In our Silver Linings series, we’re checking in on the most promising developments for non-contending teams during an otherwise disappointing 2018 season. We’ll finish it out with the American League West.
With the Astros back on top on the American League West and the Athletics gearing up for a Wild Card date with the Yankees, that leaves three clubs nursing their wounds. Here are the silver linings from the division…
Mariners – A promising core
And no — not the core they once boasted, which featured an in-prime Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez and an aging-but-still-productive Nelson Cruz. This Mariners team won 89 games largely in spite of that group (Cruz being the exception), as Cano was suspended 80 games while Seager and Hernandez had the worst seasons of their still-excellent careers.
Instead, it was Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton and Marco Gonzales who carried the Mariners for much of the season. At 30 years old next month, Paxton is by far the oldest of that bunch, meaning the Mariners should have a good chunk of each player’s prime left.
Haniger and Segura turned in star-caliber performances on the season as a whole (even if each slumped late in the year). Both were deserving All-Stars. Diaz set a franchise record with 57 and posted a preposterous 15.2 K/9 mark with a 1.96 ERA that fielding-independent metrics actually felt was indicative of some poor luck (1.61 FIP, 1.78 xFIP, 1.49 SIERA). Paxton pitched a career-high 160 1/3 innings with career-best K/BB numbers. Gonzales’ 4.00 ERA doesn’t immediately stand out, but he showed excellent control and was credited with a more encouraging 3.43 FIP and 3.59 xFIP through 166 2/3 innings.
General manager Jerry Dipoto has been widely panned for some of his trades — there’s no getting around the Chris Taylor/Zach Lee swap, for instance — but that’ll come with the territory for virtually any top-level executive (especially one who trades so prolifically). To this point, though, Dipoto & Co. deserve credit for the acquisitions of Haniger, Segura, Gonzales, James Pazos and even veteran Mike Leake (4.36 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 4.15 xFIP in 185 1/3 innings). Each has yielded positive results thus far. There are payroll problems and aging veterans that complicate things in Seattle, but the Mariners have a nice foundation in place — especially if either Seager or Hernandez can bounce back to some extent.
Angels – Co-Stars
Remember those quaint days this spring when many were wondering if Shohei Ohtani would deliver anything close to the hype — both on and, especially, off the mound? The 24-year-old has laid waste to the doubters of his offensive abilities, even as his season as a pitcher ended in disappointment and the Halos’ team effort crumbled.
It’s hard to overemphasize just how impressive Ohtani has been. He hit .285/.361/.564 with 22 homers and 10 steals in just 367 plate appearances, which was 52 percent more productive than a league-average bat when adjusting for park and league (152 wRC+). Among players with 350 PAs, that wRC+ ranked Ohtani eighth in all of baseball. Still, he won’t be on the mound next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery this week, meaning he’ll be limited to providing impressive work from the plate. That leaves a direct conundrum — how to manage the situation with Albert Pujols — along with gaping hole at the top of the rotation.
Fortunately, the Halos have stockpiled some other star performers to place around centerpiece Mike Trout like the side stones in a ring. Andrelton Simmons is now providing enough offense to rate not “just” as one of the league’s top defenders, but rather as one of the its best overall players. Justin Upton’s .257/.344/.463 slash rated more than 20 percent better than the league-average hitter by measure of stats like OPS+ (122) and wRC+ (124). And 24-year-old rookie David Fletcher held his own with the bat while providing terrific defense at both second base and third base.
The rotation is mired with question marks, to be sure, but the makings of a solid relief corps are there with Blake Parker, Jose Alvarez, Cam Bedrosian and up-and-coming Ty Buttrey all giving reason for optimism.
Rangers – Young players on the rise
Frankly, it feels like Jurickson Profar should be older than 25 at this point. The switch-hitting infielder was the Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect way back in the 2012-13 offseason — and that was already his third consecutive season drawing Top 100 fanfare. After shoulder injuries wiped out two seasons for the Curacao native, he delivered a forgettable 2017 campaign that called his upside into question. Fast forward a year, and Profar hit .254/.335/.458 with a career-high 20 homers and 10 steals while appearing at five different positions.
It’s not just Profar, either. Rougned Odor signed a $49.5MM extension prior to the 2017 campaign and promptly faceplanted with an abysmal .204/.252/.397 slash last season. This year, however, Odor rebounded to the tune of a .253/.326/.424 with 18 homers, a dozen steals and radically improved defensive numbers at second base — all while nearly doubling his previous career-high walk rate.
Perhaps no Texas youngster shined brighter than emergent closer Jose Leclerc, though. The 24-year-old reined in last season’s ghastly 7.9 BB/9 mark and managed to up his strikeout rate in the process. Leclerc posted 57 2/3 innings of 1.56 ERA ball in 2018, averaging 13.3 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 while allowing just one home run along the way. His 17.2 percent swinging-strike rate ties him with Craig Kimbrel for the fifth-best among qualified relievers, trailing only Josh Hader, Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen and Ryan Pressly. Controlled through 2022, Leclerc could either be a long-term piece or, if he can sustain his success a bit longer, the the type of power arm for which opposing teams would surrender a king’s ransom on the trade market.
Joey Gallo, meanwhile, clubbed 40 homers with his typical brand of absurd strikeout totals. Ronald Guzman swatted 16 home runs in an uneven debut season. Nomar Mazara had his best season to date, even if he’s yet to achieve the stardom many expected. The Rangers’ 2019 rotation looks like a disaster waiting to happen, but their bats — even veteran Shin-Soo Choo turned back the clock with an excellent 2018 — and their otherworldly young closer give fans something to look forward to next year.