The big-spending AL West also-rans of recent years once more find themselves chasing those overachieving, low-budget Oakland Athletics.
Yet Bob Melvin’s A’s hardly consider themselves the favorite to win a third straight West crown, not in one of baseball’s best divisions that appears to have gotten even better this offseason.
“Obviously they won the last two years, so they’re the team to chase,” Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “There are probably teams that probably don’t take them seriously, but we do. They showed that they can get it done and as of right now, they’re the champions of the West. So it’s obviously that we’re chasing them now.”
While New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter tries to finish his Hall of Fame career in pinstripes the way he started it, with a World Series title, and the Detroit Tigers aim to unseat the defending champion Boston Red Sox, the West looks to be one of baseball’s top divisions again in 2014.
“I think you can make a legitimate case that all five teams are better,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “You’ve got the Yankees and Dodgers and a number of clubs that made a lot of moves out there, Washington and others, but from a division-to-division standpoint, I don’t know that any group was more active than the AL West.”
Robinson Cano is the new star in Seattle — for the next decade, no less. Prince Fielder takes over in the middle of the Texas lineup after his trade from the Tigers. Sluggers Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have something to prove for the playoff-starved Los Angeles Angels, who are feeling the pressure after missing the postseason the past four years.
Sure, the A’s have made their share of moves this winter — many via trade as general manager Billy Beane often does. But Oakland’s changes are minor compared to the acquisitions of Cano and Fielder.
“I think we’re still trying to prove people wrong,” Oakland center fielder Coco Crisp said.
Here’s a look at the American League West, in predicted order of finish:
Texas traded for Fielder, added Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million over seven years and is determined to bounce back from last fall’s early exit with Yu Darvish as its ace.
Ron Washington’s Rangers (91-72) lost the AL wild-card tiebreaker to Tampa Bay and hope for a World Series return this year after runner-up finishes in 2010 and ’11.
The A’s lost projected ace Jarrod Parker to a season-ending elbow injury, and he underwent surgery this week. That leaves another void to fill for a team that has done so well in recent years. While pitching depth has long been a focus for the organization, that will be tested early without Parker and also A.J. Grififn.
Sonny Gray, set to pitch his first full major league season after that memorable playoff duel with Justin Verlander last October, takes the ball opening day against the Cleveland Indians at Oakland.
With new closer Jim Johnson at the back end of a talented bullpen, Oakland still has plenty of confidence it can win if Crisp and the offense provides just enough support.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The pressure is on for manager Mike Scioscia, Hamilton and Pujols after a fourth straight season out of the playoffs, and Mike Trout can’t do it all. Pujols was sidelined from July 26 on and batted .258 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs in 99 games.
This team’s pitching must be far better, period, not to mention stay healthy.
Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto survived for one more chance from owner Arte Moreno following the club’s worst season in a decade at 78-84 — its lowest win total since 2003 despite the high-profile, expensive roster.
“We’re much better when our focus is in house,” Scioscia said. “We have a terrific club and we have the makings of a championship team. No matter who you’re playing, you’re going to face a tough opponent. There are a lot of talented teams, not only in our division but in our league.”
It’s the Cano show at Safeco Field but Seattle’s new $240 million man is going to need help to give manager Lloyd McClendon — Jim Leyland’s hitting coach in Detroit the last seven years — a successful first season in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle will need steady production from the starting pitchers after Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma — who is recovering from a finger injury on hit pitching hand.
McClendon knows the A’s are the team to beat.
“When I was with Detroit, we battled them every year in the playoffs,” he said. “I don’t take them lightly. This is a great division. There’s a lot of talented teams in this division, including the Seattle Mariners.”
Manager Bo Porter welcomes the addition of new center fielder and leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler as the Astros begin their second season in the AL West trying to fight from the bottom of one of baseball’s best divisions a year after losing a franchise-worst 111 games.
Houston has spent the spring trying to find the right combination for the rotation.
AP Baseball Writer Noah Trister, Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins, and Freelance Writers Jose M. Romero and Jim Richards contributed to this report.
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