M’s Quarterly Report: AL West Review

After remaining in the 2016 wild card race until game-161, the Seattle Mariners spent the offseason making deals at a breakneck pace with one goal in mind– end baseball’s longest active postseason drought.

Just forty games into the current season, the notion of playing meaningful October baseball in 2017 is a fleeting dream after a devastating series of bad breaks and disappointing performances.

Can the Mariners get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? What are their strengths and weaknesses? In the First-Quarter Report Series, we’ll touch those bases and more.

First, let’s review the AL West standings and then discuss Seattle’s divisional rivals.

AL West Thru First QTR
Tm W L GB R RA vWest last10 last20 last30
HOU 28 12 5.2 3.8 17-6 8-2 14-6 22-8
LAA 21 21 8.0 3.9 4.2 15-14 5-5 11-9 15-15
TEX 20 20 8.0 4.6 4.2 11-14 7-3 11-9 16-14
SEA 18 22 10.0 4.9 4.9 11-14 5-5 10-10 16-14
OAK 17 22 10.5 3.9 5.0 12-18 5-5 7-13 12-18

Houston Astros
The Astros not only sit atop the AL West, they own the best record in major league baseball. Having a .739 winning percentage during 23 contests within their otherwise mediocre division certainly helped kick-start Houston’s season, but there’s much more to the club’s early success than just beating up inferior competition.

The offense is averaging 5.2 runs scored/game — second best in the AL. Run production is truly a team effort in Houston. Among active position players, only designated hitter Carlos Beltran (.288) is below the league average for OBP (.322).

Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and offseason acquisition Charlie Morton have formed an impressive top-three in the rotation. The most intriguing of the trio is Morton. After missing nearly all of 2016 with a torn hamstring, the 33-year-old signed two-year/$14 million free agent deal and is currently top-10 in the American League in strikeouts and FIP.

When the rotation needs help, manager A.J. Hinch can turn to his top-five bullpen anchored by closer Ken Giles, Will HarrisMichael Feliz, Brad Peacock, and the versatile Chris Devenski.

The offense may eventually cool off, but the durability of the rotation will be the driving force behind the Astros’ future success. Morton has topped the 150-inning mark just twice in his career (2011 and 2014). At his current pace, he’ll top that mark during the regular season and need to pitch deep into October.

Unlike Morton, Keuchel and McCullers had their 2016 season cut short by arm-related issues. The duo’s performances suggest they are completely healthy, although it’s important to remember McCullers hasn’t tossed more than 160 innings (counting minor league time) since his rookie season in 2015 and he’s encountered arm issues in each of the last two years.

Los Angeles Angels
After a slight uptick in offensive productivity last season, the Angels are again near the bottom of the AL. Through 40 games, only three everyday players — Mike TroutMartin Maldonado, and Yunel Escobar — are above or close to the league-average OPS mark (.735).

Maldonado is a pleasant surprise. The 30-year-old was an understudy to all-star catcher Jonathan Lucroy when they were with the Milwaukee Brewers. Acquired by the Angels in the offseason for his defensive prowess, the seven-year veteran is posting career bests in every significant offensive category.

Unfortunately, Escobar is on the 10-day disabled list with a strained hamstring and likely to miss at least two weeks. The loss of his bat in the leadoff spot further shrinks an already short lineup.

The lineup should lengthen assuming a couple of regulars get back on track. Kole Calhoun has endured an uncharacteristically slow start, but he’s the best position player on the roster not named Mike Trout. Considering he’s slashed .263/.326/.430 triple-slash and averaged 20 home runs since 2014, it’s reasonable to expect the 29-year-old will regain his form.

After two consecutive seasons with a league-average OBP, Andrelton Simmons finds himself hovering near the .300-mark. He too should bounce back sooner than later. Fortunately, the 27-year-old’s elite-level defense provides value even when he’s not reaching base.

Last season, injuries were the limiting factor in the Angels’ effort to climb the AL West standings. The same applies again in 2017 with the pitching staff most affected by the injury bug. Starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are on the DL along with relievers Huston Street, Cam Bedrosian, Mike Morin, and Andrew Bailey.

Despite the setbacks, general manager Billy Eppler and manager Mike Scioscia have cobbled together a rotation and bullpen with veterans and retreads. So far, their strategy has kept the club hovering near the .500-mark. But, it’s tough seeing Los Angeles remaining viable throughout the summer.

Texas Rangers
After winning two consecutive division titles, the Rangers found themselves on their collective heels. Within the last week, the club has shown signs of life by winning seven straight.

As usual, Texas is top-five in the AL at plating runs, but their lineup has shortcomings. Like the Angels, there are too few productive hitters in the lineup — at least at the moment.

Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Gomez, Elvis Andrus, and Joey Gallo are the only regulars above league-average in OPS. To compound matters, Gomez is out for at least a month with a hamstring strain.

Speaking of Gallo, his production has been either feast or famine. Half of the slugger’s 24 hit are home runs and his 38.5-percent strikeout rate is the highest in the majors. Still, there are reasons for optimism.

Lucroy struggled out of the gate, but he’s slashing .352/.397/.481 since April 24 and future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre is set to return from the DL in the near future. A productive Lucroy and a returning Beltre should help sustain the Rangers’ prolific run production.

As with every team, pitching is the key to season-long success. It’s been a problem in Arlington. Unfortunately, co-ace Cole Hamels is out until the all-star break with a strained right oblique, while the rest of the rotation is comprised of good and questionable pitchers.

Ace Yu Darvish has been superb and A.J. Griffin has been a pleasant surprise — that’s the good. On the questionable side, Martin Perez somehow averages 6-plus innings/start despite combining high walk and hit rates with low strikeout totals.

Moreover, Andrew Cashner is being relatively successful with the second highest walk rate among AL starters. Whether Martin and Cashner can remain productive while permitting so many base runners is unknown.

While the offense and rotation haven’t been optimal performers, the Rangers’ biggest weakness is the bullpen. Relievers have permitted the highest opponents batting average in the league and are bottom-three in strikeouts and FIP.

It’s worth noting Texas experienced similar problems early last season and bounced back to make the postseason. Having said that, a repeat performance will require reinforcements from outside the organization.

The Rangers are in an interesting situation. They’ve played better of late, but most of their victories have come at the expense of inferior teams. We should have a better idea on the club’s trajectory after they play 16 games against the Astros, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Washington Nationals in June.

Last season, a hot June propelled Texas to a division title. If they can’t repeat that success, the club could be a deadline seller with Darvish, Lucroy, Gomez, and Cashner becoming free agents after the season and Hamels under contract for just one more year.

Oakland Athletics
The Athletics are already cellar dwellers, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise with the organization in the midst of a serious rebuild.

There are bright spots on the roster, but few come from an offense ranked number-13. Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie are the only regulars reaching base above the league-average rate. The only other consistently productive bat belongs to slugger Khris Davis, who’s second on the team behind Alonso in home runs.

Despite many questions entering the season and injuries since, the rotation has delivered the fourth best FIP in the AL through 40 games. Leading the way is the surprising Andrew Triggs and Jesse Hahn, who’s struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in recent years.

Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman was Oakland’s most durable arm last season, but he just finished a DL stint in April and hasn’t been as effective since returning. Having said that, the sample size is small and shouldn’t be weighed too heavily.

After struggling with injuries last season, ace Sonny Gray started the season on the DL. To date, the 27-year-old has been inconsistent in three starts. As with Graveman, it’ll take more time to assess the 2015 Cy Young Award finalist’s comeback.

Sophomore Sean Manaea just returned from an injury absence due to shoulder tightness and struggled with control during his first outing. He experienced similar difficulties in April when he averaged 4.5 walks/nine innings.

The challenge for Oakland’s leadership will be cobbling together a rotation for the entire season. Every pitcher in the current rotation has an injury history. Moreover, Triggs has never thrown more than 75 innings as a professional and Hahn’s career-high is 125.

Oakland’s bullpen was a relative strength last season, but it’s struggled with John Axford and Sean Doolittle currently on the DL. With the exception of Ryan Madson, the relief corps — including closer Santiago Casilla — have been largely ineffective.

Look for the Athletics to be deadline sellers once again. Last year, general manager David Forst deftly acquired reliever Frankie Montas and starting pitcher prospects Jharel Cotton and Grant Holmes from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for impending free agents Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

Forst will likely make similar moves this summer with impending free agents Rajai Davis, Trevor Plouffe, Adam Rosales, Alonso, and Axford serving as potential trade chips.

Outlook
Even though Houston has an impressive lead and the rest of the division is languishing, there’s too much baseball left to concede the division crown. Recent history proves 40 games is too early to declare winners and losers.

Just two years ago, Houston had a similar record and lost the division to the Rangers after a late season collapse. The Astros earn a wildcard berth in 2015, but their commanding lead after 40 games suggested greater success.

2015 AL West Thru First QTR
Tm W L W-L% GB
HOU 27 15 .643
LAA 21 20 .512 5.5
SEA 18 22 .450 8.0
TEX 18 23 .439 8.5
OAK 14 29 .326 13.5

Depending on whether their perspective, Mariners fans can derive either solace or frustration from the preceding table.

The 2015 Rangers had a similar record as the current Mariners and they went on to win the division. Conversely, this year’s Mariners have the identical record of the 2015 version. That club had a regime change after losing 86 games.

The bottom line is the Astros were the class of the division before the season and have lived up to expectations through 40 games. By mid-season, we’ll have a better idea whether they’re for real and if any other AL West club will rise to contender status.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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