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AL West's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015

Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols

The American League West is chalked full of A-list characters that make the cast of "Birdmanlook like a B-movie. King Felix’s kingdom in Seattle, MVP Mike Trout in Southern Cal, Billy Beane wheeling and dealing in the Bay Area, Prince, Yu and Choo revamping for a revolution in Texas, and a group of hard-swinging youngsters in Houston that are poised for takeoff make the AL West a must-watch division this summer.

Here are the top storylines to watch in the American League West in 2015.

Angels' Time Running Out?

Is it possible that a team can win its division by 10 games, have this generation’s best player, own the best record in baseball and be considered a disappointment? With a payroll that exceeded $154 million and a roster built for October, the 2014 Angels were absolutely disappointing. Expectations will only continue to grow in 2015 as high-priced players like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson grow in age and fail to deliver consistently.

The Angels are on the hook for $189 million over the next seven years for Pujols, who just turned 35, and is coming off a “rebound year” in which he hit 45 points below his career batting average. Hamilton, impending suspension aside, hasn’t been worth the $25 million he’s due in 2015, hitting just .255/.316/.426 with 31 homers and an OPS of .741 since moving to Anaheim in '13. Wilson made $16 million in 2014 and is due another $18 million this season, has an ERA close to 3.90 and WHIP of 1.374. In his lone start in the AL Division Series against the Royals last October, Wilson didn’t make it out of the first frame, giving up three runs in just two-thirds of an inning.

The Halos will be looking for a bounce back at the plate from third baseman and former All-Star David Freese, who has yet to live up to his 2011 World Series heroics in California. Kole Calhoun put together a solid year in 2014, hitting 17 homers and 31 doubles batting mostly leadoff and newcomer Matt Joyce has the ability to add much-needed depth to Scioscia’s lineup in the DH spot.

The biggest riddle will be the re-vamped bullpen that features many new young arms and veteran closer Huston Street. The rotation should be a bright spot for Anaheim, especially if Wilson can keep it together for an entire summer and as well as the postseason. Being without budding ace Garret Richards until late April seems to be a minor hiccup for this staff that also includes veteran All-Star Jered Weaver, and up-and-coming righty Matt Shoemaker.

The biggest question for this Angels team is — how much longer does GM Jerry Dipoto have until it's time to move major contracts in order to replenish a fledging farm system and plan for the future? 2015 could be the last great opportunity Anaheim has before the World Series window is no more.

Seattle Reign

After an impressive 2014 that saw a 16-game swing from 2013, the Seattle Mariners are the team to watch in the AL West in 2015. Championship teams are built on superior pitching, reliable defense, and timely hitting. The Mariners have all three.

Pitching has been and will be the M’s trademark in 2015. Any rotation that features Felix Hernandez is going to be good, but throw in Hisashi Iwakuma as the number two, with a mix of young, live arms waiting in the wings like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and that rotation becomes deadly. If lefty J.A. Happ can find his 2009 form that almost won him NL Rookie of the Year honors with the Phillies, this Mariners rotation could be untouchable.

The only thing more dangerous in the AL West than the M’s starting rotation could be their bullpen. The majority of the relief corps that allowed just 157 runs in 500 innings and had a combined ERA of 2.59 last season is back for 2015. Fernando Rodney, with his bow and arrow, crooked hat, and 48 saves from are back, along with even more young arms, including last year’s rookie studs Dominic Leone and Carson Smith, each of whom could be thrown in the mix as the season progresses.

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The Mariners struggled last season at the plate, finishing 2014 ranked 27th in doubles, 22nd in total bases, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in homers. Signing Nelson Cruz, last season's home run leader, to a four-year deal surely will help remedy that issue. Asking Cruz to hit another 40 dingers in Safeco is a tall order, but adding his big bat will surely allow for better pitches for Robinson Cano and budding star third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager, a first time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2014, hit 27 doubles and 25 homers last season and was rewarded with a seven-year deal worth approximately $100 million.

The addition of Cruz and locking up Seager long term will definitely be helpful for the M’s in 2015, but several questions still linger for a team looking to take the next step. First baseman Logan Morrison finished 2014 on a nice pace, but in large part has been a shell of the player he was becoming in Miami.

Since his breakout 2009 season (25 2B, 23 HR, 72 RBI), Morrison hasn’t topped 20 doubles, 11 homers, or 38 RBIs, as injuries have been a nuisance throughout his career. Waiting in the wings in case Morrison’s struggles continue is last year’s minor league RBI champion, D.J. Peterson, who is expected to make the move to first this spring.

Seth Smith, who was acquired from the Padres, and Justin Ruggiano are expected to platoon in right field, as outfielders Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson are aiming to rebound from lackluster 2014 showings.

If the outfield can’t produce to GM Jack Zduriencik’s liking, he has plenty of young pitchers to use as trade bait to find the needed help at the plate. Keep your eye on the Emerald City this summer as this could be the year the Mariners snap their 14-year postseason skid and march into October as favorites.

Houston’s Big Leap?

The Houston Astros might be the most entertaining team to watch in 2015. Yeah, they are going to swing and miss — a lot, but they are also going to hit a ton of home runs. Last season, the ‘Stros were truly feast or famine, ranking fourth in homers and second in strikeouts. Developing superstars Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and George Springer combined for 430 strikeouts in 2014 — but they also combined for 158 homers with Springer and Singleton playing roughly half their seasons in The Show.

The Astros are looking to new manager A. J. Hinch to be a vital influence for their young sluggers, hoping he can teach patience at the plate. In addition to a new skipper, the Houston front office made moves to bring in several veteran lineup pieces, including Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus in the outfield and Luis Valbuena at third. Rasmus, Valbuena and Gattis have big pop capabilities, but are also rather strikeout-prone. All three should add a welcomed veteran presence in the clubhouse and on the lineup card for Hinch.

The Houston lineup wasn’t the only thing that received a minor facelift this offseason, as veteran hurlers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson were signed to bolster a bullpen that ranked dead last in ERA during 2014 (4.80). Neshek and Gregerson were nice pick ups, but the Astros still lack a true closer after missing out on David Robertson this past winter.

The rotation for the Astros could prove to be formidable with last season’s surprises in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. Keuchel and McHugh both posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014, as McHugh struck out 157 batters in 154.2 innings of work, and Keuchel developed into the Astros' most reliable starter, throwing 200 innings. While the long-term jury is still deliberating on Keuchel and McHugh, the Astros are still without a true ace. But that ace could be within the Astros organization already in 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Appel was inconsistent in his first full minor league season, but has reportedly already been turning heads at Astros camp.

Make no doubt about it, the future is bright in Houston, especially with pieces like reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve manning second base long term, and a cabinet full of hard-swinging youngsters whose upside is almost infinite. The Astros are ready to start winning, and winning soon. While a postseason run this summer is a bit too ambitious, certainly a .500 record is well within reach.

- by Jake Rose