Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: AL West

It's time to wrap up my preview of the the American League.  The AL West is baseball's smallest division, but a matchup of 2 very good pitching staffs and a great offense defending the AL pennant, the West should be an exciting, though mostly forgotten race.  Here are the capsules for the 2011 AL West:

Starting pitcher Trevor Cahill will be the ace of a young
pitching staff 
The Oakland Athletics were a team that no one expected anything from in 2010.  The A's haven't really threatened the AL since the trio of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito were dominating the AL West using Billy Beane's moneyball scheme.  They never got to the World Series and the team eventually broke apart. The rotation that the A's have assembled for this season can rival that staff of the early 2000's.  Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson both had breakout seasons in 2010, while Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game on Mother's Day.  Braden may not have as good of a season, but he won't have to dominate as the team's 4th starter.  Cahill is the team's ace and earned an All-Star selection last year, and Anderson is a very talented left hander who came back very strong from a midseason arm injury.  Gio Gonzalez should emerge this year as a powerful, yet wild, starter.  The back end of the rotation is Brandon McCarthey, a talented but oft-injured newcomer.  The bullpen is just as solid, anchored by closer Andrew Bailey, who should be fine after an injury scare in spring.  However, the A's batting lineup is bad. Like, really bad.  Beane brought on David DeJesus, Hideki Mastsui, and  Josh Willingham to help improve the A's meager power numbers (they do play in the spacious yet ugly Network Associates Coliseum).  Daric Barton is a bright(er) spot in the infield and underrated catcher Kurt Suzuki backstops Oakland.  I have a feeling that the A's can be this year's Giants - outstanding young rotation and bullpen coupled with poor offense and lots of hope in timely hitting.

The Texas Rangers surprised everyone last year by taking down the favored Yankees to clinch the AL pennant before succumbing to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.  This led to an interesting offseason for the Rangers.  A big reason they got into the playoffs and to the WS was pitching stud Cliff Lee (who may be the Marian Hossa of baseball) is no longer with the team.  I thought that Texas was in the best position to sign Lee until the Phillies came and snatched him away.  Instead, the Rangers acquired Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli to bolster their already fantastic offense. However, it did leave them without a true pitching ace.  It also led to longtime Michael Young demanding a trade.  If the Rangers are able to keep young, their offense should be near the top in every category. Their outfield of AL MVP Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Julio Bourbon provide a huge hitting threat, along with new 3B Beltre and second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Elvis Andrus will provide plenty of steals at the top of the lineup.  The rotation consists of C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Tommy Hunter, though Hunter will probably enter the season on the DL.  Derrick Holland is in a position to take a big step forward.  The bullpen is ok, though it's anchored by breakout closer Neftali Feliz, who will return to the closer's role after toying with starting during the spring.  Their downfall in 2011 could be the same as their downfall in the World Series - a lack of shutdown pitching that can take over when the offense struggles.  

1B Kendrys Morales will have to stay away from
celebrations or stop hitting home runs
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a disappointing 2010, finishing below .500 and 3rd in the West. It was a surprising season for one of the AL's most consistent clubs, one full of unfortunate injuries. I mean, a broken ankle due to a home run celebration?  It was clearly not the Halo's season to shine.  They lost out on their main free agent target, Carl Crawford, to their postseason rival Red Sox.  Their big move was trading Mike Napoli to the Blue Jays to overpaid, yet effective, OF Vernon Wells.  Their lineup is one of the older ones in the league, centered around Torii Hunter and Morales.  The Angels need players like Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood to come forward and prove that they can contribute to LA's offensive effort.  The starting rotation is solid, spearheaded by Dan Haren and Jared Weaver, both great pitchers who are worthy of the ace title.  The 3-4-5 of Ervin Santana, Joel Pinero, and Scott Kazmir have promise, but they all have the ability to pitch well below their potential for long stretches.  The bullpen is quality, but closer Fernando "Rollercoaster" Rodney leaves a lot to be desired.  The Angels should improve from 2010 simply from avoiding the freak injuries they suffered, but their mediocre lineup and questionable back end of the rotation will keep them from overtaking the A's and the Rangers.

The Seattle Mariners were a model of futility in 2010, which is a shame because they really tried to build their team the right way.  The season started with Cliff Lee (his name show up so much) and Felix Hernandez leading what could have been a good rotation, and Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik made sure that every player he signed could play solid defense.  However, the lineup was so awful that the pitching staff had nothing to work with.  Going nowhere by midseason, they traded Cliff Lee in the division to the Rangers, receiving top prospect Justin Smoak in return.. King Felix did deservingly win the Cy Young, but it was all for naught as the Marniners finished with the worst record in the AL.    This season will most likely be worse for Seattle, who did nothing to improve in the offseason.  Unless Justin Smoak and Jack Cust can step up, Ichiro's 5,000 hits a season will once again go to waste.  Outside of Hernandez, who finished 2010 with a crazy good 2.27 ERA but a 13-12, the rotation will be ineffective at best.  The bullpen is in unrest, especially with the injury issues of wild closer David Aardsma.  The Mariners front office may be looking to trade King Felix, who just signed a 5 year extension last year, before the deadline in hopes of a spectacular prospect package.  A team like the Yankees will be sure to come calling by midseason.

The 2011 season in the AL West could turn into a 3 team race, but I think the Angels will fall out of it by the time September rolls around.  It will come down to the A's pitching versus the Rangers hitting.  We have seen a big shift from hitting to pitching over the past few seasons (steroids anyone) and the World Champion Giants rode great pitching through the whole season.  This is why I give the edge to the A's. I know they are young, but so are were the Giants.  They added veteran role players and will be in position to add key players  in July.  My pick for the AL West: The Oakland Athletics.

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