Some of the most exciting young talent in Major League Baseball plays in the American League West, and so does Ricky Nolasco. If you like star power, you'll find it here, and if you like weird, you'll find that in abundance as well. The only boring team of the bunch is the Los Angeles Angles—we'll get to them—and the only team without a snowball's chance in hell of winning the division is the Oakland A's. At the top of the division, meanwhile, there's a Houston Astros club with a lot to prove to itself doing battle with a Seattle Mariners team on the move and a Texas Rangers franchise on the last legs of fading glory. All three clubs are searching for their first ever World Series championship. There's an awful lot to play for.
Fresh off of a 2016 in which they muddled to a near-.500 finish, it's go time for Houston. After years of rebuild talk from a front office that has trafficked in every baseball buzzword and new-fangled innovation it could get its hands on, the future is here for baseball's space-age franchise. The Astros have as good a chance as any other team in the league to finish the season hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy high overhead.
Houston's strength is its near-unequaled mix of star power, a capable cast of competent role players, and workaday starters. The infield is a good example: it's highlighted by the incandescent Carlos Correa, the suddenly-powerful Jose Altuve, and stud sophomore Alex Bregman. Together, they'd be enough to make Houston's infield the envy of every team in baseball—save, perhaps, the defending world champion Chicago Cubs. But the fourth man on the Texas dirt, ex-Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel, is no slouch, either. He won't quite hit the high notes his teammates might reach, but he'll still be there all season long, singing solid harmony.
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The outfield is a grab-bag of experienced vets with something left to contribute (Carlos Beltran, Nori Aoki) and prime-age contributors (Josh Reddick, and bounce-back candidate Jake Marisnick) with something to prove. Then there's 25-year-old George Springer, who finally put it all together last year, smashing 29 home runs while making things happen on the basepaths. On the whole, the outfield isn't nearly as flashy as the infield, but it'll get the job done.
Houston's staff doesn't really have an area of weakness, even if it doesn't have a massive star. Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton are all proven starters, despite having slight injury concerns coming into the season, and the other two guys (Mike Fiers and Collin McHugh) have been dependable for the last three seasons or more. If anyone breaks—which could easily happen; this is baseball—Houston might be in a bit of trouble, but otherwise their rotation will keep them in pretty much every game.
The 2016 offseason was mostly an exercise in closing obvious holes—Brian McCann swapped in for the departing Jason Castro at catcher, Morton filling out the rotation, and Beltran and Reddick helping shore up the outfield—and hoping that whatever bad juju hit the 'Stros last season doesn't strike again in 2017. Houston's squads of the last few years have always seemed to be a little bit less than the sum of their parts, possibly due to some lingering clubhouse discontent, and if the Astros would like to win it all this year, they'll have to find a way to move past that. They have more than enough good players to make it happen.
It would be sort of mean to you, the reader, to list all the comings and goings on the Seattle roster here on paper, even though it's the internet and there's no paper to speak of. Just your time. Fact is, there's just an awful lot going on in the Emerald City these days, and writing it all down gets exhausting. Jerry Dipoto, the (relatively) newly-installed GM, clearly works on some sort of commission-based system wherein he gets paid for every trade he makes.
Anyway, here's the thing: The Mariners are pretty damn good these days, and they're certainly a heckuva lot better than they were 16-odd months ago, when Dipoto took over a roster filled with station-to-station runners and guys whose power strokes were being gobbled up by Safeco Field's enormous dimensions. This year's Mariners are fast, athletic, defensive-minded, and deeper than you think—it's not just Robbie Cano & Band anymore. And they still have Felix Hernandez, who's apparently ageless and still, amazingly, a little underrated.
Joining Hernandez in the rotation, and a big part of the reason the Mariners could sneak up on the Astros in the division, are Drew Smyly (recently of the Tampa Bay Rays) and Yovani Gallardo (recently of the Baltimore Orioles, heaven help him). Alongside holdovers James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma, they form a rotation that's got a fair amount of upside, especially at the one and two spots, and quite a bit more depth than any Seattle fivesome of the last half-decade or so. If the Ms don't have quite the depth here that the Astros do, they also don't have quite the same degree of lingering injury concerns, and in any event have some real upside left to develop.
If talent always won out, and if the game were played in a computer simulation, the Astros would run away with this division. But the game—please sit down, in case you collapse in shock—is actually played in real life, and this and last year's Mariners squads have something indefinable that seems to give them a little bit more oomph than their individual parts would suggest. Who knows if that's hokey nonsense or not; the point is, don't be too surprised if you see this group gel together and make a run at the division, despite their slightly weaker roster on the whole.
Remember how the Rangers came within one strike of winning the World Series, twice, back in 2011? You wonder if the whole history of the franchise would have played out a little differently if the team had finally brought home a title that year, and didn't feel like it had to constantly reload for a present that's constantly receding back into the past. This year's Rangers are a fine ballclub—great in some places, even—but they're fine in spite of themselves. They are the shopping cart you end up with if you go to Trader Joe's hungry: A quart of ice cream; some bacon, maybe; a massive bag of tortilla chips—all things that taste good individually but kind of weird together and aren't that filling in the end. What you really needed was to eat lunch six hours ago.
Ok, but about those tortilla chips. Jonathan Lucroy and—incredibly—Adrian Beltre are still great players, and a few others on the Texas bench can make some noise if necessary, but there's a whole lot of inconsistency in this lineup, and a lot of guys prone to going into deep, deep slumps. It wouldn't be shocking if the Rangers suddenly rattled off 20 wins in a row in the middle of July, tricked everyone (including their own front office) into thinking they were contenders, and then faded down the stretch to miss the postseason by a game. The Rangers are the kind of team that could easily go on a tear and win the whole dance if they made it there in the first place, but that's probably not good enough.
And time is probably running short. Beltre, as ageless as he is, can't keep this up forever. Star pitcher Yu Darvish will probably leave in free agency next offseason, and the newcomers—Tyson Ross, in the rotation, and Mike Napoli for the lineup—are nowhere near good enough to pick up the slack. Pencil in another busy offseason for the Rangers next year as they pound away at a formula that hasn't done them many favors since that devastating October loss six years ago. This is a team with only a few rolls of the dice left.
Los Angeles Angels
The most interesting thing about the Angels is Mike Trout, and he's not even that interesting. He's just extremely good. The rest of the Angels, by contrast, are extremely Just OK. Andrelton Simmons is fun to watch play defense and Albert Pujols can still jack a pitch or two out of the ballpark, but for the most part this is a roster of has-beens and mediocrities. (Not by the standards of mere mortals, mind you: These are still, of course, big-league ballplayers.)
The modal Angel hitter is a guy who would've been way overvalued in, say, 2005: free-swinging, loathe to take a walk, big raw power, and the kind of wanton baserunning that makes managers think he's "making things happen" on the basepaths. The modal pitcher is Nolasco and whatever brand of duct tape is holding Garrett Richards' right arm together these days.
The scary thing is, this is what "trying to win" looks like in Los Angeles. With Trout under contract until at least 2020, and a year or two of Decent Pujols left, GM Billy Eppler clearly spent the offseason doing what he could to maximize the team's chances of winning during the current window. Problem is, with no prospects to trade and no money left in the big-league budget, the best he could do was rustle up a few flawed veterans (Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, Luis Valbuena) available at discount prices.
Jesse Chavez, signed as a free agent at age 33, has more potential, and will solidify a rotation not entirely in possession of all its ulnar collateral ligaments. But Chavez profiles best as the guy you sign to shore up the back end of your rotation, not the guy you hope will help lead it. L.A. will probably be better in 2017 than they were in 2016, but only because (a) they were very bad in 2016 and (b) they expended what few resources they had on halfway decent tactical maneuvers in support of a strategy that failed five years ago, when they spent half a billion signing Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and long-departed Josh Hamilton. At least the weather's nice in Orange County.
Say whatever the heck you want about the Athletics—and this year, one of the things you'll probably be correct in saying is, "They're Really Bad"—but they have demonstrated, year after year, that magical and indefinable quality that makes them really, really fun to watch. Perhaps it's that we all know that the league doesn't give much of a crap about Oakland, and so the A's are always the underdog. Perhaps it's that the team doesn't have very much money, and so the A's are always the underdog. Perhaps it's that their facilities are a joke, and so ... you know what, I think the A's might be watchable because they're always the underdog.
That won't change this year. The roster is the usual bayside collection of has-beens and could-bes that will always, no matter what, be doing something a little differently than the rest of the league. This year and last, intriguingly, that thing might be grabbing guys with as much pure power potential as possible, perhaps on the principle that power has, oddly enough, become slightly undervalued in today's game (see the deals Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion, and Luis Valbuena signed this offseason). Khris Davis and Ryon Healy will get playing time in Oakland this year, alongside World Series hero Rajai Davis and longtime Athletic Stephen Vogt.
With Sonny Gray a likely departure midseason, the rotation won't be much to write home about—it isn't now, really—although Kendall Graveman and Sean Manea have their moments of interest, and there's the usual joy in watching a grown man in bright yellow and green hurl a baseball through the air. With a lot of talent piled into the division on top of them, the A's almost certainly aren't going anywhere his year, and unless something dramatic changes in their stadium situation (not particularly likely) that will be the status quo for a while to come.
February 17, 2017