Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Look at the Wild AL West

Teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox have long been baseball's big spenders, but there has been some big spending done by AL West teams in recent years. The Angels have handed out big contracts to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, which hasn't produced the results they were hoping for. Despite being outspent by division rivals, the Athletics have won this division two seasons in a row. In their quest for a third straight division crown, the A's will have to compete with several re-tooled teams. The Mariners handed out a monster contract to former Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. The Rangers traded Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder, and then signed Shin Soo Choo. The Angels made some moves to improve their pitching staff. Even the lowly Astros made some additions, picking up Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman.

So, who's the favorite to win this division? The Athletics proved they weren't a fluke last year and cannot be overlooked. They don't have the star power of some of their division rivals, but they have a very good team with a good pitching staff. The Rangers offense should be greatly improved with Choo and Fielder, but they lost Nelson Cruz, A.J. Pierzynski, and Kinsler. Derek Holland will also miss the first half of the season, hurting the Rangers pitching rotation. Pitching was the Angels downfall last season, and they acquired Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago in a traded involving Mark Trumbo. If Pujols and Hamilton play better, along with superstar Mike Trout, the Angels would have one of the league's best offenses. The Cano acquisition signals the Mariners intend to compete. However, they still have some holes on their team. Jeff Luhnow has greatly improved the Astros farm system and it is now ranked among the league's best. Still, they are coming off their third straight 100 loss team.

Right now, many people favor the Rangers to win the AL West. I lean towards that thought as well. However, they have faded down the stretch two seasons in a row. Texas decided to shake things up this offseason. It opened up a spot for Jurickson Profar at second in the Kinsler deal that brought Fielder. Fielder had a down year in 2013 and hopes to rebound with Texas. He should fare better in a more hitter friendly home park and represents a major upgrade from Mitch Moreland. Fielder also brings a powerful bat to help protect Adrian Beltre. Choo had one of the league's best on base percentages last year, and moves Elvis Andrus to the 2 hole from the leadoff spot. Alex Rios will play his first full year with the team and essentially replaces Cruz. The Rangers offense should be improved this season, but they have some questions about their pitching staff.

Yu Darvish finished second in the Cy Young Award voting last year. He has been one of the best pitchers to come from Japan. Lefty Martin Perez had a very good rookie campaign and was given a long term deal in the offseason. After that, there are some questions. Holland may miss half the season. Matt Harrison is coming off a season in which he only made 2 starts. Colby Lewis is competing for a spot after several injury plagued seasons. Alexi Ogando and Nick Tepesch are also candidates for the rotation. Closer Joe Nathan left to sign with the Tigers, leaving a void. The Rangers plan to fill that void internally, with Robbie Ross and Joakim Soria as candidates. There is also former Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz, who is now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Once a flamethrowing All Star closer, Feliz was moved into the rotation for the 2012 season after blowing a Game 6 save in the 2011 World Series. What will Feliz's role be this season? Will the Rangers put him in the rotation, use him in long relief or setup, or will he re-claim the closer role? There is some talent on the Rangers pitching staff, but there is also some concerns.

When Jered Weaver got hurt early last season, it threw a wrench into the Angels season. Besides C.J. Wilson, the Angels had no other reliable starters last year. Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton flopped last season. The Angels are hoping that young pitchers like Skaggs and Santiago can fill in the gaps at the back end of the rotation. They also had some questions about their bullpen. Ernesto Freiri did well at closer, but the Angels had trouble with their setup guys last year. They signed reliever Joe Smith to a 3 year deal. Former Cardinal Mark Mulder is attempting a comeback as a reliever for the team. The Angels also dealt Peter Bourjos for David Freese, attempting to upgrade third base. This moves ensures that Trout will be at center field. Raul Ibanez was also signed to be the Halos DH. For the Angels to contend, they need two things to happen. They need comeback seasons from Pujols and Hamilton, and they need Santiago and Skaggs to be solid starters.

Besides adding Cano, the Mariners have added Fernando Rodney, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, and are attempting to sign Nelson Cruz. The Cano signing left Nick Franklin without a position and he could be traded. Franklin played well after being called up to replace the struggling Dustin Ackley. Ackley has since been moved to center field. Cano won't have as much protection in Seattle like he did with the Yankees. Kyle Seager could emerge as some help for Cano. Seager is one of the Mariners young players who has actually performed. They haven't gotten the results they wanted with many prospects, including Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Mike Zunino, Ackley, Michael Saunders, and others. The Mariners also have a poor defensive club, with several players playing out of position or lacking range.

The Mariners do have a strength with their top two starters. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young Award and Hishashi Iwakuma finished third in the Cy Young voting last year. Taijuan Walker is one of baseball's top pitching prospects. If Walker pans out, the Mariners will have a really good staff. The Mariners bullpen was shaky last year and they recently signed Rodney to be their closer. Rodney had a terrific year in 2012 with the Rays, but wasn't as sharp last year. Lloyd McClendon will take over the Mariners managerial job. He is the team's 8th manager since Lou Piniella left after the 2002 season. The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since Piniella's 2001 team won 116 games. The Mariners are building their team around their starting rotation and hoping their offense will improve enough to get back into contention. It will be a tough task in this division.

The Astros aren't going to be contenders this season. They are just hoping to avoid a fourth straight 100 loss season. They added Fowler, Feldman, Chad Qualls, and Jerome Williams in the offseason. Top outfield prospect George Springer might make the club out of spring training. Like the Nationals drafting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper #1 overall, the Astros have selected shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Mark Appel with their top picks. They also have the #1 pick again this year. This is a team that is hopeful for the future but dreadful in the present.

It's hard to write off the Athletics in this division. They shocked baseball in 2012 when they won the division title over the Rangers and Angels. Oakland proved they weren't flukes when they won it again last year. Oakland made a few moves over the offseason. They didn't re-sign closer Grant Balfour or All Star starter Bartolo Colon. They signed injury prone lefty Scott Kazmir and traded for former Orioles closer Jim Johnson to replace Balfour. The A's traded Seth Smith to the Padres for reliever Luke Gregerson. Craig Gentry was acquired to be the team's 4th outfielder. None of these are major moves, but Oakland is a team that has the best depth in the division. They added two solid relievers and still have Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook in their bullpen. Oakland has Kazmir, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Sonny Gray, and Dan Straily as rotation candidates. While lacking big stars, Oakland has many underrated players such as Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, and Yeonis Cespedes. The Athletics may not win the division again, but it would be foolish to write them off. They've proven they can compete with their big spending division rivals.

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