Take a look back at 2010. Now take a look at 2011. In the American League West, you may get confused as to what year you’re looking at, as no matter which version you glance over, it all begins and ends in one place: Arlington. The Texas Rangers have reigned over the American League over the last two years, due to a relentless lineup and timely pitching. They have won the division by no less than nine games in each season, and pushed to within one out of the franchise’s first World Series. It’s been a good run.
2011 Final Standings
- Texas Rangers (96-66)
- Los Angeles Angels (86-76)
- Oakland A’s (74-88)
- Seattle Mariners (67-95)
But when you’re on top, somebody’s always shooting for you. And this winter, the Rangers’ top rivals in the West reloaded like no team has before. The Angels went out, paid the price and landed the biggest gun in baseball’s arsenal this winter and switched the whole game up overnight. The Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners both made more strategic, yet impactful changes to their makeup as well.
But is any of it enough to dethrone the AL’s premier team? Let’s take a look at every inch of the West in CSP’s 2012 AL West preview….
All Division Team
Catcher: Mike Napoli – Rangers
First Base: Albert Pujols – Angels
Second Base: Ian Kinsler – Rangers
Third Base: Adrian Beltre – Rangers
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus – Rangers
Left Field: Coco Crisp – Athletics
Center Field: Josh Hamilton – Rangers
Right Field: Ichiro – Mariners
Designated Hitter: Michael Young – Rangers
Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez – Mariners
Starting Pitcher: Jared Weaver – Angels
Starting Pitcher: Dan Haren – Angels
Starting Pitcher: CJ Wilson – Angels
Bullpen Righty: Mike Adams – Rangers
Bullpen Lefty: Scott Downs – Angels
Closer: Brandon League – Mariners
Top 10 Players
- Albert Pujols, Angels
- Josh Hamilton, Rangers
- Felix Hernandez, Mariners
- Jared Weaver, Angels
- Ichiro, Mariners
- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
- Ian Kinsler, Rangers
- Dan Haren, Angels
- Michael Young, Rangers
- Elvis Andrus, Rangers
The Rangers were top 3 in the AL in average, home runs, runs scored and total bases, and could be better without adding a single piece. If Mike Napoli keeps up the pace he raked at over the second half of the year, and a contract year Josh Hamilton, with a bit of chip on his shoulder as well, hits as he is capable of, the nightmare in Arlington will continue. The Angels however, didn’t do much but what they did was major. Pujols’ addition will turn the Angels solid overall attack into potentially one of the most fearsome in the game. The A’s will lean heavily on untested new additions Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez, once he returns from his 50 game PED suspension.
The Angels’ top three of Weaver, Haren and Ervin Santana were already tough enough, but their lifting of CJ Wilson from their division rival Rangers makes them a headache nearly all week now. The Rangers countered by adding Japanese ace Yu Darvish, but the 10 game differences between the two clubs last summer will be tested by the 16-game winner Wilson switching caps.
- Angels (Weaver & Haren)
- Mariners (Hernandez & Vargas)
- Rangers (Lewis & Holland)
- A’s (McCarthy & Colon)
As mentioned above, the Angels’ staff is headed by one of the most potent duos in either league. Weaver and Haren combined for 34 wins, a 2.79 ERA and 390 strikeouts a year ago, with Weaver finishing second in the Cy Young vote. Don’t sleep on the Mariners duo however, with the dominant King Felix at the top, followed by Jason Vargas, who racked up three shutouts a year ago.
The Texas pen is so good that it will lose its All-Star closer, Neftali Feliz, to its rotation and barely skips a beat. With Joe Nathan, Mike Adams, Alexi Ugando and Koji Uehara are waiting later on, teams’ better burn their starters beyond recognition. The Angels have a very balanced pen, Downs, LaTroy Hawkins and Jordan Walden at the end. Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes head up a transitional Oakland staff with some strong young arms, and Brandon League will anchor a Mariner pen that will deliver him plenty of save chances yet again.
- Rangers (Kinsler/Andrus)
- Mariners (Figgins/Ackley)
- A’s (Weeks/Pennington)
- Angels (Aybar/Abreu)
There’s arguably no more dynamic leadoff combination than Kinsler and Andrus, both possessing 30 steal potential and will continually put themselves on in front of the hell that is the middle of the Texas lineup. Ackley was highly productive after a late season promotion to Seattle, as was Jemile Weeks, who hit .300 and stole over 20 bags as a rook in ’10.
Heart of the Lineup
- Rangers (Hamilton/Young/Beltre)
- Angels (Pujols/Hunter/Kendrick)
- Mariners (Ichiro/Carp/Montero)
- A’s (Crisp/Smith/Reddick)
It may be wiser to pray than pitch to the middle of the Rangers order. Hamilton is a career .308 hitter, with off the charts power. Beltre cracked 30 homers and 30 doubles a year ago, and in the middle is Young, who’s coming off a .338, batting title runner up season. Pujols single handedly will boost the output of Torii Hunter back to his vintage levels, while in Seattle a whole new Ichiro could be unleashed on the league, as he moves to the third spot from being one of the greatest leadoff hitters ever.
The Angels have depth, and it’s even spilled over into issue. They have the “problem” of finding spots for Bobby Abreu, Mike Trumbo, Kendry Morales, Ryan Langerhans and Maicer Izturis. There will be a revolving look for them all year. David Murphy and Yorvit Torrealeba are starter quality players on many other teams, and will get their fair share in Texas as well.
Pujols bat gets the headlines, but his glove saves many games as well. Coupled with another Gold Glove winner in Erick Aybar, a 9-time winner in Torii Hunter and a shoe in for a few in the future, Peter Bourjos, the Angels should be tough to sneak one past. Texas puts a Gold Glove winner on the field in Beltre, and two others that could easily win one any season as well in Andrus and Kinsler, one of the best double play duos in the league. Seattle runs out shutdown outfield combo of Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro as well.
Ichiro stole 40 bases again, and Chone Figgins (if he can remember how to get on base again) is also a huge speed threat. Add in Ackley and Gutierrez, and the Mariners can move both on the bases and in the field. The Rangers were 4th in the AL in team steals a year ago, and Coco Crisp led the AL in swipes with 49.
- Mike Scioscia, Angels
- Ron Washington, Rangers
- Bob Melvin, Mariners
- Eric Wedge, Mariners
Mike Scioscia is one of the great tacticians in the game, and now has an abundance of talent again at his hand. His presence was crucial in bringing both Pujols and Wilson to LA. Ron Washington has taken the Rangers to back-to-back World Series, and only two historic performances prevented him from being a two-time champ as well.
Rookies/Prospects To Watch
- Yu Darvish (Pitcher, Rangers)
- Jesus Montero (DH, Mariners)
- Yoenis Cespedes (A’s from Cuba)
- Mike Trout (OF, Angels)*
- Jarrod Parker (RHP, A’s)
Darvish is the biggest thing to come from Japan since Dice-K, but is in his mid-20’s and throws in the mid-90’s as well. He’ll hold a major role on the Texas staff from day one. Montero, acquired from the Yankees this winter, has the most raw power of any rookie in the game. Cuban sensation Cespedes’ signing in Oakland was a surprise, and he will be counted on in a big way in Oakland. Trout will start in the minors, but is either #1 or #2 on nearly all Top 100 boards of prospects for good reason that will show before the summer is over.
Leap Forward Candidates
- Neftali Feliz, Rangers
- Brandon McCarthy, A’s
- Dustin Ackley, Mariners
- Derek Holland, Rangers
- Josh Reddick, A’s
Feliz has dominated the ninth since coming up in late 2009, and is now taking his intimidating stuff to the beginning of games. If he can build up the durability and repertoire to have a similar impact in the rotation, he will be among the AL’s best starters with a few years. McCarthy quietly had one of the best season’s of any pitcher in the game a year ago, and Reddick was the major piece that came back from Boston in exchange for Oakland’s All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, and for good reason.
- Albert Pujols (Angels from Cardinals)
- CJ Wilson (Angels from Rangers)
- Joe Nathan (Rangers from Twins)
- Seth Smith (A’s from Rockies)
- Bartolo Colon (A’s from Yankees)
Pujols is the biggest signing for any team since both times A-Rod switched jerseys, and the Angels paid the price to land the game’s premier player. Paired with Wilson, they immediately changed the forecast in LA and make them the team to watch in a city long owned by the Dodgers. If Nathan can rediscover his pre-surgery form from Minnesota, the Rangers Feliz-less bullpen could be even better than before.
The well would seem dry after their $300 million winter, but the Angels still have cash on deck to make another move down there stretch if needed. This could prove to be the difference between them and a Rangers team that is holding back money to resign Hamilton, Young and Napoli soon.
The script will finally flip back in 2012 to the way it was from 2007-2009, with the Angels climbing back to the top of the mountain. The Rangers will still be a force to be reckoned with, and won’t go down easy, but the addition of Pujols will make everyone around him in the lineup better, and the Angels weren’t pushovers before AP. On the hill, Wilson adds yet another matchup advantage to a rotation that already put the pressure down Texas a year ago. However, it’s a tale of two halves still, as the Mariners still are top heavy as it gets after Ichiro & Felix, and the A’s lineup is over reliant on a mixture of youth and not quite up to speed with LA/Texas-level veteran talents.
Due to this extreme first class/second class divide in the division, both Texas and LA could benefit the most from the expanded Wild Card spot. While the idea that it could let an extra AL East team in the mix is popular, the truth is that both of the superior teams in the West will have a lot of shots to feed on the bottom of the division. The Rangers boost two legit MVP candidates and as always, their pitching should find a way to be better than advertised. Down in LA, they have added the game’s best player and constructed a potential three All-Star rotation. When coupled with one of the game’s great strategists in Scioscia, the Angels will finish the push they started as a lesser team at the end of last summer and take the division for themselves, while the Rangers will still return to October via a Wild Card bid.
Come back next time for a look in nation’s heartland at the AL Central, where the defending champs have added some firepower via a familiar name. Yet still, they are far from out of the sites of one of the best gatherings of young talent in baseball. Until then follow me on Twitter, at @CheapSeatFan.