Texas might be toast in competitive AL West

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:12 PM ET

TORONTO - Welcome to the American League West — baseball’s version of a crap shoot.

And, no, we’re not talking about four-letter words to describe how lousy the Seattle Mariners might be. This division is all about the other three clubs. All have a chance to belly up to the champagne bar come September.

There may be better divisions in baseball but none more competitive.

The Texas Rangers are coming off their first World Series and despite the defection of Cliff Lee to Philadelphia, remain the top contender here.

But they may have lost just enough to allow the improving Oakland A’s and the Angels to narrow the gap.

The Rangers still rank an impressive fifth in the Fox Power Rankings, but their starting staff is in flux and, with All-Star closer Neftali Feliz looking to move into the rotation, they won’t have a proven anchor at the back end of the bullpen. Manager Roy Washington has watched both sidearming Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop get roughed up so often this spring that when asked about his bullpen he told reporters he had confidence general manager Jon Daniels could acquire a “bona fide closer.”

That isn’t likely to happen before Opening Day.

Meantime, the A’s already have a pitching staff to rival the Rangers and went out in the off-season and upgraded an offence that ranked 11th out of 14 teams in runs scored last season. They signed former Yankees and Angels outfielder Hideki Matsui (21 HR, 84 RBI in 2010), traded for Royals’ outfielder David DeJesus (.318, 23 doubles in 91 games), and acquired Nationals’ outfielder Josh Willingham, to add the extra thump that could make them this year’s version of the Giants — a team that steps from the shadows to greatness.

The Angels didn’t do much in the off season other than sign Scott Downs. They do get Kendry Morales, who played just 51 games, back and he’s supposed to have MVP credentials. So, that can’t hurt.

And, oh yeah, they also got some guy named Vernon Wells. Already they’re talking more about his $86 million contract than his batting stats. Probably not a good sign. Some things never change.

Manager Mike Scioscia does have a rotation with some star quality. So, if Brandon Wood ever realizes his potential, Wells rediscovers his, and Morales stops tripping over home plate and hurting himself, this team is in with a chance.

(Listed in order of projected finish with last year’s record in parenthesis)

1. Oakland (second, 81-81)

This offence finally has the potential to be good enough to support the outstanding pitching anchored by Trevor Cahill and his 18 wins (career bests in ERA at 2.97, innings pitched at 196 2/3, strikeouts), Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez, who had 15 wins. All three had ERAs of 3.50 or better. Brett Anderson has had elbow problems but when healthy had a 2.80 ERA in 19 starts last year. Throw in an outstanding young closer in Andrew Bailey and there is evidence the Rangers should be nervous.

While the Texas bullpen is in a quandary, A’s general manager Billy Beane solidified his relief corps by signing lefty Brian Fuentes ($10.5 million) and righty Grant Balfour ($8.1 million) to big deals that may pay off with an even bigger payoff come autumn.

2. Texas (first, 90-72)

Feliz has been outstanding in a starting role this spring but, with nobody to replace him in the bullpen, it doesn’t make the Rangers’ decision to move last season’s Rookie of the Year from closer any easier.

Feliz looks to have the makings of a staff ace; effectively mixing all his pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a recently developed cutter, a changeup and a high-70s breaking ball. But unless someone like Alexi Ogando, another hard-throwing righty who had a 1.44 ERA as a rookie last season, can step in as a closer the move may hurt the club more than it helps.

Even without Lee or Feliz starting the Rangers have a decent rotation that includes lefty C.J. Wilson, righty Colby Lewis, as well as Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter. Their ace in the hole could be free agent acquisition Brandon Webb from Arizona. If he regains the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the NL from 2006 to ‘08 the Rangers may have enough to hold off a challenge from the A’s.

3. L.A. Angels (third, 80-82)

Chances are the Angels finish just where they were last year unless they have one of those Cinderella seasons in which everything falls into place.

If good pitching takes a team into the postseason, the Angels are in good hands. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana form one of the better Top 3’s in baseball. Joel Pineiro will beat almost anybody’s No. 4 starter.

The bullpen lost Brian Fuentes last season but closer Fernando Rodney behind newcomers Hisanori Takahashi and Downs look formidable enough to stall most late-inning comebacks.

A little bit of offence could take this team a long way.

4. Seattle (fourth, 61-101)

The good news is that their offence can’t get any worse than last year; last in the majors in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging.

Ichiro Suzuki was the only player to hit above .260. They need better production from Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez. The Mariners brought in Jack Cust, Brendan Ryan, and Miguel Olivo to jump start their offence. Cust is a career .245 hitter who strikes out too much. Ryan averages four homers and 37 RBI every 162 games.

The Mariners have one of the best pitchers in all of baseball in Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. But it all still adds up to once again battling to avoid another 100-loss season.


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