MLB Opening Day: Breaking Down the AL West in 2011
The bleak and dreary days are over. The cheery holiday well-wishers, festive New Year celebrations, and visions of frozen landscapes are behind us now. At least, out West.
They've given way to overflowing stadiums of roaring fans, thunderous ovations for late-game heroics, and fields of lush green grass.
Spring training, too, has come and gone. Like the blustery winter before it, the exhibition season has melted away to reveal an exciting new year in our nation's oldest pastime.
Baseball is here, in all its glory.
You can almost feel it. That first whiff of smoky red dirt lining the base paths. That first sip of cold beer on a hot afternoon. That first bite of a classic ballpark dog.
But before the ump gives his customary opening remark, we must first look back at the offseason that was and forecast the season that will be.
Let's predict ball!
1. Texas Rangers (91-71)
Full disclosure: I hate those weak so-called “experts” who, every year, publish their bold predictions and, every year, pick the same teams that won the year before.
It's lame. It's disingenuous. It's lazy. But in this case, it's right.
The Rangers finally earned their spot as a legitimate threat in 2010, winning not just their first AL West title in over a decade, but also the first American League Championship in franchise history.
In the offseason, they managed to reconstruct what is easily the most complete lineup in the division, despite losing key pieces like Vladimir Guerrero and Cliff Lee to free agency. In some areas, they got even better.
The addition of Adrian Beltre helps strengthen what is already a tight infield defense, and if Beltre can manage numbers anywhere close to last year, the offense will get a big boost too.
The Rangers also feature a sturdy bullpen, full of veteran leaders and blossoming young talent, and anchored by the reigning AL saves leader and Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz.
Perhaps the only question mark surrounding Texas is, predictably, starting pitching. The Rangers' rotation has been a detriment more often than they'd like in recent years, and while things have dramatically improved for them on the mound, the situation is by no means settled.
C.J. Wilson has injury issues, Matt Harrison is desperately looking to rebound from last year, and Derek Holland has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded his rookie season.
That said, things still look good deep in the heart of Texas, and the Rangers should have little trouble hanging on to their division crown.
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (88-74)
The once, and perhaps future, kings of AL West fell on hard times last year.
For the first time since 2003, the Halos finished the season with a losing record, and they entered the offseason more determined than ever to improve a lineup that suddenly looked old and slow.
Unfortunately, their actions couldn't match their zeal and when all was said and done, they missed every major free agent they were aiming for. Carl Crawford, Adrian Beltre, Rafael Soriano—all slipped through the Angels' fingers.
More out of desperation than necessity, owner Arte Moreno and general manager Tony Reagins authored a trade for the expensive services of Vernon Wells, a move that seemed to infuriate an already agitated fan base.
I, myself, am staying positive about the Wells deal, and fully believe he'll do more to jump start an otherwise anemic Angels offense than some people realize. His Gold Glove Award-winning defensive skills will also go a long way toward improving what was a shockingly ineffective outfield last season.
But he is only one player. Success for the Angels in 2011 will hinge, in large part, on its core of young players.
Peter Bourjos is inhuman on defense, but he'll have to hit better than the .204 mark he put up last year. Kendrys Morales has left some big shoes to fill at first and Mark Trumbo must step up in his absence.
In the bullpen, guys like Jordan Walden and Michael Kohn need to show manager Mike Scioscia that he can count on them to hold leads, something Angel relievers couldn't do with any measure of consistency last year.
Outside of Scott Kazmir, the starting pitching is good enough. It's a matter of the young guns in the lineup coming through, and some of the veterans having bounce-back years after essentially taking a sabbatical in 2010.
If all of that can happen, the Angels will return to a level of respectability. It might not be enough to win the division, but at least they'll give the Rangers something to think about.
3. Oakland A's (87-75)
It's almost impossible to have as great of an offseason as the A's have had and still lack the attention of anyone outside the Bay Area.
Oakland is so invisible in the baseball world, Andrew Bailey could steal Dennis Eckersley's plaque out of Cooperstown in broad daylight and no one would suspect a thing.
The A's managed to sneak behind the backs of every other team in the majors and steal away left fielder Josh Willingham, slugging DH Hideki Matsui, and center fielder David DeJesus, the hottest player not named Cliff Lee before last year's trade deadline.
Had it not been for a season-ending arm injury, DeJesus would've certainly been overpaid for by any one of the playoff contenders at the time.
Matsui had a bit of an up-and-down season with the Angels, but finished with decent numbers overall and will help fill the A's gaping power void in the middle of their lineup.
All of this, and I haven't even mentioned the pitching. Top to bottom, left to right, and all direction in between, both the starting staff and the relief corp. might be the best in the entire American League, nevermind the division.
Still, Oakland Alameda County Coliseum is a very difficult place to generate offense. Even with guys like DeJesus and Willingham, and returning stars like Kurt Suzuki, runs will always be at a premium.
Deep power alleys and expansive foul territory give pitchers and defense a decided advantage. Deeper rosters like those of Texas and L.A. will be able to withstand a few games up north better than the A's can hold off their divisional rivals while playing their for half the season.
4. Seattle Mariners (70-92)
Only a year removed from being the sexiest pick to win the AL West, the Mariners are right back to being the dogs of the division.
The same general manager who was so highly praised for his acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins now faces another dreaded “rebuilding” year. I hope Jack Zduriencik is wearing a cup.
Studs like Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez, and Felix Hernandez are brilliant masterworks among a gallery of children's paintings. The rest of the Mariners' roster consists of projects, question marks, and players who might not even make the bench spots of some other clubs.
Like Oakland, Seattle also suffers from a large home park that is notoriously difficult to sustain offense in over the course of a full season.
It's difficult to see how this team, as it stands on Opening Day, can compete in a division that also houses Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Jered Weaver, and Trevor Cahill. Legitimate All-Stars who strike fear in the hearts of every opponent they face.
Countering that with Milton Bradley and Adam Kennedy just won't be enough. But, with young guys like Dustin Ackley on the rise, there is still plenty to look forward to in the future.
As they say, there's always next year.