After several years of toiling in the shadows of their eastern division counterparts, the AL West finally can boast an American League Champion, as the Texas Rangers became the first team from the division to reach the Fall Classic since the 2002 Angels. Ultimately, the boys from Arlington would fall short of their goal, losing to the San Francisco Giants in five games, but the new standard has been set.
For too long, teams in the AL West have operated under a type of inferiority complex, bemoaning a lack of respect and a perceived east coast media bias that has permeated the character of the American League teams in the western half of our nation.
Following the Rangers' valiant charge toward the pinnacle of the baseball world, knocking off the powerhouses in Tampa Bay and the Bronx en route, there is a renewed belief out west that baseball's greatest prize is once again attainable.
Texas, fresh from their first World Series in franchise history, is confident as ever, loaded with offensive firepower, exciting youngsters and a bevy of talented hurlers. They expect to be in the hunt once again.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, despite a talented team, finished below .500 for the first time since 2003, disappointing a fan base that has developed lofty expectations since their dramatic World Series Championship of 2002. With an owner that loves to win, and who isn't afraid to spend if necessary, the Angels would seem poised to make a return to the successes of recent years.
Seattle, a team that spent lavishly last off-season, failed spectacularly, losing 101 games, and finishing dead last, although their team included the Cy Young Award winning Felix Hernandez, future Hall of Famer Ichiro, and at one point, playoff hero Cliff Lee. They will certainly be looking to rebound after an utterly disappointing year.
Finally, the Oakland A's, a perennial competitor, despite the fourth lowest payroll in baseball during 2010, have a maturing group of young arms who could be poised to step up to the next level together. We have seen this before, as a crop of young players grows together, achieving greatness within the small window of opportunity that small market teams have. While that's never a guarantee, it is Billy Beane's style to continually reload, in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle, and winning against all economic odds.
While each franchise in the AL West has their own particular strengths and weaknesses, let's take a look at 20 of the most significant questions facing the teams within the division over the course of this off-season.
We know for sure that Texas wants to keep Cliff Lee. Also, we know that the Yankees, after watching their rotation fall apart in October, are desperate to add some stability, in order to prevent a repeat occurrence.
What we don't know for sure, is how attached Lee is to Texas after spending only a few months in the sweltering Arlington heat.
He was a vital cog in their rotation, and provided a fantastic influence on their younger hurlers, but will the allure of the money and consistent chances to win be too much to resist?
Cliff Lee, since he got a slightly later start on his baseball career, has yet to have an opportunity to cash in, setting his family for life through a massive free agent deal.
It's tough to blame the man for wanting to test free agency for the first time in his career, most of us would jump at the opportunity to do the same.
Lee has stated that he enjoyed his time in Texas, and it is rather close to his home in Arkansas.
But, if he gets a $150 million offer from the Yankees, does he really enjoy Texas that much?
Despite his 13-12 record while pitching for the worst team in the American League, King Felix defied the odds and overcame the age-old fascination with Win/Loss records in order to win the 2010 AL Cy Young award. While he was obviously the best pitcher in his league, many doubted whether a hurler very near the .500 plateau, could take home the top pitching honor. This time, the voters got it right.
Despite throwing nearly 1,200 career innings at this point in his career, King Felix won't turn 25 until after the 2011 season begins. The young ace has improved in most respects in each successive season since 2006, so it bears watching to see what he is capable of over the next several years of his career.
The other side of the issue becomes the question of whether he is destined for a long stay in Seattle if they can't find a way to win in the next few years. Though he is signed through 2014, Seattle may eventually decide he is worth more as a trade chip if they can't right their ship soon.
The Oakland A's have wanted to leave Oakland for years now. They play in an ugly football stadium, and the fan support is marginal at best.
Owner Lew Wolff has had several deals worked out to attempt to move the team to San Jose, Las Vegas, and various other Northern California locales. Major League Baseball is unsure of the wisdom of placing a franchise in the gambling capital of America, and San Jose poses a dilemma due to the territorial rights that the San Francisco Giants hold over the city.
On December 2, there was an Oakland city planning commission meeting held to discuss the viability of a waterfront stadium location within the city. Dozens of fans attended to protest the potentiality of a move elsewhere.
Unfortunately, that is the size of too many crowds that attend A's games. I'm not sure if that will be enough to convince anyone that the franchise's future lies in Oakland.
This is a continually evolving issue, and one that bears watching.
The reigning AL MVP, outfielder Josh Hamilton, is clearly one of the most talented players in Major League Baseball. His ability to change a game with his bat, glove or on the base-paths, makes him one of the more dynamic players in the the sport.
At 29 years old, he should be in his prime, and would be an obvious choice to build an exciting team around.
However, in Hamilton's four year career, he has missed significant chunks of the season due to injury in three of those four years.
If the Rangers are to look at him as a long term cornerstone of their team, he will have to find a way to stay on the field for 140+ games for a few years. His MVP was a great accomplishment, but it set a precedent, as players who miss so much time are not often honored with the league's most coveted award.
Besides, it would simply be fun to watch what the one-time Number 1 Draft Pick is capable of if he can remain reasonably healthy.
Though Ichiro and Chone Figgins represent a dynamic duo atop the Seattle Mariner batting lineup, table setters are only valuable if there are players to drive them in.
Figgins struggled mightily throughout the first half, making the Mariners rue their decision to sign him to a long term free agent deal. However, he hit and reached base frequently throughout the second half, inspiring hope for 2011 and beyond.
Of course, we know Ichiro will hit.
But, the question remains, as it did last season, who will knock them in?
As currently constructed, the Mariners do not have an established run producer in the heart of their order. Sure Franklin Gutierrez is a great outfielder, and a fine supplemental player, but he is no run producing stud. Justin Smoak could become that necessary presence in the next couple years, but his major league experience is limited and he hasn't shown that type of ability quite yet. Jose Lopez, prior to last year, was a highly productive bat, but he suddenly forgot to hit last year after moving to third base.
The Mariners have a glaring need for a middle of the order bat, and the time is now to find one. They still have Milton Bradley floating around, and if they can get him calmed down, and focused on baseball, he could be productive, but if you're going to rely on that, you better settle for third or fourth place already.
For teams in the lower reaches of the payroll rankings, it's often the strategy to load up on young talent, in hopes that they can mature simultaneously, providing a small window of opportunity to win.
We saw it in 2003, as the expansion Marlins reaped the rewards of a young pitching staff, and a diverse group of veteran position players, and shocked the baseball world with a World Series Championship.\
Just last year, we witnessed a similar phenomenon, where the young studs of the San Francisco Giants starting rotation carried the load, and with some assists from a few shrewd moves throughout the year, shaped themselves into a championship caliber team, capable of winning it all.
Billy Beane will be hoping to replicate that model, in order to strike with his young, talented pitching staff, all while keeping the payroll almost unrealistically low.
With the core of the rotation all 28 or younger, Oakland hopes that the young arms of Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez are primed to make a run at their division title, and then on to playoff glory, similar to the previously mentioned rotations of Florida and San Francisco.
The talent exists in Oakland's arms, and with a talented bullpen as well, the A's may sit just a well-calculated move or two away from shocking baseball again.
The Angels have become known for attempting to hold onto prospects a little too long, expecting all of them to develop into stars, rather than using them for trade bait when their value is at its highest.
Unfortunately, most prospects don't turn into stars, and in hindsight, can often make teams wish they had dealt them when they could have.
Brandon Wood has long been a rising star in the Angels minor league system. He crushed pitching in the minors, and had the team envisioning the second coming of Troy Glaus, an infielder with prodigious power potential. Throughout his minor league career, he has crushed 161 home runs, with an .888 OPS, leading the Angels to hold onto the slugger while other teams asked for him repeatedly over the years.
In 2010, the Angels finally gave Wood his chance, opting to let Chone Figgins leave via free agency, handing the third-base job to 25-year-old Brandon.
He proved once again, to be overwhelmed by major league pitching, striking out 71 times in 243 plate appearances. In 479 career big league trips to the plate, Wood has hit .169, with a .458 OPS, and an OPS+ of 22.
If the Angels are to return to the top of the AL West where they have grown accustomed to residing, they cannot continue to have a dead spot at their hot corner.
It may be time to turn the page on Brandon Wood.
Josh Hamilton received all the accolades for his tremendous offensive season that he produced in 2009.
However, there was another player in the heart of the Rangers lineup that was also highly responsible for his team's success, as he provided protection for the slugging Hamilton for much of the year.
Following an injury plagued 2009, which had many writing off the soon-to-be 36 Vlad Guerrero, the Texas DH rewarded the Rangers' faith in him, looking very much like his former self as he led the team in RBI. For several significant chunks of the season, Vlad helped carry the offensive load, as nearly every other Ranger regular missed time with injury throughout 2010.
After his successful one year trial, Vlad is reportedly seeking a two-year deal to stay in Texas, but they appear focused on the Cliff Lee negotiations first, before moving on to dealings with Vlad.
His proven track record in Arlington has to be an attractive factor, but the team may feel that they got lucky with Vlad staying healthy at his age, and may be unwilling to risk the same gamble a second time.
Rumors have surfaced that they may be looking at other options such as Paul Konerko, but he might be looking for a longer commitment than the two years Vlad is seeking.
Seattle attempted this same strategy last season. They had two studs at the top of the rotation, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, and a bunch of other guys who had never thrown as much as 100 innings in any major league season.
Thankfully for the M's, Jason Vargas stepped up, hurling 192.2 innings in 31 starts, with a 3.78 ERA to held solidify the rotation after they traded Lee to Texas.
With Felix and Vargas atop the rotation this year, they now have three question marks following those two. Bedard is an option, but he has only thrown 164 innings over the last three years combined.
It would likely behoove Seattle to sign a veteran arm that they know is capable of nearing the 200 inning plateau, otherwise it's going to be another very long season in the Northwest.
When the Mariners traded five players, including highly touted outfield prospect Adam Jones to Baltimore, in exchange for lefty Erik Bedard, they thought they were receiving a hurler in his ascendancy, poised to become a dominant lefty for several years to come. He had just won 28 games over the course of 2006-2007, and was coveted by teams around the league.
Instead, all Seattle has gotten is a player who has spent considerable time injured in his three years with the team. Bedard pitched 81 innings in 2008, 83 more in 2009, and never threw a pitch in 2010.
By signing Bedard to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract for 2011, they are taking their last gamble on him, hoping that their patience will finally be rewarded with a moderately healthy season.
He'll be 32 during Spring Training, so he is still within the reasonable range of potential return to the game, but his lack of durability has proven difficult for him to overcome. Seattle could certainly use a few arms behind King Felix, and if they get anything out of Bedard, it could go a long way toward erasing the bitter memories of 2010.
While Elvis Andrus can never hope to duplicate the legendary status of Derek Jeter, he may be ready to take over the Yankee Captain's status as the premier shortstop in the AL.
Andrus, a dynamic young player, while he doesn't boast the offensive prowess of the Yankee superstar, can certainly be a game-changing talent in a different way, utilizing his blazing speed and superior glove to impact games the way a young Jeter once did.
As he joined Jeter on the 2010 All-Star team, Andrus spoke highly of the veteran Jeter, hoping to emulate his team-first attitude, and knack for consistent winning.
Head-to-head in the playoffs, Andrus outplayed Jeter easily, helping to lead his team to Jeter's familiar territory, the World Series.
Of course, Andrus has a long way to go in order to even approach the levels that Derek Jeter has achieved, but as the baseball world took notice throughout the post-season, there is an exciting young talent at short in the AL, and his name is Elvis Andrus.
Part of the reason for the Angels' inconsistency last year was a failure to stabilize the back end of the bullpen.
Prior to 2009, they let K-Rod walk, and signed Brian Fuentes to a 3 year deal to close for the team.
Fuentes, while he had solid numbers on the surface, never provided the security a top team wants at the end of the game. He frequently made things far too interesting, and his saves were often of the tight-rope variety.
Midseason last year, they traded him to the Twins, in what was effectively a salary dump, and handed the job to Fernando Rodney. Rodney, he of the fire-balling arm, and devastating change, filled in admirably at times, but he also proved to be erratic and inconsistent, leading the Angels to continue their search.
Scott Shields, one of the premier set-up men in the game for a decade, has not recovered from injury problems over the last few years. He was an option, but he has yet to regain his prior form. Kevin Jepson, a hard-throwing big reliever from within the system, was viewed by many to be the heir apparent, but he has yet to harness his potential and command.
All of this uncertainty has led the Angels to heavily pursue Rafael Soriano, the Tampa Rays' dominant closer from 2010. He will be popular this off-season, but if the Angels hope to gain ground on the suddenly strong Texas Rangers, Arte Moreno may very well have to write a few big checks during the Winter Meetings.
Prior to his 2009 big league call-up, Neftali Feliz was on the fast track to the Texas starting rotation. In four minor league seasons, he made 79 appearances, 53 of them starts. The Rangers envisioned a fire-balling ace, leading their starting staff for years to come.
Then came 2010. Once Feliz became the closer, he anchored the Texas bullpen, becoming a dominant force at the end of games, as Texas went on to their most successful season ever.
Along the way, Neftali pitched his way into the record books, earning both the rookie saves record, and the American League Rookie of the Year.
As the franchise prepares to defend their AL pennant, the team is now vacillating over whether Feliz makes the team better as the closer, or by possibly transitioning to the rotation once again.
The Rangers are in an interesting position this off-season. With the signing of a new, lucrative extension of their television deal with Fox Sports Southwest, Texas suddenly find themselves in a position where they might be able to spend some money in order to fortify their potential opportunity to return to the World Series.
According to multiple sources, the deal will pay the Rangers franchise between $1.6 billion and 3 billion over the course of 20 years. Though the new deal doesn't begin until after the 2014 season, the team is set to receive an $80 million payment upfront during this off-season.
That lump sum should give them the ability to be players in the current free agent market, especially in their efforts to re-sign Cliff Lee.
Beyond that though, they could explore extensions for players like Josh Hamilton, who will be a free agent following the 2012 season. As well as Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz are both signed through the 2013 season. It's possible that the team might be interested in keeping those players from reaching the market by extending them early.
The player that I feel could likely receive the most attention from the Rangers in this scenario would be C.J. Wilson. He took a major step forward last season, progressing from a late inning reliever to a top notch starter. Wilson's contract runs out after the 2011 season, and depending upon what happens in the Cliff Lee negotiations, the Rangers very well may want to lock up C.J. with an multi-year extension to keep at least one strong lefty in the rotation.
Hamilton, Cruz and Kinsler all offer their own question marks, as all three have proved to be injury-prone, and none of them are especially young. Kinsler will be 29 during the 2011 campaign, while Hamilton will turn 30, and Cruz will be 31. By the time any of them are out of contract, they will all be beyond 30 and nearing the end of their projected prime.
Yes, Ichiro is a fan favorite, and destined to be a Hall of Famer. His incredible durability and consistency are rather amazing.
However, if Seattle gets off to another awful start similar to 2010, how long can they justify paying a 36-year-old singles hitter $18 million a year when he could pose some real value on the trade market?
I know, the Japanese ownership and overseas marketability play a factor, but if the team is not winning, Ichiro's exchange value could be far greater for the future of the franchise.
His career is not going to last forever, so I can't see him enjoying toiling for a last place team as he winds down his playing days.
With two more years on his contract, it would be reasonable to explore options at least.
Obviously, only large market teams could even approach the Mariners about such a deal, so the window of opportunity is limited, but it would be unreasonable for a team like the Yankees to explore such a move. Of course, they don't have an imminent need in right field, but if they were to miss out on Carl Crawford, and grew tired of the strike out machine that their current outfield represents, Ichiro could be a target.
There have been reported rumors of the Oakland A's making a multi-year offer to third baseman Adrian Beltre.
He had a fine season in Boston, boosting his free-agent credentials with a stellar offensive campaign in addition to his usual top-flight defense.
Normally, there would be no issue with a team chasing a player who hit .321 with 28 home runs and 102 RBI, along with Gold Glove caliber defense.
However, it simply doesn't fit into the normal method of operating for the Oakland franchise, who consistently languishes in the lower reaches of team payroll.
Beltre, represented by Scott Boras, will surely be seeking a huge payday, coming off the highly successful season he just produced.
The latest stories now have the A's suddenly pulling the offer, favoring Hideki Matsui instead.
When the Angels traded utility man Sean Rodriguez to the Rays in exchange for lefty Scott Kazmir during the 2009 season, no one was quite sure what to make of the deal. Some Rays fans were upset that the team appeared to give up on the pitcher who just two years earlier, had been the ace of their staff.
Angel fans saw the team picking up a left-handed pitcher with a 5.92 ERA that had allowed 121 hits in 111 innings during part of 2009 in Tampa.
Once he got to Anaheim though, in his six start cameo, he was lights out, compiling a 1.73 ERA, and allowing only one home run in 36 innings. Maybe it was simply a change of scenery that he needed.
Then 2010 happened, and he was a complete mess once again. In 28 starts, he threw 150 innings, allowing 158 hits, and 25 home runs, with an unsightly ERA of 5.94, and a WHIP of 1.58. By all measures, 2010 was the worst season of the hurler's career.
The Angels are hoping to get a solid year out of him near the back of their rotation during the last year of his contract. Due to his erratic track record though, they have no idea what to expect, the filthy pitcher that led the AL in K's during 2007, or the wild lefty with no command that goes full count on every hitter and has trouble reaching the sixth inning.
Maybe the contract year will motivate him, or he can simply harness the massive potential that he once had. Remember, while it seems like he has been around forever, he won't even turn 27 until this January, so it may be premature to give up on his talented arm.
According to recent reports, perennially disabled infielder Eric Chavez is working out in hopes of catching on with a Major League team.
The one-time star, who drove in 100 runs or more, four times from 2001-2005, has had several recurring injuries which have sadly limited him to only 64 games over the last three seasons combined.
Since 2005, his health and production have declined markedly, and Oakland was forced to ride out the remainder of his 6 year, $63 million deal as he attempted comeback after comeback.
Only 33, he is not an old man yet, and he was once one of the top third basemen in the game, but after so little activity over the last several years, it might not be reasonable to expect to see him on the field again.
Thus far, rumors have circulated around the Mariners showing interest in a bevy of players, none of whom are much more than minor pieces that don't offer much upside.
In recent days, they have been linked to Rich Harden, Eric Chavez, Jack Cust and Gregg Zaun, some of whom offer some value, but nothing that screams, "we're trying win!"
With Harden and Chavez, if the M's are looking to populate their disabled list, they very well may be on the right track. Cust offers some on-base ability and pop, but is really a DH, and they have one there already in Milton Bradley.
Zaun could be a solid veteran to help work with some young catchers, but the M's appear to have other needs.
As of right now, it feels as if they might be feeling the weight of the Ichiro and King Felix contracts, and they are limited in their payroll flexibility.
I feel another fourth place finish may await, forcing their hand in moving one of those limiting contracts.
The Angels witnessed in 2010, how dangerous it can be to hand too much responsibility to unproven commodities, in favor of established, veteran producers.
They let Chone Figgins and John Lackey walk, turning over Figgin's third base and lead off duties to Brandon Wood and Erick Aybar respectively.
Wood was a spectacular failure, and Aybar never really fit into the leadoff role, forcing the Angels to adapt on the fly, and never really achiving much success in 2010.
Once the catastrophic injury to Kendry Morales occurred, the team was thin, and lacking any veteran bats to pick up the slack.
This off-season, the Angels simply must find a bat to stabilize the heart of their order. With rumors circulating regarding their interest in Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre, they must work hard to make one of those signings happen.
They don't possess enough firepower to compete with the loaded Texas lineup, especially if Texas is able to retain Cliff Lee, giving them a strong rotation as well.