As the 2017 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time.
In this, the final installment of our division preview series, we wrap things up by heading out to take a gander at the AL West.
1. Houston Astros
2016 record: 84-78
Going into this one, I thought it would be tough to pick a winner… But, it really wasn’t. Despite a bit of a let down in 2016, the Astros seem primed and ready to make a run at a title in 2017. The team is not without question marks however, and the biggest is the overall health and proficiency of the starting rotation. By now, most know the 2015 AL Cy Young Winner Dallas Keuchel, but he had a down 2016 that saw him finish with a 4.55 ERA. A repeat of that performance in 2017 won’t work. Lance McCullers was actually their best starter last season, and he will follow Keuchel along with fellow right handers Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers. Former Philly Charlie Morton, who was acquired in the offseason, looks as though he will be the #5 to begin the 2017 campaign. The biggest question mark for this group is health, as literally every member of the rotation either suffered a significant injury last season and/or is already dinged up this spring. GM Jeff Luhnow is said to be on the prowl for a big time starter on the trade market, so expect him to continue that pursuit. The bullpen is extremely good though, leading all of baseball in 2016 with a 7.9 combined WAR.
Despite intimidating offenses in Boston, Colorado and the north side of Chicago, the Astros may actually have the deepest and highest scoring line up in the game. In addition to defending AL MVP Jose Altuve and young stars such as Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer, Luhnow went out in the offseason and added vets Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick to the mix as well. In addition to what they will add on the field, McCann and Beltran are also widely revered as outstanding locker room presences who will help steward the young Astros toward the ways of winning. Oh, and they have Evan Gattis, The White Bear, coming off the bench. He hit 32 home runs last season.
Key player: SP Dallas Keuchel (7.2 WAR in 2015, 0.5 WAR in 2016). When the rotation is your biggest question mark, you absolutely have to have your stud starter pulling his own weight. For the Astros to realize their potential, the rotation has to be able to be able to keep up with the offense and that starts at the top.
2017 projection: 94-68, #3 seed in AL
2. Texas Rangers
2016 record: 95-67
Maybe I was too hard on the Rangers with that whole easy choice jab? Nah. But this is still a really good baseball team. Like the Astros, they have plenty of health question marks in their rotation, and they don’t have quite as much offensive firepower to combat that deficiency as they possess down in Houston. Cole Hamels will once again be the #1 starter for the Rangers, and his 15-5, 3.32 ERA output in 2016 was his best since 2014 in Philly and the third best season of his career. He’ll need to keep that up, as the health of #2 Yu Darvish is always very much in question. Darvish has been on the DL five times since joining the Rangers in 2012 and hasn’t pitched a qualifying number of innings since 2013. They’re followed in the rotation by lefty Martin Perez, Andrew Cashner and AJ Griffin, all of whom were somewhere between below average and awful last season. Tyson Ross is a candidate for the rotation as well, but he’s on the shelf until at least May 1st while he recovers from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery he had in October of last year. The bullpen is also in a bit of a state of flux, which certainly isn’t the case in Houston.
The Rangers lost both Carlos Beltran (Houston) and Ian Desmond (Colorado) on the free agent market, so their outfield is a little bit of a jumble at the moment. A probable starting trio of Jurickson Profar, Carlos Gomez and Nomar Mazara shows promise, but Gomez was so bad for Houston that he got himself released. He played better once he landed with the Rangers, but still one wonders what exactly he will deliver. On the infield, Mike Napoli was acquired in free agency and will cover first, and Adrian Beltre (seriously, how old is he?) still mans the hot corner. Prolific puncher of douchebags 2B Rougned Odor had a breakout 2016 that saw him hit 33 home runs, and C Jonathan Lucroy is one of the best hitting catchers in the game from behind the plate.
Key player: SP Yu Darvish (just 17 starts in 2016). I think the Rangers have a pretty good idea what they will get out of Hamels, but for them to compete with the Astros and be a serious contender, they need #2-like innings and production from Darvish.
2017 projection: 87-75, AL Wild Card
3. Seattle Mariners
2016 record: 86-76
This team is oddly old. For an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs in as long as Seattle has, they seemingly have a core of highly paid, highly talented but also rapidly aging players. That group starts with King Felix Hernandez, who is still just 30, but has been a mainstay in the Mariners rotation since he was 20, and he’s starting to show mileage. Hernandez started 25 games last year (the first in a decade where he didn’t start at least 30), and his ERA came in at an inflated (for him) 3.82. Does he have any more ace-like seasons left in the tank? He’s followed by Hisashi Iwakuma, who is getting on in years himself (36), and seems in line for some regression. The remainder of the rotation is set to be comprised of the promising but oft-injured lefty James Paxton, and vets Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Neither were very good last year, and the floor for this rotation seems like it could be disastrously low if things don’t fall the right way.
So, about that age thing. All of the Mariners biggest offensive weapons are getting up there. Third baseman Kyle Seager is the youngest (30) and he’s joined by Nelson Cruz (36) and Robinson Cano (34). Both Seager and Cano hit career-high homers last year, 30 and 39 respectively, but Seattle needs a lot more than these three hitting the ball over the fence if they’re going to try to compensate for an extremely shallow and shaky rotation. GM Jerry Dipoto made a flurry of trades in the offseason and two of those acquisitions, SS Jean Segura and CF Jarrod Dyson, look to be slotted into starting spots, but they hardly seem like pieces significant enough to elevate this team.
Key player: SP James Paxton (started career high 20 games in 2016). Durability has always been an issue for Paxton, which is infuriating, because when he pitches you can see the flashes of potential that he still has. If Hernandez and Iwakuma can pitch well, and if Paxton can stay healthy, the Mariners could have something.
2017 projection: 82-80
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2016 record: 74-88
Ah, the Angels. Where did it all go wrong? Terrible drafting, for a start. The owners of one of (if not the worst) farm systems in the game, the Angels seem to be constantly trying to desperately to plug a hole somewhere. Their rotation, lead by Garrett Richards, actually has sneaky good upside… But like so many others in this series we’ve done, health is a massive question mark. Richards was very good in 2014-2015, but 2016 was slowed by elbow issues that nearly culminated in Tommy John surgery. Richards has avoided the procedure so far, instead opting to try experimental stem cell injections to try to repair his damaged UCL. He’s followed by Matt Shoemaker, who pitched like a #1 starter in 2016 until he took a line drive to the head, after which he wasn’t so great. They will be followed by young, hard throwing righty Tyler Skaggs, veteran Ricky Nolaso and converted reliever Jesse Chavez. If things go right, this group could actually be pretty good.
Mike Trout plays for the Angels, and he’s the best baseball player on this here planet. Trout was the 25th overall selection in the 2009 MLB Draft, and taking a look at the guys who were selected in front of him is sort of hilarious. Hindsight is 20/20 and all, but good lord. Even a superhuman ballplayer like Trout needs help though, and therein lies the problem. The Angels are still paying Albert Pujols like a superstar, but at age 38 he’s now roughly performing like the AL-average designated hitter. Defense is going to be a strong suit for this team though, as they possess the best defensive SS in the game in Andrelton Simmons, who will be covered on either side by 2B Danny Espinosa and 3B Yunel Escobar, who are also both good defenders in their own right. This team will struggle to score runs, so they better save as many of them as they can.
Key player: SP Garrett Richards (just six starts in 2016). Richards health issues were covered above, but when he’s healthy he’s the ace of this staff. The Angels probably aren’t playoff bound in 2017 regardless of what Richards does, but him returning to his 2014 form would go a long way toward respectability.
2017 projection: 76-86
5. Oakland Athletics
2016 record: 69-93
What exactly are the A’s trying to do? A question that’s been oft-asked since now Executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane took over as the club’s GM in 1997. David Forst is the GM now, but that question remains as relevant as ever. Are they rebuilding? Are they competing? The answer seems to be no, to both. The A’s #1 starter Sonny Gray is probably pretty emblematic of the overall uncertainty of this franchise, as Gray looked to be a budding ace through the 2015 season, only to see 2016 play out like a profound nightmare. A 5-11 record and a 5.69 ERA is probably an aberration for the young Gray, but can he return to his 2015 form? We’ll see. The remainder of the rotation looks to be filled by Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton and Jesse Hahn. Some intriguing youth, but growing pains will be abound.
Oakland spent $30 million on the free agent market after the 2016 season. In the grand scheme that’s not a ton, but to the A’s it’s a lot. The problem is that the money spent doesn’t really look like it will improve the team that much. 3B Trevor Plouffe, CF Rajai Davis and OF/DH Matt Joyce are all solid baseball players, but all come with question marks of some sort. Davis is 36, Joyce has lacked both consistency and durability and Plouffe is fine, but he’s not a guy that’s gonna move the needle for you. LF Khris Davis is probably going to hit a ton of home runs again though, he hit 42 last year despite playing home games in the massive and decrepit Oakland Coliseum, so that’s fun.
Key player: SP Sonny Gray (-0.5 WAR in 2016, down from a 5.8 WAR in 2015). As with many other teams, the A’s are going nowhere this season, so they need a rebound from Gray so that they can trade him to bolster a very average farm system. Peripheral statistics suggest that Gray was simply unlucky in some ways in 2016, so his regaining a bit of value could go a long way toward the A’s trying to figure out what they’re doing long term.
2017 projection: 70-92
If you missed our earlier installments, you can check them out below.
NL East HERE
NL Central HERE
NL West HERE
AL East HERE
AL Central HERE