The Seattle Mariners have the benefit -- for another year at least -- of playing in the only division in Major League Baseball that consists of only four teams. Some seasons, the race for dominance in the American League West is the most hotly-contested in all of baseball. Other years -- like, say, last year -- the pennant race will fade off into the distance by mid-July and the Mariners will start working on the following year's commercial campaign and slogan, occasionally glancing up when their middle relief gives up a few too many home runs in succession.
Last year, the Mariners finished 67-95, a full 29 games out of first place. The 2012 M's look like a stronger team, but they're suddenly playing in a much stronger division, were all bets are off. Due to the unbalanced schedule, the Mariners will play approximately 140 of their 162 games against the teams in the AL West, so in no time at all, you'll be clamoring for those thrilling interleague games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Colorado Rockies.
So before the faces of each team's roster is seared into your brain in excruciating, horrifying detail, let's take a look at the AL West...your own personal rogue's gallery. This year, there are plenty of rogues to go around. We'll take a look at what each team looks like, who to secretly root for, who to openly root against and how they rate as arch-villains.
Last year, the Rangers ran away with the division en route to their second straight trip to the World Series. Of course, they flamed out in historical fashion and that was good for a chuckle, but the two-time defending American League champs have every bit as good a chance of making it back to the Fall Classic once again in 2012.
What They Lost: Surprisingly little. They lost their ace starter, C.J. Wilson. They didn't sign Prince Fielder. But other than that, the team you hated in 2011 is much the same team you'll hate in 2012,
What They Gained: The team decided to go all-in on top Japanese free agent pitcher Yu Darvish, who happily doesn't claim to throw a "gyroball" or any other since nonsense. He might be great, he might be lousy, or he might just be another pitcher. The Mariners will have plenty of opportunities this year to find out. The Rangers also picked up potential closer Joe Nathan, who is the all-time saves leader for the Minnesota Twins and only three years removed from a Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award. He's also only two years removed from a Tear My Elbow Ligaments Apart Like The Foil On A Pack Of Rolaids award. He'll attempt to provide depth as the Rangers keep easing Neftali Feliz into a starter role. Or not. They're kind of wishy-washy about the whole deal sometimes. They also have a potentially-healthier Josh Hamilton coming back, so that's terrifying.
Projected Starters: Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Darvish and Matt Harrison would seem to be locks. Feliz and Alexi Ogando are both prime candidates for the fifth slot and the Rangers have a surprising amount of relivers who can also be starters. Or maybe it just seems that way, since their general strategy for winning games is generally "hit a few more homers than the other team."
Projected Lineup: Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus will likely flip-flop in the top two spots of the order. The heart of the order is clearly going to be some combination of Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli. (Notice how "heart of the order" normally refers to three hitters and I just listed five? Yeah.) Mitch Moreland and David Murphy will fight to see who gets to be the last guy to hit a home run before they bat around in the inning.
Who to Secretly Root For: Josh Hamilton, obviously. How can you wish that dude ill? Yu Darvish, if he struggles and the Rangers fans turn against him. Mark Hamburger, because he managed to start playing after Beckett Baseball Card Monthly stopped running that feature where kids deface baseball cards in humorous ways. Every month, it would have just been Mark Hamburger with a picture of a Big Mac pasted over his head. (Beckett may or may not still exist and may or may not still have that feature. I read grown-up magazines now, like Wizard.)
Who to Openly Root Against: If Darvish goes on an absolute tear: Yu Darvish. If you're still a very bitter Mariners fan: Adrian Beltre. Other than that, there aren't too many eminently loathsome players on the team. which, less face it, is fairly refreshing in a team you hate. I'm sure that once the season begins in earnest, we'll all find our favorite Rangers player we can't stand.
Comparable Arch-Villain: Lex Luthor. The Rangers always seem fairly unassuming, bland, boring and unspectacular. Then you look at the lineup and it's just nothing but fearsome mashers and Elvis Andrus. How did this happen? Superman looks away for a minute and Luthor is wearing a suit of armor made out of Kryptonite and has somehow become the President of the United States. The Mariners just looked away for a minute and Nelson Cruz hit five homers in one at-bat. How do they do that
The Angels finished 10 games out of first place in 2011 and were the only other team in the division to manage a winning record. You could say the "rebuilt" this year, but you could more accurately say they began adopting the "Pokemon" strategy normally employed by teams like the Yankees and Phillies, wherein you try to catch 'em all. ("'Em," of course, being "All-Stars.") You may have been baffled by their decision last year to pick up Vernon Wells, a player who bats .182, hits 15 home runs a year and whose contract demands that he be fed a Rolls Royce made out of diamonds every morning. But now the strategy is clear: if you truly want to catch 'em all, "all" includes Luvdisc and Bidoof. Miguel Tejada is still on the open market, guys! Snatch him up! Kosuke Fukudome can likely be had for a song! Go go go!
What They Lost: Essentially, nothing. They traded away Jeff Mathis and Tyler Chatwood and parted ways with Russell Branyan and our old friend Joel Pineiro. So: essentially nothing.
What They Gained: They picked up a new general manager, for starters. Jerry Dipoto immediately cracked open the checkbook and started signing. He acquired Chris Ianetta from the Rockies to give them a solid starting catcher. The Angels bolstered their rotation by adding the aforementioned C.J. Wilson, instantly making their rotation miles better than before. Kendrys Morales is expected to return from his two-season penalty for excessive celebration. I think I also remember hearing something about another free agent signing, but nothing springs to mind.
Projected Starters: Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson seem like a pretty spiffy one-two punch, if you're an Angels fan. Dan Haren and Ervin Santana aren't anything to sneeze at. Suddenly you're got four-fifths of a very solid rotation. Potential feel-good story Jerome Williams is still expected to compete for the fifth starter job, but is currently sidelined in Spring Training with a hamstring injuries.
Projected Lineup: While not quite as stacked as the Rangers' lineup, the Angels have sluggers who will be competing for playing time in 2012. Shortstop Erick Aybar will be the leadoff hitter for the team and Albert Pujols will bat third. After that, it's really anyone's guess. Bobby Abreu will be competing for at-bats at DH with Kendrys Morales and possibly Mark Trumbo, who is moving from first base to third base to make room for Prince Albert. Howie Kendrick and Chris Ianetta round out the infield. The outfield will be patrolled by Well, Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter, although Mike Trout may force himself into the picture during Spring Training. If you have a roster like that, you can pretty much cobble together any lineup you please and I'm sure Mike Scioscia will try a few different looks.
Who to Secretly Root For: Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout. They're a couple of players who can really make you appreciate the greatness of glove-and-speed outfielders. Jerome Williams is also someone it's hard to root against. He's trying to be the Angels' own Ryan Vogelsong.
Who to Openly Root Against: Pujols. Pujols Pujols Pujols. The entire American League is now hoping for the guy to spectacularly fail. Here's the problem: everyone in the NL was hoping for the same thing for a decade, but guess what? It never happened. He's still going to be great and you are going to learn to hate his amazing guts more than you ever thought was possible.
Comparable Arch-Villain: The Joker. The Angels have made absolutely insane moves in recent years (they traded Mike Napoli away in order to get Vernon Wells! That's not sane!), but they
If there's any wild card in a division of wild cards, the Oakland A's are the wild cardest. They hired a new bench coach, a new hitting coach and a new-old pitching coach. They started clearing house in a fashion that made it seem as though they were holding a fire sale while they, themselves were on fire. "JUST TAKE IT," they screamed, flinging Gio Gonzalez at the Washington Nationals while the skin bubbled from their bones. "AAAIIIIEEEEEE," they added.
But then the Athletics started added players. Weird, unlikely players. Billy Beane may have missed out at the Oscars, but he is still racking up plenty of WTFs.
What They Lost: They lost Evan Scribner and Cedric Hunter to the Padres off waivers, released Michael Wuertz, traded one of their best pitchers, Trevor Cahill, to the Arizona Diamondbacks and traded another of their best pitchers, Gio Gonzalez, to the Nationals. They suffered one final loss when expected starting third baseman Scott Sizemore tore his ACL in the A's first full-team Spring Training workout.
What They Gained: After jettisoning what seemed like some key components, the A's signed Jonny Gomes and Bartolo Colon and re-signed Coco Crisp. Oakland seemed to be building for the far, far future by trading away key components for a boatload of prospects and Collin Cowgill. They then stunned the world by signing hot Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year contract and signed Manny Ramirez to be their DH, although Ramirez will have to start the season by serving that 50-game suspension that he retired in order to avoid the first time around.
Projected Starters: Dallas Braden is expected to return within the first couple months of the season, at which point he will insert himself into the rotation, but for the time being it looks like it will be anchored by Brandon McCarthy, with Colon likely being the No. 2 starter by default to begin with. Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone will compete to see which three will hold down the back end (two, when Braden returns).
Projected Lineup: Man, who even knows? Seems like this suggestion from Rotochamp is as good as any:
1. Jemile Weeks - 2B
2. Cliff Pennington - SS
3. Coco Crisp - CF
4. Seth Smith - DH
5. Yoenis Cespedes - LF
6. Josh Reddick - RF
7. Kurt Suzuki - C
8. Daric Barton - 1B
9. Josh Donaldson - 3B
This is assuming that Donaldson wins the 3B job and Reddick wins the third outfielder spot. I personally think that Smith and Jonny Gomes will end up splitting time in left field and at DH until Manny debuts. I also think Cowgill is likely to get more time in the outfield than Reddick, since he showed flashes of quite a bit of ability last year with the D-Backs. But with all those moving parts, it's just such a weird lineup. These guys can either score three runs in the season, or like a million billion.
Who to Secretly Root For: Manny Ramirez. How can you not love that guy?
Who to Openly Root Against: Manny Ramirez. How can you not hate that guy?
Comparable Arch-Villain: The Riddler. The A's made a bunch of moves that would make you think that they're just harmless weirdos and jokesters, but also did a handful of things during the offseason that are just so baffling that you start to get a little worried and creeped out. Like, oh no, do the A's have a terminal disease and they're setting up one last, Pyrrhic victory? Is this Oakland's "I'll show them! I'll show them ALL!" season? If so: terrifying.
So there you have it. That's what you're in store for. The band of ne'er-do-wells that will attempt to put an end to your own personal Batman. Well, maybe "Batman" isn't a good analogue for the Mariners. Perhaps "Ghost Rider" is more apt. Let's see: out-of-control, on fire, speeding headlong into Hell and featuring a consisting of 90% "Nicolas Cage screaming"? Yep, let's go with Ghost Rider.
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