2011 MLB Preview: A.L. West

SURPISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 27: Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers bats during a spring training game against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium on February 27, 2011 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

The Rangers are the defending American League champs, but they did lose Cliff Lee while one rival made a number of moves and another looks to bounce back from a down season. Will the Rangers repeat, or will a serious challenger emerge?

I'm a Mariners fan, which means here I get to look at the division nearest and dearest to my heart. And because we're covering teams in reverse order of predicted standings, that means I get to talk about the Mariners first!

Given all the hype and the expectations coming into the season, you could argue that 2010 was the worst year in Seattle Mariners franchise history. You would expect them to be better in 2011 just by regression alone, as they probably wouldn't repeat as arguably the worst team offense in the past 40 years, but the team's also got more going for it than math. There's the promise of talented youth in guys like Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley, and Michael Saunders. There's the near-guarantee of dominance from the front of the rotation in Felix Hernandez. There's the potential for health and effectiveness from Erik Bedard, and there's the joy of getting to watch Ichiro every day. The Mariners are very unlikely to contend, but there's upside all over the roster, and a strong summer puts them in good position for a run in 2012.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sunk to their lowest win total since 2003 last season, as the offense dropped off by more than 200 runs from where it was the year before. In response to the disappointment, the Angels' front office got involved in everything over the winter but came away holding Vernon Wells and a pair of lefty relievers. Needless to say, the Angels aren't a popular pick to have a lot of success. With that said, Wells can hit, Kendrys Morales should finally be healthy pretty soon, and most importantly, this is a team that somewhat quietly added Dan Haren last summer. Haren and Jered Weaver form a rotation front as good as any in the AL, and the Angels' run prevention should again be solid. To contend, they'll just need to be able to score.

Maybe the most popular underdog pick in the league is the Oakland Athletics, who seem set to give the Rangers a run for their money. So the A's lost Jack Cust. Who cares? They also added Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and a handful of arms. The rotation is strong. The bullpen is deep. The lineup's all right. The defense is superb. Looking around the roster, the A's don't have a lot of holes, and their only glaring weakness is that they're light on that kind of star talent you need to reach the higher win totals. In a lot of places, the A's are either decent or good, but there's not much in the way of great.

And that leaves us with the Texas Rangers, who unsurprisingly are filling the role of favorite. A lot of people are going to point to the fact that they lost Cliff Lee, but Lee only made 15 regular season starts with Texas, and the team added Adrian Beltre, who was one of baseball's very best players a year ago. Beltre will provide an offensive boost, and a defensive boost that dwarfs his offensive boost. The Rangers don't really have any talent questions. There's no shortage of ability. Their only real worry from where I sit is health, as Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz have had problems staying in the lineup, and there are some questions on the mound. If the Rangers stay sufficiently healthy, they should be peaches. If they don't, then the door's wide open.

Projected American League West Standings

1. Texas Rangers          90-72
2. Oakland Athletics      87-75
3. LA Angels of Anaheim   82-80
4. Seattle Mariners       75-87

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