Of the three American League divisions a year ago, the West was the most surprising across the board. It’s final result ranged from the team that had won their division’s three-peat winner falling from the penthouse to below .500, a team with less stars than any other club boasting the league’s best pitching staff, a last place team with a Cy Young winner and finally the ultimate dark house World Series representative. There was a lot to turn your head at looking at the West all season, and anything could happen again this year; however breaking through from the bottom to the top may be a more difficult road.
2010 Final Standings
1. Texas Rangers (90-72)
2. Oakland Athletics (81-81)
3. Los Angeles Angels (80-82)
4. Seattle Mariners (61-101)
The West is annually one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, due to the fact that each team has more than one x-factor that produces a matchup problem in one way or another. The Rangers are the defending AL champs, and have a devastating lineup that boasts the 2010 MVP and AL batting champion, Josh Hamilton. In Oakland, they boast the game’s best overall young rotation, which doesn’t have just one ace, but has no weaknesses on any day of the week, and is now supported by one of baseball’s best bullpen groups as well. The Angels have a lot of experience and a manager in Mike Scioscia that has won the division five times in the last eight years, but has a team that is on the rebound still after a disappointing summer and winter. In Seattle, they are coming off of the worst season of any AL team, and were the biggest disappointments in all of baseball a year ago. They still feature two of the greatest talents in the game, but will this club realize the potential in ’11 that it missed out on big time in ’10? The Rangers are strong still, and return nearly all of the club that knocked the Yankees from the top of the AL, but their division mates have the ability to take a clear shot at them and the road back to the top is never as easy as conquering the mountain the first time.
ALL DIVISION TEAM
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki-Oakland A’s
First Base: Kendrys Morales-Los Angeles Angels
Second Base: Ian Kinsler-Texas Rangers
Third Base: Adrian Beltre-Texas Rangers
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus-Texas Rangers
Left Field: Vernon Wells-Los Angeles Angels
Center Field: Josh Hamilton-Texas Rangers
Right Field: Ichiro-Seattle Mariners
Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui-Oakland Athletics
Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez-Seattle Mariners
Starting Pitcher: Jared Weaver-Los Angeles Angels
Starting Pitcher: Brett Anderson-Oakland Athletics
Starting Pitcher: Dan Haren-Los Angeles Angels
Bullpen Righty: Grant Balfour-Oakland Athletics
Bullpen Lefty: Arthur Rhodes-Texas Rangers
Closer: Andrew Bailey-Oakland Athletics
2. Felix Hernandez-Mariners
3. Josh Hamilton-Rangers
4. Adrian Beltre-Rangers
5. Nelson Cruz-Rangers
6. Andrew Bailey-Athletics
7. Torii Hunter-Angels
8. Jared Weaver-Angels
9. Kendrys Morales-Angels
10. Neftali Feliz-Rangers
The rollercoaster of the Mariners starts here, as they lost 100 games a year ago with two guys that are top 10 players in baseball no matter how you slice it. Ichiro has gathered in Gold Gloves and 200 hits per season for the last 10 years, and King Felix was so dominant that his 13-12 record last year was still good enough to land him the Cy Young Award. Perhaps the most talented overall player in the American League, Josh Hamilton, comes in at third. Andrew Bailey and Neftali Feliz are the two of the most talented young closers in the game, each being the last two AL Rookies of the Year, although injury (Bailey) and a move to the rotation (Feliz) could be removing them from their 9th inning impact roles.
The Rangers have a military-level assault in their everyday lineup. Hamilton gives them one of the top 10 bats in baseball, and Adrian Beltre brings yet another extra base hit bat that can make a big impact. Nelson Cruz and Hamilton are two of the premier power bats in all of the Show. Oakland made several impact moves that turned their lineup into a hybrid power/speed/on-base mixture that will be one of the most pesky and consistent attacks in the league.
Oakland’s rotation doesn’t grab the headlines, but they were the best group in the AL a year ago, and could be even better this year. Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden (who tossed a perfect game), Gio Gonzalez led all of baseball in quality starts, and not one of them has seen their 30th birthday yet. It’s the type of presence that the Giants were building for years, and we saw how that paid off last year. The Angels need consistency from the bottom of its group (Joel Piniero and Scott Kazmir), to matchup with the A’s. Even without Cliff Lee, Rangers still have a formidable, deep mix that had them atop the division long before he arrived last summer.
1. Angels (Weaver & Haren)
2. Athletics (Anderson & Cahill)
3. Mariners (Hernandez & Fister)
4. Rangers (Wilson & Lewis)
Here’s how good Felix is, he makes the Mariners 1-2 the third best in the division just on the fact that neither C.J. Wilson or Colby Lewis (who combined for 27 wins a year ago) would beat him head up across a 10 game span for the league champions consistently. The Angels duo holding down this spot over Anderson & Cahill is based on if Dan Haren regains the form that made him an All-Star for three straight seasons in Arizona before last year. I’m betting that he does.
The A’s group could be the best in the game, but only if Andrew Bailey doesn’t spend any more time visiting Dr. James Andrews this year. The additions of Grant Balfour, Rich Harden and Brian Fuentes to a group that already features Brad Ziegler, Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow makes this the best overall staff in baseball. The Rangers bring 2010 All-Star Arthur Rhodes to a really good pen that holds down the Rangers on the nights where their lineup doesn’t give the Undertaker treatment to their opponents early.
1. Rangers (Hamilton/Beltre/Cruz)
2. Angels (Hunter/Morales/Well)
3. Athletics (DeJesus/Willingham/Matsui)
4. Mariners (Bradley/Cust/Gutierrez)
The heart of the Texas order gives opposing pitchers headaches just reading it. Hamilton missed a month almost, but still hit 32 homers and led the AL with a .359 average. Cruz missed over 50 games and still finished with 22 home runs. The addition of Beltre, and his 49 doubles and 189 hits will be a potent bridge between these two. For the Angels, having Morales completely rehabbed from a freak knee injury means everything in LA. He’ll miss Opening Day, but having him healthy for the next five months means everything.
The Mariners feature the fastest combo in the game at the top of their lineup in Ichiro and Chone Figgins. Figgins’ numbers dropped off in his Seattle debut, but Ichiro is an automatic batting champ contender and hits leader. Ian Kinsler found a breakeven point between his .319 2008 and .252 2009 averages last season when he hit .286, but his extra base hits continued to drop. If he finds his power bat again behind the speedy Elvis Andrus, they’ll be as much trouble at the top of the order as they are in the middle.
With 26 Mike Napoli homers now joining their bench, along with the versatile David Murphy, the Rangers are deep even if one of them joins the lineup if a Michael Young trade happens. The A’s new acquisitions push former everyday guys Conor Jackson and Ryan Sweeney to the bench, but they’ll provide great depth and late inning options for the new look Athletics.
By acquiring the Gold Glover Beltre, the Rangers erase their biggest weakness of Michael Young as an everyday 3B, and form the best right side infield combination in baseball with him and Andrus. The A’s have no real weakness anywhere on the field, and the Mariners have two Gold Glovers in their outfield in Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro, along with an infield stabilizing addition in Brendan Ryan.
Once again, Seattle gets the nod as the best overall small ball team in the division. They don’t have much power at all, but with Figgins, Ichiro, Gutierrez and youngster Dustin Ackley in the mix, they can produce runs inside the foul lines. Figgins has stolen 40 bases three of the last four years, and Ichiro has swiped 40 two of the last three summers himself. Chad Pennington and Crisp both have 30 stolen base potential in Oakland.
Mike Scioscia’s roster was crippled by injuries and inconsistencies last year, but he still managed to keep them at an 80 win level. If all else fails, his skill as a strategist is enough to improve the fortunes of the Angels this season. Ron Washington was a great motivator for the Rangers getting over the playoff hump last season, and proved Nolan Ryan’s faith in keeping him at the helm after a controversial start last season.
ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH
1. Michael Pineda (Pitcher, Mariners)
2. Dustin Ackley (Second Base, Mariners)
3. Tanner Scheppers (Pitcher, Rangers)
4. Jordan Walden (Pitcher, Angels)
5. *Mike Trout (Outfielder, Angels)
Pineda throws in the mid-90’s and has three out pitches he can unleash at any point, giving the Mariner’s pitching rotation a scary potential boost at some point this summer. Ackley will be a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors if he gets enough at-bats. Trout is worth noting because while he probably won’t get any, big league action this year, he is considered the top prospect in baseball by many, and is definitely seen as a can’t miss, franchise player in the Angels’ future.
The Angels missed out on every big free agent they pursued this past winter and assumed Vernon Wells’ massive contract, in addition to having to resign their ace in Weaver this summer, but they still have deep pockets to make a play for any expensive trading piece on the market (unless they pool it all for a Pujols a run this winter, a very likely scenario).
1. Adrian Beltre (Rangers from Red Sox)
2. David DeJesus (Athletics from Royals)
3. Brian Fuentes (Athletics from Twins)
4. Grant Balfour (Athletics from Rays)
5. Vernon Wells (Angels from Blue Jays)
Beltre turned down seemingly every team in baseball this winter in route to Arlington, including big offers from the Angels and Athletics. He will be a crucial boost to the overall talent of the Rangers, and could be a legit push towards an improved World Series showing. No team in baseball made more changes to their roster than the A’s and they better every part of their team with smart trades and quality free agent signings.
At face value, this is an exact repeat of last year’s edition of the division, which is a rarity for it. However, while I do feel that the Rangers will take the crown again, it won’t be by a nine game difference like last year. The A’s will push the Rangers well into September, and they won’t be alone. The Angels will be improved this season and will be on the heels of both. Oakland and LA both will be prime teams to spring an upset at the top of the division, but the A’s will be one of the toughest matchups in the entire league with their multi-tiered attack at the plate and unmatched pitching staff. The Mariners won’t lose 100 games again, but they didn’t make enough moves to crack the top 3 in this division, and a youth movement could be underway there. However, feeding off their already tough, and now improved lineup, along with their young and improving rotation, in the end the Rangers have too much high end talent to not repeat atop the West and make a push towards another AL championship.