The American League West is not likely to produce the AL World Series representative this year, but it should be a much closer division than it was last year.
Fourth place: Seattle Mariners
Let’s start off with the obvious choice: the Seattle Mariners finishing another year in the cellar.
I do like the fact that their front office is no longer making half-way investments in both the present and the future, but rather acknowledging that they have no chance to be a factor right now.
They are putting all their chips in the rebuilding pot. Mark my words: starting pitcher Michael Pineda and former Tar Heel second-baseman Dustin Ackley will be serious ballers at the big level—just not in 2011.
Although I expect guys like Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez to have more consistent seasons this year, let’s face it: That's just not enough, and bringing in a strikeout-a-saurus like Jack Cust won’t change that.
Ichiro will be Ichiro, racking up a record 11th consecutive 200-plus hit season, but he can count on being stranded for the majority of another year.
The Mariners have the most dominant AL pitcher in Felix Hernandez; it’s too bad they can’t make four clones of him.
Third place: Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics have a nice young group of starting pitchers that includes Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. Add a respectable bullpen to that in Homer Bailey, Brian Fuentes and still-recovering fireballer Brad Ziegler, and I believe the A’s could surprise some people this year by not completely sucking.
But where are the bats?
Granted, pitching wins games, especially in the playoffs. But forget about going to the playoffs if you have no offense.
The A’s offense rivals the Mariners as one of the worst in baseball.
Who’s gonna drive in runs this year in Oakland? Kevin Kouzmanoff? Can Josh Willingham really stay healthy long enough to be a difference-maker this year? A person with active brain cells has to doubt that.
Also, please don’t bother telling me that always-injured DH Hedeki Matsui will be the saving grace for the 2011 A’s lineup. That’s not going to be pretty.
Once again, I do think the Athletics' pitching can keep them within 7–9 games of first place in the AL West, and even possibly spend early parts of the season at the top of the division, but Oakland is unlikely to finish 2011 higher than third.
Second Place: Texas Rangers
I know a lot of people think the Texas Rangers will take this division again this year, but I’m not one of them.
Yes, they will score the most runs in this division, but without Cliff Lee their starting rotation will be led by C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter. Not exactly terrible, but not terribly reliable either.
Let’s not even mention Brandon Webb, unless you’re the type that likes watching grass grow.
Neftali Feliz is a very nice closer, but it’s gonna take contributions from badly aging middle relievers like Arthur Rhodes (41), Darren Oliver (yes, he’s still alive) and Mark Lowe just to get to the ninth so Feliz can give them a chance.
As for the offense, AL MVP Josh Hamilton has missed a total of 102 games the past two seasons, and I just don’t think that will drastically change.
Same goes for teammates Nelson Cruz, who has missed 88 games in that time, and Ian Kinsler, who has missed 77 games in that two-year span. Hamstring issues can be chronic with some players, and no other offense seems to suffer from them more.
Add in the fact that Adrian Beltre just got paid, which means he will return to mediocrity like he always does after a big contract.
In the process of signing Beltre, Texas misled all-time Rangers hit leader Michael Young, who now wants to be traded, and they don’t have a chance at getting nearly as much for him as they could have five years ago.
Recent reports have noted that the Rangers are testing Neftali Feliz as a possible starter in an attempt to mitigate the loss of Cliff Lee, leaving Mark Lowe to take over closing duties. While the concept is somewhat understandable, I believe it's a bad idea.
In 2011, I see the Rangers coming just a couple games short of an AL West title and getting beaten out for a wild-card bid by a similar margin by the Yankees, White Sox, Twins or Tigers.
First Place: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California of the United States of North America of Earth, or whatever you wanna call them, will win the American League West in 2011. I certainly can’t say they'll run away with the division, but with the offensive futility of the bottom two teams and a lesser Texas squad this year, I see an opening for them.
The Los Angeles offense probably won’t score as much as Texas'. Vernon Wells does cost a lot more than he should. Torii Hunter is nearly 36, and Bobby Abreu nearly 37.
However, I think these veterans can do just enough this year to get it done while showing better overall durability than most hitters in the Lone Star State. Most importantly, Kendry Morales will back this year with his big bat and an all-too-important promise not to jump straight on home plate after hitting walk-off homers.
In 2010, that was exactly how the Angles lost momentum and any chance at catching the Rangers.
Along with the return of Kendry Morales, the biggest reason I am picking the Angels is their starting pitching. Jared Weaver really shined as an elite AL pitcher last year, and he will be plenty focused to repeat that in 2011—it's a contract year for him.
Dan Haren returned to form as a dominant pitcher after the All-Star break last year and shows no signs of falling off from that.
Ervin Santana, who once was known as a guy with extreme splits between home and away performances, seems to have finally figured out the same thing on the road he has always known at home: that he doesn't need to strike everyone out to be successful.
As a matter of fact, the Angels would prefer Santana to take that approach more often to keep his pitch count down. I believe he has learned the lesson, but it is nice to know you can throw the ball by a hitter when it’s needed.
These Angels pitchers can certainly do that.
If Scott Kazmir could avoid missing a plethora of starts, the Angels would have their way with the division easily, but that’s truly wishful thinking.
I love the much-needed addition of Scott Downs to the bullpen. Jordan Walden should be a pleasant surprise this year as well, which is why I believe the Halos will take the AL West crown in a tight race.
Check out our other division previews: