With opening day almost here, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. Finally: The American League West.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
1. CAN ROBINSON CANO MAKE THE MARINERS CONTENDERS?
Hand it to the Seattle Mariners, they went out and reeled in the biggest fish of the offseason, signing Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. Is Cano enough to make the Mariners — a team that has finished in the cellar of the AL West seven of the past 10 seasons — a contender in one of the most talented and competitive divisions in baseball? Sorry, Robby, but it's not looking likely. The Mariners added Logan Morrison and Corey Hart too, and will hope their young pitchers develop quickly to accompany Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. A lot of things have to go right — really, really right — for us to picture the M's making the playoffs. But they've succeeded in becoming relevant, at the very least.
2. THE ANGELS CAN'T POSSIBLY HAVE A WORSE YEAR THAN THEY DID IN 2013, RIGHT?
For a team many picked to go to the World Series in 2013, the Angels' season was a huge letdown. They finished 78-84, partially thanks to encouraging final two months (30-26 in August and September), and 18 games out of first place. Then they went out and traded for some pitching in the offseason. Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, both acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade, will help the Halos biggest weakness, their starting staff. An offense that includes Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols will always be dangerous. Add free agent signee Raul Ibanez and third baseman David Freese (who came over in a trade with St. Louis) and they're hoping things are much different in Anaheim this season. It's certainly possible, but the pitching is still a bit suspect.
3. CAN THE RANGERS BE THE 'WIN THE OFFSEASON TEAM' THAT ACTUALLY WINS?
Maybe we're holding recent history against the Texas Rangers. It seems like the team that "wins the offseason" then has a rough regular season. The Rangers definitely made a splash this winter after an unceremonious end to 2013. They grabbed Prince Fielder in the offseason's biggest trade, sending Ian Kinsler to Detroit. Then they signed one of the most coveted free agents on the market in Shin-Soo Choo. Things looked promising, then everybody started getting injured — Derek Holland, Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto will miss significant time, while Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison both aren't ready for opening day. The Rangers are giving the ball to a reliever in Game No. 1, a guy who will be making his first MLB start. That's not how things were supposed to go. The Rangers still have a lot of talent. Heck, we made it this far without even mentioning Adrian Beltre and his stellar contributions. But 2014 quickly changed for the Rangers from "winning the offseason" to "overcoming obstacles." So we'll see.
4. IS THIS THE YEAR OAKLAND'S FORMULA GETS IT DEEPER IN THE PLAYOFFS?
The Oakland Athletics, with their anonymous players and shrewd payroll, have won this division the past two seasons only to get bounced from the playoffs in the LDS round. Coming into 2014, their bullpen is stocked, they made some of those savvy moves typical of GM Billy Beane (like getting Craig Gentry from the Rangers and trading for reliever Luke Gregerson) and they even made a couple splashy additions — taking on expensive closer Jim Johnson and signing free agent Scott Kazmir. The A's have some problems, with would-have-been opening day starter Jarrod Parker lost for the season after Tommy John surgery, but overall they've got fewer question marks than their AL West foes. They're deeper and more apt to handle injury. Not that this particularly matters any, but 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the A's winning the Bay Bridge Series.
5. WILL THE ASTROS LOSE LESS THAN 100 GAMES?
While the rest of the AL West is competing against each other, the Houston Astros are largely competing against themselves. They've lost 100 games in each of the past three seasons. The Astros aren't going to surprise everyone and make a playoff run. A surprise season for them is losing only 90 games. The Astros are building up the farm and poising themselves for a run in a few years, but for now, it's just about getting better. The team landed a few new players this offseason— Dexter Fowler came over in a trade, Scott Feldman got paid $30 million to pitch for the Astros, which is a lot of money for them. Looks like the Quest for 95 might be possible this year.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Albert Pujols: Yeah, you know him, but it's almost like he's not the same guy who won three MVP awards. After a so-so (by his standards) 2012 and a rough 2013, Pujols is a man who has something to prove in 2014. He says he's healthy after last year's injury-ridden campaign, and if he can even somewhat resemble the Pujols of old, that's a big boost for the Angels.
2. Shin-Soo Choo: In a couple seasons, Choo went from nice, underrated player to a free agent worth chasing and giving millions upon millions of dollar. The Rangers paid $130 million over seven years to bring Choo to town, hoping that .423 on-base percentage of 2013 equals lot of RBIs for their big sticks. Now, with the team reeling from injuries, Choo needs to prove he's worth the coin the Rangers are giving him.
3. Sonny Gray: Gray, a 24-year-old former first-round pick, announced his presence to the world in the ALDS last season, out-dueling Justin Verlander in a 1-0 A's win. The A's had probably hoped the second year of Gray wouldn't find him in such tense situations, but thanks to some pitching injuries, he's their opening day starter. Gray pitched 64 innings last season, finishing with a 2.67 ERA. The stuff is there. He'd already been pegged as the future, now he's the present too.
4. George Springer: The Astros have an interesting talent in Springer, a 24-year-old outfielder who posted a damn impressive stat line in 2013 between Double-A and Triple-A: .303/.411/.600 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and 45 steals. Hello, Mike Trout Lite. The Astros liked Springer so much, they reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to sign him to a seven-year, $23 million contract before he even played an MLB game. He's starting the season in Triple-A, it's both a service-time thing, and the result of him not doing too hot this spring. He hit .182. Once he arrives in the big leagues, Springer is going to be one to watch.
5. Taijuan Walker: The Mariners have a couple young pitchers who could be exciting this season (James Paxton being the other name you should know), but Walker is crucial. He debuted in 2013, a few weeks after turning 21, making three appearances on the season and ending with a 3.60 ERA. The Mariners need all the help they can get to leap out of fourth place, and Walker cashing in on the hype is one of the most important things. It's not a good sign, however, that shoulder issues put him on the 15-day disabled list to start the season.
AL West MVP: Mike Trout
AL West Cy Young: Yu Darvish
AL West Rookie of the Year: George Springer
AL West breakthrough player: Sonny Gray
Order of Finish
1. Oakland Athletics: Solid all around and Bob Melvin knows how to get the most out of his players.
2. Texas Rangers: They're already beat up. The talent is there, but can they stay healthy and put everything together?
3. Los Angeles Angels: They're a potentially dangerous team offensively, but the pitching is still shaky.
4. Seattle Mariners: Robinson Cano can't win the division by himself, and the Mariners didn't complement him as best they could.
5. Houston Astros: Let's all just root for them to lose than 100 games. It's good for baseball.
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