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Texas Teams Take Charge In AL West

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Lance McCullers (Photo by Ken Babbitt) Lance McCullers (Photo by Ken Babbitt)[/caption] No division in baseball has less history than the American League West. Only the Athletics existed before 1961; Oakland is their third stop. The A’s and the Angels (2002) are the only ones to have won World Series championships; every other division has at least three past champions. The Rangers came close in 2010 and 2011, losing back-to-back World Series. The Mariners have had some of the greatest players in baseball and division history—heck, at one time they had Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez on the same roster, for three seasons. Houston has its own history but most of it came in the National League. The division-champ Rangers and wild-card Astros made the playoffs in 2015, beating out the Angels, who won 98 games in 2014 but 13 fewer last season. Oakland continued its recent slide—the A’s won 96 games in 2013, 88 in ’14 and just 68 in ’15. Seattle fired GM Jack Zduriencik en route to its 10th losing season in the last 13 years. Looking at the division with this issue’s Top 10 Prospects lists, it’s impressive to see the two best farm systems also belong to the two best big league rosters. The Rangers have a nice mix of veteran contributors (from team leader/future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre to Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder) to young potential stars such as second baseman Rougned Odor and cover boy Joey Gallo. Moreover, Texas could soon have the best one-two rotation punch in the division as Yu Darvish returns from Tommy John surgery to join Cole Hamels. Last July’s acquisition of Hamels—who’s signed through 2018 at a reasonable $23.5 million per year—was a master stroke by the Rangers, and brought a needed ace to keep up with the Astros. Houston has reigning Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel to go with burgeoning star Lance McCullers Jr., who has the stuff to be a 20-game winner. Houston also has the division’s top talent in shortstop Carlos Correa. Both clubs have much more talent on the way. Gallo, Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara are the kind of young hitters the Rangers need to supplement their core of 30-somethings, and the Astros have power arms such as righties Francis Martes and David Paulino to go with envious depth, even after trading four prospects for closer Ken Giles. International Deficit That’s a major problem for the rest of the division, particularly for the Angels and Mariners, who have two of the worst farm systems in baseball. The Angels’ best teams from 2004-2009, when they won the division five times, fused free-agent pickups like Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter with a homegrown core from draft (Jered Weaver, Mike Napoli, Howie Kendrick) and international (Erick Aybar, Francisco Rodriguez, Ervin Santana) success stories. The franchise still benefits from draft wins such as Class of 2009 products Mike Trout and Garrett Richards, but internationally, the Angels are a shell of their former selves, with few international products on the horizon. They haven’t been a major factor internationally since firing then-international director Clay Daniels and most of the scouts in his department in 2009 over bonus-skimming allegations. When the Angels have developed prospects, such as 2014 first-round pick Sean Newcomb, they have traded them for big leaguers. And the Angels usually have winning teams in the majors, so they pick toward the back of the first round—when they don’t forfeit first-rounders after signing free agents—and have smaller bonus pools. New GM Billy Eppler knows they have to win now, because the farm system isn’t ready to deliver much help. "The team is trying to be good now,” said lefthander Chris O’Grady, who spent four years in the Angels system before the Reds selected him in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft. "It’s like the Yankees almost, they’re expected to be good every year . . . "As a minor leaguer coming up in that system, it’s hard to make it to the majors and it’s harder to stay there, because you’re expected to succeed right away.” Rebuilding Again In Seattle Seattle, meanwhile, has hired ex-Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, who has tried to rebuild the big league club on the fly since being hired in September. He’s made nine deals, some involving the precious few prospects the Mariners had on hand. He needs his new club mix it up in the draft a bit. The Mariners have invested heavily in righthanded-hitting corner bats, none of whom has come through either as a prospect or as a big leaguer yet. Seattle has way too many prospects with similar skills and profiles, such as corner outfielders Alex Jackson and Tyler O’Neill and corner infielder D.J. Peterson. The Mariners’ best years came after they hit on top draft picks such as Griffey (1987) and Rodriguez (1993), two of the best No. 1 overall picks ever. But Seattle hasn’t found a game-changing talent in the draft in years, from now-traded Dustin Ackley (No. 2 pick in 2009) to Danny Hultzen (No. 2 in ‘11) to Mike Zunino (No. 3 in ‘12). DiPoto also has to rebuild Seattle’s international program, which used to be one of the most fruitful in the game under Bob Engle. These player-development shortcomings will make it challenging for Dipoto to turn Seattle around, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. Oakland, as usual, remains the division’s wild card. The A’s 16 division titles are the most in AL West history, but the 2016 team appears to remain in rebuilding mode, still reeling from trading elite talents like Josh Donaldson and Addison Russell in the last 18 months. But no team in baseball has been as unpredictable than the A’s, who have an improving farm system led by trade pickups Franklin Barreto (who arrived in the Donaldson deal) and Sean Manaea (from the Royals for Ben Zobrist
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). The A’s have been ahead of the industry several times in the past, but I don’t think anyone is going to start copying Billy Beane in trading future MVPs with four years of club control remaining. Considering the A’s have the worst stadium situation in the game along with the Rays, they have a harder time keeping players around once they get expensive. That hasn’t kept them from competing in the very recent past. But considering both current rosters and prospects, the AL West looks like it will be a Texas tussle for much of the foreseeable future.

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