This week we take a look at the American League West’s X-factors and each team should be somewhat optimistic going into the season. The Rangers are legitimate World Series contenders. The Mariners and Astros have a reasonable expectation of making the postseason. The Angels are only three years removed from leading the Majors in wins, and the A’s are consistently topping their preseason mark (save last year). Here is the player on each team that is going to make or break these team’s lofty goals.
Anaheim Angels: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols is undoubtedly a Hall of Famer, and arguably one of the greatest right handed hitters in history. But the man, nay, the machine is clearly past his prime at this point. However, his power numbers remained impressive last season as he hit 31 home runs and knocked in 119 runs. The problem with Pujols is that now he is battling a foot injury and might not be full-speed by the time the season is upon us.
If Pujols’ injury lingers and keeps the power hitter out of the lineup Mike Scioscia lineup would be missing a big piece. After Mike Trout, the Angels are low on legitimate hitters. Kole Calhoun and offseason signing Luis Valbuena are solid players, but even at 37 years old and on the downside of his career, a healthy Pujols is a significant piece of a lineup that could still muster a run at the American League Western Division crown.
So although the Angels seem to be headed for another mediocre season, primarily because of a horrid rotation, Pujols is a player, who when healthy, is able to make this lineup postseason worthy. But if they are to have any chance to stick in the playoff race at all after about mid-June, Pujols has to be relatively healthy and in the lineup for 500+ at-bats.
Houston Astros: Chris Devenski
Pitcher Chris Devenski is far from a household name outside of Houston, and even in the 346 area code he’s not known that well. So even though Devenski may not be a proven commodity, last season he showed that he was capable of being an effective pitcher at the major league level. And with Houston’s postseason hopes and need for another arm in their solid rotation, Devenski is the real X-factor for the Houston Astros in 2017.
Used mostly as a reliever last season the rookie pitched well enough to post a 2.16 ERA and 0.91 WHIP over 108.1 innings of work. And while Houston struggled more than most experts thought last season, Devenski pitched well enough to earn a 4th place finish in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
When the big righty finally made the move to the starting rotation from the bullpen he pitched well, or at least better than his stats may say. Devenski made five starts along with his 43 relief appearances, posting a 4.01 ERA and 1.26 WHIP during his time in the rotation. However, those numbers were skewed by one rough outing in which he threw just two innings and gave up six earned runs. Outside of that one game he pitched well in his four other starts.
With a solid four-pitch repertoire, the stamina to go deep into games, and the durability to go deep into the season, the Astros are set to give Devenski one of their open spots in the rotation this season. And it’s a rotation that last season was outside of the top-10 in ERA and quality starts. What does that mean? It means Devenski is important.
So this season look for Devenski to be a key piece of the puzzle on an Astros team with legitimate expectations for the upcoming season. And if he plays well the Astros plans could go well beyond competing for a playoff spot.
Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray
Damn the A’s were disappointing last season. With a 69-93 record in 2016 and a last-place finish in the AL West, the Athletics were one of the worst teams in baseball. Sonny Gray was hardly the only or biggest problem for the 2016 Oakland Athletics, but shoulder and forearm issues each put him on the disabled list at different times, and Gray’s overall results (5-11, 5.69 ERA over 22 starts) point to him possibly pitching hurt all season.
Gray was the subject of numerous trade rumors during the offseason, but coming off such a terrible season he’s not at the peak of his value. A healthy and hopefully much more productive Gray would surely reignite trade interest if he starts out the season well.
Gray showed he can be a staff ace in 2014 and 2015 (30-plus starts in both seasons, 2.91 combined ERA), and if the A’s somehow makes a run towards this year’s playoffs this year he is sure to lead that charge. But if he does perform like he did in 14’ and 15’ then it’s just as likely he becomes a highly-desired trade commodity.
Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger
There is no doubt that getting shortstop Jean Segura from Arizona this offseason was the marquee move for the Seattle Mariners this winter. But he wasn’t the only potential impact player the M’s acquired.
Outfielder Mitch Haniger was part of that same deal, and it appears the 26-year old righty will have a legitimate shot at winning a starting job in Safeco’s outfield this season.
The reason that Haniger is the X-factor for this upcoming season for the Mariners is because skipper Scott Servais believes he knows what he is getting out of Segura, one of the best shortstops in the league making up one of the best middle infields in the league. But what he doesn’t know is what Haniger is capable of.
The outfielder is a .290/.370/.490 career hitter over five minor league seasons, but he broke through last season on his way to 25 home runs while he had never tallied more than 13 home runs in a year prior. That uptick in power is what has taken him from mid-level organizational prospect to potential impact MLB player, and hopefully for the Mariners that potential is realized this year.
So while Leonys Martin should be the starter in center field, and right field is shaping up to be mostly Seth Smith with some Danny Valencia thrown in, that leaves the left field job ripe for the taking if Haniger can beat out Ben Gamel for playing time.
So if you’re looking for a dark horse for AL Rookie of the Year honors, look no further. And if you’re looking for an X-factor for the Mariners this year, look no further.
Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish
Last year I picked the same person to be the Rangers X-factor and when he returned to the Rangers last year for part of the season Texas played well enough to win the division, and when he performed poorly in the playoffs so did his team. Basically, the Rangers will go only as far as Darvish takes them, and although Cole Hamels is the new ace in Arlington, Darvish is still the team’s X-factor.
Darvish made 17 starts last season after missing all of 2015 due to Tommy John surgery. As he worked his way back with a shoulder issue mixed in for good measure, he had a 3.41 ERA in 2016 though, with an elite 11.8 K/9 rate and a 2.8 BB/9 rate, and if not for his pension to give up the long ball (12 home runs allowed over 100 innings) Darvish’s numbers would have been even better.
The Rangers were in the trade market for starting pitching throughout the offseason, and for good reason. The Rangers starting pitching has been dealt injury after injury, using 11 starting pitchers last season alone. And Darvish who is the team’s solid #2 starter behind Hamels has been on the DL five times since joining the team in 2013. The Rangers picked up hard throwing righty Andrew Cashner, but coming off a career worst year and having been a six-time DL veteran, as well as already having health problems this spring, who knows how much the former Padres pitcher is going to help.
Darvish is an elite level pitcher when he is healthy, and he and Cole Hamels would give Texas a formidable and dominant ace duo at the top of their starting rotation, which allows them to match up with the American League favorite Red Sox 1-2 of David Price and Chris Sale. So if Darvish stays healthy the Rangers could make it 3 division titles in a row and maybe set their aim a bit higher than just regular season success this year.