Tag Archives: Dallas Keuchel

We Have Liftoff

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After the Houston Astros made the World Series for the first and only time in franchise history in 2005, they faced a steady decline. The Astros bottomed out by having three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2011-2013. But by 2015, the Astros found themselves back in the postseason. The Astros would win 84 games last year, but it wasn’t good enough for them to make the playoffs. However a few tweaks to the Astros over the winter by team general manager Jeff Luhnow have them as the team to beat in the American League West here in 2017.

The biggest move that the Astros made in the off-season was to acquire veteran catcher Brian McCann from the New York Yankees for his ability to call a game behind the plate. And McCann’s presence in Houston is paying off.

Dallas Keuchel

After posting 20 victories in 2015 en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award, Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel took a step back last year. Keuchel was coming off of leading the A.L. in innings with 232 and was never able to get on track. However with McCann calling games for Keuchel this season, he has resumed his post as one of the better pitchers in Major League Baseball. In eight starts Keuchel is 7-0 with an earned run average of 1.84 which has been highlighted by a complete game performance versus the Cleveland Indians on April 25 where he surrendered a pair of runs. And in each start that Keuchel has made this year, he has given Astros manager A.J. Hinch at least six innings.

Journeyman starting pitcher Charlie Morton is in his first year with Houston and he has been another hurler who has benefited from McCann calling games as well as the as the Astros potent offense. Morton’s single-season career-high for victories came in 2011 when he won 10 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But here in 2017, Morton is already halfway to matching that total as he is 5-2 with an earned run average of 3.97. And if having to deal with the Astros starting pitchers isn’t enough for opponents, they then have to face relief pitcher Ken Giles whose 10 saves so far in 2017 are tied for the second most in the American League.

Offensively the Astros are one of the best units in baseball as they are first in the American League in batting average (.275), hits (377), and runs batted in (198), while they are second in home runs (53), and runs scored (196). Second baseman Jose Altuve has lead the A.L. in hits for each of the last three years and he’ll once again be in the running. Altuve is batting .295, and he’ll pick it up soon to get his average back above .300 where it has been in each of the last three years. Shortstop Carlos Correa continues to build off of winning the A.L.’s Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 as he is off to a hot start this season by batting .294 with 5 home runs and 23 runs batted in. And just as important that it was for the Astros to acquire McCann, picking up a pair of veterans in outfielder Josh Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran for their lineup has been huge.

Reddick and the Astros agreed to a four-year deal for $52 million in the off-season as he has given Houston a true professional in every sense of the term in their lineup. Reddick is going to show up ready to play each day and that mindset blends in nicely with a team that simply keeps finding a way to win games. And as for Beltran, he was the guy who got away from Houston in 2004, but he has found his way back there.

In 2004, the Astros acquired Beltran from the Kansas City Royals and he went on a tear to help Houston make the playoffs. In 90 games with the Astros in 2004, Beltran hit 23 home runs, but he turned it up to another level in the postseason where he hit 8 homers in just 12 games. This production led Beltran to being a very sought after free agent as he would agree to a seven-year deal for $119 million with the New York Mets. Beltran has contributed to each team that he has played for during his Major League Baseball career, and with a career batting average of .281 to go along with 424 career home runs, he is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. And even though Beltran’s physical skills have diminished now at the age of 40, his two decades of Major League Baseball experience is coming in handy for the Astros.

Reddick and Beltran have joined a solid lineup that includes utility man Evan Gattis, infielder Yuli Gurriel who recently defected from Cuba, and infielder Marwin Gonzalez to give the Astros their best hitting lineup since the days of the “Killer B’s” which featured Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Derek Bell.

At 29-12, the Astros have the best record in Major League Baseball. The Astros currently have an 8.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers for second place in the American League West as they are 17-6 within their division. Houston served notice this past weekend when they took three out of four games on the road versus the New York Yankees who had been the hottest team in baseball.

The Astros hot start has put Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch in a good position as even though it still might be too early for them to think about it, but they could be buyers in order to enhance their team.

In 2015, the Astros pushed the eventual World Series Champion Royals to the limit before bowing out in five games in the American League Divisional Series. This time around the Astros can build off of that as youngsters such as Correa, Keuchel, and outfielder George Springer have more experience.

The 2017 Major League Baseball season is far from over, but things are shaping up to be very good for the Astros.

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2017 American League West Projections

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X-Texas Rangers 90-72

Since 2009, the Texas Rangers have been one of the better teams in Major League Baseball as they have seven winning seasons and a pair of American League Pennants to their credit. But as good as the Rangers have been, the one thing that they’ve been unable to put on their resume is a World Series Championship. The Rangers entered the MLB Playoffs last October with the best record in the A.L. as another trip to the Fall Classic appeared to be in the cards. However the Rangers would not win a game as they were swept by the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Divisional Series. And whereas the Rangers fell short of their goal in 2016, the winning culture that has been created in Arlington by general manager Jon Daniels is still in place as this is a team that’ll once again be in contention to win the A.L. West under manager Jeff Banister.

The Rangers had one of the top offenses in 2016 as they were fourth in the American League in runs scored (765) and hits (1,446), while they were fifth in home runs with 215. A big reason for the Rangers success on offense was the emergence of second baseman Rougned Odor. Odor has three years under his belt in Major League Baseball, and in spite of the fact that he is slight in stature at 5’11”, 195 lbs., he led the team in home runs last year with 33. Odor is a legitimate AL MVP candidate as he is rapidly becoming one of the better players in the game.

Adrian Beltre

Third baseman Adrian Beltre continues to defy the odds as he batted .300 last year with 32 home runs and 104 runs batted in. Beltre will be 38-years of age next month, but he still has one of the quickest bats in baseball, while he can also get it done at the hot corner. Beltre continues to provide the Rangers with clubhouse leadership and he’ll once again have an impact on this team.

The Rangers cannot get enough of first baseman Mike Napoli as he has returned for his third stint with the club. Napoli was a key member for Texas when they made the World Series in 2011, and the same can be said about his presence with the Cleveland Indians last year. In 2016 with the Indians, Napoli hit 34 home runs as he had a big hand in the Indians winning the American League Pennant. Napoli is 35-years of age and like Beltre, he’ll provide the Rangers with a leader in their clubhouse.

Outfielder Nomar Mazara is just beginning to scratch the surface as far as how good that he can be. Mazara hit 20 home runs for Texas last year and finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. And if Mazara can work on his plate discipline as he struck out 112 times in 568 plate appearances, along with avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump” he can be an impact player in the middle of the Rangers lineup.

The speed of shortstop Elvis Andrus will once be key at the top of the Rangers lineup as he continues to re-write the record book for stolen bases in their franchise history, while catcher Jonathan Lucroy should have a big impact as he is now set to begin his first full season with the club. Lucroy was acquired from by the Rangers from the Milwaukee Brewers last year before the trade deadline, and in 47 games with Texas, he batted .276 with 11 homers and 31 runs batted in. But Lucroy’s biggest impact with the Rangers will be behind the plate as he works with the team’s pitching staff.

The Rangers were 13th in the American League last season in team earned run average (4.37), but there should be some improvement with the unit in 2017. The switch from the National League to the American League has not slowed down starting pitcher Cole Hamels who in 44 starts with the Rangers is 22-6 with a 3.42 earned run average. Hamels has been durable during his Major League Baseball career as he has thrown at least 200 innings in eight of the last nine years which should rub off of the rest of the Rangers starting rotation as far as being around a player of his caliber that knows how to get it done at this level.

Yu Darvish

Starting pitcher Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery and he returned last year to go 7-5 with a 3.41 earned run average in 17 starts. Towards the end of the 2016 campaign, Darvish began to show some of the flashes that made him one of the game’s best power pitchers prior to the injury. And if Darvish is able to give the Rangers 150-180 innings this year, it will be a huge plus.

In relief pitcher Sam Dyson’s first year as the Rangers full-time closer, he saved 38 games, while finishing 53 contests. Dyson only allowed 19 earned runs as he faced 285 batters to become one of the premier closers in the American League. And if Dyson once again flirts with saving close to 40 games for Texas, it will more than likely signal that this team is once again the top team in the A.L. West.

Last year saw the Rangers battle with the Cleveland Indians for most of the year as far as seeing who was the best team in the American League. These two clubs will get it on in Arlington to begin the season before the Rangers begin a 12-game stretch against the A.L. West. The Rangers should once again be the team to beat within the A.L. West and a strong start in April could put them in the catbird’s seat.

Houston Astros 87-75

After the Houston Astros made the postseason in 2015 as a wild card, the expectations for them increased heading into the 2016 Major League Baseball season. The Astros were able to finish last year with a winning record as they won 84 games, but they fell five wins shy of the final playoff spot in the American League. Now a year later, the Astros are a more mature team, and after team general manager Jeff Luhnow made some tweaks to the roster, the postseason could once again become a reality in Houston.

What helped the Astros make the playoffs in 2015 was a hindrance to them in 2016. Houston led the American League in team earned run average in 2015 at 3.57, but that number dipped last season as it was 4.06 which was fifth. And a big part of that slight dip in production was due to the regression of starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel.

Dallas Keuchel

In 2015, Keuchel went 20-8 with a 2.48 earned run average to being named as the American League’s Cy Young Award winner. Keuchel also led the A.L. in innings pitched in 2015 with 232 which led to the theory of him being fatigued last year. In 2016, Keuchel went 9-12 with an earned average of 4.55 has his fastball lacked some zip. And for the Astros to have a chance of making the postseason this year, Keuchel is going to once again have to find the magic from 2015.

Like Keuchel, starting pitcher Collin McHugh had a big campaign in 2015 as he won 19 games. But unlike Keuchel, McHugh benefited from a ton of run support when he took the mound. And once factored in that McHugh wasn’t getting the same run support in 2016, along with the fact that his earned run average was 4.34, the Astros suffered.

Overall no Astros pitcher that started at least 20 games last year had an earned run average below 4.00. Luhnow didn’t upgrade Houston’s starting rotation, but he did the next best thing by acquiring veteran catcher Brian McCann from the New York Yankees.

McCann has always been a solid contributor to a team’s pitching staff; especially for his ability to frame pitches and call games. And as a pitcher like Keuchel is looking to bounce back, throwing to a veteran such as McCann will make his job on the mound every fifth day a little bit easier.

McCann’s arrival in Houston will also add some depth to the Astros lineup as in each of the last nine years he has hit 20 home runs.

The Astros have a solid blend of power and speed in their lineup that could make them very difficult to deal with. Second baseman Jose Altuve is one of Major League Baseball better contact hitters as he has won the American League’s batting title in two of the last three years, while leading the league in hits in each of the last three seasons. Altuve is also a fantasy baseball owner’s best friend as he has the ability to consistently get on base, while always being a threat on the base paths. Altuve’s ability to get on base for the Astros should pay big dividends for an Astros lineup that has the potential to consistently put the ball over the fence.

In 2015, the Astros were second in the American League in home runs with 230, but they only managed to hit 198 last season with was ninth. The Astros lineup up is littered with power bats which includes utility man Evan Gattis who led the club in home runs last season with 32, and outfielder George Springer who hit 29 homers. The Astros also have shortstop Carlos Correa who is one of Major League Baseball’s young phenoms, and veteran outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran who might not be the player that he was in 2004 when he went on a tear to help Houston reach the playoffs, but his 19 years of MLB experience will definitely come in handy in the clubhouse.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch may once again have to go with a “closer by committee” for 2017 as this could be the one thing that will hold this team back coming out of spring training. But by the summer the Astros will be a force in the American League.

Seattle Mariners 86-76

The past few years have seen the Seattle Mariners come close to breaking their playoff drought, but they’ve been unable to get over the hump. In 2014, the Mariners fell one game short of getting to the playoffs and last year it was three. The M’s have been so close to breaking Major League Baseball’s current longest postseason drought, but will 2017 be the year that they finally give baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest something to cheer about in October?

Jerry Dipoto is in his second year as the Mariners general manager and he’s already begun the process of attempting to improve Seattle’s team when he traded starting pitcher Tijuan Walker to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for infielder Jean Segura. In one year with the Diamondbacks, Seguara led the National League in hits with 203 and his ability to get on base in front of Seattle’s big boppers will be important. Aside from Segura, the M’s also acquired outfielder Jarrod Dyson from the Kansas City Royals who has stolen at least 30 bases in four out of the last five years. And just like Segura, the ability of Dyson to get on base will be vital to Seattle’s lineup.

As a unit the M’s were able to blast 223 homers which was second in the American League last season and they have the potential to once again be a prolific offense. Segura will set the table in Seattle for second baseman Robinson Cano and designated hitter Nelson Cruz who last year combined to hit 82 home runs. Cano was able to put his struggles in 2015 behind him as he hit a career-high 39 home runs. But at the age of 34, will Cano be able to replicate this success? Like Cano, Cruz is a veteran hitter as he is 36-years of age. However each of the last three Major League Baseball seasons have seen Cruz belt at least 40 homers as he has turned Safeco Field into his own personal launching pad.

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is getting plenty of fanfare as he is the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, but his older brother Kyle has turned out to be a solid third baseman in Seattle. In each of Seager’s six seasons with the Mariners, his productivity at the plate as increased. Seager is coming off of his first 30-homer campaign as being in a lineup with Cruz and Cano has been beneficial to him. Seager is rapidly becoming one of the better third baseman in the American League and it would not surprise me to see him make his second All-Star Game appearance this summer.

The Mariners team earned run average of 4.00 was third in the American League last year, but in order for them to make the playoffs, they are going to need more from their stud. Last season was a down year for starting pitcher Felix Hernandez who is 25 starts went 11-8 with an earned run average of 3.82. Hernandez failed to reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time since 2007 as injuries got the best of him. Whether it was due to injuries or age, the fastball of “King Felix” lost some zip and it might be time for him to begin locating his pitches more.

Felix Hernandez

But Hernandez and the rest of the Mariners pitching staff should benefit from Dipoto bringing in veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz. The 38-year old Ruiz has never been known for his bat as it more about his ability to call a game behind the plate. And his ability and leadership should be beneficial to the M’s pitching staff this year.

Whereas injuries slowed down Hernandez last year, starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma emerged as a solid contributor in the M’s rotation as he led the club in wins with 16. Iwakuma also benefited from good run support as he has an earned run average of 4.12, but like Hernandez, he should be aided by having Ruiz behind the plate.

Relief pitchers Edwin Diaz and Steve Cishek each have the ability to close games which gives Mariners skipper Scott Servais flexibility as far as the use of his bullpen goes, and this will be important as they look to hang around in the American League West.

Aside from Servais, Seattle’s coaching staff is littered with former Major League Baseball players that includes bench coach Tim Bogar, hitting coach Edgar Martinez, and pitcher coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. And this wealth of experience on the Mariners coaching staff could be the difference in whether or not that they’ll be able to end Major League Baseball’s current longest playoff drought.

Los Angeles Angels 79-83

The 2014 Major League Baseball season saw the Los Angeles Angels finish with the best record in the league as they won 98 games. But since then it has been a steep decline for the Angels as they’ve missed the postseason in each of the last two years which included them managing to only win 74 games in 2016. What has hurt the Angels more than anything else has been issues within their front office. Angels manager Mike Scoiscia has not always been on the same page with the team’s general managers and there is some hope in Anaheim that he and Billy Eppler can be on the same page as this is the only way for this team to have a chance.

Mike Trout

But for Eppler and Scoiscia, life is made easier in knowing that they can build around one of the best players in the game. At times outfielder Mike Trout can make the game of baseball look very easy. Trout is only 25-years of age and already he is a two-time American League MVP in just six Major League Baseball seasons. Trout is coming off of a season where he batted .315 with 29 home runs and 100 runs batted in last year to be named as the A.L. MVP. Trout’s energy is infectious and as you expect to see him bat at least .300 while hitting 30 homers, stealing 30 bases, and driving in 100 runs, how will the team around him fare?

Designated hitter Albert Pujols led the Angels in home runs last year with 31, but at the age of 37, his body is breaking down. The last four years have seen Pujols deal with foot issues which has limited his effectiveness. Pujols won’t be available to begin the season after undergoing foot surgery in December. And although that Pujols still has pop in his bat, he is not the overall player that he was during his prime with the St. Louis Cardinals.

As a team the Angels were sixth in the American League in batting average (.260), but they were tenth in runs scored (717). Outfielder Kole Calhoun is a product of the Angels system, but he is a scrappy player that will give you everything that he has on a nightly basis and the same can be said about first baseman C.J. Cron. Third baseman Yunel Escobar is coming off of consecutive seasons in which he hit at least .300, while he also has one of the best gloves at the hot corner in the American League. And as Escobar is in the final year of his contract with the Angels, I believe that he’ll be locked in this season in each phase of the game.

The Angels also brought in veterans such as outfielders Ben Revere and Cameron Maybin, along with infielders Luis Valbuena and Danny Espinosa as this lineup should have more balance this season.

The Angels lineup will have to keep them in games as their pitching staff will more than likely struggle once more. Last year the Angels team earned run average of 4.28 was 12th in the American League and their 64 quality starts were 14th. Starting pitcher Jered Weaver led the Angels in wins last year with 12, but he is now a member of the San Diego Padres.

Garrett Richards

Starting pitcher Garrett Richards is the best option for the Angels in their rotation when he is healthy; however Richards was shut down last season due to elbow issues and it will be interesting to see how he’ll be able to hold up in 2017. But unfortunately for the Angels after Richards, their rotation is extremely thin.

This season will be interesting to say the least for the Angels who have enough offense to contend for a playoff spot, but they’ll more than likely come up short due to their lack of quality pitching.

Oakland Athletics 71-91

The best way to describe the Oakland Athletics is that they are Major League Baseball’s version of the stock market. The Athletics have been way up and way down in the standings over the past 30 years due to the fact that they play in one of MLB’s smallest markets and without a lucrative television deal, it makes it extremely difficult for them to maintain their roster when quality players are set to become unrestricted free agents. From 2012-2014, the A’s made three consecutive trips to the postseason which included a pair of American League West Championships. But since then it has been a rapid decline in Oakland as Athletics general manager Billy Beane has had another one of his infamous fire sales. The A’s are coming off of consecutive last place finishes in the A.L. West which is the first time that this has occurred since 1998. And as the 2017 MLB campaign is set begin, are the A’s ready to show some improvement?

Bob Melvin has seen the best of times and the worst of times during his tenure as the manager of the Athletics. But if the A’s are going to shock most people and contend in the American League West this year, they will need to get better pitching.

Last year Oakland’s team earned average of 4.51 was 14th in the American League as they were bombarded by injuries and an overall lack of quality starting pitching. Injuries limited starting pitcher Sonny Gray to just 22 starts, while he had an earned run average of 5.69. Gray’s down year threw a wrench into Beane’s plans of trading him and he needs the youngster to have a bounce back season in order to increase his trade value, while starting pitcher Kendall Graverman continues to improve as he could flirt with being a 15-game winner this season in Oakland.

When the Athletics signed relief pitcher Ryan Madson in 2016, it was expected that he would be with the club until the team found a trade partner. But surprisingly Madson stayed with the A’s for the entire season which led to him saving 30 games in Oakland for just the second time in his career. And whereas Beane did not trade Madson in 2016, I don’t see this season ending with him in Oakland as a quality relievers are always en vogue the closer that you get to the trading deadline.

The A’s were a light hitting team as they were 14th in the American League in bating average last season at .246, along with being dead last in on-base percentage at .304. And once you exclude the contributions of outfielder Khris Davis and infielder Marcus Semien, this was an Oakland lineup the struggled immensely to find consistency. Davis emerged as a big time power bat as he hit 42 home runs last season and Semien followed suit with 27. But for Davis, his biggest issue has been ability to bring it consistently as he committed 21 errors in the field last season.

There a huge gap between the talent level of the Athletics and the contenders in the American League West this year, and it won’t take us that long to see it.

X-Division Winner

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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2016 American League West Projections

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X-Los Angeles Angels 90-72 (2)

In 2015, the Los Angeles Angels were expected to contend for their second consecutive American League West Title. But the Angels like most people didn’t expect the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros to each creep up on them in the fashion that they did. Due to the surge by both the Rangers and Astros, the Angels found themselves watching the postseason from home last October. And heading into 2016, the Halos know that they had better pack a lunch if they want to be postseason bound.

Last season was a problem for the Angels as manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto were never on the same page. The Angels parted with Dipoto last season and he was replaced by Billy Eppler whom Scioscia appears to be on the same wavelength with which will be crucial for the Angels in 2016.

Mike Trout

Make no mistake about it that Angels outfielder Mike Trout is one of the best players right now in Major League Baseball. Trout is set to enter his fifth full season with the Angels, and just at the age of 24, Trout is already a four-time American League All-Star along with being a one-time winner of the AL MVP Award. And in 2016, you can expect Trout to once again to be in the running for all of the personal accolades that the game of baseball can bestow upon him. But for the Angels to make the postseason, Trout will need some help.

In both 2013 and 2014, Angels first baseman/designated hitter Albert Pujols was slowed by injuries, but he returned to form last year to hit 40 home runs for the first time in a season since 2010 when he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. However, Pujols is now 36-years of age and you just have to wonder how much gas that he’ll have in the tank to provide protection in the Angels lineup behind Trout.

Pujols is at the point of his career where he is no longer an everyday player in the field which has paved the way for C.J. Cron at first base. Cron in his second year with the Angels and he could be ready to become a breakout player in 2016. Year-by-year, outfielder Kole Calhoun continues to improve. Calhoun was an eighth round pick by the Angels in 2010 and he has worked hard to get to point that he is currently at. Calhoun’s offensive numbers have improved in each season as he was third on the club last year in home runs with 26, and if he is able to eclipse the 30-homer mark in 2016, it should mean good things for the Halos.

The Angels were not a good defensive team last season as they committed 93 errors last season which was the seventh most in the American League. This offseason Los Angeles acquired shortstop Andrelton Simmons from the Atlanta Braves and third baseman Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals as these two moves should sure up the left side of their infield.

Injuries slowed the Angels starting pitching staff in 2015 as elbow woes limited C.J. Wilson while Jered Weaver was never able to overcome a slow start due to beginning the year on the disabled list. Without an effective Wilson or Weaver, starting pitcher Garrett Richards was able to emerge as the Angels ace and if all three are healthy in 2016, the Angels could have one of the better pitching staffs in the American League.

The Angels bullpen should be solid for them in 2016 with Joe Smith, Cam Bedrosian, and Al Alburquerque setting things up for relief pitcher Huston Street who is one of the best in the business as far as finishing games.

In the first week of the regular season, the Angels will host the Rangers in a four-game series where both teams will be stating their case to be the kings of the American League West in 2016.

Y-Texas Rangers 89-73 (4)

Last year marked a reversal of fortunes for the Texas Rangers. In 2014, the Rangers endured their worst season since 1985 as they lost 95 games while finishing in last place in the American League West. But things turned around for the Rangers in 2015 as under first-year manager Jeff Banister, they came alive to win the AL West. Banister preached fundamentals to the Rangers while not beating themselves as his foundation and he is hopeful that this will be something that will carry over to 2016 for them.

Historically the Rangers have been an organization that has been known for it’s hitting, but their pitching could be benchmark for them in 2016. Starting pitcher Yu Darvish sat out the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Darvish is set to return and although the Rangers might use the kid gloves on him, he is still power strikeout pitcher that will put fear into batters. Last year the Rangers acquired starting pitcher Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies. And in 12 starts with the Rangers, Hamels went 7-1 with a 3.66 earned run average while providing Texas with the presence of an ace. This year the Rangers are backing on the combination of Darvish and Hamels leading their rotation while setting the tempo for the rest of the starting rotation.

in 2015, Banister enlisted relief pitcher Shawn Tolleson as the Rangers closer. It was Tolleson’s first opportunity to be a closer and he didn’t disappoint as he finished fifth in the American League in saves with 35, including 53 games finished. Tolleson will once again be called upon this season to finish games for the Rangers and he should be up for the challenge.

But make no mistake about it that the Rangers team will need their solid lineup to be at it once more. Only the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees scored more runs in the American League last season than the Rangers. And Texas should once again make it a regular occurrence as far as crossing home plate.

Prince Fielder

After missing the majority of the 2014 Major League Baseball Season with a herniated disc in his neck, first baseman/designated hitter Prince Fielder returned to the Rangers in 2015. Fielder would lead the Rangers in home runs with 23 while being named to his sixth All-Star team and his first with the Rangers. Fielder would also be selected as the AL Comeback Player of the Year, but his most recognizable accomplishment was that he became a leader on the field and in the clubhouse for the Rangers which is something that Texas will need from him again in 2016. However you can expect Fielder to be used mainly as a designated hitter due to the emergence of Mitch Moreland at first base who gives the Rangers another quality bat in their lineup along with being a solid fielder. Moreland is coming off the best season of his six-year Major League Baseball career as he batted .278 with 23 home runs and 85 runs batted in and the Rangers are hopeful that he will be able to put up similar numbers in 2016.

The last five years have seen third baseman Adrian Beltre become the heart and soul of the Rangers which was evident by his grit that was on display last October in the postseason. But Beltre will be 37-years of age next month and the Rangers must monitor his health in order to increase his effectiveness.

After a questionable divorce from the Rangers in 2012, outfielder Josh Hamilton returned to Texas last year. Hamilton was a fish out of water in his two-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, and even though he is more comfortable in Arlington, he is still enigmatic.

The Rangers are high on the potential of second baseman Rougned Odor and outfielder Joey Gallo to become future cornerstones of their franchise, and it will be interesting to see if it will begin to come full circle for them in 2016.

The Rangers first 10 games of the 2016 Major League Baseball season will see them face the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels, and a strong start within the American League West could be just what they need to win the division for a second consecutive year.

Houston Astros 88-76*

The Houston Astros played the 2015 Major League Baseball season as if they had house money. The Astros won 86 games to secure their first winning season since 2008 which led to their first trip to the postseason since 2005. The Astros would push the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals to the brink in a grueling series in the American League Division Series before being eliminated. The Astros had one of the youngest teams in Major League Baseball in 2015 that crept up on some people, but in 2016 they’ll be out to show that they were not a fluke.

The Astros young core includes the reigning American League Rookie of the Year in shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer. The Astros envision the bats of Correa and Springers being able to carry their lineup in the same fashion that Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell did for numerous years. The emergence of Correa and Springer has taken some of the pressure off of second baseman Jose Altuve to put the Astros on his back. The last two years have seen Altuve lead the AL in hits and he will look to make it three consecutive seasons in which he tallies at least 200 hits.

The Astros lived and died by the home run ball in 2015 as their 230 long balls were second to the Toronto Blue Jays. Designated hitter Evan Gattis will look to once again be a power threat in the middle of the Astros lineup while this will be the first full season for outfielder Carlos Gomez in Houston as he looks to have his fiery personality propel this team to the postseason for a second consecutive year.

Dallas Keuchel

Aside from having the American League Rookie of the Year in 2015, the Astros also had the AL Cy Young Award winner as well. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel went 20-8 last season to become the first Astros pitcher since Roy Oswalt in 2005 to win 20 games. And for the Astros to have a legitimate shot to win the AL West in 2016, he needs to put up similar numbers. There’s a veteran presence in the Astros rotation behind Keuchel with veteran starting pitchers in Collin McHugh and Doug Fister, while relief pitcher Luke Gregerson showed what he can do when he was finally given the chance to be a closer as he saved 31 games for Houston in 2015. But what will Gregerson be able to do for an encore in 2016?

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, his young Houston team faces one of the toughest schedules in Major League Baseball to begin the year as they have series against the New York Yankees, Royals, Boston Red Sox, and Detroit Tigers in the first month of the regular season. And whereas the Astros were able to sneak up on opponents in 2015, it will be a bit harder for them to make the playoffs in 2016.

Seattle Mariners 77-85

After missing the postseason in 2014 by just one game, the expectations for the Seattle Mariners increased immensely in 2015; especially after designated hitter Nelson Cruz was signed. But instead of a trip to the playoffs, the Mariners finished with their fifth losing campaign in their last six seasons. The struggles of the M’s ended up costing general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon their respective jobs with the team as this organization has still failed to qualify for the playoffs in Major League Baseball since 2001 which is now the longest active streak in the game.

Former Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim general manager Jerry Dipoto is hopeful that his previous front office experience will come in handy as he has been put in charge of getting things turned around in the Pacific Northwest. Dipoto did help the Angels win the American League West in 2014, but he and manager Mike Scioscia were never on the same page and thus he resigned last summer. Dipoto is a firm believer in baseball sabermetrics and he needs a manager that is on the same page as him which is why he hired Scott Servais to be the new manager of the Mariners. Servais enjoyed a 12-year playing career and now the Mariners will be his first rodeo as far as being a big league skipper.

Robinson Cano

But for the Dipoto, Servais, and the Mariners to think about being a competitive team in 2016, they will need more production from second baseman Robinson Cano. In 2014, Cano joined the Mariners after he agreed to a ten-year, $240 million contract. But in two seasons with the Mariners, Cano’s production has not come close to equalling what he did during his nine years with the New York Yankees. ¬†In Cano’s last season with the Yankees, he hit 27 home runs, but in two years with the M’s, he has only hit 35. Safeco Field in Seattle isn’t a launching pad like Yankee Stadium, but Cano’s bat speed has appeared to slow down and at the age of 33, he doesn’t appear to be the player that he once was.

Overall, the Mariners offense must find a way to improve in 2016 as they were 13th in the American League last season in runs scored with 656. And this was in spite of the fact that designated hitter Nelson Cruz was second in the AL last season in home runs with 44. But aside from the high home run totals as a team, the M’s were not a good offensive team as Dipoto and Servais will now look to improve the overall batting average and on-base percentage of this team; in spite of the fact that they don’t possess a deep lineup.

Felix Hernandez

Just like Cruz carried the Mariners lineup, starting pitcher Felix Hernandez was and is the starting rotation in Seattle. Hernandez is coming off of the second 18-win season of his Major League Baseball career and he should once again be in consideration to win the American League’s Cy Young Award. Hernandez has been durable for the M’s as the last eight MLB seasons have seen him pitch at least 200 innings. And although most people forget about Hernandez being that he is tucked away up in the Pacific Northwest, he is still one of the game’s premier starting pitchers. The Mariners thought that they lost starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma in free agency to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but when he failed his physical with the Dodgers, he decided to return to the Mariners. And if starting pitcher Taijuan Walker can put it altogether for a full season, the Mariners rotation could keep them in games.

The Mariners pitching staff will be asked to carry the load as their bullpen accounted for 24 blown saves last season which was fourth in the American League as this unit in still in search of some consistency.

Road series in the first month of the season against the Texas Rangers, Angels, and Yankees will test the Mariners early as they cannot afford to fall too far behind in the American League West.

Oakland Athletics 74-88

The Oakland Athletics are coming off of their first last place finish in the American League West since 2009 and there will be a steep climb for them to get back into contention as the division has become very competitive rather quickly. Athletics general manager Billy Beane has been given credit for some of his strategic moves during his tenure there, but his moves over the past year have really hurt the organization which has been highlighted by him trading the eventual AL MVP in third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays. The A’s have yet to recover from the trade which could make the 2016 Major League Baseball season a long one for them.

One man cannot do it by himself which is evident by the production of Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Gray went 14-7 with a 2.73 earned run average last season, but the A’s pitching staff was still 11th in team earned run average in the American League last season at 4.14. Gray is 26-years of age, and he is the undisputed ace of this pitching staff in Oakland while he should also be in line to be selected to his second consecutive Major League Baseball All-Star team. The Athletics picked up veteran starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez in free agency while they are hopeful that starting pitcher Jarrod Parker will be able to return to the rotation as elbow issues have befallen him over the past two years.

Offensively the Athletics were at the bottom of most statistical categories in the American League last season as the other Major League Baseball teams have caught up Beane’s “Moneyball” philosophy. And as the A’s are set to once again to have one of the lowest payrolls in MLB, they’ll be fighting an uphill battle the American League West.

The Athletics first 10 games of the upcoming Major League Baseball season will be against teams that weren’t playoff teams last season. And for A’s manager Bob Melvin, a quick start could give his team some hope in the American League West for 2016.

Sources: Baseball-reference.com, Spotrac.com

X-Division Winner

*Play-in Game

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An Early MLB Season Surprise

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http://www.sportstalkflorida.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Houston_Astros_Logo_2012.jpgFor far too long the Houston Astros have been a dormant Major League Baseball team. The Astros have not been to the postseason since 2005 when they won their first and only National League Pennant. And the Astros have not had a winning season since 2008. Under former team owner Drayton McLane. the Astros would fall into financial shambles and they would be sold to Jim Crane in 2011 for $680 million. Since then the Astros have been in complete rebuilding mode as Crane assumed debt when he purchased the team. The Astros have become a glorified minor-league team as they suffered through three consecutive seasons in which they lost at least 100 games. The Astros would leave the NL Central and begin playing in the American League West in 2013 and the other teams in the division would lick their chops to welcome the new whipping boys. The Astros began to make progress last season as they won 70 games for the first time since 2010 and they are building off of that in the early stages of 2015.

As the month of April is in the books, the Astros are in first place in the AL West and they are also the only team in the division that currently has a winning record. The Astros have won 13 out of their last 15 ballgames and they’re currently on a eight-game winning streak. The Astros have won their last four series and under new manager A.J. Hinch, this is a team that is playing loose and they are also gaining traction.

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Jose Altuve

For his time in an Astros uniform, second baseman Jose Altuve has been the team’s only bright spot. Altuve is a two MLB All-Star and he led the league in batting last season (.341). Altuve has picked up right where he left off at in 2014 as he is batting (.376) this season, but the Astros lineup is more than him now. In the off-season the Astros acquired third baseman Luis Valbeuna from the Chicago Cubs. Like Altuve, Valbeuna is a native of Venezuela and he is also currently leading the Astros in home runs with 5 as he is on pace for one of his better MLB seasons at the plate. Utility infielder Jed Lowrie got off to one of the best starts of his career as he was batting .300, but a torn ligament in his right thumb will sideline him for the next 8-12 weeks.

However the biggest part of the Astros early season turnaround can be attributed to their pitching staff. Last season the Astros team earned run average of 4.11 was 12th in the American League and they’ve been near the bottom of the category in Major League Baseball since 2009. But the Astros are second in the AL this season in team earned run average this season (3.04) and the lead the Junior Circuit in quality starts with 15. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel continues to improve as he is now in his fourth MLB season (all with the Astros). In five starts this season, Keuchel is 3-0 with an earned run average of 0.73. This past Thursday, Keuchel went 8 innings and he only allowed a single run in the Astros 7-2 victory. After being an afterthought with both the New York Mets and Colorado Rockies, starting pitcher Collin McCugh is finding his comfort zone with the Astros. 2014 was the first year in which McCugh reached double digits in starts. Last season McCugh went 11-9 with an earned run average of 2.73. McCugh is building off of 2014 as so far this season he is 3-0 with an earned run average of 2.92.

There are five months remaining in the Major League Baseball season and anything can happen. The Texas Rangers are trying to rebuild while the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels are each attempting to find their groove. The Seattle Mariners entered this season with lofty expectations that they’ve been unable to live up to so far and all of this equates to an American League Western Division that is wide open. The Astros have picked themselves off of the canvas as they are tired of losing. And being that they are currently playing with house money, they are only going to gain more confidence in themselves the longer that they are able to hang around in the divisional race while the other teams there are attempting to figure it out. The Astros were 35-41 in the AL West last season while they’ve gotten off to a good start this season as they are 12-5 within it.

When Minute Maid Park in Houston opened in 2000, it was an attendance boom which has fallen the wayside in the past few years with the Astros poor play. But if the Astros are able to keep up their strong play, they will once again have a solid home-field advantage.

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