The American League West has belonged to Texas and Oakland this decade, as the two teams have combined for each of the last four division titles. The Angels and Mariners have spent heavily over the past few years with aims at putting up a challenge in 2014. All four teams could ostensibly compete, while the Astros, well, let's just say they continue to have their eyes on the future.
First Place: Texas Rangers
The Rangers feature many of the same names this year -- this is still the team of the dynamic Adrian Beltre-Elvis Andrus duo and the team of new annual Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish. But the club reloaded this offseason, and the additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo (and late 2013 addition Alex Rios) should help revitalize an offense that was uncharacteristically weak last season.
Fielder disappointed the Tigers last season, but still posted a 120 OPS+ in his worst MLB season. He has consistently come back strong from down seasons in the past, and The Ballpark in Arlington will make a much friendlier home to his power stroke than Comerica Park. Choo's on-base skills will set up Fielder and Beltre with loads of RBI opportunities. The Rangers' on-base percentage fell from .334 to .323 in 2013, but both Fielder and Choo are exceptionally patient hitters who should help reverse that trend.
The Rangers rotation depth will be tested early, as both Matt Harrison and Derek Holland will be late arrivals due to injuries. Highly touted prospect Tanner Scheppers will get a chance to unleash his mid-90s fastball out of the rotation, and there's little reason to believe he won't translate his excellent relief results (1.88 ERA, 220 ERA+ in 76.2 innings) into solid performance as a starter. Martin Perez, Joe Saunders, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hanson round out the rotation -- not bad for the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth options, no matter how they end up being ordered.
Between Darvish, Beltre, Andrus, Fielder, Choo and Rios, the Rangers have a posse of stars the rest of the division can't match. The depth they've cultivated in the farm system under Jon Daniels should keep the supporting cast strong, as it will have to with Jurickson Profar out for the first 10-12 weeks with a shoulder injury. The Rangers won't move to the next level of national respect until they can win in the playoffs, but there's little reason to believe they fall from the ranks of the perennial contenders in 2014.
Second Place: Oakland Athletics
Deep rosters full of platoon and matchup opportunities have defined the Athletics' return to top of the AL West over the past two years. Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes give the Athletics legitimate star power, but the Athletics can field competent hitters top to bottom against pitchers of both hands. Of the 13 Athletics to take at least 180 plate appearances last season, 10 recorded an OPS+ above 100 (the league average), and 12 recorded an OPS+ of at least 90. This year, the only new position player is Craig Gentry, replacing Chris Young as the fourth outfielder, and position player depth projects to be a major strength for the Athletics once again.
Same goes for the bullpen. The Athletics have been perfectly fine swapping in names -- Grant Balfour and Jerry Blevins are out, Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson are in -- but once again the club has multiple strong relief options from both the left and right side. Relievers like 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook and reliable lefty Sean Doolittle can outduel both left and right handed hitters and will give Bob Melvin plenty of flexibility in the late innings.
The pitching depth, however, will be heavily tested. Jarrod Parker will miss the year due to Tommy John surgery, and A.J. Griffin is out through early May with a muscle strain. Sonny Gray pitched like a future ace in 2013, but the rotation is uncertain behind him. Scott Kazmir last pitched 100 innings in consecutive years in 2010 and last went over 160 innings in 2007. Tommy Milone and Dan Straily have been solid fill-ins over the past two seasons, but have never been relied on for a full season. And beyond that it's a grab bag of career minor leaguers or relievers: Jesse Chavez appears to have a rotation spot now, and Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom lurk as emergency options.
The offense alone should give the Athletics enough firepower to challenge for a playoff spot. The pitching will likely decide if that's a wild card spot or a third straight division title in Oakland.
Third Place: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
For the past two seasons, the Angels have combined the greatest player of the previous decade in Albert Pujols with the greatest player of the current decade in Mike Trout. Last year's team featured six other All-Stars with 23 combined All-Star appearances, and they came up with squat again. The Angels had a mostly quiet offseason -- David Freese is in from St. Louis to play third base, Peter Bourjos is out to allow Trout to move back to center field and the team otherwise looks much like the 2013 version that won 78 games despite getting to play the Astros 19 times.
The Astros finished 2013 over .500 against only three teams -- the Brewers (2-1), White Sox (4-3) and the Angels (10-9). The two competitive teams in last year's American League West made the most out of their opportunities against the Astros, as Texas and Oakland racked up 17 and 15 wins against Houston, respectively. The Angels season went in the tank early, as the club went 9-17 in April, and it was buried on June 3rd. That night, the Angels lost 2-1 to Houston to close a four-game sweep in Anaheim, one of just three road sweeps the Astros pulled off all season (and one was just two games). In the loss, the Angels squandered an eight-inning, 11-strikeout performance from Joe Blanton because they managed just five hits against Erik Bedard to fall to 25-33, 11 games back in the division race, and such was the story of the 2013 Angels.
Like any 78-win team, the Angels had holes on their roster. Jerome Williams made 25 starts and J.B. Shuck took 478 plate appearances. But this was bound to happen with a team like the Angels, constructed around Trout and a few highly paid stars. The story was the lack of punch from Josh Hamilton and Pujols, who combined for 38 home runs and 3.0 WAR for a cool $33 million. The 2013 Angels would have been a competitive team with vintage Pujols and Hamilton, and one can bet they wouldn't have lost the season series to the Astros. If the club is to have any success while Trout is around for below-market dollars, the two former MVPs will have to rediscover at least a portion of their former glory.
Fourth Place: Seattle Mariners
Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners, in full-on protect-our-phoney-baloney-jobs mode, made a flurry of moves with eyes on competing in 2014. Robinson Cano (and his $240 million deal) is the centerpiece, of course, and he'll have plenty of new veteran help this year. Between free agency and trades, the Mariners added outfielders Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, closer Francisco Rodney, catcher John Buck, starter Scott Baker, and old friend Willie Bloomquist. These are players who have all been decent at some point in their careers, making it a bit easier to sell the idea of a rebuilt squad.
But this collection is more quantity than quality. Hart and Morrison have spent recent years dealing with injuries and are more defensively suited to first base than the outfield. Either is likely to be a downgrade relative to Michael Saunders. Rodney fought control issues again in 2013 after setting the single-season ERA record in 2012. Buck has a .661 OPS since making his only All-Star appearance in 2010. Baker has started three games in the past two years and more than 30 games once in eight seasons. And Bloomquist is Bloomquist, as career reserve who hit .263/.322/.324 in seven previous campaigns with the Mariners.
Cano and Felix Hernandez give the Mariners a legitimate shot at fielding the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winners, and Kyle Seager, Brad Miller and Hisashi Iwakuma form a solid core. But this is a club riddled with question marks -- first base, catcher, the entire outfield, the back half of the rotation, the bullpen -- and those problems still exist despite the number of impressive-sounding names added to the roster this winter.
Fifth Place: Houston Astros
The Astros are still clearly nowhere near contention. Only Chicago scored fewer than Houston's 3.77 runs per game in the American League, and nobody approached Houston's 5.23 runs allowed per game. Houston will be near the league's bottom in both categories again this season, as they made only minor additions to the roster in the offseason.
At least this year's version added a couple of major league-level talents for the fans in Houston to watch. Dexter Fowler arrived via Colorado in exchange for prospect bust Jordan Lyles. Fowler's .270/.365/.423 career batting line comes with the standard Coors Field caveats, but he still projects to be one of the two or three best hitters on the Astros' roster, alongside deserving All-Star catcher Jason Castro and all-or-nothing slugger Chris Carter. The additions of Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams, Chad Qualls, Anthony Bass and Jesse Crain will at least help the pitching staff attempt to close the 60-run gap between the Astros and second-worst run prevention team Minnesota.
The players to watch are the youngsters who could conceivably be around for a contending Houston team: Castro, Fowler, Carter, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Jonathan Villar, starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, and perhaps outfielders Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes. Altuve will be out to prove he's more than a height-based fascination, as he posted a mere 89 OPS+ with mediocre defense at second base last season and will need to do more to justify a long-term starting role. Villar, Hoes and Grossman will be given a bit more rope, as they will be entering their first full seasons as major leaguers. Cosart will look to expand on a sharp 10-start cup-of-coffee last year.
The most entertaining Astros, however, will likely start the year in Triple-A. Mega-prospect George Springer reportedly turned down a $23 million offer this offseason and will likely be in the majors as soon as the typical service time game runs its course. First baseman Jonathan Singleton, starting pitcher Mark Appel and outfielder Domingo Santana round out Houston's near-ready prospects, who can at least give Astros fans something to dream on if they make it to Minute Maid Park this year.