Saturday, March 29, 2014

American League West Preview

Oakland Athletics

Strengths: The A's have soared with a deep pitching staff, a disciplined offense emphasizing the long ball, and a defense featuring Coco Crisp in the middle of one of the game's best outfields. The loss of Parker, and elbow issues apparently forcing A.J. Griffin to the sideline for the first month, have forced general manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin to dip into their depth. The rotation is young, with free-agent import Scott Kazmir the old hand at 30. Sonny Gray has All-Star talent, and former reliever Jesse Chavez had a brilliant spring. Sturdy Dan Straily and Tommy Milone fill out the rotation. Jim Johnson assumes Grant Balfour's closer's role, and Luke Gregerson enhances a superb bullpen (sixth-best ERA in Majors at 3.22). Josh Donaldson is a star at third, and rebound seasons by Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick should give the offense a lift.

Weaknesses: Everything revolves around the rotation, and how well it holds up. Beane and Melvin favor strike-throwers, which should keep Crisp and Co. busy running down drives in the gaps. The A's did not have good defensive metrics in 2013, with limited range in the infield and negative numbers behind the plate. Only Donaldson at third and the outfielders rated above the norm. This team doesn't run much (74 steals), preferring to wait for the big blast (186 homers). It worked in the regular season, but not against Detroit's overpowering arms in a five-game ALDS defeat.

Spot to watch: Second base. Holdovers Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo are joined by versatile Nick Punto, who elevates any club with his attitude and skills. Sogard has the best range of the trio, Callaspo the best bat, and Punto is a winner. Punto also lends support at shortstop for Jed Lowrie. Callaspo, Lowrie and Punto are switch-hitters, giving Melvin a lot of options in matchups.

Sign of trouble: Cespedes has to find some consistency. He endured a sophomore slump, hitting 26 homers with 80 RBIs, but his runs created fell from 90 to 65. He never really found the groove that made him a breakout star as a rookie. His .240/.294/.442 slash line was nowhere close to what it should be, and he didn't exactly tear it up in the Cactus League. When he's right, Cespedes is one of the best left fielders in the game. If he falls into a funk, expect to see a lot of newcomer Craig Gentry in left.

They'll be rolling if … Reddick and Cespedes bring the thunder with Brandon Moss (30 homers) behind Crisp, Lowrie and Donaldson, the offense once again will send off major sparks. And if Griffin makes it back in May to solidify the rotation, and Johnson picks up where he left off to nail down 40-50 saves, and the infield defense holds its own.

Texas Rangers

Strengths: A star-studded lineup with a rotation to match. Fielder should flourish at Global Life Park with its inviting right-center alley. A return to MVP Award-caliber play form by the first baseman would not be a major surprise after a down year in Detroit. Choo is an on-base machine whose power numbers also should climb in Texas. Adrian Beltre is one of the game's best players and leaders, and Leonys Martin has all the tools in center. Elvis Andrus and Profar should evolve into an electric middle-infield tandem. Darvish has the deepest, most wicked repertoire in the game. The anticipated returns of quality lefties Holland and Harrison will enrich the rotation. By then, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross, both making the transition from relief work, hopefully will have established themselves as solid starters, along with Martin Perez. A terrific bullpen loses Joe Nathan, but Joakim Soria is a proven closer.

Weaknesses: Soto's loss to open the season hurts. Free-agent pickup J.P. Arencibia has a lot on his plate, learning a new pitching staff and a new division. His backup is Robinson Chirinos. Fielder and Choo should elevate the team on-base percentage that dipped to .323 last year. Uneven efforts in the rotation early on could pressure the Rangers' offense to produce in big numbers.

Spot to watch: Catcher. Arencibia and Chirinos have a lot to handle. Along with the multiple responsibilities behind the plate, the duo will be asked to supply some offense. Arencibia is a .212 career hitter in three seasons with Toronto, and he batted only .194 with a .227 on-base percentage in 138 games last year. He did supply power with 21 homers. Chirinos, a Venezuelan, hit .179 in 13 games for the Rangers and .257 at Triple-A Round Rock.

Sign of trouble: If the makeshift rotation doesn't pan out, there could be repercussions impacting both the bullpen (adding stress) and the offense (creating pressure to generate crooked numbers). The bullpen also could suffer significantly with Ross and Scheppers moving into the rotation. The catching situation isn't as stable as expected in Soto's absence.

They'll be rolling if … Fielder bombs away in the formidable company of Beltre, Choo, Alex Rios and Mitch Moreland. And if the rotation stabilizes before it's too late, and the bullpen manages to maintain its familiar level of excellence.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Strengths: Trout is the game's best all-around player. Pujols looks better than he has in several years, and Hamilton is more comfortable in his second season in Southern California. Raul Ibanez still can launch them. Kole Calhoun in right field could be a breakout player. Erick Aybar has won a Gold Glove Award at shortstop, and Howie Kendrick is steady at second. Weaver and Wilson are a terrific tandem atop the rotation, and free-agent reliever Joe Smith will be a big lift to a bullpen that was under siege last year. Smith figures to set up for closer Ernesto Frieri.

Weaknesses: Only three teams in the Majors made more errors last year than the Angels. The defense struggled across the board, along with the relief corps and the rotation. Pujols at first should solidify the infield, and starting the season in center, rather than left, will have Trout in a great frame of mind. With Trout, Hamilton and Calhoun, this could be an excellent defensive outfield. Except for Trout and Aybar, there isn't a lot of speed here, but Calhoun is an aggressive baserunner.

Spot to watch: Catcher. Veteran Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger will be asked to bring the best out of Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs, the young starters at the back of the rotation, along with No. 3 starter Hector Santiago.

Sign of trouble: If Richards and Skaggs struggle, the Angels will be hard-pressed to replace them. There isn't a lot of depth in the rotation throughout the system. Matt Shoemaker and Wade LeBlanc are the likely candidates should a starter go down or scuffle to get deep enough in games.

They'll be rolling if … Trout is Trout, Pujols is vintage Pujols and Hamilton is vintage Hamilton. And if the rotation holds up, relieving stress on the bullpen. And if the defense plays with more consistency than last season.

Seattle Mariners

Strengths: Cano brings a superstar presence to a lineup that has struggled in recent seasons. This is not the NBA, where LeBron James can transform an entire team, but Cano certainly can make a difference, defensively as well as offensively. He's one of the five best all-around players in the game. Hernandez is to the pitching staff what Cano is to the lineup. King Felix, in his prime as he turns 28 on April 8, will welcome the return of Hisashi Iwakuma from his finger injury. If Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are as good as advertised, this will be one of the Majors' premier rotations. Brad Miller has the look of a first-rate shortstop.

Weaknesses: Only three clubs -- the Twins, Astros and White Sox -- scored fewer runs in the AL in 2013. The bullpen last year was ravaged with a 4.58 ERA, which ranked 28th in the Majors. The defense was abysmal, particularly in the outfield. Those areas must be upgraded significantly. Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, who has been driving the ball, need to perform to their talent levels, as third baseman Kyle Seager did last year. If not, starting pitching and Cano won't be enough to challenge in this division. Somebody -- Smoak, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison -- has to protect Cano. As great as he is, Robinson can do it alone. Nobody can.

Spot to watch: Closer. Unpredictable Fernando Rodney can be very, very good -- as with the Rays in 2012, with 48 saves and a 0.60 ERA -- or very, very ordinary. He needs to be good for the Mariners to secure late leads, stay in the hunt and give Hernandez and Iwakuma shots at 16-20 wins.

Sign of trouble: If the Mariners aren't getting sufficient production behind Cano, he might lead the AL in intentional walks. Nobody wants to face this guy in a game-turning situation -- especially if there's no real threat coming up next. The catching, outfield roles and back of the rotation need to be relatively defined and stable.

They'll be rolling if … Cano drives the offense with support, and Walker's inflamed shoulder early in camp is fully healed and he takes flight behind Hernandez and Iwakuma, and the defense is sturdy and the bullpen comes through.

Houston Astros

Strengths: Center fielder Dexter Fowler seemingly has adapted extremely well to the move from Colorado to Texas, and Robbie Grossman is taking advantage of his opportunity to shine in left. Jason Castro provides rare power production to the catching role. Second baseman Jose Altuve is a catalyst, and Matt Dominguez is a superb third baseman. Scott Feldman brings a veteran's wisdom to the top of the rotation, and Jerome Williams, a starting candidate along with Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock and Lucas Harrell, is a sturdy veteran who can deliver quality innings in any number of roles. Infielder Marwin Gonzalez made the Opening Day roster with a strong spring. The farm system is loaded. Patience, please.

Weaknesses: The obvious weakness is playing in perhaps the toughest division in baseball, although AL East and NL Central fans will argue the point. The Astros had their moments last year in their introduction to the AL West, including a 10-9 edge over the star-studded Angels and going 9-10 vs. the Mariners. But, realistically, they need their young talent to arrive as soon as possible to make an imprint. There are question marks all over the place for now, the hope being they'll be replaced by exclamation marks in a season or two.

Spot to watch: Closer. Manager Bo Porter plans to go with a committee to open the season, including right-handers Anthony Bass, Josh Fields, Matt Albers, Chad Qualls and lefty Kevin Chapman. Veteran Jesse Crain could claim the job outright when he returns from biceps tendinitis surgery.

Sign of trouble: If the rotation doesn't hold up, it will place undue pressure on a bullpen that crumbled under the weight of 534 innings last year, fifth-most in the Majors. Its 4.92 ERA was the highest among all bullpens, and it succeeded in only 52 percent of save opportunities, also the worst in the game.

They'll be rolling if … Everything falls perfectly and division rivals struggle out of the gate, giving the young Astros the confidence they can compete with the rich and famous.

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