MLB X-factors for 2017, Part III: AL West

Mar 18, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Texas Rangers catcher Alex Burg (98) is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two run home run during a spring exhibition baseball game against the Cleveland Indians at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

We are on to the next stop in our trek to look at one x-factor for all 30 MLB teams in 2017. In Part I, we looked at one of the deepest divisions in baseball – the American League East. X-factors ranged from rookie sluggers to veteran closers. In Part II, we looked at a division that has placed a team in the World Series in three of the past four years – the AL Central. X-factors ranged from big-name prospects to possibly washed up pitchers.

Today we will look at the AL West. The Texas Rangers are the reigning two-time division champs but with the moves that the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros made this offseason, the competition will be stiff. Even the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels are getting a bit of “are we sure we should bury these guys before the season even starts?” buzz, putting the West squarely in the conversation for most interesting division in baseball.

Of course, the West has the best player in baseball (Mike Trout), but he’s not the type of guy we’ll be highlighting in today’s slides. We’re going to be looking for the type of guys who we don’t know what to expect. Barring a major injury *knocks on wood so hard it registers as a 7.0 on the Richter scale* to Trout, we know what he’s going to do – 8-10 WAR and quite possibly another MVP award. Players like C.J. Cron on the other hand? (Don’t worry that’s not a spoiler for the Angels spot.) We have no idea. Is his spring success for real, or will he come back to earth once the games start to matter? These are the type of players who can swing a season even more than the Steady Eddies like Trout et al. Here are your 2017 x-factors for the AL West.

Aug 10, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) pitches in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Astros – Dallas Keuchel

This one is pretty obvious. When you go from Cy Young winner in 2015 (20-8, 2.48 ERA) to 18th-highest ERA among qualified starters in 2016 (9-12, 4.55 ERA) obviously your team is going to suffer. Not coincidentally, the Astros went from an 86-win team that snuck into the playoffs to an 84-win team that missed the playoffs by five games. Keuchel’s 3.2 fWAR drop can’t be entirely to blame, but it certainly was a large factor.

Looking over the 2017 Astros’ roster, there is a boatload of offensive depth. The lineup goes one-to-nine with competent hitters (seriously, Nori Aoki is their projected nine hitter, per Roster Resource) and even has a few studs in the mix (highlighted by the George SpringerJose AltuveCarlos Correa top trio). Their bullpen should be rock solid with Ken Giles (x-factor nominee), Chris Devenski, Luke Gregerson and Will Harris shoring things up from the seventh inning on. 

The pivot point on which the 2017 season will turn for Houston is the rotation. If Keuchel can perform at an ace-like level (5.0-ish WAR), this team is a definite World Series contender. If Keuchel is merely a middle of the rotation arm, this team will still be in the hunt for the playoffs, but not many teams will fear them as a serious contender. Lance McCullers has the potential to be a frontline arm, but we all know what potential is really just a French word for. Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers make up a classic back end of the rotation, but it really all comes down to Keuchel.

So which Keuchel is the real one? The paint-the-corners-like-Picasso 2015 version or the get-beat-like-a-drum 2016 version? As is always the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, Keuchel had some bad luck in 2016, his left on base rate plummeted and he had tough luck in terms of home runs allowed. He also struck out fewer hitters and walked more of them. His elite groundball rate slipped into the merely above average range and he did allow a much higher rate of hard hit balls.

I’m a huge believer in this Astros team in part because I think Keuchel will settle back into the 3.5 WAR range. I think he will be solid enough to be the team’s ace while McCullers matures into his potential. If Keuchel struggles, however, especially early in the season, it will be interesting to see how the team responds.

May 1, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards (43) throws during the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Angels – Garrett Richards

It takes a bold man to stare Tommy John in the face and say no these days. That’s precisely what Richards decided to do when he suffered a partial tear in his UCL last May. Instead of going under the knife like so many pitchers do in the modern game, Richards opted for rehabilitation and a season off. He used stem cell treatment in his rehab, a new and upcoming alternative to TJ which led to Richards giving Jeff Passan of Yahoo maybe the greatest quote of all time: “Science bro… I’m a believer now.” Hopefully the Angels are believers as well, seeing as their only hope at relevance in 2017 is likely tied to the health of Richards.

When Richards has been healthy, he has been a stud throughout his career. The 28-year-old former first round pick has an ERA+ of his 105 for his career and an ERA+ of 120 for the last three seasons. Unfortunately, he has also suffered two massive injuries that have officially placed him in the “handle with caution” section of the MLB pitchers bin. In 2017, because of his alternative path to rehabbing his arm, many are going to see Richards as a ticking time bomb. Every start in which his velocity sits a bit lower than normal is going to span a dozen articles on Angels fanblogs. Every extended shoulder shrug is going to demand Zapruder-level inspection of the video. Heaven forbid if Richards so much as rubs his elbow the wrong way.

By electing to avoid TJ, Richards has made his life a lot more annoying, but he may not have made the wrong decision. Masahiro Tanaka opted out of TJ after his July 2014 injury, and he has made 55 starts over the past two seasons, with his best season yet coming in 2016. Richards is still an early test case for Tommy John alternatives, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Sep 16, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Oakland Athletics right fielder Brett Eibner (39) celebrates his three-run home run against the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Rangers defeat the A’s 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Oakland A’s – Literally the entire roster

The 2017 Oakland A’s might be the highest variance team, top to bottom, in recent memory. Just look up and down this roster – it is chock full of players who could either explode on the scene in 2017 or just plain explode.

Starting on the offensive side of things, Ryon Healy and Mark Canha are two of my favorite under-the-radar fantasy players in 2017. Does that mean they will be any good on the actual field of play in 2017? Who knows? Will they even both be able to make the starting lineup each day, given that the A’s also have Yonder Alonso slotted as their first baseman? Again, who knows?

Alonso has plenty of 2017 variance himself, as he is a former first round pick who has been on every “potential breakout” list since 2010. Then you’ve got the power guys, Marcus Semien and Khris Davis. Both guys’ power seems legitimate, but can they combine for 69 (nice) home runs again this season? Can Jed Lowrie stay healthy? Will Rajai Davis have another amazing late-career season? Are Matt Joyce and Yonder Alonso actually the same person? Has anyone seen these two vaguely-disappointing-but-still-filled-with-potential players in the same room at the same time?

And we haven’t even gotten to the rotation yet. The rotation has maybe even more questions. Was Andrew Triggs late-season run as a starter a fluke or a sign of things to come? Is Sonny Gray being hurt a blessing in disguise? Who is your friend – the one who is wayyyyy too invested in potential – going to draft first in your fantasy league, Jharel Cotton or Sean Manaea? Who is Jesse Hahn again? There are just so many questions with this roster, it’s hard to imagine anyone making a prediction for this year A’s with any semblance of confidence.

Maybe the biggest question, though: If the A’s somehow sneak back into the playoff picture, will Billy Beane‘s *stuff* work in said playoffs? Who knows.

Mar 9, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners center fielder Mitch Haniger (17) hits an RBI double against the Chicago Cubs in the third inning during a spring training game at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Mariners – Mitch Haniger

Here are the RBI totals for the Mariners’ top three hitters last season: 105, 103, 99. Here are the RBI totals for the team’s fourth through sixth best hitters: 63, 58, 49.

Here are the OPS totals for the Mariners top three hitters last season: .915, .882, .859. Here are the OPS totals for the team’s fourth through sixth best hitters: .758, .738, .717.

Here are the… You get the point. To say the Mariners leaned heavily on Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager in 2016 is to say the movie Cast Away leaned heavily on Tom Hanks – it’s a wild understatement. Cano, Cruz and Seager were three of the top 22 hitters (by wRC+) in 2016, but the Mariners were still left on the outside looking in when it came time for the playoffs. A sentence that has been true each of the past 15 seasons, the longest such streak in baseball.

In order to break that streak in 2017, the Mariners will need a fourth heat to push this lineup from very good to elite, since the King Felix-led rotation looks like it will be solid enough to not cost the team but not great enough to carry the team.

The man to take that role of fourth heat may just be Mitch Haniger. Though Haniger was not the headliner of the trade that brought him to Seattle this offseason (that would be Jean Segura, an important player in his own right for Seattle this season), Haniger has seen his profile rise greatly in the time since. Haniger has never been high on prospect ranks, but he slashed .341/.428/.670 in 74 games with the Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate in 2016. Haniger has done nothing to slow down the hype train this spring, as he is slashing .409/.458/.705 with a pair of long balls and a pair of steals in 44 at bats.

Haniger doesn’t need to be nearly this godly to put the Mariners over the top and break their playoff drought. If he can merely hit .265 with 85 RBI and an OPS approaching .800, he’ll be immensely valuable to Seattle.

Mar 18, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Texas Rangers right fielder Nomar Mazara (30) talks with third base coach Tony Beasley (27) during a spring exhibition baseball game against the Cleveland Indians at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Rangers – Nomar Mazara

On the surface, the “Big Chill” had himself a nice rookie season. He hit .266 with 20 home runs in 145 games with the big league side. It was even more impressive just below the surface, however. Mazara has still not yet turned 22, and he was asked to fill a role in the top half of the lineup for a team that was in contention each of those 145 games last year. Mazara filled that role very well and just because we have been spoiled by some absolutely ludicrous MLB debuts in recent seasons doesn’t mean we can’t be impressed with Mazara.

The 6′ 4″ outfielder has plenty of room to grow (at least in a baseball sense) and “the leap” seems like it’s only a matter of time. If the 2017 is indeed the season for “the leap” for Mazara, the Rangers’ offense could get to a whole nother level. The Rangers were a slightly below average offense in 2017 (wRC+ of 98), relying instead on their absurd production in clutch situations to sport a mind-numbing 36-11 record in one-run games – the best such winning percentage in the history of baseball (h/t Ben Lindbergh). Yes, even better than those crazy Baltimore Orioles of 2012.

If Mazara makes the leap, the Rangers get a full season of Texas-Ranger-Jonathan-Lucroy (.276/.345/.539 slash line in Texas), and they get a healthy Carlos Gomez, the Rangers could be the best offense in baseball. That type of an offense could certainly make up for the almost guaranteed regression in one-run games the club should see in 2017 leaving the Rangers with the same mid-90s win team they had in 2016, with an even more legitimate (and more importantly, repeatable) version of that success.

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