If you can believe it, Opening Day is only one week away, and we've previewed each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, so, thus, we previewed each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and in seasons moving forward. To keep it fair, we can only pick four players from each team.
Today: We close with The American League West. Tell me what you think at [email protected].
Previously: NL East | NL Central | NL West | AL East | AL Central
20. A.J. Puk, Oakland A's
Perhaps you're worried by the biceps tendinitis; arms are pretty important for pitchers! But until the A's are worried -- and they're not -- you shouldn't worry either. The A's are in the Coming Attractions phase. And there's no better Coming Attraction than Puk.
19. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners
All right, fine, so Ichiro isn't what he once was, and the arguments that he's here in large part because of nostalgia have some validity. But, uh, am I crazy, or does he look like the Mariners' best bet in left field? He had 438 at-bats in Miami in 2015 before falling to 215 last season. Sure looks like Ichiro will be closer to the 438 number than then 215 one, no? He had a .354 OBP as recently as 2016; the Mariners would take that in a heartbeat.
18. Tim Lincecum, Texas Rangers
I have no idea how this will work out, and you don't either. Lincecum hasn't shown up in a Spring Training game yet, and he won't be on the Opening Day roster. But he has always been a lightning bolt. When Lincecum eventually pitches, it'll be the biggest story in baseball. And if he's good … this whole Texas bullpen looks a lot different. All of baseball does, really.
17. Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers
The superstar-to-be fell off a cliff last year, not only hitting .204 with no plate discipline but staying healthy enough to do that sort of damage over 162 games. Odor just turned 24, but if he doesn't learn how to start taking pitches, he won't be able to stay in that lineup every day for long.
16. Jonathan Lucroy, Oakland A's
In 2014, Lucroy was one of the best players in baseball and finished fourth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Since then, he has played for four teams. Lucroy struggled last season but was an All-Star in 2016 and is essentially the perfect opportunity for the A's to pounce on a cheap one-year asset. If Oakland surprises this year, expect Lucroy to be a big reason why.
15. Ian Kinsler, Los Angeles Angels
Kinsler is quietly one of the best second basemen of the past 20 years, and now he's vital for a franchise he once vowed that he'd never play for. More than anything, the Angels needed a steady leadoff man who gets on base. He had the worst year of his career in 2017. A rebound is as important for the rest of Kinsler's career as it is for the Halos.
14. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners
Corey's brother just turned 30 and, did you know, is (according to bWAR) the Mariners' eighth-best player in franchise history? (He just passed Jay Buhner!) Seager is signed through 2022 and, on a team with a ton of questions, is the one guy Seattle can always count on. He has played at least 154 games a year every season since 2012, he's always above average both at the plate and in the field, and he always does it without anybody really noticing. Pretty soon we're going to start asking, "Hey, when are the Mariners gonna get Kyle Seager a postseason game?" You know, like …
13. Félix Hernández, Seattle Mariners
Hernandez will more than likely start his 10th straight Opening Day, but is he still King Felix? He hasn't been that Felix since 2014, but the Mariners would take a league-average starter who at least gives them 200 innings again. For what it's worth, his strikeout rate wasn't that much below his career rates last year. But one step at a time.
12. Stephen Piscotty, Oakland A's
For all the (justified) feel-good talk about the Cardinals trading Piscotty to the A's so he could be closer to his ailing mother, Oakland had to give up some legitimate talent to get him, and he's actually vital to this lineup clicking. St. Louis invested in Piscotty and wanted to build around him. If last year was a result of Piscotty struggling because of the off-the-field issues, and he's back in a comfort spot … the A's just got themselves a top 10 right fielder for the next half-decade.
11. George Springer, Houston Astros
You don't think of Springer as older than José Altuve, but he is, which is probably why he was behind Altuve in the contract-extension game. Eventually one of those Core Four Astros will go somewhere else, and the best bet, eventually, is probably Springer. But he's still got two to three more years to go win another World Series MVP.
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Halftime mascot break! AL West mascots, ranked.
If we ever do encounter intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we can only hope it turns out to be as benevolent as Orbit. Though he does sometimes get shown up in his own stadium.
2. Mariner Moose
Never forget Lil' Penny's words of warning: That Moose could be a liability.
The only real problem with Stomper is that it takes about an hour to explain to your non-baseball fans why the A's mascot is an elephant.
4. Rangers Captain
He's a horse, and his name is awkward. I do like to pretend he's Bojack Horseman, though.
5. Rally Monkey
The Angels don't officially have a mascot, so we're including the Rally Monkey out of respect for the 2002 Angels, such as Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus and Scott Spiezio.
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10. Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers
There's always that one person among your group of baseball fans who can't stop obsessing about batting average. They're still stuck in Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs land: Forgive them. Gallo hit .209 last year, but it was an awesome .209. 41 homers -- majestic, monstrous homers. He strikes out constantly, but who cares when you can do that? And Gallo walks too: He nearly had as many walks (75) as he did hits (94) in 2017. That's hard to do. Maybe he makes a little more contact in 2018 and becomes a full-on Stanton-esque superstar. Or maybe Gallo will just stay who he is and hits 40-plus homers. He's delightful either way.
9. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
Pujols is a first-ballot Hall of Famer no matter what. But last year he made it actively more difficult for the Angels to make the playoffs; he's a legitimate negative-WAR player right now, and he's smack in the middle of the lineup of a team that's going for it all this year. If Pujols could just get to his 2016 slash line of .268/.323/.457, the Halos would be still be overpaying him, but they'd nonetheless be ecstatic. But if last year is the new normal … the Angels and Pujols at some point are going to have to sit down and have a very serious conversation.
8. Khris Davis, Oakland A's
Davis is basically Gallo, except he has better contact skills and can play the outfield if you need him to. (Though Gallo might somehow have a better arm.) Davis is also remarkably consistent: He has essentially put together the same stat line for three consecutive seasons. If Davis played in a different ballpark, I bet he'd hit 50 homers. And best part: The other Chris Davis is now The Other Chris Davis. Khris Davis, he is the captain now.
7. Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers
This is probably Hamels' last season with Texas, and for all the talk of his step backward last year, even with injuries, he was still a perfectly solid starter in his 148 innings. The Rangers need more than that, though, and if Hamels wants another big contract, he'll need to do better that. There is no path for the Rangers to conceivably contend that doesn't involve Hamels pitching like an ace.
By the way, I'd like to apologize right now for not having Adrián Beltré on this list. Beltre is a treasure and a gift, and he might even be glorious Trade Deadline bait this July. You cannot talk enough about Beltre. He is truly the best.
6. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Verlander gets a full season with the Astros now, almost certainly the best team he's ever pitched for, and now we get to start playing Hall of Fame games. He has two years to pitch for a team that probably will win 100 games each season. Jay Jaffe has sketched out what Verlander needs to do. Can Verlander get to 220 wins by the end of 2019? (That would require 32.) Can he get to 3,000 strikeouts? (He needs 584.) He'll have chances for big postseason moments. Here's your chance to make your best possible case, Justin.
5. Robinson Canó, Seattle Mariners
Speaking of which! Cano is already No. 8 on Jay Jaffe's JAWS rankings at second-base, and he'll pass Bobby Grich this year; at that point, every second baseman with a higher JAWS number than Cano will be in the Hall. More pressing, though, is Cano justifying that big Jay-Z contract, which still has six more years to go. The Mariners want a playoff appearance more than any other team in the sport, and if Cano never gets them one, no one in Seattle is going to care about his JAWS ranking.
4. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
The Angels won the big Ohtani lottery, and they're in this for the long haul, but … it would be nice if Ohtani hadn't have been this terrible all spring, no? To remind:
Ohtani's hitting slash line this spring: .107/.219/.107. (He's 3-for-28, with three singles, three walks and nine strikeouts.)
Ohtani's pitching line this spring: two starts, 2 2/3 innings pitched, nine runs, eight earned, 27.00 ERA.
There's still (obviously) a ton of talent there, but this sort of looks like a guy who could maybe use a few weeks in the Minors? The Angels (obviously) won't do that … which means April could get a little rough. Ohtani is still their best starter and maybe one of their best hitters and (oh yeah) perhaps a budding phenomenon. So if he wants to get started anytime soon, that'd be great.
3. Altuve, Houston Astros
Altuve has the AL MVP Award, he has the big contract, he has the spot as the face of the defending champions and the best team in baseball. What's the next milestone? Can he hit .350? 30 homers? Altuve was put here to make you love baseball more.
2. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Power. Speed. Defense. Charisma. Correa has it all, and he's only 23. You want to know what A-Rod looked like when he was 23? He looked like Correa. When it all lands perfect for him with health, he might own this game. It might happen this year.
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
This is the best team Trout has had in a few years. Last season, injury aside, was the best he has ever been. Trout is the best player in the game, and he may set a new level of "best" in 2018. This list of his possibilities is borderline astounding. Best. Best best best best. Now let's get Trout his first postseason win already.
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We finish this preview, as we will with all of them, with predictions. I apologize in advance because these predictions are guaranteed to be correct and thus I'm a little worried I'm spoiling the season for you.
Houston Astros: 103-59
Los Angeles Angels: 85-77
Oakland A's: 78-84
Seattle Mariners: 76-86
Texas Rangers: 70-92