AL West Preview
March 10, 2014
By Matt Zylbert
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Over the past handful of seasons, it’s probable that no team has been on more of a rollercoaster than the Rangers. After consecutive unsuccessful World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which seeing them come literally one strike away from a championship two different times, Texas has found themselves on the outside looking in, thanks to disastrous September performances that climaxed in losses in the AL wild card play-in game in each of the past two seasons. Thus, big changes were made in the offseason, like dealing away the club’s longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler for some heavy lumber in Prince Fielder, who should bounce back from a relatively quiet season.
The Rangers didn’t stop there, spending significant dollars on Shin-Soo Choo to be the new lead-off hitter, and considering his remarkably high on-base percentage, that could be a fantastic move pairing him with Elvis Andrus at the top of the order, setting the table for the likes of Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, and Mitch Moreland. In addition, the Rangers are excited to see what longtime top prospect Jurickson Profar can do in his first full big-league season, while new catcher J.P. Arencibia may end up proving to be a considerable presence in Arlington.
Contrary to their old way of doing things, the Rangers have developed some excellent pitching in recent years. One of their core starters, however, Derek Holland, will be out for an extensive period of time - perhaps through the all-star break - so it will be critical that the other members of this much-improved rotation step up in his absence. That should be no problem for Yu Darvish, who has established himself as one of the better aces in the league since arriving to Texas a couple of years ago. Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez can also help ease the void, having both enjoyed success to begin their big-league careers. But can they get consistency from the back-end of the staff?
Matt Harrison will come back at some point, after missing most of 2013, and if he returns to form, that’s a huge plus. Colby Lewis and Tommy Hanson are two other intriguing options coming back from injury, each having had success in the past. Despite losing Joe Nathan, the bullpen should still be in good shape, boasting the return of former closer Neftali Feliz, who missed most of last season following Tommy John surgery, not to mention Joakim Soria, another who went under the knife and was absent most of the previous campaign as well. With other constants like Tanner Scheppers, Neal Cotts, and Jason Frasor, the Rangers will have no problem securing leads. Being in the wild AL West, though, it will certainly be another rigorous journey trying to get back to the top of the mountain.
Predicted Record: 89-73
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
When you think of the extremely disappointing teams from 2013, there’s no question the Angels are somewhere at the very top of the list, not even being able to finish at the .500-mark in a year loaded with sky-high expectations. After all, this is a franchise that was picked by most to win the division, if not more, after adding Josh Hamilton in the prior offseason, but instead, the addition of the superstar slugger ended up flopping big-time, as did mostly everything else associated with this club. Not only did Hambone underachieve greatly, but so did Albert Pujols, once previously the general consensus best player in baseball, who had an injury-riddled campaign that led to the lowest production of his storied career.
It wasn’t all a nightmare, though, as the future of the franchise, Mike Trout, picked up right where he left off from his historic 2012 to put up just-as-eye-opening numbers a season ago, while continuing to solidify his standing as one of the brightest young stars in all of baseball. The Angels dealt away another main power source this offseason, Mark Trumbo, but did manage to add Raul Ibanez and David Freese, the latter being a notable upgrade for them at third base. The offense still has potential to be explosive on a regular basis, but that will largely hinge on whether or not Pujols and Hamilton can return to old form. If they do, there’s no doubt the Angels can compete offensively with the best of them.
The significant injuries the Angels endured last year also struck their pitching staff, most notably losing starting ace Jered Weaver for an extended period of time as they struggled mightily without him throughout the first half of the season. Weaver did come back, though, and proceeded to post a statline on par with his usual solid numbers, indicating that he, along with fellow established arm C.J. Wilson, can still push this rotation to a potential playoff berth. The Trumbo deal netted them two potential up-and-coming starting pitchers for the back-end of it, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, while Garrett Richards will look to continue his fine contributions from a season ago as he enters his first full year as a starter.
In the meantime, the bullpen was kept mostly the same, other than the underrated addition of set-up man Joe Smith, and still has Ernesto Frieri serving as the closer, which is certainly a positive. Again, though, the fate of the Angels will depend on if they can stay healthy and if their stars can get back on track. If those items go according to plan, there’s no reason to doubt this roster.
Predicted Record: 87-75
Normally, clubs entering a campaign with a streak of six consecutive losing seasons don’t figure to draw much attention as a potential contender, but after the offseason the Mariners just had, they’re definitely an exception to the aforementioned sentiment. While it’s been awhile since Seattle last tasted the playoffs - 13 years, to be exact - they made some serious noise over these past few months, arguably more than any other team in baseball, attaining the gem of the free agent class, that obviously being Robinson Cano. The superstar second baseman leaves New York after nine outstanding seasons and will be “the guy” in Seattle moving forward.
That acquisition alone would usually merit an impactful offseason by itself but the Mariners didn’t stop there, also adding two more established bats in Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Hart missed all of last year but was always an intimidating presence in Milwaukee prior, while Morrison can be a pretty dynamic player in his own right. Those names, combined with the young core already in place - Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and the intriguing Mike Zunino - should easily give Seattle its best lineup in a decade. New manager Lloyd McClendon has a lot of pieces to work with.
The Mariners didn’t make any major moves to their starting rotation, but when you look up and down this immensely talented group, you’ll see why no changes were necessary. Of course, it all begins with former AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the game. Hisashi Iwakuma resides right behind him, and was actually in Cy Young contention with the terrific numbers he posted a season ago. It doesn’t even stop there, as after them, Seattle boasts two of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, that being Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. If you watched what both of those hurlers did in the second half of last season in their first big-league stints, you’d see why they’re so highly coveted and on the fast track to success.
The M’s did make one alteration to their bullpen, meanwhile, adding the experienced Fernando Rodney to be their new closer. That means Danny Farquhar will move into a set-up role, after the fabulous job he did closing games a season ago, and behind him are other talented arms in Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Stephen Pryor. There’s no question the Mariners will be competitive for the first time in several years, but in this wild AL West division, if they want a playoff berth, they’ll truly have to earn it by surpassing some of the league’s best.
Predicted Record: 84-78
Over the past couple of years, the Athletics have been riding quite a wave of success, winning consecutive division titles in the ultra-competitive AL West. However, it would end up being all for naught, as the ensuing postseason run would conclude in identical fashion: losing to the Detroit Tigers in the first round in the maximum five games. Even so, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding this bunch, as there should be, since it has been pretty much this exact group that turned things around in Oakland two years ago after five straight seasons mired in obscurity. A lot of that has to do with the pitching, and the same should hold true for 2014. Sonny Gray, of course, was one of the break-out stars of last postseason, and that’s just a hint of what’s to come from this very promising right-hander over the next several seasons.
The Athletics are hoping his journey mirrors that of ace Jarrod Parker, who has marveled thus far through his first two campaigns. Despite losing Bartolo Colon through free agency, Oakland added Scott Kazmir, coming off his own renaissance season in Cleveland, and with the likes of A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and Tommy Milone following suit, this is quite a pitching staff with a lot of depth. The same can be said for the bullpen, as even with former closer Grant Balfour departing, they still have a plethora of quality arms in Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and the newly-acquired Luke Gregerson, all seeking to get the ball to Balfour’s replacement, Jim Johnson, in the ninth.
When it comes to their offense, the A’s have nice, dependable nucleus consisting of Yoenis Cespedes and Coco Crisp, both being the main sparks for this lineup. Crisp has become a huge fan favorite during his time in Oakland at the top of the batting order, while Cespedes has developed into a top legitimate run-producer. However, it was the previously unknown Josh Donaldson who emerged as the club’s best offensive player a year ago, posting such an impressive season that he even finished in the top five in the American League MVP voting. Even if he regresses, which a lot of people are predicting, there’s still Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, and Jed Lowrie, all nice players capable of driving in runs while recording respectable batting averages. Furthermore, the club could get a real boost this season from youngster Nate Freiman, who has interesting power potential.
Can these Athletics make it a three-peat in the AL West? This year’s roster is certainly on par with the previous two that have division titles attached to their team, but with arguably all of their rivals improved this season, 2014 might see them return to the middle of the pack.
Predicted Record: 79-83
It’s been a pretty dismal stretch for the Astros, having registered three consecutive 100-loss seasons entering 2014, all of which resonating as the only such seasons in the 52-year history of the franchise. But on the bright side, there actually is light at the end of the tunnel - not just because of the slew of high draft picks and the stacked farm system Houston has built up over these past few years - but also due to the talent that’s at the major league level right now. With pitching, the Astros saw the debuts of two really intriguing starters in the second half of last season, Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer, both of whom impressed considerably and figure to make an impact in their first full campaigns. Scott Feldman was lured over via free agency, and after the very impressive year he enjoyed in his first action away from the Rangers, he’s someone capable that can definitely assist in the effort of getting these Astros back up to respectability.
Additionally, Brad Peacock exhibited some potential in the second half of last season and might settle in as an acceptable mid-rotation option. For Houston to make any sort of push, though, they’ll certainly need a better bullpen, which ranked dead-last in all of baseball a year ago, but to their credit, Houston addressed this need by adding three veteran arms in Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, and Chad Qualls, one of which will get the first crack at closing games.
Offensively, the Astros flashed some promise in their first go-around in the AL, and will get a boost in 2014 with the addition of Dexter Fowler, one of the more underappreciated lead-off men in all of baseball. His presence also takes some pressure off Jose Altuve, one of the cornerstone players of the franchise, and a potential combo of those two at the top of the lineup actually might be one of the better pairings in the American League. The problem is, who will drive those guys in when they get on base and cause some havoc?
Jason Castro was the Astros’ lone all-star last year and is a very nice contributor behind the plate, but will need to stay healthy for the first time in his career if this team has any shot of escaping the AL West cellar. Chris Carter displayed limitless potential in the power department, but needs to strike out a lot less if he wants to be an upper echelon slugger. And Matt Dominguez, who was second on the team in homeruns and runs batted in last year, is really more of a role-player. If they were still in the NL Central, the Astros would have a lot more potential for improvement, but their current home features way too much talent to make any sort of run. However, they are absolutely getting much closer.
Predicted Record: 65-97
Final Say on the AL West: The AL West this year will be as competitive as it has ever been, with four of the five teams realistically having a legitimate chance of winning the division. Even the Astros will be at their best - certainly much better than their three previous 100-loss seasons - and could be an interesting spoiler in the second half, especially with how surprisingly great their starting pitching was in the second half of last year. The Rangers and Athletics have battled it out for first in each of the past two years so it should be obvious that they’ll both be factors, while it’s do-or-die time for the Angels and Mariners. Both should take serious strides forward, as Seattle’s blend of pitching is just too good to ignore, while having an improved lineup, which was always their major weakness in recent years. In fact, they were usually last in the AL in runs scored over the past handful of seasons, so having their best lineup can finally allow them to realize the potential set forward by their incredibly talented pitching rotation. Los Angeles should absolutely be better than last season’s disappointment, now that the pressure will be severely lessened, as they did look like they were finally putting it together with a much-improved second half. It’s also a telling sign that the three favorites to win the division are all +200 or lower, which really doesn’t even make it worth it. Seattle at +450 might have the best value, given the enormous strides they made this offseason, and as emphasized, their starting pitching is just remarkable.
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