Jerry Dipoto knows that the Astros are favored to win the American League West, and if baseball analysts aren’t talking about Jose Altuve’s budding powerhouse, they’re focused on the Rangers. Why not? They’ve won the AL West two years in a row. Dipoto hides his confidence with a sheepish grin.
“I said during our intro meeting, ‘I’m not sure the last time when somebody forecast the division winner in the West and that team actually won the division,'” Dipoto, the Mariners’ general manager, said at Tuesday’s Cactus League Media Day. “I was on the receiving end of a couple of the negatives. It’s a really competitive division. Every team is interesting in one way or another.”
The disappointments that Dipoto spoke of came when he ran the Angels. They seemed to be building a powerhouse but have had only one postseason appearance with Albert Pujols playing alongside Mike Trout.
As Dipoto said, the AL West rarely shakes out the way you think it will.
“I’m biased,” Dipoto said. “I’ve been here for a while. I think it’s the best division in baseball. It’s always been that way.”
Three teams have won the AL West the last four years, and four of the five teams in the division have gone to the postseason during that span. It sets up as Sense of Urgency Central this season.
“I think you could say that,” said Billy Eppler, the former Yankees assistant general manager who is in his second year running the Angels. “It’s fair.”
This is the year when the Astros are expecting to win 90-plus games and stake their claim as the Cubs of the AL, rebuilt from the ground up by an innovative, risk-taking front office. It’s also the season that the Rangers are expecting to win their third consecutive AL West championship and make another run at becoming the first Texas team to win the World Series, with memories of losing the 2011 World Series in seven games still fresh with their frustrated fans.
In Seattle, this is the year that Mariners are expecting to give Felix Hernandez his first crack in October by ending the franchise’s 15-year postseason drought. In Anaheim, it’s supposed to be the season when Garrett Richards and the rest of the Angels’ rotation stays healthy, putting Trout’s production into a meaningful context again. Hope lives even in Oakland, where manager Bob Melvin said the immediate goal is “to get back some of the edge we had before the last couple of years.”
While Melvin loves the potential of 20-year-old shortstop Franklin Barreto and young starting pitchers like Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton, he knows he’s facing an uphill fight.
“You look at Houston — the athleticism, the high Draft picks they have, to put themselves into the position they are now,” Melvin said. “We’ve had two tough years now, but the three years before that we won the division or were in the postseason. Right now, it’s a stacked division. We’re trying to concentrate on ourselves, but you take a look at the teams, the rosters, the payrolls in our division, it’s not something I want to look at too hard.”
Ranger fans hoped their team might step up to sign Edwin Encarnacion but instead this was an offseason when president of baseball operations Jon Daniels had to be satisfied making smaller moves. He re-signed Carlos Gomez, grabbed Mike Napoli when Encarnacion took his spot in Cleveland and took low-level gambles on free-agent starters Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner.
Daniels hopes the presence of future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre and aces Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will be enough to hold off the Astros and everyone else. He believes Houston is more dangerous than ever after adding veterans like Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann to a lineup built around Altuve and youngsters Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman.
“Obviously I’m not an Astros fan, but at the same time, I admire what they’ve done,” Daniels said. “They put a plan in place, and they got to a certain point and they stepped on the gas. They said, ‘Now is the time; we’re going to push our chips in and we’re going to let it go.’ They’ve traded prospects, they’ve spent money and they should have. They have a good nucleus of players. Same thing with Seattle. It’s going to be a good race.”
Dipoto has been the busiest GM in baseball the last two years, with his trade of Taijuan Walker to the D-backs for Jean Segura the biggest of a flurry of moves this offseason. The Mariners improved from 76 wins in 2015 to 86 last season, with the core built around Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager providing leads for electrifying closer Edwin Diaz. They were in the AL Wild Card race until the end and expect to build off the confidence they gained.
“I think it has the opportunity to be extremely tough, as good of a division as there is in baseball,” said Rangers manager Jeff Banister of the AL West. “Houston has done good things with their club. I think the Angels will be better. Seattle obviously is a tremendous ballclub. Oakland has an opportunity to be better. We’re going to have to play good baseball, stay healthy. It’s going to be very interesting.”
Banister relishes the fight he knows is coming.
“You know as you go throughout the year, a couple losses early on could be detrimental,” he said. “Not letting games slip away against the teams you’re competing with throughout the year is critical, and you’ve got to play some of your best baseball down the stretch. When it heats up, these clubs are rolling. The games are dogfights. You can see it on the field within the competition between teams. Sometimes it gets a little contentious and heated. To me that’s the way it should be played. You want races. That’s what you want for fans and everybody else.”
BY Phil Rogers