I write these like, yeah! I totally know what's going to happen...
The division preview tour continues, now turning onto the American League Line. Featuring wacky uniform changes, super teams, grand entrances, contract
years, retirement tours, fire... sales, Dusty trails, Brad Pitt lookalikes, and classic perpetual futility. We start our look at the junior circuit with the American League West.
(*plus-minus indicates how many runs they outscored/were outscored by)
---Houston Astros (2015: 86-76, 2nd, 2 GB, *+111)---
So here's a sequence:
When teams in any sport say "quick rebuild", I think this is what they're dreaming of.
When the Astros moved into the American League for the 2013 season, did anyone really think they'd be a playoff team in two years? Even optimistically it was a stretch. That illustrious 2013 team above featured the likes of Matt Dominguez as their second best position player by WAR. You know, the strikeout prone guy now trapped for maybe an eternal summer in Buffalo because he's behind the reigning AL MVP.
Well the transformation of the Astros since then has been miraculous. And I specifically use that word because what other one could describe it? Spontaneous? Combustion? Like a famous rule in comedy, timing is everything. Well that joke landed quick. Some of this has been the quick graduation and success of young prospects like George Springer or Lance McCullers, or the steady production of more seasoned players from outside like Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Scott Feldman and Luke Gregerson. Or the most significant development: the evolution of established big leaguers into bonafine stars, like Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel (please never leave a 'West' division. Your name is too good) and Colin McHugh.
Then, creating a category all by himself, is the 21 year old shortstop Carlos Correa. "The Captain" from Ponce, Puerto Rico played only 99 regular season games in 2015, yet still found the time to put up very respectable counting numbers of 22 long bombs, 68 RBIs and 40 walks (always a good sign for a youngster), resulting in an OPS of .857. Not shabby. Some could wonder, if Troy Tulowitzki puts up a fully healthy season and hits like the Tulo of old, he still might not score the subjective crown of "best shortstop in baseball" because of this 21 year old guy. I mean, hello Mr. Thompson.
A lot of the success the Astros have built and hope to sustain depends on their young heralded shortstop. The rest of their fortune depends on their cast of average-ish players who took big steps up in 2015. Great-ish teams always get that kind of thing, after all. Good players who have that One Great Year(TM) at the right time, but resume their middling ways immediately after. But I don't see anything like that happening, at least not to the point of disaster. Colby Rasmus might love chicken hot dogs too much and have an off year, George Springer might strike out too much to be useful, Jason Castro takes a wrong turn down Thole Road instead of McCann Blvd, and so on, but this is not a team relying solely on a handful of guys for a chance at contention. They're solid in the rotation (Doug Fister was a worthy one year risk), bullpen (Ken Giles was an expensive but worthy pickup), and a superstar rebound play in Carlos Gomez (so entertaining and annoying when he's good). The offense will strike out a TON (smash!) but hit enough dingers to keep the folks in Springfield happy enough to forget that MLB is spying on them. Ohhhhhh.... ahhhhh.... I figure the Isotopes are due a good run.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 95-67, AL West Title
---Texas Rangers (2015: 88-74, 1st (!), +2, *+18)---
Elvis Has Left The Building
Fred Merkle, Fred Snodgrass, Bill Buckner, Tony Fernandez, Elvis Andrus.
All terrific players, all with accomplishments overshadowed by a big moment in time that didn't bounce their way. Some, such as Merkle or Buckner, are notorious for this single moment, the mere mention of their name synonymous with such haunting misfortune. Andrus is different in that his haunting moment of misfortune isn't limited to one single mistake, such as forgetting to touch first base on a walk-off hit or a silly grounder sneaking just under your elevated glove. No, Elvis Andrus has a different place amidst such history. Andrus had three such moments, all on consecutive plays, in the same inning with nobody out, of a winner take all playoff game. The first, a routine grounder up the middle he had to range over for and simply muffed. Happens to the best of them. The second, a bad throw from a first baseman on a force play with Andrus covering second base: not entirely his fault but with such a true bounce one wonders if he should've handled it. The third, a freebee out (damnit Goins! You bunted to Beltre? You just wanna see him do it, don't you???), where the third baseman fires a low but otherwise perfect throw right at your knees while you cover third base, except you don't turn your glove the right way up or down (that's my only explanation) and it bounces off the side of your leather leaving everybody safe.
Now, I don't mean to make Elvis Andrus feel worse about this stuff than he already does (which must be a lot. Ballplayers remember more than they let on) but so much of the Texas Rangers 2015 season comes down to those three plays. If Andrus turns one or two of those plays into outs, maybe the Bat Flip never comes to the plate and the Rangers escape that Game Five with a win (so the Royals can sweep them in the ALCS. Ah, revisionism is sickly sweet). But that didn't happen so... good good times.
The 2016 Texas Rangers are an interesting team with several variables. On one hand (I have two of those!) they bring back virtually the same squad that won the division in 2015, plus an ace pitcher in Yu Darvish, a full season of another Ace(TM) in Cole Hamels, an upside bat in Ian Desmond, a tidy 45-25 W-L record after July 20th, plus a formidable power bullpen with Keone Kela, Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman. On that other hand (there are only two after all), the rotation depth beyond Hamels and Darvish is a little iffy. Colby Lewis continues to defy logic by walking a tightrope sixty feet above a pit of hungry tigers, all while carrying an old bulb television. Youngsters Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez have serious question marks (not striking out people while giving up lots of home runs is bad. Very bad), while Derek Holland and Martin Perez are... well... it's like being promised you'll be taken out to dinner by a close friend and you're really looking forward to it. Finally the day comes and he or she takes you a Wendy's but you were expecting something like Rude Boy, Allen's or Burgers Priest. Your friend senses your disappointment and promises to do right by you again another day, though you're not sure if or when that day will come. That's kinda how I feel about this Rangers team, except to me they're McDonalds and I'm just not invested in whatever value deal/utility player they're advertising. If I haven't made you hungry by now then I'm not trying hard enough.
It's impossible to know which Rangers team is gonna show up in 2016. They were a certified BAD team for three(+) months in 2015, only saved by their impressive late hot streak. This team is loaded with bad, BAD (certified!) contracts as well. Prince Fielder gets 24 million a year (though only 18 per is paid by Texas, thanks Detroit) until 2020, Shin Soo Choo has 100 million still due his way over the next half decade (none of which will be paid by the Tigers), Elvis Andrus gets 15 million a year until 2023 (!!!), and they have Josh Hamilton, who the Angels will pay 52 million bucks to for the next two years so he can not play for them. There's way too much variability with this squad, heck with this whole damn division, but if Darvish returns to full form they'll have a chance. I dunno, I've already written way too much about this and I still have three teams to go.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 84-78, 2nd
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2015: 85-77, 3rd, 3 GB, *-14)
It's close to impossible winning in baseball with a single lonely superstar. Consider the NBA, where a taent like LeBron James will always play for a good team because one, well he kind of demands that kind of thing. You can't be a Billy Beane and have a LeBron hanging around. Second, he's such a versatile all-around player that he's impossible to contain or to stop him from making the guys around him better. Unless they decided to trade everyone else and replace them with clones of me (I could probably hit a wide open three once of twenty tries), there's no way a basketball team with LeBron James could lose enough games to be considered "bad".
As great a baseball player Mike Trout is, baseball is very much a game of isolation. There's little within the action of the game itself that allows a superior player to set up a teammate for greater success. Trout can be the most respected, smartest, most talented and helpful person in the room, but that can only go so far in terms of results on the field. It's not like he can intercept a pitch from Felix Hernandez and re-serve it to Chris Iannetta for an easy home run. The Angels have Trout, which is really great. After that they have... er... yeah. An aging Albert Pujols ain't nothing to sneeze at I guess, Kole Calhoun is a solid bat with a Gold Glove (instead of Kevin Pillar, because Stop Making Sense, Stop Making Sense), but there's nothing else going on here. Hey Yunel Escobar! Sure... and... guaranteed money to Giovanni Soto? Someone's gotta get paid. Andrelton Simmons? Well he'll pay off his salary in web gems, I'll give you that investment.
I don't see anything else. There's an argument to made that this is an all or nothing team, but I'm way more on the nothing side. C.J. Wilson in a contract year is their ace, Jered Weaver will be throwing as hard as I do by 2017, while the bullpen is full of non-strikeout arms and we all know that's not the soup de jour these days. Their only hope is if Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Andrew Heaney step up big time and transform the shortcomings into strongcomings for this club. Otherwise they'll be an also ran, also running again.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 80-82, 3rd
---Oakland Athletics (2015: 68-94, 5th, 20 GB, *-35)---
Billy Ball Bombs
There's no denying A's GM Billy Beane has made some bizarre moves in the past 16 months or so. Trading away the best third baseman in baseball, while he's still relatively cheap, for a Bulk Barn collection of herbs and spices is a move that immediately comes to mind. Signing Billy Butler to a big deal only makes sense if you assume Beane has a soft spot for others named "Billy", while surrendering Brett Lawrie for minor league longshots (after supposedly insisting upon him in any deal with Anthopoulos) are just examples of recent moves that don't make a lot of sense, for any team in any situation. It's like a rebuild, but too many good (but not great) players keep popping up.
Frankly I dunno. The A's have been so unpredictable over the past decade plus, it's hard to flat out declare any year that they'll be bad and that's that. But on the other hand, did you know Jesse Chavez pitched the second most innings (157) for this team in 2015? The third guy is Kendall Graveman (115.2), the next is Scott Kazmir (109.2) who has switched cities twice since that 109th inning. So "unproven" would be a kind description to this team. They've pulled out magic successes before but too many of weaknesses this time. If there's a scale of genius ranging from "Revolutionary" to "Gutter Crazy", Beane must be at "James Bond Villain" by now.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 73-89, 4th
---Seattle Mariners (2015: 76-86, 4th, 12 GB, *-70)---
Come Sail Away With Me
It's like being promised you'll be taken out to dinner by a close friend and you're really looking forward to it. Finally the day comes and he or she takes you a Wendy's but you were expecting something like In-N-Out, Shake Shack, Allen's or Burgers Priest. Your friend senses your disappointment and promises to do right by you again another day, though you're not sure if or when that day will come. You figure the favour will be forgotten eventually.
In the meantime you root for Adam Lind. Just because.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 71-91, 5th
Next up comes the Central. Home of a royal nuisance.