Someone has to win the AL West, and because it contains only four teams, that means each of them has to like their chances a little bit more than teams in most divisions. But who will come out on top—the defending champs? The resurgent A’s? Or the once-dominant Angels?
We turn to PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, as well as our Depth Charts-powered estimates of roster construction. Projection is hardly destiny—typically, these sorts of projections will end up within about seven or eight wins of the final results. With divisions potentially being decided by a handful of wins, that means there’s still quite a bit of room for surprises.
Texas Rangers 84-78 Projected 2011 Record
Why They Might Win: The 2010 AL champs return with most of their roster intact—missing out on a half season of Cliff Lee is probably not much of an obstacle for them, especially if Brandon Webb is healthy and can regain his old form. Adding Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli bolsters the offense and gives them a bit more flexibility to address first base, their biggest lineup hole last season.
Why They Might Not Win: Despite having reached the World Series last season, the Rangers are merely a solid, unspectacular team that will need the breaks to go their way to make it back. (Webb is one of those breaks.) Ron Washington will need a deft hand to juggle his many lineup options while keeping his clubhouse happy.
Player Who Could Surprise: Playing for a manager other than Mike Scioscia could give Napoli an opportunity he hasn’t had before. With three positions (catcher, first base and designated hitter) not set in stone, he could play his way into the sort of full-time role he never had a chance to have in LA.
Player Who Could Disappoint: If Brandon Webb’s repaired shoulder allows him to return to his 2006-2008, Cy Young form (3.13 ERA), the Rangers will have a steal on their hands, but that seems like a long shot given his series of aborted comebacks last year. PECOTA predicts a 3.63 ERA in 173 2/3 innings, but it can’t predict the exact state of his arm any better than the Rangers can.
Oakland Athletics 82-80 Projected 2011 Record
Why They Might Win: The A’s are bringing back the core of the best pitching staff in the AL last season, and unlike past A’s teams, the Coliseum wasn’t giving them a boost—it’s played as a league-average park for the past few seasons. The A’s can keep a lot of runs off the board.
Why They Might Not Win: The demise of the Coliseum as a run-killing park cuts both ways—the A’s simply couldn’t score runs last season, and that was all on the players. They’ve traded away slap-hitting Rajai Davis and brought in a lot of outfield pieces to bolster the offense, but now they have to assemble them into a functional unit.
Player Who Could Surprise: Conor Jackson isn’t expected to do much, but he once was a well-regarded hitter and there’s still a chance that he’ll delivers on some of that promise if he can manage to stay healthy enough to play a full season for a change.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Daric Barton is coming off a great season, but as a first baseman without a whole lot of pop in his bat he has to keep his batting average up to continue that level of success. (And he has to continue drawing lots of walks, despite not being especially intimidating to pitch to.) PECOTA doesn’t see another 2010 coming from Barton this season.
Los Angeles Angels 78-84 Projected 2011 Record
Why They Might Win: Nobody in this division looks like a 90-win team on paper,so the Angels do have a chance to take the crown if a few breaks go their way (and a few breaks don’t go the way of the Rangers and Athletics.) In addition, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren give them a strong case for the best one-two rotation punch in the AL.
Why They Might Not Win: The Angels have long had a reputation for outperforming expectations (as measured by the difference between runs scored and runs allowed), so there’s a case to be made that the team is able to get more out of their talent than what a model like PECOTA tells us. But this is one of the least talented Angels teams in recent years—trading away Napoli for Wells likely hurts more than it helps, although it does at least give Scioscia a player he’s likely to use.
Player Who Could Surprise: Jered Weaver is one of the most underappreciated pitchers in the American League, although he’s starting to get his due. He could very well pitch his way to a Cy Young award this year.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Vernon Wells, although he’s only likely to disappoint people who have unrealistic expectations to start with. PECOTA sees him as a slightly above-average hitter, but doesn’t think he’s got much left to offer with his glove as a full-time center fielder. Anyone hoping he can duplicate his 2010 campaign will likely find themselves disappointed.
Seattle Mariners 68-94 Projected 2011 Record
Why They Might Win: As the northernmost team in the AL West, they are the most likely to be protected from a catastrophic event wiping out the American southwest—flood, drought, nuclear war, zombie apocalypse, etc.—provided it occurs when they aren’t on a road trip.
Why They Might Not Win: They can’t score runs. They almost have to score more runs than last season, but not that many more. Brendan Ryan, who came over from the Cardinals, is a useful asset because of his excellent shortstop glove, but PECOTA sees him putting up only a .235 True Average (a stat that measures total batting performance, including walks and power, on the batting average scale). That makes him a good fit on a team that managed only a .245 True Average last season.
Player Who Could Surprise: Milton Bradley can’t stay out of trouble on or off the field, but PECOTA thinks he could still have something left in his bat, projecting him for a very respectable .275 True Average.
Player Who Could Disappoint: The Mariners are turning to highly touted prospect Justin Smoak at first base. PECOTA sees him improving on his less-than-glorious rookie season, but not by a whole lot—a .267 True Average, while above average in general, is not much to write home about at first base.