WE HAVE A PROBLEM: HOUSTON

Before the 2015 season started, the general consensus was that the American League West division title was going to be fought over mainly between a revitalized Seattle Mariners team and the Bellflower Angels, who might have had the best team in baseball in 2014. The Houston Astros were considered the dark horse as they had stockpiled prospects all around the diamond, especially pitchers, but it was safe to say that they were at least a year away from real contention. No one expected much from the Texas Rangers, who had been decimated by injuries the previous season. The Oakland Athletics were not recognizable as Billy Beane channeled Frank Lane, apparently just because he could.

Houston surprised many of us by leading the division most of the way despite their youth and propensity for swinging and missing. The Angels’ pitching did not nearly match the strong performance of 2014 but they stayed in contention in a division where just a tad above mediocre was going to be enough. Texas won it on the last day as Cole Hamels won his seventh game for the Rangers after his trading deadline acquisition from Philadelphia. Therefore, since Texas would have Yu Darvish back for 2016, they have become the  odds on favorite to repeat, right? I’m not so sure.

The Angels have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, and C.J. Cron, so they are going to score a lot of runs. They have Andrelton Simmons at shortstop now, so their good defense is now slightly better, and if young catcher Carlos Perez plays well over a full season they have an upgrade there. But C.J. Wilson and Jared Weaver do not appear to be the pitchers they once were, although young lefty Andrew Heaney looks good. Huston Street and Joe Smith do not look as good as they once did either, so that a once deep bullpen is sagging a bit. I’ll be surprised if Azusa finishes higher than third.

Oakland has strengthened its lineup but the pitching will relegate them to another last place finish unless they get off to a hot start and acquire two more Sonny Gray types.

The Rangers are pretty solid, especially on the mound, and if Rougned Odor continues to develop and improves defensively they will be strong up the middle. Designated sitter Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and new left fielder Ian Desmond give them some pop along with the strikeout prone young Joey Gallo so we won’t write them off.

Seattle is neither as good as we thought they were nor as bad as they seemed to be last season but this time it would be a surprise if they put together a real consistent threat. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Felix Hernandez keep them interesting, but trying to hit well in their yard seems to wear on people.

The Astos look like the real thing now because guys like George Springer and the shortstop Carlos Correa will probably only get better and the pitching staff has become perhaps the strongest in baseball. Carlos Gomez will be a key element. So I say they will prevail.

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