I'm running out of time faster than I'm running out of divisions...
Interesting random fact: the American League West has not featured a World Series champion since the Rally Monkey Angels won it all in 2002. This is easily the longest such divisional drought in all of MLB (the 2008 Phillies put the NL East in second place, if you're wondering). Not only that, but the AL West features three teams that have never won a World Series, one of which has never even appeared in one (those poor Mariners, at least they survived to escape the Kingdome). So if you take away the Oakland A's, this is a group of teams without a lot of historical prestige.
Speaking of the A's...
Oakland Athletics (2016: 69-93)
Bringer Of Pain
Worst team in the 2017 American League is a tricky topic to predict or discuss. You can make a case, if lots of things go right, for at least twelve of the fifteen AL teams to have a chance at the postseason. That leaves three, and of those three the Oakland A's are probably the least interesting of the bunch. The sell-everyone-and-ask-questions-later White Sox have managed to pick up some seductive prospects like Yoan Moncada and the flamethrowing Michael Kopech, while still having the naked minimum of star power (Todd Frazier, Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana) to fill a few seats. The Twins likewise have some kids on the way (I'll get into all of this later, I swear) and have the suddenly very intriguing bat of Brian Dozier to watch with hopeful hopefulness.
But the A's? They're just gonna be bad. That's it, that's all. Okay sure, Khris Davis hit 42 home runs in 2016 and that's pretty interesting I guess. There's the Sonny Gray question (what the #$#$%# happened in 2016?) and some dude named Ryon (that's honestly not a typo) Healy had a really good half season. According to Baseball Reference, by WAR the most valuable player on Oakland in 2016 was... Kendall Graveman (3.2). Hmmm, and Graveman's WAR in 2015 was only 1.2, and just 0.1 the year before... ah ha! That's it! At long last, we know why Billy Beane pulled off the Donaldson trade: he knew Graveman's value was going to triple with each passing season! So everyone, lets all toast the insane historic 39 WAR Graveman season in 2019 we can look forward to, something like 96-2, 0.06 ERA and 500 innings should do it.
Okay, I'll stop being mean. Finishing on a positive note: John Axford pitches for this team! Root for that my friends, root for that.
Prediction -- 63-99, 5th AL West
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
This is the part of MLB season previews where, in the absence of anything better to discuss about the Angels, we just talk about how freaking awesome Mike Trout is. Because, Mike Trout is freaking awesome. But there is another player on this team, now slightly forgotten perhaps, who once upon a time had many folks talking endlessly about how freaking awesome he was. Consider for a moment:
Player One: 7433 PAs (11 seasons): OPS+ 170 (.328/.420/.617) -- *ages 21-31
Player Two: 3558 PAs (6 seasons): OPS+ 170 (.306/.405/.557) -- *ages 19-24
Imagine if a team had both of these guys? Well the Angels do, sorta. Player One, who we'll refer to as "Albert P." (wait too obvious, lets call him "A. Pujols") is now 37 years old and is a shell of himself compared to his Cardinal days. He's still an above average hitter (114 OPS+ in 2016) who can put up the sexy numbers like home runs and RBIs (31 and 119) but even watching him visually you can tell he's not the same guy. The swing isn't quite as vicious, he lumbers down the line like Frank Thomas, and he's simply unplayable at first base these days. A lot of this is because he suffers from chronic Plantar Fasciitis in his left foot, his landing heel as a right-handed hitter, and it's hard to show off your mobility when you have sharp foot pain with every other step, even if you are a professional athlete. It's a disappointing way to wind down a career certainly, not because Pujols is now just another guy (all he can do is hit, and he's a secondary bat now at that) but because of the heights he has tumbled down from. He'll make it to Cooperstown easily, probably will finish around 650 career dingers when it all wraps up (good for the top 6, maybe he can catch Mays if his pop sticks around), it's just that he was in the discussion as the greatest right-handed hitter ever for those first 11 seasons. Still one hell of a career, and I hope he has a few more nice years left.
Oh right, the other Angels. I dunno. Kole Calhoun is a nice player, Ben Revere adds an interesting dimension to their lineup (assuming he doesn't hit .217 again. Blech), C.J. Cron can hit a little and has a cool name. It's a team full of complementary pieces, which makes sense when you have Mike Trout. Everybody is a complementary piece compared to Mike Trout. The pitching is really the weakest link here, as beyond Matt Shoemaker there are a lot of question marks. The bullpen is also uninspiring, with (former?) closer Huston Street having an unpitchably dreadful 2016. If they can get a decent full season out of Ricky Nolasco and Garrett Richards, while a young arm like Tyler Skaggs takes a step forward, they could sniff around for a wildcard spot. We'll see.
Prediction -- 77-85, 4th AL West
Texas Rangers (2016: 95-67)
Punch Drunk Unlove
Jeff Banister must have traveled back in time and swiped Pythagoras' talisman or something. In 2016 the Rangers won 95 games, despite only scoring eight(!) more runs than they allowed. In 2015 they won 88 contests but only outscored their opponents by eighteen runs. Those are good for Pythagorean W-L records of 82-80 and 83-79, respectively. So Texas has outperformed this formula by a total of 18 wins over the past two seasons, nine victories a season!
Well that's coming to an end in 2017. Why? Because I don't like these guys and I say so, that's why! Gawd, enough with the questions. I've always liked Cole Hamels and Adrian Beltre a fair bit, Yu Darvish is pretty cool, Lucroy seems okay, but mostly everyone else? This is a crew of unlikable ballplayers with a manifest of reasons to do so. But you kind folks don't read these previews just for my entertaining but un-insightful rants on teams I don't care for, no. You read these previews for my un-insightful analysis on teams I don't care for. Right, glad we're on the same page, or since this is an online blog, the same screen.
Listen, the Rangers are actually pretty all right talent-wise. Darvish and Hamels make a nice 1-2 rotation punch, Beltre is still awesome, a full season of Lucroy behind the plate should help immensely, and the bullpen still looks pretty dangerous with Dyson, Jeffress, Bush and Barnette. But this is a team that also lost Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland and Colby Lewis (yeah you can laugh at that one, but Lewis did give them 116.1 fairly good innings in 2016). The loss of Desmond puts the outfield situation into Question Land, as the Rangers have a bunch of former centerfielders kicking around in Shin Soo Choo and Carlos Gomez, or they could put the kid Nomar Mazara in center (though he's never played there, majors or minors). Those three figure to be the starters, although Delino DeShields Jr is having a hot spring and is actually a centerfielder, so this is all far from resolved.
The rotation is where I think the Rangers downfall will be. Beyond their two aces there isn't much. Martin Perez? Even Mark Buehrle would tell this guy to start striking out more people. A.J. Griffin? An interesting arm but hasn't pitched a full season in three years. Andrew Cashner? I'm suspicious of guys who struggle in San Diego. Tyson Ross? Potentially a nice pickup, if he's actually able to take the mound at some point. Dillon Gee? Come on.
This is the year Banister's talisman fades, at least just enough to drop these guys out of the playoff picture. No bat flips or sweeps needed.
Prediction -- 84-78, 3rd AL West
Seattle Mariners (2016: 86-76)
At Your Servais
The Seattle Mariners have three really good things going for them coming into 2017. First, they already have three elite sluggers in the middle of their lineup (Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager). As an aside, in this modern age of great MLB third basemen like Donaldson, Machado, Arenado, Longoria and Bryant (to name a few), it seems like Seager gets lost in that mix a bit. Perhaps because he doesn't have the MVP fame of Donaldson, the flashiness of Machado, the crazy numbers of Arenado, the sustained resume of Longoria or the tall blue eyed charm of Bryant (or the explosive rookie season. Either one is good). But Seager has consistently been, if not at those penthouse levels, just a notch below. This guy is a phenomenal ballplayer in both the top and bottom of innings, yet he's only made a single all-star team in 2014. A 7 WAR season in 2016 wasn't good enough. You can't really choose the era you enter the league I guess.
The second thing the Mariners have going for them is a basket of clever off-season acquisitions. The most prominent of these would be the swap with Arizona of Taijuan Walker for shortstop Jean Segura. This trade carries significant intrigue, particularly in how fantastic or how disastrous it could go for either team. Walker is a very young pitcher and a one-time much hyped prospect with dynamite stuff, but has been merely okay in two MLB seasons thus far. Here's a guy who could explode upon the National League, he's got the stuff and the time (age 23) to improve significantly. Or, Walker's problem preventing home runs (1.4 per 9 career) could completely explode in the launching pad of Chase Field (or whatever the heck it's called). I'm sure Shelby Miller wishes he could pitch half his starts in a more forgiving park. Segura meanwhile had a monstrous 2016, slashing a very useful .319/.368/.499 and leading the National League in hits. Here's the thing: Segura's OPSs the previous two seasons were .614 and .616. In well over 1000 plate appearances. That's... real bad. Darwin Barney's career OPS is .641, and his bat was considered so bad that in spite of his stellar defensive ability he couldn't find a big league job for two years. On that surface it seems like Arizona made a smart move by ditching Segura after an obvious career season, except what if this a new true level of ability? A shortstop who can hit .300, steal bases and rack up extra base hits is pretty darn valuable. And this isn't completely out of nowhere either: Segura's 2013 was also rather stellar (.294/.329/.423, 44/57 SBs) and I remember it well because he terrorized the Reds that year. So... only time will tell, but it will be interesting to see how this unfolds.
The Mariners picked up a bunch of other useful players also. Speedster Jarrod Dyson comes over from Kansas City likely with a full time gig leading off this lineup and providing elite outfield glovework, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo are onboard to provide differing levels of starting rotation depth (my money's on the former), Danny Valencia is in to play first base (to be traded in July so Seattle can go on a 28-4 run or something) and Carlos Ruiz slots in behind the plate with his veteran veteran-ness in case Mike Zunino actually can't hit. Lots of potentially useful complementary guys in addition to an established core? Anything can and will happen over the course of a baseball season, but that recipe works more often than it doesn't.
The third thing the Mariners have going for them is completely hypothetical, but hear me out. Seattle could conceivably have outfield problems in 2017, considering that Dyson is at the age (32) where wheels can lose traction, while Leonys Martin is... well he's really in there for his glove, even with 15 unexpected dingers last year. There isn't a lot of depth behind those guys (Mitch Haniger is a PCL outfielder picked up in the Segura/Walker trade who could be useful, but... PCL...) and so imagine a scenario in late July where a contending Seattle needs an extra outfielder. I know I picked the Marlins to snatch a wildcard spot in the NL but there are a lot of ways that doesn't happen, and they currently employ a certain outfielder, the oldest hitter in baseball nearing the end of his career but still very good at doing what he's always done, who is very familiar with Seattle and the Mariners organization. So imagine please, for me, a certain hall of fame ballplayer, coming back to where his stellar MLB career began to help drive them back into the postseason, a team with the longest current playoff drought at that. Come on, 2017. Make it happen.
Prediction -- 91-71, 2nd AL West *Wildcard
Houston Astros (2016: 84-78)
A lot of folks are pretty high on the Astros for 2017 and it's easy to see why. Their lineup 1-6 is damn incredible (potentially Springer/Altuve/Correa/Beltran/McCann/Bregman), they have a bullpen Hydra in Luke Gregerson, Ken Giles and Will Harris, and there's also offensive depth with guys like Nori Aoki, Josh Reddick, and the two fellas fighting for first base ABs in Yulieski Gurriel and Evan Gattis. If there's a weakness here it's the concern holding hands with their underwhelming starting pitching from 2016: Dallas Keuchel followed up a Cy Young 2015 with an pretty "meh" 2016 (9-12, 4.55), Colin McHugh was extremely hittable (206 hits in 184.2 innings) as was Mike Fiers (187 in 168.2), while Lance McCullers Jr (6-5, 3.22) missed more than half the season to injury and spent the other half walking people (45 in 81 innings).
Yet despite these mediocre results, the Astros finished 5th in ERA (4.06) for the entire American League, a mark that is likely to improve in 2017. They've replaced Doug Fister with Charlie Morton who, if healthy, is a bargain basement Roy Halladay (which is pretty not bad!), impressive youngster Joe Musgrove is also in the mix for innings in some capacity, and then there's Chris Devenski, who came out of nowhere in 2016 to post an incredible rookie season (4-4, 2.16, 79 hits in 108.1 innings, 2.8 WAR). Funny story: Devenski was originally drafted by the White Sox in the 25th round back in 2011. He pitched a season and a half in the low minors until he was traded to the Astros organization as a Player To Be Named Later, for Brett Myers. Yep, that Brett Myers. Myers was a full time reliever at this point and actually gave a middling White Sox team 30 pretty solid innings, plus Devenski's minor league career was the very definition of "trade throw in" until 2016. Now... it doesn't look so good, but who can predict these things anyway?
Well I predict the Astros will be pretty good. They have a good mix of everything: a dangerous deep lineup, shutdown bullpen, stellar young players and experienced vets, a starting rotation with considerable upside and some excellent defenders at key spots. The AL West crown goes to the other Texas team this year.
Prediction -- 96-66, AL West Title
That's all for now. The Central is coming up next, hopefully before they actually start playing games. Fingers crossed.