2017 MLB Preview: AL West

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The American League West is a group of teams that at one point seemed to be headed to being one of the best divisions in baseball.

For a long time, this division followed the same type of pattern as many have with one team ruling for a number of years.

The West had their periods where teams would take over the division and leave little room for anyone else.

It started ten years ago when the Los Angeles Angels took three straight division titles followed by two straight by the Rangers then two straight by the Athletics and another two straight by the Rangers, broken up by one title by the Angels again.

In those ten years, the division has only ever produced multiple postseason teams three times making this a division without a lot of competition.

When a team begins to win multiple titles in a row they often do so by wiping out the competition or by not seeing much competition.

It isn’t the most thrilling way for the division to run but it was all looking like it could change with the rise of a few teams and their rebuilding phase.

The Rangers were the team to beat only a few years ago but as they continued their time at the top of the division and the league, new teams were beginning to rise.

The Houston Astros had put together one of the best farms systems in the league and all of the analysts had them as a World Series contender in the near future.

They had added some of the most promising young talent and although they weren’t expected to be the best right away they were expected to contend at the top level eventually.

When they were added to the American League East they were expected to create a Texas rivalry that could make the division interesting.

The Angels were bringing the man that many consider to be the best in the game and they might just be able to start competing with the Rangers.

The Mariners more recently looked to step into the division battle and make things even more interesting.

They added a massive free agent in Robinson Cano that many saw as the first major step in their return to being a contender.

With all of these teams looking like they were starting something promising the AL West looked like it was becoming a division to watch.baseball-sidebar

The Astros found their footing when they earned a wild card spot in 2015 and it looked like the plan was working.

Then they fell off in 2016 and the division once again went to the Rangers, who were on their second stint as back to back champions.

The Angels never seemed to find the right team to put around their superstar and despite a division title in 2014 they never could get their footing.

The Angels have not been a part of the division battle in recent years though as they still struggle to find consistency.

In Seattle, the addition of Cano has brought better baseball to the Pacific Northwest but they are still sitting on the outside.

After a few years, they are now constantly a part of the battle for the postseason but they continue to fall just short of making it in and breaking the league’s longest postseason drought.

Oakland had their own blip of success in 2014 leading some to believe they could be back but they have failed to return to that level.

Now the AL West enters a new season with teams all looking to try to get this division kick started.

The Rangers return as one of the league’s top teams and they are hoping to put together three straight division title.

The Astros try to meet their potential, the Angels try to not waste the best of their superstar and the Mariners try to break the streak.

The Athletics will try to make some type of impact on the division as well with the hopes that this division could become a much more entertaining one.

If these teams can actually meet their expectations and perform at a high level this division could be fun to watch.

If it is much the same as the past few years there won’t be a lot to look at as one team could run away with this division easily.

It will be up to the teams and their off-season plans paying dividends while their players will need to play up to par to compete this year.

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The Houston Astros had been a team that continued to struggle year after year falling to the bottom of the league. Eventually, they began building something though and only a few years ago that building had people taking notice. The Astros were labelled as a future World Series winner simply for the farm system they had put together. It looked like it was going to happen in 2015 when they earned a wild card spot after a great year. That was supposed to be the start but nothing else every came from their building as they failed to make it to the postseason last year. It was a disappointing season for a team with a lot of potential but they will hope to put it behind them for 2017. To do that the Astros made some key decisions in the off-season that they hope will make the difference. One of the biggest decisions was to bring in Carlos Beltran who returns to Houston, this time as their designated hitter. Beltran provides a still young team with a veteran presence and someone who is still a good major league hitter. The additions of Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick will also help with a veteran presence while providing some offensive power as well. These veteran additions will be added to one of the best young groups in the league that includes Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel. With the additions, this offence is deep and good as they can now hit for power and for average with plenty of other options around the bases as long as the young players meet their potential. The pitching staff was another section of promise for the team but that promise took a hit last year when they took a step backwards. Dallas Keuchel took the Cy Young Award in 2015 to help the Astros to the postseason but in 2016 he struggled. The rest of the rotation followed him as they all had a bad year after putting together such a good one. Keuchel along with other young arms, Colin McHugh and Mike Fiers, will hope to shake off the bad year and return to being one of the best rotations in the league. They will need to in order to make-up for the one glaring weakness on the team, the bullpen. Last year they had a tough time closing out games but they will hope that Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson can change that pattern. The Astros are a good team and their additions should stabilise things to make them more consistent which could put them right into the hunt for the division this year.

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The Los Angeles Angels are a team that is lucky in one way as they have found one of the greatest players ever. Mike Trout is widely considered to be one of, if not the best player in the league and a lot of teams would love to have someone like him. He is a player that can do everything but he is just one player and the Angels have struggled to build a team around him. The Angels have had issues in adding pieces to the team and some of it has to do with the budget limitations put in place by ownership. With those limitations, the Angels have had a tough time staying in the hunt for the postseason. Last year their inability to add any great pieces alongside Trout had them finishing in fourth place far away from the postseason. This year the Angels are hoping to change that pattern but they still made small changes rather than adding massive pieces. There is no doubt that the Angels rely on Trout to do most of the heavy lifting but the addition of Cameron Maybin could help things. Maybin is not the most powerful hitter but he can get on base and if he does the Angels will hope that this gives Trout an extra player to bat in while also producing some offence of his own. Another key piece to the team will be Albert Pujols who seems to still have a big bat but is ageing and seems destined for a decline at some point, although hopefully not this year. The fact is that the only sure thing for the Angels is Trout and he still has little around him to make a massive difference for the team. In the pitching staff, the Angels have some questions especially since three of their starters will begin the year on the DL with Andrew Heaney, Nick Tropeano and Vicente Campos all recovering this year. They will look to two pitchers who recovered from their injuries last year in Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker. Both have pitched well but ended their seasons early last year and are hoping to return to form this time around. The bullpen is not terrible but also not amazing as Huston Street isn’t as good as he used to be leaving Cam Bedrosian as the most dependable pitcher of the group. The Angels are still struggling to put a team together that can help Trout in reaching his full potential. He remains one of the best ever but he also remains on a team that is just ok and won’t likely be competing for a postseason spot.

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The Athletics looked like they were back on the path to relevance in 2014 when they rose to the postseason in an unexpectedly great season. It seemed like a sign that the Athletics were once again finding great value in unknown players. They were expected to continue that trend and compete for a few years at the top with a number of good young players leading the way. After 2014 though the team fell apart and they couldn’t get back to the postseason sinking to the bottom of the division over the last two years. In 2017 they are hoping that a renewed commitment to the free agent market is the difference they need to get back to the postseason. The biggest spending was on offence where the Athletics signed Rajai Davis, Matt Joyce and Trevor Plouffe putting out money that they usually don’t in the off-season. The problem is these signings aren’t necessarily the big splash that is going to make a massive difference for the A’s. All are good players but none are going to change the face of this team and immediately make them a contender. That is especially true when the Athletics also lost one of the best players in Josh Reddick who was traded last season. It leaves these new additions to carry the load alongside Khris Davis who led the team in home runs last season and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. With Davis as the only real big threat left though this offence doesn’t necessarily inspire a lot of confidence. On the mound, the A’s are depending a lot on the return of Sonny Gray to what he once. Gray was a Cy Young nominee in 2015 but in 2016 he fell off and became less of an ace and more of a regular pitching. The rotation depends largely on Gray as he needs to be the ace that he was in 2015 if they have any hope of being good. The rest of the rotation isn’t that great as there aren’t many other stars or any young prospects that are showing promise. The bullpen has a few options in terms of closer although Ryan Madsen seems to be in line to get the most chances to save games. Liam Hendricks and John Axford are also there to provide more depth to the bullpen. The Athletics looked like they were trying to contend this year through their off-season signing but none of those signings will make a big enough difference. They seemed to commit without actually committing and as a result, they won’t be near the postseason this year.

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The Mariners were on the rise when they went out and signed one of the biggest free agents to hit the markets in recent years. Robinson Cano was one of the best hitters at the time and the Mariners won the lottery signing him away from the Yankees. The problem was that they now had only a few pieces and needed to quickly build around those pieces if they wanted to compete because those pieces were getting older. They started to do this and the Mariners began to become contenders in the league but they never could take that step to making the postseason. Last year they had a respectable season but it wasn’t good enough to get them into the postseason. The worry now is that the Mariners are running out of time to compete with their top players already beginning to slow down. This year they put together a complete overhaul of their team but there are still questions as to whether or not it has truly made them a postseason contender. Most of the work was done in the pitching staff where the Mariners added Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly to their rotation. Both are serviceable starters but they aren’t the difference makers that this team really needs to help support Felix Hernandez. Although “King Felix” is still their pitching leader he is not the pitcher he once was and that is concerning for the Mariners who have depended on him so much over the last few years. The bullpen will enjoy the addition of Marc Rzepczynski to go along with young closer Edwin Diaz who leads a solid group. On the offensive side of the ball, the Mariners will always look to Cano as their leader and he still has the ability to lead them. He isn’t getting any young though and neither are his partners in Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz. All are ageing veterans and they may still have some years in them but they are still in danger of injuries and drop-offs like any ageing player. They will likely still be good this year and now they might have an extra base runner in new addition Jean Segura who is coming off of a career year and will bat at the front of the lineup in hopes of getting on base for the big three. The Mariners didn’t necessarily improve their roster with the overhaul as they didn’t fix the depth issues in the pitching staff. They will still compete for a postseason spot this year but their lack of pitching depth might just push them out of breaking their postseason drought.

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The Texas Rangers have taken control of the AL West for the past two years while also taking four of the last five division titles. It is safe to say that they are the team to beat in the division every year but every dominant team eventually comes to an end. Looking at last year the Rangers were not supposed to be a team that did as well as they did. They struggled in many categories but they continued to put up wins thanks to their ability to win close games. For the Rangers, the issue has been their lack of depth throughout the roster and that may be tested for 2017. The biggest change for the team this year is the end of the Carlos Beltran era as the veteran DH left in free agency. Along with him was one of their best hitters in Ian Desmond and both of those departures leave holes in the lineup. The Rangers are hoping that Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar can finally meet expectations after disappointing over the years with both being major MLB prospects. If these two can step up the Rangers might be fine but there are some questions as they struggled with their two top hitters and replacing them is no easy task. The offence does still have some great players as they hope that Rougned Odor is just coming into his own at the plate after a great 2016 season and the addition of Mike Napoli provides a big bat they would have missed without Beltran. The bigger concern for the Rangers is their pitching staff from rotation to bullpen, who all struggled last year. The pitching staff has two great arms in Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels but the drop-off after them is a big one. That is even more concerning when considering that Darvish has had a lot of durability issues in the last few years. With these two pitching they are a different team but if one gets hurt the look of the team changes significantly.  The bullpen was once a strength of this team but in 2016 they had a tough year, which the Rangers hope was simply a blip. If Sam Dyson and Matt Bush can return to their old form they could become a strength of the team once again. The Rangers are still the best team in this division but if they play like they did in 2016 they might not be able to put games away like they did in 2016. They will most likely win the division again but it might not be as easy as it has been.

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Prediction:
The talent that exists in this division should make the division battle one of the best but it won’t be. They will see a battle but it won’t likely be as close as many people want it to be and a lot of it has to do with things working well for every team. The Texas Rangers are still the best team in the division and 2016 seems like an aberration for their performance, despite their win totals. As a result, they will win better this year and will take the division for the third straight year. The Mariners and Astros will push the Rangers for most of the season but will battle between themselves for a wild card spot. The Astros seemed to have done enough to get them there and will take second while the Mariners extend their postseason drought. The Angels aren’t a bad team but they’re also not great as they will just be a middle of the road team. They avoid a battle with Oakland to stay out of last but they also won’t fight for a postseason spot.

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