Division Preview: AL West

Yesterday, we kicked off our look at each division by going through the NL West. Today, we’ll do the AL version from the land of pitcher’s parks.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Mariners 88 74 45% 25% 9%
Angels 87 75 36% 27% 8%
Athletics 83 79 14% 21% 3%
Astros 78 84 5% 9% 1%
Rangers 73 89 1% 2% 0%

There are two pretty strong contenders at the top, two somewhat interesting teams hanging around the middle, and a likely also-ran. The top of the AL West is unlikely to be as strong this year as it was a year ago, but the low-end of the division should be somewhat better, and the race is open enough to remain interesting all year long. Let’s take a look at the teams.

Seattle Mariners

The top-end of the team’s roster has been good for a while, with the team’s big three of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager producing nearly the same combined WAR last year as the Angels top three players; the Mariners finished 11 games back of first-place Anaheim because their supporting cast was not nearly as strong. This year, there are reasons to think that the secondary pieces could be better, with the team importing Nelson Cruz to try and fix their long-term DH problem, and expected maturation from young kids like Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker. It’s a roster with young upside mixed in with some proven performers, which is why they come out as the slight favorites according to our preseason forecasts.

But while a healthy Mariners team would have a strong chance of making the postseason for the first time since 2001, few contenders are as susceptible to injury as Seattle, especially on the position player side of things. Their dual platoons in left and right field — which include a guy who has no MLB outfield experience — mean that the team is carrying no real backup center fielder, and it doesn’t take many dominoes to fall before Endy Chavez or James Jones are getting regular playing time in Safeco once again; two of the main reasons the Mariners fell short of the Wild Card a year ago. There’s no real in-house alternative if Logan Morrison is unproductive or injured, two of the words that most accurately describe his career to date. Mike Zunino’s primary backup has a career .202 wOBA, which comes in a small sample, but he put up a .290 wOBA in the PCL last year, so…

They have a bit more depth on the pitching side, especially in the bullpen, but are counting on both Paxton and Walker to set career highs in innings pitched, and J.A. Happ hasn’t exactly been an innings-eater in his career either. The team’s relievers were excellent last year, but could very well be worked significantly harder this year, and if Fernando Rodney ever decides to show his age, things might not go as well protecting leads as they did a year ago.

But if they avoid a couple of major injuries and get even reasonable performances from the young kids, this team should be good enough to make a real run at the division title. And if they get to the postseason, throwing Felix Hernandez every few days puts you in a pretty decent position.

Anaheim Angels

This isn’t quite Mike Trout and the seven dwarves, but as the Angels expensive supporting cast gets older and less productive, it’s starting to feel like it. Trout projects for the same overall value as the Angels three next best position players combined, and if he misses any substantial time, this team instantly becomes mediocre at best. This is the closest thing baseball has to a one man band, at least among teams with a real shot at the postseason.

It’s a testament to how good Trout is that a roster prominently featuring Johnny Giavotella — on purpose — is projected near the top of a decent division. But you probably don’t need too many more paragraphs extolling Trout’s virtues. He’s the best player in baseball and it’s not close, and being that good means that Mike Trout has the ability to cover a multitude of Arte Moreno’s sins.

The Angels success or failure will likely boil down to just how much production they can wring out of those past mistakes. There’s still enough contact and power in Albert Pujols‘ game to have a strong year. C.J. Wilson can still generate groundballs and an average number of strikeouts. Jered Weaver is still a pop-up machine. If these guys can push their remaining skills towards the top-end of their range, the Angels could be the division’s best team, but there’s plenty of room for all three to crater as well.

Last year’s team was successful because unheralded youngsters like Kole Calhoun and Matt Shoemaker turned in some big performances. The Angels will need a few more of those — perhaps from Giavotella or Andrew Heaney — if they’re going to win 90 games again, which is probably not something they should want to be counting on. But with Trout around, the rest of the roster only needs to be not-terrible to keep this team as a contender.

Oakland Athletics

You know the story by now; the A’s blew up their roster after a second-half collapse, trading away their best player and best pitcher to collect a half dozen young players and kick off another era of an A’s-style rebuild. Only because the A’s don’t like rebuilding, they also made a series of win-now moves, trading for Ben Zobrist, signing Billy Butler, and picking up Tyler Clippard to strengthen their bullpen. The result was an off-season that began as one thing and finished as another, leaving the A’s in position to make a Wild Card run if things go well but a roster that still skews towards the future.

Nothing in baseball is ever as simple as this, but the A’s season may very well boil down to three of the off-season’s imports: Brett Lawrie, Marcus Semien, and Jesse Hahn. The left side of their infield is essentially one big gamble, betting on youth and past minor league performance over recent major league struggles; if Lawrie and Semien live up to the promise they’ve shown as prospects, the A’s two big off-season moves will look far better than many of the critics suggested at the time. Of course, both Lawrie and Semien were traded by teams looking to win in 2015 because of the risks they carry, and if either fail to produce, the A’s don’t have many good alternatives.

Hahn, meanwhile, could be the type of under-the-radar hurler that the A’s love, but his health track record is a legitimate concern, and while the A’s have a lot of arms who could fill his spot if he goes down, they aren’t the kinds of arms that contenders usually give that many innings to. With rehabbing starters A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker potentially available at some point in the year, the team might have more pitching depth in the second half, but they’ll need the back-end of their rotation to hold up until then.

There’s contender-upside in Oakland, but so many high-variance gambles that it’s also pretty easy to see this all going wrong and the A’s being sellers in July. If some of these young guys with good minor league track records play up to those levels, the A’s could even make a run at the division, but a Wild Card remains more likely, with enough risk that a disastrous implosion is certainly within the realm of possibilities.

Houston Astros

After years of being baseball’s worst team, the Astros have finally graduated enough talent to be interesting, though not quite enough to actually be good just quite yet. They’ve stockpiled enough useful pieces to avoid the black holes that have dragged them down the last few years, but still lack the kind of frontline pieces to really make a serious playoff run. Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel are very nice pieces to have in place, but you want them to be your 5th-7th best players, not your top three.

How quickly the Astros can make the leap from respectable to contender will likely depend on how quickly they can develop a few true star players. Springer perhaps presents the most potential to take that leap, though the Astros will have to help him figure out how to make a bit more contact to reach a higher tier of performance. Beyond him, however, this roster is surprisingly low-upside for a rebuilder, with a lot of low-ceiling guys who likely top out as average or slightly better than average players.

When I look at this roster, I don’t really see the kind of fruits one would expect from years of losing on purpose. There are some decent pieces in place, but you have to squint really hard to see the core of a future contender, buying into almost everyone’s best-case outcome and assuming that at least a few of the prospects on the farm will develop into All-Stars sooner than later.

The Astros are no longer awful, but I’m not sure the pieces that have helped move them from embarrassing to okay are the same pieces that are capable of moving them from okay to good. The Astros are going to have to find a few great players. I’m not exactly sure where those guys are going to come from.

Texas Rangers

In some ways, baseball just hasn’t been fair to the Rangers the last few years. No one could have survived the onslaught of injuries that attacked Texas a year ago, and now that they’ve got a bunch of guys on the mend, down goes Yu Darvish. If health had broken differently for this organization, they’d probably still be a Wild Card contender, or at least hanging on to the hopes of contention before their core aged them into rebuilding mode. Instead, a tidal wave of injuries have pushed them from the contender’s circle, leaving an expensive and declining core without much of a real chance to win in the short-term.

Most teams in this position probably should be looking to kick off a rebuild, but it’s not quite as clear how to the Rangers should go about doing that. The Prince Fielder/Shin-Soo Choo contracts aren’t going anywhere, and they’re probably stuck with a bad deal with Elvis Andrus too. With these of future commitments on the books, it’s going to be difficult to afford a winning team unless the organization’s farm system starts churning out some very good players in short order.

So realistically, the Rangers probably should just sit tight for a bit, hoping that Fielder, Choo, and Andrus play well enough to reduce the subsidy the team will have to pay to move their contracts either this summer or next winter, and figuring out what their rebuilding horizon looks like once they know how easily it will be to remove those deals from their books. 2015 is probably going to be another ugly year in Arlington, but there’s enough talent in the farm system to think that the team’s fortunes could change within a few years. Crossing the bridge to get to that point could be pretty rough, though.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

Sorry, but I think both you and Ben Lindbergh are wrong; the Angels win the division and the Mariners are a WC.

The Real McNulty
9 years ago
Reply to  SocraticGadfly

don’t apologize. Ben and Dave don’t care that you disagree with their prediction the Mariners will finish a game above the Angels.

Forrest Gumption
9 years ago
Reply to  SocraticGadfly

Sorry, but if you think the A’s having the most depth in MLB and therefore the highest floor means they won’t be in the postseason you are all sorely mistaken. But then again, you all have been mistaken every year about them when your silly projections get all messed up due to their player turnover. How does it feel to be constantly wrong about the A’s, by the way? You are going to be wrong again because Beane is locked in and has figured out that flipping players is the way to go.

Also, Kendall Graveman has been thoroughly unhittable since Opening Day of 2014 through to his last start in 2015 ST the other day and continues to look to be unhittable. If he throws 200+ innings forget about ROY votes, he will be getting Cy ones.

But surrrre, keep acting like Semien and Lawrie are never going to approach their ceilings even though everything about them says otherwise.

How do all you writers constantly pull this on A’s fans? You are all saying “yes we were wrong about them the last 3 seasons for these exact same reasons, and we will probably be wrong again on them.” Does it feel bad that you don’t have it in you to predict things correctly because you can’t spot trends? The A’s will most likely win 95 games in 2015 due to their outstanding depth. The Mariners drop to .500 if one of Felix, Cano or Seager goes down. Its mindblowing to me that “experts” just keep being wrong about Oakland and no one has the courage to just say “You know what, theyve done the exact same thing the last 3 years and its worked, whereas Seattle is banking on a lot more bounces going their way and Trouts Angels are lacking a supporting cast, so lets say Oakland are the team to beat in the West, because theyve had the decency to prove us wrong every single year.”

9 years ago

Did you get your crystal ball for a good price? If so, where? I am definitely in the market. Also, does it work for non-baseball related things?

9 years ago

Last year these projections had the A’s in the thick of the Wild Card race with a shot at the division. If I remember correctly, that’s exactly what happened.

Also, these are projections made by an impartial system based of mountains of evidence to come up with a mean outcome. They are not predictions where the writers have some strange bias against the A’s.

Jason Bmember
9 years ago

Oh, you and your “facts” and “reason” and “calmness” and “sanity”. It’s much more fun to pretend everyone is out to get me. *Dons tin foil hat, tunes in to the frequencies they don’t want you to know about…”

Forrest Gumption
9 years ago

It’s not bias – writers continually pick the A’s to finish last. I’m guessing non-A’s fans don’t understand how frustrating this is.

9 years ago

I’m an A’s fan, and I don’t recall anyone predicting the A’s to finish last since the Astros joined the AL West, though in 2012 they were supposed to be pretty bad.

9 years ago

You’re frustrated because your team keeps exceeding expectations? If you’re as confident as you seem in your own assessment, shouldn’t you be happy?

Jason Bmember
9 years ago

“writers continually pick the A’s to finish last.”

????!!!!!!!!!!!???????? So lots of folks are expecting the Rangers and Astros to lap the A’s this year, huh? Links?

9 years ago

Omg stfu

9 years ago

is this the same Kendall Graveman who only strikes out 6.1 minor leaguers per 9 IP?

9 years ago

Fangraphs — which half the readers think belongs to the Cult of Billy Beane — also irrationally hates the A’s?

“projections get all messed up due to their player turnover.”

No projection system can predict where players will finish the year. Right now, the A’s are a middling team. They could end up trading for a whole new outfield of Trout, McCutchen and Stanton, in which case, they’d probably win more than 83 games. But good luck getting anybody to buy into that projection.

The Sherminator
9 years ago

This is the first comment I have ever made on Fangraphs. I want you to know that your comment was so bad it has driven me out of years of lurking just to tell you that you are wrong. And you are bad. And you should feel bad… because you’re bad. That is all.

9 years ago

You’re going to have to explain how the A’s have an overwhelming amount of depth. With their pitching I can understand that argument, but if there’s one weakness the A’s have it’s their position players and their lack of adequate talent in the high minors. If Lawrie goes down at any point in the year (more than likely given his history), who takes over at third base? If Marcus Semien is unable to perform, your best alternative is throwing Sogard at second and Zobrist at short. And now with Crisp out for a month or two you’re relying on Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld to perform everyday rather than in a platoon as they should be. The alternative of putting Zobrist in left and Sogard at second isn’t much better either. This all combined with the fact that Stephen Vogt, another injury prone player, is expected to get the most PT at the most physically demanding position when there’s only one other catcher on the 40-Man roster makes it fairly obvious the A’s are not ready to contend in 2015 and lack whatever depth you are talking about. Even if everyone on the A’s remain 100% healthy, I have a tough time believing they have enough talent to beat out the Angels or Mariners. Hell, in a worst case scenario, I could even see the A’s falling behind the Astros in the standings.

9 years ago
Reply to  SocraticGadfly

You see the projected W-L has them a game apart in the win column, right? You understand the error bars involved with this, right? So you understand that while Dave nominally gives the edge the Mariners, you and he are essentially saying the same thing. Which is to say, if Dave is wrong so are you.