The Oakland Athletics didn't have a great year in 2011 and early in the offseason, it appeared that the team would be treating their fans to more of the same this season. Some late moves and one stunning signing made the Athletics a lot more interesting than they were a few months ago and this season is the first in a while that seems like it might make for interesting watching from start to finish.
The American League West, where the A's make their home, is going to be even more interesting. Even though the AL West boasts only four teams, with two clear candidates to take the division title, it feels like 2012 might be a year where all bets are off. Particularly since 2012 will be the first season to feature two Wild Card berths to the postseason.
Three of these four teams are significantly stronger than they were last year. The only exception is the two-time defending American League champions the Rangers, who are every bit as formidable as they were in 2011. The AL West should feature at least one interesting race for the top and just may be chock-full of surprises.
Here's a look at how each team is shaping up as Opening Day approaches.
2011 Record: 86-76, second in the division. 2012 Prediction: 95-67, first in the division
What They Lost: There weren't a lot of losses for the Angels in the offseason, but the one notable move -- trading catcher Jeff Mathis -- did nothing but make the team better.
What They Gained: The Angels, of course, made a huge splash in the free agent market by signing supernova Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They got a massive upgrade at catcher by acquiring Chris Iannetta from the Colorado Rockies and will have slugger Kendrys Morales returning from two years on the disabled list.
While the addition of Pujols alone makes the Angels a fearsome unit, they do still have some question marks in their lineup. Vernon Wells is always an enigma (read: he's usually a home run-and-nothing-else guy) and Torii Hunter will be in danger of steep production drop-off as he edges closer to 40 years old. To that end, there is Mike Trout waiting in the wings should either of those players be a liability, but there is a reason Trout didn't make the Opening Day roster.
The Angels have a very, very solid starting rotation between Wilson, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana. The bullpen is very much an issue, though. This is a team that could be susceptible to blowing leads late in games. The main thing to watch with the Angels is how well they handle the dry spells on a team that was custom-built to win a World Series in the short term. Will new GM Jerry Dipoto and the owners show patience with the players and coach Mike Scioscia if the team struggles early?
2011 Record: 96-66, first in the division. 2012 Prediction: 93-69, second in the division
What They Lost: Amazingly, nearly nothing. The only real subtraction from the roster was ace C.J. Wilson, but the Rangers plugged his slot nicely with the acquisition of Yu Darvish, who has much less potential for flame-out than other much-hyped Japanese free agent pitchers of the past.
What They Gained: Other than Darvish, the Rangers signed Joe Nathan to help bolster their bullpen and act as closer while Neftali Feliz is transitioned to a starter role.
The Rangers still feature the top-to-bottom lineup that's among the most fearsome in the majors. Josh Hamilton will be healthier this year, Nelson Cruz will be better and Mike Napoli will be more comfortable. This is a lineup that has the potential to put up double-digit runs in any given game.
The main weakness of the Rangers is the back end of their rotation and their uneven bullpen. While the offense can usually provide them with plenty of insurance runs, the Rangers may not have the pitching depth to pull off a slew of close wins. In the 2012 AL West, this may end up being the difference between first and second place.
2011 Record: 74-88, third in the division. 2012 Prediction: 80-82, third in the division
What They Lost: The team looked to be having a fire sale early on in the postseason, trading away ace Gio Gonzalez and fantastic starter Trevor Cahill. Dallas Braden is also experiencing setbacks in his return from injury, while third baseman Scott Sizemore suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening week of Spring Training.
What They Gained: Oakland stunned everyone by signing international free agent Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year deal after trading away two of their best pitchers. They further made waves by signing Manny Ramirez to be their DH, although Ramirez will spend the first 50 games of the season serving a suspension. They acquired Jonny Gomes, Collin Cowgill and Seth Smith to further beef up the lineup, while inking Bartolo Colon to slot in as No. 3 starter.
The A's might be the biggest wild card in the AL West. While they don't look like a team that is poised to run away with the division, they have a weirdness factor and potential that likely makes opponents uneasy. When Ramirez returns, the offense may turn into something rather formidable. And despite the loss of Gonzalez and Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Bartolo Colon will provide plenty of shutdown innings, while lefty Tom Milone is poised to have an enormous rookie season.
Oakland has vast potential; the only question is whether they will reach it.
2011 Record: 67-95, fourth in the division. 2012 Prediction: 77-85, fourth in the division
What They Lost: The most noteworthy transaction in the offseason was the Mariners trading All-Star rookie and No. 2 starter Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees.
What They Gained: In exchange for Pineda, the Yankees sent over their top hitting prospect, catcher and rookie Jesus Montero. This trade has worked out exceptionally well in favor of the Mariners, as Pineda showed up to Yankees Spring Training overweight, struggled with his velocity and may be starting the season in the disabled list.
While the Mariners are the only team in the West who seems clear-cut to not be a contender in 2012, they offer plenty of hope for a resurgence in the future and just may end up surprising a lot of people. Young bats like Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak are not to be taken at all likely and the new arrangement of Chone Figgins at leadoff and Ichiro Suzuki batting third may end up being something of a revelation.
The pitching for the Mariners features a multitude of young arms behind ace starter Felix Hernandez. The young pitching could be either a boon or a bane for Seattle, as there is no telling whether talent or inexperience will prevail. While the Mariners may not be setting the world on fire in 2012, they're miles better than they were last season.
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