Two big guns in AL West

Texas Rangers' pitcher Yu Darvish of Japan signs autographs after their intrasquad MLB spring...

Texas Rangers' pitcher Yu Darvish of Japan signs autographs after their intrasquad MLB spring training baseball game in Surprise, Arizona March 25, 2012. (REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

Ken Fidlin, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:57 PM ET

Unless you still believe in the tooth fairy (sorry, kids), then it seems logical that the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels go into this 2012 season each with a better than 50-50 chance to make the playoffs.

In the four-team American League West, there is a distinct division. At the top you have the Rangers and Angels. At the bottom are the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. And never the twain shall meet.

There is no sugar-coating it: This is a two-team race. And the team that finishes second has a very good chance of grabbing one of the two wild-card playoff spots as consolation.

The Rangers have been to the World Series the past two years and denied both times. Their most recent loss to the St. Louis Cardinals was particularly gut-wrenching after being one strike away from winning it all in Game 6.

After being left in the Rangers’ dust last season, Angels owner Arte Moreno went deep into his pocketbook to do something about it. He signed Albert Pujols to a monster 10-year contract and lured lefty C.J. Wilson away from the Rangers to bolster what was already the best starting rotation in the American League.

The Rangers countered by importing Yu Darvish, the best pitcher in Japan the last few seasons, to join Colby Lewis, converted reliever Neftali Feliz, plus lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

The Angels have been short on offence, but Pujols’ 40 homers and career 1.037 OPS should make quite a difference on that front for a team that led the league in ERA, but finished 10th of 14 teams in runs.

The Mariners have been one of the worst offensive teams in history the past couple of seasons. They traded pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for young slugger Jesus Montero and that’s a start, but Montero will need Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp and Justin Smoak to step up if this team is going to score some runs in support of a pitching staff that features Felix Hernandez.

The Athletics might be in even worse shape than the Mariners. They spent big-league money on Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes, but it’s hard to tell how quickly, if ever, that will pay off. They also have a shaky pitching staff that features Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon as No. 1 and No. 2. ’Nuff said.

The Rangers? Or the Angels? Tough call. It could come down to interleague play when the Angels have to play the Dodgers six times and the Rangers get to play the sadsack Astros six times.

FEARLESS FORECAST

Texas Rangers

2011 Finish: First, 96-66

Back-to-back trips to the World Series have just about doubled the Texas payroll from $64 million in 2010 to about $120 million in 2012. All that money still doesn’t buy much certainty, especially on the pitching staff. Nobody really knows if Darvish is going to be the next big thing and nobody really knows if, after closing for two years, Feliz is ready to make a successful jump to the rotation.

What we know for sure is that the Rangers have a dynamite offence with good hitters up and down the lineup, with the potential for as many as four 30-plus homer men and as many as seven at 20-plus.

Josh Hamilton was poised to sign an extension for mega-millions, but the recovering addict fell off the wagon briefly this winter and now negotiations are on hold. That’s a situation that bears watching because it could become a lingering distraction.

Another unpredictable area for the Rangers is the bullpen, where Feliz was lights out. They’ve hired free agent Joe Nathan to close and, while he has a good track record, he was a bit shaky in 2011, coming off an injury. At 36, he could be on the downside.

2012 Prediction: First, 96-66

Los Angeles Angels

2011 Finish: Second, 86-76

The additions of Pujols and Wilson certainly make this the most improved team in the division. But is that enough to overtake the Rangers?

With Jered Weaver, Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, the Halos have the best top-four rotation in the league. But Los Angeles had the best pitching in the league last season and it only resulted in 86 wins.

It’s on offence where the difference has to come. Obviously, Pujols is huge in that regard, but so might be Kendry Morales, finally back after breaking his leg in a bizarre home-plate celebration early in 2010. Coming off a 34-homer, 108-RBI 2009 season, Morales was off to another big year in ’10 when he was injured. He hasn’t played since.

Bobby Abreu wants out of L.A. and his discontent could provide a distraction as well.

Then there’s Vernon Wells and his $21-million salary (three more years). He’s coming off a year when he had a career-low .660 OPS and could soon find himself on the bench in favour of phenom Mike Trout if he doesn’t get it going.

2012 Prediction: Second, 94-68 (wildcard)

Seattle Mariners

2011 Finish: Fourth, 67-95

The Mariners are going to be better than they were a year ago, but not by enough to make a lot of difference in this division. Their rotation (King Felix, Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi) is going to be competitive and will only get better when Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are ready in the very near future.

On offence, 2B Dustin Ackley should be ready to make an impact, along with Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Mike Carp. With such a young core, there are bound to be some hiccups along the way.

In 2011, the Mariners scored 556 runs. In 2010, they scored just 515 times. Those are the two lowest run totals in team history, not counting seasons disrupted by labour disputes. The young core that’s in place, with some help from an aging Ichiro Suzuki, should help to repair that offence, but they have so very far to go.

2012 Prediction: Third, 74-88

Oakland Athletics

2011 Finish: Third, 74-88

Billy Beane stripped down his roster in the offseason to start adding pieces to rebuild his team for an anticipated move into a new stadium in San Jose in the far-off future. He traded away starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, along with closer Andrew Bailey. Outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus left as free agents.

Beane added outfielders Jonny Gomes, Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill. The rotation is a “Who’s That?” of newcomers: Tommy Milone, top prospect Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock to follow Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon.

There may be help on the way from veteran Dallas Braden, who is expected back in May after shoulder surgery. Brett Anderson is still not close to returning from elbow surgery and has been placed on the 60-day disabled list.

Beane won the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes, paying the untested Cuban outfielder $36 million for four years. He responded with a homer in his first at-bat against Seattle in Japan, but the jury will remain out on that signing.

The A’s also brought in Manny Ramirez, who must first sit out a 50-game suspension. By the time Ramirez is reinstated, the A’s might be 15 games out.

2012 Prediction: Fourth, 66-96

 


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