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AL West Preview



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Editor's Note: Matt Zylbert is coming off another fantastic year with MLB Win Totals, as he was 18-11-1 in last year's baseball preview. In 2014, he was even better, going 21-9 with MLB Win Totals, while astoundingly predicting the exact records within three games or less for literally half the league (15 of 30 major league teams), which led the entire country for that season. In two of his three seasons on VegasInsider.com, he has finished in first-place in the company in baseball over/unders. Furthermore, he was the only analyst in the country to successfully tab the Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays to make the playoffs. Don't miss out on his winners this season. Click here!

Houston Astros - Predicted Record: 89-73
 
From 2011-13, the Astros were the biggest laughingstock in all of baseball, averaging a woeful 108 losses annually over that span. They made some progress in the 2014 campaign, getting to 70 wins, so when the club broke out with 86 victories a year ago, en route to stifling the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game, it was one of baseball's bigger surprises in quite some time. Now, Houston is expected to contend, with potential to do so much more.
 
Looking at the lineup, there's really a lot of talent in place here that could have the Astros set for a really long time. They're certainly in terrific shape concerning the shortstop position, after former No. 1 overall draft pick Carlos Correa made his long-awaited debut and impressed the baseball world right away. If you watched him even briefly, you know the comparisons to a young Alex Rodriguez are legitimate. Of course, the Astros already have a star playing alongside him at second base, that of course being Jose Altuve, while George Springer certainly has mammoth potential to be one as well if he can just stay healthy. So right there, that's three upper echelon youngsters Houston has to build around. Carlos Gomez and Evan Gattis are plus bats in this offense, too, and should help ensure the Astros are in the mix all season long.
 
With last year's AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel leading the rotation, it's easy to say Houston's starting pitching is in a healthy state as well. In fact, Keuchel was so good that he finished the campaign a perfect 16-0 at home, including playoffs. Collin McHugh clocks in right behind him, coming off a season in which he nearly won 20 games. There's more quality depth with youngster Lance McCullers, who had a nice rookie showing in '15, and while he's beginning the new season on the disabled list, the club does have serviceable veteran Scott Feldman to keep his spot warm in the meantime. Proven Doug Fister, who was acquired over the offseason, and Mike Fiers round it out to comprise just a nice group overall. The bullpen received an upgrade as well with the addition of Ken Giles as the new closer, and with former closer Luke Gregerson setting him up, it's one of the better 1-2 punches finishing off ballgames. Having desirable talent everywhere, the Astros should be playing into October for a second straight year.
 
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - Predicted Record: 87-75
 
You might not realize it but the Angels have established quite the track record over the past decade and change, possessing 10 winning seasons in the past 12 years. The problem? A lack of success when it comes time for the playoffs, often falling short of high expectations, and last year was just another such instance in a long line of them.
 
That doesn't mean they won't be right back in the thick of things, as remember, this is the team that employs the best player in all of Major League Baseball, that of course being in reference to the great Mike Trout. The former AL MVP is obviously the main piece here, and he's received some nice assistance from fellow intimidating slugger Albert Pujols, but one of the Angels' main issues in recent years is the lack of depth surrounding them. However, this could be the year that all changes. Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron, for example, are two fine youngsters who are starting to come into their own as everyday players with a plus bat. Recognizing a need for extra lumber, Anaheim went out and acquired Yunel Escobar and defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, who both will provide an upgrade to the left side of the infield. Pesky second baseman Johnny Giavotella is also worth pointing out as well.
 
If the Angels are to get back into the postseason, though, they'll probably need more of an improvement as it concerns their starting pitching. Jered Weaver is still one of the main arms in this rotation, but with significantly declining velocity, his days appear to be numbered. Thus, it's important Garrett Richards continues to solidify himself as an upper echelon starter. C.J. Wilson, who bounced back nicely last season, is dealing with injury issues and will begin the year on the disabled list, so it is very imperative that the likes of Andrew Heaney and 2015 All-Star Hector Santiago continue to evolve into dependable major league pitchers. Fellow youngsters Nick Tropeano and Tyler Skaggs -- the latter returning from Tommy John surgery -- could end up being very important pitchers for Anaheim, too. The bullpen, fortunately, looks to be stable, with Huston Street still serving as the closer, and a pretty good pair in Joe Smith and Fernando Salas setting him up. It looks like another winning season is in the cards for the Halos, but their playoff destiny will be up to how well the young starting pitching holds up.
 
Texas Rangers - Predicted Record: 83-79
 
It's pretty rare to see a team complete a worst-to-first transformation, but that's exactly what the Rangers did in 2015 under then-new manager Jeff Banister. In fact, their improvement of 21 games from the previous season was the second largest increase in major league history, and they became the fifth team ever to make the postseason one year after having the league's worst record (which was mainly due to injuries). So, what's next for Texas?
 
Given their hard-hitting offense, which plays half its games in one of the friendliest parks for hitters in all of baseball, the Rangers should still be one the main players in the AL West. Prince Fielder will have a say in the lineup's continued success, having bounced back in a huge way after missing nearly all of 2014, so much so that he was rewarded with the AL's Most Improved Player award last season. There's also still Adrian Beltre, one of the most dangerous third basemen in the game. Shin-Soo Choo and Mitch Moreland can still rake, while Rougned Odor is a trendy pick to break out into an upper echelon second baseman this year. Plus, they also added Ian Desmond to play the outfield with Elvis Andrus still at shortstop, and that's something that could end up being one of the more underrated moves over the winter.
 
The Achilles' heel for the Rangers historically has always been their starting pitching, but they could actually end up having one of the better rotations in the American League. It will be dependent on the health of their staff ace, Yu Darvish, who missed all of 2015 thanks to Tommy John surgery. He's set to make his season debut at some point in May or June, and if all goes according to plan, Texas should be good with their pitching. They have another ace-caliber starter behind him in Cole Hamels, whom the club acquired from Philadelphia last year at the trade deadline. Derek Holland, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis follow suit, providing decent work on the back-end. The relief corps can also be a strength for the Rangers, as Shawn Tolleson was outstanding last year in his first time closing, while Keone Kela and Sam Dyson form an above-average pair in setting him up. With how tough the AL West is these days, it's hard to tell if the Rangers can repeat as division champs, but they'll certainly be in the mix.
 
Oakland Athletics - Predicted Record: 78-84
 
It's still hard to believe that halfway through the 2014 season, the Athletics were the best team in the American League, mowing down through the competition and taking on all adversaries with ease. Then overrated general manager Billy Beane put his fingers on the roster, and poof, all those big plans vanished and the A's have literally been the worst team in the American League since.
 
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To Beane's credit, he did make some slight alterations for this year's group, and the results could be considerably positive. For one, he deserves a tip of the cap for acquiring the underrated Khris Davis, someone that has displayed enormous power potential and is surely a breakout candidate, now being one of the focal points of an offense unlike during his time in Milwaukee. He also lured in underappreciated Yonder Alonso, another slugger with notable potential, and brought back Jed Lowrie, one of the better slugging second basemen in the league. Combine those names with what's already in place in Oakland, such as Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt, "Country Breakfast" Billy Butler and emerging leadoff man Billy Burns, and you have a pretty formidable lineup to trot up to the plate.
 
The starting pitching that's here is pretty good, too. Sonny Gray, entering his fourth season in the big leagues, is already one of the more established aces in the AL. The A's have a drop-off in talent after him, but there's still a group beyond him capable of being productive. Jesse Hahn, for instance, must stay healthy and will be capable of a nice full season. The same argument could be made for Kendall Graveman. There were also a couple of sneaky additions over the winter for this rotation, one being Rich Hill, who absolutely blossomed after a September call-up with the Red Sox last year. The other was former All-Star Henderson Alvarez, and while he's set to begin the year on the disabled list, his inclusion could pay dividends. Sean Doolittle is in place as the closer, meanwhile, with Ryan Madson and newcomer Liam Hendriks keeping leads in place for him. One thing is for certain; Oakland should be much improved from last year's disaster.
 
Seattle Mariners - Predicted Record: 74-88
 
The Mariners were supposed to be really good a year ago, even entering the campaign with World Series possibilities in the eyes of some (including this author), only to disappoint mightily and land in second-to-last place. It was a season that led to the dismissal of Lloyd McClendon. Now Scott Servais is in place, and with much of the same roster, Seattle will still have lofty expectations to trying to end baseball's longest playoff drought.
 
It's been 15 years now since the Mariners last made the postseason, but it looks like they have an offense that can contend with many. For instance, they sport one of the game's premier power hitters in Nelson Cruz, who is still comfortably in his prime and is a regular amongst the league-leaders in home runs annually. Also residing in the heart of the order is Robinson Cano, and while he is coming off a down season by his high standards, he did enjoy an encouraging second half of 2015 that would indicate he should be fine for the upcoming campaign. Those two will absolutely need to put up their usual numbers for the Mariners to be in solid shape because the supporting cast isn't anything to brag about. Kyle Seager is a very nice player to have at the hot corner, and the club did add underrated power bat Adam Lind, but with an outfield projected to include Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin and Seth Smith, it's just not a desirable group.

The pitching rotation may have a bit of a higher ceiling, as always being led by Felix Hernandez, though "The King" will be following up a season in which he produced his highest ERA since 2007, and recorded his fewest strikeouts since '08. Nonetheless, there's pretty good depth beneath him on the staff, with the return of Hisashi Iwakuma in the No. 2 slot despite almost bolting for the Dodgers over the offseason. The club's two talented young arms, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, are both still here, and whether or not they can finally harness their awesome potential may be one of the season's key storylines for Seattle in trying to lock up that elusive playoff berth. The team also acquired Wade Miley and Nathan Karns, who are both fine additions for the back-end. Speaking of acquisitions, the Mariners have a new closer with the arrival of Steve Cishek. He'll be set up by Joaquin Benoit and good ol' reliable Charlie Furbush. Overall, it looks like Seattle has a team that could end up producing a wide variety of results, but in a tough division, the odds may not be in their favor of advancing into the postseason.
 
Evaluating AL West Division Bets
 
In my opinion, this is the toughest division in baseball this year to handicap from a futures bet standpoint. That's because all five teams -- even the A's, who have been pegged by many to finish in last again -- all have potential to go on an extensive run and win the AL West. Oakland, as alluded to, made some minor additions that could go a long way in getting them back to where they were before the 2014 trade deadline, so their +1200 odds are a little tempting, but probably not the way to go. The Astros are clearly on the way up with their rebuilding process over and their youth fully arrived for the most part. Thus, grabbing them at +150 could prove to be a pretty good investment. The Rangers are right behind them with +300 odds, which is excellent value for the club that just won the division title a year ago, and with ace Yu Darvish coming back, a repeat wouldn't be a surprise at all. Meanwhile, the Mariners have been knocking on the door for the past few years now, so it could be their turn to break out, though bettors would like more than the +365 odds that's currently being offered. And if the Angels can get acceptable starting pitching, they look like great value in the +420 range. As emphasized, it's just really, really tough to call.


2015
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