In 2012, the American League West may well have been the most exciting division in Major League Baseball - from wire to wire, at that. The Rangers made a splash to sign Japanese sensation Yu Darvish, who lived up to some very lofty expectations (tied for fifth in the Majors in fWAR). Not to be outdone, the Athletics swooped in to bring Yoenis Cespedes on-board, and were rewarded with the best rookie season this side of Mike Trout, as the star of 'The Showcase' batted .292/.356/.505 (136 wRC+) with 23 HR and 16 SB. The Mariners even made a bit of a splash, acquiring Jesus Montero from the Yankees for Michael Pineda. And, of course, the Angels sought to capture some of the Yankees 2009 mojo, signing (arguably) the top hitting and pitching free agents of the off-season, in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Of course, much of this became an afterthought as the Rangers, Athletics, and Angels battled for the divisional crown throughout the season, with all three remaining in the race through the final month of the season. On the last day of the season, the Athletics won the division, relegating the Rangers (playing the role of early season juggernauts before the dog days of Summer rolled around) to the Wild Card play-in game. Unsurprisingly, the drama was left a bit to the wayside at times, as Mike Trout put together one of the greatest all-around seasons in ... well ... ever.
What does 2013 have in store as an encore? Let's try to figure it out.
Houston Astros Notable Additions - Carlos Pena; Cris Carter; Jose Veras; Erik Bedard; Phil Humber; Brad Peacock Notable Subtractions - Jed Lowrie; Wilton Lopez
Projected Lineup C. Jason Castro 1B. Carlos Pena 2B. Jose Altuve 3B. Matt Dominguez SS. Ronny Cedeno LF. Chris Carter CF. Justin Maxwell RF. Fernando Martinez DH. Brett Wallace
Projected Rotation 1. Bud Norris 2. Lucas Harrell 3. Phil Humber 4. Erik Bedard 5. Brad Peacock
The new kids on the block also figure to serve as a punching bag for the other four teams in the division, as the Astros are in year two of what may be the most extreme rebuild in recent memory. Looking at the projected lineup and rotation, the approach of GM Jeff Luhnow et al is quite clear - the vast majority of these players project as little more than placeholders, with (speaking generously) Altuve, Carter, Dominguez, Harrell, and Peacock likely to be members of the Astros if and when the team begins contending. And therein lies the rub, as this team is unlikely to contend until 2015 at the very earliest.
Realistically, there is very little to be excited for the team that will be on the field this season. Altuve is a very good story (and a far better player than most seem to believe), Carter has 80-grade power, Dominguez is an elite defensive third baseman, and Peacock is only a year removed from being rated as the 36th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. After that, the team is comprised mostly of replacement-level to average players, with the majority of the latter serving as trade bait come July.
For some - that is, those with ties to the 1962 Mets and 2003 Tigers - I suppose there could be some excitement to be had, as the Astros could struggle to win more than 50 games ... particularly as Luhnow begins wheeling and dealing anything (or everything) that isn't bolted down.
Los Angeles Angels Notable Additions - Josh Hamilton; Joe Blanton; Ryan Madson; Tommy Hanson; Jason Vargas Notable Subtractions - Zack Greinke; Kendrys Morales; Dan Haren; Ervin Santana; Torii Hunter; Maicer Izturis
Projected Lineup C. Chris Iannetta 1B. Albert Pujols 2B. Howie Kendrick 3B. Alberto Callapso SS. Erick Aybar LF. Mike Trout CF. Peter Bourjos RF. Josh Hamilton DH. Mark Trumbo
Projected Rotation 1. Jered Weaver 2. C.J. Wilson 3. Joe Blanton 4. Jason Vargas 5. Tommy Hanson
The Angels paid the price for their recent splurges in free agency and in dealing for upper-level talent, as their lack of depth played a major role in their fade down the stretch. It is difficult to decry their methodology too much, as the lineup is in fantastic shape (at least twenty teams would be thrilled if Bourjos projected as their worst hitter), the rotation has a fine 1-2 punch and more than serviceable starters behind them, and the bullpen was fortified with the low-risk, high-reward signing of Ryan Madson. An injury to most any of the fourteen names listed above could be catastrophic - but where's the fun in discussing that?
For all of the fuss that has been made over the lineup's ridiculousness - which is fully justified - I cannot help but feel that the team's defense is an even greater strength. Trout and Bourjos are both excellent defenders in CF, and Hamilton was at least serviceable roaming center ... and yet two of those three figure to man the corners. With a flyball-heavy pitching staff, the outfield defense should serve as a huge advantage. The infield defense is not as strong, but all four players are at least average at their positions - which, again, is more than most teams can say. And once I remove the rose-colored glasses worn above when I referenced their rotation, the defense becomes even more important.
It wouldn't be difficult to anoint the Angels as the favorites in the division, and perhaps prohibitively so ... but that requires a sizable dose of optimism with respect to the team's ability to stay healthy. The key, then, might just be if the question marks surrounding the Athletics and Rangers are more ubiquitous.
Oakland Athletics Notable Additions - Hiroyuki Nakajima; Jed Lowrie; John Jaso; Chris Young Notable Subtractions - Johnny Gomes; Cliff Pennington; Brandon McCarthy; Chris Carter; Stephen Drew
Projected Lineup C. John Jaso/Derek Norris 1B. Brandon Moss 2B. Scott Sizemore 3B. Jed Lowrie SS. Hiroyuki Nakajima LF. Yoenis Cespedes CF. Coco Crisp/Chris Young RF. Josh Reddick DH. Seth Smith
Projected Rotation 1. Brett Anderson 2. Jarrod Parker 3. Tom Milone 4. A.J. Griffin 5. Dan Straily (6. Bartolo Colon)
The story of the Athletics 2012 season was youth and depth. This is, of course, incredibly cliche - every team prays for its young players to step up, and hopes against hope that it will be able to fill any holes from within. However, unlike most teams, the Athletics optimistic mindset came to fruition ... due in no small part to Bob Melvin's strong lineup optimization (particularly with platoons) and bullpen management. It is somewhat accurate to say that too much went right for the Athletics in 2012 (a la the Orioles) to expect anything similar in 2013, and yet it is also easy to dream on a team that is counting on players that are, for the most part, on the right side of 30.
In projecting the Athletics, there is quite a bit to feel confident about. The team may lack traditional contact skills, but it has some serious power threats in Moss, Cespedes, Young, Smith, and Reddick, as well as some fine base-runners (Young, Crisp, and Cespedes in particular). The rotation is riddled with question marks, however, and, despite its upside it is the key to the team's fate. Anderson and Parker look like traditional top-flight starters, but both have checkered injury histories; Milone and Griffin could well be products of Oakland Coliseum, as soft-tossers with flyball tendencies; and Straily is a rookie that rocketed up prospect charts ... and seemingly out of nowhere. Depth could cure what ails them, though, as Colon is eligible to return from his suspension in May and top prospect Sonny Gray awaits his turn in Triple-A.
The Athletics, at least on paper, do not have the talent of the Angels or Rangers ... and yet I cannot count them out as legitimate contenders, as all three teams have very real concerns. Regardless, they do look like the most exciting team in the division - and that has to be worth something.
Seattle Mariners Notable Additions - Joe Saunders; Jason Bay; Raul Ibanez; Mike Morse; Kendrys Morales Notable Subtractions - John Jaso; Jason Vargas
Projected Lineup C. Jesus Montero 1B. Justin Smoak 2B. Dustin Ackley 3B. Kyle Seager SS. Brendan Ryan LF. Mike Morse CF. Franklin Gutierrez RF. Michael Saunders DH. Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay (oh my)
Projected Rotation 1. Felix Hernandez 2. Joe Saunders 3. Hisashi Iwakuma 4. Blake Beaven 5. Erasmo Ramirez/Brandon Maurer
With so much hand-wringing being made over the dimensions of Safeco Field hindering the team's hitting prospects, it seems as if folks are quick to gloss over the fact that the Mariners have not developed much in the way of starting pitchers in recent memory, either. After Hernandez, the next best starter may well be Doug Fister (now of the Detroit Tigers). Moving in the walls could well bolster the team's offensive output, but will it serve as a detriment to a fairly flimsy starting rotation? We cannot know for sure, though logic dictates it cannot help the offense without hurting pitching - it is the degree of which that is in question.
To be fair, the story of the Mariners rotation is not written in ink ... at least not yet. A potential ace in Taijuan Walker is waiting in the wings, and fellow top-100 type prospects Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are not far from contributing, either. All three have the sort of stuff that should play in any park, as is the case with Felix Hernandez, and all three may well find themselves in the Show sometime this year. Taken hand-in-hand with so much youth on the offensive side of the ball (beyond the DH merry-go-round), is it possible that the Mariners take the sort of leap this year that the Athletics and Nationals took last season?
Probably not. Though, stranger things have happened, and the Mariners are likely to find a happy medium between the cellar-dwelling Astros and the contenders for the division title.
Texas Rangers Notable Additions - Lance Berkman; A.J. Pierzynski; Joakim Soria; (Michael Young) Notable Subtractions - Josh Hamilton; Michael Young; Mike Napoli; Mike Adams; Ryan Dempster
Projected Lineup C. A.J. Pierzynski 1B. Mitch Moreland 2B. Ian Kinsler 3B. Adrian Beltre SS. Elvis Andrus LF. David Murphy CF. Leonys Martin RF. Nelson Cruz DH. Lance Berkman
Projected Rotation 1. Yu Darvish 2. Matt Harrison 3. Derek Holland 4. Alexi Ogando 5. Nick Tepesch/Justin Grimm/Derek Lowe (6. Colby Lewis) (7. Martin Perez)
The Rangers of the halcyon days were defined by a potent offense and a questionable rotation. Were it not for a spate of injuries, that notion may well have been turned on its head this season, as thumpers Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton figure to see the majority of their at-bats taken by the likes of Moreland and Martin, respectively. That is not to say that the offense is not potent - quite the opposite, in fact, as the team still has well above-average producers (relative to their position) in Pierzynski, Kinsler, Beltre, Andrus, and perhaps Berkman. Rather, it is meant to shine a light on the emphasis the team has placed on its pitching staff.
At this point in time, the rotation is headlined by a true ace in Darvish and the unheralded Harrison, which could be the best top of the rotation in the division. After that, however, for the first month-plus of the season, the next two slots in the rotation will be filled by the mercurial Derek Holland and reliever turned starter turned reliever turned starter Alexi Ogando, with the back of the rotation being ... erm ... occupied by either a good-but-not-great prospect (Tepesch or Grimm) or the token veteran (Lowe). Despite this, the Rangers may well have the best or second best rotation in the division, given the issues in Los Angeles and Oakland.
Inevitably, losing Josh Hamilton and missing out (or not seeking out) name-brand free agent reinforcement has taken some of the luster from the Rangers - such is the price of success. Even so, Jurickson Profar (the best prospect in baseball, to most), Mike Olt, Cody Buckel, and others from the farm could strengthen the team as early as Opening Day, and few teams in baseball have as much talent in the upper-levels of the minors.
With the deepest farm system in the division (both in depth and talent) and perhaps the most money to spend in-season, the Rangers are my favorite for the division crown. It will be quite the race, though, and I wouldn't be shocked if there was a repeat of the drama of 2012. Or, more accurately, I would be disappointed if there wasn't.
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