Big League Stew - MLB

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners. Our quest continues with a look at the four-team American League West.

'Duk: So we meet again, Mr. Brown! We kicked off our annual divisional previews on Wednesday with a look at the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and the NL West, so it probably only makes sense that we continue with a look at the other Fall Classic team and the rest of the AL West.

When we last met with the Rangers, they were winning their first two playoff series in franchise history, making their first World Series appearance and doing a splendid job of pulling themselves up from the bootstraps of bankruptcy. But the offseason can bring a lot of changes and there were plenty around Arlington. Cliff Lee(notes) rejected the proximity of Rangers Ballpark to his home in Arkansas and bolted for Philadelphia. Michael Young(notes) and the team had a very public falling out (though he's still on the team and back to half-smiling). CEO Chuck Greenberg resigned his position after only a few months on the job, Josh Hamilton(notes) went to the hospital with pneumonia and the Brandon Webb(notes) dice roll may have already come up showing snake eyes.

If it weren't for the signing of Adrian Beltre, that cute little Michael Young kid and C.J. Wilson's(notes) goodwill trip to South Africa, we'd have no choice but to believe the Rangers were jinxed by that Edgar Renteria(notes) homer off Cliff Lee. Can they recapture the magic that gave us our first all-West World Series since the Angels and Giants in '02?

DB: Well, that was quite a Texas-sized introduction, my good 'Duk. Very befitting of a World Series participant. But you know what was missing? The one thing that's been missing from the Rangers all spring: Li'l Ron Washington. Where's young Liam Roybal at? It's not really time for Rangers baseball until Wash's mini doppelganger shows his curiously shaved head in camp.

Short of Li'l Wash's re-appearance, how about the announcement that Neftali Feliz(notes) will not be joining the starting rotation and pitch 200 innings, and instead will remain the closer and pitch 70? It's not unexpected news, and not surprisingly it's getting widely panned -- save for a few places*.

I understand how Wash might make this decision. We, as a baseball society, have hysterically persuaded ourselves that the ninth-inning save situation is some kind of holy grail for which only a few men are suited. Never mind that Feliz was brought up as a starter, he has the stuff to be a great starter and the Rangers could use a great starter — considering Lee is gone, and Matt Harrison(notes), Derek Holland(notes) and Tommy Hunter(notes) are just OK (not to mention one "H" short of a club).

It's a bad decision. But will it cost the Strangers the AL West? They still have a mighty powerful lineup, though Hamilton and Nelson Cruz(notes) are a bit, as the dad in "A Christmas Story" says, "fra-gee-lay." And Adrian Beltre(notes) is a bad-hop grounder from severed manhood problems. And Ian Kinsler(notes) always seems to be on the verge of having something be wrong with him.

And, assuming they would be the apparent heirs, have the Oakland Athletics improved *that* much? With all of these bad omens in Texas, do the Rangers need to have improved that much?

'Duk: Well, if you want to talk about Kinsler always being on the verge of injury, I should point out that he's hanging out on that ledge with almost every member of the A's bullpen. And Eric Chavez(notes), too, though he's no longer with Oakland and that just makes me feel weird. Death, taxes and Eric Chavez on the A's disabled list, you know.

As for the Oakland team that is present and accounted for, I think I'd like it a lot more if your Answer Man friend in the front office hadn't shipped off Carlos Gonzalez(notes) for half of a season of Matt Holliday(notes). The pitching staff is great, sure, but where are the runs going to come from? The A's ranked 12th in the AL for total runs last season and hit the second-lowest amount of home runs. Kevin Kouzmanoff(notes) led the team with 16!

I'll allow that Billy Beane should never load his team with sluggers — not in that ballpark, not with that budget — but your pitching staff can only win you so many games. Forgive me for being skeptical of a team that's counting on Hideki Matsui(notes), Josh Willingham(notes), David DeJesus(notes) and maybe some midseason magic from young Chris Carter to turn things around at the plate.

DB: At least we're not talking about the Mariners offense in Oakland. Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham are real upgrades, even if they're not sexy. And don't forget a full season of Coco Crisp(notes) hitting as he did in the second half of 2010. Maybe. Until he breaks again. The bullpen injuries are troubling, and all of the Fangraphs experts worry about regression to the mean (that's bad) for Trevor Cahill(notes). I'm not sure where Chris Carter is going to play, with first base being blocked by Daric Barton(notes), the Geeks' God of Walks, but it would be nice if he transformed himself into a power-hitting shortstop. There's questions here, and I'm not sure if Billy Beane himself thinks the A's can overtake the Rangers this season, but I like the cut of this team's collective jib. I think this race will go down to the wire — maybe AL Central-style, to the 163rd game.

'Duk: A photo finish, you say? Can I push the Angels into that frame? I know it's a bit fashionable to forget about them after they had the gall to not win the division for just one season, but I don't get where some don't even want to include them in the conversation. Vernon Wells'(notes) big contract hasn't anchored this team to the cellar yet!

There's understandably some concern here with Kendrys Morales(notes) finding his forgotten 'S', but not his health. They're also a little long in the tooth at some positions and that's never a good thing when you're talking about the possibility of a tight pennant race.

But here's the things I like about the Halos: They arguably have the best 1-2 punch with Dan Haren(notes) and Jared Weaver, the presence of Joel Pineiro(notes) and Ervin Santana(notes) solidifies the rotation and only Scott Kazmir(notes) qualifies as a real question mark. In other areas, the bullpen should be improved with the addition of Scott Downs(notes) (so long as he stays healthy), the acquisition of Wells allows Bobby Abreu(notes) to come into the dugout to DH and there's always the promise of uber-prospect Mike Trout(notes) mashing his way out of the minors and into the big league lineup. This isn't the type of squad that the Angels are used to dominating the division with, but it's the type of team that can win the smallest grouping of teams in the league.

DB: Funny thing about being in the smallest division — you're also that much closer to the bottom. Well, the Mariners ought to offer some protection for the Angels in that respect. But it's not hard to see why there's diminished optimism for the Halos in most parts; they had the worst offseason of anyone. The Yankees' disappointment with Cliff Lee has nothing on the Halos, who had to trade their way into overpaying for a ballplayer (you mentioned Vernon) because no free agents of note would take Arte Moreno's money outright. The outfield should be good at catching baseballs (though the talk of it being the "best ever," in anything, is silliness). Brandon Wood(notes) doesn't appear to be working out for the umpteenth season. They get below-average production from the middle of the infield and catcher (why it was so necessary to ditch Mike Napoli(notes) when they were taking so much of Wells' salary, I don't know) and you mentioned Morales' slow comeback from his celebration injury. I think you're sugar-coating the relief problems, too. I don't like how the team is put together. I'd pick them to finish last, if not for the Triple-A roster in the Pacific Northwest.

'Duk: That's it, I'm telling Howie Kendrick(notes)! But let's talk about those aforementioned Seattle Mariners first. It's hard to believe everyone was drinking so much teal Kool-Aid (mmm, teal Kool-Aid) last winter when we now sit here and look at what was actually poured. Yick!

I mean, it's gotten so bad that all the fans have to look forward to are: 1) A great start by Felix Hernandez(notes) that he still has a great chance of losing every fifth day, 2) A denial by Jack Zduriencik that he'll trade King Felix the other four days, 3) the chance to see raw rookie pitcher Michael Pineda(notes) develop into something special, 4) the major league debut of Dustin Ackley(notes) whenever he gets called up, and 5) the team giving away actual garbage as the fans head home for the night. Am I missing anything?

DB: You CALL Lt. Kendrick and you tell him to take a pitch once in a while. Moving along. The Mariners are really at a crossroads right now. No more Ken Griffey. No more broadcaster Dave Niehaus. The aforementioned talent issues. We were really deluded about the team's condition. At least Ichiro(notes) is still around, otherwise they'd be out of icons. I mean, what's Dustin Ackley gonna do when he comes up? Even if he's the next Julio Cruz, he's still not going to be able to carry the M's like Junior or A-Rod. He's not one of THOSE kinds of prospects. Yeah, Brendan Ryan(notes) is poised to have a comeback season at shortstop. But he's Brendan RYAN. And IF Chone Figgins(notes) gets on base more, which he should, who is going to knock him in? Even if Milton Bradley(notes) finds himself in the good graces of society, look at his diminished capacity in the batter's box. Justin Smoak(notes) could grow into a middle-of-the-order guy, but he also might have the upside of Alvin Davis. Which would be ... OK.  Franklin Gutierrez(notes), an enjoyable ballplayer to watch on defense, has the worst stomach in the majors. They seriously have four or five Triple-A bats in this lineup. And, as you said, King Felix only pitches every fifth day or so. Man, it's a dreadful outlook.

* * *

Predicted order of finish:
'Duk: 1. Rangers, 2. Angels, 3. A's, 4. Mariners
DB: 1. A's, 2. Rangers, 3. Angels, 4. Mariners

AL West Cy Young
'Duk: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
DB: Felix Hernandez, Mariners

'Duk: Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
DB: Nelson Cruz, Texas Rangers

'Duk: Michael Pineda, Mariners
DB: Mark Trumbo(notes), Angels

Previously: NL West

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