AL West Preview: Forecast for Angels, Rangers, Athletics, Astros and Mariners
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One of the most exciting divisions in baseball heading into 2013 is the American League West. There is a clear separation between the three teams at the top, with Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles the cream of the crop, and Seattle and Houston bringing up the rear.
Despite losing Josh Hamilton and Michael Young—though some would argue that the latter was more of a detriment to the team on the field the last few years—the Rangers are still very much in the thick of the division race.
Some are underestimating the depth the Rangers have in the big leagues and at the high levels of the minors, including baseball's top prospect, Jurickson Profar, when looking at them heading into this season.
Oakland got a lot of great performances from its young pitching staff last season, as well as some surprise seasons from the likes of Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, en route to winning the division last season.
The Angels made a lot of big moves the last two seasons, signing Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and trading for Zack Greinke (who signed with the other Los Angeles team this offseason), and have grand designs on making it back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Seattle is trying to improve its offense by bringing in old players who don't command a lot of money, like Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Houston is just trying to avoid being the worst team in baseball history this season.
Here is a full look ahead at what to expect from the American League West in 2013, including what each team needs to happen, what could go wrong and final predicted standings for this season.
Los Angeles Angels
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89-73, third place in American League West
What the Angels Need to Happen in 2013
The Angels have put all their eggs in a select few baskets. They needed to find starting pitching help after losing Zack Greinke and Dan Haren, yet the only significant move was to get Tommy Hanson, whose average fastball velocity was less than 90 mph last season (per Fangraphs).
When it became clear that the starting market wasn't going to swing in their favor, the Angels decided that the best defense would be a good offense and signed Josh Hamilton to play alongside Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
Even if Trout isn't as good as he was in 2012, a likely scenario given his historically great debut season, he will still be one of the five best players in baseball. Pujols isn't the best pure hitter in baseball anymore, but he is still good for 30 home runs and a .280 average with good defense.
Hamilton is a huge gamble, because he can carry a lineup when he is on fire but looks like he belongs in Triple-A when he loses focus. The Angels have to score a lot of runs to win, so he has to be the player he was in April and May for Texas last year, not the one who hit .259/.323/.510 in the second half.
Since scoring runs will only take you so far, the Angels have to hope that Hanson can give them more than the 4.48 ERA he had in 174.2 innings with Atlanta last year.
The Angels are also paying C.J. Wilson like he is a No. 2 starter. For the first three months of the season he fit that bill, posting a 2.43 ERA in 111 innings up to the All-Star break. Things fell apart in the second half, as his ERA ballooned to 5.54 and he gave up 143 baserunners with 13 home runs in 91 innings.
It was revealed after the season was over that Wilson was dealing with bone spurs and underwent surgery to correct the problem, which does help explain his problems after the break.
We know that Jered Weaver is an ace and will figure into the Cy Young conversation, but someone has to step up behind him to at least give the Angels a potent duo at the top of the rotation. Innings eaters won't get the job done against teams like Texas and Oakland that can hit home runs as well as anyone in baseball.
Keep an eye on the back of the bullpen, as well. Ryan Madson is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery last season. Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com reported that Madson will throw his first bullpen session on Monday since he was shut down in early February.
If Madson struggles at all when he does eventually debut during the season, the team could turn back to Ernesto Frieri. He saved 23 games for them last season but faded in the second half with a 4.50 ERA and lost the closer's job late in the season.
What Could Go Wrong?
With so much emphasis placed on the offense, if one of Trout, Pujols or Hamilton struggles, it will be hard for this team to push runs across the board.
It should be noted that I don't include Mark Trumbo in this group because his first half last season masked his overall performance. He didn't change anything about his approach at the plate, just had more luck on balls in play and hit .306/.358/.608 with 22 home runs before the break.
The player Trumbo was in the second half, with a .227/.271/.359 slash line, is closer to the kind of hitter he is. He has more power than that, but his on-base percentage was about in line with what he is going to be as a hacker with no patience who strikes out more than 150 times in a season.
Pujols and Hamilton are the two big concerns, with the latter being more problematic than the former. Pitchers can exploit Pujols' diminished bat speed with velocity inside, yet he still slugged .516 last year.
Hamilton is an enigma. He can be the best power hitter in baseball one month, then fall off the cliff the next. You never know what exactly you are going to get.
If Weaver misses time again this season or doesn't pitch up to his lofty standards, the Angels are going to have even more rotation problems than it looks like they will if everything goes as expected.
The bullpen could easily fall apart if Madson's elbow acts up during the season and Frieri's second-half numbers are more in line with the kind of pitcher he is going to be.
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93-69, second place in American League West (lost to Baltimore in Wild Card game)
What the Rangers Need to Happen in 2013
The Rangers are undergoing a slight makeover this season, letting Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli leave via free agency and trading Michael Young to Philadelphia.
But don't mistake the loss of big names for a drop in talent, as the Rangers are still as equipped as anyone in the American League West to win the division and make a run to the World Series for the third time in four years.
The lineup is still going to put runs on the board, as Adrian Beltre was an MVP candidate last season and has shown no signs of slowing down. A.J. Pierzynski might not suffer as much of a dip in power as you think, since Texas can inflate a lot of home run totals.
Lance Berkman's health is the only thing standing in his way, as he proved two years ago in St. Louis that he can still be a dominant hitting force when he is 100 percent. Elvis Andrus is still the best defensive shortstop in baseball and a great table-setter at the top of the lineup.
At some point the Rangers are going to use Mike Olt, who has big raw power, and Jurickson Profar, the best prospect in baseball, this season.
The outfield doesn't look as formidable as it once did, but Nelson Cruz can still hit a lot of home runs. Craig Gentry doesn't have any power but gets on base at a .340 clip and plays solid defense in center field.
Where you will find the most improvement for the Rangers this season, however, is at the top of the rotation. Yu Darvish took steps towards becoming an ace as 2012 moved along, showing better command late in the season.
Because Darvish throws so many different pitches, all of them with movement, and made adjustments in 2012, he could take several steps forward and become exactly what people expected him to be.
There is also so much starting depth, with Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis behind Darvish. Neftali Feliz will be back after missing last year due to Tommy John surgery.
The bullpen is loaded, especially after adding Joakim Soria. That was one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. He is making just $8 million over the next two seasons, so if it doesn't work out, the Rangers can dump him without taking a huge hit.
Talent is not the issue for the Rangers. All they have to do is stay relatively healthy in a few key spots and they will be in this race all season.
What Could Go Wrong?
Darvish's late-season improvements could have been an aberration. His command still comes and goes from game to game, leaving the Rangers in a lurch at the top of the rotation. He can miss a ton of bats, as he did in 2012, but he doesn't turn into the stopper the stuff suggests he should be.
That outfield mix, which includes Cruz, Gentry, David Murphy and Engel Beltre, isn't able to pick up the offensive slack lost with Josh Hamilton signing with the Angels, putting more pressure on aging stars like Berkman and Pierzynski.
Joe Nathan's return to form last year winds up being just a one-year blip; he gets hurt or can't get the job done, as often happens to relievers. The Rangers struggle to find someone else to throw in high-leverage situations with Feliz and Soria needing to be eased back into the mix following elbow injuries last season.
It is hard to really find fault with where the Rangers are at right now. They have two stud position-player prospects to bring up at a moment's notice who can contribute to this team right away. They have depth all over the place, particularly in the pitching department.
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94-68, first place in American League West (lost 3-2 to Detroit in ALDS)
What the Athletics need to happen in 2013
Pitching is always the operative word whenever the A's are good, and that was certainly the case last season. They wound up having an all-rookie rotation at one point late last season, as they were making their move in the AL West.
That young rotation returns in 2013, along with the unlikely services of Bartolo Colon, who will return after being suspended 50 games last August for failing a drug test.
And in case you forgot about his existence because he has thrown just 118.1 innings in the last two seasons combined, Brett Anderson will be back and fully healthy for the first time since the start of 2011.
The A's are going to have a great pitching staff that will likely end up near the top of the league in ERA because their home ball park is where runs go to die.
Just don't tell that to the offense Billy Beane and his staff have built, because there is a lot of power to be found. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, in particular, can hit the ball out of any park in baseball.
Those two are going to be crucial for the A's in 2013, as a lot of their offense last season came from players unlikely to duplicate that success again. Brandon Moss isn't going to slug .596 or get on base at a .358 clip again. Jonny Gomes is in Boston now.
The addition of John Jaso at catcher, to platoon with Derek Norris, was a great move. Jaso crushes left-handed pitching, posting a .923 OPS against southpaws last year. Norris is still learning the game at the big-league level, so Jaso gives the A's plenty of flexibility.
What Could Go Wrong?
That young pitching, which performed so well in 2012, could come back down to earth this season. Tommy Milone had a 3.74 ERA but was dreadful away from the spacious park in Oakland, posting a 4.83 ERA on the road and allowing 18 home runs in 91.1 innings.
Anderson is still just 25 and has the best raw stuff of any starter in the rotation, but he has never been able to fulfill his potential with the A's because of injuries. He is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, which could lead to a lot of wildness in the first half of the season, especially.
With the offense being built around Cespedes and Reddick, they could find it difficult to push runs across the board. Jed Lowrie was a very good acquisition from Houston, but will he hold up long enough to make a difference?
Lowrie has never played in more than 97 games because he gets hurt so often.
Even closer Grant Balfour is an uncertainty, as he had knee surgery in February and was scheduled to be sidelined 4-6 weeks. Who knows what that will do for his timetable for the regular season?
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75-87, last place in American League West
What the Mariners Need to Happen in 2013
The Mariners are grasping at straws to fix their anemic offense in 2013. They signed Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, traded for Michael Morse and brought back Justin Smoak to move out of the basement in the American League West.
Lucky for the Mariners, the Astros are joining the party, so there will be a new cellar dweller for a few years, at least.
There really isn't much upside in any of those deals for the Mariners, as Ibanez is a platoon player who can't play defense. Bay gets hurt just trying to get out of bed in the morning. Smoak is not going to magically turn things around, though his late-season swing did look a little better than what he was doing before.
Morse got overrated this offseason because he has power, but he has only had more than 500 at-bats once in his eight-year career.
Any chance the Mariners have this season, at least on offense, rests largely on the bat of Jesus Montero. He is still miscast as a catcher for this team, but his bat was a huge disappointment last year.
Not everyone can come in and shine right away, but Montero was regarded as the best pure bat in the minors for a long time. So to see him post a .298 on-base percentage and slug.386 did raise a lot of eyebrows.
The Mariners don't boast a deep rotation, though they do have one of the best starters in the business with Felix Hernandez. Eventually Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker will be brought up, both possibly this season, to give fans a glimpse at what the future holds.
What Could Go Wrong?
All of those additions to the lineup could easily flame out. Ibanez holds a soft spot in Seattle's heart because he spent 10 seasons with the team and drove in more than 100 runs three times. He just isn't that player anymore, not at the age of 40.
Bay has played in more than 100 games just once in the last three seasons. To expect him to stay healthy for an entire season would be foolish for anyone.
Morse is also going to get hurt at some point. That is the pattern throughout his career, so to expect change now would be, as was the case with Bay, foolish.
Montero's issues last season could easily carry over. He never found a way to make necessary adjustments, leaving his ceiling with the Mariners very much in doubt. He was supposed to be the one to save this lineup, so there is a lot invested in him.
The Mariners are not in a position to compete in this division right now, anyway, so they could take a long look at prospects like Hultzen, Walker, Brandon Maurer and Mike Zunino in the big leagues before 2013 is over.
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55-107, last place in National League Central
What the Astros Need to Happen in 2013
Even though it is not going to be pretty to watch, you can't help but love what the Astros are doing right now.
This is the rare case of a franchise recognizing its inefficiencies in the draft and international market for most of the last decade, understanding that it doesn't matter if you win 55 games or 75 games, you aren't going to the postseason, so you might as well blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.
Aside from Jose Altuve, there might not be one player in the everyday lineup whom fans are going to know. But this franchise is headed in the right direction.
It is going to be painful for at least two more years. General manager Jeff Luhnow knew what he was getting into when he took the job prior to the 2012 season and has done everything in his power to restock the farm system with high-ceiling talent that has been missing for so long.
The big leagues are, while not an afterthought, not the first priority for the Astros right now. They know that the continued development of their top prospects this season is their mission.
First baseman Jonathan Singleton would have had a chance to make the team at some point this season, and still may, but a positive marijuana test will keep him on the bench for 50 games. He still needed more reps in the minors anyway, so this suspension just delays his timetable to debut in Houston.
Keep expectations realistic. The 2013 Astros will be one of the worst teams we have ever seen. Don't take that as a sign of failure, as you can see the plan in place if you look up and down the farm system right now.
What Could Go Wrong?
It is hard to pinpoint how things could get worse for the Astros right now. Unless things go horribly awry with their top prospects this season (like with injuries), some failure is to be expected because a lot of them are still in the lower levels of the minors. You can't look at the results.
Finding the right words to convey what the Astros are doing can be difficult, because most fans just look at scores and records, see what happened and make a snap decision.
The Astros are certainly not expecting anything other than seeing the 25 players on their roster play hard for 162 games. Pride is a hard thing to sell, but it is all this team has right now.
Final Projected Standings
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|Texas Rangers 91-71|
|Los Angeles Angels 88-74|
|Oakland Athletics 82-80|
|Seattle Mariners 75-87|
|Houston Astros 53-109|
Texas' depth will be the difference in the division race. It may not have an offense as potent as the Angels, but the Rangers are better when you break everything down top to bottom.
The Angels don't have enough pitching to last, though having nearly 40 games against Seattle and Houston will make it easier to stockpile wins before going up against better teams in the American League.
Oakland had so many things go right in 2012 when it won the division, but those kinds of things don't usually sustain from year to year. The A's have the deepest pitching staff in the division, but you wonder how good the offense will be.
Seattle is banking on too many question marks in the lineup to approach the .500 mark. Houston won't challenge anyone for anything this season.