Welcome to part four of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL West.
Past Five Champions
2017 – Houston
2016 – Texas
2015 – Texas
2014 – Los Angeles
2013 – Oakland
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.6
Mike Trout, LA Angels
Last season Trout led the AL with a .442 OBP, .629 Slugging Percentage, and 1.071 OPS, finished in the top-10 in WAR, Offensive WAR, Batting Average, and Walks, and for good measure hit 33 HR and stole 22 bases. It was enough to earn his sixth straight All-Star appearance and a fourth place finish in MVP balloting. And do you want to know what’s so crazy about those stats? He accomplished all of that in only 114 games! That’s right – Trout missed over a quarter of the season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in late May, yet still put up numbers that were better than most players over the course of a full season. The legend grows.
Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Talk about making an impact. Verlander was acquired by the Astros at literally the last second before the August 31 trade deadline last season, and wasted no time laying waste to the AL West. He made five starts down the stretch and went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA, 0.647 WHIP, and a 43:5 K:BB ratio. Then in the playoffs he pitched 36.2 innings over five starts and one relief appearance and went 4-1 with a 2.24 ERA, 0.829 WHIP, and 38:8 K:BB ratio. For his efforts he was awarded the ALCS MVP, a 5th place finish in AL Cy Young voting, and his first World Series victory. Remember when everybody thought he was slowing down? Yeah, me neither.
Three Storylines For 2018
1. Houston – As Elite As They Come
So what does a team that won its first World Series championship, won 101 games, took the division by a mind-boggling 21 games, and essentially had a playoff spot clinched by the All-Star break do for an encore? If you answered “somehow get better” you win! Houston already possessed one of the best lineups and rotations in all of baseball, then they went out and acquired Pirate ace Gerrit Cole to slot in as their #3 starter. You read that right – the #3 starter! Add to that a full season from Verlander, a fully healthy Carlos Correa (he missed two months in 2017), a fully healthy Lance McCullers (as a #5 man!), and a fortified bullpen with the shifting of Brad Peacock back to relief. Oh – they also have the reigning MVP in Jose Altuve, and a bevy of potential future MVPs (Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer). Talk about stacked.
2. Ohtani and the Angels
When he was declared eligible for posting in late November, Shohei Ohtani instantly became perhaps the most intriguing free agent that baseball had ever seen. Whereas most Japanese players are surrounded by mystery as fans and scouts wonder how their numbers from the Japanese league will translate to MLB, Ohtani was at another level. This is a guy who posted a .942 OPS last season as a hitter (on par with Josh Donaldson and Carlos Correa) AND a 3.20 ERA as a starter (on par with Carlos Carrasco). While he was linked with all the usual suspects (Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers) in a somewhat surprising move Ohtani chose to sign with the LA Angels. That signing marked the beginning of a big offseason for LA, with Ohtani joining Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart as new recruits. Long been accused of wasting this generation’s greatest talent (Trout has only made the playoffs once in six seasons), the Angels are hoping that a full year of Trout and Justin Upton, combined with their new players, will finally lead to October baseball.
3. Last Chance for Seattle and Texas
One team hasn’t tasted the postseason since 2001, baseball’s longest drought, while the other has reached October five times since 2010. Despite those recent differences, the Mariners and Rangers find themselves in eerily similar situations heading into 2018. Both had identical 78-84 records last year, and both have rosters littered with question marks. Seattle has an aging core led by Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Felix Hernandez, and durability concerns in their new staff ace James Paxton. Texas also has several key players on the wrong side of 30 (Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Doug Fister, Tim Lincecum, Bartolo Colon), and an offense that suffered badly in ’17 (hello Rougned Odor). At the same time, however, both rosters have exciting players that could help push towards the playoffs (Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz i n Seattle; Nomar Mazara, Elvis Andrus, Joey Gallo in Texas). Will either team break through?
The 2017 Los Angeles Angels scored 710 runs, the fifth lowest total in the AL and only 17 more than last place Toronto. Nowhere was their offensive ineptitude more apparent than at second and third base. LA’s second basemen (predominantly Cliff Pennington and Danny Espinosa) posted an OPS of .601, the worst mark in the AL. Their third basemen (Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena) weren’t much better with a .713 OPS, second worst in the AL. Combined, the Angels 2B and 3B put up a .660 OPS, 103 points below the American League average of .763. In an attempt to rectify that, LA acquired Ian Kinsler (.725 OPS in ’17) to play second and Zack Cozart (.933 OPS in ’17) to play third. That is a combined OPS of .818, a whopping 158 point improvement. Add that to full years from Trout and Upton, along with whatever Ohtani brings, and the Angels should be much improved offensively.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.