2017 AL West Preview: Fireworks Are Bigger In Texas
With Spring Training in full swing, it’s getting time to get back into baseball mode.
This is part of a season primer series, that’ll take you through what to watch for over the course of the season.
The AL West hasn’t really been dominated by any one team recently. All 5 of the teams in the division have enjoyed success at some point over the recent past.
However, the present and future tell a much different tale.
The Angels are home to arguably the best player currently in the game, and yet are in a tailspin, and the Athletics are in another phase of Billy Beane doing whatever it is that he’s doing with math.
The Astros have been on the rise, although from where they were just 3 years ago, it’d be hard to get worse.
The Rangers have had the most consistent success in the division, winning it last year by a decent margin, but will have stiff competition this year from the Mariners, who are regaining form from years ago.
This division has the look of a lava lamp, where bubbles grow and then contract smoothly. This year looks to follow those footsteps.
Coming into this season: Just 3 years ago, the Astros were bottom of the barrel, having finally lost fewer than 100 games in a season for the first time in 4 years.
But, as it usually goes in sports, being bad for a while gets you some high draft picks with oodles of talent. Carlos Correa played in his first full year and didn’t disappoint, Alex Bregman came up midway through the year and played well, and Jose Altuve led the league in hitting again.
However, most of the pitching declined, and it hurt badly. Outside of young stud Lance McCullers, the entire starting rotation had an ERA above 4.34, including the 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
This year, they restocked the lineup with proven vets, like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and Carlos Beltran, in hopes to lead them back to the playoffs.
Storyline to watch: The rotation. Last year was a huge disappointment. Colin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel were pinned as a great 1-2 punch in 2015, but regressed and became very hittable in 2016. Lance McCullers looks every bit of the prospect the Astros need, but they can’t go it without their top two arms righting their respective ships.
X-Factor: Who’s on first? The Astros don’t really have a great first baseman at the moment. Yulieski Gurriel, Marwin Gonzalez, Tyler White, or AJ Reed could all in theory have the job, but none really stand out as the power threat you need from your first baseman. Yes, the Astros have big bats elsewhere, but it’s important to have that anchor in your lineup at first base.
Bold prediction: Third place, but they’ll make a race of it. Alex Bregman breaks out as an All Star.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Coming into this season: The Angels have been the Mike Trout show for the last few years, and not much else. Albert Pujols has been a good power threat behind Trout, but he’s not getting any younger, and has had a recent past riddled with injuries. They traded a couple of big prospects to get Andrelton Simmons, but they bought at a time they should have kept their prospects, and it’s going to hurt in the long run.
The pitching wasn’t great, the bullpen let a lot of leads go by, and they couldn’t recover. The Angels have retooled again, but most of their new players seem more like stopgaps, including Luis Valbuena, Danny Espinosa, and Cameron Maybin.
The future isn’t immediately bright for the Angels, but at least there’s Mike Trout to watch.
Storyline to watch: Could they conceivably think about trading Trout? Blasphemous to give this notion any thought, one would say. Trout is playing some elite caliber baseball at a very young age, and who knows when he’d peak, how long is prime would last, etc. However, he’s playing on a losing team.
The asking price would be so high, it’d be insane, and few if any can afford it. But if it’d buy them the future they don’t have now, it at least raises an eyebrow.
X-Factor: Garrett Richards. When he’s healthy, he’s an ace. However, he’s spent time on the DL with significant injuries in 2014 and 2016, only getting in 6 starts last season. Recent news says he’s back to normal, but you have to consider that an ace with an injury history is worrisome, especially on a team that needs support around it’s superstar foundation
Bold prediction: Mike Trout makes another MVP run, and nothing else of significance happens.
Coming into this season: The A’s are a team that’s constantly in flux. Billy Beane has a notoriously quick trigger finger with regard to trading for prospects, and it’s shown in the amount of players that seem to pass through.
(Fun fact: Matt Holliday’s contract with the Yankees has a no trade clause, just to the A’s!) There are a couple of bright spots on the team, though.
Ryon Healy looks like he can swing a big bat, combined with Khris Davis’ 40+ home run power surfacing, the team has some young players to build around. However, the pitching staff fell apart last year, starting with ace Sonny Gray pitching in only 117 innings, and finishing the year with a paltry 5.69 ERA, more than 2 runs worse than his worst season yet.
That’s what will get you last place in the division, I suppose.
Storyline to watch: Who’s next in the Billy Beane revolving door? The A’s have a couple of good trade pieces to offer other teams. Catcher Stephen Vogt, young shortstop Marcus Semien, Khris Davis, and Sonny Gray all have significant value. Billy Beane does have an itchy trigger finger, and has found some good diamonds in the rough in recent past. But don’t be surprised if they sell off more parts over the course of the season.
X-Factor: Sonny Gray. The ace of this staff the previous 3 years suffered mightily in 2016. One might think that he’s due for a bounceback, all things considered. He’s got a proven record of success, after all. But having a stud at the top of the rotation for any team is important, and Gray returning to form is a good boost for an A’s team that really needs some good pitching to succeed.
Bold prediction: Last place, and the Opening Day lineup looks nothing like the lineup on August 1st.
Coming into this season: The Mariners had a very solid showing for the first time in a long time in 2016. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz had big power numbers, and led the way for a slowly improving pitching staff, and came very close to making a wild card push.
Not all was perfect in Seattle, as Felix Hernandez looked pedestrian most of the season, and acquisitions Adam Lind and Leonys Martin didn’t pan out so well immediately.
Now armed with new speed in the outfield in Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger, and new first baseman Dan Vogelbach, the M’s have to like what they see in the near future.
Storyline to watch: Can all the new acquisitions mesh well together? Of the projected starting 9, 4 of them are new to the team. That kind of turnaround, especially from an improving team, puts pressure on the new players to perform to the level that was expected out of them when they were brought in.
Especially with new shortstop Jean Segura, who had a breakout year with Arizona last year, the new players are going to be put right to the test, with a team worthy of competing for a playoff berth.
X-Factor: Felix Hernandez. King Felix put up some of his worst numbers ever in 2016. He had an ERA of 3.82 (his worst since 2007), struck out just 122 hitters, and pitched just 153 innings (both worst since his rookie season). We know he’s capable of much bigger things, including leading the pitching staff and putting butts in the seats wearing yellow shirts with crowns and K’s on them.
He’s got to find his groove and get back on track for this season.
Bold prediction: They finally return to the playoffs, by the skin of their teeth.
Coming into this season: Coming off a wild and wacky playoff exit in Toronto, the Rangers came into 2016 with something to prove. Nomar Mazara led all rookies with homers, Yu Darvish came back, and the team acquired Jonathan Lucroy on the way to an AL West crown, before getting eliminated by the Blue Jays again in the ALDS (except with much less craziness).
The only new name of significance is Mike Napoli, who’s been with Texas a couple of times before. With a fully healthy team, they seem primed for another big run.
Storyline to watch: Rougned Odor, Carlos Gomez, and playing nicely with their friends. Both of these guys have reputations of being slightly in your face (ok, really hot-headed). They play the game with passion, have short fuses, and play the game with intense passion.
Last year, Rougned Odor became forever immortalized in a GIF of him punching Jose Bautista in the face, and Carlos Gomez is always good for an overly dramatic bat flip. Who knows what happens this year?
X-Factor: Jurickson Profar. The former #1 prospect in baseball has fallen from that status immensely, but has become a serviceable utility player in his first season back in the bigs. His overall play could use some more seasoning, but now with a more pronounced role in this Rangers lineup, he needs to step his game up and show everyone why he was a #1 prospect.
Bold prediction: AL West champs again, but sparking a big rivalry with someone somewhere.
What do you think?