The American League West was one fearsome foursome last year. The A's won the division in stirring fashion, riding a fantastic second half to overtake the favored Rangers on the final day of the regular season. The Angels weren't too shabby, either, missing out on October despite winning 89 games. Not to be left out, the Mariners took a step forward as well, improving by eight wins from 2011.
Now, the West gets even more wild with the addition of the Houston Astros, who move from the National League Central to give every division in baseball five teams. And it looks like the same three teams will be the ones duking it out for division supremacy come September.
The A's, who last year took eventual league champion Detroit to the maximum five games in the Division Series, appear to be just as strong, if not stronger, with a deeper bench, a healthy Brett Anderson to lead an already formidable pitching staff, and slugger Yoenis Cespedes looking to build on a year of valuable experience.
The Rangers might have lost Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, but they still have Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler to complement a stellar rotation that's led by Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison. Alexi Ogando moves back into a starting role from the bullpen, and the relief corps is solid.
And then there are the Angels, who made the most noise of anyone in the AL West, and maybe anyone in the big leagues, when they landed Hamilton via free agency, putting him smack in the middle of a lineup that already included last year's rookie sensation, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols.
Seattle beefed up its lineup with Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. Houston is young and talented and doesn't have anything to lose.
We polled our AL West beat reporters -- Jane Lee (A's), Alden Gonzalez (Angels), T.R. Sullivan (Rangers), Greg Johns (Mariners) and Brian McTaggart (Astros) -- and asked them to rank the teams in four major categories and give input as to the race as a whole.
This one wasn't even close. Every writer picked the Angels on top, and for good reason. Trout, the leadoff man, almost won the AL Most Valuable Player Award while cruising to Rookie of the Year honors. His combination of speed, power and on-base percentage is unheard of for practically anyone, let alone a 20-year-old. If Pujols and Hamilton can stay healthy enough to notch 550 at-bats each and Mark Trumbo can chip in another 30-plus home runs, the Angels' offense could be the best in baseball. The Rangers, A's and Mariners have nice pieces throughout their batting orders but none can match the pure star power of the Angels.
Our selection: Angels
This vote came down to the wire, with the Rangers barely beating the A's. It's a judgment call, too. To back the Rangers, you have to believe that Harrison will repeat or improve upon his stellar 2012, that Darvish will do the same in his second big league go-round, that Ogando will shine and that Derek Holland will be more like he was in 2011 (16 wins) than in his inconsistent '12. If you like the A's here, you're betting that Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone will be every bit as good as they were in pacing the rotation as rookies last year, that Anderson will stay healthy all season and that the club won't miss Brandon McCarthy, who left for Arizona via free agency. Otherwise, they're well covered with a mix of Bartolo Colon, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily.
Our selection: Rangers
Oakland took this category in unanimous fashion, and it's easy to see why. The late-innings combination of hard-throwing Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and closer Grant Balfour was phenomenal last year and a huge reason the team won the division, and lefty specialist Jerry Blevins and sidearming righty Pat Neshek delivered good numbers as well. The Rangers finished second in this category, largely because of their veteran horse of a closer, Joe Nathan, but the Mariners received some votes, too. Young fireballers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor figure to do well setting up emerging closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
Our selection: A's
You know you're a good defensive club when everyone's new favorite center fielder, Trout, is moved to left field because the organization is convinced that Peter Bourjos is even better in center than Trout. Hamilton can hold his own in right, and you've also got past Gold Glove winners at shortstop (Erick Aybar) and first base (Pujols). That's a powerful combination around the diamond that barely beat out Texas, which still has the best third baseman in the AL in Beltre, a brilliant fielding shortstop in Elvis Andrus and a new addition at catcher, veteran A.J. Pierzynski, who gets it done behind the plate.
Our selection: Angels
The Angels cruised here, primarily because of the sheer power they display on paper after the Hamilton signing. The starting rotation should be good enough with Jered Weaver up top and veterans C.J. Wilson, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas beneath him. The bullpen is solid if not spectacular. Mike Scioscia remains one of the game's most respected managers. There's quite simply a lot to like.
Then again, Oakland and Texas are the ones who were battling it out at the end of last season, and both look good again. The A's might be even better than last season, although they'll have to fight the notion that their magical 2012 run was a fluke. They've shored up their team all around and their young pitching staff is a year wiser. Their skipper, Bob Melvin, has done wonders with clubhouse chemistry and confidence.
The Rangers have lost some pop in the lineup but have also opened up opportunities for players such as David Murphy and Leonys Martin to prove what they can do with a healthy helping of at-bats. The pitching remains, as does a strong core under manager Ron Washington. Maybe with some of the pressure off after two World Series appearances and last year's disappointing end-of-season finish that included a loss to Baltimore in the AL Wild Card game, the Rangers will rise again.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge loves what he sees. He's got more bats in the lineup, with Morales, Morse and a healthy Franklin Gutierrez, and he's got young players who were learning on the job the past few years (Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and others) and might be ready to excel. He's also got Felix Hernandez at the top of his rotation. The Mariners will have to hit a lot better than it has in the past three seasons if they are to have any hope of contending. Wedge, for one, believes they will.
NEVER SAY NEVER
The Astros are moving to a new league and a new division with a new manager in Bo Porter and a low payroll as general manager Jeff Luhnow continues a bold rebuilding plan. This year might be a tough one, but there's a lot of talent in place and the team is collecting an impressive array of prospects. If it doesn't happen this year, it might very well happen soon.