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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.