AL West Preview: Resurgent Angels, A's Look to Dethrone AL Champion Rangers

John ChurchCorrespondent IMarch 22, 2011

AL West Preview: Resurgent Angels, A's Look to Dethrone AL Champion Rangers

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    After years of the Mike Scioscia Angels maintaining a stranglehold on the AL West, things finally came together for the Texas Rangers in 2010, as they overcame their rivals from California on their way to their very first American League pennant.

    Looking to maintain their place atop the division, the Rangers were quite active this Winter. Though key midseason acquisition Cliff Lee departed for Philadelphia, Jon Daniels was able to bring in Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, Brandon Webb, and Arthur Rhodes.

    Despite these moves, the Rangers are not the most improved team in the division. That distinction belongs to Billy Beane's Oakland A's. With a deep, young rotation in place, Beane fine-tuned the team's lineup and bullpen, adding Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Grant Balfour, and Brian Fuentes in hopes of building on a second place finish in 2010.

    Though many thought they'd be movers and shakers this Winter, the Angels swung and missed in all of their initial attempts to bolster their roster, spurring a desperate Tony Reagins to trade for the talented yet overpaid Vernon Wells. In light of an incredibly disappointing off season, the Angels will look to climb back to the top behind a healthy Kendrys Morales and a full season with Dan Haren.

    Forced to watch their spending after a horrific 2010 season, Jack Zduriencik and the Seattle Mariners were limited to minor moves, Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo being their most noteworthy pickups. Better hitting and an infusion of youth will be key to the M's recovering from their second 100 loss season in two years.

    Despite being the only division in baseball without at least five teams, there's no shortage of contenders in the AL West. Even with Lee gone, the Rangers have a very real shot at repeating as division champions. That said, there's certainly a case to be made for the A's and Angels. No one is giving them a chance, but the Mariners have surprised before.

    Whereas there's a clear cut favorite in most of the other divisions, that's not the case in the AL West, and it should make for a captivating race in 2011.

Los Angeles Angels

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    2010 Record: 80-82, Third Place

    Off Season Grade (D): A nightmare of an off season for a team many thought would be big time players this winter. The Angels were thought to be a natural fit for Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, and Adrian Beltre, but weren't willing to dish out the dollars to land any of them (inexcusable for a team that plays in such a vibrant media market as greater Los Angeles).

    Even more bewildering is that owner Arte Moreno called Crawford's $142M contract with Boston "crazy," yet they were willing to take on Vernon Wells, a significantly less talented player than Crawford due $86M through 2014. Wells still has power but he makes the Angels older and brings no speed to the table.

    Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi are solid additions to what was a mediocre Angels bullpen in 2010, but Tony Reagins, Moreno, and company really dropped the ball this off season.

    Strengths: When Kendrys Morales returns, their offense will be drastically better. With a pair of center fielders patrolling left and right field (Wells and Torii Hunter), they may have the best outfield defense in baseball.

    Jered Weaver and Dan Haren should be a lights out one-two punch. With pitchers like Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro rounding out the staff, they have a rotation to be reckoned with.

    Weaknesses: Once known for their speed and potency on the bases, they finished in the middle of the pack in the AL in stolen bases in 2010 and I don't think they'll do much better this season. They don't have a proven prototypical leadoff hitter. Fernando Rodney has never gotten the most out of his stuff; I'm simply not sold on him as a closer.

    Breakout Candidate - Peter Bourjos: How highly do the Angels regard Bourjos' defensive abilities? About the only thing you need to know is that they moved two center fielders with twelve gold gloves between them to accommodate the 23 year old.

    Obviously, he'll be an asset in the field. Whether or not his bat comes around (.204/ .237/ .381 in 181 AB last season) will determine whether he sticks in the starting lineup. If he can, he has the speed (10 SB in 51 games in 2010) to take over as the Halos' leadoff man.

    The Bottom Line: The 2010 season wasn't much fun for the Angels, due mostly to injuries and uncharacteristically poor defense. With the Rangers coming off a stellar season and the A's much improved, they haven't been getting a lot of attention this off season but I'm sure that's fine by them. Even though they failed to make a splash this Winter, this team could be dangerous if healthy.

    Morales' return should work wonders for their offense and their starting pitching should be pretty strong. While they're not perfect, they have the best manager in baseball, who has a knack for getting the most out of his roster. I won't be at all surprised if they pounce from the weeds to reclaim their spot atop the AL West.

Oakland Athletics

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    2010 Record: 81-81, Second Place

    Off Season Grade (A-): Among AL teams, only the Red Sox had a more productive off season. With a young, talented rotation in place, Billy Beane was able to concentrate on adding to the team's offense and bullpen. While they didn't add one elite hitter they could build their lineup around, they did bring in three very solid (and affordable) hitters in David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui.

    Though they already had a strong bullpen built around Andrew Bailey, Michael Wuertz, and Craig Breslow, Beane still felt compelled to add to that core. The additions of Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour bolster a pen that was already one of the strengths of the team.

    With a solid front four, Brandon McCarthy and Rich Harden were brought in to compete for spots at the back of the rotation. As Harden is already hurt (shocking, I know), McCarthy currently has the edge in that competition.

    Strengths: Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez comprise the new big three in a rotation that might have the most upside of any in the AL. When Bailey returns, they'll have the best bullpen in baseball. 

    While they don't have a typical AL lineup with that one great player, their lineup boasts several steady, consistent hitters. DeJesus, Mark Ellis, and Daric Barton are standouts in what should be a very good defense. 

    Weaknesses: They're a subpar power hitting team, who in all likelihood will not have a single player hit 30 HR this season. Bailey, who had Tommy John surgery back in 2005, is already hurt and questionable for opening day. As a whole, several key players (Anderson, Ellis, Willingham) are injury prone.

    Breakout Candidate - Chris Carter: There's no clear cut path to the majors for Carter. They love Barton's defense and ability to get on base at first, and the corner outfield spots are occupied by the newcomers DeJesus and Willingham.

    That said, the A's sorely lack something Carter has plenty of; power. In 125 games at AAA last season, Carter hit 31 home runs with a .894 OPS, and he's looked good this Spring. If the A's become desperate for some pop, look for them to turn to Carter.

    The Bottom Line: Unable to spend their way back to relevance, Billy Beane and the A's had to endure some tough seasons for a while, trading established players for young talent and waiting for their farm system to bear fruit. In time, it has done just that, as players like Anderson, Cahill, Suzuki, Barton, and Bailey have reached the majors and made a difference.

    With a roster full of young players we've yet to see the best of, mixed in with steady veterans, all the pieces could finally be in place. Health will be key, as they'll need such players as Anderson and Bailey to stay healthy and contribute. In the year Moneyball comes to theaters, the A's have a legitimate shot at validating that philosophy and making it back to the playoffs.

Seattle Mariners

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    2010 Record: 61-101, Fourth Place

    Off Season Grade (D+): After making a flurry of moves last off season only to finish last in the AL West, the Mariners were far more quiet this Winter. Given how fruitless last season's shopping spree wound up being, they couldn't have been expected to go out and simply throw money at their problems.

    Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo bring much needed pop, but the two of them alone won't solve Seattle's offensive woes. The slick-fielding Brendan Ryan fits the M's adherence to strong defense, but the last thing this team needed is an infielder who hit .223/ .279/ .294 in 439 AB last season. 

    The ultra-fragile Erik Bedard was brought back for a mere $1M. Could the fourth time be the charm and 2011 be the year he gives the M's a full season?

    Strengths: Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher in the AL; his 2010 AL Cy Young award won't be his last. Though he's now 37, Ichiro is still getting it done on both sides of the ball. Youngsters Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda could both arrive and make an impact this season.

    Weaknesses: They had the worst offense in baseball last year and while there's nowhere to go but up, that will not be a strength of theirs this season. As hyped as their defense was, they still finished in the bottom 10 in the league in E and FPCT. With David Aardsma injured, their bullpen thins out drastically.

    Breakout Candidate - Michael Pineda: The 6'5" Dominican, who has already drawn comparisons to teammate Felix Hernandez, is considered the favorite to break camp as the club's fifth starter. It's not hard to see why; Hernandez is the only pitcher on Seattle's roster with more raw talent than Pineda.

    In 139.1 innings at AA and AAA in 2010, Pineda posted a 3.36 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and a K/BB of 4.53. He's a prototypical power pitcher with excellent command, whose tendency for fly balls won't be an issue in Safeco Field. A dark horse rookie of the year candidate.

    The Bottom Line: The Mariners enter 2011 in the same predicament they found themselves in two years ago; trying to rebound from a 100 loss season in which they had a payroll north of $100M. That season, they surprised everyone by winning 85 games (24 more than they had the year before).

    I don't see them making that drastic an improvement this time; they're still a well-below average offensive team and their bullpen looks like an issue as well. That said, with the AL's best pitcher in Hernandez in the fold and a host of other promising youngsters (Justin Smoak, Ackley, Pineda), I don't think the future for the Mariners is as bleak as some seem to believe.

Texas Rangers

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    2010 Record: 90-72, First Place (Lost WS to San Francisco)

    Off Season Grade (B): Not content to sit still after falling short in the World Series, Jon Daniels and the Rangers brought in several players of note. Though they overpaid to get him, Adrian Beltre improves an already solid defense and should remain productive playing half his games in Texas. Mike Napoli is a solid source of power at C, 1B, and DH, and they were wise to take a flyer on Brandon Webb.

    Despite these moves, two things marred Texas' off season. First, they were unable to re-sign Cliff Lee, whose stellar postseason was crucial to the team reaching the World Series. With Lee gone, they cannot afford for C.J. Wilson or Colby Lewis to regress too greatly.

    Secondly, in acquiring both Beltre and Napoli, they squeezed out and alienated team leader Michael Young. Though the Rangers have insisted Young will get his fair share of AB, the franchise hits leader is sick of being moved around the diamond (rightfully so) and could be traded at some point this season.

    Strengths: Led by such five tool studs as Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler, they have one of the best lineups in baseball. Hamilton, Cruz, Beltre, and Elvis Andrus headline what may be the best defense in baseball. 

    Wilson and Lewis enjoyed breakout seasons in 2010, and were holding down the fort before the acquisition of Cliff Lee. Mark Lowe, Alexi Ogando, and Neftali Feliz make for an imposing, hard-throwing late inning trio.

    Weaknesses: While they have many quality rotation options, they don't have a prototypical number one. Ron Washington has his hands full making sure Young, Napoli, and Mitch Moreland all get their fair share of AB. If Feliz moves to the rotation, the top candidates to replace him (Lowe and Ogando) have four career saves between them. 

    Breakout Candidate - Derek Holland: Mentioned in trade talks for Roy Halladay in 2009, Derek Holland has shown flashes of his talent in the time since and has endured struggles as well. He's very much in the mix to win a spot at the back of the rotation, but has upper rotation talent.

    Like many young pitchers, he struggles with control at times (as he showed in a disastrous performance in game 2 of the World Series) but the lefty has the strikeout ability to make an impact at the back end of Texas' rotation. 

    The Bottom Line: Overshadowed this time last year by the Angels and Mariners, the Rangers shocked many in winning the West and making it all the way to the Fall Classic. As such, they're not going to sneak up on anybody this time and find themselves the hunted. While World Series hangovers aren't unheard of, the Rangers have the talent to win the division and make some noise again in 2011.

    Hamilton won his first MVP award last season and should contend for more for years to come. The rest of their lineup is loaded with all-star caliber hitters, most of whom are still in their prime. Whether or not their rotation can build on its success from last year and what happens with Young will determine whether the Rangers will continue to rule the roost in the wild AL West.

Five Players Who Could Change the Race

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    1. Kendry Morales

    With one fateful leap into a crowd of teammates last May, the Angels' postseason hopes evaporated. Ten months later, Morales' left leg still hasn't completely healed, making it hard to know what to expect from both him and his team this season.

    At the time of the injury, Morales had established himself as the focal point of the Angels' lineup, hitting .306/.355/ .569 with 34 HR and 108 RBI in 2009 and on his way to another monster season in 2010. Still just 27, there's no reason not to expect him to be very productive when he does return.

    As he hasn't seen any game action thus far this Spring, it's becoming more and more likely he starts the season on the disabled list. If the Angels can tread water until he's ready to go, they'll be a factor in the AL West this season.

    2. Neftali Feliz

    The wildest of all wild cards. Opinions on how Feliz can best help the Rangers win this season vary significantly, with some imploring Texas to play it safe and keep the Dominican flamethrower in the closer's role he flourished in last season.

    Others contend his stuff is too good and his potential too vast for him not to be a starter. He's looked dominant in his starts thus far this Spring and with Texas lacking a viable number one starter, they could use an arm like Feliz's in the rotation.

    Personally, I think they need him in the bullpen given their lack of experienced alternatives, though I do agree his future is as a starter. It's quite the quandary for Ron Washington and company, but also one I'm sure all 29 other teams would love to have.

    3. Josh Willingham

    The odd man out in Washington following the signing of Jayson Werth, Billy Beane seized the opportunity to add Willingham's potent bat to a lineup in desperate need of power. The 32 year old joins David DeJesus and Coco Crisp in Oakland's new look outfield.

    When healthy, Willingham is a very solid run producer with 25 HR ability and a penchant for getting on base (a career OBP of .367). Staying healthy has been a problem for him though, as he hasn't played in more than 140 games in a season since 2007.

    Having bottom fed for years in Florida and Washington, Willingham has never had a better chance to win, nor has he ever been counted on this heavily to stay healthy.

    4. Brandon Webb

    When Jon Daniels was unable to reel in Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, or another top tier starting pitcher, he decided to add 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb (at a bargain price) in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle.

    Webb has had an absolutely miserable time with injuries since 2008 and has not pitched in a game since Opening day 2009. His recovery has been a gradual one, as he is just now getting close to appearing in a simulated or B game.

    It's not realistic to expect him to be the dominant ace he was for years in Arizona, but if Webb can return sooner rather than later and be a quality mid-rotation starter for the Rangers, it'll be $3M well spent.

    5. Erick Aybar

    After a career season in which he hit .312/ .353/ .423, the 27 year old Aybar was charged with replacing Chone Figgins atop the Angels' lineup. Injuries sabotaged his campaign though, as he hit just .253/ .306/ .330.

    Despite the down year, he did manage to set a new career high in stolen bases with 22, and he doesn't strike out often either. As such, he's still probably the Angels' best option to lead off.

    As he's much better than what he showed defensively last season as well, he has a chance to be a difference-maker for the Halos on both sides of the ball in 2011.

Predicted Standings

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    1. Oakland Athletics (92-70)

    2. Los Angeles Angels (88-74)

    3. Texas Rangers (85-77)

    4. Seattle Mariners (71-91)

    In 2010, the Rangers spent most of the season in command of the division. I expect this season's race to much more of a roller coaster ride. There are things to like about the Angels, A's, and Rangers and they all have their weaknesses as well.

    A year after wallowing in mediocrity due largely to a lackluster offense, the A's finally have enough bats to back a pitching staff that led the AL in ERA last season. On the strength of such blossoming young arms as Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey, the A's will win the AL West. 

    Health will be key to their success (Bailey may miss the start of the season). Though I expect their offense to come through, if the A's are in at the deadline, look for Billy Beane to make a move or two to bolster Oakland's lineup.

    Even in light of an impossibly disappointing off season and with Kendry Morales slated to begin the season on the disabled list, I'm expecting the Angels to bounce back (though not quite back to the top). 

    When they get Morales back, their lineup should flourish and Jered Weaver and Dan Haren will be the best one-two punch in the AL this season. They'll push the A's all the way but ultimately will come up a little short.

    I won't be the least bit surprised if they prove me wrong, but I see the Rangers slipping to third place in 2011. No matter where they finish, I know one thing; they're going to score runs. My concern is their pitching; they're going to miss Cliff Lee.

    While solid pitchers, I don't think of C.J. Wilson or Colby Lewis as a bona-fide ace. Of course, Neftali Feliz has the ability to completely change the outlook for their rotation, but moving him from the pen creates a gaping hole in the 9th inning.

    They're not going to compete this year, but I do see the Mariners making strides (no, they're not trading Felix Hernandez). Their offense simply can't be that bad two years in a row. Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley both will make their debuts this year, offering M's fans a glimmer of hope for the future.

    If you enjoyed this, please give my other division previews a look as well...

    * AL East

    * AL Central


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