It hasn't been a secret for over a year now, but the Astros have left the National League behind, embraced by the welcoming arms of the American League. As something of an ambassador for the Junior Circuit, I've volunteered to step in here in order bring you up to speed on your new frenemies, and to get you accustomed to what is possibly baseball's most-difficult division.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers have seen a huge shift in their identify this off-season with the departures of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, and Michael Young. It might seem as if they've been weakened, but they haven't been; the Rangers have one of the top collections of young talent out there between their big-league club and their farm, and made a couple of smart signings to fill in the rest of the holes.
Defense has been a staple for the Rangers during the most-successful run in their franchise's history. They still have Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler in their infield, and have upgraded behind the plate with A.J. Pierzynski. They might not have been able to reel in Zack Greinke, but they can pitch, thanks to Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, and, if they're lucky, 22-year-old Martin Perez. That's a deep staff even without a clear ace, and to make matters worse for their opponents, they're all under team control or signed for the long-term.
While the Rangers missed out on the playoffs in 2012, they have the core and front office to remain a problem in the future, too. That's a bit disconcerting if you're an Astros fan given the Rangers might only be the third-best team in the division at present. But, if any Rangers fans harass you, just start narrating the events of Game Six of the 2011 World Series. Should Lance Berkman play well this might not work anymore, but you can always audible to repeated David Freese mentions. Of course, this could lead to Rangers' fans with long memories bringing up the 2005 World Series, but convince them the last few seasons have deadened your baseball emotions and made you immune to such trivialities.
Oakland Athletics: Even though the A's lost Brandon McCarthy to free agency, there are still plenty of reasons to believe they're potentially playoff-bound for the second year in a row. There are still plenty of pitchers and as is the A's way, those are are mostly inexpensive with potential. It's a tiresome act for divisional opponents, but if you're going to stick in the AL West, you're going to have to get used to the fact that the Athletics have a pipeline that never seems to stop pumping out pitchers.
The A's traded for Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, and, a long time ago, Brett Anderson. They've developed A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily. All of those pitchers have potential, are inexpensive, and under team control. This is after they spent last winter trading away everyone with experience and cost attached to them in the rotation, by the way -- you should probably get used to seeing that happen, too.
The offense is a little more questionable, but as characters they're impossible to dislike. You've got two guys who can power cities with the wind generated by their whiffs in Chris Carter and Brandon Moss at first base, but both can also hit the ball very, very far, and are a platoon match made in baseball heaven. Josh Reddick, who talks about wrestling and retweets every single fan who asks him to on Twitter no matter how inane the reason (sometimes while sporting pirate-inspired facial hair) is in right field. He hit 32 homers last year. If we're lucky, someday he'll sneak onto the field while wearing his replica WWE Championship belt before he blasts one. While Astros management is certainly aware of what he can do, fans should know that occasionally, he's going to do this to your players:
Or maybe even this:
Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban import the A's surprisingly signed last winter, is a center fielder playing left, with a bat that would work anywhere on the diamond. Coco Crisp patrols center field, and just know, right now, you're never going to throw him out stealing. It's not even an Astros thing: Crisp has evolved beyond the abilities of mere mortal catchers, and it just doesn't happen anymore.
The less said about the rest of the lineup the better, though Wednesday's trade for Jason Jaso did add an OBP threat where there was just Derek Norris's questionable bat before. Still, the bottom part of the order remains one the reasons why who will emerge victorious from the AL West is an open question.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners have been rebuilding for so long that the general manager they brought in to start the job is now in the last year of his contract. Because of this, Jack Zduriencik has been trying to cobble together a win-now roster all winter, but has had very few bites in that direction. Instead, he's settled for a slew of moves that aren't bad, but likely aren't enough, either: Kendrys Morales is the new designated hitter, Jason Bay could get a chance to show if his career is over or not at a low-risk price, and Raul Ibanez was brought in because they Mariners didn't have enough first base/left field/designated hitter types on the roster with holes in their gloves and swings.
Since you're new to the division, the above was sarcasm, as the Mariners lead the league in dudes like that. Justin Smoak will be 26, and is a lifetime .223/.206/.377 hitter in the majors. Mike Carp occasionally puts up numbers, but his approach leaves him open to slumps that can ruin a season. Jesus Montero will only be 23, and is very likely a designated hitter masquerading as a catcher, but he can't play elsewhere because of the existence of all of the other guys who are DHs. Add Bay and Ibanez to the mix, and things are crowded and a little desperate.
The crowding became even more pronounced yesterday when Zduriencik brought in Mike Morse from the Nationals, giving them yet another player relegated to the least-important defensive positions. At least he can hit. Of course, in doing so they dealt Jaso, the one guy on their roster who produced at the plate. Left field might be Morse's intended destination, but that was one of the few places the Mariners received solid offensive production last year, Michael Saunders putting up a 110 OPS+, and they've already loaded up their roster with other potentials for the position. Maybe another trade is coming, and we can only hope it's another out of the episode guide of That's So Mariners!
What the Mariners do have, though, and will (and should!) cling to for as long as they can, is Felix Hernandez. You do not have one and they do, and every five days this fact fills them with pride. Don't worry, though. Blake Beavan pitches every five days too, so the effects are temporary.
Los Angeles Angels: The Angels loaded up heading into 2012, but not even that combined with an injury to Vernon Wells that kept him out of the lineup for much of the year was enough to overcome the problems with the pitching staff. They traded Morales for Jason Vargas, putting the latter in one of the few parks where his fly ball tendencies might survive -- thrive is too strong of a word for Vargas -- acquired Tommy Hanson from the Braves, and signed Joe Blanton as a free agent. If things go their way, this could be a very good rotation, with Hanson rebounding and looking more like the young pitcher that excited Braves fans not long ago, while Blanton and Vargas do their best to put up average campaigns at the back-end. At the top, there is one of the game's best in Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson isn't a stretch as a No. 2 starter.
While the depth of the Angels rotation is a question, the strength of their lineup is about as much baseball fact as you can find in January. The Angels will now get a full season of Mike Trout, and have added Josh Hamilton to the mix. Mark Trumbo has a place to play every day as the designated hitter, and presumably it won't take Albert Pujols over a month to get going this time around. You're going to hate facing the Angels' lineup, especially in Minute Maid, where homers are going to be easier for players who probably don't need the help. Still, pitching might keep them from the top of the division again, though, and, thanks to the unbalanced schedule, the Astros will have plenty of opportunities to play spoiler should that be the case.
What's weird about the Angels is that they aren't fun like the A's, or easy to tease like the Mariners, or effortless to appreciate like the built-from-the-ground-up Rangers. In a lot of ways they're the villains of the division. The more Arte Moreno opens up his wallet the more this particular idea fits them. Hate away, Astros fans: the rest of your new division-mates will have your back there.