2015 PREVIEW AL WEST: Can the Mariners take the next step?

Mar 29, 2015 - 3:25 PM (SportsNetwork.com) - The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gave Mike Trout his first taste of playoff action in 2014. The Seattle Mariners are hoping they can do the same for ace Felix Hernandez.

The Angels and Mariners head into the year as the top two teams in the division, but the Oakland Athletics are always in the mix, despite an overhauled roster from a team that last season reached the wild card game.

Houston should take another step toward respectability, but Texas has already been bitten by the injury bug. It proved to be the death knell for the Rangers in 2014 and it could be their undoing again this season.

HOUSTON ASTROS (2014 Finish - 70-92 Fourth in AL West)

The Houston Astros definitely had a better second year in the AL than their maiden voyage in 2013. However, they lost 92 games and have averaged 104 losses in each of the past four seasons. Still, last year's finish was a 19- game improvement from the previous season and weren't in last place.

Houston also started to see some of its young talent start to show itself at the big league level and now some people think the Astros could take a significant jump in 2015 with new manager A.J. Hinch at the helm.

This is a lineup that is going to hit a lot of home runs, but it's also one that is going to strike out a ton. too. Jose Altuve is a hit machine and is complimented in the middle of the order by 30-home run threats George Springer, Chris Carter and newly acquired Evan Gattis. Keep in mind there hasn't been a team with a trio of 30-HR players since the 2012 Angels.

With that comes an awful lot of swing and misses. The Astros set the MLB record with 1,535 strikeouts in 2013 and they may challenge that record this year.

Lefty Dallas Keuchel emerged as the staff ace last season, as he pitched to a 2.93 ERA in exactly 200 innings. He also had 10 games in which he allowed three or fewer runs, yet lost or took a no-decision. He, along with veteran righty Scott Feldman and right-hander Collin McHugh could be an impressive trio. Still, this is a group that is just waiting on prized pitching prospect

If you really want to get excited about something on the Astros, though, look no further than the bullpen. Chad Qualls is nothing special in the ninth, but the team beefed up the bridge to get to him, signing righties Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson and lefty Joe Thatcher.


It was a curious acquisition for the Astros when they picked up Gattis from the Braves. It's not that he isn't talented, it's just that it seems as if the Astros have a lineup littered with players exactly like Gattis. He doesn't really have a position and has yet to play more than 108 games in a season. However, he can hit the ball. And hit it far. The most logical spot for him will be at designated hitter, but it doesn't matter where he is slotted as long as he is playing everyday. Not having to play catcher anymore should keep him healthy.

PROGNOSIS: With all that losing comes plenty of young talent and the Astros' cup seems to be running over. Even with the talent on the big league level, shortstop Carlos Correa is at Triple-A and recovering from a nasty leg injury and Mark Appel could be with the team this season. The Astros are coming. It may not be this year, but they are coming. Finishing .500 is probably a realistic goal and who knows if certain things break their way they could be playing some meaningful baseball down the stretch in September.

LA ANGELS (2014 Finish - 98-64, First in AL West)

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won more games than any team in baseball last year and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2009 thanks in part to an MVP season from Mike Trout and a nice bounce-back year from Albert Pujols.

Trout's first taste of playoff action may have only lasted four games, as he and his team ran into a buzzsaw named the Kansas City Royals, but the Halos could be poised for some more October baseball.

Los Angeles outscored every team in the league last season, but that likely won't happen again, as second baseman Howie Kendrick is now playing for the Dodgers. Still, Trout is the best player in the game and Pujols showed there was still some life in his bat, swatting 28 home runs and knocking in 105 runs. Those two, along with Kole Calhoun, Matt Joyce, C.J. Cron and Erik Aybar, still provide as solid a lineup as any group in the AL.

Of course, the status of Josh Hamilton is still up in the air, as the Angels await word on a suspension following his relapse with drugs. That, though, is all secondary to Hamilton's own well being at the moment and the Angels are preparing as if they will get next to nothing from the troubled former AL MVP.

Jered Weaver is still the leader of this staff, but he is nowhere near the same pitcher he was a few years ago. Luckily, they have a pretty deep group behind him in C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards once he returns from a knee injury that cut his breakout 2014 campaign short.


The Angels' biggest weakness in recent seasons has been the bullpen. General manager Jerry Dipoto addressed that midway through last season when he acquired closer Huston Street and right-handed setup man Vinnie Pestano. Those two along with the dependable Joe Smith quickly turned that deficiency into a strength. A player to watch in this group could be former No. 1 pick Cam Bedrosian, who has dominated in the bullpen at every level since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011.

PROGNOSIS: The Angels are once again going to be in the mix for a division title. Yes their offense will lack a bit without Kendrick and Hamilton, but Trout is the best player in the game. If Richards is the pitcher he was before last year's injury, this could be a really impressive rotation. This may make some Angels fans cringe, but the depth of the bullpen might just be what gets them through this season.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS (2014 Finish - 88-74, second in AL West)

The Oakland Athletics were the best team in baseball for a good part of last season and seemed poised for a deep run into October with the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija.

That never panned out, though, as the A's went into the tank almost immediately after the deal and were upended by the Cinderella Kansas City Royals in the AL Wild Card game.

General manager Billy Beane completely overhauled the team and had some people questioning some of his offseason moves, specifically the deals that sent popular third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto, Brandon Moss to Cleveland and Derek Norris to San Diego. The team also unloaded Samardzija in an attempt to start the rebuild in the farm system and will have an entirely new infield on Opening Day.

Beane did turn some naysayers around with the pickup of Ben Zobrist. A typical Beane guy, Zobrist can play multiple positions and most importantly gets on base.

Ike Davis and Billy Butler are going to supply the power in this lineup. And if that is who the A's are counting on they are going to be in some big trouble.

Even with the losses of Lester and Samardzija the strength of this team will be their starting staff. Righty Sonny Gray was as good as any pitcher in baseball the first half of last season and lefty Scott Kazmir continued his resurgence. Righty Jesse Hahn and lefty Drew Pomeranz will also fill the bill, while the team waits on the returns of A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker.


The A's lost not only a big part of their locker room when they dealt Donaldson, but also one of the most dependable players in the game. Brett Lawrie, on the other hand, is always hurt. In fact Donaldson has played in 89 more games than Lawrie and he was in the minors for most of the 2012 season.

Reports out of training camp suggest that Lawrie will be a leader of this team, but he has to stay on the field. Luckily, Beane picked up some versatile pieces this offseason, but they need Lawrie to blossom into the player Toronto thought he was going to be if they want to get back to the postseason.

PROGNOSIS: It's hard to believe that the A's were the best team in the league at one point last season considering the way they finished. This will probably be a transition year, but, still they could be a third place team in the division and that means a shot at the wild card. The pitching will have to come through, though, because the lineup is not going to score a lot of runs.

SEATTLE MARINERS (2014 Finish - 87-7, Third in AL West)

The Seattle Mariners haven't gone to the postseason since 2001. That drought, though, could end this season.

The road back to the playoffs started last offseason for Seattle, as it made a bold move in free agency, signing second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees to the tune of $240 million. Cano did his part, but had little help in a lineup that scored just 3.91 runs per game.

So, the Mariners continued to open their wallets this winter and agreed to a 4-year, $57 million deal with slugger Nelson Cruz, who hit an AL-best 40 home runs last season for the Baltimore Orioles.

Maybe not as bold as Cruz, Seattle also added outfielder Seth Smith. With them, Cano, burgeoning superstar Kyle Seager, who himself received a $100 million extension, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Mike Zunino, the Mariners have a lineup that should finish better than the bottom-three in runs scored that it did a year ago.

However, how can you talk about the Mariners and not mention Felix Hernandez. The King had another spectacular year in 2014, as he remains the best pitcher in the AL. Just imagine how good he will be this season with what should be a ton of run support.

Hernandez gets all the headlines, but he is backed by some solid arms in righty Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty James Paxton. This could also be the year that prized prospect Taijuan Walker starts to break through.

What really made the Mariners go, though, was their bullpen. Spearheaded by closer Fernando Rodney, the Mariners' bullpen ERA of 2.59 was the best in the AL. It should be more of the same, as they return essentially the same unit.


Jackson struggled in the second half of last season after being acquired from Detroit at last year's trade deadline. He has proven in the past, though, that he is electric at times at the top of the lineup and is certainly one of the better defensive outfielders in the game. Jackson strikes out way too much for a leadoff hitter, but the Mariners think he can get back to being the player who in 2012 hit .300 with a .377 on-base percentage, leading the AL for the second time in triples with 10 to go with 16 homers, 66 RBI and 103 runs. If he is anywhere close to that, the Mariners are going to be really good.

PROGNOSIS: It's postseason or bust for this Mariners team. In fact, a certain baseball writer believes in them so much, he is going to pick them to come out of the American League this season. The lineup needed some help and Seattle went out and fixed it. There is some questions with the young pitching, but they should be fine. This is a team that is going to compete and they might be here for a while. King Felix deserves to be on a winner and this is his best shot to date. Don't be surprised that when we are talking about awards in the middle of November that Hernandez and Cano aren't both front and center.

TEXAS RANGERS (2014 Finish - 67-95, Fifth in AL West)

The Texas Rangers 2014 season was doomed due to injuries, none more devastating than the neck injury to slugging first baseman Prince Fielder. In fact, the Rangers used 15 different starting pitchers last season and stumbled to an AL-worst 95 losses.

Sadly for new manager Jeff Bannister, the 2015 team may be going down a similar path, as ace Yu Darvish went down with a torn elbow ligament early in spring training and will miss the entire season.

Matt Harrison and Martin Perez are still injured, meaning the pitching staff as a whole is going to be ugly at least at the outset. Lefty Derek Holland will assume the role as ace, while new faces Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler add some depth, but not much else.

Offensively, though, the Rangers should be solid, especially if Fielder is healthy. If Fielder gets back to being the RBI machine he was in the past that should only make table-setters Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus even better. And don't forget old reliable Adrian Beltre, who is not only one of the best defensive third baseman in the game, but last year was his fifth straight season with an OPS+ of 131 or greater.


One of the more durable players in the game Fielder failed to play at least 157 games last season for the first time since his rookie campaign of 2006. Even before the injury, which was a herniated disk in his neck, Fielder was in the midst of a down year, as his slugging percentage tumbled nearly 100 points and his power numbers were easily headed toward career-lows. It all starts with him. If Fielder doesn't hit, this team has no chance and could be historically bad.

PROGNOSIS: Even if Darvish was healthy it was going to be tough to make a case for this team landing a playoff spot. Not only are there a ton of question marks, but health is obviously an issue and they also reside in one of the tougher divisions in baseball. But, having Darvish every fifth day would have given them a fighting chance. They need Fielder to be back to being the player they traded for if they have any chance. And even so, that may not help. The best thing they can hope for is that Fielder reverts back to form, Leonys Martin continues to progress and the Rangers carry that momentum into 2016 when Darvish returns. Until then, though, it may get ugly.







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