Power Ranking the 20 Biggest Questions Facing the AL West Heading Into 2011

Alex CarsonCorrespondent IIIJanuary 4, 2011

Power Ranking the 20 Biggest Questions Facing the AL West Heading Into 2011

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    The AL West was one of the worst divisions in baseball in 2010.

    Entering the season, projections were all over. Each team was picked to both win the division or finish in the cellar, depending on which prediction you read.

    The shape of each club is a bit easier to tell going into 2011, but there are still several questions for each club and the players signed to them.

20: Does Hideki Matsui Improve the Athletics?

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    Right now, the A's are probably the closest to the Rangers in terms of ability to contend for this division.

    Going into the offseason, you had to figure Billy Beane would add a player here or there to make gains on the Rangers. As always, if things don't pan out, he can flip those players at the deadline for more prospects in his never-ending rebuilding project.

    These days, Matsui is a 2 WAR player. His defense is below average so his value is coming from the bat.

    Jack Cust, the guy the A's cut loose and replaced with Matsui, is basically the same player. He can't play anywhere in the field very well, and his value will come at the plate.

    Matsui hits more homers, but Cust gets on base more. They both have pros and cons, but at the end of the day their values are the same.

    What isn't the same is the contracts. The A's paid significantly more for Matsui than the Mariners did for Cust. That's not what the question was about, though, so I digress.

    The answer: No, Matsui does not improve the Athletics.

19: Can the Angels Rebound Without Big Signings?

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    The Angels obviously had a poor offseason, missing out on all the marquee free agents they were tied to.

    This is still a team with a committed ownership group and one of the best teachers in the game in manager Mike Scioscia.

    Their minor league system is not as strong as it once was. Probably a middle-of-the-road system, there are some bright spots, but not a wave of youth coming by any means.

    For 2011, I do not believe the Angels can rebound as the roster stands. In 2012 and beyond, though, I expect this to be a team that uses their resources wisely and steps forward in the AL West again.

18: What Will The Rangers Do With Michael Young?

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    Michael Young isn't great defensively anymore. He's certainly not Adrian Beltre with the glove.

    I was still a bit surprised to see the AL West champs mess with their dynamic this much. Now, I'm not one who believes chemistry creates winning. It's the other way around. But, baseball guys like Ron Washington certainly do believe in that stuff, and it's not like Michael Young was a problem for this team.

    The result, though, is the Rangers on the cusp of signing Beltre for five to six years. My guess is that Young will become sort of a super-utility guy. He can play anywhere in the infield if someone needs a day off, could presumably handle a corner outfield spot in a pinch and of course make a fine DH.

    This almost certainly means Vlad Guerrero will not return unless a Michael Young trade happens quick. This is doubtful, though, as Young's value would drop since teams know Texas has to dish him. Plus, versatility-wise, Young/Beltre is a significant upgrade over Young/Vlad.

    The answer to this one is that the Rangers will keep Michael Young and have one of the best DH/utility players in the game.

17: Would the Mariners Ever Consider Trading Felix Hernandez?

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    The Mariners have a young core of players coming up soon. They should see some bounce-back seasons from guys like Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez. Unless it becomes obvious that all of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda and Michael Saunders won't ever develop, there's no chance the Mariners trade their Cy Young Award winner.

    The window for Ichiro is closing, and there's no way Japanese ownership lets the team trade away Felix until he's gone.

    Besides, he loves Seattle. Seattle loves him.

    In short, no. Not this season anyway.

16: Who Will Break Out for Texas?

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    The Rangers, coming off a World Series appearance, obviously have a strong team. So, it might be hard to see a real breakout player.

    Keep an eye on Mark Lowe. He came over as what seemed like a "toss-in" in the Cliff Lee trade. While it may not have been worth the loss of the prospects, Lowe is a power arm who impressed late in the season with the Rangers.

    He had back issues last season and recovered in time to impress enough to get postseason roster considerations for each round.

    Lowe induces a good amount of ground balls and throws heat. He strikes out more hitters than he walks, won't give up an alarming amount of home runs, and has potential to be a nice setup man for Feliz. Toss in Arthur Lee Rhodes and you've got a solid bullpen that should all make each other look better.

15: Who Will Break Out for the Mariners?

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    If this were 2012, I'd say Dustin Ackley, as I think the 2010 No. 2 overall pick will contend for an OBP title by the time he wraps up his first full season.

    This is 2011, though. So I believe the guy who will break out for the M's will be Justin Smoak.

    Smoak, as you surely know, was the prize piece of the Cliff Lee trade. He struggled in his first trip to the majors, which was split between the Rangers and Mariners.

    After being sent down to Triple-A Tacoma, Smoak came back up and showed life in the final couple weeks of the season. He was ranked as a top prospect in baseball for a reason, and while it may "just be the minors," he was solid at every level.

    Expect Smoak to burst onto the scene as a legit middle-of-the-order bat in 2011.

14: Who Will Break Out for the Angels?

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    Peter Bourjos had the task of taking over for a beloved center fielder—while that center fielder was still active and playing every day for the same team.

    Unlike when Tino replaced Donny Baseball, Bourjos took over the job while Torii Hunter slid over to right field. Luckily, Hunter was receptive and a good sport.

    His first trip up wasn't as good as many had hoped, but this is generally the case for most young players. Not everyone sees the early success of a Buster Posey.

    Peter Bourjos should be a plus defender with a decent bat for the Angels for many years. 2011 should see him really break onto the scene.

     

     

     

     

13: Who Will Break Out for the Athletics?

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    Of the three new kids in the AL West mentioned in these past three slides, Chris Carter has the most power potential.

    A big string kid, he also struggled like Smoak and Bourjos. But also like those two, Carter has a bright future in the game.

    He hit a ton of home runs in the minors, but he wasn't just hacking for the fences. He gets on base at an above-average clip, walks a good amount, and has gap double power as well.

    Look for Carter to take big strides in 2011 and become one of the more exciting young players to watch.

     

12: Should the Angels Tear It All Down?

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    Since the offseason didn't go as planned and their farm system is in no shape to be trading for pieces, you have to wonder the Angels would consider a full rebuild.

    I don't think this is something Arte Moreno would want, nor is it something their current manager would find ideal at this stage of his career.

    There are also some contracts that would be difficult to move without salary relief. However, there would be a market for Jered Weaver, Mike Napoli, Torii Hunter and, to a lesser extent, guys like Pineiro and Santana.

    Could they restock their farm system with some prospects close to the show?

    It's possible, and I think worth exploring, but at the cost it would require this late in the offseason with most suitors having already filled holes, I don't think it's a good idea.

11: Who Will Billy Beane Trade This Year?

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    This happens every year, it seems. Beane takes a shot on a guy, then dishes him at the deadline for prospects. Or, he hangs on and gets draft pick compensation.

    There is no Matt Holliday this go-round, though. If this was Beane's plan, he'll have to hope for some high-side seasons from guys like Matsui or Harden. Even then, no one is likely to end the season as a Type A free agent and walk, which would command first-round compensation.

    So, this year? My answer is: no one. Well, no one of significance anyway.

    I don't think Beane is building to make moves. I think he's trying to get closer to the Rangers and see if some things shake out and help them grab the AL West.

10: Will Ichiro Slow Down? Is He Human?

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    You sure have to think the answer is yes, but when will we see signs?

    Ichiro is now officially in his late 30's, and is playing like he was in 2001. He's still an elite defender, piles up the hits, runs the bases and does it all as smooth as a marble.

    With the arrival of Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak soon, Ichiro more and more looks like a guy who should be hitting third. I don't know if it's something the team would ask him to do, but as anyone who has seen him hit batting practice will tell you, the slim slap hitter can turn on a fastball. Over and over.

    I'm going to make a bold prediction and say that this is the year Ichiro misses 200 hits. I don't have a real reason except to say he's human, indeed, and it has to catch up eventually.

    He's still going to be awesome to watch, though.

     

     

9: What Are the Chances the Rangers Repeat as AL Champions?

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    Winning championships is hard. Getting to the game is pretty hard, too.

    The Rangers know this, since 2010 was their first trip past the second round, let alone to the World Series. Getting back won't be easy.

    The Red Sox made pretty massive improvements, and the Yankee are still the Yankees. While I think the Rangers will repeat as AL West champions, I don't think they will make it past the first round, where they will surely play one of the two beasts from the East.

    And this time, Cliff Lee won't be there to slay the dragon.

8: Are the A's a Legit Threat to Contend?

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    I believe that the moves the A's made make them marginally better.

    Couple that with some of the losses for the Rangers, and that makes the A's chances a little better yet.

    I just don't see it happening, though. With the Rangers about to sign Beltre, who was a possibility for the A's, the Rangers firmly slide back into into the slot of division favorites.

7: What in the World Happened to the Angels' Offseason?

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    Yikes.

    I believe Arte Moreno when he says he wants to improve his club. He made waves when he bought the team, and funded it as it turned into the class of the AL West for a decade.

    It just seems like things didn't work out this offseason. They were tied to everyone from Cliff Lee to Carl Crawford. When they got neither, it seemed they were the best fit for Adrian Beltre.

    They didn't even close that deal.

    Maybe they backed out because the rest of the plan didn't come to fruition. That's just benefit of the doubt, though.

    The end result is a massively disappointing offseason for the Angels. With a $105 million payroll last season and a poor finish, you wanted to see them make some improvements. Maybe they were shunned, maybe they didn't offer enough money or perhaps they were used by some guys to raise their value.

    That's what makes this question tough to answer. And you almost have to feel bad for Arte, who is a great, committed owner who must now face backlash from upset fans.

6: Can the Mariners Avoid Another 100-Loss Season?

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    Two 100-loss seasons in three years is the sort of thing that gets people fired.

    To be fair, the current regime led by GM Jack Zduriencik is only on the hook for one of those epic failures. The Mariners fans (like Moose Man, pictured above), however, have had to endure a lot the past few seasons and have no light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to.

    Not at first glance, anyway.

    A lot of things went wrong in 2010 for these Mariners. At the time, it seemed as if they made some brilliant signings and trades to fill holes on a roster that needed it. Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley were all clear upgrades over the 2009 roster, right?

    Lee held up his end of the deal, but the other guys had career-worst seasons.

    You had guys bolting the clubhouse on a bicycle after a missed squeeze sign. Guys leaving mid-game. Guys fighting their manager. Guys tattling on the icon of the franchise for catching a nap. That icon bolting town without so much as a "thank you" to the fans who made him rich. Guys blaming the manager for chasing off the icon. The manager getting fired. A trade that brought in a guy convicted of a sex crime and sent Cliff Lee away.

    Whoa, wait. We haven't even talked about statistics yet?

    So much went wrong on and off the field for the Mariners, it's hard to know where to start.

    The Mariners can't be this bad again. There will be bounce-backs. There will be kids coming up, some new, some coming into their own after a previous crack. There's just no way this much can go wrong again. Right?

    My answer is that, yes, the Mariners will avoid another 100-loss season.

5: Will the Rangers Miss Cliff Lee?

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    Cliff Lee spent the entire 2010 season in the AL West.

    Half with the disappointing Mariners and half with the surprising Rangers.

    Many people felt at the time of the trade that Lee was the missing piece that would send the Rangers to the World Series. While confirmation bias would make those predictors feel they nailed it, I don't think it's quite that simple.

    Safeco Field was a much better fit for Lee, as it is for any pitcher—especially left-handers.

    While a pitcher's win/loss record by itself is a poor way to determine their value, the dip from 8-3 in Seattle to 4-6 in Texas can be partially attributed to the inflated ERA of 3.98 after the trade from the pre-trade 2.34. Home runs and walks both doubled. His postseason numbers were not what we've come to expect from a guy who seemed unhittable in the playoffs.

    Across the board, he wasn't the same pitcher after the trade.

    This is not saying Cliff Lee isn't a great pitcher. He is an amazing pitcher, and the Phillies are lucky to have him. Pitchers are wildly inconsistent and prone to streaks of ineffectiveness. Lee just had a run of bad starts at the wrong time.

    What it does say, though, is that a good Texas team probably would have won the AL West without Cliff Lee, and it's possible they still would have made it as far as they did without him in the playoffs.

    The Rangers have a deep farm system with some nice arms coming soon. With how risky long-term contracts for pitchers are, I would say that, no, the Rangers will not miss Cliff Lee long-term. 2011 may see some wishing he was still around, but the future should ease the short-term pain.

4: How Will the Mariners Finish 2011?

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    The Mariners should be better in 2011.

    While it may not look like they added much, they should see some players not have career-worst seasons again. They'll have some exciting young players coming up. They'll have a new management team.

    I expect the Mariners to fight with the Angels for third place in the division. I predict the Mariners to finish fourth, with an improved record of 73-89.

    It's still an ugly sub-.500 record, but it would be an improvement of 12 wins. That should be enough to save Jack Zduriencik's job and prepare the team for a real push to contention in 2012.

     

3: How Will the Angels Finish 2011?

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    The Angels really were hoping to win the AL West in 2011. Had they landed the free agents they targeted, that would be a very real possibility.

    As it is, though, they're in as bad of shape as they ended 2010 and don't have much coming to help from the farm.

    They should still be able to avoid the Mariners and the cellar, finishing 78-80, a decrease of two wins.

2: How Will the Athletics Finish 2011?

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    The A's made some marginal improvements. I don't think it was enough to make up the nine-game gap the Rangers had on them in 2010.

    Encarnacion, DeJesus and Harden should add something. If the full potential is reached, it could add a lot. But none of these moves jump out and make you think they can seriously challenge the Rangers.

    The A's will finish at 84-78, an improvement of three games, and finish five games behind the Rangers.

1: How Will the Rangers Finish 2011?

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    The Rangers are still the class of the AL West.

    They lost Cliff Lee, but they appear to be adding Adrian Beltre. Michael Young will add tons of versatility in different roles, which will be an upgrade over a bat-only Vlad Guerrero.

    Arthur Rhodes and a healthy Mark Lowe stabilize the bullpen in front of Feliz.

    A better A's team is the only thing that makes them drop one game from 2010's total, and finish at 89-79. However, the Rangers will still win the AL West by five games.