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May 27, 2008 - Source: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli

The Battle Is On: AL West Preview 2018

The Angels are arguably baseball’s most improved team. But will they be good enough to derail a dynasty in Houston? Brett Borzelli breaks it down.

The Houston Astros spent nearly the entire 2017 baseball season residing in first place in the American League West. They took the division lead for good on April 14th and never looked back, going on to win the division by 21 games. The Astros were also the league’s most consistent team, posting winning records in every month except August. They sealed the deal emphatically, though, winning 21 of their final 29 games to clinch the league’s number-two playoff seed.

Houston was certainly good enough to claim the mantle as the league’s best team and would have if it had not been for Cleveland’s record-breaking winning streak that ended in mid-September. Still, the Astros breezed past Boston in the Division Series, won a thrilling seven-game LCS against the upstart Yankees, and beat Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Fall Classic in Dodger Stadium to claim their first ever championship.

The Astros will have to get past another L.A. team if they are to repeat as champs, that being the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Following a flurry of offseason moves, the Angels are arguably baseball’s most improved team. But will they be good enough to derail a dynasty in Houston? Let’s take a look at what’s in store for the AL West in 2018.

Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics went 75-87 last season, finishing 26 games behind the Astros and dead last in the West. Barring multiple breakout performances, the Athletics are headed for another last-place finish this year.

Oakland traded away its ace pitcher, Sonny Gray, last July. This winter, they dealt Ryon Healy (1.0 WAR, 25 home runs) and lost Yonder Alonso (1.5 WAR, 22 home runs) via free agency. The club’s biggest acquisition, meanwhile, was the signing of veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy (0.6 WAR) to a one-year contract. Lucroy was brought in to help with the ongoing rebuild of Oakland’s young starting pitching staff.

Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers finished 78-84 last year, 23 games out of first place. The Rangers are headed to another second-division finish this season.

Texas made a ton of moves this winter, most of them minor. The team’s biggest acquisition was Mike Minor, who was signed to a three-year contract. Minor battled shoulder problems while starting for the Braves, who non-tendered him following the 2014 campaign. He didn’t pitch for two years and then had a resurgence coming out of the bullpen for the Royals last season.

The Rangers seem to be collecting reclamation projects in an attempt to prop up their beleaguered pitching staff. They also signed Edinson Volquez, Bartolo Colon, Tim Lincecum, Doug Fister, Darwin Barney, and Jesse Chavez.

The club traded away its ace pitcher, Yu Darvish, last summer. They opted to not bring him back this winter, allowing him to sign with the Cubs instead. The Texas pitching staff had a division-worst 4.66 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 2017.

Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners also finished 78-84 last year, 23 games out of first place. They aren’t going to be a factor in the divisional race this season, either.

Seattle’s biggest offseason move was to bring back franchise icon and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. This seems to be more about selling tickets and merchandise than it is about helping the team in the win column. Ichiro has been in decline for some time now. His last All-Star selection was all the way back in 2010. That was also the last time he received MVP votes and won a Gold Glove Award. The all-time great posted a -0.3 WAR last year, the second time in three years he posted a negative WAR.

There’s no doubt that Ichiro’s leadership and renowned work ethic will be a positive influence on the young prospects that are coming up through Seattle’s system. They are the best hope for helping the franchise with MLB’s longest postseason drought (since 2001) break the cycle.

The Mariners also acquired Ryon Healy from Oakland, signed reliever Juan Nicasio, and re-signed starter Hisashi Iwakuma to a minor-league deal.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Los Angeles Angels had a very, very productive offseason. It started with the signing of baseball’s prized free agent, Shohei Ohtani. The two-way player is expected to slot into the Halos’ rotation and serve as designated hitter on days he doesn’t pitch. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols is being moved back to first base from DH to make room for Ohtani.

Justin Upton was acquired on August 31st from the Tigers to aid in the Angels’ failed attempt to secure a Wild Card spot. The team signed him to a five-year contract extension this winter. Upton produced 5.7 WAR in 2017.

Zack Cozart (4.9 WAR) was signed to a three-year contract to man the hot corner, while Ian Kinsler was acquired from Detroit to play second base. Kinsler’s 2.1 WAR in 2017 was a career low. He posted an average WAR of 5.7 over the previous four campaigns.

Having Upton, Cozart, and Kinsler in their Opening Day lineup will represent a major improvement over last year for the Angels. They already have two of the best players in baseball at their respective positions in Andrelton Simmons (7.1 WAR) and two-time MVP Award winner — and two-time runner-up — Mike Trout. Trout produced 6.7 WAR in an injury-shortened 2017 campaign.

Their pitching staff has been decimated with injuries requiring Tommy John surgery in recent years, but the Halos expect to have a healthy Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney in their rotation.

The Angels are very much improved and will be scary good this season. There will certainly be an exciting race in the AL West in 2018. But are the Halos’ upgrades enough to unseat the Astros?

Houston Astros

The World Series champion Houston Astros led the league in virtually every offensive category last season, while their pitching was tops in the division. They are returning virtually the same team that won it all.

There is one big, big difference between Opening Day this year and last: Justin Verlander. The ace was added on August 31st and went on to pitch the Astros to championship glory. He was 5-0 in September and 5-1 in the postseason. That lone loss came when he gave up a paltry two runs to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series.

Having Verlander in the rotation all year will be a big boost to a team that already has an embarrassment of riches. Houston’s only real weak spot last season was the bullpen, which was shored up when Hector Rondon and Joe Smith signed this winter.

Led by defending MVP Jose Altuve, the Astros must be considered the favorites to repeat in the West — and as champs — until another team can beat them to claim the trophy.

Main Photo: May 27, 2008 – Source: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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