Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MLB 2014: American League West

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels has played just two full Major League Baseball seasons. But in that short amount of time one thing has become clear: Mike Trout is the best all-around player in the game.

The local (Millville, NJ) kid hit .326 with a .399 on-base percentage and .564 slugging percentage, stole 49 bases, scored 129 runs, clubbed 30 homers and knocked in 83 runs as a 20-year old in 2012 to win the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Were it not for Miguel Cabrera's historic 'Triple Crown' season, Trout would also have been the league MVP.

Most felt that there was no way that he could replicate those incredible numbers as a sophomore in 2013. And he didn't. But what he did do was hit .323 with a .432 on-base percentage and .557 slugging percentage, stole 33 bases, scored 109 runs, hit 27 homers while driving in 97 runs. Is that a little worse? A little better?

The scary thing for MLB pitchers is that Trout is only 22 years old. He won't reach his peak performance for a couple of years still. It is likely that he is only going to get better, if you can imagine that. Given health, we are looking at the beginning of one of the great careers in the history of the game. We're talking Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. stuff here.

But for all his individual early career success, Trout's outstanding hitting, base-running and defense have not been enough to elevate the Angels to contender status. In 2012, the team won 89 games, a nice total but 5 shy of both AL West-winning Oakland and of the Wildcard. Last year, they slipped to 78 wins, finishing 18 games behind Oakland, 13 1/2 back of the Wildcard.

It's clear that Mike Trout is the player to watch and talk about in this division. But he is going to need help if his LA-Anaheim based team wants to move back up into contending status. They are not far off, and if their key players stay healthy most of the season, they just might have what it takes.

Here are my predictions for the American League West in 2014:

1) Texas Rangers
Based in Arlington, Texas as part of the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex, the franchise actually began as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961. In 1971, they moved to Texas. In their 53 seasons, the club has never won a World Series, making them one of 8 MLB teams to retain that dubious distinction. But they did reach the Series in back-to-back years recently. Can this group return to that 2010-11 status, and perhaps even take that first crown? To that end, ownership reached into their pocketbooks and brought in a pair of high-priced, high-talent hitters in 1st baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. They join an offense that already included all-star 3rd baseman Adrian Beltre, the dynamic young middle infield combo of Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar, and solid supporting hitters such as Alex Rios, J.P. Arencibia, Mitch Moreland, Leonys Martin, and Geovany Soto. They will give every pitcher they face a rough go, but as we all know, hitting is only part of the game. What happens when the Rangers take the field? Thanks to injuries, the rotation has a few question marks. Particularly with Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. The former won't likely be ready until summer while recovering from knee surgery, while the latter may be a month behind in his spring development. There is no question at the front of their rotation, as Japanese import Yu Darvish has proven to be a major star. Youngsters Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch, and Martin Perez will be asked to take on major roles while the others try to get healthy. The bullpen looks like a strength, especially if Neftali Feliz comes all the way back from his own injuries. He will join Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers, Neal Cotts, Jason Frasor, and Robbie Ross to give the Rangers an excellent mix. Guys like Tommy Hanson and Michael Kirkman could also lengthen both the rotation and the pen. This is a team with a lot of talent. Even with some injury questions, they appear to be the team in the division with the most answers to such questions. I see no reason that the Texas Rangers won't not only win the A.L. West, but also be a scary team come the fall.

2) Los Angeles Angels
In what has suddenly broken out as a major financial war with the N.L.'s Dodgers for the hearts and minds of the LA baseball fan base over the last couple of seasons, owner Artie Moreno has opened his wallet to bring in superstars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and lefty pitcher C.J. Wilson. It hasn't resulted yet in any concrete results in the standings, but 2014 has a chance to be different. The biggest factor will be Pujols and Hamilton both staying healthy and returning to form as the MVP-caliber players at which level they are being paid. Pujols just turned 34, and is coming off by far the worst season of his career. Hamilton turns 33 in-season, and a bunch of those were tough years battling substance abuse. Pujols has struggled this spring, and Hamilton just got on the field after battling calf injuries. This 2nd place prediction is wholly dependant on those two being 30-homer, 100-rbi threats in the middle of the Halos lineup for most of the season. If they struggle again, the team could sink as low as 4th. Staying optimistic, I'll put them together with the game's best all-around talent in centerfielder Mike Trout to give the Angels as dynamic a potential combo as their is in all of baseball. There are solid supporting players in the lineup with middle infielders Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, 3rd base newcomer David Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, and outfielder Kole Calhoun. Eternal veteran Raul Ibanez was brought in to take DH at-bats. He is likely to rotate with some leftfield play while both Pujols and Hamilton also get DH turns. This team has as much experienced depth as any to rotate those players, and if injuries strike, with Carlos Pena, Brennan Boesch, Hank Conger, Ian Stewart, Grant Green, Chad Tracy, and John McDonald on hand. On the mound, the 1-2 veteran combo at the top in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson can compete with anyone. Weaver is one of baseball's best starters, and together their health is vital to the team contending. The guys vying for the 3rd-5th rotation spots from among a group including Hector Santiago, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Joe Blanton, and Wade LeBlanc need to produce a couple more solid options for manager Mike Scioscia. The bullpen has great depth with the likes of Brandon Lyon, Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas, Joe Smith, and Sean Burnett supporting closer Ernesto Frieri. For the team from Disney World, it's all about health. They and their fans deserve a break in that area, and a chance to see this group click on all cylinders. This 2nd place and Wildcard opportunity prediction is based on them getting that chance in 2014.

3) Oakland Athletics
The two-time defending A.L. West champs just suffered what no team wants to face, the loss of their projected Opening Day starter and young staff ace just weeks before the season even begins. Jarrod Parker will need Tommy John surgery, and will be out for all of 2014. He's still plenty young enough for a full bounce-back in 2015, and to have a long, productive career ahead. But that doesn't help the A's this year. For a team run on a tight budget, they cannot afford many of these types of losses. In fact, this one alone might prove too much. However, it's not the only one. Another projected rotation stalwart, A.J. Griffin, will be out for weeks, perhaps a couple months, with his own elbow worries. The rest of the rotation will need to step up a couple of notches. Newcomer Scott Kazmir will likely have to take on the lead role, proving that his 2013 comeback season was not a fluke. Young Sonny Gray has all the talent in the world, and the rookie will need to put it all on display right away. The injuries put Dan Straily and Tommy Milone into the spotlight, with Drew Pomeranz hoping to take the 5th starter role. Straily and Milone have proven their worth before, and must now show they are ready to be rotation stalwarts. The bullpen is anchored by new closer Jim Johnson, one of the game's best over the last couple of seasons in Baltimore. Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson, and Ryan Cook give the A's a strength supporting him at the end of games. The hitting should be another strength, as the club has underrated batters throughout the lineup. Leading the way is the outfield of speedy veteran Coco Crisp in center, Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes in left, and the bearded wonder Josh Reddick in right. 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson and 1st baseman Brandon Moss developed into productive sluggers a year ago, and both need to show that 2013 was no fluke. Their middle infield of Jed Lowrie and the bespectacled near-miss 'Face of MLB', 2nd baseman Eric Sogard, gives them a nice doubleplay combo. They have a pair of catchers in Derek Norris and John Jaso who can both be regulars, and particularly in Jaso will get some DH at-bats. The losses in their starting rotation are extremely tough. Whether they prove devastating in the end is the challenge ahead for this team. It's hard to see the A's spending for the pieces needed to keep up with the Rangers and Angels, especially if they should lose any more. Can they find them some other way? It's hard to count out this perennial underdog franchise, but making it a division-winning three-peat will be very tough.

4) Seattle Mariners
This will be the 38th season for the 1979 expansion franchise, and 26 of those previous campaigns have been losing ones. The winning seasons came in a stretch of glory from the mid-90's through the very beginning of the 21st century, capped by the glorious 2001 season in which they set an American League record with 116 regular season victories. Remaining contenders for a couple more years, the team then pretty much collapsed over the last decade, enjoying just two winning seasons in that time. They have finished in 4th place in the division in 7 of the last 9 years, including the last 3 straight. To try and end that stretch of futility the owners surprised many when they opened their wallets this winter and brought in one of the best hitters on the planet in 2nd baseman Robinson Cano. He immediately injects much-needed talent and respect to the middle of the M's batting order. However, the supporting cast remains a group of kids and suspects, and until that changes the struggles are likely to continue. A pair of youngsters, 3rd baseman Kyle Seager and catcher Mike Zunino, are being counted on heavily into the future. Kid shortstop Brad Miller is also a key piece in the middle infield. Dustin Ackley was never able to hold down 2nd base, and now moves to the outfield. He has a long way to go in order to ever justify his selection as the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, as does 1st baseman Justin Smoak, who was the 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft and came as a key piece in the 2010 Cliff Lee trade with Texas. The outfield has a pair of solid if unspectacular players in Michael Brantley and Abraham Almonte. Both Corey Hart and Logan Morrison were brought in as free agents to lengthen the lineup. Hart has recent injury questions to overcome, and Morrision is another formerly high-rated prospect who has never really panned out as a truly productive MLB hitter. John Buck is a decent supporting bat if Zunino proves to still be not quite ready at catcher, and Willie Bloomquist provides reliable talent as an infield backup. While there are a ton of questions in the Mariners lineup, their pitching seems to be developing some answers. It's rotation is led by one of the best in the game in 'King Felix' Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma is a solid 2nd option as well. This team needs the trio of 25-year old James Paxton, 23-year old Erasmo Ramirez, and perhaps most especially 21-year old rookie Taijuan Walker to quickly emerge to lengthen that rotation. In the bullpen there is nice talent and depth. Fernando Rodney was signed as a free agent, and gives them one of the game's top closers. He is supported by arms such as Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Charlie Furbush. They have Blake Beavan, Scott Baker, and Hector Noesi among others around as potential middle relievers or rotation depth arms. Despite the pivotal additions of Cano and Rodney, there simply remain too many questions to pick Seattle for anything other than another 4th place finish. Can they get the right answers finally from a number of their underachievers at the plate? That's the only way that they can rise.

5) Houston Astros
This is going to be the best team in the A.L. West - in 2018. At least that is the hope of those at the top of the organization, as well as their fan base. But it has been a struggle in recent years, and probably will stay so for a couple more. The franchise was formed as the expansion Houston Colt .45's back in 1962, and became the Astros in 1965 as a nod to the emerging space age. They have bounced around in their history as well, becoming members of the NL West when divisional play begin in 1969 and remaining there through the 1993 season. They were moved to the NL Central from 1994 through 2012, and then last year completely switched leagues, moving to what is hoped will be their permanent home in the AL West. It is hoped that eventually they will emerge as a regional and divisional rival to the Texas Rangers. For now, the Astros are trying to emerge from a string of horrendous seasons. One of 3 teams in the division (Rangers, Mariners) who are among the 8 in all of baseball to have never won a World Series, the Astros reached the Fall Classic for their first and only time as recently as 2005. But since that version of the club was swept by the White Sox nearly a decade ago, they have collapsed. The last three years, Houston has finished with the worst record in baseball in successively worse seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses. However, those horrid years have resulted in terrific MLB Draft positions, including the upcoming 1st overall pick this coming June, and the team has made the most. Now rated as having one of the best and deepest pools of prospects in the game, they are positioned to begin having success in the coming years. It's the wait until those highly-rated kids arrive that will be continue to be tough. There is some excitement in the infield where speedy Jose Altuve gives them an all-star caliber player at 2nd base. The two kids on the left side of the infield in shortstop Jonathan Villar and 3rd baseman Matt Dominguez may be long term keepers. Catcher Jason Castro is emerging as one of the best in the game behind the plate. The team brought in speedy centerfielder Dexter Fowler in hopes that the longtime Rockies outfielder can bring impact to the lineup. If any from among the trio of 1st base/DH/left field types in Jonathan Singleton, Chris Carter, and Jesus Guzman can emerge as a reliable threat, this offense should begin to produce more runs. But the pitching staff remains light years away from contending. The rotation is fronted by veteran Scott Feldman, a 4th starter at best for a contending team. The rest of the rotation will be likely filled by some combo of Brett Oberholtzer, Jared Cosart, Brad Peacock, Jerome Williams, Alex White, Dallas Kuechel, and Luke Harrell. In the bullpen, Josh Fields will try to nail down the closer slot with arms like Jesse Crain and Matt Albers in support. The Astros don't have a prayer of finishing out of the AL West basement again in 2014, and may again be contenders for the top MLB Draft pick in 2015. But there is so much talent in their minor leagues that it is not hard to envision things beginning to turn around as those kids continue to arrive in the next 2-3 years. Hang on, Houston, better days are coming...some day.

To me, right now, the Texas Rangers are clearly the class of this division. They do have a couple of injury concerns in their rotation. But they also appear to have solid options to fill any voids and still win among this group of rivals. The Angels need their stars to stay healthy and produce. If they do, they can contend for a Wildcard, maybe even push Texas for the division crown, but those are big "if" questions that will require the right answers. Oakland's early rotation injuries may prove too much for the "little engine that could" to keep winning. Both Seattle and Houston just don't look to have enough.

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