Houston or Texas? Seattle? The Mariners finished second in the American League West division in 2016 and on paper, where no game has ever been played, they look as though they have improved going into the new season. But the Texas Rangers have won it the last two years and the still mostly young Houston Astros have finished close to the top two years in a row. How it looks to this observer is that whatever team among the three receives the best from its pitchers will probably win a tight race. One thing you can take to the bank: it won’t be either California team in 2017.
Seattle would be the sentimental favorite just because they have never won it all. They’ve won the division before: in the weird 1995 season when Randy Johnson was nearly unbeatable while the rest of the pitching staff finished 3 games under .500, and again in ’97 when Johnson was 20-4 and the team smashed 264 home runs, led by Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and 21 year old Alex Rodriguez, and finally in 2001 when they celebrated the departure of both Rodriguez and the Kingdome by winning the absurd total of 116 games. However, sentiment doesn’t win games either and this year’s Mariners are not as strong as that team, which was managed by Lou Piniella and got knocked off in the playoffs by Joe Torre‘s Yankees. They do have several fine players, such as Felix Hernandez. The King just turned 31 years of age and is looking to improve on his 2016 season, which was limited to 25 starts and a record of 11-8 with an ERA of 3.82, which is merely passable for an ace. One thing that should help him is the addition of Jean Segura, the shortstop obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for young pitcher Taijuan Walker. Segura bats leadoff after he comes off the disabled list and he poked 68 extra base hits and stole 33 bases last season for the Snakes. Defensively, he fits better at second base, but Seattle already has one of those and his name is Robinson Cano. Cano is a gold glove type at second and he also pounds the ball, hitting .298 with 39 home runs and 103 RBI in ’16. Third baseman Kyle Seager added 30 home runs and 99 RBI while designated sitter Nelson Cruz had yet another big power year with 43 and 105. Leonys Martin is great in center field and has speed and some power in his offensive repertoire while very capable catcher Mike Zunino will be backed up by strong veteran Carlos Ruiz this year. It will be interesting to see what new left fielder Jarrod Dyson can do as an everyday player because he has been excellent defensively in Kansas City and stole 30 bases in 107 games for the ’16 Royals. But, after Hernandez the pitching gets dicey. Hisashi Iwakuma was effective last year, winning 16 games in 33 starts while young lefty James Paxton showed promise in 20 starts. After that, there is lefty Ariel Miranda, who made ten starts for the Mariners after joining them from Baltimore, and veteran Yovani Gallardo, who compiled a 5.42 ERA for the Orioles last season. In the bullpen, young Edwin Diaz was effective in 49 appearances and then there is a group of mostly untested arms including Marc Rzepczynski, who should always be on the same team as Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Adrian Beltre is an important factor in this race because the Texas Rangers, no matter what brave manager Jeff Banister might say, are not the same without him. Beltre, now 38 years old, is currently on the disabled list and the Rangers need him not just because he plays better than most at third base and still hits like an MVP candidate, but also because he provides the type of leadership any team in a close race relishes. Young Joey Gallo, his probable successor , will gain valuable experience in the meantime. The Rangers won 95 games in 2016 thanks in part to some good pitching. They may never fully recover their huge investment in Yu Darvish but that is not our concern. He will be 31 in August and was able to start 17 games last year and win 7 with a 3.41 ERA. Southpaw Cole Hamels led the way with 15 wins and 200 strikeouts and Martin Perez was a yeoman with a 10-11 record and a 4.39 ERA. A pair of veterans with mediocre histories, A.J. Griffin and Andrew Cashner, fill out the Texas starting rotation. There is no such thing as a complete game anymore so everybody spends millions on a bullpen. Matt Bush is the lead dog in the Texas pen but Sam Dyson, currently on the disabled list, recorded 38 “saves” last year. Lefty Jake Diekman hurled 53 innings in ’16 but he is on the DL for a long while. Another lefty, Alex Claudio, will be helping out as will righties Tony Barnette and former Brewer Jeremy Jeffress. This is what they call a work in progress, as most bullpens have been.
Carlos Gomez played for both the Astros and the Rangers last year and he hit much better for the Rangers. He’s still a good flycatcher and possesses good speed. Young Nomar Mazara is an emerging star in right field who displays a good arm and a power stroke while it looks like they are trying infielder Jurickson Profar in left field. Shin-Soo Choo is aging and injury prone while Delino DeShields and Ryan Rua are still developing. Texas will benefit from a full season from catcher Jonathan Lucroy this season both defensively and when he bats. Mike Napoli joined the team and he can help as a power hitting first baseman while Rougned Odor is a slugger in more ways than one as a somewhat defensively challenged second baseman.Elvis Andrus is a solid rock offensively and defensively.
Houston is no longer the up and coming darlings of a couple of years ago but they are still mostly young and perhaps becoming even more capable. Their version of Hall of Famer Joe Morgan (a former Astro) is Jose Altuve (.338,24HR,96 RBI,30 steals) and he and his double play cohort Carlos Correa form a very strong up the middle base along with center fielder George Springer that should keep Houston fans happy for a number of years. They are not so strong at catcher but the combination of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis is adequate. The addition of Josh Reddick gives them a strong veteran presence in right field, but he has had trouble staying in the lineup throughout his career. Carlos Beltran, at age 40 not close to the outfielder he once was, can still hit and will be welcome at designated sitter. Nori Aoki will be in left field for now, guarding the line and letting Springer get whatever he can reach. Another youngster, Alex Bregman, shows good potential at third base while 32 year old Cuban Yuli Gurriel will see what he can do at first base. Veteran Marwin Gonzalez can spell all of the infielders.
Questions will be asked and answered on the mound, starting with Dallas Keuchel (Dallas pitches for Houston against Texas?) and especially Collin McHugh. Keuchel disappointed in ’16 after a great 2015 season. McHugh has an elbow impingement problem after going 13-10 with a 4.34 ERA last season and is shelved for a while. A sore elbow limited Lance McCullers to 14 starts last season so he will be watched closely as will veteran Charlie Morton, who sometimes pitches as many as five innings and was able to make four starts for the Phillies last year. Joe Musgrove made 10 starts last season with a 4.04 ERA and is currently the fifth starter in a shaky rotation. The bullpen had fair results in ’16 but the likes of Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Brad Peacock and Tony Sipp do not inspire a lot of confidence.
Way back in 2014 the LaHabra Angels may have been the best team in baseball, winning 98 games and the A.L. West title. Today, they still have manager Mike Scioscia and some very good players but too much is missing. We all know about Mike Trout, who seems to keep getting better and is not yet 26 years old. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons is as good as you can get. Albert Pujols, in the middle of a 56 year contract and 37 years old, can still drop his crutches and belt over 30 home runs. Right fielder Kole Calhoun is a very good all around player. But that’s it. Their number one starting pitcher is Ricky Nolasco and they still have Huston Street under contract. If I was still selling Volkswagens in Westminster I could get a free ticket by having a good day. But I wouldn’t buy a ticket.
The best news this year for Oakland Athletics fans is that the Raiders are moving out. Once again the former A.L. representatives of Philadelphia and Kansas City have a roster dotted with young talent that could develop into a good team if they just stayed together. The pitching staff in particular is interesting because Sonny Gray, Jharel Cotton, Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Andrew Triggs, Ryan Dull and others look very promising. Veterans Khris Davis, Rajai Davis, Yonder Alonso, and Marcus Semien help make a competitive lineup possible. The hope now is that management will stay with a plan and remain in a city that deserves major league ball and has a lustrous history. Tearing out the tarps is a good start. Here’s hoping they try, and then that they succeed.