1. Oakland (85-77)
In what may well turn out to be baseball's weakest division, the A's might be able to win simply by having the fewest weaknesses. The addition of David DeJesus, the continued improvement of Cliff Pennington and Daric Barton, and most importantly, the exemplary young starting rotation. Tampa Bay has (rightfully) received a ton of attention for their ability to develop quality starting pitching, but Oakland is right there with them. Trevor Cahill went 18-8, 2.97 as a 22 year old last year. Brett Anderson had a 2.80 ERA and a K/BB ratio of nearly 3.5, albeit in only 112 innings. The unheralded Gio Gonzalez, seeminly on prospect lists forever, was only 24 when he broke through with a 15-9, 3.23, 171 K performance in 200 innings - more than acceptable as a #3 starter. And old man Dallas Braden, already an ancient 27 years old, established himself as the veteran presence both on the mound and in the clubhouse, throwing a perfect game and not having any problems calling out Alex Rodriguez for his poor sportsmanship. A modern Danny Darwin, perhaps? Anyway, with good pitching and defense, the A's can probably win this division with only about 700 runs, which isn't a sure thing by any means.
Player to watch: David DeJesus. Something less than a star, DeJesus nevertheless has been a good player on a bad team for a long time. He gets on base, has gap power, and plays very good defense. He'll be a huge upgrade over Gabe Gross and the other players the A's tried in left field last year, and he's one of the reasons why they're in good position to take the step forward and win their first division title in five years.
2. Texas (83-79)
That was nice, now do it again. I hate to be bearish on them after what the Rangers accomplished in 2010, but it just seems a little bit flukish. I'm not saying CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter won't for a strong top 3 in the rotation, I just need to see it again to believe it. When a team succeeds on the strength of performances by so many people who had never performed at that level before, a little skepticism is sensible. However, it is time to stop being skeptical of Josh Hamilton. He's a great baseball player, capable of carrying a team for an extended period. Depsite his long journey, he doesn't turn 30 until mid-May. Hamilton now has a career line of .311/.371/.544 - the Rays couldn't have envisioned more than that when he was drafted #1 overall in 1999. The rest of the team has holes, and I'm not sure Hamilton has enough power to overcome all of them. An tough start to the season that ends up with Neftali Feliz converted to the rotation may be a blessing - he has too much talent to only be used 60 innings a year. The Rangers owe it to themselves and to Feliz to at least find out if he can start.
Player to watch for: C.J. Wilson. The converted reliever was a revelation, throwing 200 innings and keeping his ERA at 3.35. He also led the American League in walks - normally a bad sign for a 29 year old, but we're still talking about a first year starter. If he can get that walk rate down from 4.1 per 9 to the mid 3's, then he may be able to keep up his success. If that walk rate stays up though, his ERA will follow.
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (76-86)
The Angels have long been the face of the "scouting" side in the "stats vs, scouting" argument, consistently winning despite moves that drove analysts crazy. The Vernon Wells move may be the toughest yet to swallow. Coming off his third good year in the last eight, the Angels traded stathead favorite Mike Napoli as well as Juan Rivera to take on Wells, including all of Wells contract. The problem isn't simply that they traded for Wells, it's that they used one of their valuable commodities, and didn't improve the areas of their team that needed improving. However, while the Wells trade is a negative, it doesn't take away from the way they fleeced the Diamondbacks last summer for Danny Haren. After a slow start, Haren had a 2.87 ERA with Anaheim, and is poised to be the staff ace, in front of Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver. Like the A's, the Angels success will depend on their ability to rank around the league average in run scoring. Decisions like the one to make Jeff Mathis the starting catcher of Hank Conger do not inspire confidence, but the Angels have been proving me wrong for years.
Player to watch: Jered Weaver. I swear, if Weaver had been born Will Johnson, and had no relation to Jeff Weaver, he'd be regarded as one of the better pitchers in the American League. But because the elder Weaver was such a disappointment, and because he probably had the worst mound presence of any pitcher of the last 20 years, seeming to get hopelessly frustrated at anything bad that happened, it seems that people project Jeff's negativity onto Jered. It doesn't help that Jered so resembles Jeff, physically. Anyway, Jered threw 224 innings last year, led the league with 233 strikeouts, and walked only 54. The 23 home runs allowed really aren't bad, considering that number of innings. It's time to give the younger, better Weaver his due.
4. Seattle Mariners (68-94)
That was a rough year in the Pacific Northwest, and it doesn't seem to be a whole lot better, Sure, out-machines Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman are gone, but there is a lot of building to do here. Ichiro dug out another 214 hits, but he had his worst year in the states, and, at 37, fears of decline by their franchise player are legitimate. Still, he is exceptionally durable and a fantastic athlete for any age, which should mean his decline phase, if we are there, is likely to be a slow one. It's not hard to imagine him being productive enough into 2014 to get 3000 MLB hits - an accomplishment that would be mind boggling, considering he was three years older when he got his first hit than Wade Boggs, currently the record holder in that category among the 3000 hit club. Youngsters Michael Brantly and Justin Smoak will get their chances to prove they belong in a low-pressure setting.
Player to watch for: Felix Hernandez. The King Felix show continues. With 71 wins and counting, and still only 24 years old (he turns 25 on April 8th), it seems the only thing holding him back from a serious run a 300 is the team that he's on. He's logged a lot of innings the past two years, but he's such an efficient pitcher that he's not throwing significantly more pitches than guys in the 220 inning range. Much like Pedro Martinez 14 years ago, it's easy to forget how young Felix is - he may still be improving. If he is able to average 12 wins a year for the next 15 years, or 15 a year for 12, he'll already be at 250 wins, and it's likely he'll average more than that. The upside here is multiple Cy Young Awards, 325 wins and a plaque in Cooperstown.