After making World Series appearances in back-to-back years, it seemed that the Rangers had positioned themselves to be the best of the A.L. West for the foreseeable future. But that’s not been the case since. Texas was bounced the next season in the one-game Wild Card playoff, then followed that up with a late collapse to miss the playoffs altogether. Now, it’s the Athletics who are looking down at their rivals from the top, with two straight division titles. But with a re-loaded Texas team and two others ready to take the next step, the A’s will have their work cut out for themselves if they want a divisional three-peat.
Key Subtractions: None
Biggest Strength: Speed
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Experience
It’s hard to look at the Astros and think they have anywhere to go but up. And that’s the plan. The Astros knew 2013 was not going to be a competitive year. General Manager Jeff Luhnow has established a rebuilding plan that will take time. With a loaded farm system, it may just take a couple years for those prospects to develop, so 2014 will be another down year in Houston. But it may not be quite as low as last year. Luhnow brought in several new players this offseason on short-term deals to help make the team a bit more competitive. The starting rotation, which was one of the worst in baseball last year, will have a much different look to it. None of the five pitchers who started more than 14 games for Houston last year are currently in the rotation according the Astros’ depth chart. Feldman will lead the rotation and Williams was brought in to be an upgrade toward the back end. They should help lower the starters’ ERA that was 4.72 in 2013. Albers, Crain, and Qualls should improve a bullpen that was the worst in baseball last season with an ERA just under 5.00.
Offensively, the Astros will still have plenty of work to do. Only the White Sox scored fewer runs in the A.L. last season, and Houston’s lineup will look very similar this year. Only Fowler in center field will be a new addition. He will also be the oldest offensive player at 28-years-old, so they will still be very young. While there will still be some bumps in the road, the Major League experience several of those players picked up last year will help them going forward. Look for players like Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez, Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes, and Jonathan Villar to improve on their 2013 numbers. Each of those players has only a couple hundred games at the Major League level or fewer. Part of the reason the Astros hit just .240 can be attributed to their lack of high-level at bats. With one more season under their belts, that should only get better. However, the ceiling is still limited.
Los Angeles Angels
Biggest Strength: Run-scoring offense
Biggest Weakness: Back-end starting pitching
It’s hard to know what to make of the L.A. Angels. This is a team that has spent a lot of money and has several big name players, but is coming off another disappointing season, finishing third in the A.L. West in 2013, with just 78 wins. Much of the reason for the sub-.500 record was due to poor pitching. While Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson make a great one-two punch, it was the three through five guys who failed them. Outside of Weaver and Wilson, Angels starters had a 4.90 ERA last season. The only regular starter returning to the back end of the rotation will be young Garrett Richards, whom team executives expect to improve after his first full year in the Majors. The other two starters look to be Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, both acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade in the offseason. In 224.2 career innings spread over three seasons, the 26-year-old Santiago has a 3.41 ERA. Skaggs, meanwhile, has been knocked around in his 68 career innings, but at just 22, those things happen. At the very least, the former first-round pick shouldn’t be any worse than what L.A. saw last year. As for the bullpen, the Angels had one of the worst relieving staffs in baseball last season. Ernesto Frieri will be the team’s surefire closer. Mix that with the addition of Smith from Cleveland, a healthy Sean Burnett, and last season’s breakout star Dane De La Rosa, and things are looking up for late game situations.
Offensively, things won’t look too different for the Angels, which may not be a bad thing. Perennial Triple Crown threat Mike Trout is back for his third full year, after leading the lineup to 733 runs last season, which was seventh-best in baseball. And that was still with a disappointing number of contributions from superstars Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. With $40 million going to the two of them this year, they need more. Hamilton is already off to a rough start, though, as a calf strain has kept him out for a couple weeks this spring. That can’t be what L.A. was hoping for, especially considering it took him until August to hit better than .238 in any one month last year. Things are more optimistic for Pujols, though, who says he feels great after knee and foot problems over the past two seasons. David Freese will replace Trumbo at third base and, while Freese may not be able to replace his power, the Angels hope a change of scenery will help him bounce back from a down year. We’ll also find out if Raul Ibanez can still cut it at age 41. If the offense remains productive and the pitching staff bounces back, this is a team that could get back in the division race.
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Speed
The low-budget A’s are working toward their third straight A.L. West title, and are coming off their best season in 10 years. Even with a payroll that ranks in the bottom five in baseball, Oakland has managed to put a contender on the field in each of the last two years and could very well do the same in 2014. The lineup will be nearly the same this season as it was last year, when the A’s had the the third-best offense in the American League. The only regular player who won’t be returning this season is Seth Smith. That will open up the DH spot full-time for John Jaso. Oakland will continue to be led by Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Brandon Moss. If they can have similar years to what they did in 2013, the A’s will be in good shape.
As for pitching, there are a couple of question marks for a staff that finished second in the A.L. in ERA. Gone is Colon, who turned in a great season and finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting. But the other four pitchers who made at least 26 starts are all returning. But one of them, Tommy Milone, may may not have a rotation spot to come back to. Jarrod Parker, Sonny Gray, and A.J. Griffin will all have their places among the top three or four. And Dan Straily, as inconsistent as he may have been last year, may have the upper hand on the five spot over Milone, who was demoted to Triple-A. Meanwhile, GM Billy Beane hopes Scott Kazmir can continue his career resurgence after a productive year in Cleveland. Another new Oakland pitcher who will be thrown into an important role is Johnson, who will take over closing duties from the departed Balfour. He has topped 50 saves in each of the last two years. Gregerson and O’Flaherty, when he returns mid-season from Tommy John surgery, will join Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook to form a very formidable bullpen. A third straight division crown would not be out of the question.
Biggest Strength: Front-End Pitching
Biggest Weakness: Outfield
Since their historically bad 2010 season, the Mariners offense has been slowly getting better. After scoring just 513 runs that season, they have scored 556, 619, and 624 in the three years since. Still, their 2013 total put them in the bottom third of baseball. So GM Jack Zduriencik made the splash of the offseason by signing Cano to a huge 10-year deal. Now, the M’s have a true anchor for the middle of their lineup. It’s just a matter of how much support he will get. Seattle’s two biggest hitters from last season, Ibanez and Morales, are not currently on the roster. Losing Ibanez means the outfield will have one more hole to fill in an area with many. Hart will need to stay healthy and produce, which could both be tall tasks. He missed all of 2013 following knee surgery, so there is no guarantee he will be the same hitter he was pre-injury. But he did have at least 26 home runs in each of the previous three seasons, while also hitting .270 or above each time. Dustin Ackley and Abraham Almonte will likely man left and center, respectively, which is hardly intimidating offensively, and is even worse defensively. The youngsters on the left side of the infield, Kyle Seager and Brad Miller, could provide some fireworks this year. The Mariners hope that will be the case for first baseman Justin Smoak and catcher Mike Zunino, as well, though that’s probably not likely outside the occasional power surge.
Seattle’s rotation, meanwhile, has the potential to be very exciting. The Mariners have one of the best pitchers in baseball in Felix Hernandez, and an excellent number two in Hisashi Iwakuma, though he will likely miss the first couple weeks of the season with a finger injury. Beyond the top two, they will welcome in some young pitchers about whom they are very optimistic. James Paxton will start the season in the rotation after a brief stint last season. Baseball America ranked him among the top four prospects in the organization in both 2011 and 2012, and he has had a very good spring. 23-year-old Erasmo Ramirez will try to make it through this season healthy, as a triceps injury has led to inconsistency. But he has pitched well this spring and is coming off a great winter season in Venezuela. The biggest reason for excitement, though, may be the arrival of top prospect Taijuan Walker. The 21-year-old will miss the start of the season with shoulder inflammation, but will join the back end of the rotation, and give the M’s their first real look at their potential future ace. Meanwhile, there are a bevy of players trying to earn spots in the bullpen, but outside of new closer Rodney, it may end up being a similar cast to the one that posted the league’s second-worst bullpen ERA of 4.58. If Rodney can provide more stability to the closer’s role, it could have a steadying effect on the rest of the pen. And first-year manager Lloyd McClendon would love to see his team stay competitive.
Biggest Strength: Offense
Biggest Weakness: Pitching Health
After three straight trips to the playoffs, including two World Series appearances, the Rangers played themselves out of a Wild Card spot thanks to a 12-16 September. So GM Jon Daniels went back to the drawing board this offseason, and started by pulling off the biggest trade of the winter, sending Kinsler to Detroit for Fielder. This allows the Rangers to finally make room for infield prospect Jurickson Profar, while also improving at first base, which has been one of their biggest positions of weakness in recent seasons. Fielder has had 25 homers in each of his eight full seasons, and has also been remarkably durable, missing a total of only 13 games in that time. He will join a deep infield of Profar, Elvis Andrus, and Adrian Beltre. Daniels didn’t hold back in the outfield this winter, either, signing Choo to a seven-year deal, as he should be an upgrade over the departed Cruz. The only real hole in the Texas lineup is at the catcher position. With Pierzynski gone, those duties will be left to Geovany Soto and Arencibia, neither of whom has done consistently well in recent seasons.
Yu Darvish will lead the Rangers’ rotation, coming off a 2013 season in which he finished second for the Cy Young Award. Martin Perez, who broke out last season, will be relied on to help carry the load behind Darvish, as will Alexi Ogando. Once a dominant reliever, the 30-year-old is trying to establish himself as a reliable starter, but three trips to the disabled list last season kept him from being able to do that. Injuries also hurt last year’s opening day starter, Matt Harrison, who was only able to appear in two games due to needing three different surgeries — two on his back and another on his shoulder. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to go for the start of this season, either. Neither will Derek Holland, the team’s innings leader from last year. He will likely miss at least the first half of the season after a freak accident in the offseason required him to have knee surgery. That leaves a long cast including Jose Contreras, Tommy Hanson, Colby Lewis, Joe Saunders, Tanner Scheppers, and Nick Tepesch looking for a spot in the back end of the rotation, at least early on. Health to the starting pitching staff will be a key to the Rangers’ success this year. They’ll also need to rely on a new closer with Nathan’s departure. Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, and Scheppers are all candidates. Only Soria has been a full-time closer in the past, but it’s been three years since his last save. The Rangers will have the offense to compete in the American League this year, but it will be the pitching that will determine how far they will go.