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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."