And you thought I wasn't going to make it in time!
With just hours until the first pitch of the 2012 season in Tokyo, Japan, I find it an appropriate time to debut my predictions for the nascent season. This will be the first in a six-part series with my predicted finishes for MLB's six divisions—in case you haven't been seeing enough of those all around everywhere. (Hey, in order to be taken seriously as a baseball writer, I pretty much have to do these. Don't worry, I'll keep them short.)
I'll begin, as the season will, with the American League West, which might be baseball's most balanced division this year. Perhaps the safest of the many predictions you'll see on this blog is that the AL West will feature a clear first division and a clear second division. Indeed, the inequality could get so bad that the Mariners and A's may be forced to stage an Occupy Anaheim and Arlington rally. Without further ado:
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (100-62; 2nd playoff seed)
Everyone talks about Albert Pujols, but for me the Angels' biggest addition this offseason was CJ Wilson. Why? He allows the Angels to steal from the Phillies the title of most Fearsome Foursome of starting pitchers. Together, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson, and Ervin Santana allowed 306 earned runs in 926 innings in 2011 (an ERA of 2.97)—remarkable excellence as well as durability. If you picked the Phillies to win 100 last year, you better do the same for LA.
But wait, you say. The Angels have plenty of holes on offense, right? (So did those Phillies, by the way; pitching trumps all.) This is where Pujols does come in; between him and a healthy Kendrys Morales, who is looking very good this spring, the Angels are basically adding two MVP-level position players who can instantly catapult an offense to elite status. Yes, there is concern about Torii Hunter and especially Vernon Wells being black holes for outs, but the underrated Alberto Callaspo (.366 OBP in 2011) and Chris Iannetta (.370) should make up for that.
2. Texas Rangers (98-64; 1st Wild Card)
To be honest, I look at this team and I see virtually the same Rangers club as last year. Yes, they got the highly touted and supposedly dominant Yu Darvish from Japan—but he simply replaces the departing CJ Wilson. (An aside: I don't understand why everyone consistently undersells CJ Wilson. He is at least Darvish's equal, and probably better. He had a 2.94 ERA last year in one of the worst pitcher's parks in baseball; he was the AL's third best starter in 2011 according to ERA+. Darvish will be extremely lucky to match that.) The Rangers also converted the immensely talented Neftali Feliz to the rotation—but he simply replaces Alexei Ogando, who returns to the pen (a questionable decision, when the significantly less gifted Colby Lewis remains in that rotation). The performance of both pitchers is far from certain, giving the Angels a slight edge in my book.
Still, I don't mean to cast doubt on what remains a formidable team. Last year's rotation was good, and this year's very similar version should remain so. Its main advantage over LA's is depth, with Ogando and Scott Feldman (and maybe Roy Oswalt?) waiting in the wings in case of injury; the Angels have no serviceable starters after their top four. (Of course, the Angels' top four are better than the Rangers', by far.) And the offense—oh my, the offense. The entire cast and crew returns from 2011—all 855 runs of them.
3. Seattle Mariners (68-94)
The two teams doing battle in Japan this morning (or is it tonight?) will also fight for third place in this division, and I actually think it's an extremely close race—I'm not kidding when I say that the results of the two games in the Japan series could tell us something. But for now I'm going for the Mariners to narrowly squeeze past Oakland. However, neither will be spared the wrath of the two excellent teams ahead of them in the standings, who will likely spend the year beating down on the Pacific Northwest's win-loss record.
I'm actually being generous to Seattle with my record projection here; believe it or not, I do see some hope in the Emerald City. I'm a believer in their batting order's two-through-six hitters: some combination of Dustin Ackley, Ichiro Suzuki, Jesús Montero, Justin Smoak, and Mike Carp. Montero and Ackley by themselves guarantee that the Mariners will pack some punch, automatically improving on last year's historically awful 556 runs scored. Smoak is maligned for not developing as some would have hoped, but he's still a useful player, and Carp has more power than the Washington state grid. And everyone knows what Ichiro can do; I'm expecting a bounceback season out of the talented and prideful outfielder.
Seattle's pitching, especially after training Michael Pineda, could go either way, but there are some talented arms in the pipeline such as number-three starter Hector Noesi and likely summer callup Danny Hultzen. And the Mariners were actually sixth in the AL in ERA last year; many teams would envy this staff. The real difference maker, however, could be the team's excellent defense, projected to be second-best in baseball by the Fielding Bible. I suspect it will be that hidden edge that saves them from the cellar in 2012.
4. Oakland Athletics (64-98)
I admit that some of this could be just the team's negative perception—GM/movie star Billy Beane spent the offseason gutting his old team and shipping in spare parts to fill their shoes for 2012. It feels like a haphazard roster held together with glue and fishing wire, and at the risk of sounding like one of the scouts in Moneyball ("Who's Fabio?"), I just doubt the cohesion of this team until I personally see them working together to win ballgames.
The actual roster's not so hot, either; almost everyone is miscast. Coco Crisp and Seth Smith are two positive additions to any team, but they can't be the core of one's lineup as they are for Oakland. Luckily for them, I do suspect that Yoenis Céspedes will be the monster everyone hopes he'll be, but that's no sure thing either. Again, this has the air of an aimless team—at least until they can set that aim squarely on San José.
Like many people, I am interested to see what their young pitching can do, particularly ex-Diamondback Jarrod Parker. The Athletics' haul from the Nationals in the Gio González trade was also mighty impressive, but it just isn't likely that they'll all be able to contribute quality baseball at the major-league level. While this club had the AL's third-best ERA last year (3.70), you can throw all that out the window in 2012 because, well, that's what Billy Beane did. They could fall far short of that mark this year, or the prodigious talent of their many high draft picks could actually improve upon it. For bettors and simple appreciators of the game, the A's may be the division's most interesting—and most unpredictable—team.