Divisional Preview, Part 1: AL West – the best division in MLB?

By Conway West 02.06.15

Now that football season is over, JDCam and I will take a look at each division in baseball, highlighting things we are excited about. Up first is the AL West. After these columns, we will dig a little more in depth into teams. The wins under each team are the actual 2014 wins, the Steamer projected wins, and then Conwaywest and JDCam predictions (JD Cam’s team finish in the division is in parenthesis).

The AL West went from the weakest (by wins) in 2013 to the second strongest in 2014, trailing the AL East by 1 win. In 2013, the Rangers infamously made game 163 in large part due to beating the snot out of the hapless Astros (51 wins). The Mariners and  Angels wildly underperformed in 2013 as well.

 

In 2014, the Mariners and Astros improved by 16 and 19 wins, respectively. Neither of these teams improved as much as the Angels, who had the best turnaround in baseball with a 20-win positive swing. Coming into 2015, every team in the AL West feels like they have a solid chance to make the playoffs – every team feels their stock is at least stable, if not on the rise. With an ever-improving Astros, and the Mariners hitting their prime, this division should challenge the AL East for the best in baseball.

 

1. Seattle Mariners

2014: 87 wins; Steamer 2015: 89 wins; Conwaywest: 90 wins; JDCam: 87 wins (2nd, WC)

In: Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, JA Happ

Out: Michael Saunders, Chris Denorfia, Brandon Maurer, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Chris Young

 

Things to like: King Felix (and Felix Day); Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager; bullpen depth; young promising rotation arms; new acquisitions; Mike Zunino’s pitch framing.

Things to worry about: consistent offense from someone besides Cano and Seager; rotation’s recent injury history; Mike Zunino’s plate discipline.

 

The Mariners built on their 2014, which finished one win short of the postseason, with a solid offseason, where they got less lefty-heavy and didn’t lose major pieces (in fact, Kendrys Morales may be addition by subtraction). With a talented young core supplemented by the big name free agent Nelson Cruz, it would take a lot for the Mariners to go backwards this year. As long as they get something out of the Ruggiano/Smith platoon, and the James Paxton/Taijuan Walker starter duo stays healthy, Mariners look prime for the postseason for the first time in 13 years.

 

Seattle fans might have more to cheer for than just the King’s Court this season.

2. Oakland Athletics (wild card)

2014: 88 wins; Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conwaywest: 86 wins; JD Cam: 82 wins (3rd)

In: Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard, Marcus Semien, Kendall Gravemen, Sean Nolin, Josh Phegley.

Out: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, John Jaso, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie, Jason Hammel, Alberto Callaspo, Jonny Gomes.

 

Things to like: Bevvy of MLB-caliber young arms, led by near-elite Sonny Gray; plate discipline; Zobrist’s and Stephen Vogt’s versatility; Lawrie’s potential; team defense.

Things to worry about: lack of elite talent/production; extreme lack of infield depth; Billy Butler in 2015 looking like Billy Butler in 2014; lots of innings from unproven pitchers.

 

No team radically changed their roster more than the A’s, who confused media and fans alike by their offseason. While no one has to agree with what Billy Beane did this offseason, any baseball savvy mind should understand the intent: get younger, cheaper, and don’t lose any wins. He nearly accomplished it: as stated in a previous article, the A’s lost a couple wins now for $12 million in payroll and more youth at the MLB level.

 

The A’s look like the top wild-card contender in the AL. They don’t do anything elite, but don’t have any gaping holes, and turn more batted balls into outs than anyone. This is a team built for regular season success, and I believe they have all the makings of a contender again in 2015, even if we can’t name half their lineup.

 

Stomper may be the only thing with an Oakland A’s jersey that won’t be traded in the coming months.

3. Los Angeles Angels

2014: 98 wins; Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conwaywest: 82 wins; JD Cam: 88 wins (1st)

In: Andrew Heaney, Josh Rutledge, Matt Joyce.

Out: Howie Kendrick, Gordon Beckham, Jason Grilli, Kevin Jepsen.

 

Things to like: Mike Trout and his great contract; Garrett Richards ‘ return; league-leading offense.

Things to worry about: Josh Hamilton and his awful contract; Garrett Richards’ knee injury; rotation #2-5; Will Joe Smith be good in the bullpen again?

 

The Angels were baseball’s most improved team last year, and still have some room to grow in 2015. Josh Hamilton could turn around his steep decline in recent years and be productive, and last year’s bullpen started dreadful to finish the year as one of the league’s best. I am also a huge Garrett Richards fan, and believe he could be a Cy Young winner if he recovers from the gruesome knee injury he suffered in September of last year. And of course, Mike Trout will keep being Mike Trout.

Unfortunately, I see many of the Angels pieces regressing this year. One of these years, Jared Weavers loss of velocity will hurt him, and the rest of the rotation has some question marks. Losing Howie Kendrick hurts, and there are no good replacement options. No one in the bullpen looks like they will be shut-down option. I see this team sliding just slightly, and with the division getting better, this could mean 15 less wins.

 

4. Houston Astros

2014: 70 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 78 wins; JD Cam: 76 wins (5th)

In: Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Dan Straily, Jed Lowrie, Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson, Hank Conger.

Out: Dexter Fowler

 

Things to like: Jose Altuve’s contact skills; 600 PAs from George Springer; Dallas Keuchel’s remarkable renaissance; Chris Carter’s raw power.

Things to worry about: swing-and-miss rate for Astros not named Altuve; corner infield production; back end of the rotation.

 

The Jose Altuve Jump Swing. Not too many humans can do that.

Could the Astros be a winning team in 2015? Seemed almost unthinkable late in 2013, when they lost 111 games and had so little to even build on at the major league level. Things are different now, as the usually tight-fisted ‘Stros went out and bought a couple high-end relievers, a couple bats, and traded for Evan Gattis. This builds off their formidable young core of Altuve, Springer, Keuchal, and soon-to-be Carlos Correa.

 

As these young guns develop as bonafide stars, the Astros could see their multiple-year tanking strategy pay off. They won’t win the division this year, but if 2015 can prove to be a turning point where they get above .500. I don’t see it happening in this difficult division, but they still could improve by 10 wins.

 

5. Texas Rangers

2014: 67 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 74 wins; JD Cam: 80 Wins (4th)

In: Yovani Gallardo, Ross Detwiler…. Can Prince Fielder count?

Out: Alex Rios, Neil Cotts, the injury curse of 2014.

 

Things to like: Adrian Beltre continuing to defy time; Yu Darvish leading a solid top 3 starters; the possibility of Jurickson Profar; strong pedigree of success from core players.

Things to worry about: staying healthy; residual effects of injuries; playing defense; offense is still a couple hitters short.

The Rangers are one of the more peculiar cases of 2015. Riding the recent success of 2 World Series appearances, the 2014 team looked to improve by supplementing their aging core with an elite farm system and marquee aquisitions. Adding Prince Fielder to the mix also gave reason for optimism in Texas. None of that panned out. Texas had more DL days than any other team in baseball by 3 full seasons (2100 games worth!).

 

The Rangers may need more than just a healthy Darvish to return to the postseason.

With the high hopes of 2014, many could think that 2015 is a new year, bringing the wins back to North Texas. I don’t see this happening. Shin-soo Choo, Fielder, Gallardo and Beltre all have seen their best seasons already, and although Beltre is still elite, the others are not. This team could not field last year, either, a trend that won’t be reversed by adding Fielder and Choo full time. And there are concerns about the health of Darvish; without him, the Rangers may rely on some weak back-end rotation arms. I see another disappointing season in Arlington, giving the Rangers tough decisions on how they will build for their future.

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