We are 18 days away from the beginning of the 2017 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Wednesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. This week: The American League West.
In 2001, the Seattle Mariners won the American League West, and every year since, the division has been won by the Angels (six times), the A's (five) or the Rangers (four). Of course, the Astros have only been in the division three years, but still: That's three teams winning every division title over the past 15 years. If there's a year where Seattle or Houston is gonna break through, it's gotta be this year: You can make a strong argument they're the two best teams in the division. But then again: We've said that before.
AL West predicted order of finish
5. Oakland A's, 67-95
So, uh … what's going on with the A's? We've spent the past five years waiting for a Billy Beane plan to emerge, often even giving him the benefit of the doubt when he would make increasingly quixotic moves. (Somewhere out there on the internet, there's a fervid defense of his Josh Donaldson trade.) And now look where we are: With Oakland not only one of the worst teams in baseball, but no clear direction or sense of what is going to happen next. This team is going backwards, in the standings and in sensibility. The A's won the division only three years ago. But it seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?
As Joe Sheehan (subscribe!) pointed out in his baseball newsletter, the A's essentially have an expansion team's offense. (It's possible that Stephen Vogt is their best hitter?) And the A's appear to have missed their window on Sonny Gray and don't have much else that exciting in their rotation. Their bullpen is fine and should spend plenty of time keeping games the A's are trailing 3-1 right at 3-1. Those games will still be losses.
The A's still have their stadium issue holding them back, but they've had that problem for a long time. What they seem to have lost is any sense of urgency. Oakland has great uniforms, great fans and great history: It's a team you want to like. But it is seriously difficult to find anything to like about this team in 2017 … and maybe even for a while after that.
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 79-83
For a team that lost nearly 90 games last season and didn't make any major offseason moves -- and doesn't have a ton of studs returning from injury -- there are people who are surprisingly optimistic about the Angels this year. Fangraphs has them as a borderline playoff team, and the Halos are some people's secret sleepers heading into the year.
This is for three reasons, one suspects:
- Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and when you have the best player in baseball, you only need to be average everywhere else to be a pretty solid team.
- New general manager Billy Eppler has made some nifty moves on the margins, particularly defensively, bringing in Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere and Danny Espinosa.
- People really, really want a team with Mike Trout in his prime to be good and are talking themselves into the Angels.
I'll confess, I tend to jive most with Option 3. Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron are handy support pieces for Trout, but Albert Pujols is dangerously close to turning into Chris Carter. This offense needs a lot to fall perfect to be enough around Trout, and that's not even bringing the rotation into account. Garrett Richards has people wishcasting, but even if he is close to the No. 1 they want (and can stay healthy), the rest of this rotation is innings-fillers at best.
The farm system, while a little better, is still one of the worst in the game. They're counting way too much on players who are marginal at best or far, far past their primes at worst. And their rotation could be a nightmare, again. Trout has four more years under contract with the Angels. Tick … tick … tick …
3. Texas Rangers, 83-79
For a team that was thought to have a whole army of prospects coming to dominate baseball, the Rangers look sort of … old? Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar are all here, but only one of them is a star at this point; you see the talent in the other guys (along with Joey Gallo), but it's not something the Rangers can count on. So they rely on the guys who are obviously solid (Adrian Beltre, a national treasure, and Jonathan Lucroy), look for shaky vets for either a rebound or just to say healthy (Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Gomez) and cross their fingers. The Rangers have caught some bad breaks, but still: The plan was supposed to go more smoothly than this.
That said, this is a division winner, but it's also one that's relying a ton on Yu Darvish being healthy and Cole Hamels being an AL Cy Young Award contender. The back half of the rotation is a mess, which could put a ton of stress on a bullpen that could be one of the best in baseball. (The Matt Bush story is the craziest baseball has had since Rick Ankiel.)
More to the point: The Rangers need their stars to remain stars (and to remain healthy), and they need all their question marks to become certainties. Even though their rotation is extremely shaky beyond the big two, the Rangers look like a team that could be terrifying in a short playoff series. But here's betting they can't quite make it that far this year.
2. Seattle Mariners, 88-74
Oh, man, am I ever gonna regret this one. There have been so many years now in which it felt like this, this was the year the Mariners were going to finally break through and end their playoff drought, including 2016, in which they were closer than you probably remember them being. But this time I really, really mean it: This is the year.
For all the talk of Crazy Tradin' Jerry DiPoto, this team looks better than last year's team. You might think they gave up on Taijuan Walker too early, but man, Jean Segura is pretty much a perfect fit for this team. He doesn't have to be the borderline superstar he was last year to be a huge help for Seattle and change the whole look of that lineup. The defense should be better as well, and that Danny Valencia/Daniel Vogelbach platoon at first base is actually a pretty fun idea. The lineup looks deep, versatile and scary.
The rotation has some worries, but you don't have to squint that hard to see it being at least league average, and it could be more if Drew Smyly and James Paxton take a step forward. And doesn't it feel like Felix Hernandez has a Justin Verlander-esque bounceback in him?
The worrisome thing about the M's is that they are running out of time: Way too many of their best players are over 30. But let me believe one last time. Robinson Cano has an MVP-caliber season; King Felix is close to King Felix again; the Mariners make it into October, at last. Maybe they can trade for Ichiro in August, just so everything looks right again.
1. Houston Astros, 96-66
So, in case you were wondering why a sixth of Major League Baseball teams are basically bottoming out right now, the two best teams in baseball might be the Cubs and the Astros, the two teams who did that first. The Astros excitement might have been a bit early last year, and you could see their youth and inexperience. But heavens, it's all coming together for them now.
Sure, the rotation needs a lot of work, but basically all of baseball thinks Jose Quintana is going to be pitching for them by July, and that will be just the start. The Astros, like the Cubs, have shown a willingness, an eagerness, heck, a hunger to be aggressive at every point to improve their team: That rotation is going to look radically more different in August than it looks right now. (And who knows? Maybe Dallas Keuchel rebounds and Lance McCullers takes another jump.)
But boy howdy, that lineup. It was terrifying before they added Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick, two players that were precisely what they needed: veterans you can count on when the young guys fade. But you should expect those young guys to fade a lot less this year. You can actually imagine a future in which four different Astros (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Yulieski Gurriel) are all AL MVP Award candidates (in a Trout-less world, anyway). This team can destroy you, top to bottom: They're going to turn Minute Maid Park into another Coors.
The Astros have a massive amount of money and talent to burn and as much motivation as any team in baseball. And the scary thing is: They might just be getting started.
* * *