AL West: Difference Makers

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Is Trevor Cahill the most important Athletic this season?

Is Trevor Cahill the most important Athletic this season?

Athlon continues its in-depth preview of the 2011 MLB season. This week, we single out some important names that should be key difference makers for every team. Today, we look at the AL East.

2011 Difference Makers:
AL East
| AL Central | AL West
NL East | NL Central | NL West

Los Angeles Angels: Kendry Morales, 1B
The Angels never recovered from Morales’ shocking injury last season, suffered while celebrating his walk-off grand slam on May 29 against the Mariners. The injury took away the team’s most dangerous hitter and had a cascading effect on the rest of the lineup. Veterans Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui were asked to do even more offensively, with mixed results. Other players were pushed into expanded roles or more frequent run-producing situations and did not pick up the slack. Morales is expected to be back at full strength in 2011.

Oakland Athletics: Hideki Matsui, DH
Not one to partake in hyperbole, the man known as “Godzilla” says his new team has a “strong chance to go to the postseason.” Matsui, signed to a one-year, $4.25 million deal in December, should know about what it takes to make the playoffs, having played in six postseasons in his eight major league seasons, not counting his years playing in Japan. “There’s definitely a strong possibility for us to go beyond the regular season and into the postseason,” Matsui says. “Hopefully, I can help this team and propel them to the next level.”

Seattle Mariners: Justin Smoak, 1B
The entire complexion of the franchise could be improved if Smoak hits the way management believes he can. The Mariners would have a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup hitter on their hands. The offense would no longer be a laughingstock. And no longer would the front office be plagued by critics saying the team should have taken the Yankees’ package — instead of the Rangers’ — for Cliff Lee last summer. Smoak certainly has the ability, but his brief big league tenure has been marked by inconsistency. If Smoak produces, everything else fits into place. If he doesn’t, the Mariners might once again struggle to score runs.

Texas Rangers: Mark Lowe, P
The Rangers acquired Lowe in the Cliff Lee trade even though he was on the DL (back) and wouldn’t be able to contribute much in 2010. Though Lowe did return late and was added to the World Series roster, he didn’t show the command that Rangers scouts had liked for several years. But the Rangers believe they have a pitcher who can shut down teams late and even close. For now, Lowe is headed toward middle relief. His mid-90s fastball and sharp slider, though, could have him in the mix late, especially if Neftali Feliz or Alexi Ogando win a spot in the rotation.

2011 Difference Makers:
AL East
| AL Central | AL West
NL East | NL Central | NL West

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<p> Athlon looks at some names that will be the biggest difference makers in 2011.</p>