Wednesday, February 22, 2012

AL West Preview

1st Place Los Angeles Angels
2011 Record: 86-76
2011 Pythagorean: 85-77
2012 Projected: 96-66
Pedestrian offense? The best hitter in baseball should fix that.  Need a lefty starter to inject some balance into your rotation? Enter C.J. Wilson, one of the most effective southpaws over the past two years who could be even better after leaving Arlington in his rearview mirror.  The Halos endured a rough offseason last year, whiffing on Carl Crawford, trading Mike Napoli (only to see him come back to haunt them with the Rangers) for Vernon Wells in an ill-advised attempt to make a splash.  It's no surprise they finished ten games off the pace in the AL West.  But that was then, this is now.  New GM Arte Moreno is at the helm, and on one day he committed nearly $320 million over fifteen seasons to two players.  LA boasts three legitimate aces in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Wilson.  Ervin Santana is no slouch, either, and he's their fourth starter!  Wilson was hardly necessary considering the team topped the Junior Circuit in ERA and innings pitched last year, but I know they say you can never have too much pitching. I think it's safe to say the Angels have the deepest rotation in baseball, better than San Francisco's and Philadelphia's, and they're going to need it because the bullpen is nothing special outside of Jordan Walden.  On offense, Pujols anchors a lineup in desperate need of his prodigious power and on-base skills.  With Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Bobby Abreu all on the decline, a strong comeback season from Kendrys Morales is essential (especially if you believe in lineup protection).  Adding the Machine makes Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo the odd man out right now, but since he's the only other Angel capable of swatting 30+ home runs Mike Scoscia really needs to find a place for him (and yes, I know he had more home runs than walks last year and posted a .291 OBP, but could the 1B/RF/DH'er man the hot corner a la Kevin Youkilis?).  So Los Angeles will probably still struggle to score runs at times, but their superlative pitching and extraordinary defense should be able to limit opposing offenses.  This team is far from perfect, though, and still might not have enough to overtake the Rangers in their own division.  Last year's Red Sox team proved that a powerhouse on paper doesn't mean anything.

2nd Place Texas Rangers
2011 Record: 96-66
2011 Pythagorean: 98-64
2012 Projected: 94-68
Texas secured its second straight American League pennant in 2011 and were heavily favored to capture the franchise's first World Series crown.  They were on the brink in Game 6, needing just one more strike on two separate occassions, but ultimately lost the game and were upset by the underdog St. Louis Cardinals.  What followed was a whirlwind of an offseason; they lost ace C.J. Wilson (team leader in wins, ERA, starts, innings, strikeouts--you get the picture) during free agency to the rival Angels on the same day Los Angeles inked Albert Pujols just six weeks after he abused Texas pitching in the Fall Classic.  For the rest of the winter the Rangers were the favorites to land Prince Fielder, the "other" marquee slugging first baseman on the market, but he wound up in Detroit.  Texas finally made a splash by acquiring Japanese hurler Yu Darvish, who's everything Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be when he signed with Boston five years ago.  He should fill the void left by Wilson's departure.  Texas is also adding depth to their rotation by turning young closer Neftali Feliz into a starter and replacing him with Joe Nathan.  They are confident Feliz can make the transition based on the successful conversion of Alexi Ogando from the 'pen to a frontline starter last season, but the rotation has enough depth to survive if he falters (Matt Harrison, 14-9 with a 131 ERA+ last year, is waiting in the wings).  Their loaded lineup returns almost entirely intact, and when healthy it has enough firepower to rival Boston's offense as the best in baseball.  There are plenty of question marks, though; Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Adrian Beltre all missed approximately 40 games last year, Ian Kinsler is always an injury risk, and Michael Young is 35.  Mitch Moreland just doesn't provide enough offense for a first baseman, either, but could put up Freddie Freeman-type numbers in a full slate of games this year.  Mike Napoli is a forced to be reckoned with behind the plate, and shortstop Elvis Andrus is just 23 and seems to be maturing as a hitter.  Assuming Darvish doesn't go bust, this year's team is just as strong as it was last season and I wouldn't be surprised if they don't lose any ground to the Angels.

3rd Place Seattle Mariners
2011 Record: 67-95
2011 Pythagorean: 67-95
2012 Projected: 71-91
There's not a whole lot to get excited about if you're a baseball fan in the Pacific Northwest.  They have great defense, as always, but the M's sorely lack pitching and hitting.  That tends to be a recipe for disaster. I still don't understand the thinking behind the Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero trade (no AL team has hit worse than the Mariners over the past two seasons, so adding an impact bat was essential), because now the rotation is a mess after Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez.  It's never a good sign when Jason Vargas (career 4.53 ERA) is your second best starter, and Pineda seems like a future ace who could have formed a lethal one-two punch at the top of the rotation for years to come.  Great pitchers like that don't just grow on trees, you know, and the 22 year-old Montero can only do so much without a competent supporting cast, and I don't think he'll meet expectations this season.  I'm confident Ichiro Suzuki will bounce back somewhat (hit around .290)after last year's disappointment, and full seasons from the solid duo of Dustin Ackley/Mike Carp should help, but this team will struggle to score runs again in 2012. Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo might hit 20 home runs, but neither gets on base enough for that to matter much, and Chone Figgins is useless.  Luckily for Seattle, Oakland has given away all its current talent and is poised to run away with last place.

4th Place Oakland A's
2011 Record: 74-88
2011 Pythagorean: 77-85
2012 Projected: 64-98
We've come a long way from those "Moneyball" glory days of ten years ago, when the A's ruled the AL West and made regular appearances in the ALDS.  But Oakland hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2006, and it's been a hard fall from the top.  Under the impression they didn't have enough to compete in the near future when he really just needed to add a couple impact bats, Billy Beane traded/failed to resign Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui to kick off the rebuilding process.  The lineup won't hit much better than a Triple A club, the formerly deep rotation is now average at best (Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson must return to form and stay healthy), the bullpen lacks stability, and they just added Manny Ramirez to the mix.  These guys (raise your hand if you recognize half the names on the overhauled roster), the AL's answer to the Houston Astros, could lose 100 games and will serve as punching bags for the Angels and Rangers.  Hopefully the prospects Beane brought in mature and are ready to lead the team whenever it moves into the proposed new stadium in San Jose, but young talent has, is, and always will be frustratingly volatile in baseball.  For example, I fear that Cespedes, recently imported from Cuba, is far too raw to succeed in the majors and will be a surefire bust.

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