3 x 5 American League West Preview by Lee Vowell and Todd Vandenberg

American League West Questions


Houston Astros

Question: Were the seasons of SPs Dallas Keuchel (2.93 ERA, led the league with 5 complete games and winning a Gold Glove) and Collin McHugh (McHugh: 1.02 WHIP and 2.73 ERA) flukes? Or is this team on the precipice of something great?

Lee: Keuchel came out of nowhere. He helped a great deal on a couple of my fantasy teams because he was an SP/RP, and I kept expecting him to fall off at some point and he never did. I don’t want to bet against the guy really, but his BABIP last year was .295 which tells me his numbers should regress this season. Most projections have him doing that as well. But he has really good control and that will keep him in games, so his drop off won’t be very much. I will say the same about McHugh as well. Both guys are entering the upper 20s, so it’s not like they are young phenoms. McHugh had 157 Ks in 154 innings with only 41 walks. I can’t see him sustaining those numbers, but he should come close to his win-loss record from last season (11-9) as long as he, like Keuchel, focuses on control.

Todd: Keuchel added a new pitch, and deliberately kept the ball low, so he actually made a material change to his game. I don’t see any reason for him not to continue to pitch well. McHugh throws harder, and has even better command than Keuchel. I don’t see either of them as the next Ryan Express (they don’t walk enough guys for that – oh, a zinger!), but they aren’t one season wonders, either. They should help anchor this staff for quite a while.

Question: The Astros added SS Jed Lowrie and LF Evan Gattis to go with the young nucleus of 2B Jose Altuve, RF George Springer, etc. But will this team strikeout so much that it hinders the team’s potential?

Lee: Yes. I know that Astros management are cheap bastards, but if you are looking for players to fill needs temporarily why the kids in the minors work things out, then why grab a player like Gattis? The only thing he can do a bit is hit homeruns. Otherwise, he is poor defensively, has no speed and can’t get on base. But he’s cheap at $500k this season. Maybe that’s it. I do like the re-signing of Lowrie. He wasn’t great with Oakland the last two years, but he was ok. He is just keeping the position warm until Carlos Correa is major league-ready, though. But the makeup of this particular team is that they will cost themselves runs by striking out a ton. And do so inexpensively. Hopefully, ownership will realize in a couple of years when this team is better that the team is located in the big city of Houston and they will spend some money on quality players who put the ball in play.

Todd: I think power can come and go, but strikeouts are a thing of beauty forever – at least for the pitchers facing this team. You’ve got to have guys on base when you hit those dingers, and Altuve can’t be the only guy on base. If you’re striking out, you aren’t moving runners over; Gattis has just five sac flies the last two seasons combined, and no sac bunts. It isn’t just the strikeouts, it’s the lack of walks. The Stros were 21st in OBP last year – and Gattis isn’t exactly Gene Tenace. Striking out 100 times a season isn’t too bad if you walk 100 times a season too, but that’s not Gattis. Lowrie helps, but he drew 101 walks combined the last two seasons, so he’s not exactly the Walking Man, either. Yes, it will hold them back. Gotta be on base to score.

Question: Who will step up to get the Astros to the next level, a .500 ballclub?

Lee: I am sure that some of the young guys will improve as they adjust to major league pitching, but if I had to make a prediction on who will step up I would say Luis Valbuena. He should take over for Matt Dominguez at 3B. Dominguez was the type of siphon Andie McDowell was in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The team got better by 19 games, but Dominguez (like McDowell in Four Weddings) tried his hardest to make sure they were held back from reaching their potential. He had 607 PAs in 2014 and his OBP was .256. His WAR was -2.1, so he literally made the team worse. Yet, the Astros kept playing him, so we will see if they play Valbuena instead, but they should.

Todd:  Chris Carter definitely could; he hit (if you can call it that) .153 in April, .164 in June. Another guy who’s never seen a pitch he doesn’t like, just a little plate discipline would go a long way to normalizing his production. He doesn’t have to be the July-August monster he was last season (20 HR, 48 RBI) for all of 2015; he simply can’t disappear for two months. A full season of George Springer will be a major plus, and Luis Valbuena is a nice upgrade over Matt Dominguez at 3rd.  They definitely already have some guys who can help.

Los Angeles Angels

Question: CF Mike Trout’s second half numbers were not great at .257/.347/.502 and pitchers were beginning to adjust to him by throwing high fastballs. On those pitches Trout hit just .097. What should we take from this?

Lee: That nobody hits high fastballs well. Pitchers finally figured out a weakness with Trout, but I am sure he will adjust. He is smart and he’s obviously an extremely talented player. He had arguably the worst season of his career last season and still won the MVP award. But I do think he attempted to hit more homeruns (which he did with 36) than he had previously. His fly ball to ground ball ratio was way off compared to previous years, and his strikeouts were up as well (from 136 to 184). He just needs to lay off the high fastballs a bit more, be more patient and be ok with taking more walks. He will be fine.

Todd: That Trout is human after all. I find it very hard to believe that he won’t learn to adjust as well. The high hard one (Kirby Higbe’s favorite pitch) will probably always be his nemesis, but no way this guy doesn’t learn to lay off enough of those to dominate again. Then again, The Whammer couldn’t lay off Roy Hobbs’ high heat, either. Hmmm…

Question: If you were to rank the managers in the game today, where would you put Mike Scioscia?

Lee: Angels’ management has changed the team on him. Scioscia likes to be aggressive and run the bases, and the players that LA/Anaheim/Whatever is bringing in are older players (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton) who are known more for homeruns. Scioscia has won a World Series, and for the most part his teams are always contenders. He won 98 games last year, and if Garrett Richards had not gotten injured then who knows what might have happened. After this season, he should rank 23rd all-time in wins, and he currently ranks 36th all-time in win percentage. I would put him in the top ten of today’s current managerial field.

Todd: Can I call him Iron Mike? There needs to be an Iron Mike in every sport, at all times. Man, there are some good managers in the game today, and Scioscia’s certainly one of them. Much like Showalter, he’s one of those guys that’s been around quite a long time now, and everyone knows he’s really good – except maybe Iron Mike is even better.

Scioscia                                                 Showalter

W            L              Pct                          W            L              Pct

1331       1039       .548                        1259       1161       .520

Scisoisa also has that World Series title, trumping Buck. On the other hand, there’s been no shortage of talent on the Angels, while Showalter has had to deal with teams spun out of AAA players and bailing wire more than a few times. All time, we’ll see how it shakes out in about fifteen years; but for now, he’s top five, along with Showalter, Joe Maddon, and two other guys I won’t name right now so you won’t scream “But you left out _________, you moron!”

Question: After years of underachieving, your Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County and the 39th District of California™, finally made the postseason. How can your LAAAOC39DC get to, and win, the World Series?

Lee: Richards and Matt Shoemaker went a combined 29-8 last season. Can they do that again? And Jered Weaver seems like he has lost his fastball. Can he get it back? Will Pujols have a year equal to 2014? He wasn’t the Pujols of old, but he was still good. They lost a good player at 2B in Howie Kendrick. Who will replace him? I think there are too many question marks on an aging team with a bad farm system (the system currently ranks 27th, according to Keith Law) to win the World Series.

Todd: Trout needs to solve those high fastballs; Big Albert needs to continue his healthy ways of last season; they have to figure out the Hamilton mess; and Cory Rasmus and Garrett Richards need to come back strong from their injuries. And they have to hope there aren’t any Cinderellas in 2015.

Oakland Athletics

Question: Assuming SP Scott Kazmir has another solid season, what should we expect from the rotation?

Lee: Well, Kazmir in the second half was not good. He went 6-7 with a 5.00 ERA in his final 17 starts. Sonny Gray should be solid for years to come, but after him? It’s a crapshoot. The staff could be decent or terrible. Jerrod Parker returns from Tommy John surgery mid-season, and that could help. But it seems silly to bet against what Billy Beane is trying to do. He always seems to end up winning more games than projected.

Todd: Sonny Gray is solid, much better than solid, actually, so no worries there. Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Hahn, though – well, hitters figured out their curveball, so they both need to mix it in more effectively, or better yet, find another pitch. They’ve both looked good in spring training, a good sign for all you Athletics fans. And there’s always super swing stud Jesse Chavez, who found new success with a nasty sinker. The A’s have a lot of flexibility, and they’ll make use of every arm. The rotation should hold up just fine.

Question: After two years of improbable dominance, the A’s barely made the playoffs last season (and lost in their Wild Card game) despite their “win now” moves. Did those moves (Yoenis Cespedes for the rental of Jon Lester the most prominent) and the off-season moves (stay warm, Josh Donaldson) doom them to a .500 season this year?

Lee: You look at the team and everything they lost over the winter and think, “.500 would be a successful season for them.” But then you know Beane will do something to make the team better. Maybe a mid-year trade or maybe one or two of the guys he’s already picked up have big years. I am just some idiot who would not have made half the moves he’s made, and if I were a GM my teams would be worse off.

Todd: The A’s seem to be able to consistently reload, don’t they?  Well, kinda – but those are some big pieces to replace. Would they have been a better team with Lester and Donaldson? Of course – but they can’t afford those guys. Going after Lester was absolutely the right move – it just didn’t pay off, because the Royals were not going to be denied. Maybe Kansas City had prior rights to the Athletics’ destiny. They have depth, and that famous front office magic – but they’re not winning the division this year, either. Everyone else is getting better, so – yeah, .500 sounds right to me. Of course, it always sounds right for the A’s, and then we’re watching them in the post-season.

Question: If the Athletics have a “secret weapon”, is it their bullpen depth?

Lee: Firstly, no one in major league baseball has any secrets. Every team knows the others well, especially in their own divisions. That said this bullpen should be very good. I love them getting Tyler Clippard because he has closer stuff but is only a set-up guy for Sean Doolittle. Drew Pomeranz is solid too. Those three guys aren’t HDH for the Royals, but they aren’t far behind. However, that’s all predicated on Doolittle being healthy. And he has a “slight rotator cuff tear,” according to the A’s. If he cannot stay healthy this season, the team is in big trouble.

Todd: In a sense, yes. They have great depth, but it isn’t strictly the bullpen; it extends to the entire pitching staff, and to the entire team. The A’s excel at identifying guys who can add wins to the team on the cheap; more importantly, they find ways to fit those guys together to compensate for the flaws these players inevitably have. They buy the lower-priced spread, but use it in such a way you’ll swear it’s the real thing. Did anybody think Jesse Chavez was a quality major league pitcher before the A’s got him? They do this everywhere, but it shows up to best advantage in the pen.

Seattle Mariners

Question: The M’s finished one game out of the playoffs last season even though most of the batting order was mired in mediocrity. The expectations from many outlets are that Seattle will win the division. Based on last year’s hitting, are the Mariners expectations too high?

Lee: The Mariners obviously made some moves to bring in guys like Nelson Cruz this offseason to help improve the awful offense. Even if Cruz hits 25 homers this season it is a huge improvement over last year, but his lifetime slash line at Safeco is .234/.309/.440. However, the DH position for the Mariners last season hit, and I kid you not, .190 with 15 HRs and 50 RBI. Cruz will do much better than that. The team’s expectations are based on last year’s pitching, which was amazing, and assuming the hitting will be better. Assuming the hitting could not be worse (the team in 2014 was 18th in runs, 27th in OBP and 25th in OPS), then we must also assume the pitching remains at a high level. The staff’s major league rankings were 1st in BAA, 2nd in ERA and 4th in WHIP. Felix Hernandez should be great again, but the rotation could really be even better than last season with a healthy, season-long James Paxton and having Taijuan Walker as possibly the five. The pen probably will regress this year, but should still be solid. I think the expectations for the Mariners are where they should be. Even with the atrocious hitting, they won 87 games in 2014.

Todd: I don’t think they’ll win the division, but a big chunk of what passed for last year’s hitting – Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, were those guys hitting? – is gone. That’s 770 plate appearances contributing -.9 WAR, basically replaced with Nelson Cruz. That’s a bingo. See the third question for more details, but last year’s hitting has been addressed, to a large degree. This is just a tough division, and I don’t see the Mariners taking the – what is it now, a one third pennant? A quarter pennant? Fine, division crown. Yes, they’ll hit better, but relative to the competition – not enough – yet.

Question: The starting rotation was very good last season, and though they no longer have over-performing SP Chris Young, he is replaced by J.A. Happ or possibly Taijuan Walker. How will the rotation do this season?

Lee: If James Paxton can stay healthy, everyone who follows baseball should know who he is by the end of this year. His stuff probably already ranks among the top five lefties in baseball. He can be absolutely filthy. He’s a stud. And even though Keith Law has some kind of hatred towards Taijuan Walker, I think Walker will be very good. He just has to maintain focus on control. Once he came back from injury last season he was fantastic. And as of this writing, through 4 spring starts he hasn’t given up a run and has 13 Ks and only 3 BBs. But I have never been sold on J.A. Happ and it really just seems like he is a place holder and veteran presence. Again, assuming everyone stays healthy (a big IF when it comes to Hisashi Iwakuma), I would have the rotation be Felix, Paxton, Iwakuma, Roenis Elias and Walker.

Todd: Booyah! That’s how they’ll do. Walker has been a bit wild in the past, but when you’re striking out a batter an inning, that makes up for a few walks. Paxton looks like he’ll be a reliable, if not spectacular, arm, and they have Roenis Elias waiting in the wings as well if Walker falters; he closed out 2014 with eight starts in August and September with a 2.45 ERA. I see the rotation as even better.

Question: Nelson Cruz is the big name, but will off-season pick-ups Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano be even more important, as they give the Mariners a lot of flexibility in platooning?

Lee: Heck, they could actually both end up as full-time starters if Dustin Ackley defaults to a 2014 pre-All Star break level. Ackley has always had potential, but has only ever been truly productive in the second half of last season. Are Smith or Ruggiano All Stars? No. But they are both solid players who should be an upgrade over last season. A problem could occur, however, if Austin Jackson disappoints again and Ackley regresses. The outfield would then be a mess and hold this team back from its potential.

Todd: As discussed in our first question about the M’s, Cruz should be a big improvement over Morales, Smoak, et al. But he’s still just one bat, and he’s not cranking 40 homers again, not with half his games at Safeco. Smith and Ruggiano should be more than capable of making up for the loss of Michael Saunders; they’ll also take AB from Endy Chavez, which at this point is a very good thing. I wouldn’t say Ruggiano and Smith are more important than Cruz, but they’ll have just as big an impact in their own way.

Texas Rangers

Question: This team seems to want to make a run at LHP Cole Hamels, yet they have lost SP Yu Darvish to injury for the year. Do the Rangers think if they were able to get Hamels they would have a realistic shot at the playoffs?

Lee: Maybe the thinking is that if they get Hamels, they will have him under contract for a few years. Then they could get Darvish back next year and have, on paper at least, an excellent one-two at the top of the rotation. But if they are thinking they will win this year with Hamels but without Darvish, I think they are wrong.

Todd: Playoffs!? *Playoffs*!?! Could be they’re thinking postseason, and hopefully they’re also considering the long-term picture with Hamels. This was a good team until last season, when they lost 2,347 player games to injury. Thirteen players were lost for the season; forty different pitchers took the mound. Prince Fielder, for just one egregious example, had missed one game in his five previous seasons; yes, that’s one total in five years. He missed 120 last year. They can be excused for thinking it was all about the DL.

Question: The injury parade started off with a bang, as Yu Darvish is out for the season. Can this staff step up?

Lee: This staff is not bad actually. Derek Holland was very good last September after coming back from injury. Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler are going to be free agents after the season, so they are pitching for contracts and both have good stuff. Colby Lewis is decent. The problem with the Rangers is not the staff, but the hitting, which is odd to say because we are talking about the Rangers.

Todd: Derek Holland is a nice pitcher, but he isn’t the guy you want to step into your number one slot. Yovani Gallardo’s strikeout rate has dropped for two straight seasons now; Colby Lewis at least pitched well after the All-Star break (3.86 ERA); and Ross Detwiler – okay, let’s just say no one looks at this staff and thinks “Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, oh my!” do they? Nope, they’re screwed.

Question: Texas has some nice talent in the minors, like Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro. Are the Rangers more likely to wait for them to develop, or trade them for immediate help?

Lee: The Rangers have done a pretty good job of holding on to their young talent, actually. In fact, in the case of Jurickson Profar, they may have held on too long. I am not sure Profar will ever stay healthy enough to consistently produce at a major league level. The Rangers do have a good bit of young hitting talent in the minors in Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Nick Williams and others, but I think they are still a couple of years away from being in the majors. The Rangers may not be good this year, but they will be better soon.

Todd: Depends on if they think they can contend, or if they’re going to be smart about this and look to 2016 and beyond. They’re reportedly looking toward Miami for more help on the mound, specifically swingman Brad Hand and lefty reliever Mike Dunn. If I’m Jon Daniels, I’m rich and writing this from my cabana on the beach. I’m also keeping those guys instead of trying to salvage 2015. After all, Adrian Beltre’s 35, not 25. Keep ‘em!



*Seattle 88-74

*Los Angeles 84-78

Oakland 81-81

Houston 77-85

Texas 75-87



*Los Angeles 90-72

*Seattle 88-74

Oakland 83-79

Texas 77-85

Houston 72-90

*-denotes playoff team

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