The 2011 season marked the second straight year that the Los Angeles Angels failed to reach the postseason. It was the first time they had gone back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs since their World Series victory in 2002. The club got a new general manager and made some blockbuster acquisitions to try to ensure they would once again become the team to beat in 2012.
The American League West may be the only four-team division in baseball (at least until next season), but this year it will be among the toughest to predict. While the new-look Angels are indeed formidable, there is no guarantee that they will waltz into the postseason, if if there are two Wild Card teams in each league this year. Let's take a look around the division and get familiar with the competition.
The two-time defending American League champions represent the most apparent threat to the Angels' capturing the division outright. Little has changed about the formidable team from 2011 that finished 96-66. They lost pitcher C.J. Wilson to the Angels, of course, but went all-in on unproven international free agent Yu Darvish to fill Wilson's slot in the rotation. This is the same fearsome lineup of mashers that wreaked havoc on the AL last year.
Strengths: That offense. The middle of their lineup will feature Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adiran Beltre, Mike Napoli and Michael Young. That's a hell of a heart of the order to work through. Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland and David Murphy aren't exactly patsies, either.
Weaknesses: The bullpen. Once again, the middle relief and back end of the rotation looks to be a potential problem for the Rangers. If teams can knock the starters out early, they can likely have a field day with the squishy bullpen.
The A's could very well be the most unpredictable team in MLB this season. They made moves to trade away fantastic starters in exchange for prospects, then turned around and signed Cuban free agent and center fielder Yoenis Cespedes, who could potentially jump-start an offense for the team. Not to mention they'll have a potentially-phenomenal DH in Manny Ramirez from games 51-162 this year. Until Ramirez returns from his suspension, newly-acquired Seth Smith will do just fine in his stead. The A's were 74-88 in 2011 and this is a stronger team than it used to be.
Strengths: Starting pitching and unpredictability. Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson will be good for them and lefty Tom Milone had the potential to have a terrifyingly good breakout season. That's not even counting whether Dallas Braden will be able to come back to play the majority of the season. Beyond that, as stated earlier, this is a weird team. They have visions of being a sleeper contender this year and that's well within their reach. This is a team constructed to pick up wins while their opponents are trying to figure out how they're doing it.
Weaknesses: We won't know for a couple months, but there's a chance that this isn't some sort of mad-genius team and they're actually really lousy. It's going to be interesting either way.
The Mariners finished dead last again in 2011 with a 67-95 record, but again, this is a much, much stronger team than last year. They've got some players with tremendous potential and a seemingly limitless pool of pitching prospects. Their offense is much the same but young players like Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero will just keep getting better. They'll certainly go through stretches of scoring droughts, but when everything clicks, this team could very much be for real. That said, they'll likely finish last in the division, but they're not at all to be taken as lightly as the 2011 edition.
Strengths: Their few talented hitters and their talented young pitching. Dustin, Smoak and Ackley will be solid hitters and solid players in 2012. It remains to be seen how much inserting Chone Figgins as the everyday leadoff hitter and moving Ichiro Suzuki to third in the order will improve their offense, but it's an interesting experience. Behind Felix Hernandez, the rotation and bullpen are young and they are many. Their rotation behind Hernandez may not be household names, but they can miss bats just fine.
Weaknesses: The rest of their lineup and their inexperienced young pitching. The remainder of the bats in the Mariners' lineup won't be setting the world on fire. They'll need to rely on big hits and clutch hits from their key players more than any other team in the division, which is hardly ever a recipe for success. And while their young pitcher may be numerous and talented, they will make plenty of mistakes due to youth and inexperience. Mistakes that professional hitters will pounce on.
It's likely going to be a race for the division crown between the Angels and the Rangers, but it would be foolish to count out either of the other two teams. My best guess as to the final standings?
1. Angels: 95-67
2. Texas: 93-69
3. Oakland: 80-82
4. Seattle: 77-85
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