Sunday, March 30, 2014

2014 AL West Preview

Darvish will help the Rangers overtake Oakland in the AL West (NESN)
1st Place Texas Rangers
2013 Record: 91-72
2013 Pythagorean: 92-71
2014 Projected: 93-69
The Rangers rebuilt their lineup after letting it sag last year (when they tried to replace Josh Hamilton, Michael Young and Mike Napoli with Lance Berkman), adding Shin-Soo Choo to the top of the order and swapping a fading Ian Kinsler out for the still-in-his-prime Prince Fielder. Adding them to Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, Elvis Andrus and Jackson Profar gives the Rangers one of baseball's best offenses in 2014. The pitching staff is iffier because of injuries to Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, but Yu Darvish looks like the AL Cy Young favorite and could have a vintage Pedro Martinez-esque season in store. I believe Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers, though inexperienced, are capable enough to pick up the slack, and Tommy Hanson has some bounce back potential if he can shake off back-to-back poor seasons and recapture the form that made him look like a future ace from 2009 through 2011. The back of the rotation is very questionable, but I think the Rangers will hit enough and Darvish will pitch well enough to help hide their mistakes. When healthy they'll have an incredibly dangerous team and will be in the conversation for World Series favorites.

2nd Place Oakland A's
2013 Record: 96-66
2013 Pythagorean: 96-66
2014 Projected: 90-72
Oakland followed up their surprise 2012 division title by winning the AL West again in 2013, largely by relying on their depth and surprisingly good lineup constructed of fly ball hitters. I don't see them making it three in a row, though. Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp are all due for some major regression, and I seriously doubt that Jed Lowrie will stay healthy again. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick should be better, but on the whole I think Oakland's offense will fall back to the middle of the pack after ranking third in the American League in runs scored last year. The rotation has already been hit hard by injuries, losing Jarrod Parker for the entire year and A.J. Griffin for the start of the season. That forces the A's to lean heavily on the always unpredictable Scott Kazmir, the merely solid Tommy Milone and young Sonny Gray, who has Cy Young potential but may be overworked in his first full season as a starter. The bullpen is phenomenal, if not baseball's best, and the bench looks deep as well. I'm sure the A's will find a way to plug the leaks because they always seem to find a way, but right now I see too many issues to predict a third straight division flag for Billy Beane's crew.

3rd Place Los Angeles Angels
2013 Record: 78-84
2013 Pythagorean: 81-81
2014 Projected: 84-78
Mike Trout can't possibly get any better, can he? He found a way to improve upon his monster rookie season, showing a keener eye at the plate and cutting down on strikeouts last year. This year he's focused on being more aggressive early in the count, which would allow him to take advantage of first-pitch fastballs every now and then. Don't bet against Trout reaching new heights in 2014. Unfortunately, the other 24 Angels probably aren't good enough to help LA overcome Texas and Oakland. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols need to bounce back for this team to reach its potential, and neither one is a sure thing. David Freese improves the third base situation, but only if he avoids a repeat of his disappointing 2013. Kyle Calhoun's a popular breakout candidate and could be this year's version of Matt Carpenter or Josh Donaldson. The Angels will score runs, even without Mark Trumbo's big power bat, but the starting rotation once again figures to be their downfall. Jered Weaver isn't the ace he used to be, and C.J. Wilson is merely solid as the number two. Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago don't score anybody and are mediocre at best. The true wildcard in the rotation is southpaw Tyler Skaggs, acquired in the Trumbo trade with Arizona. Just 22 and pitching in a much more friendly environment for hurlers, Skaggs could give the rotation a big boost if he makes good on the promise that made him one of baseball's top prospects as recently as last year. If everything goes right for the Angels then a postseason berth becomes a very real possibility, and they should at least have a winning record, but they just don't enough arms to compete with the division's top dogs.

4th Place Seattle Mariners
2013 Record: 71-91
2013 Pythagorean: 67-95
2014 Projected: 77-85
Robinson Cano can't turn the Mariners into contenders overnight, especially if his performance takes a hit from trading Yankee Stadium for Safeco Field (which, combined with age, probably will). He'll still add a lot of punch to a lineup that desperately needs it after losing Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Morse. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are intriguing additions but probably won't provide the kind of impact Seattle's hoping for. Breakout seasons from Brad Miller, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley are more likely and would go a long way towards beefing up the Mariners' lineup around Cano, as would another strong season from third baseman Kyle Seager.. The top of the rotation is excellent with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but there's just not enough depth beyond them to vault the M's into contention. Anytime you have Randy Wolf in your starting rotation, you know you're in trouble. I see the Mariners improving over last year, but not enough to enjoy a winning season.

5th Place Houston Astros
2013 Record: 51-111
2013 Pythagorean: 57-105
2014 Projected: 59-103
The rebuilding Astros are going to be terrible once again, but at least they should be better. Most of their starting nine is in their early or mid-20s and is ripe for improvement. Adding major league caliber players such as Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman is a step in the right direction, and they already have a couple All-Star worthy talents in Jose Altuve and Jason Castro. Chris Carter's a solid source of power and on-base percentage, but really needs to cut down on his strikeouts. Speedy shortstop Jonathan Villar has 50 steal potential if he can stay healthy and get on base at a reasonable clip, as he did during last year's debut (.321 OBP). The remade bullpen should be better, too. Best case scenario, a lot of the young talent steps up and Houston only loses 90 games instead of 100.

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