01/05/12 10:17 AM EST
West primed for thrills after offseason shakeup
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
Change is definitely coming on baseball's left coast. The Houston Astros will join the four-team AL West in 2013 as Commissioner Bud Selig finalizes his plan to even up the American and National Leagues. Yet what is the forecast first for 2012?
Is the AL West headed toward a haves and have-not division, with the Rangers and Angels engaging in an arms -- and bat -- race at the top while the Mariners and A's face hopeless odds of competing with their young, rebuilding rosters?
It's worth remembering that many were picking Oakland as the preseason AL West favorites just last year, with a pitching staff that had the lowest earned run average in the league and some nice offensive offseason additions in Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui and others.
A year earlier, the Mariners were the dark horse pick after adding Cliff Lee to a rotation that led the AL in ERA in 2009 while going 85-77.
Texas wound up winning the West both those years while making back-to-back World Series appearances, and the Rangers now have a firm grip on the division. But after finishing 10 games back last season at 86-76, Angels owner Arte Moreno made it clear he's conceding nothing.
After hiring general manager Jerry Dipoto, the Angels added Pujols and plucked left-handed free agent ace C.J. Wilson from the Rangers on the same December day.
Texas answered that $329 million shopping spree by posting the winning $51.7 million bid for Japanese star Yu Darvish and now has until Jan. 18 to sign the hard-throwing right-hander for what figures to be at least a $100 million total outlay. And with or without Darvish, the Rangers aren't flinching at the Angels' aggressive offseason.
"We believe we have the best team," said Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. "You can talk about all of the signings. You can talk about all of the shifts of power, all of the things that have been talked about and that will probably continue to be talked about. But it's just like the past with us, we're not worried about what's going on outside our locker room. We're worried about ourselves."
Yet, all AL teams will have to be a little more concerned about the Angels now, as Wilson joins a rotation that already led the league in ERA last year behind the strong right arms of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.
Pujols should slide nicely into a batting order that hopes to regain slugger Kendrys Morales and has up-and-coming youngsters Mark Trumbo, Mike Trout and speedster Peter Bourjos bolstering veterans Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, Howard Kendrick and the like.
"I think the last couple of years since Kendrys went down, we were missing that big bat in the middle of the lineup," said Bourjos, who took over in center field last season. "[Pujols] would fit in there with any team. But it's going to be great with all those guys helping in the middle of the order, and I think he's going to help out the whole lineup in general. It just makes our whole team better."
On the other end of the division stand the Mariners and A's. Coming off a 67-95 season, Seattle has been relatively quiet this offseason. Other than having their name tossed in to the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, the Mariners' lone moves to date have been signing left-handed reliever George Sherrill and trading for Rays catcher John Jaso.
General manager Jack Zduriencik is looking for trade opportunities to help his offense, but he's also preaching patience, believing his club is building a solid foundation with upcoming pitching prospects and a team that used 18 rookies last season.
Zduriencik is well aware of the big splashes made by his AL West rivals, but he doesn't think that changes the long-term view he's adopted with a rotation led by Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, with top talent Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Taijuan Walker waiting in the wings.
"There's no question that both those clubs have helped themselves, and both were really good as it was," he said. "But we're not going to deviate from our course. We're a little further away than those clubs, but we have a plan in place."
Seattle left fielder Mike Carp, who teamed with top Draft pick Dustin Ackley to give the club a midseason offensive infusion last year, insists his team will be ready to play the big boys in the West.
"I live in Southern California and everyone is talking about the Angels and Rangers," Carp said. "I keep saying, 'Don't count out the Mariners.' We competed last year while getting some experience. Now everybody is pretty excited to build on that and move forward. We'll be young and still need a few pieces, but we'll be fine. We'll be players in this thing."
The A's are taking an even longer-term approach, with GM Billy Beane trading away talented young starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and closer Andrew Bailey, for a flock of even younger prospects.
Coming off a 74-88 season, Beane appears to be punting the immediate future in an effort to line up his forces for if and when the A's can get their stadium issues resolved in Oakland or San Jose.
"The fact of the matter is, for us to compete, we're going to have to have a new stadium, and I don't think there was a move we could have made that would put us in a position to compete with a club like the Angels or Texas given what they have and where they're headed and some of those signings," Beane said.
"You're talking about two clubs in the division that are probably in the $150 million to $170 million range, and we're not a business that can put that payroll on the field."
Beane cites the example of the Indians, a team which opened Jacobs Field in 1994 with a young core just hitting its stride, and then sold out 455 straight games while racking up five consecutive playoff appearances and eight successive winning seasons.
"They did it first, and they did it best," Beane said. "Nobody's done it the same way since. We're going to take the same approach, and if there's a little bit of pain in between, so be it."
Some of that pain figures to be delivered by the Rangers and Angels, two clubs that clearly have won the attention of baseball with their offseason moves. Now, the question is how that spending translates to the baseball field.
For one more year, the four-team group will be the Major League's smallest division. But small doesn't mean quiet. Not this offseason. Not in this nuclear winter. Not with Pujols and Wilson, and possibly Darvish, changing the landscape atop the suddenly wilder West.