AL West preview: Rangers and Angels finally set to battle after wild winter

Kevin Kaduk
Big League Stew

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on expected standings and award-winners. Up next is the AL West.

Kevin Kaduk: Greetings, Mr. Brown! Today we're headed out west to get our kicks on Route 66, or at least survey the rising AL West rivalry that is Rangers-Angels. With both the Red Sox and Yankees pinching pennies this past offseason, Texas and Los Angeles stepped in and did their best to keep up with the Joneses. The Angels signed the best free agent available by showering Albert Pujols with riches from newfound TV money. The Rangers went out and got the best pitcher, signing Yu Darvish from Japan. That move replaced C.J. Wilson atop their rotation after the left-hander signed with — who else? — the Halos.

Given Wilson's penchant for rubbing people the wrong way, I didn't sense too much sadness as he packed his bags for Anaheim. But you can bet your belt buckle that losing out on their second straight chance for a World Series title still stings for the Rangers and their fans. It kind of got lost in the hype over the Cardinals winning title No. 11, but that's a fan base that was just straight-up kicked in resin bags when David Freese's triple sailed over Nelson Cruz's head in Game 6. (If Cruz had been playing for the Cubs or the Red Sox, his name would by synonymous with Bartman and Buckner. That's probably the lone advantage of dropping a Fall Classic to a team with a higher historical pedigree.)

Anyway, the Rangers are looking to become the first team to hit three straight World Series since the turn-of-the-century Yankees and it would appear they have a good chance. A murderer's row lineup. Another year of a good pitching staff. A team that's done a lot but still thirsty to close the deal.

And yet there's Albert Pujols again standing in the way of the franchise's first World Series title. While I worry a little about injury on that Rangers squad, it would seem the Halos pose the bigger threat. Can the Angels win this division and push the Rangers either into that one-game wild card playoff or out of October altogether?

DB: It's hard to know how the Angels will compete because their roster as it stands will almost certainly look different by the end of the season. They've been trying to trade Bobby Abreu. They're tinkering with Mark Trumbo at third base. Mike Trout seems ready but there's nowhere to put him in the outfield and so he's starting the season in the minors. Vernon Wells is depressing in left but is too well paid to be replaced. Torii Hunter is getting old in right, but at least he can still hit. New GM Jerry Dipoto still has more moves to make, but if he makes the right ones, they could push Los Anaheim past the Rangers. The early signs are that he's the right guy for the job. And he's already lucky, having inherited Kendrys Morales — finally healthy — after two seasons of injuries. The Angels could use a little more luck like that.

And Wilson doesn't have to be the Angels ace. The presence of automatic Cy Young candidates Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, and then Ervin Santana, make Wilson pretty much the best  No. 4 starter in the league. There's no reason he shouldn't be able to live up to that.

The Angels jumping over the Rangers has as much to do with how Texas performs, of course. How many games will Josh Hamilton play, and will his next contract be some kind of distraction? What is Neftali Feliz going to be like as a starting pitcher? Will Derek Holland settle into a dependable part of the rotation? Can Joe Nathan close games again, or will there be a domino effect that skews how Ron Washington and Mike Maddux use the rest of the pitching staff? The Rangers should still be favorites to win the division — and I think the Angels are a favorite to make the playoffs as an extra wild card — but the details are yet to be sorted.

'Duk: If only everything was as easy classified as separating the haves and have nots in the AL West. While the Rangers and Angels spent most of the winter drawing their battle lines, the A's and Mariners prepared for their fight at the bottom of the division — their last two-team tango before the Houston Astros arrive in 2013 to provide a buffer from the embarrassment of finishing last.

Though last week's two-game split in Tokyo didn't prove much, I think I'm giving Oakland the edge when it comes to third place. The signing of Cuban expat Yoenis Cespedes was almost enough to make us forget Billy Beane's pitching purge at the beginning of the offseason. It really is a shame that Lew Wolff's hissy fit over securing a new stadium deal has led to the team saying goodbye to so much talent because a rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden might have made Oakland a deep sleeper pick in the American League. Instead they have to rely on McCarthy and Braden while hoping that Anderson can make a successful in-season return from Tommy John surgery.

Still, I think it's enough to outkick the still-rebuilding Mariners. While there's a lot of hope for that offense with youngsters like Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak, they'll still struggle to score runs. The pitching staff doesn't do much for me either with Felix Hernandez back by his lonesome in that rotation after the trades of Michael Pineda and Doug Fister. Any chance the M's provide any good story lines other than what Ichiro's going to do when his contract is up after this season?

DB: Trust in Hector Noesi, my friend. Besides, with Billy Beane in the middle of a "Moneyball" re-write, the A's are a mess right now. They might lose 95, 105, 115, 300 games. Coco Crisp will be traded to a contender in June or July. And there's only so much stem research can do for Bartolo Colon. The Mariners ought to be favored to finish third, not that there's much pride in such a distinction. It's kind of amazing they won 67 games last year with that lineup. But they'll hit better this season. Ichiro has to hit better. Chone Figgins doesn't have to hit better, but it would behoove him to do so after his performance the past two seasons, turning in a .188/.241/.243 in 2011? Makes Adam Dunn look like an overachiever. If those guys just add something, and Mike Carp's injury isn't too bad and he can contribute some offense for most of a full season, and Ackley continues to improve, and Smoak puts a disappointing (but understandably so) season behind him, and Franklin Gutierrez comes back from oblivion by midseason, I'm saying 72-90 for sure, with the famous M's compass pointing north for Jack Z and the gang. North of last place, anyhow.

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Predicted order of finish for the AL West
'Duk: 1. Rangers, 2. Angels, 3. A's, 4. Mariners
DB: 1. Rangers, 2. Angels, 3. Mariners, 4. A's

'Duk: Albert Pujols, Angels
DB: Albert Pujols, Angels

AL West Cy Young
'Duk: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
DB: Dan Haren, Angels

'Duk: Yoenis Cespedes, A's
DB: Yu Darvish, Rangers

PreviouslyAL EastNL EastAL Central, NL Central

Coming Monday: NL West

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