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The 5 players in the AL West who matter the most

If these players are thriving, so are their teams. If not ...

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers
stop that
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our division-by-division look at which players are likely to be a bellwether of their team’s overall success this year. If you look up in July and these players are doing well, the team is probably where they were hoping they would be. If the players are failing, their teams are running around with duct tape and a fire extinguisher.

We’ve done the National League already, and you can read about the West, Central, and East at those links. It’s time for the American League now, and we’ll start with what might be baseball’s tightest division, the West.

Well, it was supposed to be the tightest. Take a shower and get some sleep, Mariners. Come back tomorrow and start over.

Who are the canaries in the AL West coal mines?

Houston Astros - Lance McCullers

Start with an assumption: Dallas Keuchel will be fine. There might not be more Cy Youngs for him, but he will be an important part of a balanced rotation. When he pitches, the Astros will usually be better than the other team.

That’s great, but it’s hard for a team to succeed with just one excellent starter. They can shuffle by with a lot of power, but only if the bullpen is something special (2016 Orioles). They can make do with quantity of reasonable quality and address their need at the deadline (2016 Dodgers). Or all of their starters can screw up or get injured all at the same time and ruin everything (2016 Astros).

What the Astros need, then, is a No. 2, someone to combine with the ace and make them the better team in at least 40 percent of their games. They’ll figure out the other 60 percent, but at least they’ll be confident two turns through the rotation.

Through two games, McCullers looks like that pitcher. He looks like a breakout star, a delightful caricature of his own best-case scenario. All he needs is to put the next 30 games together, and the Astros won’t just have a No. 2 — they’ll have a co-ace.

It would help if McCullers could pitch more than 157 innings for the first time in his professional career, of course. He’s topped out at 125 in the majors, and he threw just 89 combined innings last year because of injuries. He has the stuff, and he’s been successful at every level of baseball he’s tried in his life so far. He just needs to keep baseballing. The Astros need that, too.

Seattle Mariners - Mitch Haniger

The Mariners should hit, with or without Haniger. They have Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano ... they should be fine. Just your typical all-hit, no-pitch Mariners team, y’all.

But, like Keuchel, I’m assuming Felix Hernandez is fine. I’m also assuming that Hisashi Iwakuma will pitch until he’s 43, like a slightly less jolly Bartolo Colon. And that Drew Smyly will be healthy. And that Yovani Gallardo will be average, at least. Mostly, it was too hard to pick just one starting pitcher, so I’m ignoring them completely to focus on Haniger.

The last time most of us paid attention to Haniger, he was taking a weird route on the last play of a legendary game. You might not have any idea who he is, so the quickest description is this: He’s a late bloomer who murderlized the Pacific Coast League last year in the Diamondbacks’ system. Because the Diamondbacks have plenty of outfielders, as well as Yasmany Tomas, they were willing to part with him in the big Taijuan Walker/Jean Segura/Ketel Marte trade.

So far, so good, as Haniger has crushed three homers and looks like the positive offensive contributor the Mariners were hoping for. More than that, though, he’s a proxy for a front office that regularly sends executives to the Pat Gillick Center to dry out and stop making so many transactions. The Mariners were laughably busy this offseason, but to what end? Were they just making moves to make moves?

If Haniger succeeds, they’ll have a player to point to for validation. The Mariners wouldn’t just be making moves for their own sake, but they would be confident they could find hidden diamonds. You know, “gems in the rough.” It’s what they’ll need to get out of baseball purgatory.

Quick aside: There is no better name than “Mitch” to speak in frustration when that player does poorly. Try it. It works with resigned disappointment (“Aw, jeez, Mitch”) and abject terror (“MITCH! NO!”). It’s a very, very good first name for a frustrating player to have. The Mariners hope they won’t have to use it, but it’s a heckuva consolation prize, really.

Los Angeles Angels - Garrett Richards

When I wrote that the Angels were the best almost-sorta-dunno-maybe contenders in baseball, the refrain was expected and fair: Who’s going to pitch, dummy? My answer was a rhetorical smoke bomb as I rhetorically clambered down the fire escape, but I hinted that Garrett Richards can help.

I mean, look at this dude.

That is a pitch that cannot be hit. It’s a 91-mph slider thrown in a place where a supercomputer would put a 91-mph slider if it ran millions of simulations to determine where the best location would be. And you won’t be surprised to know that it’s backed up with an upper-90s fastball. Richards is like Edwin Diaz, the novel.

Rather, the unfinished novel. He can’t stay healthy, and last year he opted for rest and rehabilitation instead of Tommy John surgery. It’s why he’s pitching now. Or why he was pitching now.

The early word is a biceps strain, which is just about the best-case scenario for the organization and Richards. On the other hand, well, it’s always something, and the Angels absolutely need him to be healthy if they have any hopes of contending.

The Angels are stuck in a formless void between contending and rebuilding. If they want to surprise in the best possible way, they’ll need Richards to be healthy and effective, and his first start exhibited the light and dark ends of his personal spectrum.

Texas Rangers - Carlos Gomez

Think about some of the things that might need to go right for the Rangers to three-peat. Shin-soo Choo staying healthy and effective. Yu Darvish staying healthy and effective. Adrian Beltre staying ... well, you get the idea. It’s a weird young-old team, but they’re not so different from everyone else.

One way to hedge their bets, then, would be to have some players go bananas and contribute so much, it doesn’t matter if they lose a couple players down the healthy-and-effective trap door. Rougned Odor is on his way, as is Nomar Mazara. It’s still early, but both of them look like cornerstones over the next decade

Gomez gives them a chance at a temporary cornerstone. An outside chance, mind you, and only for the year, but a chance. He’s 31, and he hasn’t been an MVP candidate for a couple seasons now, but the important part is that a) he was an MVP candidate, and b) he looked like that player as soon as he got out of Houston. If Carlos Gomez is even 90 percent of the player he was with the Brewers, the Rangers won’t have to worry about extracting 600 at-bats and 200 innings from all of their older or creakier players. They’ll have someone who can shoulder the burden of lost production because he’s so good at his job.

The early returns? Uh, small sample size! A 3-for-22 start doesn’t have to mean anything. But of all the dormant All-Stars that we keep forgetting about, Gomez is at the top of the list.

Oakland A’s - Jharel Cotton

Before the year, this spot was obviously reserved for Sonny Gray. Now that he’s fighting more injuries, though, it’s probably wiser to hope for future contributions instead of assume they’re coming. Hoping is still okay, of course. Gonna take a quick five-minute break and hope right now, because I loved watching him pitch when he was right.

Until that’s resolved, the A’s will want to see some returns on their strategy of building their rotation out of seasoned, upper-level minor leaguers acquired in various trades. Kendall Graveman is off to a fine start, as is Sean Manaea (if you ignore his ERA!). Cotton is the next in the sequence, a 25-year-old who was moved slowly through a Dodgers system that had the luxury of being patient.

Just because he was moved slowly through that system, though, it doesn’t mean he lacks upside. If the A’s are going to surprise this year (or even next year), they’ll need a lot of tumblers to click into place. The health of Gray, for one. An ability to develop any hitters at all on their own, for two. They’ll need to give Khris Davis to the Giants for absolutely nothing, though I might be projecting on that one. And they’ll need their young starters to make the rest of the league jealous. “Why didn’t we get that guy when he was available?” every GM would ostensibly say.

If they look up in July and Cotton is pitching like someone who should be on the 2020 A’s, their season is probably looking up, regardless of what the actual record is.