AL West 2011 Preview: A Power Struggle Could Be in the Works
Here it is, a preview that could eventually end up turning up as a reality throughout the duration of the 2011 MLB regular season.
The starting point is the American League's West Division. The smallest division in all of baseball contains four teams that will jockey for the top position. One of these teams is the defending AL champion Texas Rangers. A big question mark here regards their ability to bounce back after a World Series defeat.
Also mucked up in the West are the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a perennial contender that always seems to find themselves in the division mix.
Just 10 games separated the Rangers, Angels and Oakland Athletics last year. Don't be surprised if this division turns into an even tighter logjam in 2011. A shuffle in the AL West's balance of power is inevitably on the way this year. Here is a team-by-team outlook of what may be to come for the entirety of the AL West.
Seattle Mariners (Fourth-Place Finish)
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The Seattle Mariners will attempt to chip away at the exit of the AL West basement this year. Unfortunately, they are incredibly under-equipped to complete such a task.
Coming off of a 101-loss season, this team has done little to make changes to their lineup and pitching staff. It looks like another year of wallowing at the bottom of the American League for Seattle.
Lineup: This offense has a couple of pieces, but these pieces will not be able to click. The addition of Justin Smoak last season was made to bulk up the powerful side of the lineup. The Mariners added Jack Cust in the offseason to help the home run count as well.
The problem is that these two guys haven't proven that their power can be a keystone to a lineup. Smoak has struggled to find his stroke and Cust performs best when it comes to striking out, despite shockingly producing a .272 average in 2010.
As always, Ichiro is reliable factor in the lineup, but the additions of Miguel Olivo, Chone Figgins and Brendan Ryan are all mediocre at best. Fans at least have the arrival of second baseman Dustin Ackley to look forward to. He is currently hitting .350 this spring and is one of the most promising prospects at his position in the game.
If anything, expect Michael Saunders to jump in as the most surprising hitter in this lineup. He didn't hit all that well last year, but he can run and he popped 10 homers in 2010.
Pitching: It goes without saying that Felix Hernandez is the reason this team will be able to win games. The defending AL Cy Young winner will probably come out looking no different than his form last year.
But this bullpen and rotation have made no changes or upgrades whatsoever since last year, which leads me to believe that the performance won't change at all. The other issue is that the Mariners lack big-name pitching prospects in the minors. The most promising of these guys, lefty Mauricio Robles, has already been cut from big league camp.
I am interested in seeing if Jason Vargas can build off his 3.78 ERA last year, and if Erik Bedard can successfully rebound from a career in which he has struggled with his health. I could also see Brandon League having a big year in the setup role, but that will go overlooked if the team struggles, which they probably will.
Bottom line: Simply put, the Mariners don't measure up to the rest of the AL West in overall ability and don't look much different than the 61-101 team they were in 2010. They'll finish dead last in their division.
Texas Rangers (Third-Place Finish)
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It probably is unfair of me to toss the Rangers to the curb after a World Series run, but I'm really just not feeling this team in 2011. I expect the Angels to rebound, and I'm more than intrigued by Oakland, and for me, that leaves Texas on the short end of the stick.
I think they have issues that will hurt them, as well.
Lineup: With that being said, I still really like the lineup that the Rangers toss out there. One problem I have is that they are weak in center field. I like his defense, but Julio Borbon has been a huge underachiever.
I also think there are gaping holes at catcher and in the DH slot, but other than that, this is a well-rounded lineup. For that matter, I've never liked Ian Kinsler all that much. He could do so much better in the power department after two straight seasons of sub-.300 hitting.
They have two MVP candidates and potential .300 hitters in Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton. If these two can stay healthy all year, expect at least 60 home runs and 30 stolen bases between the two. Elvis Andrus is also a stud at shortstop. I like Mitch Moreland's potential a lot, and overall, this is a solid lineup.
I don't think this lineup will be able to pick up the slack that the majority of this pitching staff will create.
Pitching: The departed Cliff Lee leaves an iffy-looking rotation in his wake. C.J. Wilson did an amazing job of standing up for himself with a 15-8 season, tossing over 200 innings, but I'm afraid he can't duplicate that in 2011.
Scott Feldman was awful after a solid 2009, and now he barely factors into the long-term pitching plans in Texas. Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter both concern me, especially Lewis after statistically overachieved last year. The signing of Brandon Webb sounds good, but he hasn't pitched since 2008. There is nothing reassuring me that he'll stay healthy for more than one start this year.
Neftali Felix will thrive in the closer role and the development of Tanner Scheppers will become big news once he irons out his difficulties at Triple-A from last year.
This is a good-looking bullpen with veteran arms like Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes. Alexi Ogando flew under the radar last year with a 1.44 ERA. The bullpen is a risk of being overworked, and with possibly fragile arms like Oliver and Rhodes, it might grow into a point of interest.
Bottom Line: I like this team. But I think they fit awkwardly into what will be a huge logjam in the AL West in which a mere five or six games could end up separating three teams. The possibility of a tie for second place is most certainly there for this team, or the other two teams in the division as well.
The Texas Rangers just may struggle to bounce back from losing a top-notch ace in Cliff Lee.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Second-Place Finish)
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It is very hard to comprehend that this Angels team finished below .500 in 2010. They were bugged by injuries that made finishing off a winning season difficult.
This whole problem could end up being completely reversed if the Angels throw together a healthy season. The Angels, however, put up a less-than-stellar offseason after pretty big plans, and that could come back to haunt them.
Lineup: My biggest issue with the Angels in 2011 is that they targeted big names in Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford and came up completely empty-handed in the end. At the very least, they snagged Vernon Wells to fill out the corner outfield, but he wasn't the athlete I had hoped to see inserted into this lineup.
Kendry Morales is back and ready to go in 2011 after his celebration injury last year, which surely won't happen again. He has to be dreaming big this year, and nobody should be confused if he puts up a 40-spot in the home runs column. He is the glue that holds this offense together, with some great supporting cast members the consistent Howie Kendrick (who needs to draw more walks) and Torii Hunter.
Keep an eye on Peter Bourjos in center field if you want a pleasant surprise this season. The 22-year-old stole 10 bases and hit six home runs in 51 games in 2010. He is off to a good start this spring as well.
The left side of the infield is bleak after not picking up Beltre, but a healthy infield rotation of Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo might not be a bad thing. Keep your eyes peeled for young catcher "Hammerin'" Hank Conger. He batted .300 at Triple-A Salt Lake last year and switch-hit his way to 11 home runs with impressive plate discipline.
On the whole, the pieces of the puzzle are in place for the Angels to turn things around completely on offense in 2011.
Pitching: One through four in this rotation look fairly reliable. We know what to expect from the likes of Jered Weaver, Danny Haren and Joel Pineiro. Ervin Santana is prone to yearly ups and downs, and according to the pattern he has built, 2011 could be a down year. Scott Kazmir is also flat-out awful.
Francisco Rodney, the closer, may be the only worry in the bullpen. If not, there is talent buried in this pen. Left-handed additions of Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi should prove successful. If anything, Takahashi handled a few weeks as the Mets closer very well last year.
Kevin Jepsen has closing material and Jordan Walden was impressive in a 16-appearance stint last year. The options in the Angels bullpen run deep and I think it completes the pitching staff well.
Bottom line: This lineup, alongside that of the Rangers, represents the best batting in the AL West. I like the Angels pitching staff and this will all help them compete for a playoff spot. Collectively this is not the best group of pitchers in the division, which is the one thing that is holding me back from calling them a division winner. Again, expect them to be in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Oakland Athletics (First Place, Division Winner)
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Let me start this off by saying that General Manager Billy Beane is a complete and utter guru, and I think it will finally start to pay off this year. My pick of the Oakland Athletics winning the AL West will probably result in me getting a lot of flack, but they are my dark horse in all of baseball this year, and the pitching staff that they toss out there is absolutely lethal.
The A's also made the best offseason moves in the division by several miles. People forget that this team finished .500 last year, and they will definitely crack it in 2011.
Lineup: The A's lineup has been their weakness for years, but after handle of impressive and low-risk moves in the offseason, the A's have what it takes to compete on offense again. They won't have that 30-plus home run guy, but the additions of Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham helps round out the lineup.
David DeJesus might be the best signing, an overall hitter that can find every gap and crevice at the Coliseum. He slapped 23 doubles last year in just over half a season, so expect the hits to fly off his bat in Oakland.
They return the usual suspects in Cliff Pennington, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Kurt Suzuki, but I really think the additions in the offseason help balance this lineup. The huge hole in the lineup is Daric Barton at first base. At least prospect Chris Carter jacked a pair of home runs earlier today to help his stock rise in case of a first-base floundering at the big league level.
The A's lineup isn't the best in the division, but it is largely improved and heading in the right direction. End of story.
Pitching: The Oakland A's possess quite possibly the best group of starting pitchers in the American League right now. These guys are all underrated as well.
Dallas Braden is kind of spotty, but we have seen what he is capable of. The two other lefties in Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez are both young and have pitched really with. Anderson may have some Cy Young material.
Righty Trevor Cahill is no exception either. He doesn't power pitch to get guys out, but his numbers speak for how crafty he is. He won 18 games in 30 starts last year, with a 2.97 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. In his defense, he collected 118 K's. Rich Harden is another outstanding low-risk offseason addition to fill out the back end of the rotation.
Even this bullpen is loaded to the brim. Andrew Bailey tweaked his elbow today, which could be an issue, with him being the closer and all. There is plenty other talent in the bullpen to fill the void.
The A's offseason also saw them reel in Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes. Fuentes could easily close if necessary. The experienced arms of Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, and Michael Wuertz are still around as well.
The interesting piece is a healthy Joey Devine. Devine underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, but in 2008 he dropped a 6-1 record in 45.2 innings with an ERA of 0.59 ERA. This entire Oakland pitching staff runs very deep, plain and simple.
Bottom line: My gut tells me that this could be the year for the Oakland A's. Their pitching staff can flourish and get the respect they deserve, while the lineup shows signs of improvement. The top four in this starting rotation will give the rest of the AL West fits all season (Cahill went 7-2 against division opponents last year).
The A's will be at the top of the West logjam and will at the very least cause a ruckus in the upcoming 2011 season.