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AL West preview: Rangers eye a repeat in majors' easiest division

The American League West is the majors' easiest division to win because it has just four teams. In 2011, though, it might as well have three, as the Mariners -- who entered last season with something more than a glimmer of hope -- can this season only be expected to build for the future. While the A's attempt to avoid last season's Mariners' fate, that of a trendy sleeper pick that simply doesn't pan out, the Rangers will attempt to repeat as AL champions without their 2010 playoff ace, Cliff Lee -- and without any ace, for that matter. The Angels, meanwhile, will endeavor to quickly make their fans forget their visions of both Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre in behaloed uniforms by proving that last season was simply an off year for the division's traditional power, and not the beginning of an extended fall.

WINTER GRADE: D+

Vernon Wells is a very fine player -- a three-time All-Star who has over the past nine seasons averaged nearly 25 home runs and 89 RBIs. Strong numbers, but not so strong that they would appear to merit the 14th richest contract in baseball history -- seven years, $126 million -- which is the deal under which Wells will play through 2014. "The first thing you hear when people on the outside talk about Vernon Wells is they talk about his contract," says Angels GM Tony Reagins, who acquired Wells, and all but $5 million of the remainder of his deal, from the Blue Jays in late January. "That's the first thing you hear. They don't talk about the player, they don't talk about the man, they talk about the contract. We're fine with the contract. That's important." It is, and if you're fine with the contract, Wells will make for a good addition to the heart of the Angels lineup. But not nearly as good an addition as Crawford or Beltre would have made. This will forever be known as the winter in which the deep-pocketed Angels set out to sign one or both of those players, both of whom would have filled obvious holes, and failed to do so. Wells represents merely a consolation prize.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Which of the lineup's dead spots will come alive?

Four of the Angels' probable regulars posted an OPS below .690 last season: third baseman Maicer Izturis (.684), shortstop Erick Aybar (.636), centerfielder Peter Bourjos (.618) and catcher Jeff Mathis (.497). The best breakout contender is the blazingly fast Bourjos, who hit .373 with two homers and 12 RBIs this spring.

2. Which Dan Haren will show up?

In 21 starts with the Diamondbacks last season, Haren had a 4.60 ERA; in 14 starts with the Angels after he was traded to L.A. on July 25, his ERA was 2.87. A friendlier ballpark helped (Chase Field was the ninth best hitters' park last season, according to the Park Factor statistic, while Angel Stadium was tied for 27th), as did excellent outfield defense. Those factors spurred Haren to pitch to contact more -- he struck out nine batters per nine innings as a D-back, as compared to 7.2 per nine as an Angel -- and to significantly decrease his home run rate (from 1.5 per nine innings to 0.8 per nine). An outfield that now features a trio of centerfielders in Wells, Torii Hunter (who have combined for 12 Gold Gloves) and Bourjos should help Haren to continue his late-2010 form. While Jered Weaver will pitch on Opening Day, Haren should be the Angels' ace.

3. Is Scott Kazmir done?

Kazmir was the AL strikeouts leader at the age of 23, a two-time All-Star at 24, and last season, at 26, 111th out of the 111 pitchers who threw more than 140 innings in ERA (5.94). The average velocity of both his fastball and slider has dropped each season since 2007, and he had a 7.79 ERA in 17 1/3 innings this spring. Manager Mike Scioscia says Kazmir will start the season as the Angels' fifth starter, but that undoubtedly has something to do that the club's other starting options -- current reliever Hisanori Takahashi, Matt Palmer and Trevor Bell -- are at best uninspiring.

X-FACTOR

Kendrys Morales, 1B

Perhaps the only Angel to benefit, in any way, from the bungled walk-off grand slam celebration last May 29 that left Morales with a snapped leg was Mark Trumbo, the formerly blocked prospect who this spring has slugged six homers and driven in 20 runs in the at-bats that Morales' prolonged recovery has opened up for him. Trumbo will open the year as the Angels' first baseman, as Morales will be on the 15-day disabled list, but the Angels saw their lineup sputter without its centerpiece last season and eagerly anticipate his return to health. "Not having him in the lineup," says centerfielder Torii Hunter, "changes everything."

SCOUT'S TAKE

"While I think Adrian Beltre would have been the best upgrade for them, I think Vernon Wells is going to be tremendous for this club. Their outfield should be excellent, and he's another strong righthanded bat in the lineup. I also think Erick Aybar's going to bounce back from a down year, and his performance in the leadoff spot is going to be huge for them. The off-season was a disappointment, but it would be a mistake to count the Angels out as a contender -- I like them, a lot."

WINTER GRADE: B+

Oakland failed to sign its two top off-season targets --the Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (the $19.1 million posting fee due his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, was returned when the A's failed to sign him) and Beltre. "The compensation Beltre received [from the Rangers] was what he was looking for at the beginning of the winter, and we couldn't quite get there, but I have no qualms as to how it was handled," says general manager Billy Beane. Beane recovered nicely, adding free agent relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to create a deep and talented bullpen whose seven likely regular members (assuming injury-troubled closer Andrew Bailey can pitch) last year had a combined ERA of 2.94. He also bolstered the offense by adding a trio of proven contributors -- David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham -- in the process building a well-balanced club that a pair of rival GM's independently assert ought to be considered the co-favorite, with the Rangers, in the division.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Will the young rotation continue its upward trend?

It should. There is little reason to believe that Opening Day starter Trevor Cahill, 23, and Gio Gonzalez, 25, will not at least match their 2010 breakouts (Cahill: 18-8, 2.97 ERA; Gonzalez: 15-9, 3.23), but the rotation's ace should be 23-year-old Brett Anderson. Elbow trouble led Anderson to spend three months, all told, on the disabled list last season, but in his 112 1/3 innings he had a 2.80 ERA and displayed precocious command: his 3.41 strikeout-to-walk rate (75 K's versus 22 walks) was the 18th best among pitchers who topped 100 innings. The A's are encouraging Anderson to rely more on his changeup this season, as opposed to his beloved slider (a pitch he threw 31.3 percent of the time last season, the AL's third-highest rate), in part to take some stress off of his elbow.

2. Can Coco Crisp become one of baseball's best leadoff men?

Yes -- assuming he stays healthy. Crisp, 31, hasn't played in more than 118 games since he was a member of the Red Sox in 2007, and he was limited to 75 last season. In those games, though, he batted .279 with 8 home runs, 38 RBIs, 51 runs and 32 steals (in 35 attempts). Double those counting stats, and you have a terrific force at the top of the lineup. Crisp has experienced some hamstring tightness this spring, but he hit .392 with a 1.172 OPS in 17 games.

3. Does Matsui have one big power season left in him?

Not in the estimation of one rival scout. "Body looks dead, and I think he's getting close to the end," the scout says. The 36-year-old Matsui had a dreadful exhibition season -- he batted just .125 with one home run and two RBIs -- but he had just one homer last spring, with the Angels, and he still quietly produced a regular season in which he hit .274 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs. Besides, the A's aren't entirely reliant on Matsui to fill their DH spot. They've got 24-year-old power prospect Chris Carter waiting in the wings. "Carter has a special bat -- if Godzilla turns into Curious George, he'll have a chance," the scout says, curiously.

X-FACTOR

David DeJesus, RF

Last season the A's got fewer home runs (7) and a lower OPS (.652) out of their No. 3 hitters -- most often outfielder Ryan Sweeney and catcher Kurt Suzuki -- than any other major league club. Beane immediately set out to rectify that this off-season, acquiring DeJesus from the Royals for starter Vin Mazzaro and a minor leaguer. While DeJesus never hit more than 13 homers in his seven seasons in Kansas City, he is a capable gap hitter and one whose talents should play well in the spacious Oakland Coliseum. "I'm a line-drive hitter, a try-to-get-on-base type of a guy," he says. "Trying to hit homers isn't part of my game at all." Oakland's pitching -- and defense, too -- should be so good that even a modest uptick in offense, which DeJesus can help provide, could translate into a significant boost.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"Because of what's happened over the past few years, they knew they needed bullpen depth, and they already do. Brian Fuentes can do an adequate job as a closer if Andrew Bailey is out awhile. His deceptive delivery, and the fact he throws three pitches, that's not something you see that much out of closers. I love what they did with the offense during the off-season -- they tried, and I think Josh Willingham can hit 25 to 30 homers if he gets 550, 600 at-bats -- but they still don't have those hitters who carry a lineup. We'll have to see if they have enough."

WINTER GRADE: B

General manager Jack Zduriencik was not nearly as active as he was a year ago -- when he added, among others, Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins -- and he should be commended for that. Last season's 61-101 finish -- the club's same record as in 2008 -- proved that the 85-win team of 2009 was an aberration, and Zduriencik shifted his focus to the future, using this off-season to address immediate holes with modest short-term fillers like DH Jack Cust, catcher Miguel Olivo and shortstop Brendan Ryan. "I think in the next two or three years, you'll see a lot of nice things out of this organization," he says. This year, even under a new manager in former Indians skipper Eric Wedge, there will very likely be fewer nice things.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Will the Mariners score more than last season?

Yes, but that is not much of a stretch. Of the 842 MLB teams over the past 30 years just one -- the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays -- scored fewer runs per game than the 2010 Mariners' 3.17, and those Blue Jays had their season interrupted by a strike and used a three-point specialist, Danny Ainge, for a third baseman. "It was the perfect storm of things not working out," says Zduriencik. While this year's Mariners will be something short of an offensive juggernaut, they should rise to, perhaps, somewhere around 800th on the above-mentioned list, due to a rebound from Figgins -- who hit a career worst .259 last year ("I think we were all trying to do too much," Figgins says), 15 to 20 homers apiece from Cust and Olivo, and the continued development of a pair of 24-year-olds, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak.

2. Will Michael Pineda be the AL Rookie of the Year?

Pineda, 22, has just 12 starts at Triple-A on his ledger, but a stellar spring -- he had a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings pitched -- convinced the Mariners to make him their fifth starter. "His stuff's real," says Wedge of the 6'7", 260-pound Pineda. "He's a hard thrower, throws three solid pitches with which he can get hitters out in the big leagues, and he's very athletic for as big as he is." Pineda has never thrown more than 139 1/3 innings in a pro season, and his workload will be limited, but he could still beat out two other starting pitchers -- the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson and the Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek -- to become the Mariners' first Rookie of the Year since Ichiro in 2001.

3. Will Felix Hernandez finish the season in Seattle?

"Right," said Zduriencik, when asked this spring if it was correct to assume that he still had no intention of trading last year's AL Cy Young winner, who will turn 25 next week. Every contender will be after Hernandez all season long, but unless, say, the Yankees call and offer Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos and both Derek Jeter and a time machine, Zduriencik's conversations with them should be very short indeed. Hernandez is signed at a reasonable rate through 2014, as his salary over the next four seasons will average just over $14 million. By then, Pineda could be a well-established second ace ("Everybody's excited about the chance of these two guys matching up in the rotation as we move forward," Zduriencik says), and the offense could be much improved due in part to middle infield prospects Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin. Hernandez is a wanted man around baseball, and he will likely stay that way.

X-FACTOR

Erik Bedard, SP

Bedard began his exhibition season with what he called "probably the best inning I've ever had in spring training history" -- it consisted of nine pitches and two strikeouts -- and things didn't get appreciably worse from there: He ended up allowing two earned runs over 16 innings, with 14 strikeouts and a .196 batting average against. Even better was that after three injury-decimated seasons in Seattle, his shoulder is back to feeling as it did when he was a Cy Young contender as an Oriole. "Structurally, there's absolutely zero wrong," he says. "My arm angle's finally the same as it was in '07." The 31-year-old won't right the Mariners' ship by himself, but he could represent a good deal of ballast.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"One thing that is apparent is that ownership is buying into patience. They have some minor league pitching, all the way down to A-ball, that is a couple years away, and some interesting arms in the bullpen -- particularly a kid named Danny Cortes, who throws 98 or 99, and Tom Wilhemsen, who is up to 95. I think their bullpen is going to be their strength. Their biggest problem is going to be scoring runs. You know Ichiro and Figgins are going to form the best one-two combo in the league, but they don't have much else right now -- guys like Franklin Gutierrez are mere contributors on good clubs, not middle-of-the-order hitters. It's going to be rough for them until they can see if prospects like Ackley and Carlos Peguero -- he's a 6-4 kid with pop that just lets it go -- can make an impact."

WINTER GRADE: A-

A demerit for failing to re-sign Lee -- though only a slight one, as Lee's free agency decision-making process was quite evidently unconventional. Other than that, GM Jon Daniels had a very good off-season. He signed free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, in the process not only adding a slugger and superior defender but keeping him away from his club's two main AL West rivals, the Angels and the A's, who were Beltre's other top pursuers. Daniels also shored up the Rangers' catching position -- a weak spot in last season's lineup, one that produced a .605 OPS -- by signing steady veteran Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year deal in November, and then trading for Mike Napoli in January. The Rangers' offense and defense is more than good enough to propel the club back to October, as long as the pitching can keep up.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Is it the right call to keep Neftali Feliz in the 'pen?

The Rangers still envision Feliz as their ace -- but starting in 2012, not 2011. For now, the 22-year-old will remain their closer. The decision suggests that the club feels as if the chance that C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis can repeat their unexpected magic from last season is greater than the one that Feliz could seamlessly expand his repertoire and innings to become a frontline starter. Making Feliz a starter would have represented a gamble, to be sure, but now Texas will try to return to the World Series not only without Lee, but also without the Lee-like rotational linchpin that Feliz has the talent to become.

2. What to do with their surplus offense?

Trade it, posthaste. Manager Ron Washington has more talented bats than he can possibly fit in his lineup due in part to the acquisition of Beltre and the blossoming of first baseman Mitch Moreland. Of course, that depth was intended in part to keep the Rangers' recently injury-riddled lineup healthy. "Part of the design of the club was to give Wash the ability, not just with Josh Hamilton but with everyone, to give them 10 days off during the year," Daniels says. Still, the Rangers' offense depth might at this point have even greater value if it were converted into something else. The two most obviously extraneous hitters are Michael Young and Chris Davis, whose values probably won't get any higher after exhibition seasons in which they combined to hit .370 with five homers (all of them Davis') and 28 RBIs. The duo might be packaged for some rather attractive pitching help, of either the starting or relief variety.

3. Has Elvis Andrus's offensive development plateaued?

Andrus won't turn 23 until August, and is a skilled shortstop, but his offense somewhat unexpectedly fell off in his sophomore season: his OPS dropped from .702 to .643, his home runs from six to zero. There is, according to one MLB scout, no reason for concern, particularly as Andrus was still the AL's fourth-youngest player and had to adjust from being the Rangers' No. 9 hitter as a rookie to a significantly more demanding leadoff role last season. "There was a lot said about him not hitting any home runs, in a lineup that's crushing them in batting practice every day," the scout says. "But he has stayed within himself. Anytime you see him hitting the ball in the air, you're not happy about that, because it's a mistake. On the flip side of that, as he matures more physically, it wouldn't surprise me if he starts to hit 10, 15 home runs two years down the line." For now, the Rangers will be happy for Andrus to remain their powerful lineup's slap-hitting igniter, with the promise of greater things to come.

X-FACTOR

Brandon Webb, SP

That Feliz remains the Rangers' closer might have something to do with the club's increasingly optimistic feelings about Webb, who was one of the game's elite starters with the Diamondbacks between 2006 and 2008 but was available as a free agent after two years that were lost to injury. Webb, 31, spent the spring getting his shoulder in shape with 60-pitch bullpen sessions, and one rival scout says Texas has precisely the right idea. "If I'm them, I'm not in too much of a hurry with him," the scout says. "Come June 1, if Brandon Webb is back to being the Brandon Webb he has been, then they get an upper tier guy just like that."

SCOUT'S TAKE

"It's amazing how much their team changed last year when they got Cliff Lee. That was the icing on the cake. Now? Well, C.J. Wilson is not a true No. 1 starter, and it's so important to have that one-two knockout punch, especially when you get to the playoffs. Their biggest question mark is, can they get away with Wilson, Colby Lewis, et cetera? There's some depth in the rotation, but not a whole lot of substance. Defensively, there are no weaknesses, and they have so much surplus offense -- but can they out-slug teams every night?"

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