Tomorrow is Mariners open their season against the Oakland A’s in Oakland. It’s unquestionably the day I await most anxiously each year. More than Christmas, the first/last day of the school year or any other day. That’s likely true of most baseball fans, particularly those invested in a particular team as I am the M’s.
Saturday Dave, Tim and I went off to the Tacoma Rainiers open house at Cheney Stadium. It was fun. Though it was a little windy and chilly, it was still a beautiful day to spend a couple of hours at the ballpark and talk baseball with friends.
I confess, my baseball knowledge is pretty Mariners-centered, and by default more focused on the American League West. I promised my friends I would make my predictions for the West for this season.
The first observation I have is that this should be a more competitive race. I believe the top four teams have either added or suffered losses to their rosters that could keep the A’s Rangers, Angels and Mariners in the conversation about the division championship. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be in the race at the end, but they’re all going to be good enough to have a hand in the deciding the winner either as leader or spoiler. I do believe the West is going to be the toughest division in the American League.
1st place: Oakland A’s. Last year the A’s won the division on the strength of young players that developed much faster than anybody expected. Assembled with Billy Beane’s typical acumen, the A’s have the good young starting pitching and history on their side. Even so, as with every other team in the division they are hardly a lock. They’ll be trying out a new third baseman, and trying to avoid an injury bug that seems to have plagued them considerably the last few years. They’ll need to count on continued development by their young staff, and have to count on no sophomore slumps from their young hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Riddick and Seth Smith. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll need to win without the veteran leadership of Johnny Gomes and Brandon Inge that former A’s Brandon McCarthy suggested was a huge part of their success in 2012. Even so, the A’s brought in some bargain, but quality players like Jed Lowrie to bolster their infield and add a veteran presence to the clubhouse, so I’m picking these guys to repeat. Not a sexy pick I know.
2nd place: Los Angels of Anaheim. These guys are the sexy pick to win because let’s face it, they’ve signed the big guns the last couple of years in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and have all-universe outfielder Mike Trout. This team has so many offensive strengths it’s hard not to see them as the sexy choice. They’ll play great outfield defense with Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos. Mark Trumbo emerged as a great young bat last year. Howie Kendricks is arguably the best second baseman in the league not named Cano. The question is their starting rotation. Jered Weaver struggled at the end of the year (much like Felix Hernandez I might add) and then dealt away or lost many pieces of their rotation. The Halos’ pitching simply doesn’t look as formidable as in years past. Though they did pick up Jason Vargas from the M’s in the Kendrys Morales trade, (one of my favorite pitchers,) this team is going to score a lot of runs and they’re going to give up a bunch too. Losing out on the Zach Greinke sweepstakes hurt. Last, but not least, this team heads into 2013 with an age factor for some of their best players. While not as geriatric as the Yankees, they’re counting on Pujols (33) and Hamilton (32) to provide production and leadership for years to come, and they can’t do that from the DL. While there are many exciting young players on this team, many are 29 and 30 and will reach the dark side of 30 soon.
3rd place: Texas Rangers. The Rangers are a team I’ve loved to hate over the years because they are just so damn good, and they’ve built their team the right way. But it looks like their reign as the big, mean kid on the block is over. They watched Josh Hamilton walk across the street to L.A., they didn’t sign Zack Greinke, they didn’t fill Hamilton’s empty spot, they didn’t make much of an off season splash. This team, which used to be a marvel because of the wealth of it’s superb farm system is now old. Nelson Cruz is 33, Adrian Beltre is 34, Ian Kinsler is 31. The two guys they brought in to contribute to the team, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and DH Lance Berkman at 36 and 37 respectively, are well past their pull dates . The future of this team, the exciting, young Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt didn’t make the team out of Spring Training as expected. Though there are still plenty of fine players on the Rangers, and they have playoff experience, it’s unclear how the loss of Hamilton and Rangers’ hits leader Michael Young will affect them. Finally, it is unclear how this winter’s news that Nelson Cruz is tied to the Biogenesis PED’s story will affect his or the team’s season. Maybe not at all, maybe a lot. This team has enough pieces that they should hang in there throughout the season, but the manner in which they lost the division to Oakland on the last day of the season as well as the exit of key players from the team, and the news of division between Nolan Ryan and others in the front office suggest trouble to me.
4th place: Seattle Mariners. I’m really excited about the M’s for 2013, and I may make time to follow up with my concerns and predictions for the team. But let me just say, I don’t think this team will contend. They may hang around the leaders until mid-summer, but they just aren’t quite there yet. The M’s showed everyone in Spring Training they have stepped up and improved their offense by adding some veteran players in the middle of their order. They pitched well enough in ST to have a very good Cactus League record. Usually, though, this means nothing. The Mariners will definitely score more runs than years past. Pitchers will have more to think about with this roster. Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales give them a veteran presence in the middle of the order. The kids will be hitting in spots better suited to their development and experience. The M’s have added some bench depth with Robert Andino, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Bay. But, in order for the Mariners to contend and awful lot of things would have to break right. The M’s are also a team that could be subject to the injury bug. They added tons of veteran old guys to this team like Ibanez, Bay and Saunders. Morales and Morse are both coming off seasons of recovery from significant injury, and that leaves the perpetually broken Franklin Gutierrez out of the equation. Finally, in order to win it all the M’s would have to see continued improvement from the young guys. If Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero turn into monsters, and if Dustin Ackley finds his stroke again it could be a very interesting summer. While Felix Hernandez is a proven commodity worthy of his really big contract, the others down the rotation are either unproven i.e.; Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan, semi-proven in the case of Hisashi Iwakuma, or mediocre in the case of Joe Saunders. My belief is this team is as good as its rotation. Given the improved hitting and questionable starting staff, I think they’re about a .500 team.
5th place: Houston Astros. They’re a bad team today, but some day they’ll be good. Remember when the Detroit Tigers were neck and neck with the 1962 Mets for most losses in a season? The Astros, having lost over 100 games in each of the last two years, and traded away all of their name players in the off season will continue to struggle for the next few years. They’re rebuilding and they’re doing it the right way, which is painful. But it’s the path Bill Bavasi should have taken to avoid the “lost decade” the M’s find themselves trying to climb out of. Remember, these teams still have to play the games and Houston thumped Texas in the first game of the season 8-2 last night. It doesn’t matter what the buffoons at PECOTA or ZIPS have to say-play the games and win baby.