A.L. West Division Preview (03/28/17)

By Frank Brank @realfrankbrank

We outlined the A.L. East and A.L. Central in our first two divisional previews this week. There is a smaller gap between the the top teams in the A.L. West than the other two American League divisions, but there is still a clear frontrunner entering the season.

The Astros lineup is not to be messed with as there are almost no holes from top to bottom. They are filled with young players with plenty of power to hit the ball out of the park. Houston went ahead and added veterans Nori Aoki, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick in the offseason, all of whom are still plus players at this point in their careers. The biggest question mark is first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who was a below average hitter in just 36 games last season. He's had little to no time in the minors; thus, his adjustments are expected to come at the big league level.

Unlike the lineup, the rotation comes with some question marks though. Dallas Keuchel slumped last year after winning the Cy Young the previous season. His 3.87 FIP still showed some promise compared to his 4.55 ERA, so there is certainly reason to be optimistic about a bounce-back year for the lefty. Lance McCullers has the highest ceiling out of anyone on the staff. With a devastating breaking ball, McCullers struck out over 30% of hitters a year ago, and will likely exceed 200 strikeouts this season if he remains healthy. However, the frequency of breaking balls thrown by McCullers led to a 12.8% walk rate; something that he'll need to clean up. McCullers could potentially move himself into the Cy Young equation with a league average walk rate. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton are going to finish out the back end of the rotation. Morton has had an up and down career littered with injuries, as of late. Fiers is much of the same. He's typically a reliable arm for an entire season; but, he's been trending in the wrong direction since coming onto the scene for the Brewers a few seasons ago.

The bullpen has a ton of potential to relieve the starters. Ken Giles, Will Harris, and Michael Feliz are as good a trio as you'll find in the strikeout department. Junk-baller, Luke Gregerson, will be the veteran in the pen. He saw a big jump in strikeout rate last year, as well. The Astros are our favorites in the A.L. West and make the postseason in over two thirds of our simulations.

The Texas Rangers led the luckiest season in recent memory last season; however, they were still an above average team and made themselves a contender at the Trade Deadline. With the acquisitions of Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, they are projected to follow the Astros in the AL West. The offense did lose Ian Desmond to the Rockies, but Gomez still projects well on offense and in the outfield for the Rangers. Jonathan Lucroy is a huge jump from backup Robinson Chorinos in every aspect of the game. The only other big change is Mike Napoli filling in for Mitch Moreland at first base. Napoli had a great season for Cleveland and is a much better overall player than Moreland. The Rangers still have a lot of uncertainty in the back end of their lineup though. Ryan Rua, Nomar Mazara, and Elvis Andrus have each shown promise to hit Major League pitching over the last year, but all three players have very low floors. Andrus is the biggest surprise of last season where he showed a 112 wRC+ compared to a career mark of 86, so it wouldn't be a shock to see him take a step back in 2017.

The back end of the pitching staff isn't very good, either. Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are a great starting point; but, Martin Perez, AJ Griffin, and a toss-up for the fifth spot at the moment are concerning. Darvish is coming off a shortened season due to injury. In his 100 innings last year, Darvish was still as impressive as ever though. There is little to no concern with his ability to succeed going forwards, and Hamels will likely spin at an ERA in the mid threes this season as well. The acquistion of Tyson Ross could prove to be fruitful if the can manage to get and stay healthy.

The bullpen has three underrated arms to finish out innings seven through nine. Jeremy Jeffress was acquired at the Deadline last season as well. Sam Dyson, the likely closer, had a breakout year, and Matt Bush remains one of the more underrated bullpen arms in baseball. Overall, the Rangers rank as a borderline top ten team in baseball and are a coin flip to make the postseason.

The Mariners made a ton of changes coming into the 2017 season. Specifically on offense, they've acquired Jarrod Dyson, Danny Valencia, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura. Haniger was acquired in the Taijuan Walker trade and is the prized prospect of the group. In just 34 games, Haniger hit just .229/.309/.404; however, he's dominated every minor league level at the plate so look for him to get plenty of time to adjust to the Majors. Segura, also part of the trade, had a breakout season in Arizona. Segura was a putrid hitter for the majority of his time with the Brewers. In his last two seasons in Milwaukee, he averaged a 65 wRC+ (35% below average) but in his full season in Arizona, Segura hit .319/.368/.499 with a 126 wRC+ (26% above average). Overall, the offense comes into the season at slightly above average (ranked 11th in our power rankings) when controlling for home park factors. The best hitters on the team-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager-have remained and are expected to provide the most production yet again.

The pitching staff will again be fronted by Felix Hernandez, who struggled mightily last season. He posted a 3.82 ERA, well above his career 3.16 average, but even that was a bit lucky based on his peripherals. Hernandez's FIP was an enormous 4.63. James Paxton is the most exciting part of the rotation this season. Paxton has made huge gains in his velocity over the last season, touching triple digits at times. Though the results were inconsistent, his underlying metrics led to a 2.80 FIP, which is a good indicator of future results. We actually project Paxton to post significantly better numbers than Hernandez this season. Hisashi Iwakuma makes for a solid third starter, and Drew Smyly has the tools to potentially be a major contributor, although we are not as high on him as some other projection systems.

The bullpen is headlined by one of the most exciting, young closers in baseball. Edwin Diaz had an insane 40.6% strikeout rate (15.33 strikeouts per nine innings) a season ago. In his small 51.2 inning sample, his ERA sat at an unlucky 2.79 ERA with a 2.04 FIP. The rest of the bullpen is questionable, at best. Nick Vincent will likely get the eighth inning duty after a 3.73 ERA, 4.16 FIP last season. Overall, the entire staff ranks at 15th in our power rankings. Seattle has the potential to make some noise this season, but they could also be one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, which may be their undoing.

The Angels project to occupy the fourth spot in the A.L. West with just a 4.6% chance to win the division and 12.0% expectancy of making the playoffs. The lineup isn't as good as some pundits are suggesting, despite having the best position player in baseball. Martin Maldonado and Danny Espinosa were the key acquisitions in the offseason. Maldonado is a great defender but struggles badly at the plate, and Espinosa is the same story. He's averaged almost +2 WAR per season but lacks the ability to hit above league average. Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols make up a dangerous heart of the order, but the Angels will struggle to score runs at the bottom of their lineup.

The rotation will welcome the return of Garrett Richards for a full season. Richards had a breakthrough in 2014 and 2015 before suffering an elbow injury. Richards elected not to have Tommy John surgery and hopes to return to a full season in 2017. His success comes from a hard mid-90s sinker that generates a groundball rate near 53%, and is the main reason that projection systems absolutely love him. Matt Shoemaker is another interesting case for the Angels. In 2014, he had a career breakthrough, coming onto the scene as a strike-throwing machine. The following season, his walk rate went up, strikeout rate dipped, and a 4.46 ERA followed. Shoemaker was somewhere between 2014 and 2015 last year where he showed a decent 3.88 ERA and 3.52 FIP. The back end of the rotation with Ricky Nolasco, Tyler Skaggs, and Jesse Chavez is decent, with Skaggs being a breakthrough candidate this season.

Huston Street is going to be on the disabled list to start the season, which isn't necessarily the worst thing for the Angels since he's a shell of his former self. Cam Bedrosian and Andrew Bailey will hold down the late innings. Bedrosian held a 1.12 ERA over 40 innings last season with a 2.19 FIP, but it is still unclear if anyone in the active Angels bullpen has the ability at sustained success.

While having the best overall baseball player of an entire generation, the Angels have lacked the ability to add any weapons. This may be the season they make an attempt to rebuild at the Trade Deadline while Mike Trout is still young, although their starting pitching could potentially surprise and have them playing meaningfull baseball into the summer.

The Athletics are currently the worst team in the A.L. West, although it's by a slim margin. They aren't quite there yet, but they do have some young players with some promise. On the offensive side, Marcus Semien, Mark Canha, and Ryon Healy have come through as high-potential position players. All three have shown the talent-level to be above average hitters with some power. They do have a mix of veterans like Jed Lowrie, Matt Joyce, and Rajai Davis that will platoon around the field in favorable matchups as well. The older players will likely keep moving from the A's at the Deadline as they continue their rebuild. The lineup is far from impressive, but they can continue to build around the young core that has shown promise.

The starting rotation is similar. Sean Manaea, Andrew Triggs, and Jharel Cotton are all cut from a similar cloth. They favor change-ups and plus offspeed pitches. Triggs may be the diamond in the rough for the rotation. In his time in the rotation last season (26 innings), Triggs had a 2.70 ERA, a plus strikeout rate, and nearly 51% groundballs. In that same span, he only walked one batter. It's a small sample size, but still promising nonetheless. Cotton also has the makings of being a stud, but he won't pitch at the stellar 2.15 ERA that he posted last season.

The bullpen has a group of veterans that are all average. Ryan Madson will hold the closer spot, for now. Newcomer, Santiago Casilla, will likely get the eighth inning work, with Sean Doolittle behind him. John Axford is another arm that could move up or down the board for the A's. The whole bullpen is entirely up in the air as the season nears, with any pitcher having the ability to replace any other. Don't mistake that as a negative though. Oakland has several pitchers in the pen that are capable of posting a low WHIP and locking down games with ease. With that being said, the A's don't really excel at anything and that will eventually be their downfall.