And now perhaps the most evenly-balanced (or 4/5 balanced) division in the AL, the West.
Houston- Harris County fans are hoping there’s nowhere to go but up now after the Astros lost a club record 111 games last year and (given the Pirates fab 2013) are now co-holders of the longest streak of losing seasons in baseball. They and the Mets are sitting at 5 and counting, and while the Astros are nowhere near as pathetic as last year’s edition, count on their streak hitting 6. This team is young and still very much in a rebuilding phase, but there are signs of life and reasons for patient optimism …Jason Castro, one of the better all-round catchers in the game (.835 OPS last year was better than Wieters or Pierzynski for example), little Jose Altuve (listed at a mere 5’5”) has all the tools to be a star 2B and a fan fave for years to come with his enthusiasm and deceptive speed, Jarred Cosart might have been the second best rookie pitcher in all of baseball last year, despite winning only 1 of 10 starts (his ERA of 1.95 dazzled despite curiously walking more than he struck out). And while not exactly loading up, the management at least opened the purse strings a wee bit to bring in a decent veteran starter (Scott Feldman, who’ll be hard-pressed to match his dozen wins of last year here) and outfielder (Dexter Fowler,just one season removed from a .300 campaign). That said, there are still an awful lot of holes in the lineup and will doubtless be an express shuttle between Houston and Oklahoma as various kids get call-ups from the minors. Not a good team, but not as bad as last year…and as the Yankees are finding out, a team that can be pesky and problematic from time to time. Prediction – 62 wins, fifth place
Los Angeles Anaheim- only the Blue Jays rivaled the Angels level of disappointment to fans in ’13. Like Toronto, they decided that was a mere aberration and staying the course was the best plan, doing little to change the team in the off-season. And like the Jays, if the halos stay healthy and get a return to form from all their big names, they can contend. Don’t count on it however. Albert Pujols’ foot is apparently healthy and he’s looking better than he did most of last season, but at 34 don’t look for him to return to his prime. His runs, walks , homers and average have all declined four years in a row, at best look for him to come close to his average numbers for the past three years (.283, 32 doubles, 28 hr, 89 rbi) as opposed to his 2007-09 torrid stats (.337, 42 doubles, 39 hr, 118 rbi). Josh Hamilton is only a year younger, and physically probably more worn. He planned to gain weight to help his power return this year but as Sporting News put it “it might help even more if he stops indulging on a steady diet of bad pitches.” Granted he finished better than he started last year, so perhaps he’ll up his .250 average and .739 OPS but don’t look for it to be by much. Howie Kendrick gets lost in the hype of the aging and baby superstars on the team but is quietly as good a second baseman as there is , perhaps save for divisional rival Cano. Mike Trout– baseball wants ever-so-badly to make him this game’s Wayne Gretzky, but I”m not sold yet. That is NOT to say I don’t recognize his talent and ability- he is a great young player– but just that I don’t yet agree he’s the best in the game now, let alone one of the few all-time greats most critics now rank him as. If he hits .320 with 25 homers , drives in 90 and steals 25 again, I’ll be impressed and the Valley fans should be ecstatic. Pitching was a weakness last year, little has changed there. CJ Wilson is the real deal, Jered Weaver was, and the rest of the rotation is shaky at best. Prediction – 81wins, fourth
Oakland- time for “Moneyball 2” perhaps. Billy Beane’s ability to make the most of second-rate ingredients continues to work and amaze. He’ll really need to pull a rabbit out of the hat to continue their streak this year however. For the first time in 8 years they have no rookies on the roster and with their two best returning pitchers (AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker) both on the DL, Parker out for the year, it’s doubtful they will contend again. Scott Kazmir had a good spring and took a shutout into the 8th in his first start this year, so the 30 year old restoration project may prove and adequate replacement for ageless Bartolo Colon. Craig Gentry is a nice addition to an already strong OF. Crisp, Cespedes and Reddick should provide a good number of runs again but the rest of the lineup may not be upto the task of propping up iffy pitching. Prediction – 85 wins, third.
Seattle- the Mariners made a splash in the off-season landing a big fish… but will the Nor’westers sink or swim? Ok, enough of the watery alusions but the point is obvious- will Robinson Cano be enough to turn around the fortunes of a team that’s struggled mightily in the past four seasons? Regardless of the long-term ramifications of giving a 31 year-old middle infielder a ten year megadeal, Cano will have an impact now for the team and the fans confidence in it. Yet other mega-contracts down the coast in the West haven’t panned out too well. Cano may not be the next Josh Hamilton, but neither do I expect him to be the M’s first MVP in a bakers dozen of years. He won’t have the big bats around him to protect and his sniping about not being respected in NYC and desire to hang out with celebrities more than work out make me doubt he has the maturity to single-handedly carry a club. Still, he should be an upgrade over Nick Franklin, hit at least .280 and drive in 80+ and put butts in the seats at Safeco. In the Cano-bration, the acquisition of Corey Hart was missed by many, but he should also add to the somewhat questionable Mariner’s offense. Michael Saunders is one to watch- despite his .236 average and rate of striking out almost 30% of the time last year, he always seemed to be in the middle of things when Seattle was rolling.
Mariners pitching is decent enough of course, with King Felix should be coming into his prime at age 28 (last year his K:BB ratio was best of his career) and once Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are activated off the DL (probably at month’s end), the rotation will be formidable. Fernando Rodney was reborn in Tampa, and his addition to sidearmer Danny Farquhar gives them a decent late inning bullpen to hold the leads passed them. Not a spectacular team, but the best Washington state fans have had to cheer on for a number of years. Prediction – 87 wins, second.
Texas- no team has done more with less to show for it over the past three years than the Rangers, my step- team if you will (given my engagement to a diehard R’s fan). Many teams would have axed the manager after the soul-deadening September they had last year, but this is not the Texas way. And with an average of 92 wins a year over the past four, who’s to argue?
Jon Daniels, apparently at odds with departed legend Nolan Ryan, did decide to make some big changes nonetheless and focussing on the team’s diminishing offense over the past couple of seasons, opened the wallets up in a big way for free agent Shin-Soo Choo and got a big bat (something a bit lacking last year after Josh Hamilton moved along) in Prince Fielder . Choo is a quintessentially smart and patient hitter who should set the plate for the bigger bats regularly. Last year Choo was second in the NL in walks, runs and on base percentage and won the “Heart and Hustle Award” given out by the Reds; he’d been in the top 10 in OBP thrice with Cleveland before. His walk-off walk last night should be indicative of the type of player Texas fans will get to love this season. Fielder may not be the home run threat he once was, but will still be an upgrade at first and should hit at very least 30 and help Adrian Beltre get a few more good pitches to swing at. And while Manny Machado is the future in terms of AL third baggers, Beltre, if fully-healthy and agile again after leg problems last year, is the here and now, well deserving his four Gold Gloves. Even though it’s remarkably Adrian’s 17th big league season , don’t expect any drop -off from his Texas averages of .312, 33 homers, 100 rbis.
We Toronto fans never doubted Alex Rios’ physical capability; it was his mentality, effort and maturity that got called into quesiton. At 33 he seems to have finally grown up and the Rios of today is little like the seemingly disinterested Jay of five or six years back, so don’t be surprised to see him have a break-out year. With his speed and power he could potentially hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals and keep any baserunner who’s hit to right field honest.
The downsides of the everyday lineup are more a result of injury than lack of talent. Geovany Soto was deemed an adequate backstop, apparently pitchers preferred him to feisty AJ Pierzynski last season, but he wrecked his knee in spring training leaving questionable off-season signing JP Arencibia back there most of the time for the first half. I’ve outlined some of the problems with Arencibia here before, and all Toronto fans are only too aware of his defensive lackings. Still, in a new environment with new teammates and coaches, perhaps he can rebound from his truly dreadful 2013 (lowest batting average and on base percentage of any regular player in the league, most passed balls and throwing errors of any catcher and so on)and develop into something of the star Toronto had once imagined him to be. He did after all, win a batting title in AAA.
Likewise, the Rangers took a risk and a bit of a publicity hit by trading away longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler,but they figured they had second well-covered with young phenom Jurickson Profar, last year’s top prospect who spent too much time on the bench, or in spot assignments out of position last season. Unfortunately Profar also got injured in spring and is on the shelf for at least half the year, meaning second is left to the rather ordinary Donnie Murphy or Josh Wilson.
Rangers pitching was quietly effective last season,particularly the bullpen,so it was left somewhat unchanged, which may end up being a bit of a mistake given their early injuries. While Yu Darvish is due back this weekend from a sore neck that made him miss the opening series, last year’s #2 Derek Holland is out til the heat of July if not longer due to his broken leg- which might effect his effectiveness when he returns every bit as much as an arm injury would. Matt Harrison is expected to play a big role this season and having anything resembling the big lefty of 2012 (18 wins, 3.29 ERA) would be a huge boost , however, Harrison logged only 18 innings last year in total and is out with a bad back currently. Robbie Ross looks like a better bet to make the jump from the ‘pen to the starting 5 than season opener Tanner Scheppers; a good start from veteran Joe Saunders this weekend coupled with Yu’s return should place Scheppers back in the bullpen where he was very solid in ’13.
Joe Nathan will be missed in the bullpen, but Joakim Soria is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and should do just fine in closing games. There are holes in the pitching staff, but if Yu does what most expect, and continues to mature and adapt to North American ball, he could easily win 20 and the Rangers with better hitting than last year’s version, should take back the title. Prediction –
89 wins, first.
And now perhaps the most evenly-balanced (or 4/5 balanced) division in the AL, the West.