Posted: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:32PM ; Updated: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:32PM
Ben Reiter
Ben Reiter>INSIDE BASEBALL

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

Story Highlights

Only the Rangers, A's and Angels have a shot at contending in 2011

The Mariners are back to being a rebuilding team but have good young pitching

Oakland supplemented a fine pitching staff with a needed offensive upgrade

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A's preview
Source: SI
Tom Verducci explains why he likes Oakland to win the AL West.

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.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

WINTER GRADE: D+

Vernon Wells
Vernon Wells made his first All-Star team in four years last season before being dealt to the Angels in the offseason.
Getty Images

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."

VERDUCCI: Angels a notch below A's, Rangers

OAKLAND A'S

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."

VERDUCCI: Pitching-rich A's have just enough offense to win

 
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