The Oakland A’s have made a good life for themselves living in the shadows. For the second consecutive year, they were beat in the highlights all winter by their division mates, and for the second straight summer, they answered back by winning the AL West. The consummate team effort was once again put on by Bob Melvin’s club, who got an out of the blue MVP-calibur performance from Josh Donaldson, coupled by a few career peaks and a consistent effort from its pitching to pull away from its big dollar division rivals.
1. Oakland Athletics (96-66)
2. Texas Rangers (91-72)
3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84)
4. Seattle Mariners (71-91)
5. Houston Astros (51-111)
But for how long can that stand? The Rangers were once again relentless in the acquisition game, spinning the biggest trade of the offseason by swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder, then handing a top shelf deal to Shin-Soo Choo to attempt to fix an offense that ran flat a year ago. For a change, the Angels didn’t issue a huge contract out, but the Mariners took their place, overhauling their everyday lineup around the shocking headline deal of the winter with Robinson Cano heading to the Pacific northwest. Even the Astros put the brakes to their two-year bottom out effort some, making a few moves to fill in a few of their many holes in a permanent manner.
But in Oakland, Billy Beane was far from stagnant, and produced the most progressive Oakland winter in some time, overhauling his bullpen to add yet another conglomerate weapon to his all-in club. In the end, what does it all mean? Will Oakland continue to be underrated, despite being the one of only two active teams to pull off their division title in consecutive years, or will one of the high rollers finally see some return on what has been some questionable investments thus far?
1. Shin-Soo Choo—Rangers, Left Field
2. Mike Trout—Angels, Center Field
3. Robinson Cano—Mariners, Second Base
4. Prince Fielder—Rangers, First Base
5. Adrian Beltre—Rangers, Third Base
6. Raul Ibanez—Angels, Designated Hitter
7. Josh Reddick—Athletics, Right Field
8. Jason Castro—Astros, Catcher
9. Elvis Andrus—Rangers, Shortstop
Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez—Mariners
Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish—Rangers
Starting Pitcher: Hisashi Imakuma—Mariners
Starting Pitcher: Jered Weaver—Angels
Right Handed Reliever: Ryan Cook—Athletics
Lefty Handed Reliever: Sean Doolittle—Athletics
Closer: Fernando Rodney—Mariners
The addition of Fielder gives much needed power to a Texas lineup that was starved of it post-Josh Hamilton last season, while Choo joining Elvis Andrus atop the lineup will put plenty of ducks on the pond for Prince and Adrian Beltre to take advantage of. The Angels potential will always look great, with the names of Albert Pujols and Hamilton in tow, but whether they can approach their former MVP forms continues to be the ultimate question for the Halos. The Mariners mix is obviously much better, but even Robinson Cano himself has said he feels they need to add more to get it over the hump completely.
Heart of the Lineup
The thing about the A’s middle of the order is that it is coming off a year where Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss all had down years by their standards. If they can find their 2012 levels, along with Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie continuing where they were a year ago, this could be the most frustrating mix in either league for opposing pitchers. Alex Rios stands to hit in one of the most enviable positions in the game—if Fielder and Beltre leave anybody on base for him that is.
The Choo/Andrus duo would have combined for 62 stolen bases and 330 hits a year ago, and such production this year atop the Texas lineup would be huge considering the RBI machines behind them. Anaheim has the game’s best player in Mike Trout doing everything imaginable under the baseball sun out of either the leadoff or second spot in their lineup, and he instantly makes the Angels a threat at every game’s outset. The Astros combo of Dexter Fowler and Jose Altuve is a very interesting duo as well, capable of injecting some life early on for their starved attack as well.
Everybody on the A’s plays a part in their success, with their bench being critical to the outcome with regularity. Derek Norris, Alberto Callapso and Michael Taylor will all get their share of starting opportunities, while the addition of Nick Punto makes them even more dangerous defensively late in games. Seattle has an exciting young player in Abraham Almonte on their bench, and while he will start in leftfield, the versatile Dustin Ackley is a one-man depth chart, able to contribute in center field, second and first base if needed.
There are a lot, and I mean a ton, of “ifs” for each rotation in this division. The A’s lost their top arm in Jarrod Parker for the year to Tommy John surgery, and A.J. Griffin is ailing entering the year as well. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir will have to stay healthy for Oakland to keep its edge as a starting unit. Injuries to Hisashi Imakuma, Derek Holland and Matt Holland have shifted the potential of Seattle and Texas respectively as well, and how well Jered Weaver holds together is vital to the Angels’ success as well.
Regardless of what happens, the Mariners have Felix Hernandez, so they have an edge. Felix and Iwakuma were the only set of teammates to finish in the top 10 of the AL Cy Young last year. Yu Darvish affirmed the fact that he is one of the dominant arms in the game a year ago, running up the biggest strikeout season in a decade. He will be tasked with a major responsibility in keeping the Rangers afloat, amid the injuries that have ravaged their staff already. In LA, if both Weaver and C.J. Wilson are both healthy, they give the Angels a pair of potential 17-20 game winners as well.
It may be okay that the Oakland starting staff is dinged up, because they have a SWAT team worth of support in their pen. The additions of two-time AL save champ Jim Johnson (101 saves from since 2012), Luke Gregorson and Eric O’Flathery to a group with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook means that by mid-summer Oakland could be slamming doors by the 6th-7th inning. The addition of Fernando Rodney gives the Mariners a viable closer and absolute for the first time in two years, which is something that the Rangers are hoping Joakim Soria can become once again as well. If no, Alexi Ugando and Neftali Feliz offer solid fallback options.
The A’s make a habit of doing the small things well, and defense is chief among those. Reddick is on the short list for best defensive outfielder in the game, and Cespedes and Coco Crisp join him in an outfield with miles worth of range. Donaldson, Moss and John Jaso join as plus defenders also. The Astros can man the field well, especially Matt Dominguez, who should enter the Gold Glove picture this year at third base.
Bob Melvin deserves a ton of the due for pulling together a group that simply plays better together than any other team in the American League. He empowers his young guys to play on the same level as the veterans that he makes play beyond their full potential (i.e. Jed Lowrie and Donaldson). In Anaheim, Mike Scioscia is the longest tenured manager in the game, and for good reason. Like Ron Washington in Texas, he will deservingly get a chance to pull his club back into the race they are expected to be in.
The Angels and Rangers have proven they will spend to get the job done, although the results have not returned with the same impact as the names that have signed the deals with them. The Mariners are hoping to not go down the same path with their spending spree that netted Cano, Rodney and Corey Hart. The Astros have funds to spend, but are being cautious in how they go about doing so in their current rebuild process.
1. Robinson Cano (Mariners via free agency)
2. Prince Fielder (Rangers via trade)
3. Shin Soo-Choo (Rangers via free agency)
4. Jim Johnson (Athletics via trade)
5. David Freese (Angels via trade)
The West was the home of the most aggressive roster overhauls of the year. The Mariners added a new franchise cornerstone in the five-time All-Star Cano, and brought in Hart and Logan Morrison to add some protection as well. The A’s made pitching their priority, while the Rangers went the other route, adding offensive punch. The Angels made perhaps the most intriguing moves, adding high potential young arms in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, as well as picking up a cast-off David Freese to add depth to their top heavy offense.
1. Sonny Gray—Athletics
2. Jarred Cosart—Astros
3. Tyler Skaggs—Angels
4. Robby Grossman—Astros
5. Mike Zunino—Mariners
Gray did not make his first start until August, but was impressive enough to get the nod for two matchups against Justin Verlander in the ALDS games where he surrendered only three runs in two starts. He’ll be asked to once again carry a heavy load for the suddenly uncertain Oakland rotation. Jarred Cosart was one of the best pitchers in baseball for Houston once he was promoted late last year, with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts, and stands to continue to affirm his spot atop their rotation.
Rookies/Propects To Watch
1. Taijuan Walker—Mariners
2. George Springer—Astros
3. Johnathan Singleton—Astros
4. James Paxton—Mariners
5. Addison Russell—Athletics
The Astros have a bundle of ready to peak talent in their system, and more to come behind this first wave. Springer and Singleton should both be not just everyday contributors, but have established their foothold as the cornerstones of the future of the Houston franchise (until Carlos Correa shows up). Walker has the best arm of any rookie in the AL, and stands to be a major part of the immediate Seattle push for relevancy this year.
1. Oakland Athletics
2. Los Angeles Angels
3. Texas Rangers
4. Seattle Mariners
5. Houston Astros
The underdogs have been over for so long, it is hard to believe they could still be seen as anything less than one of baseball’s best, yet somehow they still are. But let’s straighten this all out: the A’s have the experience, chemistry and are in an understated win now mode as well. With Johnson, Gregerson and Lowrie all pending free agency and a host of other A’s on the verge of arbitration raises, regardless of if this year ends either short of the postseason or with a World Series victory, this is the only year for this assortment of A’s. They will continue to be a young and mostly low cost/high reward group past this year, but this is their best chance to seal the deal. And all things considered, they should be in the mix. They have a very deep pitching staff and a similar lineup, full of two-way players that are fueled on proving their worth amid the game’s most hostile home environment.
But the rest of the division should have something to say as well, but the issue is can they overcome their own fairly pronounced shortcomings to do so. The Rangers have seen the potency of their pitching staff drop off regularly each year, and it may finally be too much to overcome this year. The Angels are the paper champs of baseball annually around this time of year, but have regularly yielded too little in both the health and raw, non-Trout related results category. Injuries are a major factor for both, although Texas enters the year especially crippled in regards to its supporting cast.
The Mariners made a lot of noise, but still are a few pieces short. With a well-stocked system with plenty of ready to contribute players, they are the team most likely to continue to find ways to add to their mix throughout the year—if they can stay competitive long enough. The Astros are burgeoning with some actual tangible potential finally, but they are still a clear cut below the rest of the West still.
With all things considered, the only thing that likely sidetracks the A’s is if they cannot either stay healthy long enough together or their depleted rotation cannot step up and fill the losses they have already sustained. They are the most complete team in the division, and a third championship should be theirs for the taking.
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