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Baseball Nation previews the A.L. West

To those about to grate, we salute you -  Credit
To those about to grate, we salute you - Credit

Here's the third part of the Baseball Nation roundtable, in which our two authors talk about every division in baseball. The AL East roundtable can be found here, and the AL Central can be found here.

Rob Neyer : Yesterday we previewed the American League Central, which was the easiest division to preview because we already "know" which team's going to win and which team's going to finish last. Today let's preview the American League West, where we "know" who's going to finish last and who's going to finish fourth ... but not much else, really. I mean, sorry Astros and Mariners fans, but here's what the standings are going to look like at the end of September:

4. Mariners
5. Astros

I think there's nowhere else in the majors that you'll find two better bets for fourth and fifth.

Grant Brisbee: I kept seeing the Mariners listed as one of those teams that could go Orioles this year. If they were in the Central, maybe, just maybe, would it be worth concocting a best-case scenario for them, where Smoak and Ackley get it together at the same time, Montero and Morse combine for 50 homers, and the pitching behind Felix is good-to-very-good.But I have a hard enough time picking between the three teams that are supposed to be contending. I don't need to spend brain tokens on thinking about the Mariners.

Of course, at this time last year, the A's were an afterthought. And I guess that's the point. One of the teams in baseball that we aren't giving a chance right now will contend. Why not the Mariners? It's not like they're devoid of talent.

Rob: It's a fair point. The M's aren't the Astros; they do have some serious major-league talent. It's just hard to get excited about a team that finished in fourth place last season and didn't do much over the winter. I mean, adding Mike Morse is nice but losing John Jaso isn't, and they traded their second-best starting pitcher (Jason Vargas) for a first baseman. Granted, the first baseman (Kendrys Morales) is a pretty good hitter.

Since we're talking about the Mariners, a couple of things I wanted to mention. They've had winning records in just two of the last nine seasons, but they've actually been even worse than that; they somehow lucked into winning records twice despite negative run differentials in both seasons. They've actually gone NINE STRAIGHT YEARS without a fundamentally good season. Fundamentally, they've been roughly as bad as the Royals and the Pirates. Which considering their payrolls over that span is pretty awful.

The other thing I wanted to mention is their new dimensions. When I was in Arizona, I ran into Greg Rybarczyk, who told me that Safeco's new left-field dimensions mean Safeco will have the fourth-smallest outfield in the majors. Which is a HUGE change. Yeah, the M's should score a lot more runs this season, and the newcomers (Morales and Morse, mostly) will get a lot of credit. But the M's are going to give up a lot more runs, too. Or a lot more home runs, anyway. maybe we should say something about Astros not losing 120 games?

Grant: Yeah, some guy on FanGraphs wrote about how most outfield-dimension changes don't really make a difference in run totals -- the idea being that home runs go up, I guess, but the outfielders have less ground to cover, so BABIP goes down. I don't see how it would make the Mariners better, though I guess that's what the Morse deal was about -- more right-handed power.

While we're talking about how the Mariners aren't necessarily the world's worst fourth-place team, maybe we should give a nod to the idea that the Astros aren't the 2003 Tigers. That seems to be what everyone's assuming, but it takes a special team to be that bad. I think the Astros are bad, but I'm not convinced that they're once-in-a-generation bad.

Rob: Well, there's that. Also, it's almost impossible to put together a true 120-loss team. Those Tigers did lose 119, which was fabulous of them. But they had the run differential of a 113-loss team; essentially, to lose 120 you have to be terrible and pretty unlucky. Which could happen, but probably won't. I think the Astros are a pretty good bet for 100 losses; bad luck and trading what few good players they have could push them to 110, but that's the upper limit of reason.

Now, how to separate the three contenders ... Remember, last year two American League West teams were in the playoffs and another -- the preseason favorite, actually -- won 89 games. Most people, I think, are picking that third-place team to win the division this time, because 89 wins is pretty good and they actually made some big moves over the winter. Also, having Mike Trout for a whole season is probably a good thing.

Grant: I don't want to think about what Josh Hamilton is going to be in four years, but for 2013, he's a pretty decent replacement for Vernon Wells, right? Getting Mark Trumbo off the field is a good thing, and the Angels have somehow managed to improve the defense by letting Torii Hunter go somewhere else. The infield isn't filled with All-Stars, but there isn't a bad player in sight, so you can see why people are excited about them.

That pitching, though. Actually, I would really, really like their pitching if I knew which Tommy Hanson would show up. Is he the guy who got jobbed out of an All-Star selection in 2011, or is he the achy enigma with the declining fastball? Seems like that would be a trend that's hard to reverse, and the Braves seem like they know when to cut a guy loose, but if Hanson is something close to his old self ...

Rob: Yeah, plenty o' question marks in the Angels' rotation. But everybody's got question marks, and the answer to most of these is "pretty good, probably." Not that Joe Blanton's going to set any records, but he's not the worst No. 4 or 5 in the world, and getting out of that bandbox in Philadelphia's probably a good thing. So is having a squad of ballhawks in the outfield behind him. I like the Angels to win the division, especially if Albert Pujols doesn't run his streak of early-season slumps to three years in a row.

The trickiest thing about this division is separating the A's from the Rangers. I think we both pull for the A's a little bit, for different reasons but partly because they just seem like the more interesting team. The Plexiglass Principle suggests they're due for a bit of a fall this year, though. On the other hand, the Rangers lost one of their best players and really the best thing that happened to them this winter was probably losing one of their worst players.

Grant: I like the Angels to win the division, but I see the odds of one of the teams winning West as more of a 34%/33%/32% kind of breakdown, with the other two teams getting the remaining percent. Seems like the kind of division where a butterfly flapping its wings in front of the Angels Stadium rock pile could push one of the other teams ahead of the Angels.

But, no, I can't choose between the Rangers and A's either. I want to penalize the A's for Brandon Moss hitting in the middle of the order, because there's no way he's that good again, but maybe I'm underestimating the hyper-platoons that the team is employing. And if I'm penalizing them for Moss, shouldn't I be crediting them for the young hitters who could get better? Yoenis Cespedes probably hasn't hit his peak, and it's easy to forget how youngish Josh Reddick is. That's not getting into the young pitchers who could improve, though it's pretty hard to assume that the young staff could possibly be as good again. That was a pretty special run by a bunch of rookies -- we'll probably have to wait 50 years to see something like that again.

Rob: The Rangers do have a lot of talent, but until they figure out what they're doing with Mike Olt and especially Jurickson Profar ... Seems like there's more than enough talent here, but until it's on the field I can't get real excited about this club. Maybe this all comes out okay in the end, but still hard to figure why the Rangers haven't traded one of their shortstops for an outfielder. And suddenly that rotation's not looking real deep. I like the Rangers' talent and they could easily win 90 games. But they have some work to do, while the A's ... Well, I guess it's worth mentioning that their infield's now sort of in shambles. Maybe I should rethink this th--

Nah. I'm still going with the A's in the two slot, just because when it's close I go with my heart (because my gut's worthless in these and most other matters). Which makes my standings this:

1. Angels
2. Athletics
3. Rangers
4. Mariners
5. Astros

Grant: I'm not a huge fan of the idea that Olt will help a ton this year. There are guys who have overcome the gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors (Ryan Howard, Curtis Granderson), but they're the outliers. You can look the other way with Wil Myers because of the age, but with Olt? He was 23 in Double-A last year, and he still struck out in something like a quarter of his plate appearances. That isn't to say he'll be a flop, just that he isn't a one-man cavalry for 2013.

Same goes with Profar -- if he plays, that probably means a really good player is hurt. Or Ian Kinsler is moving to first and replacing Mitch Moreland, which kind of seems like a shell game. Not sure. I still look at the Rangers as a really, really complete team, though. Even without Hamilton and Napoli, I have a really hard time picking between them and the Angels. It's easy to focus on Nick Tepesch getting unexpected starts, but that only highlights how easy it is to ignore that Alexi Ogando could be one of the better fourth starters in baseball. I'm also a believer in Leonys Martin, so I think I've talked myself into flipping my standings around since this chat started:

1. Rangers
2. Angels
3. A's
4. Mariners
5. Astros

Rob: Nice work. You just made a bunch of Texans very happy!

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