MLB 2016: American League West Preview

Young superstar Carlos Correa will help lead the Houston Astros to the AL West title in 2016. ( photo courtesy of Troy Taormina/USA Today )

Remember last year when the Astros and Rangers exceeded expectations and finished atop the AL West? Remember how many people were surprised to see popular preseason picks such as the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners miss the playoffs?

Not many people will be shocked when the Astros win the West this year. The question is can they advance further in the playoffs than they did last year?

First Place: Houston Astros (95-67) Key additions: Doug Fister (sp) Ken Giles (cl) 

Not many changes, but then again, why tinker with success?

One could argue that the Astros didn’t have too many glaring needs over the offseason, and the two things the team did lack, were addressed.

The starting rotation could have used some depth, so they added Doug Fister to the mix. Fister won’t dominate, but as far as a No.5 starter goes, he’s more than capable.

Then there’s the bullpen. It was after all the bullpen that cost the Astros Game 4 of last year’s ALDS against the Royals. It wasn’t that the Astros bullpen was bad, it was just really bad that afternoon.

In other words, it needed to be improved. With that in mind the Astros went out and added one of the best young relief pitchers in the game. Ken Giles is only 25 but he’s already got the “dominant closer” label appropriately attached to his resume.

Giles presence at the end of games, instantly improves the rest of the bullpen.

So what are Houston’s weaknesses?

You’d have to entertain some unlikely scenarios such as Carlos Correa and George Springer not continuing their inevitable marches towards baseball superstardom. Dallas Keuchel losing his Cy Young ability at the age of just 28.

Do you think that three-time All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve will head into decline…at the age of 25?

Houston has Carlos Gomez playing in his walk-year. They’ve got Colby Rasmus coming off a torrid postseason. There’s simply too much young, experienced talent on this roster to envision any sort of decline.

Second Place: Texas Rangers (87-75) Key additions: Ian Desmond (lf) Tom Wilhelmsen (rp) Justin Ruggiano (of) 

The Rangers were the surprise team of 2015. They lost almost 100 games in 2014 and weren’t predicted to be much better entering 2015. There were injuries, a new manager, some more injuries, and somehow Texas managed to not just win one of the two AL wild card slots, they nearly won the AL West in the process.

Will this season be better?

That’s tough to say. On the one hand they’ve got a healthy Derek Holland, Cole Hamels in the rotation from the get-go, and Yu Darvish poised to return from tommy john surgery sometime in late May.

On the other hand there’s ample reasons to be skeptical about the bullpen. Ian Desmond could be a free agency steal or he could be a player who is declining at a young age. Josh Hamilton is hurt, Adrian Beltre could start to finally show his age, Elvis Andrus hasn’t been himself in years.

There are some serious questions. Odds are the Rangers will be good. Delino DeShields Jr looks like a legitimate leadoff hitter. Prince Fielder is going to hit home runs, Shin-Soo Choo is overpriced for what he provides, but what he provides is still valuable.

Second baseman Rougned Odor looks like he could contend for a spot on the AL All-Star team.

Texas will be good, but not quite good enough to snag a wild card berth.

Third Place: Los Angeles Angels (80-82) Key additions: Daniel Nava (lf) Andrelton Simmons (ss) Yunel Escobar (3b) Craig Gentry (of) 

The Angels have Mike Trout. That alone makes the team entertaining. Arguably the best player in the game, Trout can (and has) done it all.

Baseball is not a one-man sport. Trout can do a lot, but he can’t pitch and he can’t drive himself in when he’s on base, and he can’t field every ball opponents hit (give him credit for trying.)

That’s the problem.

Garrett Richards anchors a starting rotation that features two aging question marks in the form of a rapidly declining Jered Weaver and already injured C.J. Wilson.  Hector Santiago is the most dependable option after Richards. Andrew Heaney was solid last year and could improve this year.

Los Angeles went out and added one of the best fielding shortstops in the form of Andrelton Simmons, but the lineup has a lot of holes. Left field is a platoon of two marginal major leaguers in Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry. C.J. Cron was solid at first base last year. Albert Pujols mashed 40 home runs last year, but he only hit .244 and his on-base  percentage was .307.

Kole Calhoun is the best all around player in the lineup not named “Trout.”

The Angels could certainly be a lot better than third place, but a lot of “what-ifs” have to work out in their favor.

Fourth Place: Seattle Mariners ( 75-87) Key additions: Wade Miley (sp) Steve Cishek (cl) Joaquin Benoit (rp) Chris Iannetta (c) Leonys Martin (cf) Norichika Aoki (lf) Adam Lind (1b) Dea-Ho Lee (1b) Luis Sardinas (ut) Nathan Karns (sp)

One year ago, Seattle was a very popular preseason pick to win the West, and then advance deep into the postseason. They finished the season 76-86.

One year later the expectations are far more modest.

The Mariners do have some marquee type of players. Nelson Cruz hits a lot of home runs, not too many things in baseball more dependable than Cruz crushing a fair amount of baseballs.

Kyle Seager is a very good third baseman who is already overshadowed by his younger brother Corey, a top rated prospect in the Dodgers organization.

Felix Hernandez looks destined to continue down the path of becoming an ace without a playoff start. Expecting King Felix to be good and the Mariners to be bad, are two fairly sure bets.

Robison Cano will continue to hopelessly pursue a level of production that can come close to justifying the 10-year, $240 million contract that the Mariners bestowed upon him.

The starting rotation is good, but it isn’t good enough.

Steve Cishek is allegedly the team’s closer, but don’t be shocked if Joaquin Benoit takes the job from him at some point. The rest of the bullpen is only so-so, and neither Benoit or Cishek are elite closers.

Shortstop Ketel Marte is the latest in a long line of promising young Mariners infielders, most of whom have underperformed and then been shipped off via trade.

This season won’t be as disappointing as last year, but that’s mainly because of lower expectations.

Fifth Place: Oakland A’s ( 65-97) Key additions: Khris Davis (lf) Yonder Alonso (1b) Rich Hill (sp) Jed Lowrie (2b) Ryan Madson (rp) John Axford (rp) Chris Coghlan (of) Henderson Alvarez (sp) 

Sometimes you look at the A’s and wonder if there’s label affixed to the team that reads “some disassembly required.”

That’s because Oakland their infamous general manager Billy Beane have made habit out of building successful, young, talented major league rosters, and then totally gutting them and starting over from scratch.

The A’s are in the midst of one of those “starting over from scratch” stretches. At some point they’ll take what appears to be a hopelessly inadequate roster and prove everyone wrong by overachieving and making the playoffs, but not this season.

The A’s have one true star, ace starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Gray battled arm fatigue through spring training. That’s a red flag considering that Gray hasn’t pitched in a meaningful game since last September.

Sean Doolittle is the closer, but the A’s have veteran Ryan Madson in case Doolittle gets hurt.

The offense seems unlikely to score enough runs to support a starting rotation that is very shaky once you get past Gray.

This is the type of season where A’s fans can probably expect to see some of the franchise’s top prospects make their major league debuts.

First baseman Matt Olson, and starting pitcher Sean Manaea could both make the leap to the majors.

The A’s always seem to bounce back from subpar seasons, and the franchises’ futility won’t last, but it will through the 2016 season.

 

About the Author

Ben Shapiro

Red Sox columnist for ESPN New Hampshire. Originally from Western Massachusetts, I currently live in New York City with my wife and dog.

I’ve previously written for Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and MassLive.com

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