Competition Ratchets Up In New-Look AL West
PHOENIX—Look no further than the 2012 Athletics, the American League West champions, for proof that baseball's division races are often unpredictable.
Oakland added 20 wins to its ledger last season, racing past stunned rivals in Anaheim and Arlington and indicating that the pendulum has shifted, both within the division and within the league.
And now the AL West may well be the best division in baseball in 2013.
The Athletics, Rangers and Angels all had winning record against both the AL East and the AL Central last year. By season's end they were a combined 39 games over .500 against the other two divisions.
Where the Angels (30-27) and Rangers (27-30) got a little bloodied was within the confines of the West, where the up-and-coming Mariners, armed with ace Felix Hernandez, occasionally proved an impediment and where the competitors bruised each other.
In looking to the 2013 season, each of the big three teams in the West demand respect, particularly knowing that they get a boost from 19 games against the downtrodden Astros, who join the division from the National League Central. The Astros lost 107 games last year, and 106 in 2011. They aren't any better this year and look like sheep ready to be sheared.
Reasonable analysis suggests the three teams at the top of the division are three teams built as well as any to compete. But there are some strange quirks mixed in there, too. The 20-game improvement of the A's is hard to sustain, and when you put it all together, you have a defending division titleist that has an improved roster and yet is being, if not overlooked, at the very least underappreciated.
And yet it makes sense. Last year's third-place team, the Angels, will put a lineup on the field that has the potential to be devastating, with reigning BA Rookie and Player of the Year Mike Trout setting up Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, huge free agent pickups the last two winters.
The 2012 runners-up, the Rangers, were two-time entrants in the World Series before losing the West title on the final day of the 2012 season to the A's, then coming up short in the one-and-done wild card playoff. Texas has seen icons Hamilton and Michael Young exit, but the depth and power still seems up to the challenge.
And the Rangers and their fans won't take kindly to Hamilton's parting words that stoked the fire of an already raging rivalry.
"Texas, especially Dallas, has always been a football town," Hamilton said during his first spring training with the Angels. "The good with the bad is they're supportive, but they also got a little spoiled at the same time, pretty quickly. You can understand a really true, true baseball town. There's true baseball fans in Texas, but it's not a true baseball town."
The A's have won four World Series championships in Oakland, yet they are stuck in a football stadium and constantly looking to find yet another new home. They have designs on moving to San Jose, but general manager Billy Beane has proved he can make the team competitive whatever the level of fan support.
The A's have added depth in the infield, trading for Houston's Jed Lowrie and signing Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. They added more athleticism to the outfield, dealing for Chris Young from the Diamondbacks. And while Oakland will not feature as many mashers as the Rangers or Angels, the A's have better depth; the 22nd through 25th spots on the roster are as good as or better than any in baseball. And it was that depth that enabled the A's to pull off a rally from 13 games out of first place last year.
They did it against the Rangers, the two-time defending AL champs who had crossed the Pacific for Japanese pitching stalwart Yu Darvish. And they did it against the Angels, who had just plunked down megabucks for Pujols and lefty C.J. Wilson while nailing down Jered Weaver for another five years.
The A's had added some good players, notably outfielders Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, but were figured to be fighting it out with Seattle for third place. Instead, Oakland rallied from a terrible start to spank the Rangers down the stretch after having leapfrogged the Angels, all with their two best starting pitchers, Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy, unavailable.
"There were some people who say we snuck up on people last year," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't believe that's true. We played good, hard baseball, and after a slow start, we were a tough team to beat. And I know we aren't going to sneak up on anybody this year."
So looking at the West one year later is something of a dicey proposition. There are three potential 90-win teams in the A's, Rangers and Angels, but there has been enough change that predicting the eventual winner may be best left to a coin flip.
Texas will miss Hamilton and Young, to be sure. The Rangers have some serious incoming talent in catcher A.J. Pierzynski, 36, and DH Lance Berkman, 37, but neither can make up for the losses. Where the Rangers could make back some of that loss is in putting forward a lineup that will give more at-bats to David Murphy and Mitch Moreland and rely on the division's best infield: Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre. At any time, that infield could add the game's top prospect, 20-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar, who made his major league debut last September and appears ready, if the Rangers can find a spot for him.
The Angels have gone out and added Hamilton to the middle of the lineup and lefty Jason Vargas to the middle of the rotation, but the losses of 27 wins in the persons of Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke and the 16 homers and 92 RBIs of Torii Hunter combined with the 22 homers and 73 RBIs of Kendrys Morales are hardly insignificant.
They figure to make up for the offensive losses by adding Hamilton, which had the side benefit of wounding the rival Rangers. With Hamilton having switched sides, the Rangers-Angels battles should be some of baseball's best. Hamilton joins a team that not only has Pujols but also Trout, who showed up to spring camp at 240 pounds but insists he'll be a trim 230 by the time the season starts, and slugger Mark Trumbo, who slumped to a .630 OPS in the second half in 2012 after a .965 OPS in the first half.
It's a formidable quartet. In those four, the Angels have four men who hit 30 or more homers last year. No other team in either league has a lineup with more than two 30-plus guys.
All that offense may make it easier on the new-look rotation, which added Tommy Hanson from the Braves and free agent Joe Blanton in addition to Vargas and last year's free agent import, C.J. Wilson. The Angels also are counting on Ryan Madson, who missed last year with Tommy John surgery, and Sean Burnett to bolster a bullpen that was painfully thin beyond Ernesto Frieri last season.
The A's replaced departed shortstops Stephen Drew and Cliff Pennington with Japanese import Nakajima, a .300 hitter in Nippon Professional Baseball, and Lowrie, who was coming of age last year with the Astros before injuries truncated his season. He should slide into the everyday third base job that was a revolving door last season. They've also added all-star center fielder Young to an already explosive, athletic outfield.
Oakland's last two Opening Day starters, Trevor Cahill and McCarthy, are both gone, leaving it to a group of kids to see if they can rekindle their fire of last August and September. But it was this group of kids—lefties Brett Anderson and Tommy Milone and righties Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily—that went 20-5 in the final six weeks after McCarthy (concussion) and Colon (PED suspension) became unavailable and paved the path to the pennant.
The wild card in all this is the Mariners, who could be looking at a .500 season if they were playing in another division. As it is, Seattle has added muscle in Michael Morse, Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. They'll take aim at shorter fences at Safeco this season, as will holdovers Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley, all of whom still hold promise but have yet to live up to expectations.
Seattle also has locked down one of the game's best starters in Hernandez, for seven years. And if the young minor league blue-chip pitchers—Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer—have success this year rather than down the line, the Mariners could give some teams fits, because King Felix has vowed to bring a title to Seattle.
"I'm not going to disappoint anybody," Hernandez said upon signing his new deal. "I will do my best—more than my best—to get to the playoffs. We're going to make the playoffs. We've got a lot of talent, and we're going to be one of the toughest teams in this league."
The West has gone through a major overhaul since last year. The arrival of the Astros to create a five-team division means there will be much more infighting this time around. Since the Astros have embarked on a talent- and salary-shedding spree reminiscent of the A's of Connie Mack and Charlie Finley, it's not too much of a stretch to suggest the top three, and maybe the top four, will beat them up, one at a time.
Houston's best starter, Lucas Harrell, was 11-11 last year, shedding (for now) his minor league journeyman label. New first baseman Chris Carter and holdover second baseman Jose Altuve could be the makings of half a good infield, but the team's top earner is $3 million righthander Bud Norris.
In the newly high-rent AL West—home of three of the nine top earners in baseball history by average annual value in Hamilton ($25 million), Hernandez ($25 million) and Pujols ($24 million), all signed in the last two years—that figure suddenly seems out of place.