Author Wallace Stegner once wrote, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."
Such words have never been truer in the American League West, as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners all find themselves in possession of a playoff spot heading into play on Wednesday, August 20. If the season ended today all three teams would be heading to the postseason.
At 74-50, the Halos have the best record in all of baseball and currently sit atop the AL West. The A's, who owned the division lead for the majority of the year, are right behind them, posting a 74-51 record. That is good enough for the second-best record in the bigs and a six-game advantage in the wild-card standings. The Mariners, at 68-57, are tied with the Detroit Tigers for the second wild card and are making a serious run at their first postseason berth since 2001.
With so much good baseball being played, the AL West is indeed the center of attention in the game. In a season that has become synonymous with parity and mediocrity, the West is boasting three of the best, most exciting and most consistent teams the sport has to offer.
Even the Houston Astros, a team with no hopes for the postseason this year, are proving that they have a bright future thanks to the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer and others; but that is a story for another day.
The point is, no other division can touch the talent level that is currently being displayed on the West Coast.
Fans in Anaheim (and Los Angeles) should be looking forward to the postseason, as their team is the best in baseball at the moment.
Mike Trout, the future face of baseball and best player in the game, is playing like his usual self, leading the team in almost every major offensive category. He is hitting .291 with 136 hits, 34 doubles, six triples, 27 homers, 88 RBI and 12 stolen bases and has .940 OPS.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, he and Oakland's Josh Donaldson have the highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of any position player in baseball at 6.2. Needless to say, Trout's name will come up when it's time to hand out hardware after the season.
The 22-year-old phenom is not carrying the offense by himself. First baseman Albert Pujols is having a nice comeback season after only playing in 99 games in 2013, batting .274 with 32 doubles, 23 dingers and 73 RBI. Middle infielders Howie Kendrick and Eric Aybar, two players not known to be big run producers, have combined to knock in 100 runs. They each also have 12 stolen bases to their credit.
There has also been the emergence of 26-year-old outfielder Kole Calhoun, who has 13 home runs and 41 RBI and leads the Halos with a .294 average.
The only guys not pulling their weight in this lineup are third baseman David Freese and outfielder Josh Hamilton. Both have missed time this year with injuries.
Meanwhile, the starting rotation, perhaps considered too weak and young prior to the season, has been full of surprises. Jered Weaver has been sound, going 13-7 with a 3.70 ERA. C.J. Wilson has not been himself this year, but other starters have stepped up.
Although he has a poor record, Hector Santiago's 3.46 ERA is good enough for third-best on the team among starters. Rookie Matt Shoemaker has come out of nowhere, going 11-4 with a 3.84 ERA for an Angels rotation that needed some depth.
However, this biggest revelation of this rotation, and perhaps the team, has been Garrett Richards. With a 13-4 record, 2.53 ERA and 4.5 WAR, the 26-year-old is now the ace of this staff. Like Trout, his name will surely be mentioned during MLB's award season.
Despite so many good and breakout players, this team was a notch below being a serious contender thanks largely in part to the bullpen. Seeing that his team had a real chance to contend, general manager Jerry Dipoto went out and acquired relievers Jason Grilli, Huston Street and Joe Thatcher.
Thatcher is on the disabled list, but Grilli has a 2.18 ERA since coming over from Pittsburgh, and Street has been the established closer the team desperately needed, converting 10 of 11 save opportunities while sporting a 1.38 ERA since joining the Angels.
Following the acquisitions of those relievers, the Angels became a complete and well-balanced team. With an explosive lineup, strong rotation and reliable pen, the team will be a serious threat in October. The only real question is whether or not they will win the division or take home a wild card.
The Angels' rotation may be better than expected, but the Athletics' staff is just downright dirty.
Amazingly, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester all have ERAs below 3.00. Gray (12), Lester (13) and Kazmir (14) all have double-digit win totals. Meanwhile, the A's also have Jason Hammel and Jesse Chavez on the active roster. Not too shabby a rotation, huh?
With an already dominant staff, GM Billy Beane sent a message that he was going for it all this year, first trading top prospect Addison Russell to the Chicago Cubs for Samardzija and Hammel. He then took it a step further, landing Lester and Jonny Gomes, two proven winners from the Boston Red Sox, for arguably his best hitter, Yoenis Cespedes.
Beane was a spoiled child this trade season and got everything he wanted. In the end, he came out with the best rotation in baseball.
The lineup is not one to be overlooked either. While the loss of Cespedes hurts, the cast of characters in this lineup are certainly capable of scoring runs. Donaldson, with 25 homers and 84 RBI, and Brandon Moss, with 23 HR and 76 RBI, provide the power. In total, nine players on the roster have at least five home runs, so there is always a little pop coming from someone unexpected.
Derek Norris, a catcher who has "Moneyball" written all over him, leads the team with a .285 average, .378 OBP and .833 OPS. He also has 10 homers and 47 RBI. Outfielders Craig Gentry and Coco Crisp and second baseman Eric Sogard bring the speed, having swiped 18, 16 and 10 bags, respectively.
Like the rotation, Oakland's bullpen is full of shutdown pitchers. Of relievers with at least 40 appearances, Ryan Cook has the highest ERA in the pen at 3.02. Fernando Abad is leading the way with a 1.69 mark. Luke Gregerson (2.21) and Dan Otero (2.33) have been tremendous as well. Closer Sean Doolittle has a 2.35 ERA to accompany his 18 saves and 12.9 K/9 ratio.
Like L.A., Oakland is well-built in every aspect of the game. However, with a rotation that is second to none, do not be surprised if Oakland takes back the division. Then again, it would interesting to see who they would go with to pitch in a one-game playoff.
Heading into the season, expectations were high in Anaheim and Oakland. The same could not be said for the Mariners. Even after the additions of star second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Fernando Rodney, this team was still viewed as one that did not have enough to contend.
Now here we are in late August, and boy is that not the case.
Cano has been everything the M's could have hoped for after dishing out a 10-year, $240 million contract to pry the slugger from the New York Yankees. Playing in the spacious Safeco Field, Cano's power numbers are down, as he has just 11 home runs. Yet with a 5.3 WAR, .328 average, 28 doubles, 69 RBI, 10 stolen bases, .397 OBP and .866 OPS, Cano is proving his worth.
With those numbers, it would be crazy to think that Cano is not even his team's best player or most deserving MVP candidate, but that's the case.
With a 13-4 record, 1.99 ERA, 0.874 WHIP, 6.1 WAR and some of the best sabermetric stats in the game, Felix Hernandez has undoubtedly been the most valuable player to don a Seattle uniform in 2014.
Everyone knew what these two stars were capable of, but the rest of the team was a question mark. Well, third baseman Kyle Seager is having a monster season, batting .276 with 19 home runs and 78 RBI, and he leads the team in slugging percentage (.476) and is second in OBP (.344) and OPS (.820). While catcher Mike Zunino hardly hits for contact, his 18 big flies have been welcomed with open arms by an offense that has trouble hitting for power at their home field.
The rotation after Hernandez is no joke either. Overshadowed by King Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma has quietly been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball this season, going 12-6 with a 2.57 ERA and 10.00 K/BB ratio. A rejuvenated Chris Young has 12 wins and a 3.07 ERA to his name. Rookie James Paxton has contributed as well, going 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts.
Throw in a solid bullpen led by Rodney and his 36 saves, and the Mariners are right up there in the standings alongside their division rivals.
With the top two teams in baseball in the Angels and A's and the playoff-hungry Mariners, expect the last month or so of the season to be a wild one out west. Right now, all three are lined up for a trip to October, but there are still many games to be played. With several teams lurking in the wild-card race and one-game playoffs being so unpredictable, winning the division should be on the top of everyone's mind.
The Angels have it, the A's had it and the Mariners want it. The division lead could end up in the hands of either team. You never know what can happen in baseball.
One thing is for sure though, and that is that these teams are serious contenders that should not be taken lightly. Whoever makes the playoffs will surely be a handful for other teams and possibly each other.
All stats were obtained via Baseball-Reference.com.
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