The regular season approaches, and that means the time for preseason predictions is upon us. The way we're going to do these is by listing the teams in order of projected finish, and for each team, rank their lineup, fielding, rotation and bullpen one through five -- best through worst in the division -- before examining the team construction in greater detail, with special emphasis on one or two guys whose performances could be substantial reasons for the team's ultimate success … or failure. You'll no doubt be familiar with the first gentleman on our list, along with the team he plays for.
First Place: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
If the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim win the American League West this year -- and it's by no means certain they will, or that they'll even be in the top two -- it'll be on the strength of this lineup. Specifically, on the strength of its top five hitters: Mike Trout, Howie Kendrick, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, and Mark Trumbo. These are both the five best hitters on the ballclub and, most likely, the first five men at the top of Mike Sciosia's lineup card day in and day out. It's possible that Erick Aybar, the projected everyday shortstop, might be the number two hitter instead, as both Aybar and Kendrick have been above average at the plate both of the last few years, one of the few middle infields in the league that can boast that. In fact, it's entirely possible that top to bottom, the only player expected to put up an average or worse batting line is centerfielder Peter Bourjos, and he's not too far removed from a 116 OPS+ year himself in 2011.
In the field, the defense isn't as good in the infield as it is in Texas, but Trout/Bourjos/Hamilton are elite in the outfield -- easily the rival of the best defensive configuration the Athletics could throw out there, while still being better at the plate. It features three centerfielders, one of whom has won an MVP and another that arguably should have last year. The only outfield in baseball that compares is in Atlanta.
If the Angels don't make the playoffs, it'll be because as good as their hitting and fielding is, the club's number three starter is Joe Blanton. Blanton's had good peripherals recently, but he's always underperformed those and there's no reason to think that wouldn't continue; behind him, post-injury Tommy Hanson and ex-Mariner Jason Vargas round out a rotation that's basically ace Jered Weaver, an aging, freefalling CJ Wilson and a bunch of guys who are hoping to slightly exceed league average. If Wilson returns to Texas form, Hanson's shoulder magically gives him his old fastball back and Weaver is Weaver, they should be fine. If it's Weaver and a bunch of guys pitching 100 ERA+ at best, they're in trouble -- the Angels have almost no depth in their system right now as far as MLB-ready starting pitching is concerned.
The bullpen, meanwhile, was a disaster at the end of last season and has been shored up somewhat with the additions of Sean Burnett and David Carpenter, along with Jerome Williams's move to full time relief work, but it's still an extreme unknown. However, bullpens aren't really the AL West's strength at this point in time. The Angels are fairly close to third place Seattle in this regard.
Second Place: The Texas Rangers (Wild Card)
The Texas Rangers are not the team they were last year by any stretch of the imagination -- losing Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli will do that to a team -- and generally whether or not you think Texas ends up here, in first place, or behind Los Angeles of Anaheim and Oakland in third depends on what you think of Jurickson Profar's ability to be an impact player in 2013. If you think that Ian Kinsler will get moved to first base quickly, Profar will come up and play every day second base and hit like he's promised to while playing a great defensive pivot, then you probably have the Rangers winning the division outright. If you think he's a non-factor, they'll likely finish third in your estimation. Personally, I think he, Elvis Andrus, and Kinsler will form some sort of three-headed monster in the middle infield with Kinsler getting liberal periods of DHing and rest. Lance Berkman, the guy the Rangers signed to man the DH role every day, probably isn't going to stay healthy even in that limited role. The offense isn't what it used to be, but if Kinsler can get back to what he was, he, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and whatever contributions the team can get from Berkman should be enough. The difference between the first and second place lineups in the AL West is significant, and Texas is no longer substantially better at the plate than Oakland at any position save perhaps third base, but I trust their hitters in Arlington more than I do Oakland's in O.co Coliseum.
In the field, Mitch Moreland/Kinsler/Andrus/Beltre is a good defensive infield; Moreland/Profar/Andrus/Beltre would be absolutely elite, and I expect that's something we'll see a lot of as the year moves on. Nelson Cruz in right field is still, well, Nelson Cruz in right field, but the Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin platoon in center should be a step up in the field from Hamilton while Murphy can hold down left well. Playing good defense is going to be more important than ever for this team because...
The rotation's a bit of a question mark right now. Not who's going to be in it -- Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and eventually Colby Lewis sometime in the middle of the year -- but what they'll do. I've never been huge fans of Harrison and Holland, especially the latter, but they get the job done well enough. Given the state of the rotations for the rest of the division (we'll get to why I don't like Oakland or Seattle in a moment) I think they're the class of the West, though. If Darvish builds on his rookie season and Harrison continues to be a ground ball machine with that defense behind him, and then Colby Lewis comes back healthy, then Texas is probably the most complete team in the division.
The Rangers lost former closer Neftali Feliz to Tommy John surgery late last year, and he'll be replaced by another former closer -- Joakim Soria, formerly of the Kansas City Royals. Also joining the bullpen is Josh Lindblom who came over from Philadelphia in the Mike Young trade (pause for laughter) and, intriguingly, Derek Lowe. Lowe is slated as the longman and spot start right now with Robbie Ross keeping Colby Lewis's seat warm in the fifth slot of the rotation, but if Ross struggles noticeably, that could flip-flop. Justin Grimm (performance) and Martin Perez (health) are also guys on the outside looking in at that fifth spot, but could easily move into the bullpen if that's where the team needs help.
Third Place: The Oakland Athletics
Oakland won the West last year, so it might seem a bit odd to predict them to miss the playoffs, but I think they played well over their heads in 2012, especially in certain key positions (third base, right field). The lineup this season will start out looking a lot like it did at the end of last year, except with Scott Sizemore at second base, John Jaso at catcher and no Jonny Gomes. Sizemore's been an okay player, but never a very healthy one, and I'll need more than a half-season of plate appearances from Jaso before I'm convinced his offensive breakout last year is for real -- though he's probably an upgrade over the guys they've been running out there recently. The new shortstop, Hiroyuki Nakajima, is fresh over from the Japanese professional leagues; he could hold his own at the plate, but more than likely at some point in the season Jed Lowrie will move over from third (until he gets hurt again) and Josh Donaldson will get regular playing time once more. The outfield, with Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, is something to watch. Reddick in particular had a great 2012, carried mostly by a surprising -- and perhaps unsustainable -- surge in his home run power. Cespedes should be legit, but Reddick is a prime candidate to take a step back.
The team is good at fielding (it should be, that's what general manager Billy Beane's been building on for awhile now), but too many factors are unknown -- like just how good Nakajima is at short, how well Sizemore will play second after being injured all of last year, and what the exact distribution of innings will be on a roster featuring both infield and outfield "super-sub" players -- to put them ahead of either the Angels or the Rangers in the field.
Jarrod Parker is a guy to watch; he could really be something special this year. Brett Anderson could be too, if he could stay healthy. Tom Milone, AJ Griffin, and Daniel Straily combined for about 300 innings of pitching last year, with Milone pitching the lion's share with 190 IP. Now, they were great innings -- but sophomore slumps are common in this sport, especially among pitchers, and everyone's going to have had a full offseason to scout those 300 innings. If each of those guys is exactly as for real as their 2012 indicated, then the A's have the best rotation in the division full stop. I just don't think that's the case.
I'm a big believer in Oakland's bullpen, however, and I don't think there's anyone in the division that's particularly close to touching them here in terms of quality, unless a bunch of guys get hurt. Grant Balfour should be back shortly into the season, and I've always liked both Pat Neshek and Sean Doolittle in short relief; Jordan Norberto and Evan Scribner might not be as good as they were last year, but they should still be valuable contributors. If Oakland doesn't regress, bump them up to the top of this list -- but I think they're going to.
Fourth Place: The Seattle Mariners
Well, they're not going to finish last, which is probably the best that can be said about the 2013 Mariners. Their lineup was the worst in the division last year and they did nothing to upgrade it in any significant fashion, though they did credibly try -- Justin Upton just happened to have them on his no-trade list. The only new bat, Kendrys Morales, might be an above average contributor if Safeco Field doesn't crater him like it has a number of guys who have to hit from the right hand side (Morales is a switch hitter, at least). Other than that the offensive bright spots are Michael Saunders, maybe Kyle Seager, and perhaps Jesus Montero if he remembers how to hit right-handed pitching. If he doesn't, Montero's a platoon catcher who starts versus lefties but can't really field his position. Michael Pineda and Jose Campos is a lot to pay for a guy like that.
There's the distinct possibility that Raul Ibanez and/or Jason Bay could get substantial time in the outfield corners, which is terrifying. Franklin Gutierrez is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the league, but he's also one of the most injury-prone, so it's likely Michael Saunders will be there for a chunk of the season, where he's not ideal. Brendan Ryan is either the best or second-best defensive shortstop in the American League (depends whether you feel like counting Jose Iglesias, considering his bat probably won't let him stick as a regular), but Dustin Ackley's not very good at second and would have been better off sticking to centerfield. As mentioned before, Montero's a horror show behind the plate and he's being backed up by Kelly Shoppach.
The crown jewel of the rotation is Felix Hernandez, who was just signed to a magnificent, ludicrous extension that will keep him in Seattle roughly forever; the number two pitcher is Joe Saunders. Yeah, that Joe Saunders. He's a decent enough pitcher, but this is an even worse manifestation of what's plaguing the Angels, which is they've got one great pitcher and then behind him the very best they can hope for is average. Hisashi Iwakuma is nice enough, but Erasmo Ramirez? Blake Beaven? This is not the rotation of a competing team. Unlike the Angels, however, the Mariners do have help on the way from the minors. I'm no Danny Hultzen fan, but Taijuan Walker could be up this year; if he is, and if he's good, the rotation looks a bit better. Still needs a lot of work before Seattle can hang with the non-Houston members of the West, though.
The bullpen features a nice closer in Tom Wilhelmsen, a nice lefty specialist in Charlie Furbush, and gets rougher from there. Carter Capps was underwhelming last season but is still young; Lucas Luetge's a good arm; Oliver Perez should not be trusted with anything less than a four run lead -- no, I don't buy his miniscule sample size "resurgence" in low-leverage situations from last year. Seattle's prospects could take some steps forward this year and give them hope for 2014, but I don't see this team doing much this year.
Fifth Place: The Houston Astros
I'm not going to analyze the various components of the Houston Astros here because there's frankly little to no use or point. They will not be competitive this year by design. Most of their regulars are cast-offs from other organizations or graduated second-division player prospects; this is a team where centerpieces of trades gone by like Fernando Martinez and Brett Wallace will get substantial playing time -- Martinez was a great prospect before his knees gave out on him; same with Wallace before his swing fell all the way apart. Could they become great again? Maybe. The Orioles made the playoffs last year. Anything's possible.
However, the 2013 Astros are an Island of Misfit Toys without much hope for winning 82 games, let alone the division. Jose Altuve is showing signs of being a real-life second baseman, especially during a time when the position is hitting worse than ever across the league -- if I had to pick a player from the current roster to be on the next great Astros team, it'd be him, following by catcher Jason Castro. The rest of them are bench guys who are dreaming of being dealt at the deadline to contenders (Tyler Greene and Carlos Pena) or guys who'll be in AAA in a couple years. Oh, and Bud Norris. He's probably getting dealt too.
The good news for Astros fans is that this state of affairs is not likely to continue for long. The team cratered its payroll and should be able to spend in the next couple years, and its massive selloff of assets transformed the Houston farm from the worst in baseball to one of the top 15. The front office is canny, drafts well, scouts well, and trades well -- they're led by a guy who helped put together the current Cardinals team, one of the best major league teams with one of the best farms. They'll be good again soon. In fact, if everything goes well, they should overtake the Mariners by 2015.
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All in all, the West is a three team race with two relatively known quantities-the Angels and Rangers-and one fairly unknown quantity in Oakland. Like last year, the Athletics will probably do more than any other team to decide the division, and the top two teams of from the West should both go to the playoffs: one to the divisional round, the other to the one-game play-in round. Seattle has a bunch of young talent that's been massively underwhelming so far; if they suddenly turn it around in the somewhat-friendlier confines of Safeco, they could play a pretty formidable spoiler. Houston doesn't even really have that going for them.
But the standard caveats always apply: it's baseball. Just about anything could happen. It's not over until everyone's gone home.