MLB Season Preview: AL West
By: Sam Soergel
The AL West has changed over the last five years. In 2010, the Rangers were in the World Series and the second place Athletics only finished .500. Since then, the A’s won two division crowns and were a wild card last year, the Angels signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to monster contracts and Mike Trout has emerged as one of the best in baseball. The Mariners signed the best second baseman in the game, and could take the division this year. The once dominant Rangers fell to last place in 2014, three games worse than the Astros who have players that could help the team finish out of the cellar for years to come.
Houston Astros (2014: 70-92, 4th place)
Key Additions: Luke Gregerson (P), Pat Neshek (P), Hank Conger (C), Dan Straily (P), Colby Rasmus (OF), Evan Gattis (C/OF), Jed Lowrie (SS) Key Losses: Dexter Fowler (OF), Carlos Corporan (C)
Many of the players that the Astros acquired in the offseason can help the team immediately. They added depth in their bullpen, bringing in Pat Neshek on a two year deal and Luke Gregerson on a three year deal. Neshek had his best season last year in St. Louis where was an all-star and finished with a 1.81 ERA. Neshek held lefties to a .176 average last year and only gave up 4 home runs. Neshek, Gregerson, and Chad Qualls are the options for closer, or they could all split time finishing games. Houston’s rotation also has a lot of potential. Dallas Keuchel is the number one starter. He had a 2.91 era in 2014 and took home a Gold Glove. 2 and 3 starters Scott Feldman and Colin McHugh had good seasons last year as well. They also got help in the lineup. They traded for Evan Gattis who provides a huge power boost, and signed Colby Rasmus, who also has good power, to replace Dexter Fowler in centerfield.
Young Core: Two of the Astros brightest stars are George Springer and Jon Singleton. Both were rookies last year, but Singleton was disappointing (.168/.285/.335). He was one of the best prospects at first base before his debut. He is only 23 years old and has good power, but is not the best hitter. He’s young so he has plenty of time to get better. If he can, the Astros will have a great first baseman. George Springer was a different story. In 78 games, the 25 year old right fielder hit 20 homers and had 51 RBIs. He has great speed, from his legs and his bat, and also has great power. He is one of the pieces the Astros look to build a future around. And then there’s Jose Altuve. Altuve led the league in hits last year and despite his height, he is one of the better second baseman in the game. Just last year, he led the AL in stolen bases hits, and batting average, and he’s only 24.
Catcher: Coming off an all-star campaign in 2013, Jason Castro fell off in 2014. He only hit .222. RBI and power numbers did not drop as much, but the Astros need a strong season from him as well as Hank Conger who was brought over in a trade from Anheim. Conger did not do much better than Castro in 2014, however. Evan Gattis is primarily a catcher, but because the Astros have Castro and Conger, Gattis is working on playing left field
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2014: 98-64, 1st Place)
Key Additions: Matt Joyce (OF), Drew Butera (C) Key Losses: Hank Conger (C), Howie Kendrick (2B), Jason Grilli (P)
The Angles did not make a lot of moves over the off season, but when your team has Mike Trout, you don’t have to. The Angles overtook the A’s in the second half to take the division crown, but lost to the Royals in the ALDS. The Angles can take the division again. Their rotation has Jared Weaver, Garret Richards (who is expected back in April), and C.J. Wilson. Wilson was not as good as previous years, but if he can return to form, the Angels will have a good 1-2-3 punch. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols headline the offense, and despite Pujols’ age, he had almost 30 HRs last year, and he should get close to that again.
Mike Trout: He’s one of the best, if not the best, player in baseball. He won the MVP last season and could do it again this year. He is a crucial part to any success the Angels have. The question that arises, though, is how will the rest of the lineup perform? Aside from Pujols, not many of the Angels players are known for their bats. Averages are around .270 around the field and there isn’t much power.
Bullpen: The Angles have a lot of good pieces in their bullpen. They got Houston Street at the trade deadline last year. Joe Smith, Mike Morin, and Fernando Salas were all important pieces in the bullpen last year. A good bullpen can go a long way. The Royals had an outstanding bullpen last season and it took them all the way to the World Series.
Josh Hamilton situation: You have to feel bad for Josh Hamilton. He was so good with the Rangers after his early drug problems, and it got him a huge contract with the Angels. But now he’s hurt, and he’s facing suspension for a relapse with his drug issue. He has not lived up to his contract and another suspension could leave the Angels with a big hole in left field. Matt Joyce was acquired from Tampa Bay and could fill in for him, but he does not compare to a Josh Hamilton in his prime.
Oakland Athletics (2014: 88-74, 2nd Place)
Key Additions: Billy Butler (1B/DH), Ike Davis (1B/DH), Tyler Clippard (P), Brett Lawrie (3B), Jesse Hahn (P), Ben Zobrist (2B) Key Losses: Josh Donaldson (3B), Derek Norris (C), Luke Gregerson (P), Jon Lester (P), Jeff Samardzjia (P), Brandon Moss (1B/OF), Nick Punto (2B), Alberto Callaspo (3B), Jed Lowrie (SS), Jonny Gomes (OF)
Billy Beane is at it again. He got rid of most of the A’s players that helped capture the two division titles in 2012 and 2013. Hopefully for A’s fans, he knows what he’s doing because many good players are gone. The losses of all-stars Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Derek Norris are big ones, but the team was able to sign Billy Butler to a three year deal. They also acquired reliever Tyler Clippard who can provide some needed bullpen help after Luke Gregerson left. They lost Gregerson, but closer Sean Doolittle and set-up man Eric O’Flaherty are key pieces to Oakland’s bullpen that survived all Beane’s moves. They most likely were not going to be able to keep Jon Lester, but they needed to find a way to replace Lester as well as Jeff Samardzjia. They got Jesse Hahn from San Diego. Last season, his rookie year, Hahn had an ERA just above three and showed a lot of promise. Other offensive questions also needed answered. Where will the power come from? Butler will provide a lot of power, but it looks like the team will have to hope that both Ike Davis’ and Josh Reddick’s power return to form. Can they once again have the effective offense that took them to the playoffs the last three years? That question remains to be answered.
Depth: The A’s have a lot of depth they could use if an injury occurs. While it may not be good depth, or experienced depth, they can still rely on these players if needed be. If one of the outfielders get hurt (Sam Fuld is currently day to day), Craig Gentry can take their place. Gentry only played in more than 100 games twice, but he hit .304 in 2012. There’s a lot of infield depth, too, especially at first base. After Ike Davis, Billy Butler rarely plays first, but he could. 6’8” Nate Freiman could also play there. Eric Sogard and starting shortstop Marcus Semien are versatile infielders that can play multiple positions.
Sonny Gray: The A’s have a star in Sonny Gray. He’s only 25 and under team control until 2020. Last year he went 14-10 with a 3.08 ERA. If he can have another stellar season in 2015, with Scott Kazmir behind him, the A’s will have a great 1-2 punch.
Pitching Questions: Last year, two key parts of the A’s starting five had to have Tommy John surgery. Both A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker missed 2014. The A’s could really use these two guys back in the rotation. Both of them had good 2013s, but can they return to form after surgery? That’s a big question that the team has to ask. The 4 and 5 starters right now are Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz. 2013 was Chavez’s first year as a starter. He went 8-8. Can he have another solid year as a starter?
Seattle Mariners (2014: 87-75, 3rd Place)
Key Additions: Nelson Cruz (DH/OF), Rickie Weeks (2B), Seth Smith (OF), J.A. Happ (P) Key Losses: Kendrys Morales (DH), Corey Hart (1B/DH)
The Mariners were relatively quiet this offseason, and they didn’t lose many big names. However, the one big signing they made was inking Nelson Cruz to a four year deal. Cruz led the league in homers last year, and he can play outfield or DH. The Mariners did not have to go out and make a ton of signings, but they did not have to. The have the best second baseman in the game in Robinson Cano. Cano hit .314 in his first year with Seattle and is a strong fielder to boot. He is part of the Mariners core that includes Felix Hernandez, the five-time all-star pitcher who took the ERA and WHIP crowns last seasons. Other important pitchers for the Mariners include Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker. The M’s expect great things from Walker who got into a few games last season. His first full season in the big leagues will be one to watch. The Mariners signed third baseman Kyle Seager to a seven year, $100 million contract extension. Seager is another player the Mariners think highly of and wanted to keep him on the team. He hit 25 homers last year and took home a gold glove.
Bullpen: The Mariners have a great bullpen. Closer Fernando Rodney was an all-star and led the league in saves. Set-up man Danny Farquhar had a 1.13 WHIP and struck out 81 in 71 innings. Charlie Furbush and Tom Wilhelmsen are other valuable late relievers. Seattle’s bullpen looks like it beats out Anaheim for best bullpen in the division.
Catcher: Mike Zunino launched 22 homers last season, but he only hit .199 in 131 games. While catcher is not an offensive powerhouse, the Mariners need Zunino to step it up offensively in 2015, but he was 8th in all of MLB in caught stealing percentage. Offensively, his backups are not that better. Jesus Sucre hit .213 in 21 games and John Baker hit a dismal .192 in 68 games for Chicago. Sucre threw out 29%, but baker only threw out 15%. Defensively, the catching position in Seattle is fine, but it needs to step up offensively.
Texas Rangers (2014: 67-95, 5th Place)
Key Additions: Yovani Gallardo (P), Carlos Corporan (OF), Ross Detwiler (P) Key Losses: Alex Rios (OF), Alexi Ogando (P)
Things could not have gotten much worse for the Rangers in 2014. They traded for Prince Fielder, who ended up playing in only 42 games before having neck surgery and missing the rest of the season. Shin Soo Choo underperformed in his first year with the team, and starter Michael Perez missed most of the season after having Tommy John surgery in May. Then, manager Ron Washington left the team for personal reasons. One of the bright spots was Yu Darvish. He went 10-7 and was an all-star for the third straight year. However, this season is off to a bad start as Darvish will miss the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Infielder Jurickson Profar is expected to miss the whole season after surgery. New manager Jeff Banister looks to turn the team around. Fielder is back, and his former Milwaukee teammate Yovani Gallardo came over in a trade. They got more pitching help when they acquired Ross Detwiler from Washington. This Rangers team has a lot of good pieces, but it is still missing some important ones, and health is still a big question.
Infield: Even with Profar out, the Rangers have a strong infield, offensively and defensively. Fielder is at first and is an extremely dangerous hitter. Second baseman Rougned Odor will play in his second season. He was a highly ranked prospect and had a solid rookie season. Then there’s Elvis Andrus. He had a down year last year, like most of the team, but he can hit well for a shortstop and is another solid fielder. Adrian Beltre has been around for a long time, but he is only 35 (he debuted when he was 19). He was an all-star last year and also won a Silver Slugger.
Left Field: The Rangers options for left field are currently slim. Their choices are Ryan Rua and Jake Smolinski. Both are inexperienced. Last year they were both rookies, and while they put up decent numbers, it was only a small sample size. It is hard to determine if that success could carry over into a full season. The team did sign Ryan Ludwick to a minor league contract, but health has been a concern for him the last few seasons. Last year, he did play in 112 games, but his line was .244/.308/.375 with nine home runs. He does, however, have a lot more experience than the other options.
So here’s how they’ll finish:
1st – Mariners – This is the year it all comes together for the Mariners. They have a great core that could easily carry them deep into the postseason.
2nd – Angels – The Angels won’t be far behind. They have a solid team, and, if pitching can come back healthy, could snag a playoff spot as well.
3rd – Astros – The Astros have a young team and could be a threat to take the division in the not so distant future if they live up to expectations. In 2015, they’ll take 3rd.
4th – Athletics – The Athletics could win the division, or they could finish below the Rangers; they’re tough to predict because you have to expect Billy Beane has a few tricks up his sleeve, but with all the all-stars that Beane moved, they look like a worse team than they did a year ago.
5th Rangers – The Rangers will finish last again, unless the players the team depend the most on stay healthy and have better years than last, but it is a competitive division. With Darvish gone, and Derek Holland and Colby Lewis mostly inconsistent, the rotation is a big question mark.