MLB Season Preview: AL West

The 2013 MLB Season Preview Series continues with analysis of the American League West Division…

Probable 1st place finish: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

For the second off-season in a row, the “LAnaheim” Angels went after the biggest names on the free-agent market. Last year, it was first baseman Albert Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson, acquisitions many believed would earn the Angels the division. Instead, the team struggled in April, finishing with a 8-15 record for the month. The slow start ultimately cost them a playoff appearance. This year, the Angels upgraded their lineup by acquiring star outfielder Josh Hamilton via free agency from their division rivals, the Texas Rangers. With a lineup consisting of Hamilton, Pujols, Mark Trumbo, and 2012 Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, the Angels seem poised to slug their way to the postseason. The Angels’ pitching, however, doesn’t project to be a strength this year. Three-fifths of the projected Angels rotation was acquired just this off-season; the Angels signed free-agent Joe Blanton and traded with the Seattle Mariners and Atlanta Braves for starting pitchers Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson, respectively. These pitchers will likely perform at a slightly-below-average level, but ace Jered Weaver and #2 starter C.J. Wilson should put up strong numbers. The bullpen situation is also something the Halos may worry about. Closer Ryan Madson has been plagued by elbow trouble throughout Spring Training, and is not yet ready to join the team. Ernesto Frieri should take over the role until his return. Besides the lefty pair of Scott Downs and Sean Burnett, the Angels may have trouble navigating the middle innings. Despite these problems though, the Angels have a good chance for a postseason run. If they get there by winning division, it will be by barely squeezing ahead of the Rangers. If the Halos don’t win the division, they will certainly be in the wild card hunt.

American League Rookie of the Year Mike Trout had a historic 2012 season and was worth more than 10 (!) wins for the Halos. (Image via Sports Grid)

The Texas Rangers are considered one of the best teams in MLB, but they have a knack for disappointing in critical spots. In 2011, they were one strike away from winning their first World Series in two different scenarios. On the final day of the season last year, they forfeited 1st place in the AL West after being swept in their final regular season series by the Oakland A’s. This forced them into MLB’s first ever wildcard game, where they were defeated by the upstart Baltimore Orioles. For the team that made it all the way to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, this was a disappointing end to the season. Unfortunately, the team’s winter was not much better. The Rangers lost their star outfielder Josh Hamilton, catcher Mike Napoli and third baseman Michael Young while missing out on free-agents Zach Greinke and Justin Upton. Instead, the Rangers’ management opted to bring in catcher A.J. Pierzynski, veteran DH Lance Berkman, and relief pitchers Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria. Its easy to see that the Rangers’ offense may take a hit – Hamilton was a key component last season with a triple-slash of .285/.354/.577. Additionally, Pierzynski is unlikely to repeat his production, and Berkman is 37 and battling injuries. Replacing Hamilton in center field will be the duo of defense-first Craig Gentry and unproven Leonys Martin.  But if there’s any team that could deal with an offensive dip, it’s the Rangers – they averaged 4.99 runs/game last season, the highest in MLB.  Guys like Elvis Andrus (signed to an 8 year extension on Opening Day) and Adrian Beltre will keep the Rangers competitive, and there’s depth in prospects Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar should any injuries occur. The pitching situation here is similar to that of the Angels. Matt Harrison and Japanese import Yu Darvish are a strong 1-2 combo, but after them the rotation is full of question marks. Derek Holland was inconsistent in 2012, Alexi Oganda only pitched out of the ‘pen and has durability issues, and 5th starter Nick Tepesch hasn’t yet pitched above AA. Tepesch will likely be replaced when either Colby Lewis or Martin Perez return from injury. The Rangers ‘pen should be a bit stronger, with Joe Nathan closing and Joakim Soria setting up. The Rangers are a very strong competitor for a wild-card, but could take the division if things go south in LA.

The 2012 Oakland A’s showed just how meaningless and futile pre-season predictions can be. At one point last year, they were 8 games under .500. In June, they trailed the first place Rangers by 13 games. And guess what? They wound up winning the division on the very last day of the season by sweeping the very Rangers whom they had trailed all year. The A’s finished the season with an impressive 94-68 record, including a record 15 walk-off wins. All of this from a team predicted by many to lose 100+ games, a team that used a surprisingly young rotation, a team with the lowest payroll in MLB at $59 million – Moneyball 2 is already filming. The A’s probably would have made the World Series too if not for the efforts of Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who was forced to throw to them in both Game 1 and Game 5 of the ALDS. That being said, it may be difficult for the magic to hold in 2013. The rotation consisting of Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and (maybe) Dan Straily is very young. In baseball, youth is almost always correlated with relatively worse production. None of these guys are bad pitchers though, and it’s not hard to see the pitching becoming a huge strength in a couple years. As for offense, the Athletics were very reliant on the homer and struck out a tremendous amount – they broke the single season American League strikeout record of 1,324 – which doesn’t bode well for this year. The only real standout in the lineup is Yoenis Cespedes – but that didn’t stop the team last year. During the winter, A’s GM Billy Beane added catcher John Jaso, outfielder/DH Chris Young, and infielder Jed Lowrie. No superstars here but that’s to be expected from the budget conscious Athletics. The bullpen is mediocre in closer Grant Balfour and setup men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, but middle relief could be an issue. Realistically, the A’s should be good for 3rd place in the West but with this group, the pennant, disaster or something in between represent the wide range of possibilities.

The Seattle Mariners definitely upgraded this off-season, just not in the way they had intended. The M’s were linked to both free-agent Josh Hamilton and the Diamondback’s Justin Upton, but Hamilton wound up in LA and Upton vetoed a trade which would have brought him to Seattle. So what did GM Jack Zduriencik do? He loaded up on outfield/1B/DH types by trading for Michael Morse and Kendry Morales, signing Raul Ibanez, and adding Jason Bay. A little unorthodox, but this should help the team that finished dead last in the AL for runs scored – but not too much. With players such as Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Brendan Ryan in the lineup, runs will still be relatively scarce. At least the defense will be strong… at least in the infield. The team’s pitching will be led by none other than the phenomenal King Felix, who was signed to a 7 year, $175 million extension. Behind him is a less-than-inspiring rotation however. Joe Saunders, Blake Beavan, and Brandon Maurer are all projected to have ERAs above 4.00. There is depth in young studs Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, fortunately. The bullpen outlook is actually pretty good: closer Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps, and Stephen Pryor all throw pretty hard and LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy) Charlie Furbush knows how to get left-handed batters out. The M’s ‘pen also has a good amount of depth in Oliver Perez and Lucas Luetge. The Mariner’s weak offense combined with a below-average pitching staff will lead them to a 4th place finish.

The King’s Court, a section of Safeco Field devoted to Felix Hernandez, celebrates as the right hander notches another strikeout. (Image via MLB)

Last place in the AL West is reserved for the newcomer Houston Astros, who moved over from the crowded NL Central division over the winter. This a team that is in full-on rebuild mode, and will essentially be fielding an AAA team for the season. With the move to the tougher American League, the Astros may be in danger of +100 losses (again). Their new division rivals must be thrilled, though. Division rivals play each other 19 times throughout the season, and that will likely pad the records of the Rangers and Angels, which could help in the hunt for a wild-card berth. Its going to be a painful couple of years for Astros fans, but at least they seem to be rebuilding the right way: from the ground up.

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