A National League scout once told me a shorthand way to see where a team ranks entering a season is to compare it position by position against its most serious competition.
Some teams, he said, are built around pitching and defense, others around thunder - but few teams win when their overall talent simply doesn't match up with teams in their own division. Exceptions? Sure, just look at teams like Minnesota, San Francisco or Tampa Bay.
Still, in the jittery lead up to spring training, it's interesting to match the Seattle Mariners and the two best teams in the American League West. We'll start with the infield today, the outfield tomorrow, then look at pitching staffs Thursday, and there will be plenty of room for debate along the way.
First base:Texas - Mitch MorelandLos Angeles - Albert PujolsSeattle - Justin Smoak
OK, slam dunk. When the Angels signed free agent Pujols, they got arguably the best overall hitter in the game the past decade - a lethal combination of average, power and production. Moreland is a 26-year-old left-handed hitter who hit .259 with 16 home runs and 59 RBI a year ago and is a complimentary piece for the Rangers. Smoak's number were close to Moreland's, .234, 15, 55 - but Smoak was a middle-of-the-order switch-hitter. Both Texas and Seattle expect more from first base in 2012. The difference: the Mariners won't approach .500 unless it happens.
Second baseTexas - Ian KinslerLos Angeles - Howie KendrickSeattle - Dustin Ackley
A much closer call. Kinsler is a career .275 hitter who last season erupted for 32 home runs and 77 RBI as a leadoff hitter. Kendrick has a .292 lifetime average with a knack for big hits and does everything well. If you were asking which second baseman had the brightest future, you might go with Ackley, whose rookie season last year flashed .300 potential with a little left-handed pop and a .348 on-base percentage. For now, Kinsler and Kendrick are proven, and more dangerous. Nod to Kinsler.
Third baseTexas - Adrian BeltreLos Angeles - Alberto CallaspoSeattle - Kyle Seager
Yikes! Another slam dunk, this time for Beltre, the former Mariner who has returned to big numbers at the plate - .296, 32, 105 - while playing the AL's best defense. Callaspo doesn't have much power, but is a consistent hitter and adequate third baseman. As with so many young Seattle position players, no one is quite certain what Seager can be. He more than held his own defensively, batted .342 in August, then /210 in September.
ShortstopTexas - Elvis AndrusLos Angeles - Erick AybarSeattle - Brendan Ryan
Andrus is a defensive star who drove in 60 runs, Aybar is solid if unspectacular and had 59 RBI - but at this position, the key is playing defense first, then contributing offensively. Ryan holds his own on defense, capable of making the routine and the marvelous play. At the plate, he batted .184 in April, .384 in May and .235 for the season. Three tough shortstops, but the edge here belongs to Andrus.
CatcherTexas - Mike NapoliLos Angeles - Chris IanettaSeattle - Miguel Olivo
Ianetta is the best defensive catcher, Napoli had a breakout season in 2011, hitting .320 with 30 homers and 70 RBI in 113 games. Olivo is a journeyman with a little right-handed pop who has played for five teams since 2005. Clearly, Napoli is the impact hitter of the group, but Seattle's outlook could change considerably if rookie Jesus Montero turns out to be their catcher instead of their designated hitter. Figure Montero starts a third of the time behind the plate this year. If Napoli's bat comes to earth and Montero catches and hits ... well, that's a lot of ifs.