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MLB Preview: American League West

The Texas Rangers surprised everyone in the baseball world in 2011 with their second consecutive trip to the World Series, after winning the American League West. They fell for the second time in a row to a National League opponent and they will look to make another splash in 2012 with some familiar faces at the plate, and a new look to the pitching scheme. The Rangers will be challenged this year by some rebuilding teams in Oakland and Seattle, and arguably the most improved team in the offseason, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The West will be one of the most fun to watch in 2012 and here is why.

Final Standings from the AL West in 2011:
1. Texas Rangers (96-66)
2. LA Angels (86-76)
3. Oakland Athletics (74-88)
4. Seattle Mariners (67-95)

Team Break-Downs:

#4. Seattle Mariners (67-95)
Losses: SP Michael Pineda, RP George Sherrill, P Jose Campos
Additions: C. Jesus Montero, SP Hector Noesi

The Mariners had an interesting offseason in the trade department. One of the top young pitchers in 2011 was Michael Pineda and it appeared that they would be able to field a solid 1-2 punch with 2010 Cy Young winner, “King” Felix Hernandez and Pineda, but the Yankees came calling, needing starting pitching. The Mariners jumped at the chance, with the Yankees dangling their top prospect in catcher, Jesus Montero. The trade put the Yankees in a better position to compete for a World Series, and many are skeptical as to where that puts the Mariners. Montero is one of the top catching prospects in MLB and he should prove to be impactful almost immediately, learning from veteran Miguel Olivo. The Mariners have talent, there is no question about that in youngsters at the corners in Justin Smoak, who they acquired from the Rangers last year, and rookie Kyle Seager at third who only played 53 games in 2011. Once Montero becomes the everyday catcher, the only player over 30 years old will be veteran, future hall-of-famer Ichiro Suzuki at 38. The Mariners will just look to continue the development of a team who had some bright spots last year, among the dismal record. The biggest issue will probably be that the division got even tougher.

#3. Oakland Athletics (74-88)
Losses: SP Gio Gonzalez, RP Andrew Bailey, OF Ryan Sweeney, SP Craig Breslow
Addition: OF Jonny Gomes, OF Yoenis Cespedes, OF Josh Reddick, SP Tom Milone, SP Jarrod Parker, OF Manny Ramirez

The Oakland Athletics were the final team of the 2011-2012 offseason to sign a big name “free-agent” in Yoenis Cespedes for $36 Million over 4 years. The A’s also did the unthinkable in the offseason and went out on a limb to sign Manny Ramirez, the veteran slugger. Man-Ram will miss the first 50 games for his second positive drug test, but sources are saying that Manny is in good condition, and the shortened season after the suspension will benefit him. The Hollywood film gave the public an inside look at Bill Beane and his tactics using sabermetrics, and this season will be no different for Beane. In typical A’s fashion, he allowed a budding young superstar in Gio Gonzalez go to the Nationals, with potential prospects coming in for his staff to develop. The story in Oakland will revolve around the youngsters around the infield this year. Jemile weeks (brother of Brewers 2B Rickie) could have a big impact on the base pads, and they will need to have 1B Brandon Allen and 3B Scott Sizemore to bounce back from injuries from last year and continue on their progression. The A’s will struggle, much like the Mariners because of the development and dynamic around the AL West in Anaheim and Arlington.

#2 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (86-76)
Losses: SP Scott Kazmir,
Additions: SP C.J. Wilson, 1B Albert Pujols, C Chris Iannetta

The Angels are the most improved team in the offseason and there really is no debate because they are really the only organization that improved all aspects of the game with the additions of Pujols and Wilson. The rotation will be one of the best in baseball with Weaver, Haren, Wilson, and Ervin Santana, all with ERA’s last season under 3.4. Those starters combined with the young arm out of the University of Oklahoma, Garret Richards. Their pitching will be better, and their hitting should be better as well. The only real questions on the offensive side for the Angels is whether Vernon Wells(33) and Torii Hunter(36) can continue to play at a high level, even though they are getting older. The Angels are in a great position to make a huge move at the trade deadline because of how deep they are at multiple positions. The DH spot for instance has budding stars Kendry Morales and Mark Trumbo in front of veteran, Bobby Abreu. The CF spot has Peter Bourjos on the preseason depth chart, but top prospect, Mike Trout could make a splash this season for the Angels or for another team at the break. The Angels are the most improved team in the division via the free agent wire, but will it be enough to make them the team to beat in the division, after losing the race by 10 games last year.

#1 Texas Rangers (96-66)
Losses: SP C.J. WIlson
Additions: SP Yu Darvish, CL Joe Nathan

Although the Rangers lost Wilson to the Angels in the offseason, they did add Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. The 25 year old Darvish towers at 6’5 and weights in at 215, much bigger than Daisuke Matsuzaka, who many compare his to. The Rangers hitting will be present in 2012 because they have an incredible line-up filled with all-star caliber players and even a couple MVP contenders. Top to bottom they have proven hitters in Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus. All of those players play a different role and fit together well, which creates a tough team to compete against because there is not break for pitchers. The biggest questions for the Rangers will be when they are in the field. The mound will be an interesting storyline all year for Texas. Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz are the newcomers to the starting rotation (Feliz moving up from the bullpen), and a lot of the success of this staff will hinge on the success of these two guys immediately. Colby Lewis will be the seasoned veteran, leading a staff with youngsters and they will need to perform well. The Rangers are in a nice spot though because they can create enough run support for the starters to get beat up once in a while, but if it happens repeatedly, they are going to struggle. Another story that will surround the Rangers all season long is OF Josh Hamilton’s relapse over the offseason with alcohol. 2012 is a contract year for the star and there will be all kinds of storylines surrounding his new contract and relapse. Ron Washington and Nolan Ryan will have to handle the situation with care and make sure distraction are minimal.

Division Outlook:
There is no debate that this division has two of the best teams in the American League and Baseball. The Angels and Rangers are going to run away with this division, but who wins? Both teams have quality line-ups. The Angels have proven pitchers, but Texas has a lot of young talent and if a couple questions are answered for them with Darvish and Feliz, they should have a great rotation too. Both have great coaches in Ron Washington and Mike Scioscia and each has the “it” factor with team chemistry. The results will be fun to watch.
Another possibly interesting development in the West is the young talent on the Mariners and A’s. Each squad possesses a plethora of youngsters that could make an impact, this season or in the future. Some names off these two teams that could be potential all-stars are 2B Weeks from the A’s who should be able to retain a .300+ BA with 35+ steals and a bunch of runs scores, Jesus Montero as a DH or Catcher for the Mariners as well as Justin Smoak at 1B. These two teams are stacked with players with lots of upside and could be producing some trade bait for the deadline.

My “Early” Prediction:
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (106-56)
2. Texas Rangers (100-62)
3. Oakland Athletics (75-87)
4. Seattle Mariners (67-95)

The Mariners and Athletics are going to be fun to watch because of the young talent, but wins will not happen. The A’s are set up to get more wins this year than the Mariners because of the development that their staff is able to accomplish throughout the season. They have a couple pitchers like Dallas Braden, Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson who can shine in a system like Bill Beane’s, but the fact of the matter is that the A’s and Mariners each play 36 games against the Angels and Rangers, with another handful of games against the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Rays. This will ultimately be death for them trying to win a division that has the best chance of two teams winning 100 games this year.
The Rangers and Angels will both win 100 games and both teams will get into the playoffs with or without a 5th team expansion. The dynamic is simple. The majority will tell you that they won’t because of the AL East, but the fact of the matter is that the bottom of this division is better than that of the AL East (which we will elaborate on in the AL East Preview Post in a couple weeks). The Rangers and Angels should each, realistically win 28 or more games of the 36 they play in the division not against each other. They will more than likely split, or at least be close to a split when they play each other. The AL Central is extremely down this year unless the Indians or White Sox surprise, so they should be able to win the majority of the games against those teams, as well as the AL East because they match up well with all the teams. Both of these teams have the ability to win every season series that they will play on their schedule.
The reason that I project the Angels to win the division is strictly because of the lack of questions. The Angels do not have any nagging areas that could potentially go wrong very quickly. The Ranger have Yu Darvish, who could not adapt to MLB right away, or adapt and then falter because of the longer season down the stretch. Many times with relievers converting to starters, as Neftali Feliz is doing, things can go wrong. With The names on the rotation do not particularly pop, and even though they play really well together, the Angels have a better team. Each of Anaheim’s top 4 pitchers has a chance to win 15 games, with an incredible ERA. Haren and Weaver could both be in the Cy Young race at seasons end because their winning percentage and totals will be up due to increased run support. The Angels will be the best team in this division in the regular season, but both will make the playoffs. Once October hits though, all bets are off and each of these teams can make a run.