AL West- where $100 Million doesn’t buy you much of a player anymore

Darn! In the previous two columns we’ve seen I expect it to be a pretty good year for “Sox”- Boston’s Red Sox and Chicago’s White Sox are my early picks to win the American League East and Central, respectively. Today we turn our attention to the left coast – the AL West.

Houston: on the one hand, the Astros’ 70-win campaign last year was reasonably bad. On the other, their 19 game improvement over 2013 was the second-best in the league and for the first time in years, there were signs of promise for beleaguered SE Texas fans. A few low-key but savvy off-season moves (such as trading for Hank Conger and repatriating Jed Lowrie) seem to suggest they’re still headed in the right direction.

A: Jose Altuve. Baseball’s smallest player (generally conceded to be only 5’5”) is one of its biggest talents and one of my favorites as well. He’ll only turn 25 mid-season and soared to great heights last year winning the AL batting title (.341), leading the league in steals (56) and setting a club record for hits in a season (225), playing great “D” at the same time. He’s the heart and soul of the team and with a better lineup surrounding him and an extra year of experience, he might not have peaked yet.

Q: Colby Rasmus. The lanky outfielder turned down a chance to wear a third bird on his cap, shunning the Orioles after wearing out his welcome with Cardinals then Blue Jays. Rather like Alex Rios (and curiously, from southern Alabama like Rios) in being a tall, speedy outfielder with some power but a seeming inability to pay attention or put together more than three or four good games at a time. ‘though he has hit .276 twice and hit 23 HR in a year twice, on career 27% of all plate appearances are strikeouts and last year he hit only .225 with 18 HR and 40 RBI in Toronto before being benched in September. However, he’s still only 28 and if he learns to take advice and concentrate, could become a major talent.

Y: George Springer. A 2013 Baseball America minor league All-star in ’13 and candidate for Rookie of the year last season before a quadriceps injury ended the year mid-summer, he could really add some power to the Astros lineup. He knocked 20 out of the park in only 78 games last year and hit 37 the previous year in minors. However, he also is prone to being a free-swinger, whiffing 114 times in only 295 AB in his rookie year. Hanging around Rasmus might not be a good thing.

Z: decent young arms in the rotation; don’t be surprised if Altuve wins a second batting title but team is still the most likely to give an opposing pitcher a 20K game. Going the right way, but still a ways away, 76 wins, fourth.

Los Angeles-Anaheim: Coming off a division title, the Angels obviously thought the 98 wins in ’14 was more representative of the team than their dismal playoff appearance, and chose to do little to upgrade.

A: Mike Trout. I’m already sick of the hype and made the point earlier that Jose Bautista had a season last year as good as Trout but with much less fanfare. That said, there’s no denying Trout is a major talent and at 24 this summer should get better. His .287 average was down and K’s were up while walks down, but Angels could tolerate another year like last. But may get better.

Q: Josh Hamilton. One big question, as we know, is if Hamilton will even be able to play, after being called on the carpet by MLB over an alledged cocaine relapse. Even if he avoids a lengthy suspension and rehabs from a shoulder injury and surgery, it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll deliver the hundred million dollar performance LAA expected. Last year’s .263 average hid a terrible 108K/32 BB ratio and career-low ten homers. Throw in his selfishness and rudeness to his fans and Angels better hope that Baseball suspends him and can call on low-paid, hard-working Daniel Robertson to play LF in his place.

Y: CJ Wilson. Another big-money import from the Rangers who’s not worked out so well. People seem obsessed with the diminishing fastball of Jered Weaver, despite his success (18 wins last year) and ignore that Wilson is older , entering his 11th season and had a 4.51 ERA last year, largely due to 85 walks in 175 innings and the worst opponents average in his career as a starter. In 2010-11 with Texas, he had a 3.12 ERA; since then with Anaheim, 3.87. A return to form seems a longshot, but would boost the team’s chances of repeating as division winner.

Z: Good team, but the rotation and aging Albert Pujols will prevent them from matching last season, not to mention that Howie Kendrick will be more missed than people realize. 88 wins, second place.

Oakland: the A’s were on a roll last season and bet the farm on a World series. As we know, the team fell apart and ended up losing the Wild Card game, and this year’s edition carries over few of the stars of ’14.

A: Billy Beane. You don’t get Brad Pitt to play you in a movie by being stupid or bad at what you do. So, even though the Athletics made moves that seem questionable last summer and in the off-season, don’t bet against the GM who seems to keep the team competitive year after year with limited budgets and few recognizable stars.

Q: Billy Butler. Big free agent acquisition of the off-season took his Royals ever-so-close to the championship last year, and will be needed to add some real power into the lineup which now lacks the big bats of Donaldson and Moss. That his .323 on base and .379 slugging were career lows and 9 homers lowest since his 2007 rookie year are disturbing, but he’s still only 29 and may benefit from a change of scenery.

Y: Brett Lawrie. Few players play harder, few players would benefit from trying a little less- but Brett might be one. After all, 147 games missed due to injuries in last 2 seasons suggest that he might have done better not jumping into photographers bays after every foul ball. Great defense but disappointing bat of late, batting avg. in his four years so far: .293/.273/.254/.247; last year no stolen bases after 13 in rookie campaign. However, not being on Toronto’s artificial turf could help him stay healthy and not having media pressure he faced in Toronto (where he was the token Canadian and TV commentator Buck Martinez was comparing him to George Brett in Lawrie’s first month of big leagues) could help him come into his own and become the star he’s long been projected to be.

Z: the A’s still have some good young arms, could have two good ones coming back mid-season (Griffin and Parker) , a decent bullpen made better with Tyler Clippard’s arrival and a smart man in charge. Still, I think their streak of flat out good luck might have run its course; 77 wins, third.

Seattle: winning 87 last year was first above par season since ’09 and optimism runs high in the NW with the addition of last year’s home run champ Nelson Cruz.

A: Felix Hernandez. From the list of “pitchers who pitched better than Cy Young winner Corey Kluber last year but didn’t win the Cy Young”,it’s hard to imagine this will be King Felix’s 11th season. But he’s still only 29, seems healthy and is coming off a year in which he had the lowest WHIP and ERA (2.14) of his already significant career. With Cruz and Co. perhaps hitting a few more out of Safeco Field for him, could easily win 20.

Q: Fernando Rodney. The bullpen isn’t as strong as the rotation, and the closer seems a little iffy even though he is coming off a decent year last year in which he set a club mark for saves with 48. Although he’s got 220 career saves, he also has 50 blown ones and a proclivity to wildness and going out of his way to ‘dis’ opponents. At age 38, can he still hit the bulls-eye regularly?

Y: Kyle Seager. The M’s like their young 3B enough to reward him with a big long-term deal after only three full seasons and there’s ample reason: he’s only missed a dozen games over those three seasons, and had his first All Star game and Gold Glove last year. ’14’s .268/25HR/96RBI were all career highs and his OPS was behind only Beltre and Donaldson among AL third baggers. He should produce nicely but if he can turn it up a notch with a bit more help around him in the lineup, the Mariners could really set sail for the playoffs.

Z: Hernandez anchors the best starting rotation in the division if not the whole AL; another 40 homers from Nelson Cruz is reasonable to expect if he’s healthy… 90 wins, first place.

Texas: after being a powerhouse for the past four seasons, the Rangers crashed in a big way in 2014. Unprecedented numbers of injuries forced not-ready-for-primetime players to show up in the Bigs too early while by mid-summer the few healthy veterans looked more interested in setting up dinner dates or tee times than winning games. R’s hope a new manager and healthier stars, as well as kids with a previous taste of majors will return the team to the top in ’15.

A: Adrian Beltre. As it stands right now, only 2 players would be sure bets to make the Hall of Fame if they quit today – Ichiro and Albert Pujols. Beltre is a close third, and with another decent season he should ensure his spot in Cooperstown. Adrian will be entering his 18th season with 2604 career hits, 395 homers and four Gold Gloves… and despite being 36, it seems his trajectory is still going up. Although his 19 homers was low since ’09 (no surprise given how lacking the rest of lineup was) his .324 average was best in ten years and he led all third baggers in OPS. To top it off, he’s taken on the role of teacher and deputy in the clubhouse.

Q: Derek Holland. It may be unfair to put the weight of a team’s whole season on one player’s shoulders (or shoulder!) but the Rangers season comes down to Holland and his sore left shoulder. With superstar ace Yu Darvish out for the season, 28 year-old Holland has to step up and take on the role as the top starter in an otherwise lacklustre starting rotation. Holland, charming and funny, is immensely popular in the Dallas area and says he’s not satisfied with what he’s done so far; “I know I can do better,” he told reporters this month. He likely could; a deceptive southpaw, he’s not overpowering nor does he have a curveball or split-finger for the ages but when he’s on,he’s close to unhittable. Returning from a leg injury late last season he was 2-0 with a microscopic 1.46 ERA in six games; in 2011 he tossed four shutouts. However, he’s not yet put it together over a long stretch; 16 wins in 2011 and a 3.42 ERA in ’13 are personal bests that could be bettered. I think Holland is ready to take the next step and become a top-flight ace… if he’s healthy. That he’s only appeared in one game this spring through the 26th and has had recurrent problems with his throwing shoulder over the winter is cause for concern to say the least.

Y: Money men need to be money. Last year the Rangers shelled out over $100M to bring in free agent OF Shin-soo Choo and trade for first baseman Prince Fielder in hopes of spurring on some run production. As we know, Fielder who’d not missed a game since 2008 had a bad neck and played only 42 games. Choo injured his ankle in April, apparently had an achy elbow all year and looked bored out of his mind by the All Star break. As a result, Fielder hit only 3 home runs and excelled only at staring down pitchers (he still managed to draw 11 intentional walks) and Choo gave up in August with his average down to .242. Both are in better health this spring but for the team to compete both have to rebound in a big way. Choo had averaged .284 with 18 homers and 92 walks a year over his previous two years and was to be the sparkplug for the Rangers offense. Fielder is needed to be a big power bat and clean-up hitter and seems a little less likely than Choo to live up to expectations; his 2012/13 numbers show a trend- batting average, .313/.279; homers 30/25; slugging pct. .528/.457. His mammoth numbers with the Brewers seem a lifetime back now. Elvis Andrus, and his $120M contract could also help out by playing like an All Star not a class clown.

Z: I’m engaged to an engaging Rangers fan so I don’t want to throw too much cold water on the team’s hope before the season kicks off. But, I also try to be objective (note my self-disappointing prediction of only 81 wins for my Jays ) and don’t note any real confidence in GM Jon Daniels among Texas fans. The one super prospect (Joey Gallo) plays the position the team’s only superstar (Adrian Beltre) is locked into through ’16. Too many old (as in over-the-hill) players, too many kids rushed to the big leagues, one solid starting pitcher with Cy Young potential but a wonky shoulder… 71 wins, fifth place.

This weekend we’ll try to put it all together and see who should still be standing in October.

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