By Marc Normandin
Predicting division winners is sometimes an easy task. There's usually one club that is so far ahead of the pack that a safe guess can be made as to who will come away with a division crown. It doesn't always end up being correct, of course, but the reasoning that brings an analyst or fan to one clear victor is there. In the 2014 American League West, this is not the case.
I believe it is far and away the most wide-open division race in all of baseball this upcoming season. That's not meant to disparage the Oakland Athletics, who have come away as the division winner in each of the last two years, either: the rest of the AL West has just improved by that much, in my opinion.
Four of the five teams (sorry, Astros -- your time will come) have legitimate cases to make for taking the divisional crown. None of these four teams are perfect, but they're all talented, and over 162 games, any of the four could open up a lead they never give up.
The defending champion Athletics have not seriously declined from year-to-year, and present as potent a combination of pitching and hitting as they did last season. It's their competition that has improved, though, and that fact could magnify the few weaknesses the A's possess. Their lineup was excellent a year ago, posting a 110 OPS+ as a unit that was tied for second-best in the American League along with the Angels and Tigers. There's plenty of reason to believe they will be a threat once more, as key contributors like Brandon Moss (.269/.345/.550 with 51 homers in 801 plate appearances since 2012), Jed Lowrie (122 OPS+, tops in the AL among shortstops) and Josh Donaldson (148 OPS+, fourth in the AL MVP vote in his breakout year) have all returned.
There is no serious hole in the lineup, either, as Josh Reddick has the potential to be the worst hitting regular on the team, but is a phenomenal defensive presence in right, and is capable of quality seasons at the plate. Pitching is a different story, as the Athletics rely on slightly above-average arms and depth to get by, rather than an array of high-quality starters.
Sonny Gray has the potential to be the team's ace in the 24 year-old's first full big-league campaign, but replacing the seemingly ageless Bartolo Colon with the volatile and fragile Scott Kazmir could be a mistake. If Kazmir goes down or simply disappoints, the A's lose one of the only high-upside arms in their rotation. A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and Jarrod Parker are all useful pitchers, but they've also all been about average, and with the exception of Parker, aren't expected to be much more than that. There's value in that, but if slack needs to be picked up, they might not be capable of doing so. Someone like former Indians prospect Drew Pomeranz might be able to change that, but he's a wild card, not the kind of depth that can be outright depended on.
That doesn't make the A's weak, of course. It just means they have an obvious vulnerability they hope doesn't come up during the season, or else it's going to be easier for one of the three teams chasing them to close any gap the Athletics open up in the standings.
The Rangers lost too much offense when Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton walked away through free agency after the 2012 season. While they still had the pitching to carry them through the year, an injury to Matt Harrison, one of their better starters, kept them from having their ideal rotation throughout 2013, and replacements such as Nick Tepesch, Justin Grimm, and even Matt Garza (acquired mid-season from the Cubs) couldn't fix that. They have a similar problem in 2014, at least at the outset, as Harrison is still recovering from back problems (though he's expected to return), and Derek Holland, so good last season, is going to miss about half of the year recovering from knee surgery. Their replacements are projects Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders, both of whom struggled last season despite pitcher-friendly home parks.
This time around, though, the Rangers have 23-year-old Martin Perez from the start, a blessing for them considering his strong 124 innings over 20 starts in 2013, in which he posted a 114 ERA+ thanks to ground ball tendencies and a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. Harrison isn't expected to miss the year, either, as he's already pitching in spring training games: he won't be around for Opening Day, but the Rangers won't be without one of their best pitchers for very long.
Plus, the lineup is a strength this year. Texas already had Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios around, but they added one of the most underrated hitters in the game in Shin-Soo Choo, as well as Prince Fielder. Choo ranks 13th in the majors, minimum 2,500 plate appearances, in OPS+ at 137 since 2008, and batted .285/.423/.462 a year ago with the Reds. That might look absurd, but it's only six OPS+ points above his overall numbers since he became a full-time player in 2008 -- Choo has been fantastic for a long time now, but was mostly fantastic in anonymity with the Indians.
As for Fielder, his disappointing 2013 featured a 120 OPS+ and a .279/.362/.457 line. He's still great at the plate even when he's not at his best. If 2013 was an anomaly, and he returns to his career levels, then the Rangers will be even more thrilled they dealt Ian Kinsler to open up space for Jurickson Profar at second.
There are risks, of course: the starting pitching might not stay healthy, their temporary arms may not be great and Fielder's days as an elite bat could be over. But all those question marks aren't enough to dismiss them as contenders.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels might not seem like a smart pick, given their struggles a year ago, but there are reasons to believe they didn't need to do all that much to get back into contention. For one, 2012's mega-signing, Albert Pujols, might be healthy for the first time in a Halos uniform after undergoing surgery to take care of his plantar fasciitis. Even if he's just 75 percent of the player he was with the Cardinals while building his Hall of Fame career, he'll be one of the better first basemen around. Even if he isn't, though, the Angels will hit.
A year ago, the team produced the second-best offense in the American League, with a 110 OPS+, and did it despite Pujols' struggles and the disappearance of Josh Hamilton's bat. While they lost Mark Trumbo, they replaced him with David Freese, and added Raul Ibanez to the mix as well. Ibanez's power is similar to Trumbo's, while Freese and Trumbo are similar in terms of production in their careers -- even if they've gotten there in different ways, with Freese being more about contact and patience than Trumbo and his raw power.
The real key, though, is that the Angels added promising arms Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to the rotation. Even if they're just average, it's a massive improvement over last year's horrific rotation behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Only two teams in the AL had a lower ERA+ than the Angels in 2013, and one of them was the 111-loss Astros. By taking Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jerome Williams out of the picture, the Angels excised the worst parts of last year's staff, and replaced them with promise. That promise might not take, at least not right away, but they have their best chance in the last three years to finally make good on their team building and come away as AL West champs.
The Mariners, admittedly, are the longest shot of this foursome to win the division. However, they have the promise and talent on hand to put together a stellar run, so long as things go their way.
Adding free agent second baseman Robinson Cano to the mix makes them obviously better. He's one of the best hitters in the game without even considering his position, and his bat speed and the power it produces are such that we shouldn't have to worry about a serious decline in his production just because he left Yankee Stadium behind for Safeco. He won't be alone, though, as the Mariners have surrounded him with promising young players like Brad Miller (110 OPS+ as a rookie shortstop), third baseman Kyle Seager (118 OPS+), and the seemingly improving Justin Smoak, who might have finally turned his career around at the plate. Mike Zunino is a 23-year-old backstop with serious power who has the potential to break out after he was rushed to the majors and struggled last year, and Michael Saunders has been useful between his bat and glove for a couple of years now.
The Mariners also brought on both Logan Morrison and Corey Hart. While they have roughly half a good knee between them, they also have the potential to hit. Morrison has scuffled in Miami the last two seasons, but is just 26, and has seemingly needed a change of scenery since he arrived on the Marlins. That might have more to do with Morrison than anything, but the Marlins aren't exactly begging for the benefit of the doubt on just about anything. As for Hart, while he missed 2013, he batted .279/.343/.514 in the preceding three seasons. If his knees have recovered after his lost year, the Mariners have added two serious bats to the middle of a young lineup.
The pitching should be better than in 2013 as well. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are both back, and they'll be joined by reclamation project Scott Baker, who has been very good when healthy in his career, as well as prospects like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Walker is one of the better pitching prospects in the league, and if his spring shoulder woes turn out to be temporary, he could be an overqualified three for the M's. Paxton has less promise, but he's capable of out-pitching the arms the Mariners handed innings to a year ago.
Again, they're the weakest of the four, but if enough of the youth either keeps it up or takes a step forward, and the new additions do what the Mariners hope, this is going to be a team that stays in the race. If the other clubs don't have the same kind of luck, the Mariners could shock everyone.
All four of these clubs could find themselves in October after six months of regular season ball. Each team has its own weaknesses, but that variability makes this upcoming race that much closer, that much more difficult to predict from the outset. Unpredictability remains one of baseball's strongest draws. The A's could win again and make it three in a row, but at this point, with the teams they're up against, it's just too close, and too wide-open, to call.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.