Sizing up the rest of the AL West

By Steve Hunt/FOXSportsSouthwest.com

With the start of spring training, not only is it time to start assessing the Rangers’ chances of repeating as American League West Division champions and maybe even replicating their 2010 success that landed them in their first ever World Series. But it’s also time to look at how the rest of the division could fare this year. Here’s a look.

ANGELS

Considering that heading into the winter, many thought the Halos would make a huge splash in free agency by possibly landing Cliff Lee and maybe even Carl Crawford, Adrian Beltre or Rafael Soriano, the off-season was way too quiet for the Angels’ liking. Losing out on all three of those big names could be why they pulled the trigger on a deal with the Jays to bring Vernon Wells to town to the tune of almost $22 million a year.

About the only other addition the Angels made was the signing of 35-year-old Japanese left-hander Hisanori Takahashi, who was 10-6 in 53 games with the Mets in 2010. He is expected to hold down a long relief role but could also get a look at closing. But at least for now, it looks like the Halos are set to possibly go with hard-throwing Fernando Rodney to finish out games.

This team’s offense should be bolstered by the return of first baseman Kendry Morales, who had gone yard 11 times before his season-ending injury last summer. But losing Mike Napoli, who led the team with 22 dingers, is big. The addition of Wells does add another pretty solid bat to this offense and right fielder Torii Hunter is also a consistent run producer. But other than Morales and Wells, this team doesn’t have a ton of power, which isn’t a good thing in the AL West.

Still, the Halos remain a team that will win games and likely lots of them due to what many consider a top-flight starting rotation. But there are question marks with the Anaheim staff. No. 1 starter Jared Weaver returns to head up this group after going 13-12 with a 3.01 ERA in 2010. Dan Haren was 5-4 in 14 games after coming over late in the year from Arizona while Ervin Santana (17-10, 3.92, 169 K) is set to be the No. 3 starter.

Santana and Weaver both logged over 200 innings last year. Anaheim would like to see much better results from Joel Pineiro, who came over from St. Louis before last season and was 10-7 with a 3.84 ERA in 152 innings of work. It’s a similar story from likely fifth starter Scott Kazmir, who battled several injuries, a loss of velocity on his fastball and a disappearing slider in 2010. H was just 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA, a career-worst.

Kazmir is coming into a contract year and clearly wants to put last season behind him. If he can do that and Pineiro pitches better, then this could be a group that is very tough to beat. However, unless they get better run support than they did a year ago, the strength of this rotation could be minimized considerably.

Once again, the Angels will be in a lot of games thanks to strong starting pitching. But if their offense can’t provide better run support than it did in 2010 and if their bullpen doesn’t perform better, the 2011 season could be another year where Halo fans wonder about what could have been.

ATHLETICS

Like the Angels, Oakland’s biggest strength figures to be their starting pitching. It’s a group that features the likes of Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. As to who the fifth starter might be, it could be ex-Ranger Rich Harden but he has some health concerns at the start of spring training. Then again, it could be youngster Josh Outman, who looked good late last year and ex-Ranger Brandon McCarthy, who was injured for much of his time in Arlington.

The A’s bullpen also looks pretty solid with the likes of Andrew Bailey closing games and the middle relief corps was bolstered by the addition of ex-Ray Grant Balfour. Health was an issue for Bailey, the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year, last year but if he can stay off the DL in 2011, then he is a huge asset for this team that is clearly built on pitching.

As for the offense, one addition is Hideki Matsui, who comes over from fellow AL West club Anaheim. He hit .274 with 21 HR and 84 RBI in 145 games, solid numbers for the Halos. Oakland also added David DeJesus and Josh Willingham in separate off-season deals but both are coming off season-ending injuries in 2010.

Oakland also dealt outfield speedster Rajai Davis for Toronto, which means skipper Bob Geren will also need a new leadoff man. That could very well be Coco Crisp, who is slated to start in center but health has been an issue with him throughout his career. DeJesus and Willingham will join him in the starting outfield.

As for the infield, expect Daric Barton to return at first, Mark Ellis at second, Texas A&M product Cliff Pennington at short and Kevin Kouzmanoff at third. The A’s would like to see better production from Kouzmanoff, like the solid numbers he posted several years back as a Padre but this is still a pretty solid group.

Behind the dish, Kurt Suzuki returns as the top backstop. He works well with this talented starting staff and did deliver a decent year offensively as well. The big question with him at the plate is consistency and if he can find that, he could become an all-star catcher in the American League.

Like Anaheim, Oakland is a team built on solid pitching but is also a club that could struggle to score runs. The A’s didn’t beat themselves last year and if their offense is even a little improved from what it was in 2010, then this is a team that could realistically contend in the West. But they will need to keep everyone healthy to do that and that’s a big if for any club.

MARINERS

If there is a team that heads into the 2011 season with more uncertainty than Seattle, it’s news to many. The Mariners head into this campaign with a new manager in Eric Wedge, who most recently led the Indians. They also have a wealth of personnel changes.

Sure, they do have the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner in Felix Hernandez, one of the top pitchers in the league but there are a number of questions in the rest of the rotation, in the bullpen and among the batting order.

As far as the rest of the rotation, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister were pretty solid in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots behind King Felix in 2010 but both starters logged career highs in innings, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to a similar workload in 2011. Oft-injured Eric Bedard could man the No. 4 spot while the fifth spot is up for grabs.

In the bullpen, David Aardsma returns as the closer but health issues will limit him early in the spring. Ex-Ranger Chris Ray is in the mix as a setup man but could also see some time as the club’s closer should health remain an issue for Aardsma.

Two names Mariner fans have no worries about both reside in the outfield in leadoff man Ichiro and likely No. 3 hitter Franklin Gutierrez. Chone Figgins should hit second and play third and Seattle fans hope for a much better performance from the ex-Angel in 2011 than what they got in 2010, when he was a bit underwhelming.

One big addition to the lineup is ex-Athletic DH Jack Cust, who will hit cleanup for this club. Ex-Ranger Justin Smoak will be the starting first baseman going forward and likely hit fifth although there are some questions about whether or not Smoak is yet ready for prime time but expect the M’s to sink or swim with the ex-Gamecock on the right side of the infield.

Miguel Olivo will get the bulk of games behind the plate but Adam Moore is a solid backup for Wedge, himself a former catcher. Second base will be manned by either Adam Kennedy or Brendan Ryan, a pair of veteran infielders. Jack Wilson will be the shortstop.

But another big question that is yet to be answered is what the Mariners will do in left field. Ex-Ranger Milton Bradley played there in 2010 but had his issues on and off the field. Michael Saunders looks to be the long-term answer there, so it should be his job going forward until further notice.

Heading into the 2010 season, many picked Seattle to win the West. Considering how many changes have been made in the Emerald City over the last few months, the Mariners are no longer the trendy pick among baseball pundits. That’s for good reason. While they could climb out of the West cellar in 2011, expecting them to make a run at the division flag would be a stretch, make that a huge stretch.