Division Outlook: AL West

AL West 2014 Final Standings
Los Angeles Angels       98     64
Oakland Athletics         88     74
Seattle Mariners            87     75
Houston Astros             70     92
Texas Rangers               67     95

In an American League that figures to be wildly and unpredictably in flux from top to bottom, perhaps no division is harder to pin down than the West. The Angels, the reigning champs, won an MLB-best 98 games last season, a record that perhaps belies the shocking fragility and lack of depth on their roster. And that was before trading away lineup linchpin Howie Kendrick. The Texas Rangers finished with an AL-worst 95 wins, a number which makes it perhaps too easy to overlook the truly remarkable nightmare year of cascading injuries and miscellaneous catastrophes that was their 2014. And the question marks for the clubs that finished in the middle are, if anything, even bigger. Two of those teams – the A’s and the Astros – gave themselves radical makeovers, while the Mariners largely tinkered around the edges, continuing to hope for the breakthrough that’s seemed imminent now for a couple years.

Personally, I think they’re right to do so. After years of frustration and close calls, this could finally be the year that the Mariners’ big plans start to pay off – like the Blue Jays in the East, it’s better late than never. The Angels and A’s duked it out last year, but this year the M’s appear best-poised to grab the top spot. They’ll have a full season of Austin Jackson at the top of the lineup and they shrewdly picked up outfielder Seth Smith for cheap from the San Diego Padres, where he had an excellent year in the cavernous Petco Park. The Nelson Cruz signing is a little more questionable – how many homeruns do we really expect him to hit in Safeco? Would anyone take the over on 30? He’s a .234/.309/.440 hitter in Seattle for his career, but they don’t need him to repeat the season he had for the Orioles and likely don’t expect him to. They just need him to be a credible power threat, and he can do that. Despite the subtraction of Michael Saunders via trade, this looks like a team that should score more runs. Will they allow fewer? Well, they were 1st in the AL in ERA last year so it would seem like a tall order. Yet, depending on the success of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, they could conceivably have a stronger rotation.

The Angels are the most likely regression candidate in the division, and not just because of their gaudy 2014 win total. Kole Calhoun was one of the most under-the-radar solid performers in baseball last year in his first full season, but now the Angels are counting on him as the only real table-setter for the heart of the lineup. And about that heart of the lineup… I suspect this will become a recurring theme on this blog, but let’s look at Mike Trout. I mean look at him, specifically, his neck. Mike Trout is a very big boy. At 23 years old and listed at 230 pounds, there is real reason to be concerned about both his athleticism and durability. His baserunning speed and centerfield range have already shown real decline, and it’s worth wondering what kind of player he’s going to be as he enters the “prime” years of his mid-to-late 20’s. His strikeout rate spiked alarmingly in 2014, arguably to unsustainable levels, as his power output also jumped and major holes in his swing were exposed up in the zone. 2015 could be a year of uncomfortable adjustments for Trout, even though I have every confidence in his ability to continue to be a very productive major league hitter in the medium-to-long term. Pujols is clearly in decline and you just have to hope he can hang onto his current production level for a little longer, while Hamilton has collapsed completely, hitting just .255/.316/.426 since becoming an Angel; both of them have had trouble staying healthy as well. The Angels added a couple of young, high-upside arms to augment their painfully thin rotation in Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano, but if it doesn’t work out, it could get ugly in Anaheim. It was in 2013.

Will anything the A’s did this off-season work? I like the Donaldson trade a bit more than a lot of people. Brett Lawrie is younger and has the potential to be an above-average starter in the infield, so the dropoff isn’t huge. He and Ben Zobrist together could easily make up for the lost production of their All-Star third baseman. At the same time, they added some more pieces to fill out the roster, especially those crucial back-of-the-rotation spots, with Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin. Plus another high-upside infield prospect, Franklin Barreto, for their troubles. Though there was lots of rumor-mongering in the days after the Donaldson trade, I don’t think it was in any way motivated by personalities. The trade was a very defensible baseball move for a team having a bit of an identity crisis. And it is an identity crisis. They mortgaged their future and their present to make a deep run in 2014, and they blew it in the most A’s way possible; a season that looked like a high-water mark for A’s baseball in July curdled into devastating disappointment by October. Still, I’m not sure that a package centered on Marcus Semien is enough of a return for Jeff Samardzija, nor am I sure what the rush was to trade Derek Norris. The 2012-14 A’s were a great and utterly unique team, and the teardown of that group might have gone a couple of moves too far. I could easily envision a scenario in which they enter 2015 as AL West favorites again, but it’s not the one we have here.

Pity the Texas Rangers. Starting at ‘Now Prince Fielder needs neck surgery’ and suddenly arriving at, ‘Is Ron Washington a rapist?’, I cannot remember a more flat-out disastrous season for a team that was expected to at least be a marginal contender. The litany of suffering that was disclosed in Anno Domini 2014 is something that no true baseball fan should ever have to experience, so it’s a good thing it occurred in the DFW Metroplex, where there are few to be found. Alas, something has to fill the long months before you can watch high schoolers make themselves brain-dead, so the Rangers are expected to play again in 2015. There’s a risk in trying to over-correct for the freak nature of last year. How quickly can a team put a year like that behind them? The Red Sox had a dumpster fire 2012 and won the World Series in 2013, but they made over the entire team in the process. The Rangers haven’t done much of consequence except hire a new manager and hope for better health. Will it be enough? Will Choo bounce back? Will Fielder ever be the same hitter? Will Jurickson Profar be ready to play after missing a crucial year of development? Will Adrian Beltre show his age? Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler could be good fits, and Yu Darvish has an outside chance at a Cy Young Award, or another 26-out no-hitter. But it’s hard to imagine the Rangers getting back on track quickly enough to compete.

The Houston Astros added 19 wins from 2013 to 2014, however I don’t think a similar jump is in the offing for 2015. The Astros mostly made moves to consolidate the gains they made last season while waiting for some of their young players to take the next step forward. They added solid regulars via trade in Luis Valbuena and Evan Gattis, whose bare-knuckled, righty power and quintessential DH-ness should help him thrive at Minute Maid Park. (Will he out-homer Chris Carter? I’d take that bet.) They made a couple of smart free agent pickups with Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus, whose deal is by far the best of the offseason in terms of upside-per-dollar. All of a sudden, you have a real major league lineup, featuring one of the best pure hitters in the game in Jose Altuve, and there’s no position on the field where the Astros are simply closing their eyes and praying. Could they play .500 baseball? Maybe, if everything breaks right for them. And if everything breaks right for departed centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who had a .375 OBP from the leadoff spot in his one year in Houston before being traded, he will someday meet that one special team that will appreciate him for who he truly is.

 
AL West 2015 Projected Standings
Seattle Mariners            90     72
Los Angeles Angels       86     76
Oakland Athletics         85     77
Texas Rangers               79     83
Houston Astros             78     84

 

Feature Image: Via Columbian.com

 

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