>By Nick Gallaudet

I’m trying to find a poetic and interesting way to describe my anticipation for the upcoming baseball season, but I can’t do it. Pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday, and I can’t think straight. I get this way every year, and that’s the beauty of baseball. The season is so long, and so much can happen that every team, except the Pirates, has a shot every year. Last year, my friend Alex bet Danny (of bowling fame) that the Giants would not finish above .500. Think about that for a second. That means that there was a, by most accounts, sane person out there that believed the Giants wouldn’t win 82 games, let alone win the World Series, and you know what, I was on Alex’s side. I didn’t think the Giants had nearly the talent required to win the Series, and they went out with their nasty beards and won the whole thing. That is why I get so excited every spring; anything can happen, and every team, except the Pirates, has a chance at a title. This week marks the first in a six week series in which I will take a look at every division in baseball and give you a look at what we can expect, and this week we start with the American League West.
kendry-morales-injury-image-2347324827442The Los Angeles Angels are coming off of a down year, there’s no doubt about that; but was it a fluke? With the way this team is shaping up, it’s looking like the beginning of a trend. The Angels struggled to get on base last year, and those struggles could continue. Despite getting Kendry Morales back, they Angels weren’t able to upgrade their offense much. Sure they got Vernon Wells, but at $21 million, he’s more of a burden then a blessing. In fact, they lost their homerun leader to the Rangers (Mike Napoli) and OBP leader to the A’s (Hideki Matsui), so by losing some of their talent, they upgraded division rivals. The Angels are definitely going to have to rely on their pitching staff for wins this season.
The starting rotation for the Angels is pretty solid. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana can match up with the best in the league, but after that, there are some question marks. Scott Kazmir had a down year last year, but has shown flashes of brilliance, and the same can be said for Joel Pinero. Both of those pitchers have battled injuries throughout their career, though, and probably can’t be counted on for an entire season. The real issue for the Angels is their bullpen. They lost their closer, Brian Fuentes, to the A’s and look like they’ll be depending on Fernando Rodney to close out games. The bullpen looks super shaky, and that’s a recipe for disaster for a team that is going to have trouble scoring runs.
I am one of maybe 10 people in America that can name, off the top of their head, the AL walks leader last year. A’s first baseman, Daric Barton, led the league with 110 walks, 10 more than 2nd place finisher, José Bautista. Walks wasn’t the only thing Barton led the AL in either; the patient first baseman saw over 100 more pitches than any other player in the American League. The man is a manager’s dream in the #2 slot, but that’s where the A’s problems begin. Barton’s production as the 2 hitter coupled with his defensive prowess make him a vital piece of the A’s lineup, but that piece comes with little pop, as Barton is coming off a career-high in homeruns with 10. First base is a spot where teams expect a lot of power, but Barton is so good at what he does, he is forcing the A’s to find that power elsewhere, something they weren’t able to do in 2010. The A’s only hit 109 homeruns last year, good for 13th out of 15 AL teams, and only eight ahead of Seattle. That power outage was a huge factor to the A’s poor run production last year and something they are looking to fix this year. With the acquisition of DH Hideki Matsui, OF David DeJesus, and OF Josh Willingham, the A’s should see improvement offensively. The new blood should solve some major problems, and the additions also create some depth the A’s have lacked recently. With DeJesus and Willingham both competing for outfield jobs, that makes six candidates for the three spots with Coco Crisp, Ryan Sweeney, Conor Jackson, and Chris Carter joining the competition.
The depth of the A’s doesn’t stop with position players, however. The A’s boast one of the youngest rotations in the AL with Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez all under 25 and only improved the pitching staff that led the AL in ERA last year. With the addition of Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes in the bullpen, and the return of Josh Outman, this pitching staff is going to be a force to be reckoned with. I hate to draw comparisons to the 2010 Giants because comparing this team to a World Series champion is definitely wishful thinking on my part, but they have a starting rotation and bullpen that will be among the best in the AL and revamped offense featuring past-their-prime veterans that may just produce enough to take advantage of their arms. Add on solid defense, and this team is definitely something to get excited about.
I would love to say something nice about the Mariners offense, but outside of Ichiro, there isn’t much to work with. Last year, the Mariners were dead last in the Majors in nearly every major category on offense. They picked up Jack Cust this offseason to add some pop, but take it from someone who watched a team depend on Cust to be their run producer for three years: It’s not going to help. Cust simply is not good enough to be the focal point of your offense and the Mariners will find that out soon enough. There just isn’t enough different about this team for me to have any hope for their offense, although, they can’t get much worse.

Like the A’s and Angels, the Mariners’ pitching staff is going to be their only shot at competing. Everyone knows about the unhittable King Felix, but Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are better than people realize. Both pitchers had some dominant outings last year and are most definitely capable of stringing together quality starts. Those quality starts probably won’t mean much, though, since the M’s bullpen is only slightly better than their offense. There just isn’t enough talent on this team to seriously contend, sorry Felix.
Fresh off a World Series appearance, the Rangers come into 2011 with high hopes, but will they be able to equal their miracle run from last October? Their offense is clearly the most formidable in the West, but that’s not saying much. The addition of Adrián Beltré to an already potent lineup seems like a great move after the season he had last year, but people are quick to forget his numbers in Seattle. In five years in Seattle, Beltré topped a .268 average only once, and had an OPS hovering around the .675 mark, not what you want from a power bat. However, we all saw what he was capable of last year in the hitter friendly Fenway Park and should expect similar numbers this year. Beltré won’t be expected to carry this lineup and with protection in a hitter friendly park, but look for him to fit in well with this lineup. The major issue for the Rangers may be a chemistry one now that Beltré has arrived to take veteran Michael Young’s spot at 3rd base. Young doesn’t want to DH, but his glove is so weak, the Rangers simply cannot afford to have him play at 3rd or 2nd in place of Beltré or Kinsler, and they are reluctant to trade. I feel like this is an issue that needs to be resolved before the season, because I don’t see this ending well for the Rangers in the clubhouse.
Other than the Young drama, the Rangers look to have the makings of a contender. Granted, the loss of Cliff Lee hurts their rotation, but the fact is they have plenty of young arms to leave them in decent shape. On top of the established young guns like Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson, they are contemplating moving AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz from closer to the rotation. If the Rangers get similar production from their current rotation, and Brandon Webb can return to his Cy Young form, the Rangers could make a return trip to the playoffs, but that’s a big “if.”
I think the AL West race will end up a lot like the one it did last year, with one team pulling away around midseason and maintaining a fairly comfortable lead. Don’t expect a lot of fireworks from this division, and with that said, here is how I predict the final standings ending up:
TEAM              W-L
1. Oakland       92-70
2. Texas          88-74
3. Los Angeles 77-85
4. Seattle        62-100


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