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2014 AL West Preview

Can the Angels find enough pitching to turn the AL West into a three-team race?

The division preview series continues with the AL West, where the A’s are vying for a third consecutive division title, the Rangers are trotting out a revamped lineup, the Angels are hoping to find some help for the best player on the planet, the Mariners are putting their big-money offseason to the test, and the Astros are waiting until next year, again.

Note: I’m ordering the teams by Vegas lines. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL EastAL CentralNL EastNL Central, and NL West division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

Oakland A’s

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Vegas line (via Sportsbook.com): 86.5 wins

Key additions: Fernando Abad, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry, Luke Gregerson, Jim Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Nick Punto, Joe Savery

Key losses: Brett Anderson, Grant Balfour, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Chris Young

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
CF Coco Crisp (.262/.328/.414)
3B Josh Donaldson (.262/.334/.436)
SS Jed Lowrie (.262/.325/.415)
LF Yoenis Cespedes (.261/.320/.456)
DH Brandon Moss (.240/.316/.456)
RF Josh Reddick (.238/.307/.419)
C John Jaso (.250/.357/.375)
2B Eric Sogard (.255/.315/.351)
1B Daric Barton (.242/.349/.354)

The A’s are no strangers to mixing and matching their lineup, and the X factor this year could be a guy who’s not listed above: Prospect hounds love 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell’s bat, and though he’s played just three games above Class A, he’s already proven plenty. Teenagers don’t usually play in the California League, much less hit .275/.377/.508 with 21 steals in 24 attempts. The California League is an offense-heavy circuit, but Russell’s scouting profile matches his production. If he’s ready for the majors soon, the A’s could do all kinds of creative things with their lineup, including moving Jed Lowrie to DH and Brandon Moss to first if the team grows disenchanted with Daric Barton’s big-defense/small-offense profile.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Sonny Gray (178, 3.75)
Scott Kazmir (163, 3.72)
Jesse Chavez (94, 4.13)
Dan Straily (155, 4.22)
Tommy Milone (141, 3.86)

Jarrod Parker is out for the year following Tommy John surgery, while A.J. Griffin will miss the start of the season because of elbow tendinitis. That means the A’s will see more of Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez than they’d prefer, and it also means Oakland’s defense will need to be sharp to help cover for the rotation’s manpower challenges. Last year, three of the seven most fly ball–heavy starting pitchers in the majors were A’s, including Griffin (who had the game’s highest fly ball rate, at 49.5 percent) and Milone (44.7 percent). Chavez, meanwhile, has only two career starts under his belt, making him an unproven rotation commodity.

In the wrong park and on the wrong team, Milone and Chavez might not have enough raw talent to succeed, but in Oakland, they could prove to be perfectly adequate options for an organization that prides itself on not having any gaping holes. Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick ranked as one of the best defensive outfields in the game last year and should make another significant impact in 2014.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: When I spoke to GM Billy Beane this month, he seemed as excited about utility man Nick Punto as any player on the roster. Punto’s combination of defense, versatility, and ability to take a walk should make him a valuable contributor, particularly given Eric Sogard’s limited offense against lefties and Lowrie’s defense and health limitations. The bullpen, meanwhile, was one of baseball’s best last year and looks even deeper this season.

Best-case scenario: A third consecutive division title, followed by some actual postseason success.

Worst-case scenario: The top three teams in this division could all be good to very good, meaning a third-place finish isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Oakland.

Bold prediction: Sonny Gray finishes in the top five in AL Cy Young voting.

Texas Rangers

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Vegas line: 86.5 wins

Key additions: J.P. Arencibia, Michael Choice, Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, Tommy Hanson, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Joe Saunders, Kensuke Tanaka

Key losses: Jeff Baker, Lance Berkman, Nelson Cruz, Matt Garza, Craig Gentry, Ian Kinsler, David Murphy, Joe Nathan, A.J. Pierzynski

Projected lineup:
LF Shin-Soo Choo (.272/.388/.438)
SS Elvis Andrus (.274/.338/.355)
1B Prince Fielder (.283/.384/.502)
3B Adrian Beltre (.296/.343/.498)
RF Alex Rios (.273/.312/.423)
DH Mitch Moreland (.254/.317/.442)
CF Leonys Martin (.265/.319/.407)
C J.P. Arencibia (.223/.269/.419)
2B Kensuke Tanaka (.261/.320/.308)

After fielding a righty-heavy lineup last year, the Rangers now boast one of the best lefty-swinging duos in the game since acquiring Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder. As great as the no. 1, 3, and 4 hitters look, however, the bottom of the order could negate much of that value. Geovany Soto’s torn meniscus forces the Rangers to thrust J.P. Arencibia, one of the worst players in the league, into the everyday lineup until June. And Soto’s not the only recently injured Ranger: Jurickson Profar’s shoulder will also keep him out 10 to 12 weeks, meaning that as of now, 32-year-old Japanese import Kensuke Tanaka looks primed for an everyday role, another sizable downgrade for Texas.

There was some speculation that 20-year-old prospect Rougned Odor might jump right into the lineup, but GM Jon Daniels has made it clear Odor will remain in the minors for the foreseeable future. Given the injuries in the lineup and rotation, it’ll be interesting to see if Texas pushes a couple more chips into the middle of the table; at full strength, this is the most talented club in the division, but it may need better stopgaps to keep pace until the roster gets healthy.

Projected rotation:
Yu Darvish1 (199, 3.17)
Martin Perez (158, 4.56)
Tommy Hanson (28, 5.03)
Tanner Scheppers (141, 3.88)
Joe Saunders (75, 4.63)

The Rangers have high hopes for Tanner Scheppers, a fastball-curve pitcher whose four-seamer hit the high 90s in the bullpen last year, but who profiles as more of a mid-90s pitcher over a full five-, six-, or seven-inning stint. Assuming Alexi Ogando stays in the bullpen, one pitcher from a group that includes Scheppers, Tommy Hanson, and Joe Saunders will have to stay in the rotation after Derek Holland (July ETA) and Matt Harrison (mid-April ETA) return from injuries. Hanson is a major injury risk, while Saunders is a typical replacement-level starter. Scheppers’s ability to make 30-plus starts this year could be a deciding factor in the Rangers’ quest to unseat the A’s atop the division.

Of course, it’s probably hard for Rangers fans to focus on anything other than today’s news that staff ace and Cy Young contender Yu Darvish will miss his Opening Day start due to neck stiffness. Darvish is set to see a back-and-neck specialist on Wednesday. If this issue subsides and Darvish misses only a start or two, it won’t doom the Rangers; if he misses any meaningful time, though, it’ll be a different story altogether. The Rangers can’t afford to lose another arm, period; they certainly can’t afford to lose their best player.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: This will be a tremendously deep roster once Profar, Soto, Holland, and Harrison return. Until then, not so much.

Best-case scenario: Darvish’s injury proves minor and the Rangers reestablish their AL hegemony, again winning the West and returning to the World Series.

Worst-case scenario: Darvish’s injury ends up being serious, the DL crew heals more slowly than expected, and tough competition from the A’s and Angels drops Texas to third place.

Bold prediction: Leonys Martin hits above .300 and steals 50 bases, helping to secure a bunch of fantasy championships in the process.

Los Angeles Angels

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Vegas line: 85.5 wins

Key additions: David Freese, Raul Ibanez, Brandon Lyon, John McDonald, Fernando Salas, Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, Joe Smith

Key losses: Peter Bourjos, Scott Downs, Tommy Hanson, Mark Trumbo, Jason Vargas

Projected lineup:
RF Kole Calhoun (.260/.323/.421)
CF Mike Trout (.303/.402/.529)
1B Albert Pujols (.278/.348/.494)
LF Josh Hamilton (.257/.318/.447)
3B David Freese (.259/.332/.392)
DH Raul Ibanez (.236/.296/.424)
2B Howie Kendrick (.277/.318/.412)
SS Erick Aybar (.274/.311/.389)
C Chris Iannetta (.217/.337/.361)

The same logic that’s made Kole Calhoun a popular fantasy sleeper this spring also makes him a player to watch if the Angels hope to meet or exceed the bullish forecasts that various projection systems are putting forth for 2014.2 Calhoun hit .282/.347/.462 in 58 games last year, and his rise enabled the Halos to flip center fielder Peter Bourjos for third baseman David Freese in a deal widely panned by statheads who placed more value on Bourjos’s speed and defense than on the tight third-base market. Still, Freese should be a big improvement over Alberto Callaspo and the other players who saw time at third for the Angels last year. Calhoun, entering his age-26 season and with big minor league numbers (.317/.402/.541) that look good even on a park-adjusted basis, could wind up being responsible for improving the Halos at two positions this year.

Projected rotation:
Jered Weaver (207, 4.02)
C.J. Wilson (203, 3.73)
Garrett Richards (171, 4.18)
Hector Santiago (113, 4.25)
Tyler Skaggs (149, 4.06)

Tyler Skaggs, Baseball America’s no. 12 prospect at this time last year, is now a major post-hype sleeper. The big lefty confounded Diamondbacks brass with his reportedly iffy work habits and what Keith Law described as a shorter stride that messed with pitch location, but seems to have improved on both fronts this spring. He should also benefit from moving from hitter-friendly Chase Field to Angel Stadium, which yields fewer home runs. One of the Angels’ biggest weaknesses last year was the back of the rotation, where Joe Blanton, Jerome Williams, Billy Buckner, Tommy Hanson, and a couple of cameo guys combined to make 64 largely regrettable starts. Other than bounce-back campaigns from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, getting impactful seasons from Skaggs and Hector Santiago in the no. 4 and 5 holes could be the biggest key to a turnaround season for the Halos.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: While three-year contracts for relievers rarely work out, the Angels’ bullpen has been so bad for so long that giving former Indians pitcher Joe Smith a three-year, $15.75 million deal was actually smart and could pay dividends. While the bullpen has improved, though, outfield depth has taken a hit: With Bourjos in St. Louis and Mark Trumbo in Arizona, the Halos need Hamilton to stay healthy and productive.

Best-case scenario: Mike Trout delivers his third consecutive MVP-caliber season, Hamilton and Pujols return to form, the pitching improves, and the Angels overtake the injury-ravaged A’s and Rangers to win the division.

Worst-case scenario: Another .500-ish finish, coupled with the crushing realization that every Orange County resident must pay Hamilton and Pujols approximately $800,000, sparks a wave of sadness from Seal Beach to San Clemente.

Bold prediction: Purported ace Jered Weaver posts his first ERA above 4.00 since 2008.

Seattle Mariners

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Vegas line: 81 wins

Key additions: Joe Beimel, Willie Bloomquist, John Buck, Robinson Cano, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Fernando Rodney, Randy Wolf

Key losses: Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, Oliver Perez, Joe Saunders

Projected lineup:
LF Dustin Ackley (.256/.331/.373)
3B Kyle Seager (.266/.332/.421)
2B Robinson Cano (.289/.354/.469)
DH Corey Hart (.254/.315/.438)
1B Justin Smoak (.236/.325/.406)
RF Logan Morrison (.245/.331/.413)
CF Michael Saunders (.234/.314/.392)
C Mike Zunino (.231/.295/.382)
SS Brad Miller (.268/.327/.405)

Considering they have one of the most dramatically overhauled lineups in the league, the Mariners sure have a lot of question marks. Logan Morrison can’t be trusted, having missed 146 games over the past two seasons, with a career high of just 123 games played back in 2011. Truly, everyone aside from underrated third baseman Kyle Seager and $240 million man Robinson Cano brings a wide array of possible outcomes. Corey Hart is coming off an injury-wiped season, and all the other starters are part of the cadre of prospects who were supposed to break out by now, but haven’t. So far, the M’s have resisted the urge to trade Nick Franklin for pitching help. Given how unlikely it is that the above starting nine remains intact and productive all year long, that stand-pat approach might prove to be the right one, at least as far as Seattle’s 2014 chances go.

Projected rotation:
Felix Hernandez (214, 2.89)
James Paxton (140, 4.37)
Erasmo Ramirez (129, 4.35)
Randy Wolf (75, 4.74)
Roenis Elias (47, 4.82)

It’s simple, really: If Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are ready to go sometime in April, as hoped (or early May at the latest, in Iwakuma’s case), the M’s have a chance to hang with the big boys in the AL West. If those two miss much more time than that, and the Mariners have to lean on Roenis Elias and Randy Wolf for any extended period of time, they might as well engrave the fourth-place trophy now.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Given the many questions facing likely Opening Day starting outfielders Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, promising 24-year-old switch-hitter Abraham Almonte could grab the starting center fielder’s job at some point this year. John Buck, Endy Chavez, and Willie Bloomquist, the other three players slated to come off the bench, could be the worst trio of bats any team will feature this season. A thousand years from now, scientists will still be studying Seattle’s decision to give Bloomquist a guaranteed multiyear contract. Meanwhile, the bullpen could be a bit deeper with Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar sliding down to setup duty … assuming Fernando Rodney doesn’t turn into a pumpkin outside the pitcher-friendly confines of Tropicana Field.

Best-case scenario: Iwakuma gets well soon and the M’s get a passel of breakouts from Walker, James Paxton, and several young hitters, leading to a surprise playoff run.

Worst-case scenario: A whole lot of spending nets another sub-.500 season.

Bold prediction: The M’s win just 78 games, forcing another overhaul at season’s end.

Houston Astros

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Vegas line: 62.5 wins

Key additions: Matt Albers, Anthony Bass, Jesse Crain, Scott Feldman, Dexter Fowler, Jesus Guzman, Cesar Izturis, Chad Qualls, Jerome Williams

Key losses: Brandon Barnes, Erik Bedard, Jordan Lyles

Projected lineup:
CF Dexter Fowler (.243/.348/.378)
2B Jose Altuve (.283/.324/.385)
C Jason Castro (.250/.331/.416)
1B Chris Carter (.227/.320/.454)
DH Marc Krauss (.224/.309/.381)
LF Robbie Grossman (.234/.323/.338)
3B Matt Dominguez (.248/.296/.402)
RF L.J. Hoes (.266/.333/.360)
SS Jonathan Villar (.236/.296/.355)

Typically, locking up young talent is the modus operandi for up-and-coming teams looking to gain cost certainty with their most valuable commodities, and soon the Astros will need to decide if that’s the path they’ll choose. Outfielder Dexter Fowler, the hitter most likely to lead them in plate appearances and on-base percentage this year, came over from the Rockies for the trade equivalent of a bag of batting practice balls, but he’s already 28, and it’s still unclear how much of his decent offensive production to date stemmed from playing his home games at Coors Field. Most of the other regulars are unproven or lack the pedigree that forecasts stardom. That leaves second baseman Jose Altuve, who’s already signed through 2019, and catcher Jason Castro, who will be arbitration-eligible in 2015, as the most worthwhile investments in the starting nine.

While single-season value stats certainly aren’t perfect, it’s still jarring to eyeball a list of the best 2013 catchers and see Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey … and then Castro. The 26-year-old former first-round pick cranked up the power last year, delivering 18 homers, 35 doubles, and a .276/.350/.485 line in 120 games. While some skills consolidation remains, including mending a declining contact rate that resulted in one of the highest strikeout rates among catchers last year, Castro figures to be the next Houston major leaguer to net a long-term contract offer. After that, the team’s most likely investments are still percolating in the minors, waiting to one day become beneficiaries of Jim Crane’s war chest.

Projected rotation:
Scott Feldman (178, 4.21)
Jarred Cosart (155, 4.59)
Brett Oberholtzer (113, 4.92)
Brad Peacock (112, 4.82)
Dallas Keuchel (56, 4.22)

Baseball America used to predict future lineups and rotations for each organization. If I had to bet on the number of projected 2014 starters likely to be in Houston’s 2017 rotation, the over/under would probably be 0.5. Other than possibly Jarred Cosart, who’s talented but also showed underlying command issues by walking 35 batters in 60 innings last year, the Astros’ rotation consists entirely of placeholders. The good news is that even after accounting for pitching prospects’ generally high attrition rate, the sheer volume of electric arms in Houston’s system should net at least one or two legitimate major league contributors.3

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Not surprisingly, the team with one of the worst lineups and rotations in baseball doesn’t have much talent in the bullpen or on the bench, either. Prospects George Springer and Jonathan Singleton should both arrive in the big leagues at some point this season, though, making a pushover lineup more intriguing.

Best-case scenario: Given how committed the Astros are to long-term building over short-term results, their best-case scenario might actually be another last-place finish and no. 1 draft pick. Winning 60-some games would be more entertaining than the 51 Houston managed last year, but not more useful for the future.

Worst-case scenario: [Says a prayer for Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers Jr., Vince Velasquez, and Houston’s other top pitching prospects …]

Bold prediction: The Cubs and Twins will challenge the Astros’ iron grip on futility, and the race to the bottom for baseball’s worst record will go down to the season’s final days.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, AL West, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri