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The American League West will get a lot more interesting next year when Texas and Houston will be in the early stages of developing an excellent rivalry. In the meantime, I’ll look at the division as it stands now for one last time – two teams competing for the division title and two teams that might be competitive in a Triple-A league.

The last time I thought the Seattle Mariners could win a division, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner were bashing balls around the Kingdome and Randy Johnson was big, tall, ugly and nasty as any pitcher that has ever thrown a ball.

These days the Mariners are a study in putridity. They gave away Doug Fister last season. This year Michael Pineda was traded. The Mariners acquired a potential superstar hitter (who also plays catcher) in Jesus Montero in that deal, but  they gave away one of the best young arms in all of baseball. Montero is projected by some to be able to hit at least .280 with 25 homers and 80 RBI as a rookie. He will primarily play designated hitter, but also will spell starting catcher Miguel Olivo.

Justin Smoak is looking more and more like a failed prospect to me. In his defense, he has absolutely nothing to help him in that lineup. But it’s also not like he’s had any pressure to succeed forced upon him. Chone Figgins has been a bust as well. The middle infield has a solid prospect in second baseman Dustin Ackley and a shortstop in Brendan Ryan, who is solidly below average. The death of prospect Greg Halman was a horrible tragedy in every day life, but to the Mariners it not only deprived them of a very solid hitting prospect it has to have shaken everyone up.

Maybe not Ichiro though. After years of watching him warm up all by himself and alone on the bench, it’s possible he doesn’t even know the names of the players he shares time and space with in the locker room. To say that he’s a difficult player is going too far, because he’s never come across as a dirty player or a jackass like Milton Bradley. However, Twins radio broadcaster Dan Gladden several years ago said during a game that Ichiro is the most selfish player he’s seen in his career. Ichiro had the worst year of his career in 2011 and he looks like he’s lost a step in the outfield and two steps on the bases. I think either his personal pride will bring him back to the .300 clip this season or it will be his last.

Mike Carp will be fighting with pseudo-prospect Casper Wells for left field. Michael Saunders will be given every opportunity to play center field this year, but he has been unspectacular at the plate thus far in his young career.

The pitching staff really consists of two men: Ace King Felix Hernandez and closer Brandon League. Hernandez is, I believe, the second best starter in the American League behind Justin Verlander.  Felix has earned his name and he is the Sabermetric poster-child. He dominates. Hernandez must feel like Steve Carlton from the 1972 Cardinals spliced into Bill Murray’s role in Groundhog’s Day. I mean, if the Mariners ever put a decent team around him, Hernandez would win 18 to 20 games every year for the next five or six years.

Brandon League is an underrated and very durable reliever who was one of the best setup men in all of baseball before performing well in the closer role last year.

The rest of the rotation is made up of lefty Jason Vargas, veteran innings eater Kevin Millwood, Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma and young Hector Noesi, who could take some of the pressure off of Montero in the Pineda trade. The rest of the pen includes Shawn Kelley and Tom Wilhelmsen as setup men. They’ll be joined by Chance Ruffin and lefties George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo.

I’m not saying that Seattle is Baseball’s version of Hell, but if you ask Ichiro or Hernandez, they might agree that it’s the MLB equivalent to Purgatory. Felix wins 17 games this year and the Mariners go 55-107 to compete with the Houston Astros for the worst record in baseball.

The Oakland Athletics should have gotten some major publicity for the Academy Award-nominated film Moneyball starring Brad Pitt as A’s GM Billy Beane. But they won’t be opening up the third deck to fans any time soon and they probably don’t need to open the second deck unless the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels or a top notch National League team comes to town.

Billy Beane is a genius, but the owner is cheap. I think Beane likes the art of the trade more than he cares about winning a title. NO team in baseball has gone through more ace material than the A’s. The team is always a thorn in the side of contenders, but never a contender themselves, at least anymore. If they ultimately can pull off their desired move to San Jose, maybe they’ll be able to start hanging onto some of their own talent.

In the mean time, the projected rotation this year is weaker than it has been in the past – not just because of major trades, but because Brett Anderson is out until at least June after having Tommy John surgery and Dallas Braden also is a question mark for health reasons.

Brandon McCarthy, a foundering former top prospect, had a solid-but-unspectacular year in 2011. Heading into the season he is the de facto ace of the staff. Veteran retread Bartolo Colon is scheduled to be the number two guy. Three of their top 20 prospects — Brad Peacock (3rd ranked), Tom Milone (20) and Jarrod Parker (1) — will fill out the rest of the rotation, according to reports. By August Parker and company may be legit star pitchers. Because of the A’s track record I’m not going to bet against it. But Parker is coming in from AA with less than a handful of innings in the majors accumulated last season. McCarthy and Colon could … probably should … both be traded at the All-Star break for whatever the team can get.

Grant Balfour will start out as the closer for the A’s, but if they are anything like last year it will be bullpen by committee which never works. Balfour beat out Brian Fuentes for the job in a competition one site compared to “a purse fight between old ladies.” Fuentes is a very good setup man. Both could be dealt by the deadline. Fautino De Los Santos is a flame thrower who struck out well over a batter per inning, but he also walked a batter every other inning in 2011. Jerry Blevins is the lefty in the pen with Joey Devine having a solid chance to work situational relief.

Jemile Weeks could be a future star at second base. He will lead off and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect 30-plus steals. If he lives up to his pedigree, Weeks could be the best leadoff hitter in the American League not named Ellsbury before 2012 ends. Yoenis Cespedes was a surprise signing by Oakland. I’ve seen 19 different lineup projections. All have Cespedes starting in center field with Coco Crisp moving to left field and batting anywhere from third to seventh in the lineup. If Cespedes is the real deal – and if his listed age of 26 is legit – the A’s could have a really nice young tandem toward the top and middle of their lineup.

Yet another surprise move by Beane was the signing of Manny Ramirez, who will be the designated hitter once his drug suspension ends in a couple months. Seth Smith or Jonny Gomes will take up the at-bats until then.

Veteran backstop Kurt Suzuki will be traded (they are the A’s!) at some point this season. My guess is that Beane is just waiting until the first injury happens this season in order to maximize his haul. Brandon Allen and Chris Carter will battle to be the first baseman, and Josh Reddick, Smith and Gomes will compete for playing time in right field.

Veteran Scott Sizemore was to start out at third base, but Josh Donaldson takes will now take the spot since Sizemore has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Cliff Pennington will play shortstop. My prediction is that the A’s take a BIG step back this year, finishing with a 65-97 record.

The Texas Rangers have lost back to back World Series and their superstar centerfielder Josh Hamilton had another offseason relapse into his John Belushi from Animal House past. The heartache of watching a father to die during a game last year may be a good reason for the crack in his armor. It also could be the pending monster contract extension that would make him a very rich man weighing on him. We will never know, but he says it was an “oops,” and that we should take his word for it.

Major League baseball loves its Japanese imports, especially at pitcher, and Yu Darvish is the latest sensation to sweep the nation. If Darvish lives up to the hype and Hamilton keeps his head on straight, the Rangers might be able to overcome the loss of CJ Wilson and actually win the World Series this year.

The Rotation is loaded with great arms. Colby Lewis, lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and former closer Neftali Feliz all will partner with Darvish in the starting rotation. Lewis is hoping to recapture his 2010 stuff, Holland is an effective inning eater who has the skills to become a big-time starter. Harrison is another inning-eating lefty who could become the next Derek Holland. Harrison is a big-framed guy, but not a strikeout pitcher, so it’s likely that he’s nothing more than a fifth starter. Feliz is a huge question mark. He’s got nasty stuff, and was an amazing closer.

The rule of thumb I’ve always been told is that a reliever needs two years to become a good starter because they spend the first year adjusting to the innings. Can Feliz buck the odds like CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis have both done for the Rangers? I think he can, but I don’t think he will. That’s why I have Texas projected second in the West this season.

The bullpen is headed by Joe Nathan, who, when healthy, has proven to be an elite closer. Alexi Ogando and Koji Uehara are excellent relievers. Mike Adams will figure prominently. Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tateyama and Scott Feldman also will likely break camp with the big club.

The lineup is powerful. Ian Kinsler is an all star at second base. Elvis Andrus is an electric shortstop. Hamilton, if he’s not suspended, is a candidate for Most Valuable Player. Michael Young is the glue that holds this franchise together and he can play DH or sub in at any infield spot and still hit .320 with 30 doubles. Adrian Beltre is going to bat fifth or sixth while playing gold glove caliber at third base.

Nelson Cruz isn’t a great outfielder, but he has a flair for the dramatic and excellent power. Catcher Mike Napoli had an outstanding 2011 season and has solidified himself as a good signal caller and top flight power hitter. I don’t see Napoli hitting near .320 again, which will bring down some of his RBI and power numbers. But you can write down .275 with 25 bombs and 70-plus RBI from the seven hole.

Julio Borbon and David Murphy are going to battle it out for the left field spot and Mitch Moreland, who was one of the top prospects in all of baseball a few years ago is the first baseman. He’ll approach a .280 average, 15 homers and 70 RBI while batting at the bottom of the order.

I see Texas slipping slightly this year to around 87-75.

Switching places with Texas is the team that changes its name more than any other in professional history, the Los Angeles Angels. They’ve previously dropped “California” from their moniker and this year dropped “Anaheim,” which I’m told is a beautiful suburb of L.A.

What they haven’t shed is Mike Scioscia, who for my money is the best manager in the American League. And what management has surrounded Scioscia with is an interesting predicament: How many first basemen can you fit into nine-slot batting order and where are you going to play them on the field?

Kendrys Morales has been hurt the last two years, but could be ready by opening day. He could be slated for the designated hitter role. http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120311&content_id=27190260&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

Mark Trumbo had an excellent season last year during his stay. It appears as though he’s heading over to the hot corner at third base, at least part time. He also could play in the outfield. It’s no mystery why these guys are going to be playing out of position. Albert Pujols and his Hall of Fame statistics have come to town for quite a few years and, while he’s probably the most versatile of the three athletes, I don’t see Albert moving to third or the outfield.

Erick Aybar is the shortstop and the under-appreciated Howie Kendrick is at second. Alberto Callaspo will open the season starting at third base and stay there as long as he outperforms Trumbo.

In Anaheim, err, Los Angeles, the outfield is where extra base hits go to die. Vernon Wells is in left field and Torii Hunter is in right field. They have a lot of gold gloves between them. Centerfielder Peter Bourjos is every bit as good as either of them ever were defensively. Bobby Abreu has demanded a trade if he’s not given the everyday DH role, which should be fine for the Angels since they have to find spots for Morales and Trumbo to hit anyway. There have been rumors over the last few days that he may be headed to Cleveland, but they seem to be getting weaker.

My guess is that if the Angels fold, Wells or Hunter will be traded so that Trumbo or Mike Trout can play left. However, I don’t feel it’s likely because this team is designed to win now. And bats like Trumbo’s and prospects like Trout (and they have many others) may be used to acquire the players to put them on par with the New York Yankees.

Jered Weaver has earned the title of ace. Dan Haren is an excellent number two. The addition of former division rival C.J. Wilson from Texas to be the number three starter could be as big a factor in them winning the division as the arrival of Pujols. Ervin Santana is vastly underrated and Jerome Williams is scheduled to be the fifth starter.

Jordan Walden is the closer with veterans Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins setting him up. Former closer Jason Isringhausen, Hisanori Takahashi, Rich Thompson and Bobby Cassevah are going to round out the pen. My guess is that they finish 91-71, a healthy margin ahead of the Rangers.

Other division previews:
National League West
National League Central
National League East
American League Central
American League East

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