AL WEST

The Rangers can score, but can they pitch? The A's can pitch, but can they score? They'll settle those questions in a tight race
April 03, 2011

One year ago the prevailing mood in the Mariners' spring training clubhouse was buoyant. Seattle had won a surprising 85 games in 2009, and after a season-concluding victory, players took a lap around capacious Safeco Field. The expectation, shared by many within the baseball intelligentsia, was that improvements to the game's best team defense and fortifications to a pitching staff that had led the AL in ERA would bring more meaningful celebrations. "It should work out, with the dimensions of the ballpark and the defense," the crown jewel of the club's off-season acquisitions would say in spring training. "It should work out."

The 2010 Mariners produced the AL Cy Young Award winner (Felix Hernandez) and a pair of Gold Glove outfielders (Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki). They also produced 101 losses. Things got so bad so quickly that Seattle was 16 games out of first place by July 8. The team officially gave up the next day, when it traded Cliff Lee—who had uttered that confident statement—to the Rangers for prospects. A month later the Mariners fired their manager, Don Wakamatsu. Then they watched Lee lead their divisional rival to the World Series.

Of Seattle's many problems, a central one was this: Superior fielding and pitching have become a difficult way for a team to separate itself in baseball's smallest division. Last season the AL West's four clubs all ranked in the majors' upper half in each of two leading advanced fielding metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Efficiency, as well as in team ERA. No other division had more than two such clubs.

If every West team could prevent runs, then success in the division depended on generating them—something the Mariners did not do. Seattle averaged 3.2 runs, the lowest in the majors since the 1981 Blue Jays. No regular other than Ichiro hit higher than .259. That is also the career batting average of shortstop Brendan Ryan, one of Seattle's off-season additions, the others being catcher Miguel Olivo (career BA: .246) and slugging A's castoff Jack Cust (.245). "Eventually we're going to have those middle-of-the-lineup guys that we all dream about," says general manager Jack Zduriencik. "We're not there yet."

This season, the Mariners' hierarchy is stressing to hitters such things as "being smart, being sound, staying healthy" (Zduriencik's words) and "making good outs, having quality at bats, fighting with two strikes" (manager Eric Wedge's). In other words, the AL West will be a three-team race in 2011.

The Angels were third last season, their worst finish since 2003, in large measure because they scored fewer runs, 681, than they had in a full season since 1992. Part of the problem was that first baseman Kendrys Morales (known then as Kendry; he has since clarified), who was on his way to bettering his breakout 2009 performance (34 home runs, 108 RBIs), broke his left leg on May 29 while celebrating a walk-off grand slam. But the Angels' offensive woes mainly stemmed from age. The heart of the lineup—rightfielder Bobby Abreu and centerfielder Torii Hunter—lost a combined 92 points of OPS, as might be expected for players who are 37 and 35, respectively. The team could have used the addition of, say, a 29-year-old star who is one of the game's best outfielders and fastest base runners and who, Hunter points out, could fill a void in the leadoff spot.

Such a player—Carl Crawford, the former Rays leftfielder—was a free agent this winter. But the Angels, who have deep financial reserves, were outbid for his services by the Red Sox, occasioning an increase in the altitude of eyebrows around baseball.

"The player ended up in another location, and I turned the page really quickly on that," says G.M. Tony Reagins. The failure to land Crawford prompted, six weeks later, the off-season's biggest eyebrow strainer: Reagins's trade for the lesser and older Vernon Wells. For the next four seasons Anaheim will pay the former Blue Jays centerfielder, who is nearly three years older than Crawford, almost as much per year as Boston will pay Crawford (around $20.25 million).

The Angels' Opening Day lineup will likely feature three players—shortstop Erick Aybar, outfielder Peter Bourjos and catcher Jeff Mathis—who in 2010 produced OPSs of .675 or lower, ranking them in the bottom 100 of the 347 players who had 180 or more at bats. Mathis's .497 OPS was 346th, yet Mike Scioscia often had him catch over Mike Napoli (OPS: .784, at least 20 home runs in each of the last three seasons despite limited action) in part, the manager says, because Mathis is "an exceptional defensive catcher." (Scioscia, a former backstop, is known for demanding more of his catchers than any other skipper.) "There's no doubt in anybody's mind that [Napoli] was proficient behind the plate," says Scioscia. But mere proficiency made him expendable, and Napoli was traded to Toronto in the Wells deal, then flipped four days later to the Rangers. "I felt like I could be out there every day," says Napoli of his time under Scioscia. "It was definitely frustrating. I'm happy to be in Texas, you could say."

The addition of Napoli's bat, and that of Adrian Beltre (another free agent the Angels were interested in), means the Rangers should score even more runs than last season's 787, which ranked fourth in the league. Beltre—"far and away the Number 1 [free-agent] position player on our board," says G.M. Jon Daniels—is also a stellar third baseman and should further boost Texas's superb defense, which last season ranked first in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. The Rangers' attempt to repeat as AL West champs hinges on their pitching staff's performing to the division's standard, a task made more difficult when Lee signed with Philadelphia. "Any team that had Cliff Lee and lost him would miss him," says manager Ron Washington. "Who wouldn't? He's an animal."

Without Lee, the Rangers will have to count on righthander Colby Lewis and lefthander C.J. Wilson to repeat their bolt-from-the-blue performances. They had an even more intriguing starting option in-house: Neftali Feliz, the 22-year-old fireballer who was the AL Rookie of the Year as a closer last season, when he had 40 saves and 71 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. The Rangers spent much of the spring trying him out as a starter before deciding last week to keep Feliz in the bullpen. It was a decision that tormented the Rangers' brass for weeks—and ultimately, if the rotation proves to be a weakness, could cost the team a second straight division title. "The hardest thing to find in the game is the guys who can start a playoff game for you," says Daniels. As alluring as the idea of getting 180 innings out of Feliz was, Daniels was also concerned by what Feliz's departure would mean for his bullpen. "It's tough to take a strength away from the club like that," he says.

Assuming closer Andrew Bailey recovers quickly from the right forearm strain he suffered in camp, bullpen strength will not be a concern in Oakland. The A's added proven setup men Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to a staff that had an AL-best 3.56 ERA last season. ("It's a f------ ridiculous pen," says one admiring rival executive.) But G.M. Billy Beane also endeavored to improve an offense that ranked 11th in the league in runs scored (4.1 per game). He brought in a trio of players, each of whom would have ranked in the A's top four in OPS in '10: rightfielder David DeJesus, DH Hideki Matsui and leftfielder Josh Willingham. Willingham, 32, should be particularly important, as he has the most raw power (16 home runs in 370 at bats for the Nationals in 2010). While Oakland's Coliseum is tough on sluggers—"It can be unforgiving, Oakland at night," says Washington, an A's coach from 1996 to 2006—Willingham, who began his career with the Marlins, is undaunted. "I've never really played in a hitter-friendly ballpark yet anyway," he says. "I don't think it'll be anything new."

Beane's spring training office overlooks rightfield in Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and one day in mid-February he heard a loud whirring. He went to his window and saw his players piloting remote-controlled airplanes in the outfield. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson banned the toys from his clubhouse this spring, but Beane feels differently. "The last time we had a bunch of guys using them was when Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon were here, in 2001," Beane says. "Good year. We won 100-plus games."

That the planes are mostly an obsession among Beane's relief corps—by the contents of his locker, Fuentes appears to have emptied the Internet of the things—indicates something about the structure of the current A's. While Oakland's starters, particularly Cy Young contenders Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, are very good, they are also very young (both are 23). And while, as major league players, they earn healthy salaries, they don't make so much that they feel comfortable pursuing a hobby that can get expensive, especially before the art of landing is mastered. The A's likely relievers will average around $2.3 million in salary this season, to the likely starters' $1.2 million.

Oakland's talented, low-cost, young rotation, in fact, is the key to Beane's team, in that it allowed him, even with what should again be a bottom-third payroll, to bolster his bullpen and add the run producers his club needed to contend. "The plan isn't to make sure you have a diversified portfolio," he says. "The idea is to have a successful portfolio." Beane knows he will soon have to rebalance, as his starters age into the wages they deserve. "Probably in another year," he says. This year, though, they have allowed him to build a club whose returns should extend into October.

HOW THEY WILL FINISH

TEAM W--L GB
1 A'S 87--75
2 RANGERS 85--77 2
3 ANGELS 77--85 10
4 MARINERS 63--99 24

BEST BETS

MVP: JOSH HAMILTON, RANGERS

Only his vulnerability to injury might keep Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP, from winning the award every year. The Rangers believe they can keep him healthy by playing him in leftfield instead of center and with periodic days off. If he plays 150 games his numbers will be scary.

CY YOUNG: FELIX HERNANDEZ, MARINERS

At 24, Hernandez is a nearly flawless ace—dazzling and durable (an AL-high 249 2/3 innings in '10). "I think I have to improve in the first inning," he says. Though he allowed more runs (15) in the first than any other frame in 2010, his 2.27 overall ERA was the stuff of most pitchers' dreams.

MR. IRREPLACEABLE: KENDRYS MORALES, ANGELS

Morales's irreplaceability wasn't felt last season until a month after the first baseman broke his left leg. From July 1 on, the Angels averaged a piddling 3.7 runs a game. "Not having him in the lineup changes everything," says Torii Hunter. Morales will start on the DL; the Angels hope the stint is brief.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: MICHAEL PINEDA, MARINERS

Pineda, 22, uses his NFL body (6'7", 260 pounds) to generate a fastball that touches 100 mph, and he struck out 154 batters in 139 1/3 minor league innings last season. The Dominican righthander won a spot in the Seattle rotation this spring, giving King Felix a worthy prince.

RISING STAR: BRETT ANDERSON, A'S

"He loves his breaking ball," Trevor Cahill says of his rotation mate, who had a 2.80 ERA and threw more sliders than all but three other AL starters in 2010. An increased emphasis on the less-taxing changeup should make Anderson (19 starts in '10) more durable, and more dangerous.

DECLINING STAR: BOBBY ABREU, ANGELS

Morales sang Happy Birthday to Abreu in the Angels' clubhouse on March 11, though Abreu didn't exactly celebrate. He is now 37, and though he has an underrated Hall of Fame résumé, he is coming off a career-worst offensive season, in which he hit .255. A renaissance seems unlikely.

THE PAYOFF PITCH ...

BEST CASE

With an excellent rotation and bullpen, "we're always going to be in the game," says David DeJesus. "If we as hitters do our job, we're going to be O.K." And maybe West champs.

WORST CASE

Josh Willingham, an extreme fly ball hitter, can't clear the fences in Oakland (nor can Hideki Matsui), and his defense is a liability in spacious AL West outfields. The A's finish .500—again.

BEST CASE

Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton play more than last year (they averaged 115 games); the Neftali Feliz--less rotation flourishes; and the Rangers again play into October's depths.

WORST CASE

The rotation falters: Brandon Webb can't get healthy, and Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson can't repeat their 2010s. They look like the Rangers of the aughts: lots of hitting, no pitching.

BEST CASE

Dan Haren performs as he did after his trade from Arizona (2.87 ERA), and the offense is sparked by the mid-season call-up of 19-year-old Mike Trout. The Angels hang around in the wild-card race.

WORST CASE

Strong pitching and defense can't cover for a lineup that features four easy outs per cycle. The Angels' regret about missing out on Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre grows ever deeper.

BEST CASE

Erik Bedard finally recaptures his 2007 health, and breakout years from Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders, both 24, lead to a season very much like '09: 85--77, with reason for optimism.

WORST CASE

Seattle sets a new standard for offensive futility. Worse, Ichiro, at 37, starts to decline, and the club has little choice but to deal Felix Hernandez to a salivating contender.

PHOTOPhotograph by OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES PHOTOTONY GUTIERREZ/APSAFE BET Texas slid by Oakland last year, but the young A's rotation will lead a reversal in '11. FOUR PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)