The story of the AL West for the 2012 season can be divided into two chapters: The Haves and The Have-Nots. Thanks to lucrative television contracts, the Los Angeles Angels ($3 billion over 20 years from Fox Sports) and the Texas Rangers ($1.6 billion over 20 years from Fox Sports as well) handed out big money to premier free agents this offseason. You may have heard of them, they’re a couple of guys who go by Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners’ long road back to respectability seems to have no end while the Oakland A’s and their Brad Pitt-inspiring GM Billy Beane continues to try to stay relevant while hoping for a new stadium deal in San Jose to be finalized.
Our prediction? This division will come down to which team stays healthier – the Angels or the Rangers.
Los Angeles Angels
After signing first baseman Albert Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson for a combined $315 million this offseason, the expectations around the Angels are as high as they have ever been. Owner Arte Moreno (the only Latino majority owner in baseball) was prompted to open up the checkbook thanks to a two-year absence from the postseason.
The results of his spending spree are quite impressive on paper. With a rotation featuring Wilson as well as Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, the Angels boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball – and as is proven almost every year, pitching can take a team deep into October. On the offensive side, Pujols will anchor a veteran-laden lineup that also features Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick, Vernon Wells and what’s left of Bobby Abreu.
This team should be able to hit and they can certainly pitch. But can they all stay healthy enough to do both of those things all season?
The A’s enter another season where the two biggest questions around their team are once again: 1) Will they ever get a new stadium? and 2) Who’s getting traded by the deadline?
The answer to the second question is pitcher Brandon McCarthy and catcher Kurt Suzuki, both of whom could garner some quality prospects for this organization. The answer to the first question, however, is much more complicated and check out this New York Times piece if you want to read about the never-ending politics involved.
As far as on the field, the A’s picked up Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to play center field while the only other recognizable name on the batting lineup is probably left fielder Coco Crisp. This squad has always competed with pitching, but this year’s collection of arms is shaky to start the year, though help could be on the way if prospects Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock live up to the hype. The health of pitcher Brett Anderson, who’s making a comeback following Tommy John surgery, will also play a major factor in the team’s success.
Shaky arms, shaky lineup and shaky plans for the future: none of this adds up to a good outlook for the 2012 Oakland A’s. Anything above a last place finish would be a surprise this season.
For the past two years, the Rangers have been the class of the American League thanks to impressive hitting, a deep roster and some clutch pitching. For the team to clinch a third consecutive trip to the World Series (and actually win one), though, they will have to overcome the loss of pitching ace Wilson to the Angels this offseason.
But don’t weep too much for the Rangers. They should still be considered one of the deepest teams in baseball, thanks to a stacked batting order that includes Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, and Dominicans Adrián Beltre and Nelson Cruz. Management also went out and signed the latest Japanese sensation, Yu Darvish, to fill Wilson’s slot on the pitching staff as well as added former All-Star Joe Nathan to close games.
Pitching and the health of Hamilton (who publicly admitted a relapse with alcohol in February) will be the keys to the Rangers’ season. This squad certainly has the talent level to once again compete for a division crown and to make another run at the World Series.
This season can be one of significant transition for the Mariners, as they are relying heavily upon a collection of youngsters and two veterans to finally get this team back in the playoff chase.
The biggest move of the offseason came with the organization trading outstanding young pitcher Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees in exchange for the up-and-coming Venezuelan catcher Jesús Montero. The motivation behind that was the major flaw of this squad – offensive production. The Mariners have finished last in AL in runs scored for the past three seasons, so getting some kind of offensive firepower has manager Eric Wedge making another major change.
For the first time since coming to Seattle 11 years ago, Ichiro won’t be batting leadoff. Instead, he will bat third in the lineup in an effort to generate more production from Montero (who will DH a lot this season) and first baseman Justin Smoak. It’s certainly a risk to move Ichiro from his comfort zone, but given the dire straits of the Mariners’ offense the last few seasons old routines badly needed to be replaced.
The pitching staff is still led by one of the best in baseball, Venezuelan Felix Hernández. There’s not much behind him except veteran Kevin Millwood, who was picked up in the offseason, though there is future hope in the minors with prospects Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker.
There are some very good pieces for the future of the Mariners franchise, however, this season will be a tough one as they try to survive as a have-not against the Angels and Rangers.
D.B. Mitchell is a freelance writer who covers sports, politics and pop culture (in no particular order). Follow him at @DB_Mitchell.