AL West: Two heavyweights, two contenders

AL West: Two heavyweights, two contenders

AL West: Two heavyweights, two contenders
The American League West, in the popular perception, is actually two divisions within one: the heavyweights (Rangers, Angels) and the light heavyweights (Mariners, A's) hoping to shock the baseball world and move up in class.

In all likelihood, hope springing eternal notwithstanding, the two-time reigning AL champion Rangers and the Angels -- who won five of the previous six division races before Texas' rise in 2010 -- are destined to trade heavy blows and give us a memorable season. This is a rivalry that has been building for four years and is about to reach new emotional levels.

There is mutual respect in both clubouses, but if you're looking for a jumping-off point in the escalation of ill will between the two organizations, it can be traced to the Saturday afternoon of May 16, 2009. Making his season debut in Arlington following an arm injury, then Angels ace John Lackey threw his first two pitches of the game in the general direction of Ian Kinsler's thinking apparatus. Lackey was ejected, making it the briefest start of his career.

The pitches "got away" from him, Lackey reported, as anticipated. The general feeling was the big Texan, never one to conceal his emotions, had seen Kinsler mouthing something to the effect of "kindly leave our lovely yard" -- in more colorful language -- the night before after handling the last out in a 10-8 victory.

The save that night, with the tying runs on base, went to C.J. Wilson. The southpaw became a starter in 2010, and this winter joined the enemy on the same day Albert Pujols made his stunning decision that he was taking his talents to Southern California.

Angels owner Arte Moreno, with new general manager Jerry Dipoto's bold vision, invested $317.5 million that final day at the Winter Meetings in the game's most feared hitter and Texas' ace. Another free-agent deal had been struck with dependable setup man LaTroy Hawkins, upgrading the Angels in three areas in one fell swoop.

The Rangers, in turn, replaced Wilson with Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish at the total cost of $111.7 million, winning the right to negotiate with the 6-foot-6 right-hander courtesy of a record $51.7 million posting fee. With closer Neftali Feliz moving into the rotation, Texas signed former Twins star Joe Nathan to take care of the ninth inning. Texas returns one of the game's most formidable lineups to go with uncommon pitching depth and solid defense.

The Rangers have spent the spring disputing the popular notion that they'll suffer a hangover after coming within one strike of the franchise's first World Series title, falling to the amazingly resilient Cardinals -- led by Pujols.

The Angels have spent the spring seeing nothing to disturb their conviction that Pujols and Wilson give them the ingredients they need to return to the top of the heap, making up the 10 games they trailed the Rangers by when the 2011 season ended.

The stakes clearly have risen to dizzying heights in Texas and Southern California, leaving the Mariners and A's to find creative ways to make inroads.

Seattle, with a number of young players on the verge of making an impact, recognized its need for offense and dealt No. 2 starter Michael Pineda to the Yankees for catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero, a young hitter with tremendous upside. With Ichiro Suzuki accepting a move from leadoff to the No. 3 spot and Chone Figgins ticketed for a welcomed return to leading off, the Mariners figure to have a new offensive dynamic in support of Felix Hernandez and a solid complementary pitching staff.

The A's, having earlier dealt quality pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Craig Breslow for a truckload of prospects, made a splash by signing a young, athletic potential star in Cuban outfielder Yeonis Cespedes. General manager Billy Beane also signed Manny Ramirez to a Minor League contract, even though the former star won't be eligible until the end of May as he serves out a 50-game suspension stemming from his second violation of MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

The Rangers and Angels don't meet until May 11 in Arlington. Everything before that will be a prelude to the main event.

With all this in mind, we polled our AL West beat writers -- Rangers reporter T.R. Sullivan, A's reporter Jane Lee, Angels reporter Alden Gonzalez and Mariners reporter Greg Johns -- and asked them to rank the clubs in four major categories and predict how they'll be lined up on the season's final day.

Here are the results:

Best lineup

Texas has the most dynamic table-setters in the game in Kinsler and Elvis Andrus, and they're followed by loads of thunder: Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and Mitch Moreland. The big key is keeping Hamilton, a risk-taker, on the field in the final year of his contract. The addition of Pujols in the heart of the lineup with Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, the anticipated return of Kendrys Morales and continuing development of Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos could bring the Angels closer to Texas than many people anticipate. The Mariners, last in the Majors in runs scored and other offensive categories in 2011, figure to be much improved. The A's might struggle to replace Josh Willingham's 29 homers and 98 RBIs. Our selection: Rangers

Best rotation

The Angels have four starters who conceivably could win the AL Cy Young Award: Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Wilson. Veteran Jerome Williams and young gun Garrett Richards figure to fill out one of the game's best rotations. If Darvish is as good as he looked this spring and Feliz overcomes his shoulder issues, Texas will be loaded as well, with Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison rounding it out and Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman as safety nets. Hernandez gives Seattle a No. 1 to match up with anybody, but figures to miss Pineda. Oakland has rebuilt its rotation, giving opportunity to talented young arms. Our selection: Angels

Best bullpen

The Rangers, with Feliz starting and bullpen stabilizer Darren Oliver moving to Toronto, have done some reshaping of their group. Nathan is proven quality, but he's 37 and coming off a comeback season from surgery in which his ERA ballooned from 2.10 to 4.84 in Minnesota. Mike Adams, an elite setup man, has recovered from hernia surgery, and Ogando was lights-out in that role in '10 before joining the rotation last season. If closer Jordan Walden smoothes out his rough edges and finds consistency, the Angels could overtake the Rangers with depth from Scott Downs, Hawkins, Hisanori Takahaski, Rich Thompson, Kevin Jepsen, Trevor Bell, Jason Isringhausen, Francisco Rodriguez and Michael Kohn. The A's and Mariners have quality arms but don't appear to be in the class of the Rangers or Angels overall. Our selection: Rangers

Best defense

No division in the sport plays defense more consistently or more effectively than the AL West. Solid across the board, with brilliance in the infield, the Rangers rate the slight edge. But the Angels -- featuring the best outfield in the game -- were second in the Majors last year in runs saved to the Rays, and figure to be just as good with Pujols moving in at first and Chris Iannetta taking over as the regular catcher. The Mariners and A's also keep their teams in the game with excellent leather work. Our selection: Rangers

Predicted order of finish

  1. 1st
  2. 2nd
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.