2012 INWL Baseball Preview: AL West

How The West (Might) Be Won

WRITTEN BY GREG

The AL West has produced the last 2 representatives for the American League in the World Series (both times the Texas Rangers), and the offseason goings-on within the division would suggest a 3rd is easily possible.  The biggest stunner was the free agent signing of 4 time NL MVP Albert Pujols by the Los Angeles Angels, but there are a number of other intriguing transactions that may shape how the league plays out in 2012.

The Angels also signed Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson, their ace, in addition to Pujols.  The Rangers countered this loss by winning a posting bid for Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish who should immediately fill Wilson’s shoes.  The Mariners traded young pitching stud Michael Pineda to the Yankees for top prospect Jesus Montero, giving up half of what could have been one of the best 1-2 starting pitcher combinations (along with Felix Hernandez) for more offense.  And the Oakland A’s signed a risky international free agent of their own, by inking 26 year old Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to play center field.

1.  TEXAS RANGERS

2011 W-L Record:  96-66 (Pythagorean 98-64)  1st Place

Defeated Tampa Bay in ALDS, defeated Detroit in ALCS, lost to St. Louis in World Series

Key Gains:  RHP Yu Darvish (Japan), RHP Joe Nathan (Minnesota)

Key Losses:  LHP C.J. Wilson (Angels)

Darvish

Texas has won the last two division titles and I don’t see why they can’t win their third in a row.  While Japanese imports can be risky and given the fact the Rangers poured over $100M into Darvish to first post, then sign the young phenom, Texas is praying they catch lighting in a bottle.  Darvish has been electric in his young career in Japan, posting ERAs under 2.00 consistently and having monstrous strikeout totals.  If he can deliver at even 80% of what he did overseas, he should be able to replace what Wilson leaves with.

The offense has always been a strong suit in Texas, and 2012 should be no different.  The lineup is solid from top to bottom, although a little weak at an offensive-oriented position (1B Mitch Moreland).  Catcher is filled by Mike Napoli, who in limited plate appearances in 2011, posted a ridiculous 171 OPS + (30 homers, .320 average) in just 113 games.  Center fielder Josh Hamilton, uber-utility man Michael Young, right fielder Nelson Cruz, and second baseman Ian Kinsler make for a forbidding lineup to opposing pitchers.

This lineup helped Texas to the 3rd most runs scored in the AL in 2011 and manager Ron Washington enjoy an offense in the top 3 in most meaningful statistical categories.

The Rangers are also very deep in the rotation despite the loss of Wilson and probably would have been fine without winning the right to negotiate with Darvish.  It will be interesting to see how former closer Neftali Feliz will adjust to being in the rotation and how Joe Nathan will respond to a new locale and more importantly, how is balky elbow will hold up for a full season.

2. LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

2011 Record:  86-76 (Pythagorean 85-77) 2nd Place

Missed playoffs – finished 5 GB of wild card and 10 GB of Rangers in AL West

Key Gains:  1B Albert Pujols (Cardinals), LHP C.J. Wilson (Rangers), 1B Kendry Morales (injury)

Key Losses:  None

The Angels made some of the biggest splashes on the free agent market this past offseason by inking both 1B Albert Pujols and LHP C.J. Wilson.  Pujols joins a lineup that desperately needs some thump, as the Halos were 10th in runs scored and were reeling from the poor performance of Vernon Wells after the trade from Toronto.  His arrival moves promising rookie Mark Trumbo off of first, but may only push him DH.

Wilson

Wilson throws his hat into a much more talented starting rotation who will thrive on having another lefty in the mix.  Jered Weaver was one of the best pitchers in 2011 not named Justin Verlander, and Dan Haren (stolen from Arizona) was nearly as good.  Throw in Ervin Santana (no-hitter to go along with sub-3.50 ERA) and you have the makings of a rotation that will propel this squad to playoff contention.

Speaking of Trumbo, the Angels have a cast of talented young players such as catcher Hank Conger and soon-to-be-called up Mike Trout in CF.  They should be good for years to come with a solid minor league system, although not quite as good as what Texas can boast about.

Remember that the majors are going to a 2nd Wild Card system this year, meaning the Angels have an inside track to a playoff spot.  While I still see the Rangers winning the division, the loser of this 2-team race won’t necessarily have to be stuck behind the loser of the Yankee-Red Sox-Ray triumvirate this season.

3.  OAKLAND ATHLETICS

2011 Record:  74-88 (Pythagorean 77-85) 3rd Place

Missed Playoffs – Finished 22 GB in AL West and 17 GB in Wild Card

Key Gains:  OF Yoenis Cespedes (Cuba), OF Collin Cowgill (Diamondbacks), SP Bartolo Colon (Yankees), OF Josh Reddick (Red Sox)

Key Losses:  LHP Gio Gonzalez (Nationals), RHP Trevor Cahill (Diamondbacks), RP Andrew Bailey (Red Sox)

General Manager Billy Beane (Moneyball himself) was at it again this offseason, trading away useful parts like SP Trevor Cahill (to Arizona), Closer Andrew Bailey (to Boston), and SP Gio Gonzalez (to Washington) for a bevy of prospects.  Trading from a position of strength (starting pitching) is a good move and could pay off big for Oakland.  What they lack (and what the trades didn’t immediately address) is a weak offense.

Stat heads have always questioned just how good Oakland pitchers are, since they pitch in the largest foul territory park in the majors and thus get loads of pop outs in foul ground that otherwise would have been in the seats, so prospect hauls can be a little less than what a pitcher’s numbers would ordinarily garner.  Washington, however, unloaded part of their system to land the lefty Gonzalez in their attempt to unseat Philadelphia in the ultra-competitive NL East.

Cespedes

In order to shore up a lineup that was very un-Moneyball (low OBP, along with low everything else), Beane signed Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to a multi-year contract to hopefully fill a gap in an anemic offense.  The outfielder has the potential to hit 20-30 homers and drive in 90 or better, but is a 26 year old player with no big league experience, but has proven himself of worth in the brief 2 game series against Seattle in Japan.  There is no reason to doubt he will have his ups and downs this year, but it was worth the gamble to breathe some life into the offense.

4. SEATTLE MARINERS

2011 Record:  67-95 (Pythagorean 67-95) 4th Place

Finished 29 GB in AL West, 24 GB in Wild Card

Key Gains:  C/DH Jesus Montero (Yankees), C John Jaso (Rays)

Key Losses:  RHP Michael Pineda (Yankees)

The Mariners have a good pitching staff and a putrid offense, worse than the A’s in fact (by a half a run).  A nice year from rookie RHP Michael Pineda meant that Seattle had a bargaining chip to flip him into some offense, and did so by obtaining the Yankees’ #1 prospect, C/DH Jesus Montero.

Hernandez

The rotation should still be average with 2010 AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez anchoring things, even if he had a pedestrian campaign a year ago by his standards (14-14, 3.47 ERA, 8.6 K/9).  Gone at the trade deadline in 2011 also were Doug Fister (Tigers) and Erik Bedard (Red Sox).

The offense needs Montero to provide some pop and some on-base prowess, as they have very little of either.  Perhaps Ichiro Suzuki will regain his legendary form, as he failed to get 200 hits for the first time in his career.  His 84 OPS+ number was also by far a career low.

A pair of rookies were the lone bright spots in Seattle, as 2B Dustin Ackley (OPS + 117) and Mike Carp (OPS + 122) hit well in limited action last season, so the Mariners are praying to build around their young talent and compete with the Rangers and Angels in a couple of years.

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~ by goetgre on April 3, 2012.

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