2014 MLB Preview: AL West

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the third edition of College Sports Town’s divisional previews for the 2014 MLB season. Today, I’ll be looking at the only remaining AL division, the AL West. As has been the case for the past couple years, I expect an intense race for the AL West crown. I also expect that the race will have the same result.

Divisional Breakdown

1. Oakland Athletics

2. Seattle Mariners

3. Texas Rangers

4. Los Angeles Angels

5. Houston Astros

Team Breakdown

1. Oakland Athletics

The A’s didn’t catch the league by surprise last season as they had in 2012, but that didn’t matter. They won their second straight AL West title, and I expect that trend to continue this year. Despite an off-season with some controversial moves such as trading prospect Michael Choice to the Rangers for 4th outfielder Craig Gentry, the A’s remain the team to beat. The lineup is underrated. Coco Crisp is a great leadoff hitter, even at this point in his career. Last year, Jed Lowrie batted .290, Yoenis Cespedes launched 26 HR and won the Home Run Derby, and Josh Donaldson finished 4th in the MVP vote after his breakout season. Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick have both had 30+ HR years in the past couple of seasons, and I see no reason why they can’t replicate that success. Former Dodger Nick Punto should be an effective, if not exciting, replacement for the jettisoned Jemile Weeks. The lineup should be about as productive as it was last year. The rotation, not so much. The 2013 A’s benefitted from a breakout season from Jarrod Parker and a career year from Bartolo Colon. Parker is soon going to undergo Tommy John surgery which will keep him out for the year, and Colon signed with the Mets. Still, the A’s rotation is relatively strong. Sonny Gray and Dan Straily each had strong rookie showings, and Tommy Milone is a solid left-hander. The A’s hope that Scott Kazmir can replicate the success he had last year as a revitalized member of the Indians rotation. At least the starters should be able to rely upon a strong bullpen. Despite losing All-Star Grant Balfour, the A’s pen figures to be one of the best in the AL due to the acquisition of closer Jim Johnson and setup man Luke Gregerson. Joined with former All-Star Ryan Cook and the solid Sean Doolittle, one can expect most of the A’s leads to be preserved.

Verdict

Best Case- Cespedes and Donaldson are All-Stars, Kazmir pitches well again, the bullpen is impenetrable, and the A’s win the West for the third consecutive year.

Worst Case- The rotation is weakened without Parker and Colon, Jim Johnson continues to decline, and the A’s miss the playoffs.

Coco Crisp might have both the coolest name and best hair in all of baseball.

Coco Crisp might have both the coolest name and best hair in all of baseball.

2. Seattle Mariners

Last season, the Mariners finished fourth in the West, missing the playoffs for the 12th straight year. Following yet another disappointing year, the Mariners made a huge splash in the off-season. The squad is much improved, and even though I don’t think they’ll earn a wild-card berth this year, they’ll certainly contend for a postseason spot. The lineup, notorious in past years for its low scoring, looks powerful. New acquisitions Logan Morrison and Corey Hart are both capable of hitting 30+ HR, if their knees hold up. Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak also pack some pop, and Mike Zunino should improve in his sophomore year. Oh yeah, and the Mariners happened to sign the best second baseman in the league, Robinson Cano. Cano will have huge expectations placed on him due to the ten-year contract, the 4th largest in league history, but I guarantee Cano plays better following his huge contract than Albert Pujols did (more on him later). Even with Cano, however, the Mariners’ rotation surpasses their lineup. Ace Felix Hernandez, a perennial Cy Young candidate (link to AL awards), is followed by Hisashi Iwakuma, who actually had a better 2013 than King Felix. Then come the young guns. 23 year old Erasmo Ramirez has looked great this spring, 25 year old James Paxton has been good as well, and everyone is talking about 21 year old Taijuan Walker, whose brilliant fastball makes scouts salivate. Assuming Iwakuma and Walker recover from their injuries and return to the majors quickly, opposing batters will dread facing the Mariners’ starting pitchers. They probably won’t look forward to the bullpen, either. The Mariners signed former All-Star Fernando Rodney, who, along with set up man Danny Farquhar, should do a fine job crushing comeback attempts. Although this is a dangerous Mariners squad, I don’t have enough confidence in their pitching (besides King Felix and Iwakuma) and tenuous lineup (besides Cano) to put them in my prospective postseason.

Verdict

Best Case- Hart and Morrison stay healthy and slug, Cano wins MVP, Hernandez wins Cy Young, Walker is a ROY candidate, and the Mariners break their postseason drought.

Worst case- Hart and Morrison face knee issues again, the young members of the pitching staff falter, and the Mariners miss the playoffs yet again.

This sight is going to remain strange for a while.

This sight is going to remain strange for a while.

3. Texas Rangers

The Rangers just missed out on the playoffs last year, losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in a one-game playoff for the final wild-card spot. The Rangers will remain one of the better teams in the AL, but I predict they will miss out on the playoffs again this season. The lineup is not the most pressing issue in Arlington. Shin-Soo Choo, signed this off-season to a 7 year deal worth $130 million, is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, and Prince Fielder, acquired for Ian Kinsler in a blockbuster trade with the Tigers, brings with him monumental power (and a horrendous contract). Adrian Beltre has been building his Hall of Fame case during his Texas tenure, and his tremendous play should continue in 2014. The acquisition of Alex Rios was one of the best deadline deals of last summer, and, even though the playoff push fell through, Rios’ contributions will be appreciated this year. The difference between this lineup being top ten or top five in the league will be the performances of of Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar. If Andrus, signed to massive extension last year, returns to his former All-Star level of performance, and if Profar is as good as promised, the Rangers’ offense will be elite. The concern with the Rangers lies in the pitching staff. Outside of Yu Darvish (currently day-to-day with neck stiffness), who has been spectacular in his two MLB seasons, the rotation is a mystery. Their second-best starter, Derek Holland, will be out until the All-Star break. Sophomore Martin Perez will have to step up, along with Matt Harrison, who is recovering from three surgeries last year. The bullpen is no more secure. All-Star Joe Nathan left for the Tigers in the off-season, leaving the closing job to former All-Star Joakim Soria. Although Soria struggled a bit last year, he has looked strong in spring training. The Rangers are hoping Soria and Neftali Feliz can return to their former elite status.

Verdict

Best Case- Fielder hits 40+ HR, Choo leads the AL in OBP, Beltre is an MVP candidate, Darvish is a Cy Young candidate, and the rotation holds up long enough to give the Rangers a playoff spot.

Worst case- Andrus and Profar disappoint, the rotation outside of Darvish is injury-prone and leaky, and the Rangers miss the playoffs for the second straight year.

Rangers fans should be glad Prince can hit a ball farther than you can throw him.

As always, Prince will be portly but powerful.

4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Despite massive spending the past two off-seasons, the Angels missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year last season. It seems the Angels put their eggs in the wrong baskets, and that has and will continue to hurt them, both in their pockets and in their farm system. The Angels may have the best young player in the game in Mike Trout, but any player, even a player as good as Trout, would have difficulty leading this team to the postseason. What the Angels really need is a time machine to bring back the 2010 versions of their premier players (except Trout). It hasn’t been the largest sample size, but Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have been extremely disappointing in their Angels’ tenures. The Angels traded away their slugger Mark Trumbo, as well as the somewhat-promising Peter Bourjos, in exchange for pitching and 2011 World Series hero David Freese. The only people I trust in this lineup are Trout and Howie Kendrick. The rotation was the focus of the past off-season, so it should be improved from last season. Still, I don’t have much confidence in it, outside of former All-Stars C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver. New additions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs could be effective pieces, but each of the lefties had slightly rocky 2013 seasons, and Mark Trumbo (who I am a believer in AS A DH) is an hefty price to pay for them. In the bullpen, former Indian Joe Smith should slightly shore up a shaky staff which includes closer Ernesto Frieri but not much else.

Verdict

Best case- Trout wins MVP, Hamilton and Pujols are improved, along with Santiago and Skaggs, and the Angels chase a wild-card spot all season, falling just short of the postseason.

Worst case- Trout is mortal, Pujols continues to decline, Skaggs and Santiago regress, and the Angels fall in the worse half of the final AL standings.

Trout seems to lead the league in both WAR and smiles.

Trout will once again lead the league in WAR (for whatever that’s worth).

5. Houston Astros

Oh boy. Last year, I concluded my Astros preview by saying that their worst case scenario was reality, and I was right. The 2013 Astros lost 111 games, and this year’s edition won’t be much better. The off-season brought several welcome improvements, but Houston fans will suffer through another tough season. The lineup is probably the worst in the league. Dexter Fowler is a good leadoff man, and Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, and Jason Castro would probably have spots on other teams. The rest of the lineup, however, might not find a home anywhere else but Houston. Much of that same sentiment is reflected by the pitching staff. Outside of new additions Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, and Jesse Crain, most of the Astros pitchers are mediocre. Astros fans looking to avoid killing themselves (especially after suffering through the Texans season) should keep their eyes on the minor leagues and September call ups. The Astros, due to their recent ineptitude, have four of Prospect361.com’s top 30 prospects scattered throughout the minors. Hopefully for Astros fans, their development will be rapid, and they will soon join promising pitcher Jarred Cosart in the big leagues. Right now, however, I’d advise the denizens of Houston to start paying attention to the NBA and the NFL draft. That way, they won’t have to watch the 2014 Astros.

Verdict

Best Case- The youth movement arrives as quickly as possible, inspiring hope for the 2015 season.

Worst case- Once again, reality.

This photo does a good job depicting last year for the Astros, as well as previewing the next (also, any chance I have to post it, I will).

This photo does a good job depicting last year for the Astros, as well as previewing the next (besides the fact that I must post it any time it’s relevant).

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