A 2022 Quick Look at the American League West

Tuesday, April 05 2022 @ 07:36 AM EDT

Contributed by: Eephus

Sho(hei) me the money.

Hey, where's everybody going???

The AL West is one strange division, my friends. You have the defending American League champions seemingly completely uninterested in bringing back key free agents (save one, naturally it's the guy who hasn't played in three years), a 102 loss team making the most unexpectedly splashy moves of the offseason, a fluke success asserting itself to the world it was no fluke and spending some cash to try and convince us, and of course a middling expensive team that got 130 terrific innings and 46 dingers from the same dude. The only predictable thing here is the fire sale on the east side of the Bay Area...

Last year I believe I picked the Angels to win the division (I'd check to be sure but I'm lazy and still have over a dozen teams to write about). That selection turned out to be a foolish one, but nevertheless I want to have a bit of fun here in the AL West before moving on into the slog of mediocrity in the Central and the intense gauntlet of the East. So fair warning, my predictions here might be wild for the sake of wild. Oakland wins 105 games! Okay, not that unhinged. Anyway, lets start it off.

Houston Astros (2021: 95-67, 1st, lost World Series)

Q: Is the dynasty tailing off? They're already lost Springer, Cole and now Correa in recent years.

A: Yes, to a point. Fortunately for the Astros, young players have emerged to fill the holes left by the departures.

The key has been the arrival  of starting pitchers Luis Garcia (11-8, 3.48), Framber Valdez (11-6, 3.14), Jose Urquidy (8-3, 3.62, a 1.6 BB/9 in 107 innings) and Lance McCullers Jr. (still just 27) staying healthy-ish for a full season. Christian Javier is another to keep an eye on, not to mention veterans like Jake Odorizzi hanging around to replace Zack Greinke's innings. Oh, and there's Justin Verlander... back on a one year 25 million deal as an ultimate wildcard, ace in the hole, royal flush type play. This type of depth may seem excessive but the Astros are gonna need it: McCullers Jr. hurt himself during the lockout and best case scenario isn't even expected to throw again for a few weeks, not to mention the impossibility of knowing what to expect from Verlander (if my terrible card analogies hadn't made that clear).

Meanwhile, many of their key hitters are getting kinda old. Jose Altuve is sneaking out of his prime years at 32 now, Michael Brantley is 35 and Yuli Gurriel is 38(!). Fortunate again for the Astros has been the breakout of outfielder Kyle Tucker. Their last high draft pick (5th overall in 2015) from the dark era of Houston baseball, Tucker has slowly ascended to the big league level and gradually become their next homegrown star. After a pair of seasons as a much used and effective fourth outfielder type, Tucker jumped into full time action in 2021 and did not disappoint with a .294/.359/.557 line in 140 games, adding 30 long ones just for good measure. With Alex Bregman (28) and formidable slugger Yordan Alvarez (25), it would seem this dangerous Astros attack will live on for quite some time longer. I mean, unless Bregman is moving over there I'm not exactly wowed by a team boasting somebody like Niko Goodrum at shortstop... but don't be fooled as I was last year. This is still a team that can tear up the league. 

The difference between those 100+ win Astros teams and this one are those key departures, knocking them down from "best team in baseball" to "probably top 3 team in the American League". Still, when they're not up to goofy and shady antics, this is a smart organization that's very good at development and eliminating glaring weaknesses. Hard to argue they're anything but the class of this division.

Seattle Mariners (2021: 90-72, 2nd)

Q: Here's a team that allowed 51(!) more runs than they scored, by that measure winning 14 more games than that should've. Seriously? Is there anything here?

A: They'll be beyond fortunate to win 90 again if that repeats itself. I don't think it will, though.

Like they occupied some lonely mathematical nexus of the universe, the 2021 Mariners were both worse and better than one might think upon looking at them. All the statistics suggest this was a bad team: a horrific offense (14th in the AL in OPS) and meh pitching staff (8th in ERA). Their good fortune in one run games has been discussed endlessly, but I think so much of their success was just finding the right guy in the exact right spot. Their patchwork bullpen riding the hot hand to finish games, discovering somebody like Abraham Toro out of nowhere to help carry your offense for a month, Yusei Kikuchi's stellar first half, or somehow getting 179.2 innings of 3.61 ball out of Chris Flexen, he the previous owner of an 8.07(!) career ERA in 68 innings with the Mets. What the hell?

This team was simply ridiculous. They gave 100+ plate appearances to seven batters who couldn't even break the Mendoza Line. Seven! Meanwhile catcher Tom Murphy (.202), outfielder Jake Fraley (.210) and now retired Kyle Seager (.212) were a couple bloops not falling in away from joining that group. To their credit, the Mariners realized that horseshoe wasn't likely to reappear in such unspeakable places, and so set out to improve their hitting personnel. In now is Adam Frazier, versatile lefty bat with plate discipline... and of course (groan) the big trade Seattle made with the Cincinnati Reds... wherein the Reds in a desperate move to not win baseball games and irritate me (among many others) gave away an all-star hitter to dump Eugenio Suarez's contract. Jesse Winker is an extremely good hitter, patient as hell (Joey taught him well) and an excellent left-handed compliment to Mitch Haniger. I think the Mariners probably want to DH him more than is being said: Winker tends to get hurt a lot and he's a bad outfielder regardless. Suarez isn't exactly just a salary dump either: this guy led the NL in home runs with 49 just three years ago, and I do wonder if the Reds asking him to play shortstop to start 2021 maybe messed him up a bit. He isn't a great defender anywhere and there's a lot of swing and miss to his game, but I'm inclined to be bullish on him at least becoming a league average bat again.

Another wildcard people might be forgetting (and the root of my suggestion that the Mariners were better than people think) is outfielder Kyle Lewis. When able to play, which has been a problem, Lewis has been pretty darn good in the big leagues. With Haniger, Winker, Ty France and Kelenic (despite being terrible in 2021 Seattle has to see what he's got) around, it might be tricky for Lewis to find at-bats whenever he gets healthy (he hasn't played this spring and isn't expected to be ready opening day). Still though... a name to keep in mind.

This might be the most unpredictable team in the history of unpredictability. Hyperbole, I know, but still! There's a tunnel of imagination wherein I can see them winning more games than they did in 2021, with an actual positive run differential this time, gawd damnit. There's also another tunnel, a much bigger one, where it all caves in. At least they've made moves to try avoiding that. The Reds trade, signing Robbie Ray to a big deal (I think our friend Robbie will be just fine, for what it's worth)... they're acting like a team well aware they were blessed with excessive good fortune and are acting upon it, instead of acting sheepish like many other organizations might. Good for them, this is a game first and foremost after all and lets have fun. Blue Jays fans are still gonna overrun your stadium when we visit, though.

Oakland Athletics (2021: 86-76, 3rd)

Q: Here we go again. I know that's not a question, but whatever.

A: Yes.

Completely true, as I was beginning to write this blurb on the yet again rebuilding A's, "Let It Be" came on my stereo (I was listening to the Past Masters CD I have, basically a collection of Beatles singles). While the nature of cheering for and/or being involved with any sports team inevitably means you will see players and people you really like eventually leave, whether it be the Los Angeles Dodgers all the way to the TMBL Brewers... there's the sadness in saying farewell, the 'hope we meet again'. Teams like the Rays, the Reds currently and the A's historically, seem especially uninterested in an undervalued market intangible of sports: fan attachment. Letting beloved but declining aging player free into the wind is one thing, but constantly and cynically cycling players in and out through "competitive windows" removes a lot of that connection fans feel for a team they love. It's something that concerned me during the lockout, that MLB was over-confident in their product to such an extreme point that they believed fans would come back regardless of what said product looked like. Hell, I was ready to punt on MLB for a while... just become Da Box's local baseball reporter or something (Beaches Softball League looking strong this year, fellas!). Needless to say, glad they worked it out.

The A's are doing the cynical thing again, and perhaps the sad part is how the disappointment and unpredictability of it all is now lost in the swamp of all the times they've done it before. This organization is very good at bouncing back quickly, producing stars none of us have even considered into trade chips the league will be salivating over in a couple years time. Would that be fun as an A's fan, though? This revolving door of quality players, grown like a factory farm just to be shipped out once they achieve market value for their services? I suppose one could maybe tolerate it if their stadium wasn't so godawful... trust me, an empty cavernous closed roof SkyDome is a far better baseball experience.

As for the A's themselves? Uh... I liked Kevin Smith a lot and I'm curious to see how he does with a big league chance. I'm sure Zach Logue gets a long look as well. Ramon Laureano still has one of the best outfield arms I've ever seen (sadly I'm too young to remember the Legend of Barfield) and their rotation (minus Chris Bassitt) still looks okay with Sean Manaea (edit: traded to the Padres for prospects, because of course he was), Frankie Montas, Cole Irvin and whoever random person they pluck off the street and get 120 quality innings out of. It's what they do, and they're very good at it. We're at the point of the cycle where they don't score any runs though.

Los Angeles Angels (2021: 77-85, 4th)

Q: Is this finally the year Mike Trout gets to appear in the postseason again? (He's only featured in one series and the Angels didn't win a game)

A: I wouldn't bet on it, sadly. The Angels haven't even had a winning record since 2015.

This has been a franchise over those past several seasons that defines "middling". Never more than 80 wins, never fewer than 72. Even their winning percentage during the COVID shortened season (.433) was right in line with their usual .440 to .495 range. They've cycled through managers, they've never gone full rebuild, and yet have never fully seemed like they're "going for it" either. The fact that they've consistently given out some huge free agent contracts that have been anywhere from disappointing (Albert Pujols) to completely disastrous (Justin Upton, now released with his 28 million dollar price tag) has limited their flexibility one would think. The Anthony Rendon contract (five years, 190.9 million remaining) is yet another that might have Angels fans sweating buckets.

Thing is, as I tried to last year, it's also easy to see the core of a playoff contender here. A healthy Trout and Rendon alongside Shohei Ohtani is a mighty effective place to start. You've also got first baseman Jared Walsh, an all-star in 2021 thanks to his .850 OPS, extreme contact hitting infielder David Fletcher and a league average bat behind the plate in Max Stassi. However, the Angels outfield provided brutal production in 2021 once Trout went down with injury, as seen by the re-animated corpses of Adam Eaton (39 OPS+), Jon Jay, Dexter Fowler (whoops I mean, he's a Blue Jay now so he's definitely still got something left!) and of course Upton. Seriously, what is up with the Uptons (see what I did there) completely falling off a cliff once they turn 31? The Angels in 2022 will instead hope for a breakout from once super prospect 23 year old Jo Adell (a .205/.255/.339 career MLB line, though a 90 OPS+ in 2021) and or continued competence from Taylor Ward. If Trout misses significant time again though... ecch.

How about the pitching side? This is where Los Angeles/Anaheim/whatever really struggled last season: their 4.62 team ERA ranked 12th in the American League, their 4.59 mark among relievers was second worst behind Baltimore and the staff issued the most free passes among AL teams, fifth most in baseball. As good as Ohtani clearly is, it has to be an indictment on the quality of your pitching situation when the fella easily leading your team in innings could only take the mound semi-frequently because of injury concerns. Well... subtracting the awfulness of Dylan Bundy (2-9, 6.06 in 90.2) and Jose Quintana (-0.9 WAR in 53.1) should help, as potentially so could the big money one year deal given to Noah Syndergaard. The ultimate high-risk/high-reward signing, Syndergaard's upside is undoubtedly tantalizing and on a one year contract it's not exactly crippling if it doesn't work out (important for a franchise that seems to hand out crippling contracts like candy on Halloween). Syndergaard has already pitched more innings this spring (3.2) than he has in the past two regular seasons combined.

I dunno, everybody. A healthy Trout, an Ohtani encore, Rendon returning to form and Syndergaard being able to stay on the mound enough to unleash Mjolnir on poor AL batters... that's a team with a lot of superstars. Young-ish starters Jose Suarez and Patrick Sandoval gave them good innings in 2021 and a full season of that... you can see this enterprise working. They've addressed the bullpen issues as well, bringing back Raisel Iglesias (who has been consistently great) while also adding experienced late inning depth in Archie Bradley, a big arm flyer on two-way-ish player Michael Lorenzen, plus old friends Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera. There is a path here in a division that could very well be awful (say if Seattle's luck runs out).

This might be the toughest prediction to make in all the American League... 94 wins wouldn't surprise me and neither would 74.

Texas Rangers (2021: 60-102, 5th)

Q: Do the big free agent additions make them respectable, maybe even a dark horse playoff contender?

A: Oh gawd no. Definitely not.

Even with Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray... they still just don't have enough good players. Heck, to paraphrase what Jonah Birenbaum tweeted when the Rangers made all these headline moves: beyond those three guys they don't have any good ballplayers. Adolis Garcia had a nice year but his profile reminds this particular writer of a luxury version of Randal Grichuk. He hits the ball plenty hard and in the air but that's only when he connects, which his strikeout rate (31.2 percent) will tell you is not extremely often. Mitch Garver is a decent addition I suppose... but this was an offense in 2021 that scored the fewest runs in the American League and ranked last in almost every other category. Semien and Seager will help, and maybe quiet adds like Brad Miller and Kole Calhoun improve things around the margins... but beyond? This is not a lineup that'll scare many teams not named the Baltimore Orioles.

Speaking of Corey Seager, there's little argument he's a phenomenal player. A LH shortstop just entering his prime (28) and a career OPS+ of 131 will catch your attention. I do worry about his ability to stay on the field. Certainly on a team as deep as the Dodgers they've been able to still thrive without their star middle infielder, but if Seager misses 50 games or more on the 2022 Texas Rangers? Bad times ahead.

And bad times are what I predict. This pitching staff was already dreadful last season and that was with significant quality innings from Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, who are far away now of course. Jon Gray, upside that he might possess, strikes me as more a solid #3/4 starter than a frontline ace if he puts it all together... there isn't one thing he does exceptionally well beyond having the big fastball (which at age 30 seems to be dipping in speed). They've improved enough that they shouldn't lose 100 games again at least, heck they might not even finish last. Is that worth half a billion bucks? Perhaps... to be honest I suspect the Semien/Seager adds are more about having 2024/2025 in mind. Hopefully Marcus has another good year though, of course.  

All right, lets give this guessing game a shot:

HOU -- 93-69
LAA -- 85-77
SEA -- 84-78
TEX -- 71-92
OAK -- 57-105

The Astros Reign, however you want to perceive it, will continue. I was tempted to give Seattle a few more wins just for fun, but considering their bonkers 2021 run differential it's hard to see them having a close (nevermind better) record than last year. My Angels guess is very conservative, but among any of these teams they potentially seem the most likely to at least give Houston a fight for the division. Texas will take a tiny step forward and Oakland will be/already is completely cheap and awful. Get the heck outta that stadium.

Next up, the uninspiring AL Central with it's surprising signings and rampant trade rumours... plus a particular surprise team I think could cause some serious trouble in 2022. Stay tuned.