2012 AL West Preview: A Top-Heavy Race
This 2012 season is the last year that there will be only four teams in the American League West, with the Houston Astros set to join the division after this season. However, just like the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, the Astros will immediately have two huge problems, the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers.
In this division there are two races, the battle for first place and the battle for third place. Here are my projections for baseball's most top-heavy division, even though the Mariners and Athletics are already tied for first place (words you will never read again this season).
1. Texas Rangers
In 2011, the Texas Rangers reached their first World Series in franchise history before eventually succumbing to the San Francisco Giants. In 2012, extreme heartbreak ensued after the Rangers became the first team in MLB history to, not once, but twice be one out away from winning the World Series before the St. Louis Cardinals stole it away from them. This year, they try to become the first team to participate in three straight World Series since the New York Yankees did it four times from 1998 through 2001.
The Rangers' loaded lineup is the biggest reason why they have represented the American League in the World Series the past two seasons. However, important parts of their lineup do have a problem of staying healthy during the season. Three of their hitters: Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, have had only three combined seasons between them of playing 135 games or more.
Kinsler had his healthiest season last year, and he had an outstanding year with 32 home runs and 30 steals. As the Rangers leadoff man, he needs to stay healthy to continue to be the catalyst and he needs to bump up his batting average from last year as well (.255). Josh Hamilton, the 2010 AL MVP (despite playing only 133 games), had a relatively down year in 2011, failing to hit .300, 30 home runs, or 100 RBI's. Granted, he only played 121 games, however when the Rangers needed Hamilton most in the World Series last season, his injuries hurt his production big time. Nelson Cruz has tremendous potential and power, but his hamstrings have hampered his ability to stay on the field. When Cruz is healthy, though, the Rangers lineup is extremely deadly, just look at his incredible home run binge last postseason.
Besides those three though, there are too many other big time bats in this lineup to think that injuries would destroy this team. Joining Kinsler at the top of the lineup is shortstop Elvis Andrus, who not only is a huge baserunning threat, but additionally a fantastic glove that gives the Rangers the best defensive middle infielder combo in the division. However, like Kinsler, his batting average can improve (.279), especially for a guy with very little power.
Then there's Adrian Beltre and Michael Young batting cleanup and fifth. Beltre enjoyed a great first season with the Rangers, batting .296 to go along with 32 home runs and 105 RBI in just 124 games. Beltre also plays a great hot corner, and his third-base defense is another reason why the Rangers are one of the best defensive teams in baseball. The extremely versatile Michael Young (who ironically is playing DH) is the longest tenured Texas Ranger and has the most hits in Texas Rangers history. The veteran who requested multiple times for a trade led the AL in hits for the second time in his career and had over 100 RBI and an insane .338 batting average.
Batting seventh in the order after Cruz is former Angels' catcher Mike Napoli, who in his first season with the Rangers enjoyed the best season of his career. He had his highest batting average (.320), most home runs (30), RBI (75), and runs (72) in any season in his career. And this guy is batting seventh! Batting eighth and ninth are Mitch Moreland and Julio Borbon, who are both below average hitters for their positions (first base and center field respectively). Yet with all of the other hitters in the lineup, it's easy to understand why the Rangers offense has ranked the best or close to the top in many offensive categories the past two years. Do not expect any drastic changes with this offense's production this year.
If the Rangers' pitching were as good as their offense, they would be the easy pick to win the World Series this year. However, there are some questions in the rotation, especially since ace C.J. Wilson left this offseason for the rival Angels. Their first three starters in the rotation this season, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, were fantastic bargains last season pitching very well for the Rangers despite costing a little under $3 million between them.
The last two starters are the most intriguing and are first year starters in the MLB. Yu Darvish was signed to a six-year contract for $60 million, despite only pitching in Japan. Darvish has pitched extremely well this spring, but with the haunted past of pitchers from Japan pitching poorly in the U.S., the Rangers have to be nervous heading into Darvish's rookie season. Then, there's their former flamethrowing closer Neftali Feliz moving into the rotation as well. He has had great success the past two seasons as their closer, but he is ready to take on the role of a starting pitcher. This rotation has a lot of upside, but it still cannot compare to what the Angels have.
Their bullpen, on the other hand, is lights-out, especially after acquiring top-notch setup man Mike Adams from the Padres last season at the trade deadline. Joe Nathan signed with the Rangers this offseason and will start off the year as Feliz's replacement as closer. The Rangers also have former set-up-man-turned-starter Alexei Ogando back in the bullpen and are hoping that the other reliever they acquired at the deadline last season, Koji Uehara, starts becoming the effective reliever he was as a Baltimore Oriole. However, the Rangers bullpen should be a strength despite Feliz joining the rotation.
There's a reason why the Rangers have been in two straight World Series, because they are just stacked with talent. Emphatic manager Ron Washington is also the perfect fit to manage this young team, proven by his two trips to the World Series. Despite the Angels' monster offseason, I still like the Rangers to add another AL West title to their collection this season.
2. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels were the clear offseason winners by signing the best player in baseball in Albert Pujols and stealing ace C.J. Wilson away from their rival Texas Rangers. However, do these two acquisitions alone have what it takes to turn a non-playoff team into a World Series contender?
The Angels lineup pre-Pujols was average, if that, but they do have a lot of bench depth. Even with Pujols, their lineup doesn't compete with the Rangers, but it certainly does make their lineup respectable. A hitter expected to make even bigger strides than he did last year is second baseman Howie Kendrick, especially since he is hitting right in front of Pujols. He hits for a high average, and he has good power and speed for a middle infielder. Erick Aybar leads off for the Halos, but he's more known for his legs and glove than his bat. What really needs to improve is the middle of the lineup, which has several question marks.
Cleanup man Kendrys Morales has missed most of the past two seasons after his walk-off home run celebration, and he has only one good year under his belt. Overpaid veterans Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells could provide some offense here and there, but they are still more well-known for their glove and are not the offensive players they were in the past. Wells last year also had one of the worst offensive seasons for an outfielder in MLB history.
The bottom of the order isn't impressive either. Alberto Callaspo is an average third baseman, and he is expected to surrender some time to Mark Trumbo, who had a good rookie season but would be playing out of position at third. The Angels acquired catcher Chris Iannetta from the Rockies, and while you may think he's a big offensive improvement over former catcher Jeff Mathis, Iannetta hit .171 away from Coors Field over the past three years. Peter Bourjos is just a temporary stopgap until whenever top prospect Mike Trout gets called up. Besides Pujols and maybe Kendrick or Morales, this lineup really isn't anything special and will be merely average this year in the American League.
The biggest reason why several people are predicting a World Series championship for the Angels this year (other than Pujols) is their outstanding pitching rotation. Their four aces give the Angels one of the strongest rotations in baseball. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren had monster 2011 campaigns, and were the biggest reasons that the Angels even had a winning record last year. Expect a little regression from each pitcher after having such dominant seasons the year before, but they are still elite. Stealing C.J. Wilson from the Rangers made up for the Rangers stealing Mike Napoli from the Angels (and the Blue Jays), giving the Angels an extremely talented lefty. Ervin Santana may be the best fourth starter in baseball and he is looking to follow up a very nice 2011 campaign, even though his win-loss record doesn't show how well he pitched. The fifth starter is a problem, a spot occupied currently by Jerome Williams, but with the other four pitchers the Angels have, this rotation is still the best in the American League.
The aspect that the Angels should be worried about most is their bullpen. They ranked near the top of the AL last year in blown saves. Outside of their set-up man-closer combo of Scott Downs and Jordan Walden, they really do not have a lot of effective arms or depth in the bullpen. However, luckily for the Angels, their starters will eat up a lot of innings this year, so they will only have to rely on those two guys in a decent amount of their games.
Despite their huge offseason, I just don't think the Angels will win the AL West this year with significant disadvantages with their offense and bullpen compared to the Rangers. However, in the postseason, when starting pitching and timely hitting proves to be the key ingredients, the Angels definitely have a fighting chance to make some noise in October.
And now we get to the bottom half of the division, the first of the two teams that will be fighting all season long for third place in the AL West. However, the Mariners do have a lot of young pieces they can work with, but they have to wait at least a couple of years before they can become an AL West contender.
The Mariners' offense has been a huge problem for them over the past couple of years, but they are hoping that some of their young bats can start producing this year. One of them is second baseman Dustin Ackley, a top prospect who got called up last season. He had encouraging results during his rookie year, and started his 2012 season with a bang by hitting a home run in the Japan opener against the Athletics.
Two of the other young guys the Mariners need to produce are Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. Smoak was the main piece that the Mariners received back when they traded Cliff Lee to Texas, and so far the results have been disappointing. However, with Smoak batting cleanup and being protected by Montero, the Mariners are optimistic about Smoak's 2012 season. The Mariners acquired Montero in the most shocking move of the offseason, trading their young flamethrower Michael Pineda and Jose Campos for Montero and Hector Noesi. Montero isn't really a strong defensive catcher, but the Mariners fell in love with his bat. He and Smoak provide the Mariners with a high upside middle of the lineup.
They also have their beloved Ichiro batting third this season. Ichiro had a very disappointing 2011 season, and is looking to have a major bounce-back season. After hitting above .300 in every year of his career, he hit for a "pedestrian" .272 and even had a career-low with five home runs. The Mariners have moved Ichiro to the third spot in the lineup, hitting behind Ackley and in front of Smoak, and are hoping for a major Ichiro resurgence this year.
The major mistake I think the Mariners are making is having free agent bust Chone Figgins lead off. Figgins has a lot of speed, but he does not get on base very often and hit below .200 last season. The guys at the bottom of the order won't instill much fear into opposing starting pitchers. Mike Carp, Miguel Olivo, Michael Saunders and Brendan Ryan just simply aren't effective hitters yet.
The Mariners have a lot of strong pitching prospects in their farm system, but outside of ace Felix Hernandez, there isn't a lot of upside in their rotation. King Felix won't give the Mariners 20 wins because of awful run support, but he will give the Mariners strong pitching performances, at least 200 strikeouts, and a very low ERA. Jason Vargas is a much better pitcher at home than away, but he's still a below average number two starter.
Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi are very young starting pitchers and are huge question marks. Kevin Millwood, the fifth starter, is a washed-up veteran who will probably get replaced by a younger pitcher at some point during the season. In the bullpen, the Mariners have closer Brandon League, who had a breakout 2011 season and a great spring training. However, other than League (who could be a trade candidate at this season's deadline), they don't have a clear set-up man or a lot of other good arms in the bullpen.
The Mariners are not really strong in any one area, but they do have a lot of young talent and an ace who will give them a shot to win every five days. The battle for third place in the AL West will be close this season, but I think the Mariners will ultimately prevail.
The Athletics underwent a lot of changes this offseason, including trading away their closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox and trading two of their top starting pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill (to the Nationals and Diamondbacks, respectively). They did make one exciting move though, signing Cuban sensation outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Is that enough though to contend with the Mariners for third place in the AL West?
The Athletics have a lot of new faces in their lineup this year, but I'm not expecting a lot of change from the anemic results their offense has produced in the past couple of seasons. At the top of the lineup is the young second baseman-shortstop duo of Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington. They have speed and they hit for a decent average, but they do not have a lot of pop. Coco Crisp may be the worst third hitter in all of baseball, because he too has very limited power.
Seth Smith, the former Colorado Rockies outfielder, may have trouble going from offensive haven Coors Field to pitcher's park O.co Coliseum. Remember how poorly Matt Holliday hit with the Athletics, or do you even remember that he was one? At catcher they have Kurt Suzuki, who is actually one of the most underrated catchers in baseball and behind him at the sixth spot is Cespedes. Expect Cespedes to move up in the order rather soon, and he did hit a home run during the Athletics' opening series in Japan against the Mariners.
The A's expect big things from Cespedes and he has shown major promise so far. Josh Reddick, the major piece the A's acquired from the Red Sox in the Andrew Bailey trade, provides an upside bat at the bottom of the order. First baseman Brandon Allen has had impressive power numbers in the minor leagues as a Diamondback (he was the main piece in the Trevor Cahill trade), but it hasn't translated into much success so far in the majors. Eric Sogard isn't a threat with the bat in the ninth spot.
Considering the Athletics traded away three of their top pitchers during the offseason, the pitching staff won't be pretty this offseason either. However, if the starting pitchers can pitch like their first two starts this year (granted, it was against the Mariners), maybe they can best Seattle for third place this season. Ace Brandon McCarthy had very strong peripherals and is looking to continue his strong performance from last season. Bartolo Colon had a huge (no pun intended) comeback season with the Yankees last season, and he's hoping that same success can continue as an Athletic. These two both had great starts against the Mariners, but besides McCarthy there isn't a lot of upside to this rotation.
Their other three starters are Tommy Milone, Tyson Ross and Jarrod Parker. If anyone has heard of two of these starters before that isn't an Athletics fan, I would be absolutely shocked. The Athletics bullpen is a huge question mark as well, filled with a lot of no-names and old veteran relievers. However, the guy with the chance to make the biggest impact this season is hard throwing Fautino De Los Santos. He has incredible strikeout rates, he just needs to have a better command before he can become really effective.
The Athletics "Moneyball" approach did work for playoff spots in the past, but it's sad to see Billy Beane's team not having a lot of cheap talent that they have had in the past. The Athletics will likely be down in the dumps not only this season, but for a lot of years to come.