells has proven nothing more than a $20 million bust. Morales has been inconsistent with power and is a terribly slow runner — giving the Angels more singles than they would like. Haren and Santana are having career-worst years, while Wilson just snapped an 11-start winless streak. Robertson is now the Angels long reliever and spot starter.
As for the Angels offense, Pujols started out slow, hitting his first home run in May, but he has picked up his power and is on pace for another 30 homer/100 RBI year. The Angels foolishly started Mike Trout in AAA Salt Lake City, and despite missing nearly an entire month of the big leagues, he leads the American League in batting average, runs scored and stolen bases. He is also on pace to hit more than 30 homers.
Mark Trumbo started at third base, but moved over to left field, requiring the Angels to dump Bobby Abreu, bench Wells, and use last season’s speedy outfield rookie, Peter Bourjos, as a pinch runner and fourth outfielder. Trumbo was named to the 2012 All-Star Game and home run derby, and leads the Angels with 30 home runs and 81 RBI.
Trumbo, Trout and Torii Hunter make for a very effective outfield.
Despite a fantastic bullpen, the addition of former AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers, and the ever-reliable eighth- and ninth-inning work of relievers Ernesto Frieri and Scott Downs, the Angels are only 6.5 games in front of the Seattle Mariners.
The Mariners biggest offseason additions were catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero, catcher John Jaso, Rule 5 pick Lucas Luetge, starter Hisashi Iwakuma,and infielder Munenori Kawasaki.
Only Jaso had more than a few weeks of major league experience. Everyone had to prove themselves and earn their jobs. Jaso has been the cleanup hitter for the Mariners and has been consistent both behind and at the plate. Montero has performed well behind the plate, but has fans waiting for the Mike Piazza-like power Mariners and Yankees scouts have promised.
Luetge has been stellar in a strong, young bullpen. Iwakuma has just shown why he was a star in Japan — even recording a 13-strikeout game last month. Kawasaki has been a great addition to the clubhouse and to the bench — coming on every now and then to give Brendan Ryan a rest or to pinch run.
Despite these small additions, the Mariners are a only 6.5 games behind the club that Albert Pujols and Mike Trout call home.
Even if the Mariners do not catch up to the Angels and steal third place — which they have a shot at with 30 games left in the season, this season will go down as one of the most memorable ones in the franchise’s 36-year history.
This has been a year of progress and excitement. Fans have witnessed the growth of Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan, Michael Saunders, Luetge and Tom Wilhelmsen. The Mariners have taken part in three no-hitters: Phillip Humber was perfect in Safeco Field earlier this season for the White Sox, six pitchers combined to no-hit the Dodgers, and King Felix Hernandez was perfect at home last month against Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.
These developments and feats brought the start of a new era of Seattle baseball and concluded another one: the Mariners traded longtime franchise player Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees in July and promptly began winning in a new fashion. Almost immediately following the departure of the Wizard, the Mariners went on an eight-game winning streak, players began showing how great they could be, and Mariners fans began expressing excitement about the team’s new direction.
And now, as the Mariners begin their final month of the 2012 season, the possibility of a winning season awaits them and a new era of baseball is in Seattle.