1. Texas Rangers – It’s hard to find a word to describe just how good this Rangers offense has been over the last couple of years. They hit for average. They hit for power. They steal bases. It’s the most consistently balanced offense in Major League Baseball. In 2011, they were lead the majors in batting average (.283), were second in home runs (210), third in runs scored (855), and fifth in stolen bases (143). Barring any big injuries, not much should change in 2012. The concern with Texas is their rotation. They lost their ace, CJ Wilson, to free agency, and will try to compensate with Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. Unlike most Japanese hurlers, Darvish is tall in stature, and his motion is one that should transition nicely into the majors. The Rangers paid a fortune for Darvish, so what should they expect? I think 15+ wins every year would make this a good move for Texas. Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison were a dependable trio in the rotation last year. Look for them to be solid again this year. The wild card in the rotation is closer-turned-starter Neftali Feliz. Feliz has been a top tier closer the last two years, so the Rangers are taking a big risk here. They brought in former Twins great Joe Nathan to take Feliz’s spot, but he is aging, coming off Tommy John, and has already blown two saves early in the season. But the Rangers have a stellar bullpen. They shouldn’t hesitate to put Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe, or even Alexi Ogando into the closer role if Nathan continues to struggle.
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Owner Arturo Moreno wrote a couple of hefty checks this offseason, inking starting pitcher CJ Wilson to a $75 million dollar deal, and some guy they call The Machine to a slightly larger contract. The addition of Pujols instantly turns the Angel offense from an average one to a potentially great one, but they will need some guys to step up. Outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells are nearing the end of their careers, and it’s highly likely that one of them will be benched within the first month or two of the season, as highly touted prospect Mike Trout will make it hard for the Angels front office to keep him out of the starting line-up for long. When you look at the Halo’s starting pitching, you can’t help but think that their first four starters would be the #1 guy on 20 of the other 29 teams in baseball. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson, and Ervin Santana make up what could be the best rotation in baseball. It really doesn’t even matter who is the Angel’s fifth starter, because those four could easily go out and win 70 games for their ball club by the end of the regular season. So why am I picking the Rangers to win the division over the Angels? Well, I’ve learned my lesson about hyping up teams that make a big splash in free agency, regardless of the sport. When the Phillies picked up Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt a couple years ago, we hyped them up. No ring still. When the Miami Heat formed their trio of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, they did the hyping for us. Didn’t win a championship their first year. When the Philadelphia Eagles picked up all of their free agents last year, I was ready to call them Super Bowl champs. They didn’t even make the playoffs last year. I’m done buying into the hype of big free agent pick ups in their first year. That said, I do expect them to grab one of the wild card spots….
3. Seattle Mariners – M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik presented us with the strategy of strong pitching, good defense, and successful player development to win ball games when he came to Seattle in 2008. So when the Mariners won a surprising 85 games in 2009, it looked like Zduriencik was onto something. But two straight fourth place finishes in the AL West in 2010 and 2011 have Mariner fans frustrated. A historically dismal offense over the last 3 years led to the trade of young hurler Michael Pineda, with the M’s receiving young slugger Jesus Montero. But Montero isn’t going to turn the offense around on his own. 1B Justin Smoak needs to take of his training bra and become the 30+ HR guy that the Mariners anticipated they were getting when they traded for him in 2010. Chone Figgins needs to perform at a level that justifies paying him at least half of what the Mariners signed him for. If the offense can find a way to just be average, the Seattle starters will have a chance to hand a fair share of leads to the bullpen, which brings us to the Mariners other problem. After closer Brandon League, the Seattle relievers become a group of misfits that include a former bartender and school teacher. Sure those make for great stories, but is the bullpen so bad that they have to have open tryouts to fill the big league roster? If I’m Zduriencik, I’m bringing up prospects James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, and Taijuan Walker to get some big league experience as soon as the bullpen begins to struggle. There are some things to be excited about with this team, but the playoffs are not in the cards this year. 82 wins is a good number to shoot for.
4. Oakland Athletics – Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Tommy Milone, Graham Godfrey. These are the four definite starters in the A’s rotation to start the year. You’re not going to win a lot of games with a rotation like that. Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden are the team’s two best starters, but they are out with injuries until at least June. By then, Oakland will most likely already be out of contention. The offense is anemic as well. Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes looks as good as advertised early in the season, but he’s pretty much the only one that will come close to sniffing over 20 home runs for the A’s offense. Athletics fans could be in for their worst season in years.