America’s favorite pastime is on the horizon again. Spring training has officially begun in the United States, and fans are eagerly awaiting baseball’s opening day. Though this first month of games are more about tuning up than winning, it does not mean teams are taking them lightly. Many roster spots are up for grabs, and several teams are seeking to build an identity that can carry them to the fall classic. Right now is the best time to be a fan, because every team is a contender, and every division is up for grabs.
One division that is completely wide open this year, the American League West, may be baseball’s best division. Four of the five teams are strong contenders to make a run deep in to the postseason. With three different division winners in five years, the race for the title should be a tight one.
The Oakland Athletics have won the American League West two years in a row. They came out of nowhere during the 2012 season to beat out both the Rangers and Angels for the title. A team with a small payroll and no superstars, the 2012 A’s fell deep into a hole early in the season. No one was surprised to find them at the bottom of the ranks. However, as summer approached, they got hot. Finding themselves 13 games out of first place at the end of June, the A’s tore in to their schedule, reeling off winning records in every remaining month of the season. They were still five games out, with 10 remaining. But they beat the team they were chasing, the Texas Rangers, five times in those last 10 games to win it all.
Since then, the A’s have been a dominant force in the division, winning the 2013 title with less flash but overall better play. Yoenis Cespedes is a young outfielder with a huge upside and a big bat. His 2013 was less than spectacular due to injuries, but he should rebound this year and make a push to be an All-Star again, after winning the Homerun derby in 2013. AJ Griffin and Sonny Gray will lead a pitching staff that has lost big hurler Bartolo Colon, but gained an experienced journeyman in Scott Kazmir.
Many people forget that just three years ago, the Texas Rangers were the toast of the American League. In 2010, they won their first division title in over 10 years. They surprised all of baseball by running away with a division that they had been crushed in for almost a decade. The Rangers represented the American League in the 2010 and 2011 World Series but lost both times to the Giants and Cardinals, respectively. However, they boasted one of the best lineups in all of baseball and were thought to be on track to lead the division for years to come. They had shaken off their biggest competition, the Angels, and were firmly in control of the team they once chased. But the Rangers could not handle the spotlight. Their historic collapse in the final games of the 2012 season put the team back to a familiar place in the West: second place.
Despite several large roster moves, they were still considered a strong contender to dethrone the A’s in 2013. However, they could not keep pace with the green machine yet again, and failed to even win a wild card spot. This season, the lineup has changed, but the philosophy has remained the same. Though the offense is not what it once was, the pitching has finally caught up and the Rangers are poised to make a splash again in 2014. Jurickson Profar is a stunning talent in the infield who is poised to become a superstar in his own right. The addition of Prince Fielder brings power back to first base for the Rangers, a place they have sorely missed since losing Mike Napoli to the Red Sox. Yu Darvish has been a consistent ace at the top of their rotation, and early spring injuries should not slow down the rest of the pitching staff.
The Los Angeles Angels have been arguably the biggest disappointment in baseball the last few years. They won five of the six division crowns from 2004 to 2009. The Angels played a national league style of baseball, and it was good enough to make them the best team the American League West had to offer. Injuries and bad front office moves plagued their 2010 and 2011 seasons, but the signing of Albert Pujols signaled good things for the team in 2012. However, it was not meant to be. The Angels made a push during June and July that year, but crumbled in the final two months to finish third behind Texas and Oakland. A very poor April was the downfall for the Angels in 2012, and 2013 started out no better. Despite a lineup packed with big bats, the Angels were above .500 only one time all year–an opening day victory in extra innings against the Reds.
This once dominant team has lost the pitching that once made them great, and they are now scrambling to create an identity based on power and scoring. This year’s team will look to start out more focused and finish April with a record that can at least be good enough to contend. On paper, the Angels look like they can score a ton of runs, but it remains to be seen if that style of baseball will lead to wins. Any lineup that features Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols should easily be in the top five offenses in the American League. Trading Mark Trumbo hurts their power, but they needed to start pitching that was cost controlled and they got it. Jered Weaver should return to form after an injury-plagued 2013 season. If he and CJ Wilson can set the pace for the young pitchers who fill out the rotation, the Angels could once again be formidable. If the team does not turn it around this year, a coaching or front office change is inevitable.
The Seattle Mariners may be the dandy of the American League West. Though they have only posted a winning record once in the last five years, they have not played as bad as the stats suggest. The last two years the Mariners have played stretches of baseball where they seemed to be finally turning the page. However, consistency has been a huge problem for them. The three major parts of the team never seem to play well at the same time. There have been moments of great pitching, good relief and a pop in the bat, but never all at the same time.
This year, with the addition of Robinson Cano, the Mariners finally feel like they have a leader that they have been lacking since Ken Griffey Jr. went to the Reds. If one player can make a team go from worst to first, it is Cano. He brings not only a strong offensive and defensive presence, but also a level of confidence and leadership the Mariners have been sorely lacking. If he can get the team to believe they can win, the Mariners could be the next upset champion of the American League West. It also helps the Mariners to have King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of their rotation.
The Houston Astros are the newest addition to the American League West and, by far, the worst of the lot. Entering their second year as a member of the division, the Astros are looking not to win it all but rather to not be considered the worst team in baseball. Granted, it is hard for a National League team to make the transition to the American League, but the Astros were bad before they even got to the West. The only saving grace for them in the 2013 season was a winning record against the Angels, and even that victory is hollow considering how badly LA played. From a business standpoint, Houston is one of the most profitable teams in the league, but that will not get the wins.
It is not a stretch that come October, three American League West teams could represent the American League in the postseason. Which three is up for debate, but it is certain that the American League West division race may be one of the best in all of baseball.
Commentary by Chris Chisam