Tuesday, February 28, 2012

AL West: the season that was

AL West: The Season That Was

Let’s start with the American League West, home of my hometown Seattle Mariners. In 2011, the Rangers were clearly head of the class, despite the Angels’ efforts to stay competitive for the division. The Mariners started hot and then cooled quickly. The A’s were the sweetheart pick of the division and many pundits were thinking they might compete for the division. Instead, they finished 14 games under .500.

The final standings were:

1. Texas: 96-66 (.593), OGB
2. Los Angeles: 86-76 (.531), 10GB
3. Oakland: 74-88 (.457), 22GB
4. Seattle: 67-95 (.414), 29 GB

Seattle had a lot of question marks heading into the season and everybody knew it. “Play the kids” was the motto of most fans, hoping that the youth movement would turn a new leaf. After a decent start, things went south rather quickly. Ichiro went on to have the worst season of his career, Chone Figgins never figured things out, Justin Smoak struggled badly and the rest is history. Mid-season trades of pitchers Erik Bedard and Doug Fister netted the franchise some prospects, but nothing more than what appears to be some ancillary pieces. The starting pitching was good for the most part and the bullpen held it’s own. As is often the case with this squad, they couldn’t score runs. By early summer prospects were called up, including the impressive Dustin Ackley, one of the few bright spots for the squad. Trayvon Robinson was nothing more than ok, and Mike Carp was up and down, but finished on the up. It was a long, dismal season in the NW.

Oakland was a popular “dark horse” (a true contradiction) pick for many writers and fans. Their pitching didn’t quite live up to it’s billing, however, as Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and others never quite go going. While actually five games over .500 at home, they were abysmal on the road. Quietly, Brandon McCarthy had a nice year on the mound, as did Grant Balfour and Fautino De Los Santos. The team lacked power at the plate once again, a familiar trend in Oakland. Coco Crisp had a relatively nice season in CF and Jemile Weeks was a nice revelation at 2B. In case you’re unaware, those two players have absolutely zero power. Josh Willingham, the only player capable of putting the ball over the fence with regularity, was signed by the Minnesota Twins in the offseason. It’s sad when you have to admit that Willingham, Crisp, Ryan Sweeney and Scott Sizemore led the offense for the bulk of the season. At least “Moneyball” was good.

The Angels did their absolute best to keep up with the Rangers. Despite being a under-powered at the plate, they were stellar on the bump. With one the better pitching duos in baseball, they stayed in the race most of the way through the season, only really falling out of contention with about eight games left in the regular season. Dan Haren led the way, followed closely by Jared Weaver. Quality start after quality start, these two kept the team competitive. Even Ervin Santana was pretty good while rookie closer Jordan Walden had some bumps in the road, but proved capable of shutting down the ninth. Scott Downs was good out of the pen, too, as was LaTroy Hawkins. The back-end of the rotation let the team down somewhat, as did their offensive production. Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick had good seasons at the dish, but the aging Bobby Abreu slowed down (finally) and Vernon Wells was, well, Vernon Wells. Mark Trumbo had a good-ish year at 1B, depending on how you look at it, and Peter Bourjos better than expected in CF. The Angels were above average, largely due to their starting pitching, but not by much.

The Texas Rangers were clearly the head of the class, and this was evident early on. Their offense was extremely potent and they had enough pitching to make it interesting. Outscoring their opponents was their key strategy, as opposed to run-prevention. Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz all had outstanding years at the plate. Elvis Andrus seemed to really come into his own and David Murphy was a fantastic utility outfielder. On the mound, the team was led by CJ Wilson, who had a career year for the Rangers. Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexei Ogando were all solid contributors to the rotation, as well. The bullpen was mostly solid, especially once the team acquired Mike Adams from the Padres mid-season. He set up Neftali Feliz, the Rangers’ closer who had a decent season. Darren Oliver was a nice veteran presence out of the ‘pen, as well. This team had few question marks going into the season and quickly answered any remaining doubts. The rotation was incredibly solid and was often more than enough to win given the team’s potent offense. They ultimately made the playoffs by winning the division, advancing to the World Series, only to lost the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

On deck: Mariners and A's 2012 preview

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