Win Total Bets - AL West
March 29, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Are we really going out on a limb with the Houston Astros (62½) as we did last year? In the case of the "Astronomicals" (as the inimitable Marty Brennaman refers to them) simply avoiding 100 losses would require increasing the 2013 win total by a dozen games, a daunting task. But hardly impossible. While the organization remains in full rebuild mode, at least it looks to have plugged a few of the gaping holes in last season's dike when the bullpen blew an astounding 29 (!) saves. GM Jeff Luhnow did not operate at the brightest end of the free-agent spectrum in the offseason, but he was fairly active nonetheless as he sought short-term upgrades while many prospects mature in the minors. Now, there is at least an MLB-look to the relief corps after adding serviceable arms such as Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, and Matt Albers to the pen, with Qualls (making a return visit to Houston, where he was a member of the 2005 World Series team) being option number one in skipper Bo Porter's closer-by-committee approach that was tested in Kissimmee. New staff ace Scott Feldman posted a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts with the Cubs and O's last season and adds a vet presence to a rotation whose other young arms (Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholzer, Brad Peacock, and Paul Clemens) actually fared pretty well after the All-Star break, with a combined 2.73 ERA in 34 starts...not bad at all. Luhnow also thinks his trade addition of CF Dexter Fowler from the Rockies brings the 'Stros their first true leadoff hitter since Michael Bourn was dealt to the Braves in 2011, and many believe it is just a matter of time before young OF George Springer proves his gaudy minor league stats are legit. No one is expecting Houston to contend in the foreseeable future, but modest improvement from an upgraded bullpen should at least avoid some of those disastrous late-inning meltdowns, and avoiding 100 losses appears a lot more within reach than it did a year ago. It's an "over" for us at Minute Maid Park.
The LA Angels of Anaheim (86½) continue to attempt covering their tracks after some personnel miscues of recent seasons when owner Arte Moreno had stars in his eyes. To this point, at least, the big-bucks additions of 1B Albert Pujols and OF Josh Hamilton have yet to pay dividends. Injury woes were partly at fault a year ago as the Halos fell to beneath .500, with maladies especially costly for Pujols, who missed the last half of the season due to a plantar fascia tear (it was painful to watch Pujols move even before his foot gave out last summer). But corresponding concerns surfaced in a pitching staff that imploded, with the ERA ballooning to 4.23 (ranking 11th in the AL), and we are hardly convinced that under-fire GM Jerry DiPoto's "reaches" in the trade market (Hector Santiago from the Chisox & Tyler Skaggs from the D-backs) will prove upgrades to a rotation with questions beyond Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. The Halos also likely open the season without a lefty in the bullpen, at least until Sean Burnett returns to active duty in late April or early May. Moreover, there is plenty of pressure on young RF Kole Calhoun to handle leadoff duties that Mike Scioscia believes would be an unnecessary burden to Mike Trout, penciled instead in front of Pujols in Scioscia's batting order. A healthy Pujols and Hamilton, or not, the Halos, who have lagged behind the Rangers and A's the past few seasons, are going to have a hard time climbing back up the AL West ladder unless DiPoto's pitching upgrades prove useful. We're not convinced, and instead look "under" at the Big A.
We wonder how long Robinson Cano is going to be on speaking terms with new agent Jay-Z after the rap mogul engineered the All-Star second baseman's FA move to the far away Seattle Mariners (81½) in the offseason. Let's just say we don't expect to see much of Beyonce' at Safeco Field this summer as Cano toils in the relative obscurity of the Northwest and with a perennial underachieving team that once again has made a switch in the dugout, with ex-Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon attempting to pick up the pieces from the failed Eric Wedge regime. Protecting Cano in the Mariner lineup will not be Mark Teixeira or Alfonso Soriano, but likely rather a combination of offseason additions such as ex-Brewer FA Corey Hart (hurt almost the entirety of 2013 and limited again this spring at Peoria by a sore back and forearm) and ex-Marlin Logan Morrison, both also penciled into McClendon's jerry-rigged outfield. There is a bit of star power on the roster with Cano joining staff ace King Felix, but the rotation is a bit shorthanded at the outset with number two starter Hisashi Iwakuma having missed the Cactus League with a sprained finger tendon on his right (throwing hand) and likely out for at least another month, while ex-Twin Scott Baker is a risk as he tries to bounce back from Tommy John surgery. We are also not particularly high on new closer Fernando Rodney, whose high-wire act out of the pen in Tampa Bay made it an easy decision for the Rays to look elsewhere for bullpen help in the offseason. Cano alone is not going to add 11 wins to a team that was buried deep below .500; we suspect some of that money under-fire GM Jack Zduriencik used on Cano could have been put to better use adding multiple components to a ragged roster. They're already talking about the Seahawks again in Seattle, where the M's appear destined to become an afterthought once again by summer in another likely "under" performance.
The Oakland A's (87½) continue to confound the experts by punching well above their weight, and a surprise winner of the West two years running in what might be the jewels of GM Billy Beane's decorated tenure. Beane was shrewdly wheeling and dealing once again in the offseason, loading up his bullpen with new closer ex-Oriole Jim Johnson (who should benefit from the bigger dimensions at the Coliseum) and ex-Padre set-up man Luke Gregorson to join holdovers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Dan Otero, giving skipper Bob Melvin plenty of options to reduce the workload on his young rotation, made up of FA addition Scott Kazmir and four starters aged 25 or younger. The solid pen should come in handy after the staff lost ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery and will be minus A.J. Griffin for perhaps a month out of the gate. Beane's assembly line of arms now features ex-Vandy star and last year's rookie phenom Sonny Gray as the opening-day starter. More expected production from RF Josh Reddick (recovered from the bad wrist that slowed him considerably last summer) and the power potential of Yoenis Cespedes should provide enough runs, and skipper Bob Melvin's productive platoon systems at C, 1B, 2B, and DH now have more options with versatile switch-hitter Nick Punto (recently Dodgers) and three-position OF Craig Gentry (ex-Rangers) added to the mix. Mostly, however, the A's have learned to play and win together, a concept yet to take hold elsewhere in the West at Seattle or with the new generation of Angels free-agent stars. Expect another 90+-win season in Oakland, where the Coliseum is a surprisingly nice place to watch a game as long as attendance doesn't exceed 20,000 to overcrowd the tight concourse (and make it a chore to get that great BBQ down the left-field line), and one more "over" for the Billy Beanes.
It was a tough March in Surprise for the Texas Rangers (86½), who lost projected starters 2B Jurickson Profar (shoulder) and C Geovany Soto (knee) for up to 12 weeks each, compounding depth issues made more acute with offseason departures of FAs Nelson Cruz, Daniel Murphy, and A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman's retirement, and the trade of Ian Kinsler to the Tigers. The staff also lost starter Matt Garza and closer Joe Nathan to free agency, so manager Ron Washington (retained despite another late-season flameout and loss in a pre-wildcard playoff "playoff" vs. the Rays) could be excused for needing a game program to keep track of all of the roster changes. Moreover, the front office has a different look with Nolan Ryan (now consulting with Houston instead) leaving the organization after apparently losing out in a power struggle with young GM Jon Daniels. Speaking of Daniels, he did not spend the offseason sitting on his hands, adding deluxe table-setter FA LF Shin-Soo Choo, a prototype leadoff hitter during his stay with the Reds, and extra pop with 1B Prince Fielder as the return in the Kinsler trade, but the spring injuries have given Washington less flexibility with his situational substitutions. And pitching remains tenuous beyond dominant starter Yu Darvish, especially with starter Derek Holland out until perhaps the All-Star break after microfracture surgery on his knee in January, and Matt Harrison off back surgery. There is still some star quality on the roster, but with Daniels likely to search for reinforcements (especially at catcher), the Rangers have more of a work-in-progress look than usual, so it's a no-call for us in Arlington.
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