The AL West has some serious work to do. A representative from this division has not lasted past the ALDS since the 3-straight World Series losses from 2010-2012. In fact, the AL West hasn’t claimed a title since the Los Angeles Angels won their franchise’s only crown in 2002. This year’s group will try to end the 14-year drought, but it won’t be easy. With so many teams in the middle of the pack, it’s likely that they will beat each other down throughout the season so that only the division champ will advance to the postseason, rather than allowing a team to get a Wild Card berth as well. As such, the division winner will likely face the champion from the much more experienced AL East or AL Central. But hey, someone is bound to break through and surprise sometime. Let’s take a look at who that could be…
Oakland Athletics (2016: 69-93, 5th Place)
Lineup: The A’s almost certainly won’t be that team. Their outdated lineup is probably highlighted by former All-stars Stephen Vogt and Rajai Davis. I emphasize former because they are nowhere close to All-star caliber anymore. In fact, everyone in their starting lineup is 29 or older except for Marcus Semien and rookie Ryon Healey. So much age makes it incredibly difficult to bring emotion and energy when your team needs it. Semien is a bright spot with a game-changing glove at shortstop, however, he lacks a presence at the dish. All in all, there simply isn’t enough talent to go around, and Oakland finds themselves in a huge hole compared to the rest of the league. Look for the A’s to start investing in their farm system, as they should be quintessential sellers for the next few years.
Pitching: I know it sounds harsh, but the A’s just might have the worst pitching staff in the league, too. With Kendall Graveman as their ace, Oakland is in grave danger. There isn’t much else to say. He’s followed by Sean Manaea and three men who have yet to make themselves known in the MLB. Who knows? Maybe these no-namers will come through and provide some kind of spark for the A’s, but I just don’t see anything to look forward to in Oakland. Also, they don’t even have a clear closer in the bullpen. Instead, they plan to have a true committee approach among three former greats way past their prime: Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, and Santiago Casilla. There couldn’t be more instability in the Athletic organization, and I hope this season doesn’t turn into the disaster that it appears it will be on paper.
2017 Goals: I can’t imagine that the Athletics are looking short term. Their goals are focused on rebuilding and investing in their future. I know general manager Billy Beane desperately wants that elusive World Series title, but unfortunately for him that dream appears to be years down the road. For 2017, I don’t believe any result will change this course of action for better or worse.
My expectations: With such an uneven roster with little to play for, I expect the A’s to finish in last place for the third year in a row. Hopefully the unproven talent in the back of the rotation will provide hope for Oakland, but I don’t imagine it will be fun to watch the A’s in O.Co Coliseum. But hey, at least they’ll have the place to themselves pretty soon…
Los Angeles Angels (2016: 74-88, 4th Place)
Lineup: Last year, the Angels probably had the most disappointing season of any team in the MLB. However, Mike Trout claimed AL MVP honors for the second time in 3 years. Despite the controversy due to his team’s lack of success (how valuable can you be if your team is still one of the worst in the American League?), no one can argue he is one of the most dynamic talents the league has seen in decades. He’s joined in the middle of the lineup by sluggers Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun. These three combined for exactly 50% of the team’s home runs and 43% of L.A.’s RBIs in 2016. Unfortunately, there isn’t much production beyond that. As evidenced by the overwhelming contribution by just three players, the Angels have very little support elsewhere. Los Angeles will hope the acquisitions of Danny Espinosa, Cameron Maybin, and Martin Maldanado can jumpstart this lineup as they try to contend for another division title.
Pitching: The Angels don’t have great pitching, but it’s not bad either. Riddled with injuries last year, L.A. hopes their starters can stay healthy and productive throughout 2017. With many of them being forced to take the year off to heal from various ailments, it’s tough to predict how each will fair when they return to the diamond. For now, Garrett Richards will be the ace, followed by Ricky Nolasco. Richards has been pretty good as of late, averaging a 2.87 ERA over the past 3 seasons. Meanwhile Nolasco has benefitted from a trade away from Minnesota and his ERA jumped to a decent 3.33 in LA. Next up are veterans Matt Shoemaker and Jesse Chavez whose career ERA as starters are about 3.92 each. As you can see, none of these men are too dependable, but they can pitch solid innings without letting up more than 3 or 4 runs. However, the bullpen is virtually nonexistent. With closer Huston Street likely starting the season on the Disabled List, the Angels will struggle to keep games close late in games. While this provides great opportunity for growth by the rest of the bullpen, the current state of the pitching will drag L.A. to another subpar season in 2017.
2017 Goals: It’s evident by the activity during the offseason that the Angels are ready to compete at a high level again. However, due to an inability to stay off the DL and a lack of pitching talent, it’s unclear how soon they can challenge the rest of the league for a playoff spot. While they definitely want to bring some hardware to Los Angeles, I would think they should keep expectations in check about just how soon that might be.
My Expectations: I think the Angels are doing the right thing with regard to moving forward as an organization, but it just takes time. With a couple of down years and injury-plagued seasons, I think the Angels can start to try to come out of the cellar. Their success in the next couple of years will ultimately come down to the pitching staff. Their ability to perform after the season-ending injuries they suffered will make or break the Angels’ season this year. Either way, I expect L.A. to continue moving forward by making trades and building around the superstar that is Mike Trout.
Houston Astros (2016: 84-78, 3rd Place)
Lineup: After a season-long battle, the Astros fell just 5 games short of a playoff berth. While disappointing, I believe it sets the stage for one of the best teams Houston has ever fielded. With tons of diverse young talent and a couple of key pieces of veteran leadership, manager A.J. Hinch has all the ingredients of a title contender. Captain Jose Altuve is an on-base machine, leading the AL in hits and batting average. On the left side of the infield, upstart Alex Bregman joins phenom Carlos Correa who are both perfect utility batters that Hinch can place anywhere in the lineup to be effective. George Springer leads an outfield full of pop to balance the contact hitting. Along with Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran, Houston has a perfect combination of hitters getting on-base and then being quickly driven in by the power hitters. No matter how Hinch adjusts the lineup from game-to-game, the Astros will be fun to watch.
Pitching: The pitching isn’t as explosive as the batting. Following the pattern of the rest of the AL, the formula appears to be “great hitting” and “poor pitching”. Dallas Keuchel is the huge question mark in Houston. After winning a Cy Young Award in 2015, his ERA plummeted from 2.48 to an abysmal 4.55. He also dropped 11 wins and his WAR went down a full 6.5 points. Houston will hope Keuchel gets past this hangover and ramps back up to Cy Young caliber before long. Other noteworthy starters are Colin McHugh, Mike Fiers (who threw a no-hitter last year), and Lance McCullers. The back end of the bullpen boasts two hard-throwing right handers in Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles. While Giles has been said to be overrated, there is no doubting that he can put all kinds of heat in his fastball, and Gregerson is as reliable a setup man as they come. Houston is for real.
2017 Goals: After narrowly missing the postseason last year, the Astros want to get over the hump and be back in World Series contention. They certainly don’t have a lack of tools, and whether or not Keuchel returns to MVP form, Houston can make a legitimate run in October. That said, Keuchel’s performance, as well as Hinch’s lineup moves, will be the difference between a Wild Card berth or Division crown.
My Expectations: I think Houston can easily make the jump to division champion. The road will come with adversity, but with direct competition to its rivals, the Astros control their own destiny. Altuve, Correa, and Springer have an innate ability to do all the small things right, and that’s just what you need to win big ball games. Look forward to seeing Houston squarely in the middle of postseason conversation.
Seattle Mariners (2016: 86-76, 2nd Place)
Lineup: Speaking of barely missing the playoffs, the Mariners fell just 3 wins shy of snapping the longest postseason drought in the MLB. After 16 years, Seattle believes they’re long overdue to play more than 162 games. Robinson Cano is the obvious standout; he’s known for his ability to get on base and taking opposing pitchers deep. Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager are also well-known power hitters who have eclipsed an amazing 70 combined home runs since playing together. However, like the Angels, beyond these studs the Mariners lack support. Jean Segura can provide some speed on the base paths and Jarrod Dyson and Leonys Martin have astounding gloves in the outfield, but no one can contribute anywhere close to Cano, Cruz, and Seager. The lack of depth is probably the reason the Mariners fail to make that final push into October, but they’re definitely right on the cusp of success.
Pitching: King Felix Hernandez is probably the best pitcher in the AL West. However, after finishing in the top 10 in Cy Young vote every year from 2011-2015, his numbers dropped last year. It’ll be interesting to see if he can quell rumors that he has been dethroned. In order to do so, he’ll want to limit hits and adapt the strikeout pitch that his opponents appear to have been able to connect on as of late. The Mariners will fully depend on Hernandez to provide a quality start every 5th day due to a lack of dominant pitchers behind him. Time will tell if he can handle the pressure. Even worse, Seattle has a growing bullpen that won’t be ready to carve through hitters for a while. Edwin Diaz was thrust into the closer position during his rookie year last year, which could prove to be valuable experience. I don’t think he’s ready to be a lock down save yet, but in time he will be a home-grown asset to the Mariners.
2017 Goals: The Mariners will tell you that they’ll settle for nothing less than to end their playoff drought. Well, they better. The Mariners simply don’t have the depth and big-game experience to outlast other AL giants. If they don’t taper their expectations and try to really prepare and lock down a solid lineup from top to bottom, the drought won’t be ending anytime soon.
My Expectations: Unfortunately, Seattle is stuck in the middle of the MLB – they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs and they aren’t bad enough to get a good draft pick. I give them credit for never giving up on the postseason chase, but at some point they’ll need to revamp their roster. If the Mariners are disappointed by the 2017 results, hopefully they’ll take a look in the mirror and formulate a plan to take a small step back so they can surge forward in the playoffs.
Texas Rangers (2016: 95-67, 1st Place)
Lineup: Not only did the Rangers have the most wins in the division, they were able to claim the overall #1 seed in the playoffs last year. However, they failed to win a game in October as they were swept by their postseason rival Toronto Blue Jays. Now, Texas is motivated more than ever to 3-peat as AL West champs and get back to the World Series. They also have the tools to do it with a loaded roster full of big-name players. Longtime Rangers and best friends Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus have developed excellent chemistry with young second baseman Rougned Odor. Though Odor has a fiery temper, his passion for the game is undeniable. At the trade deadline last year, the Rangers also acquired one of the best catchers in the country in Johnathon Lucroy, as well as an awesome reliever in Jeremy Jeffress. Furthermore, Texas signed Carlos Gomez and Mike Napoli to complete their roster. Napoli is especially interesting because he played a key roll in the Cleveland Indians run at the American League pennant. With so much power up and down the lineup, opposing teams will want to pitch carefully to the Rangers, which can spell disaster.
Pitching: The Rangers pitching staff is led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Both are not well known for getting punch outs, but they do pitch to contact and rely on easy ground balls or pop-ups to get their outs. That said, they also both surprised last year when their strikeout tallies nearly reached career highs. Darvish has his vast repertoire firing on all cylinders after Tommy John surgery set him back in 2014 and 2015. Now these aces have their sights locked on the title. With a talented bullpen to back them up, the only weakness appear to be the back end of the rotation. The casual fan has probably never heard of names like A.J. Griffin or Chi Chi Gonzalez, and with good reason. Both had ERAs through the roof last year at 5.07 and 8.71 respectively. Yikes. Winning 2/5th of games obviously won’t cut it, but luckily their All-star lineup should bail out some bad pitching here and there.
2017 Goals: The Rangers are firmly in title contention. As back-to-back division champs, their postseason woes continue, failing to advance to the Conference Championship both years. This, of course, comes on the heels of two MLB runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011. Always the bridesmaid, Texas wants to finally earn its spot in the lime light.
My Expectations: Not so fast. I believe they can make the playoffs, but they face stiff opposition. Their in-state rival Astros are vying for the division crown, and the AL East has plenty of serious contenders for the Wild Card spot. So, even if the Rangers make the playoffs again, they may not get a favorable seed, and then they might be packing their bags early once again. It’ll also be crucial to get some help from the back of the rotation. If they want another chance at the World Series, this team will need to stay focused all season long.