By Lew Patton
The American League West is a fickle division. On any given day, a team within the division may look to be of World Series quality, and then the next day, you wonder if you are even watching professional baseball.
The teams within this division have loads of talent, and some very good pitching staffs, enough so you say to yourself, these Seattle Mariners have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, they surely will make the playoffs. And what of King Felix and the rest of that team from the northwest?
Yes, the American League West has plenty of talent, but will the gambit of playing teams within the division be like a “Hatfield and McCoy” feud each time they play? Will the American League West knock each other off balance so much, that no team seems dominant? Stay tuned for the 2015 season, it promises to be interesting. Let’s break the division down.
Are the Astros ready to contend?
This is Year 5 of the Astros’ scorched-earth rebuilding plan that has seen them lose 106, 107, 111, and 92 games while overhauling the front office, firing a pair of managers, ditching veterans, and stockpiling young talent. Last year’s 70-92 record was the fourth-worst in baseball and might suggest it’ll be another long season in 2015, but the Astros made big strides in the second half and added plenty of veteran help via trades and signings this offseason.
Clearly general manager Jeff Luhnow believes the Astros are ready to take a big step forward.
Lots of power and lots of strikeouts is basically the story of the Astros’ entire lineup, even more so than last year when they led the AL in strikeouts and ranked third in homers. And the amazing thing is that Jose Altuve had the most plate appearances on the team with 707–a hundred more than anyone else–and struck out just 53 times. It may not always be pretty and will lead to some extended slumps, but for the most part strikeouts are just a type of out rather than something to be avoided at all costs and Luhnow sacrificing contact in the name of adding elite power at a time when it’s particularly tough to find is an intriguing strategy. They could top 200 homers for the first time since 2001 and just the third time in franchise history.
Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, Roberto Hernandez
Houston’s bullpen ranked dead last in baseball last season with a 4.80 ERA. Luhnow tried to address that problem in a huge way by making serious runs as big-ticket free agent relievers David Robertson and Andrew Miller. Those attempts fell short, but the Neshek-Gregerson duo is a good consolation prize. They combined to throw 140 innings with a 1.99 ERA and 127/24 K/BB ratio last season and both right-handers have a career ERA under 3.00. Toss in Chad Qualls and Josh Fields from the right side and Tony Sipp and Joe Thatcher from the left side and the Astros’ bullpen may actually be a strength.
Can the A’s reshuffled roster put them in the playoffs for the fourth straight year?
Nothing is as constant as change in the Oakland A’s clubhouse. And, at least in recent years, the change hasn’t mattered because the same GM is running the show who has seemingly always run the show. And while no one would ever choose to deal with the particular constraints Billy Beane has to deal with, he has literally been written into history as a guy who mixes and matches whatever is on hand and somehow always makes it work. Or usually makes it work. He certainly makes it work a lot better with Bob Melvin than he did before. The both of them are just good at putting seemingly disparate pieces together.
You could realize that the A’s have shuffled the deck like this almost every offseason, that absolutely no one has had a great handle on what the A’s would do from year-to-year the past several seasons and that, lo and behold, they are usually in the playoffs come October and that, maybe, they’ll be just dandy. The most difficult team to predict, but they usually make the playoffs.
Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Hahn, Drew Pomeranz, Kendall Graveman
In the pen, Sean Doolittle will get a late start to the year, but he’s expected to be healthy soon and around for most of the season. Tyler Clippard will make a lot of money for a setup guy this season.
Did they add enough offense?
The Mariners surprised in 2014, but man, if they had just gotten a lick of offense, they could’ve surprised a lot more. Their 87 wins and near-wild card birth was achieved almost totally on the back of their pitching staff. Overall, the M’s had the best staff in all of baseball, allowing only 3.42 runs a game. The offense, however, was forgettable at best. Seattle scored 3.91 runs a game, which was third to last in the American League.
Robinson Cano is back, of course. As is third baseman Kyle Seager who was the only other regular besides Cano to post an OPS+ above 100 in full-time play. Other positive offensive contributors in 2014 included Michael Saunders, who only played half the season and who is now gone, and Logan Morrison who played in 99 games. To improve upon 2014’s performance, the M’s needed more offense. So they went out and tried to get some.
The biggest addition was Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers and slugged .525 for Baltimore last year. Also added was Seth Smith, who hit .266/.367/.440 for San Diego in 2014. Given that Austin Jackson only played in 54 games last year you can think of him as an addition too. Rickie Weeks was acquired as well, though he’ll be riding pine and hitting against lefties mostly.
Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, J.A. Happ
Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Is the Angels window slamming shut?
It took a long time to pry that window open, actually. There was some serious disappointment in Anaheim after the signings of C. J. Wilson, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton didn’t pay immediate dividends. But, finally, last year the Angels fulfilled their promise and made it into the playoffs. Which is nice, but it still isn’t what Arte Moreno had in mind when he backed up the Brinks truck for those guys. He was likely thinking dynasty, and it’s hard to see how that can happen on the backs of those big money guys.
Is the window closing? Only if you define that window in terms of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. What the Angels showed last year is that with Mike Trout, all things are possible. And that they don’t need those big money veterans to be the best players on the team in order to compete. If anything, the Angels might have won 98 games as a team in transition last year. And that’s a scary thought for the rest of the A.L. West.
Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago, Nick Tropeano,
Huston Street, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano.
Can the new manager get the team to buy in to his philosophy?
So many changes for the Rangers in the offseason. On top of having major injuries to the club last year, they had to get a new manager as well.
The very last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.
Yovani Gallardo, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler, Nick Martinez
Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him.
How the AL West will finish
1) Seattle Mariners
2) Los Angeles Angels
3) Oakland A’s
4) Texas Rangers
5) Houston Astros