AL West 2015 preview: For Angels to repeat, they'll have to fend off Mariners

With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series concludes with the AL West.

The American League West boasts the best all-around player in baseball, in Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, and one of the best pitchers in baseball, in Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Because of those two and their teams, this division could house one of the best races of the 2015 season.

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The Angels won the division last year, but the Mariners, who finished one game out of the playoffs, look like serious challengers for the throne with an improved lineup and a strong pitching rotation. The rest of the teams in the division have a number of question marks: The Oakland Athletics did a major roster overhaul this winter and could be good, but it's hard to tell. The Houston Astros are inching toward respectability, but probably aren't there yet while the injury-ravaged Texas Rangers have had a tough couple of years.

The Stew's Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend are here to delve further into the division:

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

WILL BILLY BEANE'S MAGIC CONTINUE? 
We've grown accustomed to Billy Beane reshuffling the Oakland A's roster. It usually works out pretty well, too, considering they've made three straight postseason appearances in spite of constant turnover. But after sacrificing multiple resources to acquire Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija ahead of last season's trade deadline, he was forced to take reshuffling to a new level over the winter. In a span of two months, Beane completed nine trades with nine different teams involving 27 different players, including shipping Samardzija to the White Sox and team leader Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. He watched Lester walk too, which was expected, and also signed Billy Butler, which nobody saw coming. It was basically a Billy Beane bonanza, and there's no way to tell if these moving parts will come together.

WILL THE ASTROS MAKE A NOTABLE LEAP? 
When the Houston Astros committed to general manager Jeff Luhnow, they also committed to an extensive rebuilding plan. Over the past four seasons, which actually predates Luhnow's arrival by one season, the Astros have averaged a staggering 104 losses. However, their unwavering patience in the process could pay off as soon as this season. In losing, the Astros have drafted, acquired and developed a solid young core that includes George Springer, Jose Altuve, Chris Carter and Dallas Keuchel. It's possible top prospect Carlos Correa will be joining them soon, too, but even without him Luhnow's offseason additions of veterans like Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson all represent a shift toward winning sooner rather than later. That notion alone will make them a very interesting team to monitor, but where it all leads in 2015 is anybody's guess

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CAN THE ANGELS GET ELITE PRODUCTION FROM ALBERT PUJOLS?
Since inking a 10-year, $260 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels three years ago, we've yet to see Albert Pujols perform at the MVP level that defined his time in St. Louis. He was a decent run producer when healthy in 2012 and 2014, averaging 29 homers and 105 RBIs, but his batting line has dropped from .328/.420/.617 in St. Louis to .273/.332/.478 in L.A. Now 35, a significant bounce back from Pujols seems unlikely. Last season, the Angels were able to survive that reality. The concern now though is the uncertainty of Josh Hamilton, the trade of Howie Kendrick's production, the great unknowns in David Freese and Matt Joyce, plus a potentially undermanned starting rotation. Even if Mike Trout continues taking his game to new levels, the Angels could be poised to fall without vintage Albert.

The Mariners need a breakout season from Taijuan Walker. (USA TODAY Sports)
The Mariners need a breakout season from Taijuan Walker. (USA TODAY Sports)

WILL JAMES PAXTON AND TAIJUAN WALKER GET MARINERS OVER THE HUMP? 
If the Angels do fall, the Seattle Mariners seem like the best bet to pass them assuming their starting rotation comes together. They already have Felix Hernandez, who's far and away the best pitcher in the division. They also have a pair of solid veterans in J.A. Happ and Hisashi Iwakuma. Now they'll hope for James Paxton and Taijuan Walker to establish themselves to fill out the rotation. Of course, both still have a good ways to go to get there. Paxton, 26, was sidelined by shoulder and lat injuries last season, and was mostly disappointing when healthy. Walker, 22, has been consistently mentioned in trade rumors, but has yet to receive an extended look. If both prove ready though, it solidifies a strong rotation and almost assuredly cements Seattle as a postseason team.

WILL THE RANGERS LUCK IMPROVE?
Based on the events in spring training, it doesn't look promising. After placing players on the disabled list 25 different times last season and losing 2,116 days total to injury, the Rangers have already lost ace Yu Darvish for the season to Tommy John surgery and infielder Jurickson Profar to season-ending shoulder surgery. The loss of Darvish especially puts them in a difficult position, even with the addition of Yovani Gallardo. Among those returning to full health — they hope — will be Prince Fielder, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Mitch Moreland, but even still the margin for additional injuries is slim.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

JERED WEAVER: After an unusual season in which he started fewer than 30 games, Weaver returned to his normal workload in 2014. The right-hander has been a mainstay in the Angels rotation since 2008, and will open the year as the team's No. 1 starter again in 2015. During that time, Weaver has changed quite a bit. After averaging 90.4 mph with his fastball in 2008, Weaver is down to 86.8 mph now. That's one of the lowest figures in the league. Despite that, he's still as solid as they come. And while he's typically been able to post lower ERAs than his advanced numbers suggest, he's done it enough that it's become a real trend. He's no longer an ace in the traditional sense, but he's good enough to lead the Angels rotation for another season.

BRETT LAWRIE: It seems like Lawrie has been around forever, and, yet, he's just 25-years-old. Lawrie debuted at age-21, and that's likely the reason it feels like he's a finished product. It was one hell of a debut as well, one that he hasn't been able to top in subsequent seasons. Lawrie hasn't hit as well as expected since, but he's also been limited by injuries each year. The Athletics obviously saw something in him, as they gave up Josh Donaldson in order to bring Lawrie in. The new park probably won't help with his offensive numbers, but there's still some hope that Lawrie can regain his former promise. Though he's still young, he's running out of time. 

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NELSON CRUZ: There are a lot of reasons to expect regression from Cruz in 2015. He's coming off a career year at age-33, and players don't typically get better from there. On top of that, he leaves one of the best hitter's parks for one of the worst. He's also struggled with injuries throughout his career, though did manage to play 159 games last year. All three of those things will probably lead to decline from the 34-year-old. That's not to say he'll be useless. Cruz's pop is real, and he should remain a solid source of home runs despite Safeco's dimensions. Still, the Mariners took a big-time risk committing $58 million to a player with these warning signs. Even if 2015 is fine, the future of the deal looks iffy at best.

The power of George Springer is real. (Getty Images)
The power of George Springer is real. (Getty Images)

GEORGE SPRINGER: Springer could legitimately be baseball's next huge star. Few players have the ability to hit for power like the 25-year-old. In just 345 plate appearances, Springer ripped off 20 home runs. If he can regain some of the base-stealing ability he showed in the minors, he's a threat to go 30-30 this season. Springer, however, comes with one huge flaw: his contact rate is awful. Of all major-league regulars, Springer ranked dead last on contact with pitches in the zone. That led to a 33 percent strikeout rate, which pushed his batting average to just .231. When he does make contact, magic happens! Given his skillset, Springer can still be a useful player even if his contact issues remain. If he can make some improvements, he'll become one of the best players in baseball. 

PRINCE FIELDER: There's just absolutely no way to know how Fielder will perform this year. The 30-year-old is coming off two straight down seasons, and had cervical fusion surgery during the offseason. Every part of that sentence sounds awful. Prior to all of those issues, there were legitimate questions about whether Fielder's body-type would allow him to remain effective as he aged. Early in his career, he proved the doubters wrong, playing in nearly every game. Now that he's suffered his first big injury, it's unclear whether he can withstand the same workload. Players tend to suffer more injuries as they age, so that's not encouraging. At the same time, Fielder says he's healthy this spring, and has performed well in his limited at-bats in March. Last season was a such a disappointment for the Rangers that it's just promising to see Fielder back out on the field again.

(AP)
(AP)

RANGERS
• Best case: Prince Fielder plays well, the disabled list isn’t as crowded as Disneyland and the Rangers have a respectable season.
• Worst case: The entire team is put on the 60-day DL because of dysentery.

ANGELS
• Best case: Garrett Richards becomes one of MLB’s top pitchers, Albert Pujols returns to form, Mike Trout is an MVP again and the Angels make a deep run into the postseason.
• Worst case: Oh, that same ol’ sad song: The Angels would be a pretty good team if they had better pitching.

ASTROS
• Best case: Third place. George Springer, AL MVP.
• Worst case: The Astros strike out so much this season that they build windmills outside of Minute Maid Park. Oh, and they finish in last place again.

A’S
• Best case: Everything’s coming up Billy Beane again. His crazy roster shuffling works out and the revamped A’s make the playoffs again.
• Worst case: All the players the A’s traded have great seasons while they’re left trying to duke it with the Astros or Rangers for third place.

MARINERS
• Best case: It all comes together and Seattle is in the World Series in late October.
• Worst case: The young pitchers falter, Nelson Cruz hits a decline hard and the Mariners disappoint.

CHRIS CWIK
Order of finish: Mariners, Angels, A's, Astros, Rangers
AL West top hitter: Mike Trout
AL West top pitcher: Felix Hernandez
AL West top rookie: Kendall Graveman 



MIKE OZ
Order of finish: Mariners, Angels, A's, Astros, Rangers
AL West top hitter: Mike Trout
AL West top pitcher: Felix Hernandez
AL West top rookie: Taijuan Walker



MARK TOWNSEND
Order of finish: Angels, Mariners, A's, Ranger, Astros
AL West top hitter: Mike Trout
AL West top pitcher: Felix Hernandez
AL West top rookie: Andrew Heaney 



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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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