I’m back after a week’s absence with a preview of the 2015 AL West division.
5. Oakland Athletics
Manager – Bob Melvin
General Manager – Billy Beane
Home Ballpark – O.co Coliseum
2014 Record – 88-74 (AL Wild Card Team)
Key Departures – Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Jason Hammel, Luke Gregorson
Key Additions – Billy Butler, Tyler Clippard, Jesse Hahn, Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis, Ben Zobrist, Marcus Simien
Key Returners – Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Coco Crisp, Sean Doolittle, Stephan Vogt, Josh Reddick, Jesse Chavez
The A’s were a team that won 88 games last year and were the second wild card team in the American League. After going completely all in last season and falling short of their goal, the A’s had to dismantle their team and are in rebuild mode.
I see the A’s a lot like I see the Tampa Bay Rays, great pitching and no lineup. Sonny Gray anchors Oakland’s rotation. Gray had a breakout season in 2014 and was overshadowed by Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. Now that those two guys are gone, Gray will be counted on to be the ace of a pretty strong pitching staff. Scott Kazmir has had to reinvent himself after being out of baseball in 2011 and 2012. He’s won double-digit games since coming back to baseball in 2013, and in 2014 he looked like the pitcher he was when he was with Tampa Bay. Kazmir was an All-Star in 2014 and won 15 games. If Kazmir continues to pitch well, a combination of Gray and Kazmir will be pretty formidable. AJ Griffin, Jesse Chavez and Jesse Hahn will fill out the rest of the rotation. Griffin was injured for all of 2014 but was outstanding in 2012 and 2013. He won 14 games and pitched 200 innings in 2013. Chavez was a pleasant surprise for Oakland in 2014. He had never been more than a reliever his whole career and then pitched very well in the back end of the A’s rotation last season. Jesse Hahn was brought over to Oakland in a trade that sent Derek Norris to San Diego this offseason. Hahn was a highly touted prospect in the Padres organization, and he had a fine rookie season in 2014. He was 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA in just 76.1 innings. If he can develop even more in 2015, the A’s might have a guy that can stack up with Gray and Kazmir. The bullpen of the A’s was one of the better ones in baseball last season. Yes, they lost Luke Gregerson to free agency, but they picked up Tyler Clippard, one of the best setup men in baseball, from the Washington Nationals. Sean Doolittle was one of the best closers last season, which garnered him All-Star recognition. The A’s do have the pitching to compete, but the lineup is another story.
Oakland ranked fourth in all of baseball last season in runs scored. I expect them to take a major step back in that department this season. They lost the best third baseman in baseball in Josh Donaldson and replaced him with Brett Lawrie, a guy who was a top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization but just has not played up to expectations. Maybe a change of scenery will help him out. Billy Butler was also brought in to help bolster a weak lineup. Butler had a down season in 2014 for the American League Champion Kansas City Royals. I find it hard to think he can be a guy to be a major run producer with not much help around him. Ike Davis had an up-and-down tenure with the New York Mets. At one point many thought Davis would be the Mets franchise first basemen for years to come, but he fell from grace. He hit 33 home runs in 2012, but could never hit more than 11 for the next two seasons, and the Mets gave up on him. It will be interesting to see if the A’s will get the Ike Davis of 2012 or the Ike Davis of the last two seasons. Coco Crisp is one of the better leadoff men in baseball. He was hurt for a good portion of 2014, but he’s back in 2015. He can get on base, but there is not much behind him that can knock him in. The A’s just don’t have much in their lineup to be a serious contender in this division, and that’s a shame because they should have a really good pitching staff.
4. Texas Rangers
Manager – Jeff Banister
General Manager – Jon Daniels
Home Ballpark – Globe Life Park in Arlington
2014 Record – 67-95
Key Departures – Alex Rios
Key Additions – Yovani Gallardo, Ross Detwiler, Kyuju Fujikawa, Anthony Ranaudo
Key Returners – Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, Jurrickson Profar, Leonys Martin, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison
It was not too long ago when the Rangers were the class of this division, but oh how the mighty have fallen. The Rangers were the worst team in baseball last season as they were ravaged by injuries making them play a lot of young players. They should be healthy in 2015, but that doesn’t mean they will be back to what they once were.
When healthy, Yu Darvish is a top-10 pitcher. He was one of the many that were injured last season, but he’s back to be the ace of a pretty good starting staff. The Rangers did acquire Yovani Gallardo from the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason, and he should fit in nicely right behind Darvish. Martin Perez was a pleasant surprise in 2013 by winning 10 games with an ERA of 3.62. Perez had to have Tommy John surgery last season and might not be available at the start of 2015. If he can come back and be the pitcher he was, he will be a nice guy to have behind Darvish and Gallardo. Derek Holland had a freak knee injury last offseason while jumping on a trampoline, and he was lost for most of 2014. He was able to come back at the end of last season and was terrific. Before the injury, he was one of the Rangers most dependable starters. I expect him to comeback and be what he was. He has the ability to form a great trio of starting pitchers with Gallardo and Darvish. The Rangers will have some questions to answer in their bullpen. Tanner Scheppers and Ross Detwiler are two proven guys out of the pen, but beyond those two guys there are question marks everywhere. There is no clear-cut at closer. Texas could go with Kyuji Fujikawa at closer, a guy who has had some experience closing. The Rangers do have the talent to have a pretty good staff, but I don’t think that talent will come together this season. There are just too many question marks for a chance to compete in this division.
This was a lineup that was also plagued with injury last season. Its biggest piece, Prince Fielder, was lost for most of last season with a neck injury. Fielder will be back to anchor the middle of the order with Adrian Beltre. Beltre is one of the best hitters in the game and is quietly playing himself into Hall of Fame consideration once he retires. If Fielder bounces back from the injury, the Rangers will have one of the most fearsome duos in baseball. Elvis Andrus suffered a down year in 2014. When on top of his game, he’s one of the best shortstops in baseball. I expect him to bounce back in 2015 and be more of the guy we saw 2010-13. The Rangers will have to make a decision about the second base job. Rougned Odor had a nice rookie season for the Rangers in 2014, but Jurickson Profar looks to be healthy and ready to play. At one point Profar was the top prospect in baseball. Injuries have caused a delay in his development, but he looks to be ready in 2015. Leonys Martin is back to hold down center field for the Rangers. He provides a lot of speed at the top of the order. Shin-Soo Choo was Texas’ high price free agent signing last offseason and did not play up to expectations. Choo had the worst season of his career last season. He hit .240 with only 13 homers and 40 RBIs. He also posted the lowest on-base percentage of his career at .340. The Rangers will need a rebound season from Choo. They will have a number of choices in left field with Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski and Michael Choice. The Rangers should have a pretty good lineup barring injury. They should look more like a throwback Rangers team, scoring a lot of runs but just coming up short on the pitching end.
3. Houston Astros
Manager – A.J. Hinch
General Manager – Jeff Luhnow
Home Ballpark – Minute Maid Ballpark
2014 Record – 70-92
Key Departures – Dexter Fowler
Key Additions – Evan Gattis, Pat Neshak, Luke Gregerson, Jed Lowrie, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus
Key Returners – Chris Carter, George Springer, Jon Singleton, Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Josh Fields, Brett Oberholtzer
I believe the Houston Astros may be a sleeping giant in the AL West. They have one of the best farm systems in baseball and have recently made some key offseason acquisitions. If their young guys develop the way they believe they will the Astros will soon have one of the best teams in the division. For now, I see them improving in 2015 with 2016 and 2017 being the years they seriously compete.
The Astros do not have a clear-cut No. 1 ace to sit at the top of their rotation but they have some young guys who could evolve into that. Dallas Keuchel had a breakout performance in 2014 after two pretty subpar years. The 27-year-old southpaw won 12 games and had an ERA of 2.93 over 200 innings. Keuchel will be counted on to lead a pretty young rotation. After jumping from two organizations during two seasons, Collin McHugh finally found his home in 2014. McHugh was almost as good as Keuchel. He had 11 wins with an ERA of 2.73. Keuchel and McHugh have the makings of a solid top of the rotation for Houston for years to come. Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock will be expected to round out the rotation. Oberholtzer is pretty highly thought of in the Astros organization. He didn’t have the best season in 2014, but if he can develop in 2015, the Astros will have three good young starters. The Astros should have a pretty deep bullpen in 2015. The signings of Pat Neshak and Luke Gregerson during the offseason provide the Astros with two of the best setup men in baseball. Chad Qualls was the closer for Houston in 2014, but I could see Josh Fields challenging him for that position this season. Fields was the 20th overall pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 2008 and has yet to live up to expectations. He has a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and has all the makings of a closer.
I love what the Astros did in the offseason by picking up Evan Gattis to bolster their lineup. They now have a pretty strong middle of the order with Gattis, Chris Carter and George Springer. Carter was second in all of baseball with 37 home runs last year. He is going to strikeout a ton and not hit for a high average, but he can drive in runs and hit home runs. George Springer was having a pretty nice rookie season in 2014 before injury cut it short. Springer hit 20 home runs in just 78 games. He was almost a 40-40 guy in the minors in 2013, so you can see what potential he has.
Jose Altuve returns this season as the defending batting champ. He has been one of the most consistent players since entering the league in 2011. The diminutive second basemen is quietly becoming one of the best players in baseball. The Astros also signed Jed Lowrie during the offseason to a three-year deal, which was a bit odd. The Astros have top prospect Carlos Correa waiting in the minors which why a three-year deal for Lowrie seemed strange. He’s just a placeholder until Correa is ready. Colby Rasmus was also signed during the offseason and provides the Astros with some power in the outfield. So Houston should have a pretty solid outfield with Gattis, Springer and Rasmus. I like what the Astros are doing. If their young guys in the majors and minors can develop in 2015, Houston should have some pretty competitive teams for years to come.
2. Seattle Mariners
Manager – Lloyd McClendon
General Manager – Jack Zduriencik
Home Ballpark – Safeco Field
2014 Record – 87-75
Key Departures – Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Chris Young
Key Additions – Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano
Key Returners – Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyle Seager, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Dustin Ackley, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Roenis Elias, Danny Farquhar, Charlie Furbush, Mike Zunino
The Seattle Mariners were one of the much-improved teams in 2014, and I expect them to take the next step in 2015. They have a solid lineup with Cano, Cruz and Seager. King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma headline a great pitching staff. Expect them to give the Angels a run at the division before taking one of the wildcard spots along with the Detroit Tigers.
When you have Felix Hernandez at the top of your staff, that’s a very good place to start when trying to build a winning team. King Felix is a top-10 pitcher and will finally get his first shot at the playoffs in 2015. Iwakuma sits behind Hernandez at the No. 2 spot in the rotation and has quietly worked himself into the talk of top starters in baseball. After Hernandez and Iwakuma, Seattle is going to have to rely on some young guys in Taijaun Walker and James Paxton. Walker is a heralded prospect who has the makings of an ace. He saw some big league action last season but will be called upon to take up a more significant role in 2015, especially after the loss of Chris Young. Paxton also saw some major league action in 2014 but had some of his season taken from him due to injury. When he was healthy, Paxton pitched great and showed flashes of dominance. The 6-foot-4 Canadian southpaw went 6-4 with an ERA of 3.04 in just 74 innings last year. If he can stay healthy, the Mariners should have a solid 1-4 in their rotation. Seattle’s bullpen should be pretty solid as well. Danny Farquhar, Charlie Furbush and Tom Wilhelmsen are three hard throwers that should set up nicely for one of the best closers in the game, Fernando Rodney.
The weak point of the 2014 Mariners was their lineup. That should not be the case in 2015 after signing slugger Nelson Cruz. Cruz led all of baseball last season with 40 home runs. However, don’t be deterred when Cruz’s power numbers go down this season due to playing half of his games in cavernous Safeco Field. Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager should form one of the most feared middle of the orders in the game. Mike Zunino is an up and coming catcher who showed some promise in 2014. I expect him develop to one of the better catchers in the American League in 2015. The M’s picked up Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline last season. Jackson gives the Mariners one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. Dustin Ackley finally seemed to find his niche in left field last year. Ackley at one point was one of the Mariners top prospects. He finally made the turn last year while playing left field. Seth Smith was also picked up from the Padres this offseason. Smith will provide some left-handed power in the outfield. Overall, the acquisitions of Smith and Cruz will help the Mariners get over that hump they just couldn’t get over last season. They have improved enough to make the postseason. They have a solid pitching staff and a solid lineup. It all adds up to their first playoff birth since 2001.
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Manager – Mike Scioscia
General Manger – Jerry Dipoto
Home Ballpark – Angel Stadium
2014 Record- 98-64
Key Departures – Howie Kendrick
Key Additions – Matt Joyce, Josh Rutledge, Johnny Giavotella, Andrew Heaney
Key Returners – Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, Garrett Richards, Erick Aybar, Josh Hamilton, David Freese, Kole Calhoun, Huston Street, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, Hector Santiago, C.J. Wilson
The Angels had the best record in baseball last season and should have a great team again in 2015. They are my favorite to win this division for the second year in a row. They should have a little more competition with the Seattle Mariners improving, so it will be a close race throughout the year. But in the end, I see the Angels taking control and winning their second consecutive AL West crown.
Assuming Garrett Richards fully recovers from a horrific knee injury, he should headline this rotation. Behind Richards is Jered Weaver, and he is no slouch. Richards and Weaver should form the best 1-2 punch within the division. Matt Shoemaker came out of nowhere in 2014 to have a great season, but injury cut his playing time short. Shoemaker should make for a solid No. 3 starter. I would even put Shoemaker in front of the highly paid, C.J. Wilson. Wilson will probably be the No. 4 in this rotation after having a down year in 2014. Hector Santiago or Tyler Skaggs will round out the rotation for the Halos. On paper I think the Angels’ staff is probably just as good as the Mariners’. The only area where Seattle has the advantage is in the bullpen. The Angels have a great closer in Huston Street and a solid setup man in Joe Smith. The rest of the bullpen is kind of a question mark for me. They’ll have to come up with a bullpen in front of Smith and Street, but in the end, the Angels pitching should be solid enough to capture the AL West Crown.
Any lineup that has Mike Trout in it is going to be one of the best in baseball. Trout is arguably the best player in baseball and is only going to get better. Albert Pujols had his best season in an Angels uniform in 2014, albeit it wasn’t a typical Albert Pujols year. I think the Angels will need a rebound year out of Josh Hamilton. Hamilton has not lived up to the contract he received before the 2013 season. If he can rebound this year, the Angels will have a pretty formidable lineup. Kole Calhoun got his chance at meaningful playing time last year, and he ran with it. Calhoun batted .272 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs in 2014. Erick Aybar returns as the Angels shortstop this season. He is quietly one of the better shortstops in baseball and was an All Star in 2014. He is not going to put up the flashy offensive numbers, but he can hit for a decent average and play a solid short stop. Johnny Giavotella and Josh Rutledge will battle it out in spring training for the second base job. Both guys were highly touted prospects with their previous organizations (Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies) but faltered and now are getting a second chance with the Halos. David Freese has really only had one good year since his breakout performance in the 2011 playoffs. He will be depended upon to produce more for the Angels this season. The Angels will have a great lineup headlined by Trout and Pujols that will be even stronger if Hamilton returns to form. That lineup, coupled with a great starting rotation, inclines me to give the Halos the nod over the Mariners for the AL West crown.
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