Division Previews: American League West

With potentially three contending teams, the American League West promises to be active this year.  So you are in luck if you enjoy staying up late to watch baseball.  One can argue that every team in the division improved this past offseason and gives you a reason to watch, even the Houston Astros if you enjoy family-friendly Schadenfreude.

The Contenders:

Texas Rangers

What a time to be a Rangers fan.  After years of futility and financial woe, Texas won at least 90 games for the fourth straight season last year, but lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in game 163 of the season to miss the postseason.  Not wasting any time, general manager Jon Daniels retooled, signing outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract and traded for slugging first baseman Prince Fielder.

The big and bad Rangers are back.  The additions of Choo and Fielder to an offense that ranked eighth in baseball in 2013 will give the Rangers one of, if not the best lineup in the American League.

While Ian Kinsler’s hope that they go 0-162 this year will not happen, the Rangers have serious concerns.  Derek Holland’s bizarre offseason knee injury could keep him out until the all-star break, and Matt Harrison, who missed most of 2013 with a back injury, may start the season on the 15-day disabled list.  While they can expect Yu Darvish to be even better in 2014, the Rangers are going to need tremendous efforts from Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando, and Colby Lewis to keep them relevant until reinforcements arrive.

The Rangers significantly improved an already good lineup, so it shouldn’t keep manager Ron Washington up late at night.  If they had one weakness, it was a league average .723 OPS from the leadoff position, but Choo’s .285/.423/.462 should vault those numbers to among baseball’s best.  Fielder is a name to keep an eye on; moving to hitter-friendly Globe Life Park should help him recover some of his lost power, but there are questions about how his hefty frame will age and if the Rangers would be better off with him becoming a full-time designated hitter.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

I wonder how Angels fans are sleeping these days.  One year after missing the postseason in Albert Pujols and Mike Trout’s first season in Los Angeles, general manager Jerry Dipoto made another splash, bringing in Josh Hamilton from Texas on a five-year contract.  The Result was an even worse 2013, and rumblings that either Dipoto or manager Mike Scioscia would be fired at season’s end.

Both were retained, and the Angels made more personnel changes.  They traded home run and RBI leader Mark Trumbo for Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and traded speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos for third baseman David Freese.

As bad as 2013 was for the Angels, they finished eighth in baseball in runs scored despite career-worst seasons by Pujols and Hamilton.  Their pitching that did them in; their staff had the seventh worst ERA in baseball.

The Angels will be better this year.  They scraped together 78 wins with a disastrous pitching staff, a visibly hurt Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton’s brutal first year in Anaheim.  Skaggs, Santiago, Freese, and designated hitter Raul Ibanez are all upgrades.  Kole Calhoun, almost found money last season, will hit leadoff this year with Trout hitting second, in theory giving the Angels as good a middle of the lineup as the Rangers and Athletics.  The Los Angeles farm system was recently ranked the second worst by ESPN’s Keith Law, which combined with their aging lineup does not bode well for their chances to contend long-term.  If they do not put it all together this year, you have to wonder if they will have missed their window.

Oakland Athletics

Billy Beane and Bob Melvin really know how to run a team.  With the sixth lowest payroll in baseball and a (literally) stinky stadium, Oakland won 96 games and their second straight division title, losing to the Detroit Tigers in game five of the ALDS.  At first glance, the Athletics are bringing back the same team, but they had a very busy off-season, acquiring six new bodies via trade and free agency, notably Scott Kazmir, who made 29 starts for the Cleveland Indians last year.

Perhaps the most amazing part about the Athletics 96-win season is they did it with down seasons by outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, who both broke through in 2012 and led the Athletics to their first division title and postseason appearance in six years.  After the season ended, Reddick admitted his inured wrist bothered him all year; Cespedes that he did not make the proper adjustments in his second season.  They both come with concerns, Cespedes’ walk and strikeout rates declined, his isolated power shrank, and his on-base percentage dropped an alarming 60 points.  Reddick’s career battling line of .239/.302/.427 does not inspire a lot of confidence, but he did post a career-high walk rate last year.   His power is real and his defense is spectacular, so he only has to get a little better to be tremendously valuable to the Athletics.

Even if Cespedes and Reddick do not replicate their 2012 seasons, the Athletics are more than capable of compensating.  They have quietly built one of the most complete teams in baseball and are perhaps best built for the postseason as any team in the American League West.  The additions of Craig Gentry and Nick Punto solidify their bench, and are capable of playing well in limited stretches.  Drew Pomeranz, acquired from the Colorado Rockies for Brett Anderson, was a minor league standout but wilted pitching in Colorado.  The change to a pitcher-friendly stadium could turn him into one of the best fifth starters in baseball.  Kazmir currently projects to be the second or third starter, but could be the ace of the staff by season’s end.  Once considered one of the best left-handed starters in the game, injuries threw off his career before signing with the Indians in 2013, becoming one of the great stories of the season.  His velocity improved over the course of the season, and was excellent down the stretch, allowing only 23 runs in his final 53 innings of the regular season.

The Pretenders:

Seattle Mariners

Seattle certainly made headlines this offseason, landing the big prize, Robinson Cano on a 10-year, $240 million contract to anchor the franchise for the next decade.

Unfortunately, the Mariners did not do much else to get excited about.  After breaking the bank for Cano, general manager Jack Zduriencik went to the bargain basement to fill out the roster.  For as much as the Mariner pitching staff has been heralded in the last year, they allowed the fifth most runs, and their young pitching core of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen appears to have sprung a leak.  Walker is only throwing long-toss with no timetable to pitch, and Hultzen may miss the entire season rehabbing from October shoulder surgery.  Of the three, Paxton is the only guarantee to make the opening day rotation, just in time for Hishashi Iwakuma to miss the first month with a finger injury.  If Walker starts the season on the disabled list, their rotation looks very murky after ace Felix Hernandez.

Of Zduriencik’s bargain acquisitions, the one to watch is Corey Hart.  He missed all of 2013 after having surgery on both knees and was jettisoned by the Milwaukee Brewers in favor of Juan Francisco.  It is hard to predict how a 32-year-old will rebound from a major lower body injury, but the Mariners would not have signed him to bat cleanup if they weren’t confident in his chances.  Hart could follow the path of Carlos Beltran, who returned to being a star after missing substantial time with knee problems.  Hart was younger at the time of his surgery than Beltran and is a superior athlete, but might be better off playing first base than right field.

The Mariners face long odds to make the postseason this year, but shouldn’t be slept on.   Cano makes them that much better, but they have one too many project players to make an Indians-like jump in the standings.  However, if one or two out of Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak, or Jesus Montero takes a step forward this year, they could be relevant down the stretch.

Houston Astros

No team in baseball might be further away from contention than Houston.  They lost 111 games in 2013 and saved the worst for last, dropping 15 straight to end the season; finishing dead last in runs scored, runs allowed, and differential.  The only way the Astros will contend this year is if every other team in baseball decides to end the season at the all-star break.   Unless you have a strong affinity for Dexter Fowler or Jose Altuve, the Astros give you little reason to watch.

That being said, the Astros don’t deserve a lot of ribbing.  Their players enjoy playing for Houston native Bo Porter, and the front office, led by Nolan Ryan’s son Reid, has poured money into player development and hired Jeff Luhnow as general manager.

Luhnow served as assistant general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for eight years and was their director of player development from 2006 until moving to Houston in 2011.  Luhnow pioneered the Cardinals unique development philosophy that produced 25 major league players from the 2005-07 drafts.  Astros prospects were ranked first overall by Keith Law for the upcoming season and could develop into a team that rivals the “beehive.” While most of the blue-chippers will not make an impact until next year at the earliest, hard-throwing Mike Foltynewicz, dynamic George Springer and the 315-pound Japhet Amador could all debut sometime this year.

The Prediction:

Oakland Athletics win third straight division title.

Fine, don’t give them any credit for winning the division two years in a row.  The Athletics are not the sexy pick in a division with so much elite talent. However, they may be the sturdiest team of any, building a contender starting with the 25th man and working up.  The Rangers will likely lead the division in offense, but have serious pitching concerns.  The Angels figure to be better with a healthy Pujols and a better year from Josh Hamilton, but they are entering the stage of their careers when MVP performances are unlikely.  Even if they put it together, success will require Santiago and Skaggs to pitch at a high level down the stretch, which may be too much to ask from young pitchers who haven’t done it before.  Meanwhile, as a unit, the Athletics top three starting pitchers Kazmir, Jarrod Parker, and Sonny Gray could out perform their counterparts around the division, and the team’s overall cohesion will allow Melvin to lean on the bench and bullpen more than other managers.

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